Saturday, June 30, 2012

Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2215285/

Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection, written, directed and staring in no less than three roles Tyler Perry [IMDb], presents his take on the 4 year old financial crisis that our country finds itself in (the worst since the Great Depression) through the eyes of his increasingly famous character, the no nonsense Madea [IMDb] (played by Tyler Perry).

The movie begins with conscientious George Needleman (played by Eugene Levy) an accountant at a New York investment firm, who's found himself doing surprisingly well at his job in recent years, once again "putting his job first," and traveling from his spacious New York suburban home down to the city on a Saturday "to do some paperwork" rather than "go to the game" of his amiable but somewhat chubby and not particularly athletic son Howie (played by Devan Leos).  Indeed, as he leaves home, his probably inappropriately young for his age second wife Kate (played by Denise Richards) and 15 year old daughter from his first marriage Cindy (played by Danielle Campbell) are both (though for somewhat differing reasons) angry at him for "once again abandoning the family" to go back to work.  Sigh ... but at least he's doing "good work" and he's doing it actually "for the family ... if they only knew."

Well, he comes to the office and finds EVERYBODY there shredding everything in sight.  What happened?  George's boss tells him ... "I've never really told you, but what we've been doing here is running a gigantic Ponzi scheme for the last five years, and the Feds are coming to shut us down." "But how could that be?  I've been CFO here for the last 5 years.  Shouldn't I have noticed something?"  "That's great!  That's why we've always loved you!  Could you say that louder and into my microphone please?"  (He does).  Turns out that George Needleman was promoted way above his capacity over those last several years, PRECISELY so that he could be the company's fall-guy when the scheme was uncovered.

Switch to Altanta.  Heavy-set recently retired Madea is carrying a few bags of groceries out of the store when she's attacked by a young masked "thug" (who has no idea what he's up against) demanding that she give him her money.  She answers "No way!  Now I'm going to tell you son, do yourself a favor, GO GET A JOB!" "But I have a gun!" "Son, I spent years and years working to finally get this Social Security to be (spits to the side) on a 'fixed income.'  So there's no way I'm gonna give it to a puny thug like you with a puny gun.  Get yourself a job!" "This is my last warning!" "No, this is my last warning!"  Much then ensues over the next couple of minutes.  In the end, the masked thug scared for his life gives up.  And he's revealed to be Madea's own nephew Jake (played by Romeo Matthew).  What the heck just happened?

Well, Jake, Madea's nephew and son of a Baptist Minister, Pastor Nelson (played by John Amos), had been entrusted by his church to invest the church's money wisely so that it could pay-off its mortgage faster.  Where did Jake put the money?  Well in the best mutual fund that he could find ... the one run by Needleman's firm, the one that turned out to be a Ponzi scheme.  So Jake, who had previous encounters with the law, and had been so grateful to his father and his father's church to be given "another chance" had lost all the church's money and was scared to death what they'd do to him, and more to the point that the news would "just crush" his dad.  Yes, the Bernie Madoff scandal that came to fore (and was also an elaborate Ponzi scheme) hurt a lot of charities and churches that trusted Bernie Madoff's firm with their money.

Okay, it turns out that another nephew of Madea's, Brian (played by Tyler Perry) an assistant federal prosecutor in Atlanta is put in charge of investigating Needleman's firm on behalf of a number of the churches and charities that lost their investments on account of that firm's malfeasance.  Prosecutors also understand that the firm possibly working as a front for the mob.  So when he talks to the very nervous/distraught Needleman, he realizes that he has to offer him and his family protection.  How?  By hiding them with Madea and her husband.  Who'd think of looking for a timid white-collar accountant and his family (all from New York) "in the hood" in Atlanta?  Much ensues ... ;-)

Of course everything turns out well.  Among the many things that are very nice about this film  -- Denise Richard's character Kate turns out to be more than just a "trophy wife" but a really nice person, Madea in her trademark way is able to knock some sense into the kids and make them more appreciate their parents -- is how Jake's father's Baptist Church is portrayed in the film and the Needleman family's relationship with it.  They don't mock it.  Instead, they go there and meet a lot of very nice people (yes, who are in great part AFRICAN AMERICAN / BLACK).  And indeed, Needleman finds how to "connect the dots" in his firm's Ponzi scheme while once being at one of their services.

