Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Flower Buds (orig. Poupata) [2011]

Unrated (would be R)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CSFD listing - [CZ, ENG trans]

Flower Buds (orig. Poupata) [IMDb][CSFD, Eng trans] is an award winning Czech film (w. Eng subtitles) written and directed by Zdeněk Jiráský [IMDb][CSFD, Eng Trans] which played recently at the 48th Annual Chicago International Film Festival (Oct. 11-25, 2012).  Back in the Czech Republic, it won 4 Czech Lions [Eng Trans] (the nation's equivalent to the Oscars) including for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Actor in a Leading Role.  At the Chicago Int'l Film Festival it won the Silver (2nd Place) in the New Director Competition.

What's it about?  Well the film's really a devastating indictment of the state of the family in Czech society today.  Every single character in the story except for 2 Vietnamese immigrants (more on the two below) is portrayed as being a real mess.  Yet as hard as it is for someone like me (of Czech descent still very much in contact relatives and "the old country") to watch a film like this, it is a testament to the cultural critical, indeed prophetic role that the artistic community _can play_ in a society.  When there is a problem in society, it is often the artistic community that finds itself calling attention to it and often to the initial upset of the society in general.  No one likes to see/hear bad news.  Yet how can problems be confronted (or one can live honestly) unless they are faced? 

The American observer may find it utterly surprising that in contemporary Czech society the _artistic community_ has been consistently challenging society to recover at least a basic sense of personal morality including (and perhaps _especially_) a basic sense of sexual morality.  Why?  Because the current state of personal morality in the Czech Republic (and throughout much of Europe and especially in post-Communist lands) has been appalling.  Thus then this film, set in December (in the days/weeks leading up to and following Christmas) in a small industrial city (the towns of Kladno or Zlín come to mind) in the contemporary Czech Republic.

The father of the family in the film, Jarda (played by Vladimír Javorský [IMDb][CSFD, Eng Trans], begins the story working as a railway switch operator outside a large industrial plant.  However, he spends much of his time (alone) sitting in his booth, building model cars, boats, etc out of matches (basically a "hard" but certainly _not_ particularly meaningful activity...).   He also has a massive gambling addiction spending much of his time in the evenings in the local bar feeding money that he no longer has (he borrows from the bar owner) into slot machines.

Jarda's wife, Kamila (played by Malgorzata Pikus [IMDb][CSFD, Eng Trans]) works as a street cleaner by day and is part of a local synchronized gymnastics group calling itself "Poupata" or "Flower Buds" (from which the film takes its name).  The group represents a vestige of past "glory" when such groups would be organized to come together both first under the pan-Slavic nationalistic Sokol movement and later during the Communist era by the government sanctioned the Spartakiad movement to enormous regional even national gatherings where all these little groups would "exercise together" performing all kinds of often spectacular stadium-sized synchronized feats.  In this film, however, all that we see is a group of 30-40 women calling themselves "The Flowerbuds" meeting together to practice at a local and rather rickety/delapitated gym.  And how do they finance their activities?  Well, the 30-40 local women (many like Kamila in their 40s and even 50s) shoot an annual erotic calendar...

Their son Honza (meaning "Johnny" played by Miroslav Pánek [IMDb]) who looks like a student or a recently graduated student, in any case unemployed and not particularly looking for work, makes some extra cash by growing marijuana hydroponically with a couple of his buddies in a tarp covered chamber hidden under a viaduct somewhere.  Their late teenage daughter Agata (played by Marika Soposká [IMDb] [CSFD, Eng Trans]) also possibly graduated but also certainly unemployed and also not particularly looking for work finds herself pregnant presumably by one of Honza's friends but it becomes clear as the story goes on that she's not entirely sure by whom ... And tragically it turns out that Agata is actually "the brains" and even arguably _the conscience_ of the family..

So who the heck among all these people is actually working?  Kamila (the mother) is, and then there are the two Vietnamese immigrants that I mentioned above and promised to return to here.  Their names are Hue (played by Thi Min Ngygnen [CSFD, Eng Trans]) and her husband Long (played by Kim Son Ngygnen) and they live on the floor below the Czech family.

What the heck would Hue and Long be doing in the Czech Republic to begin with?  Well, there is actually a sizable Vietnamese minority living in the Czech Republic as a consequence of the Vietnam War.  Communist Czechoslovakia actually provided a fair amount of the weapons to the Communist combatants in the war presumably in good part to give the Soviet Union deniability "We're not providing weapons to the Vietcong, the Czechs and Slovaks are..."  The U.S./the West did similar things as well.  Western backed insurgencies during the Cold War tended to use "Belgian," "Israeli" or even "South African" weapons.  Anyway, the North Vietnamese had no way to pay for the weapons that they received other than ... sending their own people to places like Communist Czechoslovakia to work Vietnam's debt off.   After the fall of Communism, these Vietnamese de facto indentured servants had no place to go.  So a large number (most?) of them stayed.  An excellent article regarding relations between Communist Era Czechoslovakia / the post-Communist Era Czech Republic and Vietnam can be found here [Cz-Orig][Eng-trans].

Now in a place like the Czech-lands where ethnicity pretty much defines national identity, one would expect racism to abound.  Ask a Gypsy in the C.R. and he/she will _definitely_ tell you that it does.  However, as in the States, the Vietnamese have proven _so hardworking_ that the Vietnamese have earned near universal respect of the Czech populace.  Yes, one does hear ethnic slurs in reference to the Vietnamese in the Czech Republic, the principal one being "Rákosníci" which means "straw heads" (or more literally "straw people") for the characteristic pointed straw hats that Vietnamese peasants were known to wear back in Vietnam.  BUT when year after year the children of Vietnamese immigrants seem to outscore Czech children in pretty much every category of learning including Czech language/history ;-), the Czechs who do generally consider themselves a good-natured lot and being a small country always having sympathy for the underdog find themselves in admiration of this surprising Vietnamese minority among them.  (I know this from my own relatives who live in the Czech Republic... who often would shake their heads in disbelief when trying to explain the historical accident of why Vietnamese immigrants live among them, but have almost universal praise for their hard work, honesty and achievement).

