Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bernie [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1704573/
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120516/REVIEWS/120509995

Bernie (directed and cowritten by Richard Linklater along with Skip Hollandsworth) is a tight, well-written and well-edited (and when one steps back ... quite disturbing) docudrama about the real-life case of Bernie Tiede (played in the film by Jack Black) a well-liked, somewhat effeminate small town assistant funeral director from rural eastern Texas who first befriended and some years later accidently killed (or murdered ...) a wealthy but unpopular/disliked "old crow" widow named Marjorie Nugent (played in the film by Shirley MacClaine). 

Don't get me wrong.  It's a mesmerizing film/story.  About 20-30 actual townspeople are interviewed in the movie talking about the case and largely make the film.  BUT, as exasperated (and preening/somewhat sleazy) Texas State's Attorney Danny Buck (played by Michael McConaughey, IMHO PERFECTLY CAST for the role) tries repeatedly to remind the townspeople (and viewers...) this "sweet, amiable" small-town assistant funeral director Bernie who contributed to town/church (often using Marjorie's money...) and was "beloved by all" ... shot Marjorie _four times_ in the back killing her and then hid her body in a large freezer "under packages of frozen chickens and corn" in the garage.

It's a fascinating movie, but wow, it is also disturbing: Should likable people be allowed to spin/leverage their popularity to the point of trying to get away with murder with the defense "but you like me"?  Do troubled / disagreeable people deserve to die? 

Then the making of the movie itself presents some pointed moral questions.  Okay, the story is mesmerizing.  But it is about a real person who was really killed.  But then, honestly, what an object lesson / discussion piece.  Perhaps it would have been best if the film was completely fictionalized.  Still, the case did really happen.  The bottom line perhaps ought to be exactly where the State's Attorney tried to draw it: Let us remember that a real person was killed here and the one perpetrating the crime tried to hide it.


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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Headhunters (orig. Hodejegerne) [2011]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  AV Club (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1614989/
Roger Ebert -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120509/REVIEWS/120509986
AV Club -
http://www.avclub.com/articles/headhunters,73013/

Headhunters (orig. Hodejegerne) directed by Morten Tyldum, screenplay by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg based on the novel by Jo Nesbo, is an admittedly rather violent if also rather original Norwegian (English subtitled) film that's arguably a comedy about reputation and values.

The story's about Roger Brown (played by Aksel Hennie), a striver.  It hasn't been easy.  At an eminently unimpressive 5'6" (168 cm) stature with frizzy blond hair and a simultaneously pasty and freckled complexion, he hasn't been exactly easy on the eye.  Still through shear will and a lot of utter unflinching poker-faced b.s.ing, he has clawed his way up into Norway's contemporary glam-set.   He lives in a beautiful house with drop-dead gorgeous wife, Diana (played by Synnøve Macody Lund), who could easily be a supermodel if she herself wasn't a top-Oslo scene artist.  And just to keep her off balance (and him feeling in control) he keeps drop-dead gorgeous brunette girlfriend, named Lotte (played by Julie R. Ølgaard) on the side.  How does he pay this lifestyle?  By (1) working as a pulseless, stone-faced recruiter for an elite Oslo based corporate "headhunting" firm and is so good at his job that he could perhaps make even U2s Bono ("You know, you could _still_ be a "flash in the pan") or Tom Cruise ("Hey, remember Tommy boy, you're still gonna get old ...") feel insecure and (2) ... stealing high art (of all things) on the side.

So Roger's "made it" but he both knows and fears that his whole life is just an enormously flimsy "house of cards."

And indeed, Roger's whole life becomes spectacularly threatened by disaster when Clas Grieve (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) a Pierce Brosnan-era [IMDb] James Bond [IMDb] looking former mercenary from Holland comes calling to apply for the job of heading a Norwegian Black-Water Style security firm, the recruitment for which had been given to Roger's firm and then specifically to its top recruiter -- Roger.

Clas is utterly perfect for the job.  But Clas is paranoid.  Trying to pressure Roger into recommending him for the job, he miscalculates, by among other things unexpectedly yet knowingly flirting with Roger's wife Diana.  Well, remember, Roger's prided himself in being pulseless/stonefaced.  He's not going to be intimidated by anybody ... not even apparently BY A FORMER MERCENARY.  So he tells Clas basically "F-U, there's no way you're going to get this job and after a few phone calls I'll make sure you get a job of any kind in this whole country."  Well you just don't say that to a guy like Clas ... The rest of the movie follows...

The movie becomes a fascinating study of the levels of degradation that a one could be willing to undergo in hopes of protecting or extending one's honor/reputation.  Roger and Clas both pretend to be members of  Europe's 21st century "elite."  And yet they become utter savages ... in hopes of taking/defending what they believe is "rightfully theirs."

How does it end?  Well, see the movie.  I will say though that the film becomes more than just a battle of two hard-headed/egotistical men.  Both of two women in the film come to have significant/enlightening roles as well.

Parents - the film is deservingly R-rated for both the obvious reasons (sex and violence) but also frankly that there is no compelling reason that I could think of that a minor would need to see or particularly understand the film.  This, like many others like it, is for young adults and above.


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Monday, May 28, 2012

Chernobyl Diaries [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1991245/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/12mv064.htm

Chernobyl Diaries (directed by Bradley Parker, screenplay by Oren Peli along with Shane and Carey Van Dyke) is often a formulaic suspense/horror story -- College kids on a trip (what could possibly go wrong?) following a script written by the same guy who gained fame by making the Paranormal Activity movies (so do you think that there will be "left behind" hand-held video footage?).  Nevertheless I do believe that the film does succeeds at times in breaking some new ground.   And lets face it, for a relatively low budget "b-horror" film, expecting much more of a film like this is almost certainly expecting too much.

The main "new ground" that it breaks is that, like recent "alien invasion" film The Darkest Hour [2011] and possibly Battleship [2012], along with the "haunted house" story The Lady in Black [2012], the Chernobyl Diaries leave American shores.  It's probably "good business" to do so as Hollywood tries to reach-out to and develop new markets overseas.

But IMHO it's good for both American and non-American viewers as well.  Non-American fans of such films get to see them being set on their own turf and (hopefully) increasingly with their own stars and American viewers get to learn something of these other places and their people as well (or perhaps in a more indelible way) .  For instance, American viewers of The Darkest Hour [2011] would be reminded that Russians would know a thing or two about fighting a desperate battle against an army of merciless invading aliens as they actually fought back such an "alien invasion" _for real_ in beating back the Nazis in World War II.  The Lady in Black [2012] would remind American viewers that pretty much the birthplace of creepy "Gothic literature" was England of the 1800s and that when it comes to stories set in creepy sea-side mansions, where the fog and the tides become all but monstrous characters themselves one really can't do better than setting such stories "somewhere in the Isles."  In the case here, the Chernobyl Diaries is largely set at the site of possibly the world's worst nuclear disaster to date (though the more recent accident at Fukushima in Japan may have actually been worse) and plays an enormous homage to all the Japanese and American "radiation produced monster movies" of the 1950s-60s beginning with Godzilla [1954] and continuing with any American film from that era beginning with the words "Attack of the Giant/Radioactive/Killer ..."

