Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

I am honestly baffled at the praise being given to Silver Linings Playbook (directed and screenplay by David O. Russell based on the novel by Matthew Quick) to say nothing of the "Oscar Buzz" that appears to surround it. Perhaps the buzz is the result of the book's/film's stab at presenting bi-polar / obsessive-compulsive disorder on screen.  Certainly, there have been plenty of dramas built around alcoholism/various kinds of addictions and even a few films about autism over the years.  But this film, honestly felt like a rather average romcom (though it perhaps intended to be more than this, but _didn't_ have the courage to be that then) only to be picked up and be inexplicably "graced" by (as is generally the case of Grace after all ...) more or less undeserved critical praise.

Don't get me wrong, I _like_ the actors.  I believe that Bradley Cooper's performance in The Words [2012] was far better than he (or that film) was given credit for (and arguably better than his performance here).  I _also_ like Jennifer Lawrence.  I was just beginning this blog when Winter's Bone [2010] came and and very quickly went, so I missed her there.  But she was _outstanding_ as Raven/Mystique in X-Men: First Generation [2011], basically "okay" (probably her biggest role but mostly "action") in The Hunger Games [2012] and even honestly quite good in the still "young" role in the recent horror picture House at the End of the Street [2012].  Then Robert De Niro is, of course, a legend.  But over all, this film feels far more like Meet the Parents [2000]/Fockers [2004] than Rain Man [1988], Clean and Sober [1988] or Shame [2011].  Consider simply last year's film, Take Shelter [2011] a film _also_ about borderline mental illness and how much more _gravitas_ it carried than this one.  I refuse to accept that Silver Linings Playbook is "as good as it gets" to take the title of another Hollywood film [1997] made about OCD.  SLP is not a terrible movie but IMHO it's not a particularly great one...

So what then is this rather average film about?  The film begins with Pat (played by Bradley Cooper) a former smalltime college professor who having been recently released from a State mental institution is now staying with his parents Pat, Sr (played by Robert De Niro) and Dolores (played by Jacki Weaver), his wife Veronica (played by Julia Stiles) who he is separated from having put a restraining order on him.

What did Pat do to warrant being placed in a State operated mental institution and even following release having a restraining order held against him by his estranged wife?  Well, coming home from work one day, he found his Department Head having sex with his wife in the shower and ... enraged (or perhaps ENRAGED) he nearly beat his now former Department Head to death.  Early in the film, we hear Pat telling the Counselor, Dr. Patel (played by Anupam Kher) who he's still required to see "I just had one bad incident in my life ..." and Dr. Patel, telling him in a calm but straight-forward voice "one bad incident can be enough..."  While incarcerated, Pat was diagnosed with having Bi-Polar disorder.

Back home now, trying to really hard to rebuild his life his shattered life on account of that "one bad incident" and still under all kinds of medication ... he _does_ exhibit _some_ classic characteristics of Manic behavior.  (1) Despite what has happened to him he remains almost "wildly optimistic."  Indeed, he calls his journal "The Silver Lining Playbook" from which the story gets its name.  And he honestly keeps believing that _somehow_ his estranged wife will take him back.  (2) Besides this almost insane and (one suspects) forced optimism, he stays up late at night, arguing with the books that he's reading (he used to teach literature...) and he tries really hard to put himself into great physical shape (again to try to win his estranged wife back).

We know, of course, that she's _not_ coming back.  And I think that more than a few of us looking at the film would wonder if he's really mentally ill.  BUT then he did nearly kill a man. BUT WHY DID HE DO THAT?  Because he caught him having sex with his wife in the shower?  BUT then why was his wife cheating on him to begin with...?

But none of this matters.  For the foreseeable future, Pat is going to be consigned to a whole lot of supervision while being prescribed a whole lot of psychiatric drugs (all with varying side-effects) with the goal of stabilizing him (rather than further destabilizing him).  AND YET he really should be happy that he's not in jail or still in a mental institution...

Into this story of a wounded, arguably shattered man, who's future is (one hopes) in the hands of competent experts at least as much as it is in his own hands, enters another wounded person.  She's a young widow named Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who was actually a mutual friend of Pat and his estranged wife.  Tiffany _also_ took _her loss_ badly and began to act out in all sorts of (apparently sexually) inappropriate ways to the point that her parents finally had her institutionalized (for depression).  And she too, now out of the mental institution has also become a veteran of a rather robust regimen of psychiatric medicines.  (When the two sets of parents set these to broken 30-something year-olds together, Pat and Tiffany share stories of what it felt like to be on Lithium and so forth ...).

So there is the story.  It's awful.  It's confused.  Honestly more than a few viewers will wonder if either of these two people were really as "mentally ill" as diagnosed.  And yet _both_ had acted out (he once, she apparently for a sufficiently long amount of time to warrant serious concern by her parents/loved ones) in _dangerous ways_.  The coup de grace of course is that Pat's father is more or less obviously obsessive compulsive but beyond being asked by the Philadelphia Eagles to stop attending their games (because he would apparently get into fights in the stadium during their games), he's never been treated for anything...

But that then is life ... and again whatever secret doubts the viewer may have about the judgements/diagnoses that society has made about all three of these characters -- Pat, Tiffany and his father -- hopefully one understands _why_ society made those judgements.

So how does this movie flow from here?  Well, it's a Hollywood movie so it has to end reasonably well.  Much does ensue.  A narrative is sort of pieced together.  But the story isn't particularly pretty and it certainly is not neat.  It ends with perhaps as much ambiguity / confusion as it began:

Is Pat really that sick and can he "get better?"  Honestly, who knows?  BUT he really did have that _one really bad incident_ and honestly, would you/could you trust him?  Sigh ...

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Jab Tak Hai Jaan [2012]

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

IMDb listing
Los Angeles Times [Mark Olsen]
Times of India [Gaurav Malani] [Meena Iyer]
Hindustan Times [Anupama Chopra]

I came across Jab Tak Hai Jaan (directed by famed and recently deceased Bollywood director Yash Chopra [IMDb], screenplay by Aditya Chopra [IMDb] along with Devika Bhagat [IMDb]) largely by accident here in Chicago.  I had been at our city's current "flagship" movie theater, the AMC River East 21 on Illinois Street, to see a different film and saw this film advertised.  Sticking to my earlier plans, I proceeded to see the film that I had come to see, but afterwards looked the current film on the IMDb database and made subsequent plans to see it as well.

And I'm certainly glad that I did.  Most moviegoers in the United States will now be familiar with the phrase "Bollywood," and even the grand sketches of its success "back in India."  The success of English language films like Monsoon Wedding [2001], Bride and Prejudice [2004], as well as actors/actresses like Irrfan Khan (appearing recently in Life of Pi [2012] as well as The Amazing Spider Man [2012]) Freida Pinto (Miral [2010], Rise of the Planet of the Apes [2011], The Immortals [2011] and Trishna [2012]) and Dev Patel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel [2012]) all having been introduced to American audiences in the Slumdog Millionaire [2008], have gradually increased American (and especially Hollywood) appreciation for the movie-making talent that exists on the Subcontinent.