This is the third Tyler Perry [IMDb] movie that I've reviewed on this blog.  And I do have to say that I've liked what I've seen.  In this film again, he is "kind/merciful" to the "big shots."  Indeed, Tyler Perry himself in real life is media mogul.  But he is also unflinching in showing the effect of malfeasance of some of the "big shots" on a lot of "smaller people" who had depended on them.

In one scene in the film, Asst Federal Prosecutor Brian is going through with Needleman some of the charities that Needleman's firm had hurt: "Look, these are charities that had been building wells in Africa, vaccinating kids, providing community services for the elderly and youth otherwise at risk.  You hurt them by, what you say, 'not paying attention.'  You're gonna have to help me, help make this right..."

Good job Tyler Perry, good job ...

Protektor [2009]

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

IMDb listing

CSFD listing - [CZ-orig, ENG-trans]

Protektor [CSFD, Eng-Trans] directed by Marek Najbrt [CSFD, Eng-Trans], screenplay by Robert  Geisler [CSFD, Eng-Trans], Benjamin Tucek and Marek Najbrt [CSFD, Eng-Trans], winner of 8 Czech Lions [Eng-Trans] (the Czech equivalent of the American Academy Awards) played recently at the  Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago as part of the 2012 New Czech Films Tour organized by the Czech Film Center and the Czech Consulates in Chicago and New York.  (The tour promises to visit 8 major cities in the United States including New York, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Washington D.C. and Seattle).

The current film is about the traumatic "Protectorate" era of Czech history, that is, about the years of Nazi occupation of the country from 1938/39-1945. Now foreign occupation would always be traumatic.  However, the specific circumstances of the Nazi occupation of the Czech part of Czechoslovakia were sufficiently unique to make the experience its own particular Hell.  I also know something of that particular Hell because both my parents, who were born in Prague in the early 1930s, lived through it.

FIRST "SOME BACKGROUND" ...  The first and most important thing to know in regards to the Nazi destruction and occupation of Czechoslovakia, is the Nazis actually took-over the country without a fight and then in two stages in the year leading-up to the formal outbreak of World War II.  Now how does one lose one's country without a fight and in two excruciating stages?

Well, in the first stage, Hitler brought Europe the edge of war over the majority ethnic German "frontier" (Sudeten) sections of Czechoslovakia.  Desperate to avoid war, the French and the British signed away those sections of Czechoslovakia (without Czechoslovakian participation in the negotiations...) to Nazi Germany in the notorious 1938 Munich Pact.  Horrified that if it refused the demands of the major European powers Czechoslovakia would actually be blamed for plunging Europe into the Second World War and knowing that without the assistance of France/England there was almost no chance of winning such a war, the Czechoslovakian government acceded to the European powers' demands knowing well that the rest of the country would become totally at the mercy of the Nazi regime. 

Five months later, summarily summoned to Berlin one evening and threatened with the annihilation of the Czech capital Prague at dawn, the elderly and by-then nominal Czechoslovakian president Hacha once again acceded to the Nazis' demands to march-in and take the rest of the country. 

The Slovakian part of the country was split-off and made into a a puppet state.  The Czech part was directly occupied, but since "occupation" sounds so Evil, the Nazis declared it to be a "Protectorate" instead: "The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia".  The era of this Nazi "Protectorate" began what became a 50 year period where the Czechs repeatedly found themselves having to bend to the will of two great powers, first to that of Nazi Germany to the North and West and later to that of Soviet Russia to the East.  And yes, it was a truly awful time.

So how does a people survive such fundamental assaults on its dignity?  Not easily.  The celebrated Czech response was that of _bending to the immediate demands_ of the "powers that be" in hopes of preserving at least some internal dignity by _never_ actually _conceding completely_.  It was, in effect, a game of "moving the goal posts," if always backwards, but at least "extending the game."  And though the Czechs would not necessarily be known to be the most church going of peoples, most Czechs would understand and _many_ would actually use the language of the Gospels to explain the reasoning ... "Render onto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's ..." [Mk 12:13-17]

This approach, whether _organized_ (in as much as "competent oppositional authority" could exist either in exile as it did during the Nazi era or inside the country as it became organized under the banner of Charter 77 during the latter stages of the Communist era) or _unorganized_ in the form of ad hoc opposition by the general populace to its oppressors, was, of course, _enormously ambiguous_.

