Wednesday, February 29, 2012

This Means War [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1596350/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/12mv020.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120215/REVIEWS/120219990

This Means War (directed by McG, screenplay written by Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg, story by Timothy Dowling and Marcus Gautesan) that was released for Valentines Day is a rather typical rom-com that outside of the context of that holiday or perhaps a need sometime to see/rent something both conventional / romantic isn't exactly a "must see."  But it's not an awful movie either.  Just really, really "pop corn" light ...  

Indeed, as is typical of most contemporary Hollywood rom-coms (that don't "go dark"), This Means War is a story of three beautiful people along with a number of similarly beautiful friends and acquaintances who surround them.  So there's a definitely "Wouldn't it be nice...", "Much Ado About Nothing", "All's Well that Ends Well," daydream quality about the film that's been a staple of romantic comedies since at least the time of the "Bard of Statford upon Avon," that is William Shakespeare or since the "California bards" of the 1960s, the Beach Boys, were singing about cars, surfboards and "Two Girls for Every Boy ..."

Actually, the film is something of a play on this line from the Brian Wilson/Jan and Dean song "Surf City," where the boy to girl ratio is reversed in this film and one girl finds herself involved with two guys, who it turns out were actually friends.  Ah, the complexities of "young love ..."

So how do the protagonists in this story get into their predicament?  Lauren (played by Reese Witherspoon) a gorgeous if somewhat nerdy young woman moves across the country to be closer to her boyfriend, Jason (played by Clint Carlson), only to be dumped because apparently Jason didn't expect their LDR to last...  Grieving the loss of her relationship, spunky Lauren puts her energy into her job coordinating/interviewing "focus groups" trying-out various consumer gadgets that show-up on late night commercials.  It's not much of a job, but at least she gets to hit things, break thinks, whack things with a stick every so often ... and encourage others to do the same ;-).

Her married best friend, Trish (played by played by Chelsea Handler) becomes so concerned that Lauren just "get on with her life" that she creates an online profile for her on a dating service.  Initially, Lauren is aghast by the description that Trish wrote about her (Apparently Trish was somewhat bored with her own life and had been hoping to live a little, if vicariously, through her still single friend...). 'Turns out though, that among the replies that she gets is that of a good looking guy who works in a "travel agency" named Tuck (played by Tom Hardy).

Now Tuck's actually not "a travel agent" at all.  He works for the CIA with his much cooler, "far more at home in his job" partner and best friend FDR Foster (played by Chris Pine).  Indeed, that Tuck would pick his "cover story" to be that he's "a travel agent" is somewhat indicative of his own somewhat nerdy personality.  Even his ex-girl friend doesn't really believe he's a "travel agent" though she has no idea he's actually CIA either -- "You've got to be the most traveled 'travel agent' I've ever heard of."  But he can't tell her what he really does for a living ...

Anyway, the two, Lauren and Tuck, set-up a meet if not a date at some coffee shop.  Friend FDR decides to hang-out in a nearby video store during this meet to give Tuck an excuse to leave and someone to have a few beers with if things don't work out.  Things do work out, but ... after Lauren and Tuck split-off to go their separate ways, Lauren runs into FDR (and FDR doesn't know that Lauren was the girl that Tuck was meeting ...).  Much ensues ...

First with no guy (and pining still for her ex-guy) but now suddenly with two, Lauren the drop-dead gorgeous Hollywood fantasyland character that she is, does what Hollywood scriptwriters with drop-dead gorgeous fantasyland characters in their plots have them do: She decides that she's going to "break the tie" by "sleeping with both of them" and see which one she likes better.  I can't even think about that scenario without the Beach Boys song "Wouldn't it be nice ..." playing in my head ... And that's a pretty good indication that we're entering here into the "Great Land of  Beautiful People, no AIDS, no ..., no consequences ... with Unicorns floating about."  It makes for one heck of a day dream, but ... Ma (and Mother Church...) would be concerned ...

So there you have it.  All does end well for everyone (except perhaps for Jason, Lauren's ex, who perhaps discovers he shouldn't have dumped Lauren so casually ...). 

Again, This Means War, is not exactly Tolstoy, but understood to be "popcorn light" ... it's not exactly the Apocalypse either.  Just understand the film to be a "daydream" and perhaps remember that "nerdy people" can end-up being far more interesting than you think ...


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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin [2011]

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

IMDB listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1242460/
Roger Ebert's review -


We Need to Talk About Kevin (directed and screenplay co-written by Lynne Ramsay along with Rory Kinnear based on the novel by the same name by Lionel Shriver) is a fictional account of a mother's reflections on her teenage son's becoming the perpetrator of Columbine-style school massacre.  

In the book, it's clear that the mother, Eva (played in the movie by Tilda Swinton), had been ambivalent about having the child.  In the movie, her ambivalence is not as clear, but it's clear that she herself thought that she had her own problems.  In both cases, however, it's obvious to the reader/viewer that from pretty much the time that Kevin was a toddler something was very wrong with him.  He seems aloof, developmentally slow (starts talking fairly late, and certainly takes his time and fiercely resists getting potty trained), and he's mean.  Eva sees this but as is often the case the other parent/her husband, Franklin (played in the movie by John C. Reilly), does not.  A manipulator from almost before he could walk and certainly from before he could really talk, Kevin plays the two parents off against each other.  What a nightmare ...

And it doesn't get better.  As Kevin grows up (Kevin's played as a toddler by Rock Duer, as an 6-8 year old by Jasper Newell and as teenager by Ezra Miller), he hones his skills of playing-off his parents (and other adults) against each other, being mean to animals and to his developmentally normal little sister (played by Ashley Gerasimovich) but never quite mean enough to finally force the hands of his parents and the other adults in his life (mostly at school) to actually do something until one day he locks the student body of his high school in the gym with bicycle locks he bought over the internet (he told his parents that we was "going to make a killing with them (they think selling them) at school") and starts picking off his classmates, one after another, with a cross bow.

What went wrong?  Both in the book and in the film, Eva, in part, blames herself, in the book because she knew that she never really wanted to have children (Kevin) to begin with, in the movie because she knew that she wasn't altogether psychologically fit herself when she had him.  Did Kevin know from early on that she never really want him (the book)?  Did Kevin inherit her psychological troubles (the movie)?

To some extent the reader/viewer could ask whether that inner angst of the mother is really relevant (other than being melodramatic) here.  Perhaps better questions could be asked: What can society do to identify psychopathic youths before they do it harm?  Can a pattern of uncalled-for / gratuitous meanness become seen as a symptom worthy of flagging someone as a potential danger to oneself and society and worthy of progressively more attention/supervision by parents/teachers/law enforcement authorities?