Indeed, it would seem that American artistic/film-making community existing in Hollywood has tried very hard in recently years to embrace both the talent, and no doubt profit-making potential existing in the so-called "BRIC" countries -- BRAZIL (recent Hollywood productions The Incredible Hulk [2008] and Rio [2011] as well as the Brazilian films like Central Station (orig. Central do Brasil [1998], City of God (orig. Cidade de Deus) [2002] and The Craft (orig. Riscado) [2010], Day of Black (orig. Dia de Preto) [2011], Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica (orig. Era uma vez eu, Verônica) [2012] reviewed here), RUSSIA (recent Hollywood productions like Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol [2011], The Darkest Hour [2012] (the Chernobyl Diaries [2012] take place in neighboring Ukraine ;-) as well as Russian films like Elena (orig. Елена) [2011] reviewed here), INDIA (English language films listed above as well as more "artsy" film-festival caliber Indian films like Patang [2012] and Valley of Saints [2012] reviewed here), CHINA (like the fantastic/"Indiana Jones" quality H.K. originating film Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame (orig. Di Renjie) [2010] as well as the more artsy but again of the highest quality Snow Flower and the Secret Fan [2011] reviewed here).

So it would seem both inevitable and IMHO supremely positive that well produced Indian language (and _excellently subtitled_) authentically Bollywood films would start showing regularly in American cinemas (and from the previews shown in conjunction with the showing of the current film, it would seem that a steady stream of Indian Bollywood films is going to start playing at the AMC River East theater hiere in Chicago).

So then, after such a rather long introduction to this film, what is it about? ;-).  Well not surprisingly (for Bollywood films) it's a grand and great love-story.

The film begins by introducing us viewers to Major Samar Anand (played by famed Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan [IMDb]).  He's presented as a legendary "sapper" (one who defuses bombs), who defuses the most intricate of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) set by Kashmiri (generally Muslim) terrorists/freedom fighters (depending on one's point of view) all across Kashmir.  And he does so WITHOUT EVER WEARING ANY PROTECTIVE GEAR.  He goes where only robots and other otherwise _very well protected sappers_ go and generally makes short work of diffusing seemingly incredibly complicated bombs.

Samar's character/job no doubt pays homage to both the recent Oscar-winning American film The Hurt Locker [2008] but above all to the Indian Sikh character named Kip in Michael Ondaatje's famed novel The English Patient (Amazon) made subsequently into an Academy Award winning film (Amazon).  In Ondaatje's story, Kip was portrayed as being "sapper" (and largely under-appreciated) during World War II.

In the current movie, Samar is certainly respected by his fellow soldiers in the Indian Army who consider him almost a legend.  It also becomes rather quickly clear that he's gained the admiration of some of India's young women as well.  In fact, in one of the first scenes of the movie, we see a beautiful young woman, who we soon learn is a young broadcast journalism apprentice "for the Discovery Channel" named Akira Rai (played by Anushka Sharma) come up with a scheme to try to draw his attention.  He decides to jump right in front of him into a huge, deep and cold reservior by whose banks he's gone to rest after disarming a particularly complicated IED, forcing him now to (eventually) jump in and rescue her as well.

Save Akira he does.  But after leaving her with his jacket to warm her (remember Kashmir is at the "roof of the world" so the water in its lakes would be _really cold_) he coldly drives off with his motorcycle back to the base, leaving her alone there to contemplate what just happened.

Now _why_ would someone become both such a risk-taker when it comes to disarming bombs and then so cold around women?  (One recalls famous question asked of another man named "Sam" in another this time Hollywood film (Casablanca [1942]) asking him why he treats such good-looking women women so badly, noting "Remember, they might grow scare one day...").  But both Sam in Casablanca and Samar in this film had their stories ... And with a somewhat hokey plot-twist (but look this film _is_ a romance) Akira soon finds out Samar's: For inside Samar's coat pocket, which he had left her to warm with, was his journal ... and the rest of the story unspools from there ...

For 10 years back, when Samar was in his 20s, Akira reads, Samar was a carefree Indian expat living in London, working odd jobs and happily playing Punjabi songs on the street on his guitar.  And it was there that he had fallen in love ... to a far wealthier Indian young woman, named Meera (played by Katrina Kaif) his age, who was destined to take-over her father's (played by Anupam Kher) highly successful London-based business.

How would these two meet?  Well, Samar first spotted Meera while working as a street sweeper in front of a presumably Catholic Church in a fashionable residential district of London.  (Meera would go to the Church to pray at night and ask "Sir Jesus" for various favors.  But being a good girl, would always make some sort of a sacrifice as well. "Sir Jesus if you grant me this, I'll give-up that..."  It's kind of a naive kind of prayer but it suits her still optimistic 20-something character).  Samar spotted her coming out of the Church but she didn't really notice him.

However, she does notice him some days later happily playing his Punjabi songs in some London park somewhere and she later comes to him with a request: She wanted him to teach her how to play a nice Punjabi song for her father's upcoming 50th birthday which would also actually signal the beginning of his retirement.  (There's an ancient Indian tradition that the first stage of one's life is to be devoted to the basic physical aspects of life, above all caring for and creating one's family.  Then in the second stage of one's life, beginning around 50 years of age, with the parents having been taken care or and the kids grown and _getting married_ to begin to _withdraw_ from the physical world and begin to focus more on one's Spiritual life.  Approaching 50 myself now, I do have to say that I do think that I appreciate now some of the wisdom present in this tradition).

So Meera's _not_ infatuated with Samar at this point.  She just wants to hire him to teach her how to play her guitar better.  But Samar, who is perhaps more taken with her already, tells her that he doesn't want her money.  Instead, he tells her that he'll teach her for free, BUT that she's going to have to trust him, because, he's going to teach her to play more than just the notes.  And he does ... and in the course of those lessons that involve far more than just guitar playing (but emphatically _not_ "simply hopping into bed together" that _again_ would be way too "easy") she does both begin to find herself, and yes, fall for him.

But, of course, the two are not of the same _class_ (not necessarily caste but class is the issue here).  And Meera's dad (remember, he's getting himself ready for a traditional Indian style retirement and so has to get all his loose ends together) has de facto _arranged_ a nice marriage for his daughter to a nice, good-looking. responsible and almost certainly to be successful English-boy Meera's age named Roger (played by Jay Conroy).  What to do?  Pick the almost certainly to be successful English "hunk" named Roger, or the smiling, hardworking and charming Samar who's dirt poor and actually lives with a similarly dirt-poor Pakistani room-mate (played by Sharib Hashmi)?