So while I have no doubt that many film-goers, both American and non, will continue to find these kind of films irredeemably stupid, I've never had such a negative view of these films.  Yes, such films are generally simplistic/cartoonish and yes they often wildly exaggerate to express a point (Note that these scifi/horror films are arguably descendants of the artistic movement called Expressionism).  On the other hand, I do believe that they can warn, teach and even bring people together.

So what then is this film about?  A small group American college friends/students -- Chris (played by Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (played by Olivia Dudley) and her friend Amanda (played by Devin Kelley) are coming to the end of their summer tour of Europe by visiting Chris' brother Paul (played by Jonathan Sadowski) who's working for a firm in Kiev, Ukraine.  They have one more stop -- Moscow -- before they head home to the Unitest States and continue with their lives.  Paul asks his three visitors if before heading to Moscow they'd like to take a day trip to Chernobyl, about a two hour drive north of Kiev.  "But isn't that the site of like the worst nuclear accident in history?" his brother asks.  "Yes, but I have a friend, Yuri (played by Dimitri Diatchenko) who runs a small 'extreme tourism' agency here in Kiev and he can take us there."  After some initial skepticism/doubts decidse "what the heck?" and to try this out.

So the four show-up in the morning at Yuri's storefront travel agency.  A couple of English-speaking backpackers from Norway, Michael (played by Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (played by Ingrid Bolso Berdal), join the group as well.  They all jump into a rather old, functional-looking van driven by Yuri and head-off to Chernobyl.  What could go wrong?

Well, about 20 kilometers outside of Chernobyl, they are stopped at a military check-point and told to not go further.  Yuri, doesn't entirely understand why, because he's led other groups there before.  But this time the guards simply won't let the group go further.  They tell him that the exclusion zone is temporarily closed "for maintenance."   "Okay, he tells the guards," and begins to back the van up.  He then turns to his group and tells them "Don't worry, this is not the only way to get into the exclusion zone."  Sure enough, some time later, they drive-up to the outskirts of the abandoned town of Pripiat, the main town that had been abandoned as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.  Would it be dangerous to be there?  Presumably yes (hence the check-point some 20 clicks down the road).  But Yuri, a former Ukrainian special forces officer, also has a small Geiger-counter on his person to presumably warn him if they come across any really high radiation hotspot.   Again, what could possibly go wrong?

The place of course looks really, really eerie (and is real).  After all, there are these huge apartment buildings municipal buildings and public spaces, and they've all been abandoned for over 25 years.  Rust, weeds and weather have taken their toll.   Amanda, something of a photographer is taking pictures of everything.  Yuri tells the group that Pripiat is "a place where nature is once again reclaiming it all."

But then, nature and high-energy radiation can make for an unpredictable combination.  Walking by a pond, they come across some rather strange (and vicious?) looking fish.  During the afternoon they have a few more run-ins with some other feral creatures running about this huge exclusion zone surrounding the abandoned city of Pripiat and the adjacent Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

As darkness approaches and they return to the van, they run into a significant problem: Yuri finds that he can't seem to start it.  The cables to the distributor cap appear to be either strangely corroded or more likely sabotaged.  But by what/whom??)  Welcome to the rest of the movie ...

The viewer will recognize that the film-makers have applied _some_ but not all the techniques that made Oren Peli's first Paranormal Activity [2007] movie such a great and suspenseful horror film.  And I must say that they chose _wisely_ which techniques to apply and when, the effect proving to be quite good.  I found the Chernobyl Diaries a far better suspense/horror movie than either Paranormal Activity 2 [2010] and Paranormal Activity 3 [2011].

And the movie does have a message, even if exaggerated for effect, which is the same as all these kinds of movies since the first Godzilla [1954] movie hit the screens that Radiation and Nature don't mix very well, that truly unpredictable effects/problems can arise, and therefore some caution / humility on the part of humanity with regarding such inherently hazardous technologies as nuclear energy is not a bad thing.

Parents, do note that except for language (which is often quite crude ... "What the <bleep> [was that...]?") and that the film is, in fact, a rather scary movie, there's not all that much that would be of enormous concern here.  Still because of its scary/horror intentions, I wouldn't recommend it for a pre-teen audience.  And the language would probably annoy/trouble many.


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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Hick [2011]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Hick (directed by Derick McMullen, screenplay by Andrea Portes based on her novel by the same name) is a tough appropriately R-rated story about a 13 year-old girl named Luli McMullen (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) from the Nebraskan countryside who runs away from home.

Now why would she do that?  Well, parents take note: Because her parents were arguably world-class losers.  What do I mean?  Well the film opens with Luli's 13th birthday party.  Where is it being held?  In a tavern.  So none of Luli's actual friends are there.  Does she even have any friends?  Instead, the crowd is mostly "regulars" that one would find at a random tavern in a random small town in the American Midwest on a random weekday night.  Ma' brings out a cake with a big "13" candle on it.  Luli dutifully blows the candle out.  Then ma' proceeds to gossip with every woman and flirt with every guy in the establishment while Luli is left to sit alone on a bar stool and draw in her little sketch pad/notebook while pa' slinks back into a booth somewhere in the back of the place and proceeds to drink himself into oblivion.  Oh yes, and what of Luli's big present?  An uncle gives her real Magnum-44 revolver in a gift box with a bow on it.  Fortunately, the family appeared to be too cheap, too broke or both to provide the bullets...

A few days later, when ma' runs off with a traveling salesman and pa' is too drunk/hung-over to care, Luli decides that she's had enough of home and decides to head for the Las Vegas [IMDb].  Why Vegas?  Well growing-up as a latch-key kid on an isolated farm far outside of town with both parents pretty much "doin' their [horribly self-destructive] things" she's probably watched more TV than the norm.  And indeed, while left at the farm alone, again ... an ad comes on the TV saying "Come to Vegas!"  Luli, with her gun in her hand does a few Dirty Harry imitations.  Okay Dirty Harry had been from San Francisco, but the 13 year old isn't particularly concerned about the details.  Frisco or Vegas, who cares?  Anything would be more exciting than being stuck on the farm, already effectively abandoned, while her parents destroy their lives.  So she packs a large purse, yes, takes the revolver with her ... and starts walkin'.