Yes, psychopathy like other neurological conditions (autism comes to mind) would probably exist on a scale.  Still a consistently mean child, even for the sake of the child (to say nothing of the larger society), would deserve to be supervised/watched (and not just by the parents but by society, mostly at school) to make sure that others (innocents) don't end up being killed by that child as/when he or she grows up.


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Monday, February 27, 2012

Safe House [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Michael Phillips review

Safe House (directed by Daniel Espinosa, written by David Guggenheim) is a post-9/11 post-Bourne Identity spy thriller (hence with the fundamental theme of "who can you trust?") that aside from being set in Cape Town and then the countryside of South Africa, doesn't really add anything particularly new to the genre.

Still, like a dream/nightmare that repeats itself until it dissipates or gets resolved, these kind of spy thriller paranoid action films like this seem to "work" today.  Safe House has a 70% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes website and three weeks out, it's still in the top 5 at the box office and it's grossed some $97 million. 

So what's the film specifically about?  Matt Weston (played by Ryan Reynolds) is a rookie/tenderfoot CIA operative with a rather boring "doing one's dues" initial assignment: He's the "manager" of a "team of one" (apparently just himself) project: maintaining a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, should the need ever arise that it'd be needed.  In other words, he's the "groundskeeper" of one of those "undisclosed locations" / "secret prisons" made famous (or infamous) during the G.W. Bush Administration.

It's pretty boring work.  Six months into the assignment, he's had no "house-guests," and about all he has to show for his time in Cape Town is that he's found a French girlfriend, Ana Moreau (played by Nora Arnezeder), who he can't be honest with about what he really does for a living.  All he can do is be "vague" about his work and promise her that his "work" may take him to Paris "one day."  She likes that promise but it's pretty clear that he doesn't have a chance at getting that kind of an assignment since Paris would probably be a rather prestigious CIA posting.  And what has Weston been doing?  He's been playing "cleaning lady" / "maintanence man" in a "stainless steel basement" of an outwardly utterly nondescript-looking building in Cape Town that inside/underground opens up to a compound filled with jail cells and interrogation rooms and all sorts of wild electronic gear.  But the compound NEVER, EVER GETS USED because NOTHING EVER "HAPPENS" IN SOUTH AFRICA ANYMORE.

So Matt spends his time listening to "French language tapes" and trying to get his former mentor David Barlow (played by Brendan Gleesan) stationed at CIA headquarters in Langley to get him the hell out of this spick-and-span but half mothballed dump in Cape Town and on to Paris.  But Barlow has no reason to promote Weston because HE HASN'T DONE ANYTHING to justify promotion.  Life can suck ...

Well be careful what you wish for ... One day, a rogue former CIA agent, Tobin Frost (played by Denzel Washington), walks-up to the gate of the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town, and to everyone's -- Matt's, Barlow's and Matt's immediate superior (but still way out in Langley) Catherine Linklater's (played by Vera Farmiga) -- surprise Matt's gonna get an actual "house guest."  Why?  Well, Frost had been supposedly one of the CIA's top agents, and then 10 years ago he suddenly "walked off the reservation," sold all kinds of secrets to all kinds of people, often enemies and potential enemies of the United States. Yet NOW for some reason, he "waltzed back" to the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town apparently asking for the U.S. government's assistance.  The obvious question reverberating among the good folks in the U.S. spy/diplomatic community is WHY?  Why the heck would he come back?  And given his past selling of U.S. secrets left and right to all kinds of people, the folks at the CIA are "mighty angry about it."

So when the CIA's "team" comes to Matt's stainless steel basement safe house with Frost in chains and a hood they're not particularly interested in being "nice" to Frost.  Yes, they want answers, eventually, but they also want payback.  So they bring out the water and the towels, and it becomes "water boarding time."  But while the interrogation team is "not yet torturing" ("approaching the line of torturing") Frost, a second team comes in and shoots-up the place, killing everybody but Matt and Frost, who manage to get away.

The quick thinking, CIA veteran turned fugitive Frost had convinced the rookie Matt Weston that it "would look really bad" (presumably on his next performance evaluation) if Weston's "house guest" turned-out to be killed.  So Weston gets Frost out of the building (at least still in handcuffs...) and, rookie that he is, "calls Langley for directions ..."

Much ensues and eventually we get an explanation for "what the heck just happened" and indeed why someone like Frost would have "gone rogue" and arguably betrayed his country after doing so. 

There will be folks who will not like the explanation.  But anyone who knows a little about the power of keeping things secret would certainly suspect that this power could be used to cover-up all sorts of things, many of which would have very little to do with actual "national security ..."

Anyway, there's not necessarily anything new in this film, except perhaps the rather comical portrayal of the quite boring life of a spy-agency "safe house" operator.  (In the film, Frost and Weston make their way to another CIA "safe house," this one out in the South African countryside that makes Weston's old gig "in the city" positively thrilling ...).

Still, we live in a world now of  "secret prisons" in "undisclosed locations" and super-trained, super-compartmentalized special forces units trained to perform missions (and do them on faith...) that we can only imagine.  Add then the temptation to sin, that is to use all that secrecy and power for less than virtuous ends ... and well ... that combination offers a plenty of fodder for a lot of films just like this.


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84th Academy Awards (2012) - Hooray for Nostalgia!?

Billy Crystal Rules!  Say what one wants, he delivers.  From the very first sequence where he passes through a montage of scenes from last year's top pictures, most nominated, some like Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible 4, not, he was a hit, in great form and carried this through a great show.

Hollywood's surprising conservatism that I commented on in my review of the last year's Academy Awards, came through again.  Martin Scorsese's 3D wonder Hugo came into the Awards show a favorite to win the top awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best (Adapted) Screenplay and Best Cinematography.  Yet it walked away with only technical awards as well as Cinematography (arguably "technical" in this case as well).

In contrast, the darling of the Oscar's this year was the well deserving film The Artist, a technically perfect nostalgic look back on Hollywood's Silent Screen era.  The picture won Best Picture, Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius) and Best Actor (Jean Dujardin).

And Nostalgia arguably factored in pretty much all of the other prestigious awards:

Christopher Plummer won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Beginners.  He was certainly excellent, won on merit.  But it also felt like a "lifetime achievement award" as well.  Plummer is 82, only 2 years younger than the Oscars themselves.