On the "positive" side, the occupiers found that they could _never_ really count on the Czechs.  And there are truly countless examples big and small of how the Czechs played/defied/ignored their occupiers during both the Nazi and Soviet eras. During the Soviet era, Czechoslovakia came to be famously called by truly everybody (often _derisively_ by everybody) a "nation of radishes" (red on the outside, white on the inside).  And the current film actually begins with a quote by Adolf Hitler: "The Czechs may give the appearance of having their backs bent, but that's only because they're still pedaling." 

Indeed, while the Nazis did take their country without a fight, the Czechs did, in turn, take down (assassinate) by far the highest ranking member of the Nazi regime to die during the entire Second World War,  the Nazis' #3 man Reinhard Heydrich (who was serving then as the Czechs' "Reichsprotector," hence the Czechs' enemy #1).  And remarkably, the Czech paratroopers who were dropped into the country from the Czechoslovak government in exile in England to knock him off _got just him_.  No one else was even wounded in the assassination.  The Nazi reprisals that followed were characteristically appalling (the entire village of Lidice was destroyed, the men executed, the women deported to concentration camps, the children sent to "the Reich" to be adopted by German families, and in separate actions all across the country as many as 10,000 Czechs were murdered by the SS in reprisal).  But the Czechs themselves, "just got their man."  

On the other more negative side of the coin, this national survival strategy produced a nation of half-collaborators where just about _everyone_ was at least "partly wet" (namočený) and there were very few true heroes (though would-be heroes tended to have very short public lives / life-expectancies...)

So then, this history forms the context of the movie.  And the challenge that it seeks to meet is finding a way to talk honestly about that era, which was both horribly traumatic and one in which almost _no one_ but _a few of the dead_ could be honestly portrayed in heroic terms.   How do the film-makers do here?  Well you decide...

TO THE FILM ... The movie begins in the summer of 1938.  Prague, the capital, is portrayed as the Czechs like to remember it -- a vibrant, multicultural city, full of life, at the cutting edge of its time -- the Paris of Central Europe.  In this city of Prague in the late 1930s live the two principal protagonists of the story:  Hana Vrbatová (played by Jana Plodková [CSFD][Eng-Trans]), Jewish, is a young rising star in the Czech film industry of its time and her husband, Emil Vrbata (played by Marek Daniel [CSFD][Eng-Trans]) who is a junior producer working for the news division Czechoslovak Radio.

At the beginning of the story, it's Hana's star that's rising faster than Emil's and he feels rather threatened whenever he visits the studio and has to interact with Hana's studio coworkers and friends.  Indeed, Hana's older co-star Fantl (played by Jiři Ornest [CSFD][Eng-Trans]), also Jewish, tries to warn Hana that the curtain for "people like them" is about to fall and _to join him_ in getting out of the country while she still can.  Naive, and wishing to be loyal to her husband, she chooses to stay.

Emil too, sees indications that the curtain is falling.  He was sent, after all, by Czechoslovak radio to the frontier to cover the Nazi occupation of the Czech borderlands (Sudetenland) at the end of the Sudeten crisis.  Franta (played by Martin Myšička [CSFD][Eng-Trans]) the radio news broadcaster for whom Emil works is very blunt about significance of the loss of the frontier.  Still, Emil does not really comprehend.

Six months later, the Nazis roll into Prague to take over the rest of the country.   With the Nazi occupation, Hana's career is, of course, over.  Indeed within a few months, as a Jew, she can't even enter into a movie theater anymore.  Indeed, as the movie notes, within a few months, the only public spaces that Jews were allowed to congregate in Prague were in its (Jewish) cemeteries.  What now?

