Monday, December 31, 2012

The Central Park Five [2012]

MPAA (NR)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

In a year of some truly exceptional documentaries including Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, Band of Sisters, Craigslist Joe, Searching for Sugar Man and The Other Dream Team, The Central Park Five (written and directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon) nevertheless has to stand-out in the United States as the most significant (if the most painful) among them.

Why?  Because it is about five teenagers who caught-up in the hysteria following a truly sensational/awful crime -- the 1989 brutal rape of a white female jogger in New York's Central Park (the Central Park Jogger Case) -- ended-up serving years, in one case over a decade of time, for the crime even though the only evidence against them were their videotaped confessions extracted from them (mind you most were 14-15 year olds, the oldest was 16) without the presence of a lawyer.   No DNA from any of them was found on the victim or even at the crime scene and even their own "confessions" were contradictory.  The Prosecutors knew all this and yet ran with the case against these five youths (all Blacks and Hispanics, some who didn't even know each other) anyway.

Was there pressure to quickly solve the case?  Yes.  Were the 5 youths squeaky clean?  No.  They were part of a veritable if impromtu mob of youths that could have numbered as much as several hundred, that did pass through Central Park on that hot summer night, a mob that the five later accused of the rape freely admit to this day did do some pretty awful things.  (One of the five later accused of the rape did say that he saw _someone else_ hit a homeless man over the head with a beer-bottle, etc... But he noted also "we were 14, our jaws were dropped, we were stunned.  You normally don't see those sorts of things ...")

In any case, the whole case was an awful tragedy.  And it can serve as a reminder to young people of two very important lessons: (1) STAY OUT OF TROUBLE.  PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE don't go near it because ONCE YOU ARE "THERE" you could end-up being sucked into and "taking the rap" for things that you honestly did not do.  (2) As in the case of another stunning film based on another true story, Compliance [2012], PLEASE, PLEASE PLEASE KNOW YOUR RIGHTS.  Especially AS A KID, tell the authorities "As a minor, I can't tell or do ANYTHING for you without my parents (all five of the youths involved in this case had parents/families THAT LOVED THEM) or a lawyer present.  I simply can't."

Finally, Prosecutors could save _everybody_ needless heartache by insisting on their own that "Confessions" made without the presence of a Defense Attorney simply be retaken in the presence of one.  If the person really felt remorse/wanted to Confess, he/she would do so AGAIN anyway.  To view at the Justice System as a game would seem to bring-us to this point where we have of one awful tragedy resulting in a second one.  Everybody involved in this case and, indeed, all of society deserved better than this.

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Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Late Quartet [2012]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

A Late Quartet (directed and cowritten by Yaron Zilberman along with Seth Grossman) is a film that I missed the first time it passed through (all too quickly) Chicago and I nearly talked myself out of seeing it this time around (It's playing at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center the week of Christmas-New Years 2012).  But having convinced myself to shell out the $11 to see it (the Gene Siskel Film Center is not cheap...), I'm glad that I did as I'd certainly pick it now as one of the best, most thoughtful movies of the year.  And depending on how Zero Dark Forty turns out to be (that movie isn't playing in Chicago until after the New Year) I may well pick A Late Quartet as the best film of the year.

So what is this film about?  It's a fictional story about a renowned New York based classical string quartet that's been playing together for 25 years.  When the group gets together however to begin practicing for the upcoming season, the group's founder, eldest member (the lead violinist was once his student ...) and still its heart-and-soul, cellist Peter Mitchell (played by Christopher Walken) finds a certain "weakness" in his hands and asks that the group reschedule their practice for later in the week so that he could get this strange problem/sensation checked out by his doctor.  So he goes to the doctor and after only a brief examination (with a subsequent MRI scheduled to confirm it...) he's is told that he's almost certainly experiencing the first stages of Parkinson's Disease.  Though perhaps shocked to hear the doctor's words, Parkinson's, he doesn't contest.  Perhaps he's already suspected ...

The next time the Quartet gets together for their practice, Peter breaks the news to them.  He tells them that he does not expect to be able to play through the next season and even if the drugs he's been prescribed help slowdown/control the onset of the disease, he'd like the next concert (the first of their season) to be his last.

The three others -- first/lead violin Daniel Lerner (played by Mark Ivanhir), and husband and wife, second violin Robert Gelbart (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and viola Juiliette Gelbart (played by Catherine Keener) are shocked.  What will become of their group?  Peter tells them that he thinks that one of his current students Nina Lee could replace him, that she's already worked with the group in the past (Peter had lost his wife about year previous and apparently had taken at least some kind of a break from playing at the time).  But the group still protests.  A new person in the quartet will inevitably change it.

Who doesn't protest all that loudly and, indeed, kinda likes the "possibility of change" taking place is (somewhat inevitably) the second violinist Robert.  He suggests that this could be "the perfect time" for him to begin playing first violin occasionally (with first violinist Daniel playing second at those times...) and perhaps begin the process of having Robert and Daniel sharing each other's roles in the Quartet.  Daniel both a true virtuoso and a perfectionist finds Robert's idea utterly inconceivable ... and terribly ill-timed.  But when would be a good time...?  And so the ball starts rolling ...

Robert's wife Juiliette (as the others) has spent 25 years playing in this Quartet, pretty much her entire adult life and when one thinks about it, actually longer than she's been married to Robert who she met only as a result of their being part of the group.  As a result, Juiliette's instinctive loyalty is actually more for the well-being of the Quartet rather than her husband (who she met only as a result of it).

Both Daniel and Juiliette try to explain to Robert that he's valuable, indeed indispensable to the group as the second violin.  Since they've played so long together, Daniel indeed finds it nearly inconceivable imagining anyone playing "second fiddle" to him other than Robert.  But that's exactly it.  Robert has explained to one-too-many people -- a young flamenco dancer named Pilar (played by Liraz Charhi) who he runs into occasionally while jogging -- his role as "second violin" and would just like to play FIRST violin on occasion ;-).

Add to the mix a 20-something daughter of Robert / Juiliette named Alexandra (played by Imogen Poots) who is more-or-less inevitably also "musically gifted" as her parents but also more-or-less inevitably resentful of them because she's played "second fiddle" to their careers all her life.  All this, of course, this makes for one heck of a set-up for a story!

I found this movie a fascinating study of human dynamics and even actually worthy of reflection in the context of RELIGIOUS (Community) LIFE.   Male Catholic religious communities in particular are often rather small -- 4-5 brothers, priests, friars living and often working together.  For such an arrangement to work well, everyone has to feel valued and in as much as possible everyone is expected to contribute.  Egos have to be supressed at times for the sake of the whole.  But whose egos?  When?  :-)  It's not easy ;-).

So I found this movie to be a remarkable film that is, yes, "about a String Quartet."  But it's really about much more than that.  It's about Life ... Excellent job folks!  Just excellent!