Octavia Spenser won Best Supporting Actress for her role in a film that was arguably anachronistic.  It was said about The Help when the came out this past summer that while the topic itself was nice, it was yet another story written by a white woman about race relations in the South.  Yes, this worked well in the 1930s with the celebrated Oscar winning screen adapation of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and even in the early 1960s with the similarly celebrated Oscar winning screen adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird.  But this is 2011/12.  Yes, Octavia Spenser, African American, was the only one who won an Oscar for The Help, a screen adaptation of the book by the same name written by Kathryn Strocket.  But the Association of Black Women Historians rightly asked last summer how long will it take before a story written by a black woman about race relations in the South will get such Oscar buzz?

Meryl Streep, universally acknowledged as the best actress of our time and possibly of all time, won her third Oscar after being nominated and then snubbed 14 other times (Yes, she's been nominated for the Academy Awards 17 times) because, yes, she's the greatest but also because she played here the role of the towering (and now aging...) British figure of the late 20th Century, Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Nostalgia is written all over this award...

Finally Woody Allen received the award for Best Original Screenplay for his film Midnight in Paris which was precisely about an American screenwriter of today (played in the film by Owen Wilson) nostagically looking back at Paris of the 1920s. 

I suppose that story-telling is always going to be largely based on nostalgia (And at its base that's what Hollywood does -- tell/sell stories).  And, it's not easy (and certainly would be limiting) to come up with compelling stories about about times, places and people who haven't existed yet.

Still I do find it fascinating that there was such an uproar last year over the Oscars' young hosts (Anne Hatheway and James Franco).  And then there was an almost counter-revolution in the Oscar balloting last year when a story about a dead stuttering English King (The King's Speech) won all the major awards, vanquishing the modern retelling True Grit (whose star was no longer the venerable John Wayne but a spunky young actress named Hailee Steinfeld playing a teenager) and the ultra-cutting edge films like The Social Network and Inseption.

This year, the Oscars' counter revolution was complete with the "resurrection" of Billy Crystal as host, something that to Crystal's and the show's producers' credit the show's initial sequence joked about.  And one must admit that Crystal was good!

Further to Meryl Streep's and Woody Allen's credits, both have become quite famous for working with and mentoring new talent.  Anne Hatheway (The Devil Wears Prada), Amy Adams (Doubt, Julie and Julia), and Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) have all gotten to work with and learn from Meryl Streep.  And the list of young actors and actresses that Woody Allen has worked with over the past decades is simply too long to list here but they have included Mira Sorvino, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johannson, Javier Berdem, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, et al, et al.

So even though the same names often do pop-up over and over again, there are folks like Streep and Allen (and I do suspect Crystal) who do seek to "share the wealth" (or at least share their knowledge).  And any young person picked to host the Oscars in coming years ought to view both last year's and this year's shows and seek to learn from them.  And until then, I return to saying Billy Crystal simply rules The Oscars.  There's simply no one in these last 20 years who's been as good as he's been in hosting the show.


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Sunday, February 26, 2012

My 2012 Oscar Picks

I've been somewhat ambivalent this year about giving Oscar predictions because I really did see a lot of movies this past year and thought a lot of films and performances were very good and deserved praise.  So I even created a "Denny Awards" to underscore the films and performances (male and female) that I thought deserved recognition.

On the other hand, the annual Oscars is one of the largest shared experiences in the United States.  So I'm quickly typing a list of Oscar picks now and will be better about this next year.

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
WILL WIN - Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
SHOULD WIN - Christopher Plummer
DESERVING OF A NOMINATION - John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
WILL WIN - Octavia Spenser (The Help)
SHOULD WIN - Octavia Spenser
DESERVING OF NOMINATIONS - Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter), Judy Dench (J Edgar)

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
WILL WIN - Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
SHOULD WIN - Jean Dujardin
DESERVING OF NOMINATIONS - Dominic Cooper (The Devil's Double), Leonardo DiCaprio (J Edgar), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Antonio Banderas (The Skin I Live In), Martin Sheen (The Way)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
WILL WIN - Viola Davis (The Help)
SHOULD WIN - Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
DESERVING OF NOMINATIONS - Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Khomotso Manyaka (Life Above All)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREEN PLAY
WILL WIN - The Artist
SHOULD WIN - The Artist / Midnight in Paris
DESERVING OF NOMINATIONS - Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Future, Another Earth, Take Shelter, The Way

BEST ADAPTED SCREEN PLAY
WILL WIN - Hugo
SHOULD WIN - The Descendants
DESERVING OF NOMINATIONS - Higher Ground, Carnage

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
WILL WIN - Hugo
SHOULD WIN (AND SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED) - Melancholia (!),
DESERVING OF NOMINATIONS - Take Shelter, The Skin I Live In, Like Crazy

BEST DIRECTOR
WILL WIN - Martin Scorcese (Hugo)
SHOULD WIN - Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) / Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
DESERVED OF NOMINATIONS - Pedro Almodóvar (The Skin I Live In), Clint Eastwood (J Edgar)

BEST ANIMATED PICTURE
WILL WIN - Rango
SHOULD WIN - Rango
DESERVING OF A NOMINATION - The Adventures of Tintin

BEST PICTURE
WILL WIN - The Artist / The Help
SHOULD WIN - The Artist


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Russian Reserve (orig. Русский заповедник) [2010]

MPAA (Unrated)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Russian Reserve (orig. Русский заповедник), directed by Valery Timoschenko is a Russian documentary which played recently at the at the Peace on Earth Film Festival held at the Chicago Cultural Center between Feb 23-26, 2012.  The documentary is about a Russian Orthodox priest, Fr. Victor Saltykov living in a remote Russian village, which he notes is statistically "the poorest village in the Russian Federation."  Yet it becomes clear that seen through the right lens, it is an absolutely idyllic place to live -- fields, orchards, lakes, rivers, a nice white Russian Orthodox church in the center of town.

Many thoughts came to my mind as I watched this film.  

I recalled, for instance, that the Servites, members of my religious order, from my Order's Mexican Province, made a similar choice some ten years ago to accept a missionary assignment to one of the poorest municipalities in all of Mexico -- in Acatepec in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico among the Tlapaneco (Mephaa) people living there (video presentation of the Servites in Acatepec (Tlapa), Guerrero; interview, in Spanish, of Fr. Ruben Torres, OSM, one of the founders of the Servite Mission there).

I recalled my trips (3 each) to both the Servite mission in Acatepec as well as to the Servite mission in Acre, Brazil (in the Amazon) [2].

And I recalled my Slavic roots.  My dad's mother was from a similarly idyllic little town, Obdenice in southern Bohemia (Czech Republic).  My mother's father was Russian from the Kuban region of Russia.  