Well, Emil actually gets promoted.  The radio personality, Franta, who had been a Czech patriot and simply could not "adapt" (parrot the Nazi occupiers' line), is fired (and shortly thereafter arrested ...).  The new _German_ director of the formerly Czechoslovak broadcast service (played by Matthias Brandt), who directly tells his Czech subordinates that he will now be supervising as a National Socialist (a member of the Nazi party), actually _chooses_ Emil to replace Franta. 

Why?  Well, when he meets with Emil privately he tells him: "You have a Jewish wife, don't you?"  That is, the new Director knew that he could control Emil: So long as Emil toed the line, Emil's wife Hana would be "safe" (assuming, of course, that Hana herself "would know her place" -- basically never be seen).

So Emil's career now arguably skyrockets, while Hana is forced to become ever more "invisible" while being forced to be grateful to her husband for "Protecting" her.  How long, honestly, can that last?

The rest of the movie follows.  The film becomes then an exploration of a radically unequal relationship that can be understood on multiple levels.  And in the crucible of Nazi occupation, of course, there was very little room for error.

A truly _excellent film_ again, on many levels.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Ted [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1637725/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/12mv074.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120627/REVIEWS/120629973

Ted (directed and cowritten by Seth MacFarlane along with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) is one of those films that reminds one of the reality that in a free society, "the arts" (and I do use the term very, very loosely here ;-) and religion/morality are going to find themselves at times in independent spheres / "different worlds."  Yes, religion certainly has every right to comment on the arts as the CNS/USCCB does on its website, and I am doing here).  But there will be times when the "artist" will tell the religionist "to just go to Hell."   There will be times that the religionist will have a point in his/her criticism of the artist's work, most notably if the artist's work advocates some sort of violence against someone or some other group or advocates some sort of fundamental selfishness or crime.  But _in a free society_, there will also be times when the artist (and the general society) will tell the religionist to "lighten up" or simply gleefully ignore him/her.

Such then is the case here with Ted  Yes, the film is crude and often in truly imaginative ways:  One of the opening scenes of the movie has Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) the film's miraculously "living" teddy bear talkin' trash (in a Bostonian err Bah-stone-ian accent) and "doing a bong" with his life-long but now "grown-up" 35-year-old human best friend John (played by Mark Wahlberg).  With this scene, the film both intentionally and effortlessly "swan dives" into a CNS/USCCB "O" (morally offensive) rating ... only 2-3 minutes into the film.  But it's clear as day that the cast and crew of the film would wear that "O" rating as a badge of honor.

What then is someone like me to say or do with a film like this?  Well, in good part, one could note the rating (R -- and yes, Parents, the film definitely deserves it) and then concede "that's life."  The film is NOT intended for kids.  It is crude, it is stupid, it is certainly "not for everybody."  But after noting all this, the film does "have a point" that's actually a good one, and is actually expressed in language that one who may need to hear the point being made would understand.

I say this because the film is about a "man-boy" John Bennett (as noted above played by Mark Wahlberg), who _may_ have had some difficulties as a kid (don't most ... if one searches for them) but is now 35, hence "grown-up."  Indeed, he has a lovely girl friend, Lori Collins (played by Mila Kunis) of four years.  But actually he _can't_ seem to "grow up."  Ted, that walking-trash talking "teddy bear" from his childhood is THE SYMBOL of his inability to actually step-up and become a man.

And one thing that this film does a great job with (something that perhaps _a lot_ of John Bennetts in this world don't necessarily realize) is that it shows what LORI is dealing with.  SHE has friends/coworkers (and even a lecherous boss at work) and SHE finds herself having to defend JOHN to them (who all think that John's a "going nowhere" loser).  One could say that "it's none of their business, who Lori dates."  And that's partially true, but isn't it a lot easier to be dating someone who one _can_ present to friends/co-workers and actually be proud of? ... John's happy but perpetuately stoned face, going no-where job, and "teddy bear" don't give Lori much to be proud of ...

So that's then the central conflict of the movie in a nutshell.  And honestly, the situation described (yes, in exaggerated terms ... NO ONE has a "talking" or even "trash talking" teddybear) is real.  There are a lot of people who "don't want to grow-up..."