Asking Sir Jesus to help her to "do the right thing" and follow her father's wishes, she promises to not get further involved with Samar.  BUT, of course, she _can't_ keep that promise. ;-)

Then when she definitively realizes that she can't be without Samar (and tells him that) Samar kisses her and drives off on his motorcycle ONLY TO GET INVOLVED IN AN ACCIDENT RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF HER.  She drops to her knees ... and promises Sir Jesus if he spares Samar his life that she'll _never see him again_.  Samar lives ...  4 days later, Meera comes over to the hospital to tell Samar (who's very happy to see her ...) to tell him that she prayed for his life ... and ... since he has it back, she now must never see him again AND SO LONG AS SHE NEVER SEES HIM AGAIN, HE'LL BE "OKAY."  Readers, do you now understand _why_ Samar could take a job like a "bomb diffusing expert" and NEVER wear any protective gear?  (So long as he never saw Meera, he would live, but without her he just wanted to die...)

Now that's ONE HECK OF A MESSED-UP / "IMPOSSIBLE" ROMANCE.  And certainly, the _young_ currently 20-something Akira, reading this Samar's sad story is REALLY, REALLY IMPRESSED.  So she asks her boss to allow her to make a story about "The Man Who Can Not Die" ... and much, much still ensues.

It's a Bollywood movie so all has to end well.  Even (and thankfully) Meera's somewhat messed-up theology gets fixed (why would "Sir Jesus" keep Samar alive only to keep him apart from her???) But much still happens and even the more or less inevitable evolving love triangle -- involving Samar, Meera and Akira -- gets resolved, in interestingly enough, a definitely an "Eastern" sort of way ;-).

It does make for a great and grand love story and yes I'm _not_ at all surprised that Meera and later Akira would find Samar (and his life) so fascinating.  For life is, indeed, more than just "hitting the right notes."

All in all a Great story and great job! ;-)

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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Hitchcock [2012]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Hitchcock (directed by Sasha Gervasi, screenplay by John J. McLaughlin, based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho [1990] by Stephen Rebello) definitely has its moments.

The beginning sequence where the character Alfred Hitchcock [IMDb] (played marvelously here by Anthony Hopkins) introduces himself to the audience is just great -- both shocking and funny -- exactly what one imagines the famous director to have been like.  And Hopkins does not let up, giving a great performance and probably one of the funniest/most enjoyable to watch (and probably to have played) of his entire career.

Similarly, Helen Mirren does an outstanding job playing Hitchcock's wife Alma who both had a life/career of her own and (as the viewer sees....) had to put-up with quite a bit of annoyances, some frankly a bit creepy (Parents take note ... I would have preferred honestly an "R" rating to "PG-13" for the film), being married to in her own words (with appropriate half-playful/half-serious inflection to be imagined here by the reader) "the great Alfred Hitchcock."

Even Scarlet Johansson gives a stellar performance as Janet Leigh [IMDb] who played the key role of Marion Crane the "wayward secretary" murdered by the "psycho" Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's famous film.  In Hitchcock's Psycho [1960], Marion Crane was simply a "striking" (and to Hitchcock and much of late-1950s Hollywood, "striking" meant "young, voluptuous and blonde") but "bad" woman who the script leads to a very, very _bad end_.  Yet Johansson's Janet Leigh reminds the viewer that Leigh (in contrast to Marion Crane) was far more than a "fattened calf led to slaughter." Leigh who played the "bad" Marion Crane who was murdered in the shower by Norman Bates was _actually_ a wife and mother concerned actually about how her role would look _not merely_ to "movie audiences" but to her family and especially to her kids.  It all kinda makes the famous shower/murder scene in Psycho feel a bit different.  Yet, Janet Leigh was _not merely_ a wife/mother.  She was _also_ a professional actress.  As I write this, I find myself actually _in awe_ of Scarlet Johanssen's performance, even if it was supporting to Mirren's and Hopkins'.

Yet, despite these three outstanding performances -- and one could add James D'Arcy's admittedly rather small role in this film (but again IMHO _flawlessly_ executed) of playing Anthony Perkins [IMDb] (who played Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho) -- this film about Hitchcock making his famous film still feels strikingly _flat_.

How could it be that _so many_ individual performances in this film would be _so good_ and yet the final product be soooo ... mediocre?  Blame it on the direction, blame it on the editing or on the script.  But it's honestly a shame.  Both the idea for the film and the individual performances were just great.  Yet this would seem to be one film that just did not come together.  And that deserves one big sigh ...

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Life of Pi [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Life of Pi (directed by Ang Lee, screenplay by David Magee based on the best selling novel by the same name by Yann Martel [IMDb]) is certain to garner various nominations come Awards season at the end of the year including nominations for best picture, best director, best cinematography and best adapted screenplay.

The film is about Pi Patel (played by Irrfan Khan) recalling to a Canadian writer (played by Rafe Spall) the story of arrival in Canada from his native India via shipwreck at sea a story that the Canadian writer has been told will "make him believe in God."

Here readers of this blog ought to understand that the faith in God being offered is of a distinctly modern Indian / East Asian variety, one that Western Christians/Catholics of a more traditional bent would initially have difficulty in understanding.  Why?  Well India is a civilization with roots as old those of ancient Mesopotamia / Egypt (out of which the Abrahamic religions, including our own, came) and certainly older than those of Greece and Rome.  So anyone who's ever been friends with folks from India would know any discussion that does not give due respect to India's cultural (and therefore, in good part, religious) heritage is largely pointless.  Many/most Indians that the Westerner would meet in the West will simply dismiss the Westerner unless such respect is given.

So how does one talk to an Indian (or more generally East Asian) about religion?  (1) Honestly, ask an Indian (and even Indian Christian/Catholic, there are tens of millions of them, probably 1-2 families in your own parish, even if also spread over a land/cultural landscape of over a 1 billion people), and (2) Very much along the lines of the presentation in this film/book.  That is, one which cedes a relative equivalence of religious traditions that many Westerners would be (at least initially) surprised/uncomfortable with.  Welcome to a world of 8 billion people and even to the world that even Pope John Paul II knew quite well and _encouraged_ Catholics to engage in (JP II made _many_ references during his pontificate to St. Paul's preaching at the Aeropagus in Athens, Greece in the time of the Early Church and _encouraged us_ to do the same).  