So it does not surprise me greatly to see a Czech film about contemporary life in the Czech Republic where arguably the only "good people" in the entire film are the Vietnamese (even as the Vietnamese immigrants admit that they hate the snow ... ;-).

This then is the setup of the film.  Much of course happens.  It certainly does not portray contemporary life in the Czech Republic particularly kindly.  But then the film is clearly intended to serve as a mirror to the Czech people of today with some pointed questions as to why contemporary life in the C.R. seems so often to be so morally bankrupt/hopeless.   And as one in my profession I can't help but find that Confession to be laudable.  After all, there's the saying I've learned here in the United States: "The first step out of a hole is to stop digging." 

So good job director Zdenku and the rest of your crew / cast.  Good job! And let's all hope that the movie makes a positive impact both in the C.R. and beyond.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Sessions [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review 
Roger Ebert's review

The Sessions (written and directed by Ben Lewin) is a film that played at the recent 48th Annual Chicago International Film Festival (Oct. 11-25, 2012) prior to its release to "indie"/art house theaters throughout the United States.  The film is based on a 1990 article written by Mark O'Brien (played in the film by John Hawkes) a San Francisco Bay Area journalist, severely disabled since 6 years of age due to polio, who after a good deal of reflection set about to lose his virginity (in his 30s) by means of a "sex surrogate" named Cheryl (played in the film by Helen Hunt).  The original article can be found at Mark O'Brien's archived blog (O'Brien passed away in 1995) under the title "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate."

I would definitely recommend to any adult having concerns about seeing the movie to first read the article because I do think that most adults would immediately understand.  Yes, the story is definitely an R-rated one (PARENTS please do take note.  This story is not for your kids).  However, it is a remarkable case and the amount of reflection that the poor man does, both BEFORE and (in the article) AFTER should give his readers pause.  This severely disabled man wonders at the end of his article whether his adventure was worth it and he asks this with a sobriety that would impress many/most Confessors.  (Much of the film, in fact, involves discussion between O'Brien and his Confessor (played by William H. Macy).  However, I don't make this assessment here on any dialogue in the film, generally okay but necessarily created/contrived(?) for the film, but rather by O'Brien's own closing paragraphs with which he ends his article.  The frankness and sobriety of his own article make the film credible).

So yes, this is a provocative film, but it is definitely not a dumb one.  And three seconds into the movie I do believe that most viewers will understand.  What difficulties this man had to put up and what thoughts/reflections he nonetheless was able to leave us is IMHO remarkable.

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Smashed [2012]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's listing

Smashed (directed and cowritten by James Pondsoldt along with Susan Burke) is an excellent movie geared toward young adults that could serve as a useful reminder that alcoholism is a disease that doesn't just effect "middle aged" or otherwise "old people."
Kate (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (played by Aaron Paul) are two quite happily married college-educated 20 somethings starting out life in L.A.  She's a school teacher, he's a music critic.  They probably met in a bar.  They're fun together.  They clearly like each other.  One gets the sense that when they are out together "clubbing" (and he's technically "at work") they're probably _really fun_ to be around.  It's just it becomes clear very quickly ... there's more going on.

What do I mean?  Well when they wake up in the morning after a night out, she's wet the bed ... again.  To deal with her hangover, she finishes-off the beer she left on the table from the previous night before stepping into the shower.  Then before getting out of the car when she arrives at work (remember, she's a school teacher, teaching 3rd grade) she takes a swig out of flask she keeps in the glove compartment.

It all seems actually like a regular start of the day for the two.  Charlie, who after all, reviews bands and therefore actually "works mostly at night" doesn't have to get-up that early in the morning.  So he honestly sees "changes the sheets" in the morning for her, who has to rush out to work, as "part of his morning routine."  That stale beer that she finishes off before stepping into the shower may take a bit of the edge of a throbbing hangover that she might feel getting up, and the swig in the school parking lot may give her a bit of "liquid courage" to face the rambunctious 3rd graders that await her. 

However, this turns out to _not_ be an ordinary morning for Kate.  Life's caught up to her.  In the midst of a mathematics drill with her 3rd graders, she suddenly has to heave ... and vomits in front of them, missing the little plastic garbage can next to her desk by a few inches.  "Teacher are you pregnant... Mommy was throwing-up when she was expecting my little sister."  Without an excuse, Kate ... and the rest of the movie follows ...

The event described would probably shake-up most people.  After all, no one particularly likes lying to kids.  Additionally, she gets called-out rather quickly by the assistant principal Davies (played by Nick Offerman) who has to step-in to take her class and is a recovering alcoholic himself.  A number of other things happen soon afterwards to solidify Kate's realization that she's got a problem.  And yes, she does take a chance with going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

However what makes the film is what follows.  Entering into AA is famously only the first step in a 12-step recovery process and Kate hasn't been living in a vacuum.  She's had "a life," some of which we have seen, other aspects of which are only referred to.  She has relationships: a boss (Principal Barnes played by Megan Mullaly), coworkers most notable of which is that assistant principal Davies (who we find out still has his own issues), then of course there's her husband who's basically a good guy and even more or less supportive though he'd really prefer that she'd remain his #1 drinking buddy and then she has a mother (played by Mary Kay Place) who we meet later on.  Kate comes also to have an AA sponsor (played by Octavia Spenser).

And there are still definitely challenges, notably an entire school including all those third graders who think she's having a baby.  The adults would normally understand, right?  But kids... and parents ... and a not completely informed boss forced to deal with very upset parents ... and ... you get the picture...   Yup, it's a challenge to come to come to terms with all the ramifications of one's past addiction and the lies told to keep it going ...

So what we have here is a nice, simple and certainly accessible story to a new generation about what it takes to fix one's life if one comes to find that addiction's been part of it.  Good job!