The spirituality of the Russian Orthodox church is very well expressed in this film.  It idylizes the life of the poustinik or pilgrim/hermit, who gives up everything to follow Christ.  He/she lives simply, in the countryside, depending quite literally on what God gives him/her.  A great book on the subject is Catherine De Hueck's Poustinia.  Another great book is an anonymous text coming from 19th century Russia called "The Way of the Pilgrim."

In the film, Fr. Viktor, besides sacramental functions, tends cows, tends bees, instructs visitors how to cultivates potatoes.  He notes that he has a special house setup for city dwellers coming out to visit him, noting that it takes a few days for "city dwellers" to get used to village life.  With a smile he further notes that he had a couple visiting him some years back in which the wife initially demanded that her husband take her back home when they arrived.  "Now she's the happiest (repeat) visitor here ..."

One then also recalls the Leo Tolstoy and the Tolstoyan Movement, recalling that even Mahatma Gandhi was influenced by this movement to celebrate simple, agrarian life.  

At the end of the film, Fr. Viktor, who saw his little community (and others like it) as "little Noah's arks," summarized his philosophy in this way:

You don't have to save Nature, because it will outlast us,
You don't have to save the Church, because it will save us,
You don't have to save Russia, you just have to love it,
You don't have to save "the village,' you just need to live in one.

What a great and thoughtful film from a part of the world that most Westerners would know next to nothing about.  

ADDENDUM - 

The two books that I referred to above are both available on Amazon:

Catherine de Hueck-Doherty, Poustinia
Anonymous, The Way of the Pilgrim  


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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1 [2011]

MPAA (unrated) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

Nuclear Savage (directed by Adam Jonas Horowitz) is a pointed and poignant documentary about the pacific islanders of the far-flung Marshall Islands where the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the late 1940s-though the 1950s.  The documentary played recently at the Peace on Earth Film Festival held at the Chicago Cultural Center between Feb 23-26, 2012.


The accusation of the documentary is that the U.S. government purposefully used these Pacific Islanders as de facto human guinea pigs to the study the effects of nuclear contamination on people.

The accusation is based on a protocol (Project 4.1) written-up six months prior to a massive nuclear test (Bravo) in the Marshall Islands.  The protocol outlined a procedure of how to study the effects of radioactive contamination on people.  Six months later, the Bravo test did, in fact, contaminate the Rongerik Atoll of the Marshall Islands along with its residents.  The U.S. Navy then took its time, several days, to evacuate the residents of this Atoll by which time the residents were already thoroughly contaminated by the radioactive fallout.

The U.S. government has always maintained that the contamination of the Rongerik Atoll and its population was "an accident," the result of a sudden change in wind-direction in the hours just before the test.  The islanders and their advocates have maintained that by the U.S. weather service's own records the U.S. government knew of the change in wind direction and made the decision to go along with the test anyway.

My own sense would be that while _perhaps_ the irradiation/contamination of the residents by the blast was nominally "an accident," it was one that was more or less obviously foreseen by the U.S. government that eventually there would be such an "accidental exposure" of the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands and hence why the government already had a protocol to "study the victims" of such an "accident" even before it occurred.  That is to say that even if the islanders had not been irradiated and contaminated by that particular nuclear test, then probably _others_ would have been irradiated/contaminated by another one...

In any case, the effects of the irradiation and contamination were devastating.  Surviving islanders interviewed in the film described bouts with cancer, leukemia, and horrendous, horrendous birth defects -- "My first child was born looking like a sack of grapes.  My second was born without muscles or bones.  He was like a jellyfish.  Both died within a day of birth," reported one woman.  Another reported giving birth to a child whose appendages "looked more like the fins of a sea turtle than arms or legs."  Another reported giving birth to a "child who you couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl, but had a tail."  All died early.

Worse, in 1957, the evacuated residents of the Rongerik Atoll were forced to return to live on the island even though the government knew it remained highly contaminated. And the cancers/birth defects continued.  The Islanders were finally evacuated in the 1980 a second time -- by Green Peace -- but as of 2011 they were being forced (under the current Obama Administration)  to once more return to their island to live there or risk have their compensations cut off.  Needless to say ... the Islanders don't want to go back.

What a nightmare and what terrible things happen when sin occurs "far away," "in darkness," when "no one is looking".

A note about the title, Nuclear Savage.  The title is taken from actual language used by U.S. scientists in 1950s era newsreels describing these poor people who had their islands blown-up and contaminated by American nuclear tests while _nobody_ except Christian missionaries actually cared about them.

Indeed, most of those "Savages" (1) contaminated by the Bravo test and evacuated sometime afterwards, (2) forced later to return, (3) evacuated once more, and now (4) being forced to return again to the contaminated Rongerik Atoll WERE CHRISTIANS ALL ALONG.  Among the ruins on the contaminated and abandoned island are the ruins of a Christian church and a Christian cemetery....


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Tyler Perry's Good Deeds [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1885265/

Good Deeds (written and directed by Tyler Perry), is a very well-written/crafted movie, both gentle and pointed, that's certainly about our times but which chooses to be positive. 

The film is about two people: Wesley Deeds (played by Tyler Perry) and Lindsey Wakefield (played by Thandie Newton).

Wesley is a 30-something gentleman, 5th generation Ivy League graduate, who now heads his family's investment business from its high rise headquarters in San Francisco's business district.  He has both the temperament and the capability to lead the company well and thus be a good steward of the family's fortune for another generation.  But he's also unhappy.  A good son to his mother Wilemina (played by Phylicia Rashad), a good future husband to his fiance Natalie (played by Gabrielle Union), and a good/competent leader of his family's firm, he's nonetheless going through the motions.  He's good because he's always met expectations, done what he's supposed to do (and done so quite well).

Lindsey turns out to be a cleaning lady in the Deeds' high rise.  Behind on her rent, behind on her bills, alone, with an 7-8 year old daughter Ariel (played by Jordenn Thompson) in tow, she's constantly fighting to "keep it together" even as she's obviously terrified that she's one step away from final disaster. 

Even though Lindsey works for Deeds, the two "meet" for the first time when Lindsey cuts off Wesley in the Deeds' Building's parking garage to park in his reserved spot right by the elevator.  Wesley is annoyed.  His more problematic and certainly more hot-headed younger brother Walter (played by Brian White) is furious.  Lindsey, ever in defensive mode, doesn't care, calls both names and runs up to the building's maintenance office to pick-up her check.  She needs the check to cover her rent.  From this initial encounter, much ensues ...

There are many things to like about this movie.  Yes, the dialogue remains at times a little "stiff/unnatural"  It's obvious that the characters represent "types" rather than complex individuals.  Yet, Perry uses his characters and his film with purpose.  He's both challenging his viewers (and perhaps even the larger society) and doing so in a positive way.