So then Pi first tells the Canadian writer of his encounters with God in India as a child, saying that he first encountered God in the Hindu conception adding: "Well there are 30 million of them in the Hindu religion, so you're bound to run into a few of them eventually." :-) And he added, "They were the Superheroes of my youth." He then talks of his encounter with the Christian God _in the Catholic conception_ with a kind Indian Catholic priest explaining to him the central mystery of the Christian conception: "That God [TM] so loved the world that he _chose_ to give his Son for our salvation" (so that we could return to be in communion with him) (cf. John 3:16).  Like so many others of us who've ever reflected on the question, Pi wonders "Why would God do that? Give his only and _innocent_ son for us (the guilty)?"  And the Catholic priest answers in the most Orthodox of answers (across all times and ages) "out of love for us."  And Pi was impressed.  Finally, Pi also told the Canadian writer that he was also impressed with the Muslim tradition of _submission to God_ saying that he when he was kneeling down on his prayer rug saying his prayers (in the direction of Mecca no doubt) he felt that the ground below him was for that instant made holy (that in his submission to God, he was being sanctified).  All these are lovely and edifying insights for us all.  And let us remember that in the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, the Council did declare that the Church "rejects nothing which is true and holy in these [other] religions." (NA#2)

Pi's family ran a zoo in his home town in India.  At some point, when Pi was a teenager, Pi's father for reasons that are not entirely clear (but probably to give his sons a better life) receives permission to emigrate with his family to Canada, and decides to take the zoo's animals with him (to Canada) where they could sell the animals (presumably at a higher price).   During the course of the ocean voyage, the ship sinks in a storm, and after the storm clears, all who survived the storm is the (vegetarian) teenage Pi and ... a (flesh eating) bengali tiger ... in a lifeboat in the middle of a trackless ocean.   Much ensues ...

Remember that the promise of the story is that at the end of it, one's invited to believe in God.  Does it work?  I'll leave it to the viewers of the film to decide, but I will say that I have previously used a similar appeal in my preaching, at house blessing and in the course of marriage prep as well:  Today people are, in fact, able to _choose to believe_ (or to _not believe_) and lead their lives accordingly.  (Hopefully)  it should be clear that I do _choose to believe_ (and I do actually in fair part for the same reason that this story offers... ;-).  But I won't say more here other than say ... if you wish, go see the film ;-)

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

This Must Be The Place [2012]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

The first thing that I would ask viewers, both American and non, of This Must be the Place (directed and cowritten by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino along with Umberto Contarello) is whether they buy the film's premise.  The film, the director's first written and performed in English, which was released in Europe 6 months ago (in time for this year's Cannes Film Festival) and has received wide critical acclaim over there, will probably initially surprise many American viewers.

The film is about a 40-50 something year-old 70s-80s era American rock-star named Cheyenne (played by Sean Penn) who made a career of writing/performing really soul-searching/depressing songs (others have noted that the character appears to be principally inspired by Robert Smith of The Cure) now living in retirement (arguably in suspended animation) in a palatial estate at the outskirts of Dublin, Ireland.   Cheyenne's wildly rich, but it's clear as day that the money didn't exactly bring him happiness in any conventional sense.  His circle of friends include simply his wife of 35 years Jane (played by Frances McDormand) who he clearly loves and loves him (and was perhaps "the one groupie who actually understood him"), a 20 something neighbor named Mary (played by Eve Hewson) and a nameless coffee shop waiter that Cheyenne keeps trying to set Mary up with (who she, of course, finds boring...).

Now a question could be asked here: Should one really be surprised at Cheyenne's style of life?  In the United States we often imagine the lifestyles of the "rich and famous" to be necessarily exotic.  It's perhaps difficult for us to imagine the lifestyle of a "rich and famous" artist to be ... poor.   Yet, if we are able to scratch below the surface it should become clear that this need not be case.

Perhaps when we Americans see a big-haired male musician with makeup we see a "rich man who's made it" and "can do whatever he wants to."  A European, like this film's director Sorrentino, coming from a culture that has had centuries of experience with gifted (and troubled...) writers, artists and musicians may look on the same person and see someone very different instead: Someone like Milos Forman's Amadeus [1984] (Mozart), Franz Kafka, Vincent Van Gogh or even Michelangelo.  And Cheyenne's big hair, loud dress and makeup need not be understood as a sign of "Godlike independence / sovereignty" but rather as a "cover," as an attempt "to hide."

Hide from what?   Well that's the rest of the movie ... And I do believe that Sorentino is on to something and it makes sense.  Without giving much away here, I simply remember that two of the musicians that I most admired when I was in my late teens / twenties were Pete Townsend of The Who and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.  BOTH lost fathers as children during World War II and both devoted entire albums, Tommy and The Wall, to the experience.  It turns out that Cheyenne's childhood is linked to that experience, if also differently, as well.

It all makes for a fascinating movie and touches on two insights that I've had in my pastoral work over the years, and that I've written about here before:

(1) When someone looks or acts "strange" there's generally a story behind it.  It's an easy temptation to simply dismiss someone or insult someone as being "stupid," "crazy" etc.  But after lazily putting down the person, then what?  Even if one's right, the far more challenging part is discerning why, and when reaches the end of the process, one almost always feels really, really sorry for having initially put that person down.  A great film that I've previously reviewed here that hits on exactly this theme is Rid of Me [2011] about a young woman who goes through a really really dark period after having been abandoned by her husband.  To onlookers, she would have looked "really, really dark/strange," but if they knew the story, and ...

(2) One of the true horrors of "macro tragedies" like wars is that these tragedies just add another layer of hardship/difficulty to already difficult lives.  One would have imagined that Cheyenne would have had a tough time of it with life even if he didn't have to at least partially carry the burdens added by his father's tragedies.  An excellent film that touched on this theme of how "macro difficulties" just add more layers to already individually difficult lives was the Spanish film Biutiful [2010] in which the principal protagonist was not merely living in the shadows of society as an undocumented alien in Spain but also found himself dying of cancer and worrying about how his troubled wife was going to be able to take care of their kids after he dies ... The having terminal cancer and wondering how his young family was going to deal with his departure would have seemed difficult enough.  To have to worry about all this while living at the shadows of society to begin with made the situation all the worse.

So one looks at someone like Cheyenne with his aging sad face, big hair and make-up and perhaps ... after seeing a film like this ... begins to understand.  So a great job there on the part of the (Italian) director and (largely American) cast.

However, having written what I have above about the film (and largely positively) I go back to my initial question: Do you (do I) completely buy it?  Is the best way to understand the stories/excesses of the "Rock Gods" of the 60s-90s through the lens of a character like Cheyenne (or real rockers Townsend or Waters mentioned above or even Kurt Cobain of Nirvana)? Or were the vast majority of these "Rock Gods" still basically whiny, arrogant, narcissistic and ultimately hedonistic jerks ...?  And to be honest, I'm _not_ sure.  In any case, it makes for a great discussion piece for those of the "Rock Genenation(s)."

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Anna Karenina [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Anna Karenina [2012] (directed by Joe Wright, screenplay by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel [wikipd] by Leo Tolstoy [IMDb]) will probably irritate _some_ purists.  But as has been the case of the wildly extravagant recent adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes [2009][2011] stories and especially the Three Musketeers [2011] (complete with added "Da Vinci style airships" and "in 3D" no less ... ;-) it's more or less obvious that "purists" are not the intended audience here.  Instead the goal appears to be to re-capture _the original intended audiences_ of these once beloved stories, if not with fidelity to the "letter" of the originals then certainly to their spirit.  So just like The Three Musketeers was originally intended to be a teen-oriented adventure story and so the 2011 film sought _really, really hard_ to re-capture that spirit of _over the top_ adventure, so too, Anna Karenina was originally a novel about young adulthood (both early and late...) set in a milieu every bit as vicious/dangerous as that existing perhaps in today's Gossip Girl [IMDb] ;-). 