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Cloud Atlas [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Cloud Atlas, screenplay written and directed by Todd Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski and based on David Mitchell's novel by the same name premiered recently at the 48th Chicago International Film Festival (Oct 13-25, 2012).   Like The Matrix [1999-2003] films for which the Chicago area residing the brother and sister team of Andy and Lana Wachowski is best known for, this truly Sweeping [TM] film starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Jim Broadbent, Suzanne Sarandon, Hugh Grant and others, playing various characters in various epochs of time extending from "120 years after the Fall" to 2144 (or 130 years after our own), the film is more or less obviously intended to have religious overtones.  And I do want to make it clear here that as a work of speculative fiction, intended for a global audience (as again in the case of The Matrix [1999-2003] movies), I _don't_ find the effort here to be out-of-hand-wrong.  Indeed, as I've written before on this blog (in my reviews of the Tree of Life [2011], Meloncholia [2011] the Through the Wormhole [2011+] television series and Prometheus [2012]) I generally tend to welcome speculative efforts such as this (EVEN IF I'd disagree, and even for dogmatic reasons, with parts of them). 

The central conflict that ties all the vignettes together in Cloud Atlas is that of Universal Brother/Sisterhood vs. "The Natural Order of things" (basically Darwinism) where as the film says: "the weak are meat and the strong get to eat."  Given that I belong to a Church (the Catholic Church) that sees itself as having a Universal mission and understands all people to be fundamentally brothers and sisters to each other I can not but find this film to be overwhelmingly salutary. 

Yes, we can get bogged down in relative details (Does the film promote a belief in reincarnation?  Should that (in a film) really matter (_honestly_)?  Given that the film was funded by a production company coming out of SINGAPORE should Americans/Westerners really expect otherwise?  Can CATHOLICS AT LEAST come to see more or less obvious similarities between the Eastern concept of "karma" (continuous "reincarnation" until a soul finally gets it right...) and the purgation process that we would argue would take place in Purgatory (where we hope to all be until "we finally get it right...") and "let the argument go" (at least for a moment).  Hindus/Buddhists presumably would be just as proud their own beliefs as we Catholics would be of ours.  Can we at least choose to look for similarities rather than focus on differences?  (How can any serious inter-religious dialogue hope to succeed if one's starting position towards "the other side" is "you're out of hand _wrong_?")

Anyway, as a work of speculative fiction, WHAT A FILM!  Great job folks!  All of you!

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Chasing Mavericks [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review 
Roger Ebert's review

Chasing Mavericks (directed by Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson, screenplay by Kario Salem based on the story by Jim Meenagen and Brandon Hooper) is about a (then) teenager named Jay Moriarty (played by Johnny Weston) who just outside of his hometown of from Santa Cruz, CA successfully surfed one of the biggest waves (a "Maverick") ever recorded.

Given some of the personal challenges that Jay faced -- he largely raised himself as his father abandoned him and his mother Kristy Moriarty (played by Elizabeth Shue) when he was young, and ma' who was struggling with alcoholism wasn't exactly the most reliable person either, the true parent figures in his life were his neighbors, roofer during the week, surfer/"Maverick hunter" on early mornings, weekends and honestly whenever he could break-away Frosty Hesson (played by Gerard Butler) as well as his more sensible wife Brenda (played by Abigail Spenser) -- the film itself is being presented as having an uplifting/positive message.

However, I honestly do have my reservations:  Given that the film notes at the end that Jay died cliff diving some years later, at age 22, I'm HONESTLY _not sure_ if parents would like their teens to "live (exactly) as Jay did."

Most of us who've grown-up in the States know that there is a beauty and freedom in surfing and this movie is certainly celebrates that.  But there are also more problematic sides to the surfing subculture: _perhaps_ excessive risk taking as well as a culture of, again, largely "carefree" recreational drug use.  To be sure, both of these "more problematic" aspects of the surfing subculture are hinted at in the film.  The Maverick style waves that the film shows Jay surfing at the end of the film are truly _insane_ (and conversely honestly make the film ;-) and Jay's best friend and surfer buddy is shown apparently selling drugs out of the parking lot of the fast food restaurant that the two work at.  These more problematic elements of the surfer culture are, however, largely buried under the film's celebration of "surf and sun." 

Don't get me wrong, I do think that I _get_ (understand) the joy/freedom that must come with surfing, but I also understand "Frosty's" wife Brenda's Hesson's request of her husband: "Please promise me that the rush that must come with surfing down a 30 foot wave will not overpower your responsibility to me and your kids."   

Frosty is shown at the end of the film understanding Brenda's request, I do hope that readers here (especially the young ones) will appreciate it as well.

Still, "wouldn't it be nice?" ... ;-)

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Silent Hill 3D Revelation [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review

Silent Hill 3D Revelation (written and directed by Michael J. Bassatt) like its predecessor Silent Hill [2006] is a film adapted from the (originally Japanese) "survival horror" video game series Silent Hill set in a fictitious "small American town" by the same name.  Like the video game, so the film, takes place in a "multiverse," that is on one level the story takes place in our own world (in and around that small town called Silent Hill) and on other level it exists in an alternate somewhat "dreamy" / "nightmarish" reality where ghastly things take place.

In the current movie, Australian actress Adelaide Clemens plays the lead role of Heather (in this world) / Alyssa (in the alternate one).  She has found herself moving quite a bit with her dad (played by Sean Been) in this world in order to try to avoid returning the town of Silent Hill, but, alas, she finds herself coming back to that town (or at least its equivalent in the other dimension) anyway.  Much of course ensues.

With the film being released around Halloween time and having been responsible for our parish's youth group over the years, I found the feel of this movie to be that of a good (meaning really scary) "virtual haunted house" (I saw the movie in 2D but I would imagine that if one wanted to spend the extra $4 to see it in 3D it _probably_ would not be a waste of money this time).

What I found annoying after a while was the film's arguably taking itself too seriously at times with regard to things "Occult."  Yes, I suppose some of this was necessary for the setup of the story, but I would have simply made "Silent Hill" some kind of "Gateway to Hell" / "Purgatory" (a la Dante) and just be done with it.  However, the film (and presumably the video game) chooses to dwell on what appear to be "Occult nuances" and I could imagine a great many Christian/Catholic parents finding this "really, really annoying" or worse.  And I would tend to agree.

However, rather than make a big thing of this, I would just suggest to parents to remind their teens (if their teens insist on wanting to see this movie or play the game) that this film/game is _really_ "just a story"/"game" and to honestly not dwell on the details.   As I recently wrote in my blogpost here about Paranormal Activity 4, there's really no need for any of us to become expert "Zoologists of Evil."  (There are plenty of far more positive ways we could spend our time...)