It becomes obvious in the film that Lindsey had no idea of who she was actually working for.  When she runs into Wesley sometime later, having been transferred to the evening shift (Wesley habitually stays late working in the office), she has no idea that he actually runs the firm.  She assumes that "Deeds" who owned the firm had to be some "old white guy."  When she starts getting to know Wesley, it doesn't even enter into her head that she's talking to the CEO of the firm and that he's not even a "flash in the pan" / "upstart" but had inherited the firm from his father who inherited it from his.

On the other side of the coin, at a time when so much anger is being expressed at "the top 1%," both in film (Inside Job, Margin Call, Tower Heist, In Time, Man on a Ledge all good to very good films BTW...) and in society (with the Occupy Wall Street Movement), rather than condemning "the 1%," Tyler Perry (himself a theater mogul) offers "the 1%" a good example in Wesley Deeds.  Wesley uses his money and his power to get involved in Lindsey's life.  And as he does so, he finds himself.  He becomes "Good Deeds."

What a nice, nice film!


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Friday, February 24, 2012

Gone [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1838544/

CNS/ USCCB Review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/12mv026.htm

Gone (directed by Heitor Dahlia, written by Allison Burnett) is a rather uncomplicated if quite well played genre piece -- a paranoid/psychological thriller -- about a young woman named Jill (played by Amanda Seyfried) living in Portland, Oregon who had survived a traumatic ordeal.

Jill had been abducted by a man, thrown into a pit (dug by the abductor) somewhere deep in the forests surrounding Portland and survived to escape and tell the tale only because she was able to drive piece of a bone left from one of the other girls who had been abducted, presumably raped and then left to die in the pit before her.  Disoriented after she emerged from the forest to safety, she was unable to lead authorities to the pit.  After a couple of weeks of increasingly half-hearted searching the authorities apparently concluded that since they were unable to identify/capture her attacker or find the pit, she may have simply invented the story for reasons unknown.  Indeed when we meet Jill in the film, we see that she is on a fairly strict regimen of medication needing to take several pills several times a day.

Film begins about a year after Jill's ordeal.  It's clear that she at least has not given-up on finding the hole in the woods of the protected forest in which she had been held.  Still, viewers get a definite sense of the vastness of the woods in the area and the difficulty of finding the hole especially if one's memory of the events was necessarily imperfect/clouded by trauma.

Still, Jill had survived her ordeal.  This was something that was clearly significant not only to her as a survivor, but also to her abductor:  She would be the only person who could presumably eventually find the pit (with the remains of the other abducted and killed women) and perhaps even find and identify him.  So the film becomes not just of Jill trying to prove her story and capture her abductor, but also about the abductor trying to "tie up loose ends" (his own words, we find out).

So one night while Jill was at work and having borrowed her sister's car rather than driving her own, Jill's sister Molly (played by Emily Wickersham) disappears.  Jill's immediately convinced that she was abducted by her abductor.  The police, of course, think that she's crazy, noting that there could be any number of irrational / irresponsible reasons for a young woman like Jill's sister to "not be home" one morning, even if "she had a final exam that next day" and Molly's boyfriend "didn't know where she was either."  One of the police detectives who had worked previously on Jill's case asks her "Did you ever think that your sister could have had a second boyfriend?  Just saying, it happens..."

So Jill's convinced that Molly's been kidnapped and in immediate danger of being killed and the police is convinced that Jill's disturbed.  Much ensues...

A genre film like this often depends on good writing and dialogue.  I have to say that I found Jill's talking-up of various potential witnesses to the abduction of her sister and then of people who may have known something about the potential perpetrator to be very well done.  All in all, for what the film was -- a paranoid/psychological thriller -- I thought it was quite well done and probably a lot of late teens and young adults would enjoy watching it.

Parents should note that while nothing is every shown, the film assumes as a matter of course a young adult sexual morality (immorality...), mostly heterosexual but at least in one case homosexual, that would make an R-rating for the film more suitable than PG-13.  Indeed, due to subject matter alone -- after all it is about abducting and terrorizing young people -- an R-rating would probably have been more appropriate.  Sometimes, I simply don't understand Hollywood's rating decisions, but parents just take note.  This film, while certainly a pretty good young adult "date movie," it's not really "for the little ones."


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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ghost Rider - Spirit of Vengeance [2012]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Fr. Dennis (1 Star)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review

I found Ghost Rider - Spirit of Vengeance (directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, story and screenplay cowritten by David S. Goyer along with Scott M. Gimble and Seth Hoffman based on the to be a monumental disappointment on almost every level.

A sequel to IMHO the much better film Ghost Rider [2007] based on the Marvel Comic Ghost Rider (Johnny Blaze), it was clear to me that the makers of the current film made a decision to "go darker" with Johnny Blaze (played in both films by Nicholas Cage) who in the first film was arguably sympathetic.  Johnny had made a deal with the Devil (played by Peter Fonda in the first film) only to save his father from cancer.  (Shortly after signing his own immortal soul over to the Devil to save his father from cancer, the Devil turns around and kills the father in a motorcycle accident ... YOU GOTTA FEEL SORRY FOR JOHNNY THEN ...).

In this film, Johnny Blaze comes to enjoy way too much the Ghost Rider "job" that the Devil has condemned him to: Periodically, Johnny, a stunt motorcyclist (a "dare devil"...) would become possessed, turn into a flaming skeleton in a smoking leather jacket on a really, really hot, indeed FLAMING bike ... and speed-off to capture some really, really bad-guy (some true Evil Doer [TM]) -- usually by bringing him down with a HUGE red-hot metal chain that he'd throw at him, knocking him down and tangling him in it.  Then Johnny Blaze (aka The Ghost Rider) would step off the bike, bring the Evil Doer close, look square in his terror stricken eyes, declare the charge and sentence "YOU PREYED ON / CHEATED / KILLED THE INNOCENT..." suck the Soul out of said terrified Evil Doer and send said convicted Soul straight down to Hell [TM].  Since the people that Johnny Blaze / the Ghost Rider sent down to Hell this way were generally truly awful people and Johnny was doing all this as "a cursed biker," one could feel sorry for the guy in the first film.  However, in this film once possessed he seemed to enjoy this work way too much.