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Parental Guidance [2012]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-I)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review

Parental Guidance (directed by Andy Fickman, screenplay by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse) is a generally very funny, well-written and well-acted family-oriented comedy.  Stars Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, who play the grandparents Arty and Diane Decker to their daughter Alice Simmons's (played by Marisa Tomei) children Harper (played by Bailey Madison), Turner (played by Joshua Rush) and Barker (played by Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), were excellent as was the cast in general. 

I will lodge my oft-repeated complaint that the film was probably overly/needlessly "white."  There was only one black character in the entire film (a police officer who had maybe 2-3 lines) and no Hispanic at all.  Present was a genial though somewhat stereotyped "china-man," Mr Cheng (played by Gette Watanabe) the owner of a somewhat "updated" (Glutin/MSG-free...) Chinese restaurant, who had rather significant if somewhat "minstrel showy" role.  And one of the chief villains in this film still came from the "Cold War shelf" in the form of "Chernobyl red" haired violin instructor "Dr. Schveer" (played by Rhoda Griffis) featuring a Slavic accent that would make Boris Badenov [IMDb] and Natasha of the 1950s-60s era Bullwinkle cartoon proud ... All the "real" characters were, of course ... white.

In their defense, they were funny.  Again, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler have been _among the best_ actors/comedians in our country of a generation.  Aging (as do we all...) they continue to "step-up" and nail their performances.  But entire demographics (half the kids under 17 in the United States are no longer white) were not represented in the film.  And the problem with this did actually play itself out in the theater (in an African American neighborhood in Chicago) where I saw the film.  The film was funny, the audience (almost entirely African American) did laugh and repeatedly throughout the film.  But the theater was 2/3-3/4 empty even though I saw the film at 7:30 PM on a Friday night.  Django next door was packed to the rafters ... One wonders how hard it would have been to write-in a Hispanic, African American or even Filipino family "living next door" ...

All that having been said ... the film was nice and touched gently if also pointedly on family issues that many/most contemporary American families could relate to: Arty and Diane Decker (played by Billy Crystal and Bette Midler respectively) are grandparents living in Fresno, California, who rarely see their grandchildren because of a hurtful / unresolved issue that they've had with their only daughter Alice (played by Marisa Tomei): During Alice's childhood the family had been dominated Arty's "chasing his dream" of becoming a big league baseball radio announcer, "the voice" of the (San Francisco) Giants.

Indeed, the film begins with Arty, now in his 60s, being "let-go" as radio by the minor-league Fresno Grizzlies because, well, he was now ... "too old and out of touch with contemporary realities" in the broadcasting business, having among other things no idea of what Twitter or Facebook were. "I can tweet or even howl if you want to ..." he begs his boss who tells him that he's done.  So much for a dream never realized, one that had required a lot of moving and traveling through various smaller towns and cities all across America, moves that impacted not only him, but also his wife (who didn't mind much) and daughter (who apparently did).

Moving on to the daughter:  When Alice had grown-up, she married and set down roots with her husband Phil (played by Tom Everett Scott) in Atlanta, Georgia (clear across the country ...) and Arty / Diane rarely got to see them.  When in the set-up for the rest of the movie, Alice and Phil are forced to ask Arty and Diane to come over from Fresno to look after their kids for a week while the two take advantage of an opportunity offered by Phil's work to "finally get away, just the two of them" (and Phil's parents were unable to help this time), upon coming to Alice and Phil's home, Diane immediately notices that on the shelf over their fireplace were countless pictures of Alice and Phil and the kids AND PHIL'S PARENTS doing all sorts of stuff and only ONE picture hidden in the back of Arty, Diane and Alice.

Seeing this display and horrified by it, Diane says to Arty: "Arty, you know what we are?  We're 'the other grandparents.'  Our own grandkids have the grandparents that they know, like and do things with (Phil's parents).  And we are 'the other grandparents,' that they put-up with because they don't know us and thus can't like us ... THIS IS OUR CHANCE TO NOT HAVE TO BE "the other grandparents."  And thus the rest of the movie plays out ... and much, often very funny, ensues.

Now remember this is, thankfully, a Hollywood movie ;-).  So while the underlying problem/conflict is identified, the film proceeds gently/kindly to produce a reconciliation (a Happy Ending ;-).  Alice could have been portrayed as being far more bitter and angry than she was portrayed in the film.  And Arty, could have been portrayed as being far more clueless and selfish-to-the-end than he was portrayed.   But if the film-makers chose to do that, this film would not have been nearly as happy / nice as it turned out to be.

So the result is a very, very nice movie (far kinder/gentler than it could have been ...) but also one that invites both parents and adult children (with their own families now) "with eyes to see and ears to hear..." to take the opportunity to reflect on the way things were at home "before" and to seek then an honest (and merciful...) reconciliation.  Over all then, honestly a very good job.  I just wish for the film's own sake that it would not have remained "so white" ...

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Unchained [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Michael Phillips (2 Stars)  Richard Roeper (A)  TheOnion/AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars - yes it's violent but it definitely has a purpose/Prophetic voice)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Michael Phillips' review
Richard Roeper's review
The Onion/AVClub's review

It's probably safe to say that American racists will probably not much like Django Unchained (written and directed by Quentin Tarantino).  With characteristically blunt, often blood-splattering / bone-crushing humor (the film, like his previous Inglorious Basterds [2009] is definitely not for everybody) he and his cast and especially Inglorious Basterds' academy award winner Christoph Waltz go after the actual savagery of America's Original Sin -- racism/slavery.  Yes, this is not a pretty film.  Both African-American director Spike Lee and the CNS/USCCB's media office have definite issues with its violence.  But whereas Quentin Tarantino has produced films with utterly over-the-top blood-splattering violence with no discernible point at all (Kill Bill [2004] comes to mind ...), IMHO at least (and I know there will be people who will disagree with me) he has learned to "tame" / focus that violence in the service of the story/point that he has been trying to make in Inglorious Basterds [2009] and now Django Unchained [2012]: You don't much like the violence of these films?  Well what about the violence of the Holocaust or of Slavery where the "Fuhrers" / Slave Masters could truly do whatever they want?  I get the point.  I'm sure that the vast majority of the viewers of QT's last two films get it as well.  And I'm positive that both Quentin Tarantino and Christoph Waltz understood (and indeed were making) this point too. 

Indeed, Christoph Waltz plays a somewhat "atoning role" as Dr. Schultz a German immigrant dentist who after coming to the United States in the 1840s-50s decided to go into the "bounty hunting" business instead.  Looking for the African-American slave Django (played by Jamie Foxx) who could identify three white brothers wanted for crimes "back east," he "buys" him promising him freedom as soon as the two are able to bring the three brothers to justice "dead or alive" (and it's actually far easier in the bounty hunting business to bring fugitive criminals to justice "dead" than "alive," assuming that they were identified correctly ...).   It's a deal that Django "can't really refuse," but it's better than remaining in chains forever...