In the spirit then of the recent adaptations of Sherlock Holmes and The Three Musketeers [2011], the presentation of Anna Karenina here is _highly stylized_.  Indeed, about half of the current film takes place "on stage."  IMHO the metaphor is _appropriate_ because even as the still quite attractive, late 20-something/early 30-something, though already married with a 8-10 year-old son Anna Karenina [IMDb] (played IMHO superbly by Keira Knightley) (in today's parlance, Anna could have easily been one of the neighbors on Desperate Housewives [IMDb] or, even more to the point, be considered to be a 19th century equivalent of a "MILF" but we get ahead of ourselves...) and her eventual lover, the younger but supremely confident, mid 20s-something, "dashing" Russian cavalry officer Count Vronsky [IMDb] (played again superbly by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) go about their lives and later ... their affair, _it is_ as if parts of their lives become played out "on stage" before their circle of family/friends.  So the stylization, that may irritate some older viewers actually _underlines_ the core of the story taking place.  (So honestly, I thought it was _great_).

How then does the story unfold.  The story begins as the novel with Anna traveling from the "more modern" St. Petersburg to the more traditional Moscow on something of a "rescue mission."  Her brother Prince Stepan "Stiva" Oblonsky [IMDb] (played by a mustached Matthew MacFedyen) had been "caught with the governess" of his children and, needless to say, his wife, the sweet if still from an aristocratic family (though presumable of a somewhat lower rank) Dolly [IMDb] (played by Kelly MacDonald) was upset.  (Apparently the Oblonskys did have something of a predisposition to ... "stray").  Anna came over to reprimand, in as much as she could, her largely incouragable brother and to try to smooth over things with Dolly.  "You have to forgive him." "But how?" "I know it won't be easy, but what else can you do...?"

While Anna is there in Moscow, Anna _also_ has the opportunity to attend the "coming out party" "debutante ball" of Dolly's 18-year old sister Kitty [IMDb] (played by Alicia Vikander and _again_ superbly cast).  When we meet her, Kitty's bubbling with excitement.  This is going to be her big night.  Yet as the night plays out, two things go wrong.  First, a bumbling if certainly utterly sincere (and also significantly older) admirer of Kitty named Levin [IMDb] (played by Domhnall Gleeson) comes over to her and _just before_ the ball is about to start _proposes to her_.  "Oh why, why him and why now...?" ;-)  Flustered and still trying to focus on what she believed was going to be _the beginning of her adult life_ she has to tell him "no" (crushing him of course) and then _refocus_ on the evening to come.

But the rest of the evening doesn't go well.  Kitty has had a crush on the previously mentioned "dashing" young mid-20 something Count Vronsky [IMDb], who _is_ dutifully attending "the ball."  Why?  Because it's a "big social occasion."  HOWEVER (and perhaps inevitably), for someone like Vronsky, Kitty's "too easy."  Yes, maybe she's "entering into society" that evening and all ... But to him, she's still "just a kid."  WHO he finds _far more attractive_ and _far more challenging_ is ... Anna, who's married, 30-something and really at the ball more or less _by accident_.  But yes, in a somewhat younger "Mrs Robinson" [IMDb] like (if _accidental_) way she _is_ really, really attractive.  So he comes over and asks her to dance ...  and they dance ... and dance ... and pretty soon _everybody else_ (including Kitty ...) _stop dancing_ and just watch them (with increasing scandal...) ... dance.  And all this then comes to be transported to the above mentioned _stage_.

Now Anna's husband, Karenin [IMDb] (played surprisingly but again perfectly for the role by Jude Law) is a _good_ if rigid/proper-to-a-fault man.  (One woman tells Anna of him: "You're married to a Saint.  And we all must cherish him ... for Russia's sake."  What 30 year-old woman would want to hear her husband described (only) in such terms .... ;-).  Throughout the whole of the tale, Karenin is _able_ to _forgive_ (why? because that's what good, proper men do in good society....).   But his rigid propriety renders him increasingly lifeless.  Anna, who didn't exactly search out Vronsky (or anyone else really) to have an affair with, once "involved" becomes increasingly so and comes to simply _hate_ the good if, yes, let's admit it, boring Karenin, her husband.

Those who know something about Sigmund Freud could perhaps appreciate the pre-Freud but now more or less _obvious_ split occurring between the Karenins.  Karenin, the husband, has basically given his lot to the "superego" doing _everything_ that Society wishes him to do.  Anna, instead chooses to follow her "id" choosing the pleasure of being with Vronsky over society's indeed _God's_ demand that, once married, she be with her husband Karenin.  In Freud's model, there's the adult "ego" which seeks (if often not particularly successfully...) to balance the demands of what one _wants to do_ (follow one's "id") with the demands of society/authority demands that one do (follow the "superego")  Here neither is willing to be a true adult here, and ...  

So soon enough, "the lot" of the various characters is cast.  Foregoing whatever else he might be thinking/feeling about all this, Karenin is willing to keep even his unfaithful wife under his wing while Anna increasingly just wants freedom.  The rest of the story plays out from there...
What, indeed, a story!  And for those who'd have any doubts about how it ends, remember that this story was written originally by Tolstoy, not a Hollywood hack.  Tolstoy was an Orthodox Christian mystic at the end of his life.  So God's will / judgement does _definitely_ play out here, if perhaps not in the knee-jerk hammer-over-the-head manner that sometimes we (believer or non) expect or even demand that God's will be expressed ...

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (directed by Bill Condon, screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg based on the Twilight novels by Stephenie Meyer [IMDb]) closes this cinematic telling of the saga.   How does it do?  Well from the sound of the packed audience of viewers that I saw the film with on the night that it opened, it did quite well.

In terms of fireworks, I do think the close of the Harry Potter series (which also split the last book into two films) was certainly more dramatic.  But then it would seem to me that The Twilight Saga was _always_ about a "different kind of drama" than the Harry Potter series was.  Harry Potter was largely about a titanic struggle between good and evil taking place on a parallel supernatural plane where the lowly Harry Potter was going to have a key/dramatic role.