But heck, as a "virtual haunted house" or even as a "virtual descent into Hell" the film (and presumably the game) is really "kinda cool."  Just honestly LIKE DANTE "visit" these places "with a smile" ;-)

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Alex Cross [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Alex Cross (directed by Rob Cohen, screenplay by Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson based on the novel by James Patterson) is about the exploits of an African American detective and psychologist named Dr. Alex Cross (played in the film by Tyler Perry).  In the novels, he lives and works in the South East quadrant of Washington D.C. In the current film he and his family live in Detroit, MI. In both cases these are both "tough" generally crime ridden areas but with some more upscale sections where wealthier/upper middle class African Americans (like Alex Cross and his family) live.

The film concerns itself with Alex Cross' hunting down a particularly sadistic criminal who is given the nick-name "Picasso" (played by Matthew Fox) because he tends to leave charcoal drawings of his victims (often wrything in pain) at the scenes of the crimes.  This criminal apparently sees killing as an "art form" and he also _enjoys_ seeing his victims in pain.

After a particularly brutal murder of the woman of an otherwise unsavory gangster, Alex Cross and his partner Tommy Kane (played by Edward Burns) are brought in on the case.  After "Picasso" finds out that Alex Cross is on his tail, he of course takes enjoyment in "playing" with him and finding some very awful ways to cause Cross and his family (Alex Cross' wife Maria played by Carmen Ejogo, daughter Janelle played by Yara Shahidi, son Damon played by Sayeed Shahidi, and mother played by Cicely Tyson) pain.

IMHO it all makes for a rather good crime thriller and I like the development of Alex Cross' family.  However, PARENTS I would definitely warn you that the film should really be rated R.  There are definitely some very graphic/violent scenes present.  IMHO that does not necessarily make it a bad film, just at times a rather violent one and parents/families ought to know what they are walking into in that regard.

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Valley of Saints [2012]

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

IMDb listing -

Valley of Saints [2012] written and directed by Musa Syeed, is an Indian/USA film (Kashmiri w. English subtitles) that played recently at the 48th Annual Chicago International Film Festival (Oct. 11-25, 2012).  It is set in and around Dal Lake in the Valley of Saints in the disputed territory (between India and Pakistan) of Kashmir.  The Kashmiri conflict forms an important part of the backdrop to the story.

Afzal (played by Mohammad Afzal), 20-something years old, along with his best friend Gulzar (played by Gulzar Ahmed Bhat) is a humble taxi/tourist boatman.  The two make their livings paddling tourists in their boats around the lake to the various islands, lotus gardens and so forth.  The beginning of the story finds Afzal beginning his day pretty much like any other day, helping his aging and somewhat ailing traditionally Muslim uncle get up.

Afzal appears to have some special concern about his uncle that day as apparently the uncle is going to travel somewhere reasonably distant for some kind of medical checkup.  But after his uncle is on his way (presumably by bus) the day continues like any other day with Afzal, Gulzar and other taxi/tourist boatmen hustling for customers onshore.  Eventually both get gigs, Afzal taking a young long-haired European couple to one of the islands, Gulzar meeting him on the island with his boat after taking somewhere as well.

However, this is Kashmir... So what began as a "normal day" soon ceases to be one.  While the two friends were transporting their customers to the island somewhere in the middle of the lake a riot broke-out onshore and the military authorities imposed a week-long 24 hour curfew on the cities onshore.  So the two find themselves stuck now on this island for a number of days.  Would Afzal's uncle be able to come home from his trip to the medical clinic?  Perhaps he made it back before the curfew was imposed, perhaps not.  In any case, "normal life" is frozen for a week and the two are stuck on the island.

While stuck on the island, the two come across a young woman, Indian/Kashmiri like they were named Asifa (played by Neelofar Hamid).  She was a university student (more probably a graduate student) who had come back to Dal Lake to study its environmental degradation.  Apparently not only is the Kashmiri conflict going on, but with the increase of population and general increase of "stuff" the overall environmental quality of the lake has been going down as well and it becomes progressively clear to the viewer that all kinds of garbage and refuse is being thrown or otherwise dumped into the lake.

A somewhat "impossible romance" naturally starts to develop.  Afzal, a humble boatman falls for the exotic and far more educated Asifa.  As a result, some traditional gender roles do reverse.  Trying to impress Asifa, Afzal cooks for her (Indeed, one gets the sense that Asifa probably would have been rather lost on the island during the curfew if not for Afzal).  On the other hand and certainly at the beginning of their interaction, Asifa treats Afzal as basically an underling "in need of an education" (by her) of how to treat the lake with respect.  In one scene he shows her a bathroom and she proceeds to draw him a plan for an "environmentally sound one" ... ;-).

Nevertheless, Afzal does seem to grow on Asifa...  However, remember folks that in many respects this is a "traditional Muslim movie" ;-).  So Westerners especially may find it "surprising" that the budding relationship doesn't seem to go anywhere.  Or honestly, does it (go nowhere)?  This aspect of the story becomes fascinating for me because it offers an invitation for viewers (and readers here) to reflect on the question of _when_ does a friendship (or even relationship) become _meaningful_?   And yes, I do believe that this film does offer an alternative to contemporary Western cultural "orthodoxy" on the matter.  :-)

The other aspect of the film that I found fascinating was the number of "levels of action"/"things happening" that are present in the film:  There was (1) the story of Afzal's uncle's gradual decline in health.  There's (2) the story of the three young protagonists' struggles to "grow-up" (finish school, achieve a stable and secure existence) and _begin_ their (adult) lives.  Both of these stories would fall into the realm of "the natural/human order of things."  But then there's (3) the intrusion and obvious resentment of the conflict in Kashmir: There's enough suffer, there are enough problems in life, why add political/military conflict to the mix?  Then there's (4) the (current) gradual decline in the quality of the Lake.  Even as Hindus/Muslims, India and Pakistan are fighting for this (previously) beautiful piece of land, it's being poisoned and _may_ become a lifeless cesspool to whoever ends up finally "winning" that political conflict.  Finally there's (5) a "timeless" dimension to the story, something that Afzal appears to be struggling with.  During the course of the film, Afzal narrates the story of why the area in which he lives is called "The Valley of Saints:"  At some time immemorial, there was a demon who lived in the lake that used to attack small children.  The Saints (giant, presumably at least partly supernatural beings) came and killed the demon, making the lake safe for the people who lived around it.  During the course of the film, Afzal repeatedly asks "Where are 'the Saints' now?" in the midst of all the suffering mostly political/military but also in regards to the lake's declining capacity to sustain life.  And yet, the story says that "life on the lake" has been guaranteed "safe" by those "Saints" since pretty much the beginning of time.  So is life "safe" or has it been pretty much _always_ rather "precarious" and yet are we still somehow guaranteed by those "Saints" (supernatural beings / Religion) that All will turn out well in the end?