So if one puts aside the "trash talk" (and more ... but all still, basically "atmospherics" ...) the film is actually pretty serious, even as it is funny.  And may actually "speak the language" of folks who need to hear it ;-).


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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1307068/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/12mv070.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120620/REVIEWS/120629993

In truth, I had not expected to like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (written and directed by Lorene Scafaria) as much as I did.  Indeed, I only saw it on the Monday after the weekend of its release.  However, already our brother in our community had told me that he had seen it over the weekend and that he had liked it.  So I came to the film at least open to be surprised.  And I was ;-)

The film is fundamentally about a middle-aged insurance saleman named "Dodge" (played by Steve Carrell).  As the movie opens, Dodge and his wife are sitting in their car on a lazy summer's evening somewhere in New York City across from a park.  They are listening to the announcer on the radio give the grim news that "Space shuttle Deliverance, sent aloft on a mission to deflect the 30-mile in diameter asteroid that was heading for earth, was destroyed by a debris field as it approached the asteroid, and with it ended humanity's last hope of saving itself from annihilation which is expected to impact the earth in three weeks."  Having finished giving the grim news, the announcer tries to cheer-up his listeners saying: "But don't worry, we'll be playing all your favorite classic rock hits here on ... until the astroid does."  Upon hearing the devastating news, Dodge's wife opens car door on her side and runs off into the darkness of the park, never to be seen (by either Dodge or the audience) again.  And so it goes ...

The next portion of the film chronicles the various more or less expected reactions of civilization/humanity to the catastrophic news.  A lot of people stop going to work, many basic services therefore collapse.  For many, basic morality collapses as well.  There's a lot of looting, a lot of promiscuity.  An aquantaince of Dodge tells him, "Ever since the news, I've been sleeping with a different woman every night, sometimes with several woman at the same time.  This 'end of the world sex' with no consequences, no fear of commitment or disease is the best thing that's ever happened to me."  Indeed, a mutual friend of Dodge and his wife tries to seduce Dodge as well: "What does it matter now?"  And indeed, that becomes the central question of the film: If you knew that the world was going to end, how would you act?  What would become your priorities?

Indeed, the film proceeds rather predictably until a pivotal scene 2/3 into the movie occurs:  Dodge and the other principal character in the movie, his neighbor named  "Penny" (played by Keira Knightly) encounter a large group of people silently assembling by a beach to be presumably baptized by a priest-like man dressed in an alb and a stole.  No words were said in the entire scene, but not the message was, IMHO, unmistakable.

From that point onward, the tone of the movie changes and indeed "Dodge" changes.  Previous to that scene, "Dodge" had first felt sorry for himself because his wife had left him, all the other women in his life had left him, indeed his father had arguably left him and his mother when he was young.  Indeed, up until this point, he decided to spend his remaining days on earth in an end of life "quest" to see if he could meet-up with a former high school girl friend of his, who (after his wife having left him) he now remembered as having been "the love of [his] life."

After the baptismal scene, however, his focus changes.  Instead of continuing his search for the long-lost girlfriend, he decides to search out his long estranged father, Frank (played by Martin Sheen).  Finding him, (and it proved _not_ particularly hard to find him, arguably he knew _exactly_ where he was all the time) both he and his father are revealed to have legitimate complaints: "Why did you leave us?"  "Why didn't you ever, even when you turned an adult, search me out?"  Both realize that they both had reasons to ask the other for forgiveness.  AND EVEN WITH THE CLOCK "TICKING" THEY FOUND THAT THERE WAS "STILL TIME" TO DO SO.  Indeed, _after the reconciliation_ in a scene that puts tears in my eyes now as I recall it, at _dinner_ Dodge's father (again named "Frank") lifts up a glass and in face of a world crashing to its end in less than 2 weeks time, makes a toast "To the beginning of the world."

How does the film end?  Well, I'm not going to tell you, except that I do believe that it fits the direction of the movie and completes its point.  WHAT A GREAT MOVIE and WHAT A GREAT DEFENSE of CHOOSING TO DO GOOD even in the face of no perceivable advantage in doing so.