But upon hearing of Django's sad story -- that he once had an wife (also an African American slave) named Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington) who was taken away from him (both were sold off to different owners) at the whim of their slave owner -- and no doubt touched by Django's wife's somewhat surprising and evocative German name (she was named Broomhilda because her original slave owners were German, and Broomhilda is derived from the German mythological maiden named Brunhilde who had been saved by Siegfried from the clutches of the, in this case, vengeful Nordic God Wotan), Dr. Schultz decides to help Django.  He tells Django, "As a German, I'm obligated to help a Siegfried recover his Brunhilde."

In doing so, Christoph Waltz plays in this film not merely a "good German," but honestly a "good white person," who sees the crimes against our common humanity perpetrated by members of his (my) own race and seeks to rectify them.  Many depictions of blood splattering violence/vengeance ensue...

What to make of it?  As I've already written above, let's remember the actual blood splattering violence that raced based slavery and a further century of subsequent Jim Crow segregation entailed: An excellent and thoroughly sober, methodical presentation of the horrors of Jim Crow era lynching is presented in the documentary Shadows of the Lynching Tree [2011].  And that violence was real.

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Miserables [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) Michael Philips (1 1/2 Stars)  Richard Roeper (A)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review 
Michael Phillips' review
Richard Roeper's review

Les Miserables (2012) [IMDb] (screenplay and direction by Tom Hopper, adapted from the beloved musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boubil / Jean-Marc Natel (orig. French lyrics), English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer itself based on the novel [IMDb] by Victor Hugo [IMDb] itself adapted to film countless times) is certainly one of the most anticipated English films of the year and of the still young decade.  No pressure ...

How did it do?  I confess that I've never been a Les Mis (musical) fanatic.  I did see the musical a total of one time (though I did like it when I saw it).  I just always found "grand productions" like stage versions of "Les Mis" to be too expensive for my taste.  Add to it, of course, the irony that the story is about desperate people (the title of the original book wasn't "The Miserable" ... for nothing ;-) culminating with an aborted minor idealistic uprising taking place somewhere in the midst of the course of France's tumultuous/revolutionary 19th century.  So the musical always felt rather "petty bourgeoisie" to me: "Those poor people. But weren't actors' voices and costuming/makeup _just remarkable_ ..."

I did however read the novel (_in French_ I might add with some pride. It took me a year, but I did so as I was trying to learn some French while serving in a Caribbean community in Central Florida with a Haitian population).  And I did see a number of the screen adaptations of the film during the course of my lifetime.  My favorite remains a 1995 French version that sets the story in the 20th century during the Nazi era. 

All this is to say that I approach the film-adaptation of the musical knowing that I'm not going to be a typical Les Mis (musical) fan, and so ultimately I'm not going to care if "the version in London/Sydney/New York in 1995" was "so much better than Hopper's movie."  My concern here is "Does Hopper's film do a decent job in adapting the musical to film?"

And here I would have to say that Hopper's "Les Mis" does an ... "okay" if not spectacular job.  On the scale of the _best_ screen adaptations of popular musicals where I'd put Evita [1996] / Hair [1979] and perhaps even Fiddler on the Roof [1971] / Jesus Christ Superstar [1973] at the top (in each case, the film directors were able to effectively transport the audience "there" to wherever the story was taking place) and the film adaptation of Godspell [1973] at the absolute bottom (where the film set largely in a trackless dump/slum _utterly failed to do that_ ...) IMHO this film scores somewhere in the middle: The setting feels "kinda like 19th century France" but not particularly convincingly.  Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette [2006], Martin Scorcese's Hugo [2011] and even the countless other film versions of Les Miserables (the novel), including the most recent American one [1998] which starred Liam Neeson, did a better job with transporting the audience to "19th century France" than Hopper's film did.

Then to his credit Hopper did try to "experiment" with the filming / recording of the musical.  First, he decided to use the conventions of standard film-making in filming this story (which meant filming close-ups of the characters, even as they are singing) rather than pretend the film was still being performed on stage.  Actually though this irritated at least one reviewer of this film, this same technique was used in virtually every other film adaptation of a musical that I can think of.  Part of what transported viewers into 1940s-50s era Argentina in the film version of Evita [1996], for instance, was the camera following Antonio Banderas and Madonna around as they sang their parts.  The same thing could be said of the filming of the characters in Fiddler on the Roof [1971].  Hopper does similarly in this film.

However perhaps the truly novel thing that Hopper did in this film was to choose to record the actors actually singing their parts on the set (accompanied only with a piano playing into ear pieces that they wore) with the rest of the music added only in post production.  The result was to make the singing of the lyrics have the "immediacy" of dialogue.  Yet truthfully from a technical point of view, this technical experiment would have worked better if Hopper would have the hired musical actors from the various stage productions to play the roles in the film rather than Hollywood actors.   This is because the musical actors from the stage productions were certainly hired for those productions, above all, for their voices rather than for their (non-singing) acting ability. In contrast, Hollywood actors don't generally sing for a living...  As such, while one could certainly compensate for the actors' weaknesses through the taking of multiple takes "on set," some of the singing in this film sounded, honestly, somewhat "flat" to me.

So is it a disappointment that Hopper's film adaptation of Les Mis wasn't perfect?  I know that many aficionados will be unhappy with the relative details of the production, though Anne Hatheway will almost certainly be nominated for best supporting actress for her role as the suffering Fantine (and she certainly did nail her signature song in the film).

However, my question would be:  Would Jean Valjean or Cosette or Fantine or even the good Bishop in the story really care if _the musical_ about their _suffering lives_ turned out ... "eh ... somewhat above average?"

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Monday, December 24, 2012

The Impossible [2012]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

The Impossible (directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, screenplay by Sergio G. Sánchez) is certainly one of the best English language movies to be released this year. The film comes from Spain and is based on the true story of a Spanish/Catalan family that had survived 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami while vacationing in Thailand during the Christmas holiday that year.

To perhaps make the film accessible to a larger audience (and hence more profitable... Spain, after all, has been one of the countries most deeply effected by the post-2008/ongoing Euro-Crisis) the decision was made to make the family in the film British and give the lead roles then to well known actors from the U.K. like Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor.  Even if there must have been some sadness on the part of the Spanish film-makers to change the nationality of the protagonists, the change works in the film, in good part because the disaster, at least in Thailand, effected hundreds of thousands of vacationers from all over Europe including ex-pats from Britain.   To perhaps sooth potentially ruffled feathers, the film while premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in Sept 2012, was first opened for wide release in Spain in Oct 2012 before opening-up in North America just before Christmas 2012.

Now an American audience may find the story of European tourists vacationing in Thailand over the Christmas holiday almost impossibly difficult to relate to.  Thailand is, after all, a half a world away from the United States.  Then, honestly, when most Americans think of Christmas, they certainly don't think of Thailand.  However, as I had already noted in my review of the film Best Exotic Marigold Hotel [2012], the "Far East" isn't altogether that far from Europe these days.  Arguably, it would be the same distance from London to Thailand as from London to Miami, Florida.  Then the family in the movie was presented as British ex-pats living in Japan and from Japan, the distance to Thailand becomes on the order of Chicago to Puerto Vayarta or to Cancun, Mexico.  And those are winter time-share vacation destinations for mid-range upper-middle-class American families and even for the Christmas holidays.