Now clearly one can't possibly hope to walk all the way from Nebraska to Vegas.  So she has to hitchhike.  And with this come the inevitable problems.  On her journey, she takes rides from two drifters/grifters, one a washed-up/injured former rodeo rider named Eddie (played by Eddie Redmayne), the other a 20-something woman named Glenda (played by Blake Lively) who could have also run-away from home when she was a teen.  The story proceeds rather predictably if often heartrendingly from there.

What perhaps makes the story all the more tragic to watch is that Luli has a hobby/talent.  She likes to draw and draws very, very well.  So throughout the story, as often terrible things happen to her, or nearly happen to her, she draws.  And it's not as if she's not aware of the dangers that she faces or the terrible things that both happen to her or nearly happen to her.  But the pictures she draws often seem utterly disconnected from her actual life.  But then there are _also_ pictures that hit what has gone on in her life right on the head.

So what to make of her pictures?   They are the pictures of a 13 year old, but also of someone who's had a very difficult life.  In my mind, her pictures, and her voice-overs talking about many of them are what makes the movie.  And the effect is very, very poignant and very, very sad.

Would I recommend this movie to teens?  Parents, I do believe that the R-rating is definitely appropriate.  Yes the movie is about a teen, but a teen coming from a very troubled situation.  Hence parental judgement here as to whether or not to allow one's own teens to see such a movie is entirely appropriate.  Now the simple/crass -- "sex or violence quotient" isn't particularly high.  There is no nudity, but sex, indeed at times rape is certainly assumed.  There is also one scene in which Eddie probably bludgeoned a man to death.  And yes, the gun eventually does go off.   But beyond all this, the whole "running away from home" theme _could_ give some teens ideas.  On the other hand, the film is often so depressing, disturbing and sad that it may actually serve as a deterrent to kids contemplating running away from home. 

A note about the ending (POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT).  Alec Baldwin playing a character named "Beau" comes into the picture near the end to become something a savior figure for Luli.  But by the time we reach that point in the film, most viewers would see his character as almost a "divine intervention" on the part of the film-makers.  Yes, he appears at a point in the story where he is able to pull her out of a path that seems headed toward certain and awful doom.  Yes, he doesn't want or take anything from her and sets her on a path (that doesn't include him) toward hope.  But the jaded viewer could easily imagine that even this almost "divine intervention" (heck his name is "Beau" signifying an "angelic aura...") would still somehow end in disaster or further betrayal.

The message is: kids no matter how bad it is DON'T RUN AWAY FROM HOME.  No matter how bad it is, do what Luli seemed to do in her better moments -- draw (reflect, PRAY).  And as you get older, put the pieces together.  Learn some skills (in school... THAT'S what it's for...), get a job, get independent and THEN "walk away..."  If you just end up doing something foolish/despairing and end-up dead, the Evil One (I'm not kidding) wins ...

Finally, this is the fifth film that I've seen in the last year about wounded/scarred young women from troubled pasts -- Martha, Marcy May Marlene [2011], Under My Nails [2012], Girl in Progress [2012] to say nothing of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo [2011] and now Hick.  A second tier of recent films touching on the same theme could include Country Strong [2010], Sucker Punch [2011] and possibly even the recent Mexican film Has Anyone Seen Lupita? [2011].  Are we seeing the emergence of a new kind of "femme fatale?"  One which is perhaps more authentic -- not necessarily a "danger to men" but one who is simply being ground-up/damaged by upbringing and circumstance?


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Friday, May 25, 2012

Men in Black III [2011]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Men in Black III (directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, screenplay by Ethan Cohen and others, based on the Men in Black comic book series by Lowell Cunningham [IMDb]) continues the highly imaginative and highly successful franchise (MIB [1997], MIB II [2002]) about a "super-secret U.S. government agency" responsible for managing the various needs, eccentricities (often wild) and, often enough, bruised egos of a truly "sky-is-the-limit" variety of extra-terrestrial visitors making their way, passing-through, and even residing on earth, all the while keeping earth's human population oblivious to all these extraterrestrials' presence.

It's not an easy job -- for either the "men in black" in the story or for the films' creators!  Indeed, coming to this third installment -- and I confess that I have been a HUGE FAN of the previous two MIB films as well as Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy [Amazon] book series that IMHO shared a similar imagination -- I wondered how the film would go.  After all, how does one put-together a coherent enough story (and do this for a third time) when the story's fundamental worldview is one in which truly _anything_ is possible?

Indeed, I sort of wonder what God (after all, we Christians/Catholics believe that we were created in God's image [Gen 1:27]) would think of these films' creators' "God-like" imaginations.  Would God be a fan? ;-) ;-) Or would God be saying "No, no, no you have the physics (or biology) all wrong.  If it were really the way you present things, then 'this or this' would happen.  So I'm sorry, it just doesn't work." ;-) ;-) Or would God say "Hmmm, I wish I had thought of that! ;-)  [Me], I just love these people!" ;-)

So clearly, I'm just a huge fan of the imagination present in the MIB series, and certainly one who as encouraged people (and especially the young) to live with an attitude of wonder: "The heavens are singing the Glory of God ..." (Psalm 19:1-2, St. Francis Canticle of the Sun [Marty Haugen hymn]).

But do the film-makers pull it off?  Do they put together a coherent story in a world where truly anything is possible?  Happily, I believe that they do ;-).

So what is the film about?  The film begins with Galactic archfiend Boris the Animal (played by Jemaine Clement, Russian viewers of this film may not particularly like that the film's primary villain, extraterrestrial though he is, has such an obviously Russian/East Slavic name ...) breaking out of a super-secret (and presumably super-secure) prison (on the moon) with thoughts of both revenge and saving his own people.  Finding his way back to earth, he shakes down a human-looking alien working at a somewhat seedy "electronics store" somewhere in New York for a time traveling device, which though oddly shaped turns out to be basically the size of a small ipod/smart phone of today ;-).  With that device, he seeks to go back some 40 years in time (to 1969) to kill MIB's Agent K (played in the present by Tommy Lee Jones and in younger 1960s form by Josh Brolin) and thus allow keep Agent K from "saving the world" from invasion by Boris' planet devouring people (hey they have to eat too ... ;-).  When Agent K's partner, Agent J (played by Will Smith) wakes up one morning to no reference to the existence of Agent K (except that he had died 40 years previously), it becomes clear that Agent J must "go back in time" as well to save his future partner (and thus the world).  Much ensues ...