The Twilight Saga was always about a simple teenage girl growing-up/coming into her own/making friends/making her own community in the backwoods of often dreary and certainly rainy/snowy Washington State.  Yes, she discovered a truly _fantastic_ richness (_both_ werewolves and vampires, and even entire cultures/histories supporting them, who would have guessed? ;-) in her seemingly "humble surroundings."  But _none of the main characters_ -- from Bella Swan (played by Kristen Stewart) who starts off as an awkward/klutzy teenager from a small town in the middle of, if not nowhere, than utter "nondescript average-ville" (yes, in the "backwoods" of Washington), to Edward (played by Robert Pattinson) the equally socially awkward vampire from the "Cullen clan" who she falls in love with, to the more jockish Jacob Black (played by Taylor Lautner) descendant of a "shape shifting" Indian tribe that's "always lived in those woods" but again is ultimately nothing to brag about (he's destined to "howl at the moon" like his ancestors always did, knowing the same rocks, same woods, same lakes, same streams as they did as well) -- none of these people was in any world/history altering way "special."  Yes they all had (or came to have) "gifts" / special abilities.  But none of them were known outside their group, and indeed, for various reasons their "gifts" / "special abilities" _had to be hidden_ from the larger world/society.  If Harry Potter was about magic on a _grand scale_, the Twilight Saga was about finding "magic' / "specialness" on a small scale, in those "backwoods" of every day, otherwise _nothing to brag about_, "life." 

So the ending episode, which is largely about Renesmee (played by Mackenzie Foy), Bella and Edward's child (hence "half-human / half-vampire"), while "dramatic" remains so _only_ within Bella / Edward's circle of family and friends.  The humans in the area, including Bella's father, the small town cop, Charlie Swan (played by Billy Burke), don't even know that Renesmee is "half human / half vampire," and the Edward's vampire millieu (that has had to live in the shadows for centuries) comes to understand that this new child _isn't_ going to cause them problems after all.  The story ends up having (arguably / thankfully) _less drama_ than the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner where for the first time in a Hollywood film a young white woman (played by Katherine Houghton) brings a young black man (played by Sidney Poitier) home to meet her parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn).  It would seem, (I hope) that we've made a good deal of progress in this area (even in "the backwoods") since that time.

So honestly my hat off to writer Stephanie Meyer and then the cast and crew of the Twilight series.  You've created and presented a story that's both "Great" and at times "dramatic" and yet whose characters always remain (like most of us) "small."

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Father, Son and Holy Cow (orig. Święta Krowa) [2011]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing* listing

Father, Son and Holy Cow (orig. Święta Krowa) (2011) [IMDb] []* (directed and cowritten by Radek Węgrzyn [IMDb] []* along with Cezary Iber [IMDb] []* and Rogerto Gagnor [IMDb][]*) is a film that one would probably expect to play at a festival like the 24th Polish Film Festival in America/Chicago.  At the surface, it's basically a comedy that takes place in the Polish countryside.  However, as is often the case with seemingly "simple films" like this, there's more going on in the film than may initially meet the eye.

The story is about a late 50-something / early 60-something widower named Bognan (played by Zbigniew Zamachowski [IMDb] []*) who returns to his mother (played by Elżbieta Karkoszka [IMDb] []*) still living in his home town, a small village by the Baltic coast, soon after the death of his wife, Izabela (played by Lucyna Malec [IMDb] []*) presumably of cancer.  Bognan and Izabela had grown-up together in that small town before leaving it for the fame and fortune of the outside world.  Izabela had become an accomplished classical singer, Bognan was her accompanist on the piano.  They had spent much of their adult lives living in Berlin, GERMANY and traveling around Western Europe.  The two had daughter named Anna (played by Agata Buzek [IMDb] []*), who appeared in her late 20s/early 30s, who was following in her parents' footsteps and had become an accomplished classical singer with a (married) lover in Berlin as well.

It's clear that the link to their country past (dare one say "buran" past) was tenuous.  Near the beginning of the film, Bognan arrives in his home town with an urn with his wife's ashes and _disperses_ them, alone, on the beach where the two had spent a good part of their youth, dreaming of getting the heck out of there and on to adventures in the larger world.  So as we watch Bognan disperse his wife's ashes, it's clear that when the two had left their village they didn't merely leave it behind but also largely their faith and the other aspects of their "non-avantguard" past.  But now Izabela had died, and Bognan, not knowing what exactly to do, comes home for a while to reorient himself.

Well mom was ready for him ... with some chores ... ;-).  Among them were fixing the roof on the barn and taking care of the cows.  During the course of his new routine, he comes across a young Paweł (played by Antoni Pawlicki [IMDb] []*) a late-20 something / early 30-something young man (unmarried) who runs the local grocery store and spends his mornings running around the nearby farms collecting the produce for the day (milk, eggs...) that he sells then at his store.  On one hand a happy-go-lucky guy, on the other he seems like a "lost soul" / "walking anachronism" even if he is always full of ideas trying to make his still rather traditional existence more modern and in with the times:  On his van he writes "Pawłowski & Sons" even though there are _no sons_ to speak of, explaining that "it's a marketing ploy" giving people the impression that his business has a future.  Also talking to Bognan, and finding out that he's a musician he tells him that he read somewhere that playing music to cows makes them produce more milk.

Buran thinks Paweł's off his rocker, but depressed himself, he sets up a gramophone and plays Mozart into the the countryside one afternoon.  And low and behold, he finds that his cows _do_ produce more milk, and in particular _one_ cow that he recently bought for his mother produces far and away more than the others.  Paweł comes by the next morning and sees all the milk that Bognan's cows, including the "miracle cow," had produced.  Asks Bognan, what he played.  He answers "Mozart" and thus begins a new marketing gimmick for Paweł as he begins to sell "Mozart's Milk" to the people of the town.  Beyond being a lot of it, the milk is also really, really good!

But the cow begins to mean more to Bognan than just a cow that produces exceptional quantities of exceptionally good milk.  The cow seems kinda temperamental and one afternoon escapes through a hole in the fence (that Bognan hasn't gotten around to fixing...) and so Bognan finds himself chasing said cow, Klara, all over the countryside until ... she leads him to the place where he had dispersed his wife's ashes.  At this point, Bognan becomes convinced that ... this cow ... who he only purchased for his mother after his wife's death is somehow his wife "in another form" (her reincarnation I suppose).  So he starts to treat her well, as if she was his significant other / girlfriend.  And wants, in fact, to hold a "coming out party" with "his cow" for his family and friends.

Well, of course, both traditionalist (and very Catholic) mom and eyes-rolling, very secularist daughter, Anna, with "other issues going on" are appalled.  Bognan's mother tries to get the local priest (played by Andrzej Mastalerz [IMDb] []*) to "do something" about this new found threat that she calls "zoophilia."  To the film's credit, the priest looks like he'd really not like to get involved _but_ his parish _depends_ on "old ladies" like Bognan's mom.  So he trots out there and tries to "do something" even as he knows the situation is absurd and he probably figures that he won't move Bognan anyway.  Indeed, Bognan tells him and other detractors: "There are more things in heaven and on earth than can fit in your (or any) philosophy."  And continues with his project.  For her part, Bognan's daughter, Anna, finding herself pregnant by the married (to another woman) lover that she has, thinks her father has gone nuts, but eyes-rolling, decides to drive-out (from Berlin...) essentially to "assess the damage."