This is a simple story that ends up asking some really big questions!  Very good job!

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Meeting Leila (orig. Ashnaee ba Leila) [2011]

MPAA (Unrated would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

Meeting Leila (orig. Ashnaee ba Leila) [2011] directed and cowritten by Adel Yaraghi along with Abbas Kiarostami is an Iranian film (in Farsi with English subtitles) that played recently at the 48th Annual Chicago International Film Festival (Oct. 11-25, 2012).

It is about two lonely Iranian 40-somethings, Leila (played by Leila Hatami, who also played recently in the 2011 Oscar Winning film A Separation [2011]) a chemist, and Adel (played by Adel Yaraghi) who works for a Tehran advertising agency.  They meet one winter morning in Tehran when Leila has trouble getting her Volkswagon Beetle up a small hill after a snowfall.  Adel also driving a Volkswagon Beetle courteously stops helps her get her Beetle moving up the slight but irritating incline (anyone who's ever driven a VW Beetle -- it was the car that I learned to drive stickshift on when I was a teenager ;-) -- would know its rather temperamental gearshift ;-).  They exchange phone numbers and apparently hit it off because when we meet them again, it's apparently a year later and it looks like they are going to get married.  Except there's a problem ... Adel's a chain smoker and _really enjoys smoking_, sincerely thinks it helps him in his creative work and Leila, again a chemist, one who _may_ be working in some sort of a pharmaceutical or medical lab, just hates it.  What to do?  Well that's what the rest of the movie is about ;-)

This is clearly a very simple and yet very universal story.  And then there are some fairly predictable as well as surprising elements impinging on both Iran's current cultural circumstances as well as our Western perceptions of them.

Look, my parents were Czechoslovakian who came here after fleeing the Communists.  Czechoslovakia was also in a cultural deep-freeze during most of the Communist Era.  Yes, there was the Prague Spring around 1968 but the cultural flourishing that occurred during that remarkable period before it was crushed by Soviet tanks only makes the point.  And the point is this: the story in this film, as simple, poignant, lovely as it is, is _exactly_ the kind of film that is _safe_ when a creative community is living under the boot of a totalitarian regime.  There's absolutely _no politics_ here (none, zero, nada...), just a story about a woman who'd really like to have her man stop smoking....

And yet, there are also surprises (for the "know it all" Westerner ;-).  Among them are simply that a Westerner gets to see that Tehran has "winter," something that I noted in the discussion that followed the screening of the movie happily surprised me, because most of the time when I think of the Middle East, I think of a "hot dry desert climate." ;-).

But that's really a triviality.  What fascinates me much more about this film is that in many respects this is a very "classically Hollywood/American" film: It's simply the story of one man and one woman, both in their 40s (so both would have had some definite "life experience") with almost no friends and _no relatives_ in the story to speak of.  It's basically Humphrey Bogart [IMDb] and ... Ingrid Bergman [IMDb] / Lauren Bacall [IMDb].  So in the discussion after the film I did ask about that: Would this story be realistic in a place like Iran?  And the answer was that it was basically as realistic as the Humphrey Bogart [IMDb] movie of the 1940s, the implication and _reminder_ being that Iran is a sophisticated place.  For further support in this point, let the reader remember here the occupations of the two protagonists of the story.  He was an _ad man_ a profession as "hip, happening, modern" (and arguably as "artificial") as can be, and she was a chemist.  Neither was simply a "shop keeper" much less a "salt of the earth goat herder" of some sort.  They lived in Tehran, but they could have _easily_ lived in Los Angeles, Paris or New York.

And so I am very happy to have had the opportunity to see this film and then to share it with others here.   None (or extremely few) of us would have the capacity to visit "all the world,"  but with festivals such as these we do have an opportunity to visit the world and to see that we're not necessarily as different as we may at times think that we are. 

Excellent film!

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Xingu [2012]

MPAA (Unrated would be PG-13/R) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Adorocinema listing - [PT Orig][ENG trans]

Xingu [IMDb][AC-PT orig][ENG trans] directed and cowritten by Cao Hamburger [IMDb][AC Pt orig][AC Eng trans] along with Elena Soarez [IMDb] and Anna Muylaert [IMDb] is a remarkable Brazilian film that played recently at the 48th Chicago International Film Festival (Oct 11-25, 2012) about three brothers from a middle class family from São Paulo -- Claudio, Orlando and Leonardo Villas Boas (played by João Miguel [IMDb][AC Pt orig][AC Eng trans], Filipe Camargo [IMDb][AC Pt orig][AC Eng trans] and Ciao Blat [IMDb][AC Pt orig][AC Eng trans] respectively) who in the 1940s pretended to be illiterate in order to be allowed to join a Brazilian military expedition into the as of that time largely unexplored interior of Brazil specifically into the region called Mato Grosso.

Despite having good comfortable jobs São Paulo, the three brothers did so for the adventure of it _and_ out of a true respect/fascination with Brazil's indigenous peoples.  When the expedition had traversed a fair amount of the wilds, it made contact with the Xingu peoples in Mato Grosso and the three brothers became instrumental in establishing a remarkable relationship of respect between Brazil's government/military and the Xingu peoples such that the development of the area in the decades that followed actually resulted in the creation of a surprisingly successful Xingu National Park (under the supervision of the three brothers) where the Xingu peoples as well as others from the whole of the Amazon region were able to survive and keep their native ways of life more or less in peace.