However, even if the family in this film initially remains as unrelatable to most Americans as most of the upper-class passengers traveling on the Titanic before it went down, I am more or less certain almost everyone will find the portrayal of the horror of the crashing waves of the Tsunami (about 15 minutes into the movie) and their aftermath to be jaw-droppingly horrifying.  For the Tsunami didn't simply drown people, it threw them around, impaling them against all kinds of random objects, then throwing those objects (trees, branches, metal bars, telephone poles / wires, etc) around as well.

The cinematography is so stunning, so horrifying and so utterly believable that one wonders how anyone finding him/herself swept-up by the Tsunami's waves could have possibly survived.  Afterwards, one honestly marvels how any of the survivors, often wounded, bleeding, covered in mud often mixed with broken rock, ceramic and glass (basically random shrapnel) could ever be found and treated for their wounds.

Even Hurricane Katrina (and more recently Hurricane Sandy...) have proven to be enormously painful disasters for a country as rich and medical resource filled as the United States.  Imagine a hurricane like Katrina striking a much poorer country like Thailand with no warning (none!) at all.  Imagine having to mobilize a response, within hours, to deal with a disaster effecting not only hundreds of thousands of your own people but also hundreds of thousands of dazed, mud-covered, bleeding utterly non-Thai speaking tourists as well. 

It is this chaos that the film captures and captures so well.  Maria (played by Naomi Watts) and Henry (played by Ewan McGregor) were simply there in by the pool at the vacation resort in Thailand with their three kids (the oldest 10 year old Lucas played exquisitely by Tom Holland) where in a split second with the crashing of waves coming from the ocean maybe a hundred yards away, their lives were completely utterly thrown into chaos.  Much of the film involved simply finding groups of each other, then after finding each other seeking to not lose each other again, all taking place in the midst of mud, confusion, and dealing with one's own wounds.

I found this film honestly to be a stunning picture.  Yes very few of us in the States would probably imagine ever traveling to Thailand.  Yet, once the waves start crashing, I do believe that just about all of us could immediately relate to the horror this family and so many others, Thai and non-Thai, like it went through.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

This is 40 [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Michael Phillips' review

I came to the (as it turns out) appropriately R-rated comedy This is 40 (written and directed by Judd Apatow) skeptically and with rather low expectations.  The advertising for the film claimed that it was the "sort of sequel" to Knocked Up [2007].  So far so good, except for the almost "epic" level of drug use by the slacker Seth Rogan character in that film (neither he nor Katherine Heigl's character appear in this one), I generally liked Knocked Up.  (This film is about Katherine Heigl's character's sister, Debbie (played by Leslie Mann) and her family ...).  But I did not like the advertising's claim that this story was not only "their story" -- Debbie's and her husband Pete's (played by Paul Rudd) -- but "everybody's story."  Really?

One criticism already made by the film since its release is that there's not a single black person (or Hispanic) in it, this despite being set in LOS ANGELES...  As obvious as this failing is once one thinks about it, I have to admit that this time I honestly missed this (though those reading my blog would know that I repeatedly point failings like this out, and note it now).

Instead, this time around, my bigger question coming into the film regarded class rather than race because it was more or less obvious to me that Debbie and Pete were living a rather upper middle class lifestyle and hence their preoccupation with "turning 40" seemed to have a positively "petit bourgeoisie" feel to it that I suspect would be irritating to a Family Guy / Everybody Loves Raymond audience.  Thankfully, one of the funniest characters in the film, small as her role may have been, was that played by Melissa McCarthy who plays "Catherine" a more bluecollarish working mom who lets Debbie and Pete "have it" at a conference with the children's school principal after an altercation between Debbie and Catherine's bucktoothed "Tom Petty looking" son.  Catherine's complaints become so over the top that she doesn't stand a chance against the more wily/devious Debbie and Pete, but at least Catherine's voice (and that of an entire class of people behind her) is, indeed, given a chance to be heard.

Finally, both of the reviews in the local Chicago papers that I had read prior to seeing the film expressed concerns about Debbie and Pete's arguments.  One reviewer noted that the arguments were at times so vicious that one was left wishing at some point that the two "just get divorced" (and indeed "for the sake of the children.")  Having seen the movie now, I don't believe that the arguing is as bad as that.  (If you want some real world-class family squabbling, go rent a contemporary East European film (all subtitled) like Poupata (Czech), Dom (Slovak), Chrzest (Polish) or Elena (Russian) (I'm of Czech descent BTW...) where family dynamics are also playing a major role in their films and where the problems/arguments are often much darker/more desperate).  In the case of the current film, This is 40, one is simply compelled to note (and to warn Readers) that like many American comedies these days, there's more to this film than simply "laughs."  There are some rather painful issues being surfaced amidst those laughs, issues that are not all that easy to confront directly (except perhaps with a somewhat nervous smile/laugh).  These include American families' increasing difficulty to maintain the life-style that they had been accustomed to and difficult to resolve issues with one's own parents / families of origin.

So many/most audience members will probably wince at times during this film -- and perhaps start to see why the film makers made the claim that the film is not just Debbie and Pete's story but "everybody's story."  In the couple's arguments as well as their coping with a world of  "ipods" and "facebook" rather than "tree houses" and "LPs" the couple's story becomes probably similar to most of our stories (at least for us "over 40").

So then, how did the film do?  I left the film feeling that it was much better than I expected.  Again, it's not really a comedy, though it does have many very funny moments.  Still I am happy that it was made and despite its rather pristine whiteness and upper-middle-class starting point, I do think that most adult American viewers will understand.

A final note to Parents:  I do believe the film is appropriately rated-R.  It is rather crude at times and contains scenes that would make many/most contemporary American parents wince.  For instance, there is a rather gratuitous scene in the film in which the audience gets to see (from the back) Debbie giving her husband a ... Was it necessary to the plot?  No.  And I'm pretty certain that most parents would probably find the scene wildly inappropriate for their teens.

That said, this would not be a bad film for adults and families with adult/grown children confronting some rather difficult issues to see.

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Starlet [2012]

MPAA (would be R)  Roger Ebert (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Starlet (directed and cowritten by Sean Baker along with Chris Bergogh) is a relatively simple "indie" film about the development of a unlikely friendship between two seemingly "insignificant" / "lost soul" women living in Los Angeles' San Fernando Vally, one named Jane (played by Dree Hemmingway) aged 19 and a recent transplant apparently from "somewhere East," the other an elderly widow and long time resident with a house and a well-tended garden, named Sadie (played by Besedka Johnson). 

We meet Jane (and her pet chihuahua) crashed in the rented home of an apparently recently acquired friend-of-sorts named Melissa (played by Stella Maeve) and Melissa's boyfriend/half-pimp Mickey (named James Ransone).  Mickey and Melissa had an extra room. Jane apparently had no particular place to stay.  M&M apparently could use the extra money.  So ... there ... When Jane eventually wakes-up / gets dressed and asks Melissa if she could decorate her room, she's told that she can't paint the walls because "Mickey may want to film in there sometime ..." but sure that she could buy some nicknacks.  "But don't waste your money buying 'new' at Ikea.  Go to yard-sales instead..."  And that's what Jane, chihuahua in her lap, then purse, then lap again, does ...