Among that which ensues is, (SPOILERS FOLLOW but probably worth the read ... ;-) among other things, a racial profiling that Agent J (played, after all by the African-American actor Will Smith) _as well as the audience_ is no longer used to.  He finds himself having to explain to two skeptical NYPD cops (white): "Hey, just because I'm black, dressed in nice clothes and driving an expensive car doesn't mean that I stole them!" (It turns out that he _did_ steal the car ;-), but only "on police [MIB] business" to get quickly from Chrysler Building in New York's Manhattan to Coney Island where he knew from police reports that he read in OUR TIME that Boris was going to kill an extraterrestrial victim).   Agent J as well as the younger Agent K also attend a party hosted by Andy Warhol ... which given Warhol's legendary eccentricity actually makes "a lot more sense" in world of the film than in ours ;-) ;-). 

The climactic scene (OBVIOUS SPOILER...) takes place the scaffolding at the top of the launch tower of Apollo 11 in the closing minutes before its launch with Agents J and K fighting it out with Boris.  I mention the scene here because it is priceless.  The countless millions of people around the country and around the world watching the launch, all dressed in characteristic 1960s summer-clothes and sitting in front of their big wood framed 60s-era television sets, are of course completely clueless of fight taking place at the top of the launch tower.  The crew of Apollo 11 sitting in the space capsule on the other hand sees everything.  But as they look on, one of the crew members (Neil Armstrong, "Buzz" Aldrin or Michael Collins?) says to the others "Hey, I'm not calling this in. [If I do...] they're gonna scrub the launch ..." :-) So they let the two "men in black" and the odd space alien (teamed also with his second time-traveling incarnation) fight it out.

The launch of course takes place (SPOILER?) The world is saved (SPOILER?) And we learn a few more things about the characters of Agents J and K as well (SPOILER? ;-).

Who could not love a movie like this?  PARENTS NOTE that the CNS/USCCB review mentions that some of the language is not particularly suitable for minors.  To be honest, I didn't catch this.  But (1) I've missed this before, notably last year with Super 8 [PG13-2011] and this year with Cabin in the Woods [R-2012] where I found myself blushing after having initially recommended the films to parents and teens with minimal (in the case of the the first movie) or some (in the case of the second) reservations.  The language in the first movie and the drug use/references in the second were far greater than I initially remembered. Still (2), Roger Moore, author of a a column "Parents Guide to Movies" that gets printed in the Tribune company's papers (Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Orlando Sentinel, etc) noted that Men in Black III's PG-13 rating is entirely appropriate with only a smattering of perhaps a "half a dozen or so bad words."  But parents take note.  And also keep in mind (3) that questions regarding language do vary regionally.  The language used here in the neighborhood of my current parish, Annunciata on the South-East side of Chicago, is, well, that which you'd expect of a parish/neighborhood that feels very much like that of a Everybody Loves Raymond [IMDb] episode or John Candy film.  But the language used here in Chicago is probably "saltier" than want one would expect in California or the Southern United States ...

In any case, some Catholic/Christian parents may find the language in the film occasionally troublesome for youngsters/teens.  Still, on the whole, I found the film "very, very cool" ;-) -- and especially for the young and young at heart ;-) ;-).


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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Where do we go now? (orig. Et maintenant on va où?) [2011]

MPAA (PG-13)  Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1772424/
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120516/REVIEWS/120519987/0/RSS

Where do we go now? (orig. Et maintenant on va où?) directed and cowritten by Nadine Labaki  along with  Roddney Al Haddid, Jihad Hojeili and Sam Mounier in collaboration with Thomas Bidegain, is a truly "funerary" black comedy set in a small, isolated mixed Christian-Muslim village somewhere in the mountains of Lebanon in the present or recent past.

The village is tiny.  The Maronite Christian Church stands right next to the Muslim mosque in the center.  The Priest and the Imam get along just fine.  All the villagers know each other and have lived with each other all their lives as their forebears have for generations.

Yet all are well aware of the religious strife around them.  They've even been been periodically effected by it.  The film opens with the village's women, all dressed in black, the Muslim women with head-scarves, the Christian women without, going to the graves of their loved ones in the cemetery outside of the town.  The cemetery -- one side Muslim, the other side Christian -- has been there for ages.  So the women are not just visiting loved ones who've recently died, but also ancestors who've died long ago.  Yet presumably at least some of the deceased had died/killed recently and presumably some had died/killed as a result of the religious strife that seems everywhere.

However, for the time being anyway, except for the rickety bridge (half fallen-down or blown away) leading to the village, the physical scars of the religious conflict have been minimal and the village appears to remain in the state of a rickety/fragile peace.  And the women (both Christian and Muslim) are determined and increasingly desperate to keep it that way.  To the film's credit the village's Priest, the Imam (and even the Virgin Mary) are _repeatedly_ shown to be on the women's sides even as the women's actions do become increasingly desperate, and it is clear that it is _the women_ and not the village's religious figures (both "of this earth" and "beyond" who are responding often creatively if increasingly desperately to  the crisis that threatens to overwhelm their village as well.

In the preceding paragraph I've used the phrase "increasingly desperate" three times to describe the women's actions during the course of the story.  What do I mean?   (Needless to say, I'm giving a SPOILER ALERT for those who would read further, but it's probably worth it to read on).

Initially, the women try to keep information about the conflict from reaching their men.  Remember, the town is poor and isolated.  Near the beginning of the film, a couple of the teenagers from the town with the town's Christian mayor's blessing find _a single point_ (way on top of the hill on whose side the town is built) where they could get decent television reception.  The mayor then donates his wife's old television to the town so that the whole town could watch TV together in a makeshift park that they set-up on top of that hill.  With the fan-fare that only a small-town mayor could offer, he announces to the townspeople gathered on top of the hill that their fair town was going to  "finally enter into the 20th century let alone prepare for the new one." (the scene of the townspeople gathering to watch TV together recalls scenes from the Italian movie Nuovo Cinema Paradiso [1988]).

Yet, modernity quickly ceases to be all that it's cracked-up to be.  Much of the television programming appears to be quasi-pornographic offending the sensibilities of both the Christian and Muslim women sitting there with their husbands and families watching the town's television set.  Final straw, however, comes when the News comes on  The lead story is, is of course, about the religious violence occurring in the country below.  At this point, both the Christian and Muslim women spontaneously start to talk loudly and interrupt the concentration of the men to the point that the mayor eventually eventually shuts-off the television in disgust.  A few days later, a small group of women, among them the mayor's wife (remember this was her own television set) go up to the park where the TV had been setup and SMASH IT along with the antenna.

However at least vague news of the conflict occurring in the country below has reached the village.  What now, the women set about to censor "the Press."  Since the bridge to the town had fallen apart (or been blown up) previously, there are only two teenage boys (one Christian one Muslim) who ride a rickety bicycle with a couple basket down from the village each day to the next to pick-up supplies to bring them back home to town.  Generally, the men would give them money to buy newspapers.  Well, now that there's vague news of a conflict going on below, the boys' mothers burn the papers before the boys would deliver them to the men so that the men don't see it.