(North) American readers will no doubt know of the both the largely tragic history of the Reservation system in the United States as well as Brazil's own often tragic history in this regard.  This film provides an IMHO much needed opportunity for viewers/readers to come to know, evaluate and hopefully learn from what could well be a true and very nice success!  Honestly good job makers of this this film and God bless you! ;-)


My own religious order, The Friar Servants of Mary, as small as it has always been, has actually been very much involved in many of the issues surrounding the Amazon Rain Forest from calling for a 10 year moritorium on logging in the Amazon rain forest to the defense of both the indigenous peoples of Acre state in Brazil and the white/poor rubber tappers (seringueros) sent up to Acre in the 1940s by the Brazilian military during the same time as the three Villas-Bôas brothers joined the expedition that they took part in from São Paulo.  The Brazilian Servites in Acre knew the famed eco-martyr Chico Mendes personally (he was a _parishioner_ of theirs from their church at Xapuri in Acre, and he traveled with the Servites on their "desobriga" trips up and down the rivers of Acre as they did their missionary work.   In recent years, the Brazilian Servites contracted a book written by Brazilian writer Milton Claro to tell the story of "The Amazonia that We Do Not Know" mostly about the remarkable yet largely unknown humble people who inhabit the Amazon region.  I was the book's primary translator into English and since it was always intended for free distribution, I recently put it up on the internet so that people like yourselves could have access to it.  It is a truly remarkable text and there are entire chapters dedicated to the environmental destruction of the Amazon [2] [3], to the lives and challenges of the Indigenous peoples [2] [3] [4] and to the case of Chico Mendes.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Seven Psychopaths [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert -

Seven Psychopaths (written and directed by Martin McDonagh) is certainly a strange and often violent movie (the R rating is definitely deserved).  Yet it is often very funny as well as poignant and pointed.  I'd characterize the film as partly Quentin Tarentino's Pulp Fiction [1994] meets the Coen brothers' Big Lebowski [1998] but also reflecting some of the "over the pond" exasperations with "America" perhaps best expressed in my mind by Jon Ronson (who, like McDonagh comes from Britain and who is perhaps most famous for his book/movie The Men Who Stare at Goats [2009] but one who even wrote a recent bestselling book called The Psychopath Test (2012)]).

As such, the principal protagonist in McDonagh's film set in and around Los Angeles is Marty (played by Colin Farrell) a transplant from "the Isles," who, when he is sober..., is trying to write a screenplay called "Seven Psychopaths."  The idea's kinda edgy/cool.  But Marty has writer's block, which causes him to drink all the more.

And in truth at the beginning of the film, he's only been able to come up with one (perhaps one and a half) interesting psychopath(s) for his story: A "Buddhist psychopath" who he imagines as having had been a salutary, patriotic Vietcong fighter who went insane after he found that all his loved ones were murdered by American troops as part the Mi Lai Massacre in 1968.  So impersonating a Catholic priest, he emigrated to the United States and set out to murder in revenge everyone in the unit responsible for the massacre.  And after murdering a couple of them, he gets his big chance to get them all when he finds out that the unit was going to have a "reunion" in Las Vegas ...

But having "a priest" force a "Las Vegas hooker" to strap on a vest made of dynamite that he would detonate as she entered the room with 200 or so veteran members of the unit responsible for the Mi Lai Massacre apparently seemed too improbable/deranged for Marty and so he changes his "Buddhist psychopath" to a "Quaker" one, who exacts his revenge on a savage murderer of his only daughter by simply but _relentlessly_ "following him" (at a respectful, but still plainly noticeable distance) where-ever the murderer went until, the murderer, who himself had a change of heart (in prison) converting to Catholicism and had subsequently lived an otherwise _peaceful life_ even eventually earning parole simply could not stand being tormented by this malevolent yet supremely pacifist Quaker father "psychopath," and commits suicide.

But even with these two strange (if honestly quite fascinating "psychopaths") he had only one, one and a half or perhaps two psychopaths for his story and his goal was seven.  What to do ... besides drink?

Well it turns out that Marty's best friend, Billy Bickle (played by Sam Rockwell) and one who's been honestly trying really hard to get Marty to realize that his drinking is killing him (yes "Bickle" is the last name of the Robert De Niro character in Taxi Driver [1976] ... this point coming from Roger Ebert's review of this film), is running something of a mildly insane/evil scam with an older partner named Hans (played by Christopher Walken): The two kidnap the pet dogs (usually quite small) of rich people and then "find/return" them to their owners for the reward money.  Why would anyone (or any two people) do something so _mildly_ insane/Evil?   Well Hans had spent 20 years in jail ... and his wife Myra (played by Linda Bright Clay) now suffered from cancer.  Where's he gonna get a job with the attendant health insurance with his record?   So the two "steal dogs" of rich people and give them back to them for cash.  (They don't even write ransom notes to the dog owners.  They just wait until the rich people who've lost their beloved pets start posting notes on various neighborhood kiosks promising "reward money" for the return of their dogs).

However this mildly crazy/evil scam goes horribly awry when the two accidentally kidnap the beloved Shih Tzu (yes, it allows the characters in the film to say "shi...tzu" in countless variations during the rest of the film) of an otherwise truly sociopathic gangster named Charlie (played by Woody Harrelson).

Much, often very violently, ensues even as the characters with all their more or less obviously flaws and foibles actually talk about some fairly profound stuff (and Marty tries to get his screenplay together ...).  And yes, the whole story gets "nicely tied together" by the end ;-).

It all makes for a very well written, often funny if often pointedly disturbing story that reminds me of the influences I mentioned above.  Good job, McDonagh!  (I think ;-)

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Paranormal Activity 4 [2012]


IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -

Paranormal Activity 4 (directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, screenplay by Christopher Landon, story by Chad Feehan) is one of those films that I've found little enthusiasm in seeing and yet I do believe deserves some mention here.  Other films in this category have included Sasha Barron Cohen's The Dictator, the Transformers' series knockoff Battleship and last spring's Silent House which starred Elizabeth Olsen who I generally like but could not bring my self to yet another "troubled/haunted house" film.  And there have been other popular/widely released films movies that I've found to be so uninteresting/unappealing that I've chosen to ignore them completely.