One of the yard-sales that she stops at is that being run by Sadie.  Jane sees what she thinks is an urn: "Is this something you put dead people in?"  "No it's not an urn, it's a thermos." "Looks like a vase to me." "Well it's a thermos." "I'm going to put plants in it." "I don't care what you do with it, but remember no refunds."  And so Jane buys a one dollar thermos that she's going to make into a vase.

When she gets home with thermos/vase and some flowers that she's going to put in it, she finds that she has trouble putting the flowers in.  When she dumps-out the contents of this thermos/vase, she finds that inside were several roles of $100 bills -- $5,000 worth.  She asks her friend Melissa what she should do if she "found money that she's not sure that the person who lost the money knew even she had."  Melissa asks how much money she's talking about.  Jane answers ... "about $5,000."  Melissa tells her that she should try to give it back.

So that is what Jane tries to do.  She tries to return the vase/thermos.  Except that Sadie is adamant "NO REFUNDS."  What then to do?

Jane seems to have a lot of time.  Yes, she does spend some of the money on herself, buying a better used car and some random (and not particularly high end) clothes.

But she feels guilty.  So she stakes-out Sadie's house and follows her when she calls a taxi and goes to the supermarket.  There, while Sadie is in the supermarket, Jane pays the taxi-driver his fee and waits for Sadie to finish shopping.  When Sadie comes out of the store and looks confused because her taxi (that she had instructed to stay) seems to have driven away, Jane reintroduces herself, "Hi, gee what a surprise ... aren't you the lady that I bought that thermos from?"  "Yes." Sadie looks around for the taxi.  "Are you looking for someone?" "For my taxi." "Where? There's none here.  Maybe he drove off.  Maybe I could give you a ride." (yes the dialogue in the film is often about that simple ;-).  Sadie looks at Jane with natural distrust and initially refuses.  But her home is too far away to walk to with her groceries in hand.  So she finally accepts Jane's offer.

On the way home Jane plies her for information.  "What do you do for fun?" "Fun?  I'm old.  I don't do much for fun.  I play bingo at St. Ann's every week.  That's what I do for fun."  Guess where Jane shows up the next time it's Bingo night at St. Ann's?   What would you do if you suddenly had a somewhat nondescript young woman apparently suddenly stalking you, especially if you were a bit on the older side?  Sadie screams and calls for the cops.

But Jane doesn't seem to have any particular record and seems innocent/sincere enough.  So the cops don't even take her in.  And Sadie's response was more reflexive ("That's what you do if you're old and someone young suddenly seems to be unduly interested in you.")  Since Jane no longer seemed to be an obvious threat to her, Sadie decides to let Jane into her life a bit.  In particular, she asks Jane to take her to the cemetery to the grave of her husband one day.  In the course of the conversation, Jane finds that Sadie's husband had been something of a gambler, and that Sadie, though never rich, felt that her husband had left her with enough money to be comfortable.  (Could this also explain that vase full of $100 bills? ...)  But Sadie's also getting older, and living alone (and tending her garden) is, despite her protests to the contrary, becoming harder.

The film proceeds from there.  And one of the nice aspects of the film is that it remains "feeling real."  The two don't become "best friends."  Throughout the film, Sadie keeps a distance.  Further, we find what we always probably suspected: Jane has "all that time" for a reason.  She's a prostitute, well, "in porn," which when one is honest about it, is basically the same thing (okay the immediate "client list" is much more selective but the audience becomes arguably infinitely larger and it's all done with money in mind).

Now Jane's not heavily into this work.  She's not heavily into anything.  But getting filmed having sex with other good looking porn stars is how she's been making her money.  (The film makes it clear that this is what Jane does for a living and even follows her to a "shoot" one day.  However, it does not "go to town" with it.  The shots are taken in such a way that the audience knows exactly what's going on, without actually showing a few very brief shots of nudity).  And at some point, Sadie does ask Jane if she has a boyfriend and after Jane answers that her work doesn't "really allow it," Sadie looks at her and responds knowingly: "Well you do seem to have a lot of time..."

 How does this movie resolve itself?  I'm not going to say ;-).   But while it should be clear by now that it is obviously not for minors, it is a gentle story.  And we do come to understand why both characters did come to choose to become friends.

Now why review a movie about arguably a prostitute?  Well, nothing is new under the sun.  A generation ago, the film that made actress Julia Roberts' career was Pretty Woman where she played ... a prostitute.  And then from the time of Rahab the Harlot who helped the Israelites take Jericho during the Conquest of the Promised Land [Joshua 2:1] (and is one of four women, all with rather "scandalous backgrounds" who are found in Jesus' geneology [Matthew 1:1-25] proclaimed each year at the 1st Vigil Mass for Christmas), the Bible truthful as it is, is matter of fact about prostitution:  It exists, it is always considered sinful but prostitutes themselves (like other seemingly obvious sinners) are often presented with compassion.  Jesus himself was accused of cavorting with "tax collectors and prostitutes."

So this is a gentle movie that reminds us that all of us (including the people we don't particularly understand ... or even like) are more than simply our failings or sins.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

The Guilt Trip [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review

The Guilt Trip (directed by Anne Fletcher, screenplay by Dan Fogelman) is lovely if not particularly about a somewhat dysfunctional (smothering...) mother / son relationship.  Yes, it's formulaic.  Yes, it's not going to be considered "oscar" material, though I do believe that both Barbara Straisand who played the lovingly smothering mother and Seth Rogan who played her exasperated but also "clay-footed" (with his own limits/failings) son, certainly "stepped-up" in approaching their roles and, indeed, shined.

This is honestly a film with a universal theme that is also very, very safe.  As such, I'd certainly recommend it to multi-generational families (parents with adult children and perhaps even some grandchildren) that may be "looking for something to do" some afternoon or evening during the coming weeks while celebrating the Christmas and New Years' Holidays.

The beginning sequence sets up the film beautifully:  Los Angelelino son, Andrew Brewster (played by Seth Rogan) is woken-up simultanously by his alarm clock and his mother leaving a message on his cellphone (set to vibrate ...) because, well ... she's forgotten (and apologizes during the course of her message...) that it may be 8:45 AM back in her New Jersey but ... 5:45 in L.A. ... Between his getting-up and getting to his meeting with representatives for K-Mart, he receieves 3 other messages ... all loving, all sincere, all wonderfully supportive.   He dutifully listens to them all ... and deletes them one-by-one as soon as they finish (sometimes the instant they finish ...).  He steps into the meeting with the reps from K-mart, begins his pitch for the product that he is selling ... and we, the audience, instantly appreciate another aspect of the story that's going to unfold.