As tensions even in the absence of hard news mounts, the women, again Christian and Muslim FAKE a Marian apparition in the Christian Church.  The statue of Mary as the Immaculate Conception inside the Christian Church, but now with more or less obviously painted blood streaking from her eyes, starts talking to the mayor's wife (of course only the mayor's wife can hear her ;-).  And Mary seems to know EVERYTHING that's going on in the village.   She gives mayor's wife (kneeling in front of the statue in ecstasy, with all the town's people both Christian and Muslim gathered behind her) _very specific_ instructions to tell the men all the _very specific things_ that they could be doing around their houses to help their wives and families (with both the Christian and Muslim women nodding up and down and elbowing their husbands) instead of thinking about guns and war.  The men smelling something's not entirely right here, ask the Priest about this.  He shrugs and smiles and indicates to them that it'd probably be a good idea to listen to their wives/Mary.  The Imam also appears to be very much in agreement as well ...

Now the boys riding their village bike "down to the outside world," of course bring "other news" back into the village -- among them a flier regarding some in some town below.   Initially scandalized by this (and that their sons would even know of a place like this) the women of the village (again both Christian and Muslim) get together and HIRE five women (Ukrainian) from the club below to come to the village to "distract their men" while they figured out what to do.

When one of the two boys (named Nassim) going "down to the outside world" for supplies gets shot and killed by a stray bullet from the fighting below, the women come to realize that they are not going to be able to hold things together for much longer.  So they organize a big party for the whole village.  They already have the Ukrainian girls that they hired to come up to distract the men.  To make sure, _they actually load all the pastries that they bake for the celebration _with Hashish_.  Then while the men are distracted by the hired "dancing girls" and "high as a kite" on the hashish in the pastries, the women go back to their homes, barns, nooks and cranies, and take _all the men's weapons_ and _bury them_ in an unmarked grave far outside the village.

FINALLY, when the men wake-up from their drug-induced haze they discover to their shock that their women -- all of them -- have switched religions.  The Christian women have become Muslims (head scarves and all), the Muslim women have taken off their head scarves and have decorated their houses with pictures of the Virgin Mary.  AND EACH OF THE WOMEN TELLS HER HUSBAND / SONS: "IF YOU'RE GOING TO HATE THEM, YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE TO HATE ME NOW, BECAUSE NOW I'M ONE OF THEM AS WELL."

The film ends with the village's men carrying the casket of the teen, Nassim, who had been killed by that stray bullet below, with the Christian women dressed now as Muslims and the Muslim women dressed as Christians.   The men stop at the point in which they have to decide what part of the cemetery to bury the child, and ask ... (the title of the film) ...

(END OF THE SPOILER ALERT)

I found this to be a great, at times funny, at times almost unbearably sad film.  And yes, as someone in my (religious) "line of work" I did find the movie disturbing.  After all, the women in this film were progressively committing graver and graver sins.  Yet, honestly GIVEN THE SITUATION who could not understand?  And the Priest, the Imam, and EVEN THE VIRGIN MARY (in the film) "get" what the women were doing.  What a remarkable story!

Finally, many foreign film lovers will appreciate the various homages made in this film:  As I already  mentioned above, the village gathering around the "village TV" recalled similar scenes found in Nuovo Cinema Paradiso [1988].  Then the relationship between the Priest and the Imam in this film evokes memories of the relationship between Don Camillo and the [Italian] Communist mayor in the Don Camillo [IMDb] film series (though arguably the Priest and the Imam in this film got along much better than Don Camillo and the Italian Communist mayor in the other ;-).  Finally, the opening cemetery scene as well as the women's increasing desperation in this film recall the Spanish film Volver [2006] which had starred Penelope Cruz (and for which she had been nominated for an Academy Award).  In the case of  Where do we go now?  arguably the whole town's women were as traumatized as Penelope Cruz' character was in Volver

All in all, I was very impressed with this film and wish the film's makers as well as their country honestly all the best.  And yes, I understood the horror/tragedy described.  Stories like this do, like the Virgin Mary in this film, make me weep.


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Friday, May 18, 2012

Battleship, The Dictator, What to Expect When You're Expecting

I'm not going to the movies this weekend.  Partly this is because of the NATO summit taking place this weekend here in Chicago that promises to make going through the downtown area a nightmare and partly it's because I can't justify paying even matinee prices / the loss of time to see any of the three more "popular" movies being released for this weekend in the U.S.

Still, I'd like to offer the usual links to readers here as well as offer a few words as to why one could probably make better use of one's time than see any of these three movies in the theater.

THE DICTATOR (MPAA (R) - CNS/USCCB (O) - Roger Ebert (3 Stars)) directed by Larry Charles, cowritten by (along with three others) and starring Sasha Barron Cohen [IMDb] as Aladeen the dictator of a fictious Middle Eastern nation called Wadiya appears to be basically Charlie Chaplin's [IMDB] The Great Dictator [1940], meets Sasha Barron Cohen [IMDb] of Borat [2006] and Bruno [2009] infamy.

I mention Charlie Chaplin's film because that may be the only aspect of this film that could give one pause before condemning it.  In 1939-40, Europe was forced by Adolf Hitler, a mad-man, to enter into a ruinous war that ended up costing 50 million lives.  And so if Charlie Chaplin mercilessly lampooned this future arch-war criminal, honestly so be it.  At times it really is the court jester who has to speak the truth. In an interview prior to his own death last year former Czech playwright / dissident, then president Vaclav Havel noted that all the world's leaders knew for decades that Libya's strongman Muammar Gaddafi was insane. Yet few if anybody called Gaddafi out on this.  So in this sense, Sasha Barron Cohen [IMDb] is simply if mercilessly calling out a fair number of Gaddafi-like strong men / dictators in the Middle-East as insane.

The issue that I have had with Cohen's humor is, in fact, its mercilessness and his willingness to freely insult innocents in the process.  For instance, while it is indeed possible that Kazakhstan has its share of anti-Semites in its midst, most Americans knew next to nothing about Kazakhstan prior to Cohen's film Borat [2006] and now many may think that the country is somehow uniquely anti-Semitic when in reality the anti-Semitic slurs and imagery in Borat [2006] was all too common in lands far better known to average Americans.  Similarly, Cohen' s Bruno [2009] savagely lampooned perennially "fringe" but generally _kindly_ U.S Presidential candidate Ron Paul with over-the-top "gay" Bruno trying to "seduce" him.  It's the savagery of Cohen's humor, often honestly unwarranted (What did Kazakhstan ever do to anybody or Ron Paul ever do to anybody?) that makes Sasha Barron Cohen "no Charlie Chaplin" ... 


WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING (MPAA (R) - CNS/USCCB (L) - Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)) directed by Kirk Jones, written by Shauna Cross and Heather Hach based on the What to Expect pregnancy and parenting books by Heidi Murkoff is a film with a large ensemble cast of stars including the likes of Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Chris Rock, Anna Kendrick, Elizabeth Banks and Dennis Quaid, the main problems with the film being (1) its obvious formulaic nature (yet another "rom comish movie" based on a self-help book -- He's Just Not That Into You [2009] which actually was pretty good and Think Like a Man [2012], which was less so) and (2) its tilt toward lowest common denominator crudity of last year's hit Bridesmaids [2011].  Okay, I get it: "girls can be just as crude as boys."  Wonderful.  But is that really "progress?" 



Finally, there's BATTLESHIP (MPAA (PG-13) - CNS/USCCB (A-III) - Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)) directed by Peter Berg and written by Eric and Jon Hoeber and starring among others Liam Neeson is yet another "alien invasion movie" with a Transformer look bankrolled by Hasbro (the maker of both the Battleship board game and the Transformers toys).  Apparently a 2+ hour $200 million+ movie featuring the Transformer machines attacking Chicago wasn't enough (Transformers 3 [2011]).  There was a need for a 2+ hour $200 million+ movie featuring Transformer machines attacking Hawaii and Hong Kong made less than a year later.  Additionally, since there was a high budget 2+ hour movie released last year featuring the U.S. Marines fighting off invading aliens (Battle Los Angeles [2011]), then there was a need for make another high budget 2+ hour movie with the U.S. Navy also fighting off invading aliens.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Battleship appears to be that after the aliens get their armor protections stripped off, they end up looking a lot like us.  Still, I don't know if this perhaps interesting plot twist is worth the $10+ admission fee to say nothing the nearly 2 1/2 hour viewing time.  Gone With the Wind [1939], War and Peace [1967], The Longest Day [1962], Deer Hunter [1978]Apocalypse Now [1979] or even Star Wars [1977] / The Empire Strikes Back [1980] / Return of the Jedi [1983] it is not.


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Monday, May 14, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel [2011]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (directed by John Madden, screenplay by Ol Parker based on the novel by Deborah Moggach) is a film that I found problematic on a number of levels.

First of all even though most of the protagonists in the film are not Indian (but rather retirees from Europe, and then specifically from England), the film is set largely in contemporary India.  As such, I do believe that a fair/complete evaluation of this movie will have to wait for the film's release in India (on May 18th) and subsequent critical reaction there.  (Yes, I understand that India is a complex and dynamic society of over a billion people, multiple languages, religions and social strata.  Still, I just can't see how one could make a fair evaluation of the movie without Indian voices.  After all, it is a film about their country).   [Note that the reviews by the Times of India / India Today following release in India were predictably mixed -- good cast but poorer screenplay/presentation of the country]. 

Second, as an American rather than a Brit or otherwise European, it was not necessarily easy to relate to the (perhaps) emerging paradigm being explored -- Brits/Europeans deciding to go to India (or other places in South Asia) to retire.  True there have been (relatively wealthy) Americans who have chosen to retire in such places as San Miguel Allende or Puerto Vallarta in Mexico over the years.  Havana, Cuba in the pre-Castro years served a similar purpose.  Still, India is truly "a half a world away" (10-12 time zones) away from the United States.  So the retirement option explored here could be as relatable to most Americans as a Jane Austen or Kipling novel.

On the flip-side, however, and I have at least two of them ;-):  First I belong to an international religious order, with a thriving Province in the Tamil Nadu state of India.  About 20% of the classmates who I studied with while studying at our Order's international college in Rome were from India.  It turns out that India is only about 3-4 or so time zones ahead of Rome (about the difference between in time between East and West Coasts of the United States).

Then I have younger Czech relatives who have a clearly different spacial concept than my American one.  Some of them have gone on vacation to the Canary Islands (south of Spain and off the coast of Africa -- from where Columbus actually embarked on his voyages to the New World).  Others have gone to scuba dive off of Egypt's Red Sea coast which they have found far closer (and cheaper) than crossing the Atlantic to do the same thing in the Caribbean (the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Aruba, etc) as American/Canadian tourists would do.  Finally, the most adventurous of my younger relatives from the C.R. (a psychologist and her husband) actually went one summer to canoe the Mekong River in Laos a few years ago.  So European conceptions of "what's close" or even "what's on the horizon" are different than those of us Americans.

Then to round things out, consider that Goa has long been "India's Riviera" (and was actually featured in the film Bride and Prejudice [2004] a contemporary Indian update on the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice), Dubai has become something like the Middle-East's Monte Carlo / Las Vegas every bit as exotic as a locale from the Medieval Middle-Eastern classic 1001 Nights, and Argentinian Ernesto ("Che") Guevara in much the same tradition as Marlon Brando in "Wild One" [1953] or Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider" [1969] took an epic motorcycle journey in his youth (across his native South America).

All this is to say that while an American audience could find the idea of Brits/Europeans going to India to retire initially unrelatable, when one starts looking at the distances it's not necessarily all that impossible, EVEN IF for the vast majority of people no matter where they are from, living most of one's life in one country and retiring then in another is still something outside the realm of possibility or even imagination.  Still this becomes one of the questions explored in the film -- Will Europeans come to "outsource" their elderly to places like India?

Finally, one of the subplots in the film involves a homosexual character seeking "closure in his sunset years."  The character, Graham Dashwood (played by Tom Wilkinson), had grown-up in India in the closing years of "the Raj" and had been sent back to England by his English family after his homosexuality had been found out.  Now, knowing that his health was deteriorating, he was seeking to go back to India to find the Indian man who had been his first and only true love.  Needless to say this subplot is rather problematic one for a practicing Catholic today, even if most of us (up and down and across the Catholic Church) have relatives and friends who have come out as homosexual.  Yet, homosexuality has become a point where Catholic Church and contemporary culture are more or less obviously heading off in divergent directions.

So, what would seem initially to be a relatively "light" "art film" with a great "ensemble cast" becomes quite challenging.   How will folks from India look at this film about older Westerners (some clearly portrayed as racists) coming to their country (at times kicking and screaming but with little financial choice) to retire?  Does a film like this even make sense to most Western audiences since the vast majority of Europeans to say nothing of Americans will never be able to afford to go to a place as distant as India?  How is a Catholic heterosexual supposed to look at a film where one of the main characters is portrayed as both homosexual and sympathetic?