Then the plot of this film is far more confused.  It's set not in the United States anymore but "in Eastern Europe somewhere" (where Johnny Blaze has apparently run-off to in hopes of somehow escaping the Devil there).  There he finds himself trying to save a child named Danny (played by Fergus Riordan) of a young Gypsy woman named Nadya (played by Violante Placido) who the Devil named Roarke (played by Ciaran Hinds) wished to enter in order to do more damage on the Earth.  This battle between Good and Evil comes to involve a strange Evil-looking traditionalist "Catholic-looking" religious Order (less DaVinci Code [2006] evil than Name of the Rose [1986] evil...) that wants to kill the boy before the Devil could enter him and a "hip" and very heavily armed "rouge Priest" named Moreau (played by Idris Elba).  Fr. Moreau reconciles Johnny Blaze back to the fold of the living (or at least the non-cursed) by a Rite that looks vaguely like Confession, only to find to the horror of both, that he "reconciled him too soon" to be able to protect the boy.  Guess what Johnny does then to save the boy ...

I think I've had my fill of gun-wielding priests over the past year.  I was relatively kind to the sci-fi thriller Priest [2011] (based on a South Korean comic book series), then chose to ignore the film Machine Gun Preacher [2011], but because I liked the first Ghost Rider [2007] made it a point to see this film.  But I think I'm done.

Finally, I actually did see this film in 3D, and have to report that THE 3D WAS AWFUL.  It added virtually NOTHING to the film.  The vast majority of the flaming CGI special effects that perhaps could have been really really cool in 2D looked absolutely ridiculous in 3D.  Yes, Ghost Rider originated as a comic book.  But even in the comic book genre, if the comics are poorly drawn, they don't sell...

So this Ghost Rider sequel (1) turned an arguably sympathetic (if cursed) character into a much less sympathetic one, (2) featured gun-wielding priests and vaguely Evil and certainly misguided Medieval-looking "Catholic-looking" religious monks, trying to kill a kid "in order to save him," and (3) did this utilizing hyper-expensive 3D technology to produce a monumentally disappointing (even visually, even buying into the 3D technology) product.  If there is a Ghost Rider 3, I do hope that it will be done better than this.


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Journey 2 - Mysterious Island [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1397514/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/12mv018.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120208/REVIEWS/120209983

Journey 2 - Mysterious Island (directed by Brad Payton, story by Richard Outten, Mark Gunn and Brian Gunn, screenplay by Mark Gunn and Brian Gunn) is the latest film adaptation, this time in 3D, of Jules Verne's 1874 novel Mysterious Island (French orig. title - L'Île mystérieuse)Jules Verne, of course, was a pioneer in fantastic / science fiction writing and has been a perennial challenge to film makers since the invention of moving pictures.  The recent movie, Hugo, was largely about the pioneering French film-maker Georges Méliès who was already putting together cinematic adaptations of Jules Verne's novels on the screen in the Silent Film Era.

So how does the present adaption go?  The film begins with Sean (played by Josh Hutcherson), a teen struggling with and perhaps reacting to his mother Liz' (played by Kristen Davis) remarrying and thus the presence of Hank (played by Dwayne Johnson), Sean's new step-father in his life.  Seeking to defend  himself against this change, Sean seeks to keep alive memory of his dad's family's values and traditions.  Specifically just as his grandfather and his father before him, Sean's become something of Jules Verne fanatic.  His father deceased, and his grandfather (played by Michael Caine) "long gone" on account of this irritating interest in Verne and "proving" that Verne's books were "about real journeys" that Verne had taken, Sean's "hobby" comes across Liz and Hank as disruptive (and perhaps even delusional) as they try to build a new blended family together and get everyone, including Sean "on board" with the new reality.

One night, Sean becomes excited because he thinks that he has detected a radio message from his long lost grandfather, and that he may have found Verne's "Mysterious Island."  What to do?  Liz remains annoyed, but Hank, who apparently has some money, decides to try "to bond" with Sean by playing along.  Together, the two decipher the coded coordinates that Sean's grandfather apparently had sent in his radio message and when they discover that the coordinates map to a location somewhere near the island of Fiji in the South Pacific.  Then, they decide to "give it a shot" and fly out to Fiji to see if there's something to the story.

Out there in the South Pacific, the two rent a helicopter operated by a local tour guide named Gobato (played by Luis Guzman) and his teenage daughter Kailani (played by Vanessa Hudgens).  They find out that the coordinates correspond to a part of the ocean nearby that's perpetually covered by clouds and stormy (hence why almost no one ever goes there).  But Sean convinces everyone to try anyway.  Once they arrive, (and even the journey is fraught with much danger), many further adventures ensue, including linking up with Sean's grandfather, who indeed did send that radio signal to the outsider world from the island during apparently a very brief break in the weather. 

The story is obviously a fantasy, but so was Jules Verne's original.  I do think it makes for a very nice story for pre-teens, perhaps indeed as a "father-son" or "step-father son" outing especially if a family were experiencing some "bonding issues" at home.  Though I saw the movie in 2D, I would imagine that 3D would probably work well as well.  (I still think that 3D is both needlessly costly and gimmicky ...) All in all, it's not a stupendous film but one that preserves and adapts, quite well actually, the legacies of both Jules Verne and the attempts by early film makers like Georges Méliès to put Verne's fantastic stories on film.


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Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Vow [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1606389/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/12mv019.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120208/REVIEWS/120209977

The Vow (directed by Michael Sucsy, screenplay by Abby Kohn, Marc Silversteen and Jason Katims, story by Stuart Sender) is a nice enough date movie, released just before Valentine's Day asking the question: What would you do if the love of your life had an accident and forgot who you are?  Would you try to win her (or him) back?  The answer is, of course, yes, ... just not too creepily ... and, of course, we get to watch Leo try to do this.  (With the script on his side, he does very, very well.  On the plus side, however, his character does offer a rather good if idealized example of how to go about these things). 

Though based on a true story, it's important to remember that it's Hollywood telling it, so the edges are smoothed out.  Indeed, so smoothed out are the edges that an Indian friend of mine from my religious order [Intl] [USA] called it "the first true Bollywood [1] [2] movie made by Hollywood" ;-). 

Still, I maintain my belief that even in the schlockiest story there are usually elements that make it more complicated than it may initially seem, which indeed make the story "work."  If a movie were "just schlock" we wouldn't go at all.

The Vow is no different.  There is more to the movie than the schlock and yet not so much that it becomes overwhelming and gets us complaining "hey wait a minute ..."   Older foggies like me would recognize a nice message of reconciliation the film.  And I admit that despite the still rather high "schlock" content of the story, I am positive that when I was in my 20ies, I would have certainly considered the film a really, really nice film to take a date to.  Of course, with that kind of a recommendation, "Hollywood wins." But then I don't mind because I've obviously seen Hollywood as more of a "good if at times overly talkative friend" than an "enemy" here (I just hate its current push for 3D ... at least this film wasn't done that way ... yet ... but that's another story ... ;-).