This is a lovely and gentle movie about reality ... and the people we share it with (at times, whether we like it or not ... ;-).  As such, honestly GREAT JOB ... even if neither of the two leads are going to get recognized (much) come awards season ...

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Well Digger's Daughter (orig. La Fille du Puisatier) [2011]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

The Well Digger's Daughter (orig. La Fille du Puisatier) screenplay/directed by Daniel Auteuil based on the novel and 1940 film by Marcel Pagnol [IMDb] is a film-lover's movie.  French language/English subtitled, the story is set in rural Provence (southeastern France) at the onset World War I.  As has often been the case with French films recalling the era, just about every single shot in the film could have been the subject of a painting by one-or-another of the French Impressionists [Galleries].  Due to the film's "Provençal location" the film's shots probably most resemble the works of Camille Pissarro [Galleries] and especially Paul Cézanne [Gallery]). 

The film then concerns itself with a typically French theme of the era, class differences.  Contemporary viewers will certainly notice this but will also be immediately aware of the era's gender dynamics (very different from today) and even discern a surprising (and perhaps utterly unintentional but IMHO very interesting) pro-Life message.  So a Catholic family watching this film would actually get quite a lot out of it ;-)

How then does the story set itself up?  Eighteen year old Patricia Amoretti (played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey who younger American viewers may recognize as "the mermaid" of the last Pirates of the Caribbean [2011] movie) is the oldest of five daughters of a lowly well-digger and widower named Pascal Amoretti (played by the film's director Daniel Auteuil).  Since she was the oldest of five daughters (no sons) in the Amoretti clan, she had actually been raised away at a convent school relatively far away after a lady of some means had passed through the town when she was younger and had felt sorry for the family's "misfortune" of having so many girls.  Patricia away at that convent school meant one less burden / one less mouth to feed in the Amoretti household.  But alas Patricia's mother died and so Patricia, the oldest daughter had to return to help raise her younger sisters ...

We meet Patricia carrying lunch to her father and his assistant, Félipe Rembert (played by Kad Merad), who are working to clean a well somewhere far outside of town.  I suppose noting Félipe's last name is important here because it can serve to indicate that while Félipe is Pascal's assistant, he's "not a child," indeed appears to be far closer in age to Pascal than to Patricia...

Anyway, on her way to bring lunch to her father and Félipe, Patricia runs into another, younger, man named Jacques Mazel (played by Nicolas Duvauchelle).  He too is older than Patricia, but far closer to her age.  He's the grown son of M. and Mme. Mazel (played by Jean-Pierre Darrourssin and Sabine Azéma respectively), the owners of the mercantile shop "in town," and it appears that he's just outdoors relaxing under a tree by a stream because, well, he has the time / leisure to do so.  Good looking, suave, "dashing," we find out later that he was back home "on leave" from the air corps.

Jacques is certainly genereoux in helping Patricia to cross the stream without getting her feet wet.  Patricia didn't exactly want his help, but it did save her the hassle of unlacing her rather complicated late 19th century/early 20th century shoes, crossing the stream, barefoot, herself (carrying both shoes and stew across the stream) and then putting on and lacing-up the shoes again.  So the thus two "meet," not exactly by choice or "on equal footing..." But the help in crossing the stream both on her way to her father's work and back (Jacques, again, on leave with apparently "all the time in the world" ... perhaps made it a point to stay around the stream long enough to conveniently help Patricia cross the stream again on her way home ...) proved to be at least a time-saver for Patricia as well.

Tres bien ... That evening, back at Pascal Amoretti's home, Félipe talks to Pascal knowing that Pascal is worried about "marrying-off" all these daughters of his and asks if it'd be okay to take Patricia out on a date.  He had just bought an (old) car and has tickets for a nearby airshow.  Pascal's known him for years.  He knows that his intentions are honorable and, well, if things went well, then Patricia would come to have a husband of at least the same economic stature as her father.  Pascal gives Félipe permission to talk to his daughter.  She accepts if not particularly enthusiastically (again Félipe is significantly older than she is) but at least he is "a nice guy."  Patricia's next oldest sister Amanda (played by Emilie Cazenave) noticing Patricia's lack of enthusiasm tells her later that evening: "When you let Félipe down, do so gently because I kinda like him."

So the next day Félipe comes over to the Amoretti house with his nice used car and takes Patricia to the airshow.  Guess who is the show's Star...?  Félipe, who doesn't know that Patricia had met Jacques the other day at the stream while carrying that lunch for him and her father, reintroduces the two of them at the air show.  Smiling, debonaire, Jacques looks even better in his uniform... After the show, poor Félipe takes Patricia back to town to a café.  Very nice, but on the way back from the café,  he can't get his car started.  Who comes by?  Jacques on a motorbike.  Poor Félipe asks his friend Jacques to take Patricia home.  Smiling Jacques, goggles on, wind blowing in his face, Patricia with her arms around his chest ... takes the long way home.  They watch a nice sunset by a small lake ... He drops her off, asks her to meet him the next by a Church...

When he comes home however, Jacques finds that the French army needs him to leave immediately, at that time for Africa, but the first scents of War are appearing.  In anycase, he doesn't make it to the Church.  He's already gone but leaves his mother with a letter to deliver to Patricia.  Mme. Mezal takes one look at Patricia standing by that Church and sees simply a fair-looking girl of modest means who's probably trying to take advantage of her son and never introduces herself to her or deliver his note.

This then is the setup to the rest of the story.  As the reader here would probably guess, Jacques and Patricia did a bit more out there at that beautiful lakeside than watch the sunset...  Patricia soon finds that she's pregnant.  What to do?  Pascal Amoretti dresses himself and his five daughters including Patricia up and takes them to town to the Mezals.  Of course, the Mezals play dumb.  "How do we know that Patricia's child is Jacques'?  If we had to count every two bit girl in this region that's tried to hit on our good-looking son with an eye on our family's money... Don't get us wrong, we feel (a bit) sorry for you, but we don't believe you.  And we're not going to bother our son with this, who, by the way, is now off at war defending France ..."

On the way home, Pascal tells Patricia to pack her bags and go to his sister's: "She did silly things too when she was young ..."  She packs her bags and leaves the next day...  And at that time one would have expected that this would have been largely the end of Patricia's story.

BUT ... the story does continue...  Sometime the following year, poor ole Félipe comes back from the front.  Yes, he was close to something like 40 years old, but World War I was a war for national survival for France, so even someone like him was fighting.  Together with Amanda, he goes to visit Patricia.  And they come back home to Pascal to tell him that she has had her child.  Pascal initially doesn't want to hear anything about it.  She's dead to him.  BUT ... they tell him that SHE'S HAD A SON.  "So what?  He's a b... afterall."  BUT ... precisely because he's a b..., guess what BY LAW has to be his last name?  Amoretti.  Pascal, who had previously "mourned" his "misfortune" of having only daughters and thus not being able to pass on his name NOW, by the "misfortune" of his eldest daughter getting pregnant out of wedlock GETS TO PASS ON HIS NAME BY WAY OF HIS GRANDSON ;-)

So a few days later, there's Pascal with Amanda and Félipe heading off to see Patricia and her toddler son.  And Pascal now takes her and his grandson home.