Much then plays out ... Among the things that play out is that the cow becomes much more like (though far differently than Bognan first understood it) to his wife than he had initially thought.  It becomes clear that the cow produced all that milk, surprisingly/uniquely _delicious milk_ and was also so temperamental because ... she was ill.  It turns out that Klara the cow (like Iza his wife who had died) had cancer.  And so Bognan then has to confront the reality of his wife's death in the slide toward death of this cow...

[There is actually a fairly strong hint in the film here that Anna had actually assisted in helping to speed Iza's death much along the line of what the vet was telling Bognan to now do with the cow.  YES assisted suicide is _against_ Catholic teaching ... but then it was also obvious that Bognan, Iza and their daughter Anna had not exactly concerned themselves much with Catholic teaching ... though Bognan's mother certainly did.  The juxtaposition of Klara the cow and Iza, Bognan's wife, becomes an interesting and _not_ altogether straightforward comparison:  When Anna assisted in prematurely bringing about the death of her mother (even at her request) did she treat her mother "with kindness/compassion" or simply "like an animal"...?]  

Finally, there's the inevitable encounter between the simple but happy but also desperately trying not to be obsolete/useless unmarried 20-30 something country bumpkin Pawel, and the eyes-rolling sophisticated 20-30 something unmarried Anna who had gotten pregnant by an already married man who _won't_ marry her.  What's gonna happen there?

Much still ensues ... and without spoiling much, the characters do find a way in the end to patch together the  conflicting strands of tradition and modernity.  Yes, it would appear that "There is more under heaven and earth that can fit under [_any_ one] philosophy ..."

* At the time of the writing of this review, machine translation of the text on links given above appears to work best using the Chrome browser rather than Firefox or MS Explorer.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lincoln [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review
Lincoln (directed by Steven Spielberg screenplay by Tony Kushner based in part on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin) is one of the best American films of the year and will earn a whole host of Oscar nominations including best film, best adapted screenplay (Kushner), best director (Spielberg) and best actor in a leading role (Daniel Day Lewis who plays President Abraham Lincoln [IMDb] in the film) as well as nominations for various other artistic/technical aspects of the film including best makeup, costume design and art direction.

Despite being a historical "biopic" about the towering figure of Abraham Lincoln, the film is IMHO remarkably timely because it's also largely about the "nuts and bolts" of the political process in a democracy.  That is, the film's about the Lincoln Administration's effort in the closing months of the American Civil War (and right after his reelection in 1864) to collect the requisite 2/3 of the votes in the House to pass what became the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which after being ratified by 3/4 of the States came to outlaw slavery in the United States.  And collecting the votes was _not_ an easy task.

Though the Republican Party of the time was abolitionist (indeed largely founded to promote the cause of slavery's abolition) the Democratic Party of the time was "the party of compromise."  Indeed the American Civil War was precipitated by the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States (the first Republican ever to be elected to the office).  And though the Southern States seceded from the Union as a result, Democrats in the still unionist North remained substantially represented in the Congress and they always counseled moderation to end hostilities between the unionist North and the secessionist South and _perhaps_ restore the union afterwards through some sort of a compromise regarding "States' Rights" / Slavery.

With the fortunes of the war (after 3 grinding years) turning decidedly in the North's favor by late 1864, Lincoln won re-election in November 1864 and the balance of power in the U.S. Congress shifted decidedly in the Republicans' favor.  HOWEVER, since there was a fear that the American Civil War may actually end before the inauguration of the new Congress (in February-March 1965) it was decided by the Lincoln Administration to push through the 13th Amendment through Congress _before_ the inauguration of the new Congress.  This meant cutting deals with the Democrats who had in the outgoing Congress enough votes to block the measure.

Thus the Lincoln Administration faced a very similar "vote counting" (and arguably "arm twisting" / "vote buying" ...) challenge that has characterized getting anything done in Congress in the United States over the last 20 or so years. (Indeed a year ago, I reviewed a fascinating documentary called How Democracy Works Now on the contemporary political process in the United States where the overwhelming lesson was that of counting (and more to the point, getting) the votes: "to get anything done in the U.S. Congress today, one has to get 60 votes (out of 100) in the Senate.")   In Lincoln's time, the challenge was getting 2/3 of the votes in the House.

How would one do that?  How would one get members of the opposing party to vote with you?  Well Jesus himself told his disciples: "I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves" (Mt 10:16).  And in the film, Lincoln himself admonished an abolitionist purist (played by Tommy Lee Jones) appalled by his Administration's "vote buying" tactics telling the purist: "A compass is certainly valuable in navigation, but it can only tell one which direction is north.  It can not tell one anything of the mountains, swamps, rivers and gorges that may separate one from one's goal.  So what good is it to head purely in one direction if we only end up in a swamp?"  So basically the film advocates a "whatever it takes" approach (hopefully within reason) to get a noble goal accomplished. (And yes, the opponents of a noble cause can also employ similar tactics to block the effort).

In any case, one gets the sense that resolving even something as unambiguously clear (today) as the question of abolishing slavery was difficult to push through Congress (even _after_ hundreds of thousands of deaths on the battle field in service of resolving the question).  Can we therefore be surprised that our times may be difficult and "full of noise" as well?

Finally, does this film deserve an "R" rating?  To be honest except for a few bad words and a couple of relatively short battle scenes (the story took place in the context of the American Civil War after all) I honestly don't understand why this film got an "R" rating rather than being rated "PG-13."  On the other hand, the dialogue itself is rather complex and I don't think that children younger than 7th or 8th grade would really understand it.  Still, sometimes the rating system doesn't make sense.   So parents, if you have a child who's in junior high or high who's interested in seeing this movie, then please don't hesitate to take him/her to it.  The film is excellent and certainly one of the best of the year.

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Monday, November 12, 2012

The Totentanz. Scenes from the Warsaw Uprising (orig. Taniec śmierci. Sceny z powstania warszawskiego)[2012]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis 4 Stars listing

The Totentanz. Scenes from the Warsaw Uprising (orig. Taniec śmierci. Sceny z powstania warszawskiego) []* [2012] is an excellent historical film that writer/director Leszek Wosiewicz [IMDb] []*) has been taking to various international festivals over the past several years and the writer/director is still tweaking.  He came to the 24th Polish Film Festival in America/Chicago with two versions.  The version that I saw was the one that he took to the 16th Annual Shanghai International Film Festival, which he told us was more technique driven.  A second more character driven version was to be shown here later in the week.

Growing up, I always associated Polish cinema with basically the war, the war being World War II.  And since it took until the fall of Communism in 1989 to begin telling the stories of the war period (and of the subsequent Communist era) in freedom, it was perhaps inevitable that the stories of the past would finally have to come out and explode onscreen in the years following.