So what is the story here?  Leo (played by Channing Tatum) a recording engineer and Paige (played by Rachel McAdams) a sculptor, graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago (my ma' was actually a graduate of the school ;-) are a lovely (and surprisingly married if alas, not in any Church ...) "bohemian" couple living in Chicago and as happy as could be.

Yet, one snowy winter's evening, coming home from an "art house theater" (the Music Box) in their car, stopped at a stop sign on a seemingly empty street and in a romantic mood, they suddenly get hit by salt truck...  Boom! Paige flies through the windshield. Leo apparently still with his seat belt on crumples into the steering wheel / airbag.  The movie resumes some weeks later ...

Paige had been kept in an induced coma for the weeks that had followed the accident while the swelling in her head decreased.  When she comes out of it, she has memory loss.  Specifically, she can't remember anything of the previous 5 years, that is, she can't remember anything since before her meeting Leo.  He is the first person she sees when she comes to, but she thinks he's the doctor ...

The actual doctor (played by Wendy Crewson) tells Leo that, well, with traumatic brain injury, it's hard to know what's going to happen, but perhaps after sometime she would fully regain her memory.

Now admitting that this is a story, but also admitting that it's based on a true story, I found the point at which her memory was lost fascinating: She woke-up to think that she was ONCE AGAIN a happy LAW STUDENT at Northwestern University engaged to a fellow law student named Jeremy (played by Scott Speedman).  The morning after she wakes up, she calls her parents, Bill and Rita Thornton (played by Sam Neill and Jessica Lange respectively) who weren't hospital before and may not have even known that she had an accident.  What the heck just happened?

The parents come rushing to the hospital.  They're happy to see her, happy also that she's happy to see them, and frankly very happy that she didn't seem to remember the last 5 years.

There's a point in the story in which Bill offers to pay Leo "to just go away" now that they (the parents) "had their daughter back."  Again what the heck happened?

Leo hadn't kidnapped Paige and she hadn't joined any cult.  But it becomes clear that Paige must have had some sort of traumatic experience even before the accident that had led her to so radically change her life in the first place -- leave law school to enter into art school, dump Jeremy, cut ties with her family, and finally meet and marry Leo.

The rest of the story is about her (with her amnesia) figuring out and the audience figuring out what that story was.  Knowing something of making radical changes in life, I do think that the movie does give a plausible, indeed (within conventions of a film like this) realistic explanation.  Something obviously happened around the time that she made her first break ...

I'm not going to tell you "what happened" because that would really spoil the story.   And I would also say to parents and to potential date goers that the movie deals with "what happened" nicely, gently and from a distance.  So unlike a fair number of romantic comedies of recent years, one does feel midway through the picture like "Hey, I thought this was supposed to be a light romantic comedy, why all this stuff now?"

So I would recommend the film to all.  The PG-13 rating is, for once, truly appropriate, and pre-teens would probably just be bored rather than "potentially damaged" by the film ;-).

Finally, I would like to write a little here on the value of getting married in the Church (or the Church of one's tradition) as opposed to what the couple did in the movie.  Yes, I do "get" young people (both today and before ... hey, people like me, and my parents, and their parents ... were in our/their twenties before as well).  But I do find it somewhat "egotistical" if a couple chooses to define everything on their own.  There is a value to submitting one's relationship (and really one's life) to something "bigger" than oneself.  Yes, Churches can seem at times "archaic," "behind the times" and all that.  However, they are repositories of knowledge, past experience (millenia of past experience...).  My ma' loved to remind me when I was a late teen and and in my early twenties that "Nothing is new under the sun ..."   (Eccl 1:9).

So I do believe that it is worth it to "remain in dialogue" with "the family" with the Church, with the Traditions of one's past.  I can also say that when I was in my 20s, my parents knew little; when I was in my 30s, they started to know more; and now in my mid/late 40s, boy were they wise ;-).

So while I do understand that it could be cool to get married "skydiving, by Elvis," (or in my case,  it could have been "kinda cool" to take my vows "in front of Yoda," ;-), the families that we have are indeed, the families that we have and the Church(es) that we have are the Churches that we have.  And it is ultimately a sign of maturity to be able to navigate and reconcile choose to become part of the pasts that we were given.

Our Creator has loved us, but Our Creator also loved our parents, grandparents, great grandparents and all the way down to our first parents ... and despite each of us screwing-up a number of times along the way.

Anyway, enjoy the film, but young couples, when you "find the one" have the courage to really get married and leave "Elvis" (or "Yoda") for later ... ;-)


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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Coriolanus [2012]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Coriolanus (directed by Ralph Fiennes, screenplay by John Logan) though filmed in contemporary Serbia including its capital Belgrade and Montenegro (also of former Yugoslavia) and certainly filmed with the intention of referencing the recent conflicts there, is based on and quite faithful to the play Coriolanus by William Shakespeare about the legendary figure Gaius Marcius Coriolanus from ancient Rome's Republican Era.

Why would a play by William Shakespeare about a legendary general from the Roman Republic era set in contemporary Serbia "work" as a film?

Giaus Marcius (played in the film by Ralph Fiennes) was a gruff, "blood and guts" Roman "war hero," who returns at the beginning of the story to Rome in glory after defeating an invading force led by Tallus Aufindus (played by Gerard Butler) of the "barbarian" Volschian people.  Upon his return, he is triumphantly given the title Coriolanus by the head of the Roman army General Cominius (played by John Kani).  Encouraged by his family and friends, notably by his mentor/promoter Senator Menenius (played by Brian Cox) and mother Volumnia (played by Vanessa Redgrave) with his wife Virgilia (played by Jessica Chastain) and young son on board as well, Coriolanus is persuaded to seek becoming Consul of Rome (basically the President).

This, however, produces a backlash.  While apparently very popular among the elite (the Roman Patrician class), among the lower classes of Rome (the Plebes) Coriolanus is seen less a "war hero" than an oppressor and arguably a war criminal.  Since alliances among the elites Patricians are always precarious and full of intrigue, a number of Tribunes, Brutus (played by Paul Jessen) and Sicinius (played by James Nesbitt), take advantage of the Plebian discontent to thwart any aspirations of making Coriolanus Consul.  Instead conspire to drive him into exile, banishing him for being a dangerous man.

Betrayed by his country after having save it, Coriolanus makes his way to Atrium, the capital of Volschians.  There he makes peace with his old rival Tallus Aufindus and offers to join with him and destroy Rome in revenge.  Soon, the Volschian army, led by the two, is on the march and no one can stop them.  Desperate, Rome sends Coriolanus' family -- mother, wife and boy son -- to Corliolanus to persuade him to not take his vengeance on Rome.  Yet, he's already made promises to the Volschian army as well.  What's he supposed to do? 