BUT ... the story goes on.  Some months later, the Mezals come calling.  It turns out that their son Jacques had been shot down over the battlefield and the report was that his plane crashed in flames presumably killing him.  NOW THE ONLY THING THAT THEY HAVE LEFT OF JACQUES is HIS and Patricia's child.  So they come "hat in hand" to apologize to Patricia and Pascal and offering to help in his upbringing.  Initially Pascal tells them "we don't need your help."  But they really do.

FINALLY, it ends even better than that.  How?  I've written out already enough of the story, so I'll leave at least that point for some suspense...

WHAT I REALLY LIKED ABOUT THIS MOVIE besides the beautiful scenery and good-ole fashioned film-making, was its surprisingly Pro-Life message here.  Today in similar circumstances, a lot of Patricias would have gotten abortions.  Yet that utterly unplanned child actually helped two families.  Pascal finally got a grandson and a means to pass on his name.  And through this child, Jacques left his own parents someone after him.

The scenario recalls a similar scenario that played out in an American film, The Cider House Rules [1999], set in the context of World War II.  In that movie, a young adult couple finding itself facing an unplanned pregnancy, had searched out a doctor to perform an abortion.  After his fiancee had the abortion, the boyfriend went off to war only to return sometime later in a wheelchair.  The child that the couple had aborted would have been their only child ...

So inconvenient "unplanned pregnancies" can have their purpose.  In this French film, we see a pregnancy that was initially considered a "disaster" by just about everyone becomes the vehicle that fulfilled the highest aspirations of just about everyone.  What a nice (and surprising) message!

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Generation P (orig. Generation П) [2011]

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

IMDb listing listing [Eng Trans]
Roger Ebert's review

Generation P (orig. Generation П) [IMDb] [] [ Trans] directed by Victor Ginzberg [IMDb] [] [ Trans] is a Russian language (here English subtitled) comedy based on the 1999 Russian cult novel by Victor Pelevin by the same name published in English translation under the title Homo Zapiens.  Set in the 1990s during the Yeltsin Era in the decade after the fall of Communism in Russia, the film's (and presumably the book's) style reminds me very much of '60s American/English "counter-cultural" classics like Clockwork Orange (book / film) or Catch 22 (book / film).

The story is about 30-something Moscovite Babylen Tatarsky (played by Vladimir Epifantev [IMDb]).  He  explains that his name came from his parents' creative conflation of Babi Yar with Lenin (though the obvious play on the "Tower of Babel" /  "Babylon" becomes increasingly important as the story progresses).  At the beginning of the film, Babilen narrates to the audience that he had gotten a degree "in poetry" during the Communist Era. With the fall of the Communists, however, he could no longer find a sustainable job "as a poet," and given that "he didn't have any connections" he got the only job that he could get at the time -- working in a Kiosk for a "Chechen" (read basically "Mafioso...") boss.  In 1990s Moscow, a Kiosk was basically one of multitudes of 10 ft by 10 ft wooden boxes standing along busy city streets, each kiosk with a metal mesh security window through which one transacted money for cigarettes, newspapers and other nicknacks.  Babilen noted that his human contact during that time would basically be glimpsing the hands feeding him the money for the nicknacks that he was selling.  And he noted also that he soon "became proficient at his job, knowing from that glimpse of each customer's hand exactly how much [he] could shortchange him ... ;-)"  It was not much of a life but it did pay the bills...

However, Babilen did get a break afterall.  Leonid (played by Mikhail Efremov) a friend from university days, recognized Babilen's voice even if Babilen would not necessarily have recognized his hand ... ;-) ... and knowing Babilen was a "wordsmith" offered him a job where he had found work -- in still nascent but increasingly important world of Russian advertising.  Why would advertising be a burgeon field in the years following the fall of Communism in Russia?  Well, as Leonid explained to Babilen a "flood" of Western products was about to arrive in Russia but Russians would have to be introduced to them using Russian cultural syntax/symbols.  (Perhaps who better than a "poet" could do this kind of work ...).

So a good part of the rest of the movie becomes Babilen and his colleagues seeking to "translate" American/Western products into the Russian cultural context with much humor, often (and I know it's fair, but one also winces at times...) at Westerners expense.  For instance, Babilen is given the task of writing an ad for British "Parliament" cigarettes.  Playing around with the white rectangular box with a picture of the British Westminster parliament building on it, he comes up with a the idea of making the box of cigarettes rise up out of the ground like the giant, white (and recently smoldering...) Russian Parliament building (because Yeltsin had famously come to bomb it) with the slogan "Support Democracy, Support the Rule of Law, Support your Parliaments."  You get the picture ...

In perhaps the most appalling case (to us Americans, but honestly, I do understand why it would probably be funny in Russia), the team at the ad agency where Babilen worked is given the task of writing an ad for Nike (an American company making shoes in Vietnam).  So Babilen's coworkers come up with an ad featuring still imprisoned American POWs working at a Nike plant "demanding to see the (new) U.S. Ambassador."  A Vietnamese guard comes in, hits one of the American POWs over the head with his still Soviet-era Kalishnikov, and pointing to the shoes, repeats Nike's slogan: "Just do it ..."  One of the managers at Babilen's firm asks "Wouldn't an ad like this offend Nike?"  The response: "What would they care?  We've been given the task of selling their shoes in Russia, and _our consumers_ will like this kind of ad."  Again, you get the picture ...

As it becomes challenging to be continuously "creative," Babilen finds himself going out increasingly to the outskirts of Moscow to both visit a friend who had already "escaped" into Buddhist mysticism under the Communist era (mostly by consuming home-grown Russian hallucinogenic mushrooms ...) and "contemplating" a never completed Cold War era Anti-Ballistic Missile system tower, one that looked like a modern spitting image of the Biblical Tower of Babel.  While hallucinating under the influence of "home grown _Russian_ LSD" and contemplating this Tower he had conversations with both Che Guevara and goat-fleece donning Babilonian priests of Ishtar.  Honestly, the film's a trip ... ;-).

What then to say of the movie?  I enjoyed seeing what seems to me to be an authentic if rather cynical contemporary Russian comedy.  I also found the film challenging and a reminder that Americans are not the only ones that often think of themselves as "Exceptional."  Indeed, the primary theme of this film seemed to be that of  "Russian exceptionalism" declaring to the West: "We _are_ different from you.  To successfully talk to us, you're going to have to refer (and respect...) our cultural points of reference."

More positively, the film was also offering western viewers a window into how marketing imagery and techniques that work quite well in the West / United States can be manipulated (and subverted) elsewhere to some really scary ends.  Near the end of the film, Babilen finds that the "ultimate marketing campaign" is really a political campaign ... and that in creating an effective marketing strategy for a political campaign the human candidate him/herself can become irrelevant. (The suggestion is made that footage showing Yeltsin "dancing" at various political campaign events never occurred ... that simply a CGI-Yeltsin was spliced into footage from a popular rock concert ...).