[Note: As a result of the CNS/USCCB's publication of its review of this film (in anticipation to the film's general release as opposed to its remaining on the "indi/art house circuit"), I've significantly reworked this paragraph as well as the following one of my review to take into account of the U.S. Bishops' office's concerns]. With regards to the last question about the portrayal of the film's homosexual character, it is worthy to note here that the CNS/USCCB gave the film an "O" (or morally offensive rating) for its "benign view of premarital sex and homosexual acts" (indicating that its concerns with the film are more general than with simply its portrayal of the homosexual character). Yet wouldn't it be natural for someone who knows that he/she is homosexual to simply _hate_ the Catholic Church now for insisting that there is simply no way for one to be who one is (homosexual) and be considered "normal" let alone enjoy the same legal / social rights and protections as non-homosexuals?  But there we are.  Even if we can't change a thing about it (and I know very clearly that I can't) at minimum it should not be surprising to us who are sincere and practicing Catholics why homosexuals (and their heterosexual friends) would hate us.

On the flip side thanks to the CNS/USCCB's review of the film, perhaps those who would tend toward hating us in the Catholic Church for its position on homosexuality could perhaps better understand where the Catholic Church is coming from and the larger scope -- ultimately rooted in what in Catholic moral theology is called natural law on which it bases its teaching on sexuality.  So, again, there's _a lot_ in this film (and surrounding discussion) for adults to think about! (Like in a many other similar films that I've reviewed here, I don't believe that most viewers under young adult age would really "get" this film or the concerns that the Catholic bishops would have with it).

Wow.  So then what's the film actually about? ;-).  Well it's about a group of British retirees who for various reasons find that they are compelled to go to India in their sunset years.  Evelyn Greenslade (played by Judi Dench), recently widowed, finds that her husband left so many debts that she had to sell her own house to pay them off and had no place to go.  Muriel Donnelly (played by Maggie Smith) who had been a domestic worker all her life, finds that she needs a hip-replacement.  Though she's never been anywhere outside of England and loathes to travel to India now, due to reasons of both time (being on a waiting list) and money is told that it'd be far easier and cheaper for her to go to India for her operation than to wait for it in England.  Douglas and Jean Ainslie (played by Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) found to their misfortune that they put too much of their own money in their daughter's "start-up business" and now had no place to retire affordably in England.  There was Graham Dashwood (played by Tom Wilkinson) who was trying to come to closure and peace with regards to his lost love back in India.  Finally, there were Norman Cousins (played by Ronald Pickup) and Madge Hardcastle (played by Celie Imrie) who were still (or once again) single at their (relatively late) stage in life and figured "what the heck?"  They weren't ready to die yet.

All these people receive in one way or another an advertisement to come to India and stay at the "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" to live out the rest of their years if they so desired.  And so, for their various reasons and with a spectrum of approaches/attitudes toward that prospect, they all decided to take try it out.  And of course much ensues.

The hotel is run by Sonny Kapoor (played by Dev Patel) who has a dream - to convert the hotel left to him by his father into a retirement hotel for "outsourced old people" sent to India "by England and other places that hated old people" that would become such a haven for them that "they would become so happy that they would simply refuse to die."  Sonny was an optimist, a dreamer and someone who was trying to find his own way to capitalize on the globalization trends of the world today.  He also had it problems at home, as he appeared to be "the only one of his brothers who did not succeed" so far in India's current boom.

Again, much much plays out.  Sonny has a girl-friend Sunaina (played by Tena Desae) who works at a Indian call center hired by Western English speaking firms to do the customer service work for them.  Sonny's mother, Mrs Kapoor (played by Lillete Dubey), of some wealth (and with those two successful sons, one in Dubai and the other in London) sees Sunaina as a possible gold-digger and her son Sonny as a hopeless dreamer who could easily be taken advantage of.

Now both Hollywood and Bollywood require that the story end well.  So one could guess how it all ends.  Still there is more to this picture than meets the eye.  Former domestic worker Muriel, in particular, has something of an epiphany during her time at the hotel.  Others don't necessarily change much at all.  But then, that's how often life is.  As Evelyn (the Judi Dench character) writes to her sons in her blog at some point: "India, like most of life is what you bring to it."  If one is open to change, one accepts it and even thrives in it.  If one is not ...


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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Girl in Progress [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1817676/
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120509/REVIEWS/120509985

Girl in Progress (directed by Patricia Riggen, screenplay by Hiram Martinez) is a film that many people will not understand.  Yes, the characters are often painted in broad strokes.  Yes, the film is about a Hispanic single mom Altagracia/Grace (played by Eva Mendes) raising a teenage daughter Ansiedad (played by Cierra Ramirez) and not particularly well by anyone's including the two characters' own standards.

Still it makes for a very interesting "Mothers' Day" story especially for families where things have not necessarily gone all that well.

And the film could offer well-intended but often clueless non-Hispanics an opportunity to understand _a little_ (and again, _just a little_) the challenges of growing-up Hispanic in the United States today.

A first challenge is simply with names.  In the very first scene of the film, Ansiedad a rather angry Hispanic teenager, asked to do a presentation about someone she considers a "hero," quite sarcastically chooses her mother, who she introduces on the first slide of her her power-point presentation as "Altagracia" but continues "Since no one could pronounce her name, she quickly changed her name to 'Grace' which her mother then couldn't pronounce."  For the many non-Hispanics who would never know this, Altagracia is the name of Catholic Patroness of the Dominican Republic "Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia," the point being that Altagracia/Grace's mother was Hispanic but not from Mexico or Puerto Rico or Cuba but probably from the Dominican Republic, with it's own history, it's own culture, it's own things to be proud of, among them being the devotion/Basilica/traditions revolving around "Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia."

So from pretty much Day 1, Altagracia/Grace had to make decisions about her identity that non-Hispanics or at least those from non-immigrant families generally do not have to make.  Interestingly, Altagracia/Grace, gives her own daughter a rather strange Hispanic (though no longer religious) name "Ansiedad" (which means Anxiety... a name that would be strange in English as well).

In subsequent slides in her Powerpoint presentation, Ansiedad then goes through the various states that she's lived with her mother during her life, moving each time on account of one or another of her mother's various boyfriends, each time her mom having been lied to (and letting herself be lied to).  Near the end of the list, Ansiedad says with the sacrasm that only a teenager could intone "My mother even dated an astronaut.  Of course he turned out to be one of those astronauts who will never actually make it to space ..."