I do think that the story does "work" somewhat in former Yugoslavia because of the traumas of the recent conflicts there, where often "war heroes" also became war criminals and large numbers of common people on all sides (today's plebes of the former Yugoslav republics) were left feeling used and betrayed by everybody.

Coriolanus however is above all a "soldier's tale."  My problem with the application of the story of Coriolanus to the recent conflicts in former Yugoslavia is that a fair number of war criminals from those conflicts who sit now locked-up in the Hague could be handed excuses by this play (and its application here) to say "We're the Coriolanuses of our time."  No.

If you lined-up civilians and shot them (or ordered civilians to be lined-up and shot), then you don't deserve to be considered "war heroes."  Instead, you are war criminals.


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Monday, February 6, 2012

A Separation [2011]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1832382/
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120125/REVIEWS/120129982

A Separation (written and directed by Asghar Farhadi) is a truly excellent film that comes from Iran that's been been nominated for Best Foreign Language film for this year's Oscars (2012).  It is a very intimate film, small in scope, that nonetheless invites "those who have eyes to see and ears to hear" both in Iran and outside to open their minds and hearts and think.

At its core, it is about an Iranian couple Nader (played by Peyman Moadi) and Simin (played by Leila Hatami) with an 11-year-old daughter Termeh (played by Sarina Farhadi) that's going through a divorce -- an Iranian Kramer vs. Kramer [1979].

Why are they divorcing?  As Simin explains to the judge in the film's opening scene, that three of them had gotten passports and exit visas (to leave Iran), exit visas that will soon expire but her husband doesn't want to leave Iran.

Why doesn't Nadar want to leave Iran?  Because he can't bear to leave his father, who's somewhere in the middle stages of Alzheimer's disease.  Alzheimer's is, of course, a degenerative disease but it generally takes a very long time to actually bring about death.  Nadar's father is still living with them and when we meet him, it becomes immediately clear that though he has Alzheimer's disease, it's going to take a long time before God/Allah takes him.

So what then is Simin's rush to leave Iran, the judge asks.  Simin responds in a rather impolitic manner: She doesn't want her daughter to grow-up "under these circumstances."  And it's obvious that she's not talking about watching her grandfather slowly die of Alzheimer's.  The judge, with a somewhat offended voice, asks her what exactly she meant by that.  Simin deflects the question, but the rest of the movie is, indeed, about what she meant.

Apparently, though unable to divorce or even travel out of the country without permission of her husband, nevertheless, both Nader and Simin understand that the marriage is over.  Returning from the judge, Simin packs up some of her things and (as was done throughout the West decades before divorce became common/accepted) moves back to her mother's.

This leaves Nader with a problem.  Who's going to watch dad while he's at work?  With some help of Simin (again, anyone who knows anything of divorce would not be surprised by Simin's help here ... a marriage may be failing but the couple does not necessarily completely hate each other) Nadar hires a caretaker, a woman named Razieh (played by Sereh Bayat) with a cute little daughter and a husband who needs some help.  

Though set in Iran, anyone who's ever looked for a caretaker for an elderly parent in the circumstances of Nadar and his family would understand the circumstances of this caretaker: She's kind.  She's kind because she's religious.  And she's interested in the job because she and her family need the money.  As such, though religious and kind, she's not completely honest about her own circumstances (ie she's pregnant, and she has husband who's not particularly excited that she's working).

As such, though it may have seemed to Nadar that the situation with his father is at least temporarily resolved, right on the first day a problem arises:  Razieh's cute little daughter who Razieh takes with her to Nadar's home to watch Nadar's father  -- what's Razieh going to do? Hire a babysitter to watch her daughter while she watches an elderly man for another family? -- comes to her mom with the news: "I think the old man just wet himself."  NOBODY had thought about this happening.  Perhaps they should have thought all this through, but they didn't.  Again, nobody (except perhaps Allah/God) can think everything through ...

What's a good muslim woman supposed to do?  Well she calls the Imam (her priest) to ask: "Is it okay for a good muslim woman like me to change an elderly man?"  And she's knows the circumstances, telling the Imam: "He's old, he's senile in one of more advanced stages of Alzheimer's, so he's probably not going get aroused.  But he needs help." (Apparently the Imam assures her that in such circumstances she can change the old man's clothes ...).

In the days that follow, it just gets worse.  There's one afternoon when the old man manages to sneak-out of the apartment and she (approaching 4 months or so pregnant) has to go about running through the neighborhood (and traffic) looking for him.

The next afternoon, Nadar comes home early.  He finds his father with one arm tied to the bed and Razieh nowhere to be found.  When she comes back, surprised to see Nadar back from his work so soon, she tries to explain.  But Nadar's upset.  In the course of firing her for leaving his father "tied like an animal" to his bed, he pushes her out the door even as she continues to try to explain why she wasn't there.

The next day the police come and arrest Nadar.  Why?  Razieh claimed that when Nadar pushed her out the door, she hit the floor and consequently suffered a miscarriage.  Nadar didn't even realize that she was pregnant.  He tells the investigator: "How was I supposed to know that she's pregnant, when she didn't tell me and women wear so many layers of clothes."  By Iranian law, after a period of time (certainly by 4 months) an unborn child is considered a full human being.  Nadar's being investigated for murder.  And Razieh's husband is particularly upset because apparently he lost a son ...

What a mess.  A good part of the rest of the movie is about resolving this new crisis.  And while Nadar spends time in jail (if only for a few hours or overnight at a time), one's left wondering who's taking care of his 11-year old daughter and his aging Alzheimer's ridden father now...

Throughout the entire movie, the government is not portrayed as evil, but certainly paternalistic and to the Western observer unsettlingly/disturbingly/astonishingly (take your pick...) intrusive.  Yet the Iranian government is shown as certainly operating within the scope of its understanding of its purpose/mission in society and doing so with a good deal of sincerity as it seeks discern who's in the right and who's in the wrong in the case, armed ultimately with the same blunt tools of any bureaucracy / DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services).  Yet, most Western observers would find the level of government intrusion into the lives of both families disturbing/shocking. 

After all is said and done, Nadar is able to avoid prison, though Razieh and her husband have lost an unborn child and their financial circumstances continue to be the same mess that they were at the beginning of the story.  The situation of Nadar's father also remains precarious and Nadar's and Simin's marriage is conceded as finished by all.

All that is left is to resolve what happens now to their 11 year old daughter who it is clear to all both parents love.  And after all the other tragedies that play out in the film, we're left with that one.  Life is often very very hard ...


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