Over the years, I've come to like Steve Carrell's movies.  He has repeatedly chosen to play "small" decent people who chose to be good rather than seek "greater-ness."  Then I've had _enormous respect_ for Martin Sheen (Though I never met him, I've come to think of him "St. Martin of Los Angeles." It has a nice ring to it ;-) since my days of living and studying in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s-early 1990s.  It's good to see even Keira Knightly of "Pirates of the Caribbean" fame "choosing well" as well.  GOOD JOB FOLKS, and good job Lorene Scafaria too!  God bless you all!


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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Abdias do Nascimento [2011]

Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -

Abdias do Nascimento [Eng Trans] (written and directed by Aida Marques) is a documentary (in Portuguese w. English subtitles) about the life of Abdias do Nascimento [PT, Eng Trans] (official website, Eng Trans) which played recently at the 10th Annual Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival held at Chicago's Facets Multimedia Theater between June 15-21, 2012.

Abdias do Nascimento who died in 2011 at the age of 97 was a unflagging and imaginative leader of the Afro-Brazilian community in Brazil.

Tired of watching even black roles being played in Brazilian theaters by white actors (in black face), in 1944 he led the creation of the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater) [PT-Orig, Eng Trans] in Rio de Janeiro.  Similarly tired of watching the works of black artists largely ignored by Brazilian society, in 1950 he led the creation of the Museu de Arte Negra (Museum of Black Art) [PT-Orig 1, 2, Eng-Trans 1, 2].  He pushed the point further (and ruffled some feathers) when in 1955 he helped organize an artistic competition sponsored by the newly formed museum around the theme of "The Black Christ."  (I'd love to find some images from that competition...).

Needless to say, that kind of activism can eventually get one into trouble.  So in 1968, with the consolidation of the military dictatorship in Brazil [PT, Eng Trans] he had to flee the country.  After Brazil returned to civilian rule Abdias was eventually able to return to his country and was elected twice to serve as a deputy (representative) in the Brazilian Federal Legislature and served even as a Senator.

All in all, I found the documentary about Abdias do Nascimento fascinating and I do think that much can be learned from his example of utilizing the arts to promote justice and human dignity.


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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed [2012]

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

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1862079/
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120613/REVIEWS/120619990

Safety Not Guaranteed (directed by Colin Trevorrow, screenplay by Derek Connolly) is a well-written, well-acted, well-crafted low-budget young adult oriented "indie" film that I do hope the Academy takes note of come Oscar time at least for consideration as best original screenplay.

Bored writers working for "Seattle Magazine" bouncing around ideas at a "beginning of the week" staff meeting come across a classified ad in a local paper stating: 

WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

Ok, the ad was probably placed by a kook.  But there may be an interesting "human interest story" there.  So "tenured" but particularly bored/jaded 30-something writer Jeff (played by Jake M. Johnson), who actually presented the ad to the rest of the writing staff at the magazine, volunteers to pursue it asking for two of the staff's interns -- geekish Arnou (played by Karan Soni) who he calls "The Indian" and quiet, indeed almost sullen Darius (played by Aubrey Plaza) who he calls "the Lesbian") -- to come along to help him out.  He gets permission to take those two interns with him and to pursue the story.

Now the ad was placed by someone leaving only a Post Office box as an address and the Post Office box was to be found in a small town on the Pacific Coast some distance (100-200 miles) away from Seattle (welcome to America's Pacific Northwest ;-).   I mention the distance because it becomes apparent that researching this story is _not_ going to be a "commuting job." Instead, the three are going have to go out to that town and stay there for some time.

Staking out the Post Office, they eventually find the person who placed the ad.  His name is Kenneth (played by Mark Duplass).  He has a job bagging groceries and lives apparently alone in a house just at the edge of town.  So he does seem to be a kook.  However, he had apparently been an engineering major some time back, and when Darius establishes contact with him as someone who'd be interested in possibly possibly going back in time with him, it becomes clear that Kenneth was rather bright.  So was he merely a kook perhaps even a dangerous kook, or was he someone like the Matt Damon character in Good Will Hunting [1997]?

That question is of course important.  However, it becomes less so as the movie progresses because the film becomes a meditation on the more basic questions: Why one would want to time travel to begin with?  Does one even need a "time machine" to time travel? or perhaps even more to the point to Can one become "stuck in time?"