Clearly Ansiedad doesn't think particularly highly of her mom, and as often is the case, with some reason ... Ma's current "boyfriend" is a doctor, married, a gynecologist, for whose family she cleans (among other things ... toilets).  Ma has a second job, working as a waitress at a local Crab Shack.  And yes, on the other side of the coin, Ma is desperately trying to continue to make enough money to continue to send Ansiedad to a school where she can make Powerpoint Presentations ... (Any parent struggling to make their kids lives a little better could understand ...).

But there it is.  Then a well-meaning English teacher, Ms Armstrong (played by Patricia Arquette) decides to give Ansiedad's class an open ended assignment about writing a "coming of age" story.  Ansiedad, who's already experienced more than her share of both anxiety and suffering in her life, goes to the library and onto the internet to read-up about what a coming of age story entails.  Since she's already had enough suffering in her life as it is, she simply puts together a flow-chart for "coming of age" so that she could just "come of age" and be done with it.

Among the steps on her flow chart were "dumping her best friend" (in Ansiedad's case a cute and ever smiling if somewhat chubby Hispanic classmate named Tativa (played by Raina Rodriguez) to "become friends with the popular kids," "losing her virginity (preferably to some jerk)" and finally 'leaving home."  All these are, of course, rife with consequences, intended and non.  But remember, Ansiedad's childhood has thus-far been awful, and she just wants "grow up" and get on with it ...

And of course, she's not even realizing that she finds herself choosing to follow exactly the same hardened path as her mother did.  And her mother, who, yes, has been constantly sidetracked by one boyfriend or another, still believes that despite her absence (often enough just to make enough money to give her increasingly ungrateful daughter "a better life") has become exactly the same kind of mother that she herself had run-away from.

This is a Hollywood movie in the end, so it does wrap-up well.  But as I describe the film ... especially if some of this begins to touch home ... bring some kleenex ...


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Friday, May 11, 2012

Dark Shadows [2012]

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

IMDb Listing
CNS/USCCB Review
Roger Ebert's Review

Dark Shadows, directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, story by John August and Seth-Grahame-Smith, is IMHO a rather flat reboot of Dan Curtis' 60s era television series Dark Shadows, introduces viewers of a new generation to some of the key characters in the series.  It seems more or less obvious to me that the film is intended to be the first of a new franchise.  Still, it's hard for me to get excited about that prospect of a coming series of films for reasons that I'll get to by the end of this review.  But rather than get into spoilers in the first paragraph, let's first talk about the set-up of the story ...

The film begins with an extended voice-over by Barnabas Collins (played by Johnny Depp) explaining his tragic situation: Several centuries ago, his father Joshua Collins (played by Yvan Kaye) had come from England to New England (still largely wild, unsettled Maine) to start a fishing business.  He proved to be extremely successful.  As a result, a town named Collinsville formed around his fishing outpost.  And on a imposing hill above that town, he was able construct an imposing family manor home in the style of British gentry of the time.  It was into that life that Barnabas was born.  His father was literally "king of the hill," success written over everything that he had ever done.  However ...

As Barnabas approached adulthood, a French-accented servant girl Angelique Bouchard (played by Eva Green) fell in love with him.  But, Barnabas' heart fell for another Josette DuPres (played by Bella Heathcote).  [For those wondering about all these French named / accented characters in the story, remember that Maine (actually then part of Massachusetts) would have been the northernmost colony of the British at the time and that north of Maine would have been both Quebec and Acadia, which had been French colonies]. 

Well Barnabas discovered soon-enough that he turned-down the affections of the wrong woman, for Angelique, "low born" though she may have seemed, was witch.  And, as the saying goes, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned..."  So Angelique exacts terrible revenge -- taking-down Barnabas' parents in a seemingly unfortunate accident, driving Josette into committing suicide and finally turning Barnabas into vampire, who she denounces to the townspeople.  The townspeople, knowing of the terrible misfortunes that had taken place in the Collins' manor of late, need little convincing then to condemn Barnabas to an awful fate.  Since as a vampire he was eternal, then decide to bury him ("alive") in his casket deep in an unmarked grave somewhere way outside of town.  So that's where Barnabas places himself at the end his beginning voice-over ... ever-cursedly "alive" but trapped, buried in his casket, underground, seemingly for all eternity ...

The story commences anew some 200 years later in the 1970s.  A road crew building a new highway to town comes across the the casket.  They open it ... and out comes Barnabas ... much ensues ...

Among that which ensues is Barnabas' discovery that though his family, the Collins', still live in town, indeed, in the same old, though now heavily delapidated, manor house, their honor has been been horribly shattered over the generations.  Their once proud fishery/canning business had been all but destroyed by a business that had been run by a succession of  "strong women" all apparently named according to variations of ... Angelique ;-).  In her current incarnation, she goes by the name Angie (of course still played by Eva Green).  Interestingly, it takes Barnabas return to make the connection, for the current Collins' were not exactly the brightest of people.

Elizabeth Collins Studdard (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) is the most capable, but in the absence of anyone else with any spine has been reduced to being harried matriarch trying to just keep the family together.  Her brother Roger Collins (played by played by Jonny Lee Miller) rudderless, perhaps on account of the loss of his wife, perhaps because he was always a listless loser living off of his family's ever dwindling past fortune, appeared to be hanging around the manor because it offered a roof over his head.  Elizabeth's daughter Carolyn (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) was something of a spoiled brat.

Nephew David Collins (played by Gulliver McGrath), Roger's son, traumatized by the sudden/terrible death of his mother (played by Josephine Butler) "sees ghosts."  As a result, Elizabeth got him both a live-in psychiatrist Dr Julia Hoffman (played by Helna Bonham Carter) and a governess, Vicky/Victoria Winters, who looks a heck of a lot like ... Josette (and indeed she's also played by Bella Heathcote).  To round-out the significant characters in the cast, there's also the bumbling groundskeeper Willie Loomis (played by Jackie Earle Haley).

None of these characters, however, not even Elizabeth, really had a clue of what they were up against until that road-crew unearthed Barnabas' casket and "he came home" to give them a fighting chance to recover their family's former glory/honor.  Indeed, as the byline to the movie suggests "Every family has its demons" and it was only after Barnabas comes back, that the family began to comprehend the origins of its difficulties ...
 
All this may be true, and much indeed ensues ...  To be honest, however, though the film-makers more or less obviously hint at sequels, I'm not sure how they'd pull it off.  I say this, because if I was looking to make sequels, I'd make sure that a different constellation of characters was left standing at the end of this one.  But then, why the obvious hints?

Still the film has its humor, and avid B-movie film-goers will catch more or less obvious homages to The Exorcist [1973], The Sixth Sense [1999], Sucker Punch 2011] and Twilight Breaking Dawn [2011].

In the final analysis, however, I just wish that the film offered a better sense of where it wanted to go.  As such, I do have to rate the movie as something of a disappointment.


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