Who to recommend the movie to?  In the United States, I do think that young people and intellectuals (coastal liberals ...) in general will probably appreciate the film.  Others may in fact be offended.  But then I would imagine that American films like "Red Dawn [1984] [2012] probably don't go over well in Russia (except as a joke ...) either...

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Hyde Park on Hudson [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Hyde Park on Hudson (directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Richard Nelson) is a biopic/period piece about Franklin Delano Roosevelt (played remarkably in the film Bill Murray).

FDR was elected President of the United States in 1932 three years after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the subsequent onset of the Great Depression in 1929, author of the New Deal package of legislation that subsequently led if slowly the country out of the Great Depression (at the cost of greatly expanding the role of the federal government in the United States for which many in the "free market wing" of the Republican Party have never ever forgiven him) and who led the United States during most of World War II.

Yet, this film is not about FDR's politics or achievements.  Instead, it is more about his personal life (and failings...) that came to light after the 1991 death of Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (played in the film by Laura Linney) and a suitcase full of intimate letters between her and the President had been found under her bed.  The letters were published in a non-fiction book by Geoffrey Ward (of Ken Burn's Civil War [1985] documentary series fame) entitled Closest Compainion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley [1995].  A 2007 article about Margaret "Daisy" Suckley appearing in the New York Times entitled At the Home of F.D.R.'s Secret Friend is worth the read as well.

A criticism of the film could be made that if one went to see it without much knowledge of FDR, then one would leave the film thinking of him as simply another (vaguely) "Important Man" who mistreated (took liberties) with vulnerable (younger, and since he was President after all, necessarily less powerful) women.  HOWEVER, I do believe that this film is more complex than simply some kind of a "right wing" hatchet job (Those who have been following my blog would know that I've repeatedly noted here that Hollywood is actually far more conservative in its outlook than its libertine reputation would suggest.  For those who would doubt me here, just consider the way the that the last two sets of Academy Awards turned out [2011] [2012]):

First, the increasing mainstreaming of previously considered "feminist" radicalism _has_ resulted in some remarkable and justified historical revision.  To me, the most obvious example of this phenomenon was the portrayal of male-female relations in the film Defiance [2009] (and the book on which the film was based) about the band of Jewish partisans led by the Bielski Brothers in Nazi-occupied Byelorussia during World War II.  In the past, that story would have been presented as simply a "glowing" account of the heroism of the (largely male) Jewish partisans with the women not playing much of a role at all.  Instead, in Defiance [2009], women were key to the story and often produced a rightfully embarrassing challenge to the way history had previously been remembered.  To put it bluntly: the women were shown as not feeling particularly safe around their male counterparts.  Yes, the male partisans were certainly better than the Nazis (who fed all Jews, male and female, into the gas chambers).  But in a culture of men taking "forest wives" from among the women in their band, the women were forced to "make choices" that weren't exactly "free" ("Should I 'choose' to be a 'forest wife' of this guy or take my chances at being simply taken / raped by one or another of the "freedom fighters" ...?).

So, in the current film, FDR is perhaps a "great man."  On the other hand, he did use women who would have been considered "below his station" including the young, then presumably 20-something, Daisy.  To be sure, he "was generous" to the women he used in this way (rewarded them with access and favors that were beyond the reach what anyone "of a lower station."  BUT ... I do believe the "outing" of FDR in this way to be a fair criticism / correction of the historical record, especially since the Catholic Church itself is (hopefully) coming out of an era of scandal where many of the same tactics of "reward" for inclined to not "out" a "great man" (a priest), and punishment (of those who would be more inclined to do so) had been part of the (clerical / good ole boy) culture of the Church as well...

Second, this is not the first film in which director, Roger Michell has approached the topic of "complex" (and often unequal) relationships between younger women and older men.  Consider simply two of his films Morning Glory [2010] (which was released a few months after I began my blog), and Venus [2006] (which came out before the start of my blog).  Add that the director is English and the current film takes place in the context of the 1939 visit by King George and Queen Elizabeth of England (of The King's Speech [2010] fame) to FDR at his summer retreat on the Hudson and one could understand why this director would be interested in this story at this time.

So what then to make of the film?  I thought it was well acted and crafted.  I do think that some on the fringes of the American Right will probably get an undo thrill in watching a film about the personal life and failings of a towering (and Liberal) icon like FDR.  BUT ... there is a story here in this film and it is one that will hopefully help current and future generations of both men and women from making the same mistakes.

Finally, the film has an R-rating and probably appropriately so.  There is no nudity in the film, but the themes are such that many/most parents would probably appreciate being consulted prior to letting their child (and even a teen in high school) see the film.  

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Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  Michael Phillips (2 1/2 Stars)  AV Club (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Michael Phillips review
AV Club review

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [2012] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Peter Jackson along with Guillermo del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens) is the first of three films based on the J.R.R. Tolkien [IMDb] novel The Hobbit [Amazn] planned to be released over the course of the next several years.

Given that Peter Jackson was able to fit Tolkien's [IMDb] whole Lord of the Rings trilogy into a series of three films, the breaking up of a single book, The Hobbit, (shorter than any of the three books making the LOTR trilogy) also into three films each as long as those made for the LOTR series seems at first, second and third blush to be a brazen attempt to further milk previous commercial success.

But here, honestly, I'd like to say that I DON'T CARE.  If one was at all enamored by (or perhaps more fittingly here, enchanted by ;-) the LOTR series, then just bask in the opportunity to spend a few extra hours in the "Middle Earth" of these films because the New Zealand location, the CGI and the cinematography in general are once again simply AWESOME.  I saw the cheapest possible version of this movie that I could see (the 2D and presumably 24 frame/sec version) and I still was awed.  And I would imagine that _this time_ the 3D, 3D IMAX and 48 frames/sec versions would be _well worth the price_.

Further, I fully intend to recommend this film to younger vocation prospects because The Hobbit, perhaps even more than the LOTR, is about a fundamental question in Life: Does one want to spend it living safely/comfortably as a "half-ling" in a house _already_ "half in the ground" and in a "shire" where "nothing unexpected ever happens?" OR is one ABLE TO TAKE THE RISK, like Bilbo Baggins (played in the film by Martin Freeman) and _accept_ (however reluctantly initially) the invitation of "the Wizard" Gandalf (played by Ian McKellen) and go on "an unexpected journey," a journey that asks one to take up a fight that isn't even really one's own - helping the fun-loving but somewhat crass "Dwarves" (also "little people") regain their dignity/homeland?  Can one do that?

There was a Servite priest who was my "Wizard Gandalf" who entered into my life when I was in my 20s, and I am a Servite priest as a result and I've _certainly_ experienced _plenty of adventures_ both big and small and often across the planet ever since.

So I just loved this movie and encourage ANYONE who still can imagine defending justice and "slaying dragons" to go see it and especially the young: YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO DREAM and see a world that is bigger than simply the mundane, to see a world that is _wonder-full_ and ultimately worthy of the greatest wonder -- God.

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