In the case of the Paranormal Activity franchise, I do have to say that I liked very much the first installment (which came out before I began writing this blog).  Like many others, I found it to be a brilliantly made, low budget (horror) film.  But by the end of the second installment and certainly the  third (both of which I did review here) I came to believe that the series had "jumped the shark," (and certainly in terms of filming technique).

I do believe that there are only a few very limited directions in which the series can go.  That is, it can, as the third installment suggests, get "increasingly dark" and I don't have any particular interest in either becoming (or, more to the point encouraging others in becoming...) "zoologists of Evil."  I do think that I have a healthy respect for Evil and don't care to know what "kind of demon" a particular demon tormenting a family would be.     As a priest, I've periodically blessed houses of parishioners concerned about strange things happening in their homes.  Generally speaking that's all that's ever been necessary.  If something really strange was going on (never has) I'd probably recommend calling the Diocese.   Honestly, there's no need to play with these things any more than that.  If one really believes in the existence of Evil / malevolent spirits, etc, then it really makes no sense to "study" or "play with them" unless one just wants to get into trouble.  (These spirits would be far smarter and certainly more Evil than you or I...).

So I'm done folks.  Who knows, maybe the Paranormal Activity series will go into a different direction, that of deciding to make light of itself.  And that would be fine.  However, if it chooses to continue to go in the path of poking ever more deeply into the Occult/Abyss, it will just become increasingly (though unintentionally) vapid or make us "experts" in things that we really _don't_ need to become experts in.

Meaning this as a joke: If at the end of our lives we find ourselves in Hell tortured by demons, will it be particularly helpful to us to "know" what class of demons is doing the torturing?  "Oh by the way, are you related in any way to the demons we saw in Paranormal Activity __?" "Oh no, Hollywood always gets this stuff wrong ..." ;-)

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Student [2012]

Unrated (would be PG-13/R)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -

Student [2012] directed by Darezhan Omirabayev is a Kazakh film (filmed in Russian with English subtitles) that I saw recently at the 48th Annual Chicago International Film Festival (Oct. 11-25, 2012) that sets the story of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's famous novel 19th century Crime and Punishment in contemporary Almaty, Kazakhstan

The Raskolnikov character of Dostoyevsky's novel, known in this film as simply "the Student" (played by Nurlan Bajtasov) is a quiet/sullen, shoulder's bent, eyes always looking toward the ground philosophy student who American viewers would probably recognize as a clearly troubled youth / potential "school shooter."  When we meet him, he's already "on the edge."  Working on a film crew, he tries bring "some tea" to the lead actress only to spill the hot water on her.  She, apparently the girl friend of a powerful post-Communist banker, get's upset and when the banker's entourage comes to pick her up after the shoot, she has two of the thugs beat him up for the "insult" he caused.

A few scene's later, he's at a philosophy class, where the lecturer is praising the status of who things are today: "Yes, even Kazakhstan has its millionaires, even billionaires, oligarchs.  Don't resent them, try to be like them.  For 70 years we believed in a system that could life everyone up.  Today we know that we can't prosperity as a herd.  Prosperity is to be fought for by each person's individual's initiative.  Yes, there will be poor people.  You can pity them but don't waste too much time on them.  The law of nature is that the strong survive."

A Friend of the Student asks the Lecturer: "Doesn't it then logically follow in such a Darwinist world that those wishing to be successful would come to murder their rivals."  And there it is, the seed is planted.

Like in the novel, the Student doesn't kill anybody particularly significant.  And just as in the novel, he immediately finds himself needing to kill someone who is completely innocent.  He also has a mother and sister who love him, even visit him, but don't have a clue of what's going on in his head.  There's also a Sonia character that he grows to love.  As the implications of what he had done begin to close in on him in his head, The Student, like Raskolnikov in Dostoyevski's novel begins to lose his grip on reality and to bring himself back, it becomes increasingly clear what he must do.

Readers here who've read the novel we know how it ends and those who didn't should note that Dostoyevsky's novel was written in the 19th century.  As a result, both the novel and this story end better than some of the experiences that we've had in the United States with similarly distressed youth.

All in all, I found Darezhan Omirabayev's adaptation very interesting and I probably would not have made the connection between Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov and various distressed youth ranging from Timothy McVeigh or the school shooters at places like Virginia Tech or NIU.  That's a pretty good insight that comes from the country, Kazakhstan, that Sasha Baron Cohen brutally/gratuitously chose to ridicule in Borat [2005].

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Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica (orig. Era uma vez eu, Verônica) [2012]

Unrated (would be R)   Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing listing: [PT-orig] [ENG-trans]

Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica (orig. Era uma vez eu, Verônica) [2012] [IMDb] [AC-PT orig.] [Eng-Trans]written and directed by Marcelo Gomez [IMDb] [AC-PT orig] [Eng-Trans] is a Brazilian film that played recently at the 48th Chicago International Film Festival (Oct 11-25, 2012) and could be described as Central Station (orig. Central do Brazil) [1998] meets Gray's Anatomy [2005-] / E.R. [1994-2009].

Recent medical school graduate Verônica (played by Hermila Guedes [IMDb] [AC-PT orig.] [Eng-Trans]) gets a residency assignment at an urban public hospital in her home city somewhere in coastal, north-eastern Brazil.  She lives with her aging father (played by W.J. Solha [IMDb] [AC-PT. orig.] [Eng.-Trans]).  And she also has a lover/boyfriend named Gustavo (played by João Miguel [AC-PT. orig] [Eng.-Trans]) that in truth she's not entirely certain about (and neither is he about her).

The work in the hospital is both challenging and important, hence my references to both the Brazilian film Central Station (orig. Central do Brazil) [1998] and the American television series E.R. [1994-2009] (that was also set in an urban setting in the United States).

However, Verônica is also a young adult trying to make sense out of her life, hence the somewhat "Brazilian Gray's Anatomy [2005-]" feel to the movie, (Gray's Anatomy being an American television series about a group of young medical school graduates).

That being said, someone like me, a Catholic priest from a religious order with a fair number of our priests having worked as chaplains in both Catholic and secular hospitals in the United States, I do have to raise the complaint that both this film and the American teleivion series, Gray's Anatomy [2005-] have presented the lives of recently graduated medical doctors as basically "party time" where the patients actually "kinda get in the way" of their otherwise "dulce vita."