So even today it's almost impossible for me to imagine a festival like the 24th Polish Film Festival in America/Chicago to arrive here without a substantial number of films shown still dealing with various aspects of World War II or the subsequent Communist era.  This would seem to me to be simply inevitable, cathartic and over time redemptive.  Life across Eastern Europe (and then Poland in a special way) was simply awful (approaching the very border of "unbearable") from onset of World War II in 1939 (which began with the Nazi _and_ Soviet invasion of Poland) to the fall of Communist totalitarianism fifty years later.

Then among the various massacres, betrayals and tragedies that occurred over the course of those years, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 led by the non-Communist/British leaning Polish "Home Army" of partisans and the subsequent Nazi leveling of the city to cruelly beat down the Poles _one last time_ while the British/Americans found that they could do next to nothing and the Soviet army resting (after a major offensive) on the other side of Vistula River from Warsaw (and thus could have done something) _chose_ to do next to nothing, was a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions.

It is in the truly Apocalypse in the making rubble strewn streets and gutted buildings of Warsaw during the uprising that Leszek Wosiewicz [IMDb] []* tells his story.  And he doesn't pull any punches.  The overwhelming message of this film would seem to be that in wartime "moral clarity" is for simpletons and idiots.  The story is told entirely from the perspectives of the terrified and often pragmatic/scheming civilians hunkering down in the tunnels and basements of Warsaw while the uprising that _they_ didn't call for (but was now being viciously put down) took place all around them.

At the beginning of the film, the 30-something mother of one of the film's principal protagonists declares to the others hiding around her in some basement somewhere in Warsaw that "raped or not raped" she's going to flee the city.  And put the exclamation point on her declaration: "And if you think I'm going to resist (being raped) no I'm not.  For what?  Just to get a bullet in my head?"  Yet, there's her 14-15 year old son Marek (played by Rafał Fudalej []*).  What to do with him?

She tries to dress him as a woman but realizes that this will be hopeless.  The two part with Marek deciding that he's going to try to find his dad who's something of a "big shot" among the resistance leaders somewhere in the center of town.  Trying to reach him is something of a suicide mission, but Marek's mother (played by Małgorzata Sadowska []*) knows that _she can't save him_.  Perhaps (if he can get to him) his father can.  So he and another adolescent boy Tomek, a boy scout (scouts like Tomek had been used by the resistance leaders as message couriers during the uprising) set out to reach the resistance headquarters in the center of town, while Marek's mom sets out to flee the city.

In the course of their journey through mountains of rubble and crushed / gutted buildings with occasional German Stukas bombing overhead, they come across a young woman named Irena (played by Magdalena Cielecka []*) who's about to be hung by a group of terrified Polish civilians who are convinced that she's a German spy.  "Wherever you arrive, the bombs arrive soon afterwards," an angry/terrified middle aged woman in a torn, mud-covered frock accuses her.  The others already have a noose aaround her neck when Marek steps forward and declares that he knows her and that she's innocent.  Actually, he didn't know her at all, but even in the chaos he apparently couldn't bear to watch a small mob of terrified civilians put a young woman to death.

And it turns out that Irena isn't all that innocent.  A lifelong resident of Warsaw, she's nevertheless ethnic German.  But she's looking for her 10 year old half-Polish/half-German son, who apparently is running around as a courier for the resistance as well.  This is because his step-father, lifelong Warsawite and ETHNIC GERMAN AS WELL who Irena had married "to make her son 100% German" ACTUALLY CHOSE TO SIDE WITH THE POLES in the war and as a (now underground) officer in the Polish Army was again a significant member of the resistance.  (Who would have imagined...?)

So she is walking among the rubble-strewn streets and gutted basements of Warsaw looking for her son _playing everybody_ trying to find him and then hoping also to get out of the city (in her case presumably with the German army to whom she feels closer).  It is her "playing" (or "dancing with") everybody (saying what she has to say, doing what she has to do) gives the film its name "Totentanz" / "Taniec śmierty" ("Death Dance").

Much obviously ensues.  How does it turn out?  Well ... guess.

I found the film both jarring and brave and then a reminder that "from a distance" on a nice neat map somewhere war perhaps can make sense.  However from the level at which this film was made, from the perspectives of the civilians trapped in the horror, it honestly made no sense at all. 

* At the time of the writing of this review, machine translation of the text on links given above appears to work best using the Chrome browser rather than Firefox or MS Explorer.

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Lose to Win (orig. Nad Życie) [2012]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing*

Lose to Win (orig. Nad Życie) [IMDb] []*(2012) directed by Anna Plutecka-Mesjasz [IMDb][]* written by Patrycja Nowak [IMDb] []* and Michał Zasowski [IMDb] []* is a truly remarkable/compelling _pro-Life_ biopic (subtitled) about the life and death in 2008 of Polish volleyball star Agata Mróz-Olszewska [PL-orig] [Eng-Trans] that played recently at the the 24th Polish Film Festival in America/Chicago (Nov 2-16, 2012).

Agata Mróz [PL-orig] [Eng-Trans] (played in the film by Olga Bołądź [IMDb] []*) had played on the Polish national women's volleyball team which won the European championships in 2003 and 2004.  She also played professionally (not shown in the film) in both Poland (from 2004-2006) and in Spain (2007) participating on championship teams in both countries.  In 2007, she was forced to quit volleyball due to illness (leukemia).  Shortly afterward, she married her sweetheart Jacek Olszewski (played in the film by Michał Żebrowski [IMDb] []*) back in Poland.  Six months later, while awaiting a donor match for a bone-marrow transplant, the couple announced that they were pregnant.  Here Agata decided to suspend treatment for her leukemia (including the search for a bone marrow transplant) while she sought to bring her child term.  The child, Liliana, was born healthy if prematurely 4 months later.  Immediately afterwards, Agata underwent the requisite chemotheraphy and died a few months later of an infection, despite being in prescribed isolation, while her immune system was recovering from the chemotherapy.

The question that Agata faced when she first found out that she was pregnant was, of course, whether or not to have an abortion.  She was gravely ill, most of the medical team treating her cancer counseled against her suspending treatment to try to bring the child to term.  (And even from the perspective of Catholic teaching, most moralists would take the position that she would have the right to pursue treatment for her cancer even if this would result in the death of the unborn child).

Postponing treatment did put her in significantly greater risk of dieing of leukemia before the child was born.  She died after having given birth to her (healthy if premature) child.  However, she didn't really die as a result of her pregnancy or of her postponing of her cancer treatment.  Instead, she died as a result of an infection that she would have been susceptible to _in any case_ as a result of cancer treatment.  That is, she could have aborted her child and then died of the cancer/infection caused by the treatment _anyway_.  Her legacy now is her child that she did bring to birth, and in their child, Jacek has some lasting remembrance of his/Agata's love.

Agata's case _does_ give us much to think about:  If one is staring at death anyway, why not take the chance of leaving something that would survive us after we're gone.  I do think that I understand why she made the brave choice (for the life of her child) that she did.

* At the time of the writing of this review, machine translation of the text on links given above appears to work best using the Chrome browser rather than Firefox or MS Explorer.

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