At the end of the film, Verônica buys a house for her and her dad (a point is made that she had already bought a car) and takes a job in a _private hospital_ (where she presumably won't have to deal with that many poor people anymore).  And the film ends with Verônica rolling around with her on-again/off-again boyfriend and their friends at beautiful Brazilian beach somewhere.

That may be "the dream" _both_ in the United States and in Brazil for the past several generations when it comes to "doctors" ... that they simply become very, very rich or otherwise "important."  But that's _not_ what medical doctors used to be.

Medical doctors _used to be_  respected because they _healed people_ at times putting even themselves at risk in doing so.  Today, thanks to the soaps in the United States (and telenovelas in Latin America and elsewhere) medical doctors are generally presented as simply glamorously rich people and working with sick people needing help has become beside the point and even a burden.  

As such, the current film ends rather badly in my opinion.  HOWEVER, this may actually be the intent of the film maker as the title implies that Verônica loses herself.  The title of the film is, after all, "Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica" (or "Era uma vez eu, Verônica" in the original Portuguese).

In any case, medical doctors, whether American, Brazilian, Egyptian, German, Indian, Japanese, or Russian if they are not taking care of sick people, people who need them then they are not really doing their job.

Finally, I would also note that there is "a fair amount" of nudity in this film.  I do hope that those readers who do see it will understand both my noting it and my rather obvious ambivalence to it, because I think that the nudity in the film was both "beside the point" and/or may actually _accentuate it_: Why does one (or should one) become a medical doctor...? To _help people_ or simply to become rich or otherwise "important"? 

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Here Comes the Boom [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Michael Phillips' review

Here Comes the Boom (directed by Frank Coraci, written by Kevin James, Rock Ruben and Allen Loab) is a nice, feel good story about a (fictional) Boston area high school biology teacher, Scott Voss (played by Kevin James) who though initially burnt out and depressed, could not bring himself to give-up on the school, teaching, the kids, others and his own life.

Yes, he was getting older, flabby, _wasn't_ exactly "livin' the dream," and yes he was "tired" at the beginning of the film: When a young, bright eyed Filipino girl named Malia (played by Charice) asked him a question about a discrepancy she had found between what their biology textbook said about something and what she found on the internet, he just responded with some iritation: "Malia, it really doesn't matter.  There's nothing that you're going to learn in this class that you're ever going to apply in your real life."  Saddened / deflated, she just slinks back into her chair ...

But after being first struck by the simple goodness and remaining enthusiasm of an older music teacher, Marty Streb (played marvelously by an older Henry Winkler, who people of my generation remember as the young "Fonz" of Happy Days [1974-1984]), and finding out only a short time later at a faculty meeting that "due to budgetary considerations," the (as Voss) similarly frustrated/discouraged/angry/cynical Principal Betcher (played by Greg Germann) was going to "ax all non-essential extracurricular programs" at the school come next year, including specifically Marty Streb's music program, Voss has had enough.

Typical of Kevin James' roles, Voss initially doesn't have any idea what to do.  But upset at the injustice of seeing perhaps _the only teacher_ on the school's staff left with any enthusiasm about what he was doing facing the budgetary chopping block (and there's really even more to it than that, Marty Streb had told him earlier in the day that in his / his wife's old age -- she was 48, he was simply "old" -- they just found out that they are going to have a baby) Voss was just not going to let this stand.  He tells the Principal "we" (meaning the faculty) will raise the money ourselves (meaning, initially certainly that _he_ was going to raise the money himself)" to save Marty Streb's job/program.  Okay, but how?

Initially,  Voss has no idea.  But as he stumbles along, opportunities open up for him.  He decides on a whim to start teaching a night class again (for immigrants preparing to take their citizenship exam).  It seems like a boneheaded, _completely inadequate_ response to the need to raise $55K before the end of the school year.  (For each class he gets paid something like $75).  BUT one has to start somewhere... In the class, he meets an entire classroom full of adults all, like James, basically simple but hard working/good hearted people trying to eek out a living and, in as much is possible, to "do the right thing."

Among the people he meets is a Slavic or otherwise East European exercise instructor / "trainer" named Niko (played by Bas Rutten).  Niko has a good heart but feeling that he had perhaps more muscles than brains, asks James for more (private) help on preparing for his citizenship exam.  It was an additional, small "gig," but what the heck, why not?

Well when he comes to tutor Niko at his place, he finds that Niko and his friends are there eyes glued to the television set to watch a Mixed Martial Arts match.  The match proves to be a monumental disappointment.  One of the two fighters is pinned/knocked out something like 10 seconds. In disgust, Niko exclaims "and he got 10 grand for that" Voss responds: "For losing??" "Yes!  And the winner got 50K!"  Now for Voss who, flabby as he was now, had wrestled in college _that_ was real money!  And the rest of the movie proceeds from there...

The Principal initially thinks that Voss is an idiot.  But Voss doesn't care.  He tells him, "If I had a better plan I'd take it, but I don't.  This is the best that I can do."  And by subjecting himself to getting beaten up, and yes, progressively improving, Voss slowly becomes an inspiration to the whole school, to everyone, to the faculty including another teacher (or perhaps the school nurse) Bella Flores (played by Salma Hayek) who initially considered Voss to be _perhaps_ a "nice guy" but mainly a "going nowhere loser," to the Principal, to his own brother Eric (played by Gary Valentine) and his brother's family.

Voss even rediscovers his enthusiasm for teaching.  He tells students at one point that even on the cellular level (action and inaction) is contagious: A cell that's progressively becoming more dormant (or dying) puts other cells neighboring it progressively to sleep, while a cell that simply comes to "vibrate" awakens and increases the motabolism of the surrounding cells as well.

It all makes for a pretty good lesson!  And what I particularly liked was Voss' (James character's) willingness _to simply begin_ not with a complete plan, but to simply take the first steps into an unknown ... and then discovering that by simply _willing to try_ "opportunities" open up.  IN MY OWN LIFE, I've found this to be true.  And I would maintain that there is even a theological basis for such optimism/initiative: We're told _repeatedly_ in the Biblical Scriptures to (1) "not be afraid," and (2) to say "Yes" to Life and what it brings us.

So good job Kevin James, et al!  Good job!

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