It becomes clear that to the writers of the film, one of the primary motivations for yearning to travel back in time is _regret_.  Both Kenneth and, it turns out Darius, have reasons for wanting to go back in time.

But it turns out that Jeff himself in pursuing this project is actually doing some "time traveling" himself:  His family used to go to that coastal town on vacation when Jeff was young.  And so he's going back to that town to see if he could recapture some of that past (with or without Kenneth's time machine).

Finally, Jeff does some coaching for Arnou, reminding him: "You're 21.  But remember, dear friend, you're not going to be 21 forever."

So I found the movie fascinating because though it has a "science fiction" theme to it (and it actually flirts very nicely with that theme throughout the film -- _never_ really "blowing it"), the science fiction aspect to the film becomes "beside the point." 

We are all time travelers.  We can live in today.  We can live for the future.  We can live in the past.  We can get stuck in the past.  And regardless, in life, safety is never guaranteed.

What a great story!


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Patang [2011]

MPAA (Unrated)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1153700/
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120613/REVIEWS/120619991
India Times -
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/bollywood/news-interviews/Patang-brings-healing-touch-to-Gujarat/articleshow/13990844.cms 

Patang (directed and cowritten by Chicago-born and raised Indian director Prashant Bhargava along with James Townsend) is a lovely Indian movie (subtitled into English) set around the annual kite festival in the Indian city of Ahmendadad.  The film is a reminder to me of one of the main reasons why I like movies so much: India may almost exactly be "a half a world away" from the United States.  But for the price of $10 (or even for $6 for a pre-noon matinee) one can "go there" for 2 hours by means of a movie.  Then if the movie's made by someone from that country then all the better.  One gets to see the country through the eyes of someone from there or with an attachment to there.

Such it is with this film.  We get have Prashant Bhargava tell us a story about his family's India.  And indeed, the story's structured in a way that it could have well been his:

Jayesh (played by Mukund Shukla), who's "made good" in India's capital Dehli, comes back after many years to more "provincial" Ahmendadad, the town of his birth, taking his oldest daughter Priya (played by Sugandha Garg) already of young adult age along.  The nominal occasion of the visit was Ahmendadad's annual Kite Festival but he's really there to reconnect after many years with his relatives.

And yes, there is some resentment as he returns.  A brother asks "Where have you been for all these years?"  Yet he _is_ back after "all these years."  And the resentment melts away as Jayesh and his daughter join their relatives in the timeless rhythms of life in Jayesh's family's hometown, a rhythm that is at relative high point as its residents, both the young and the old, the poor and the rich across the whole city go up to their roof tops to fly their kites, eat good food, no doubt drink some good beer/ale, and gossip and reminisce with family and friends as they fly their kites.

Now mind you, sometimes those kites crash.  Sometimes neighbors both near and far _help_ make those kites crash in what is called Patang (from which the movie gets its name) meaning "kiting fighting."  No matter. Ahmendadad is a largely treeless city with very narrow streets.  Folks freely hop from rooftop from rooftop, saluting their neighbors families, eating and celebrating there, as they pass until they reach downed kite.  Then with a few bits of tape, some new string, they're ready to fly their kites again.

Indeed, some can use the strategic downing of a kite as an occasion to flirt :-).  Having your kite crash down the street a few houses from a particularly attractive girl gives one a nice excuse to hop rooftop-to-rooftop to pass by her place to retrieve your kite, to say hi to her family, show-off your kite, and so forth ;-).

At then night, those kites offer the opportunity send aloft whole strings of paper and candle lanterns, again a lyrical sight to behold

It all makes for a lovely, lovely film ... and for the cost of $10 and two hours ... one gets to be part of this lovely contemporary Indian family, with its all too contemporary problems (a lot of us have family members who "disappear" from the family radar for some time only to eventually decide that "it's time to come back") and join its joys as well.

What a joy of a film ;-)


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Brave [2012]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  Roger Ebert (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1217209/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/12mv069.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120620/REVIEWS/120629997

Brave (directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman along with Steve Purcell, all of whom were also involved in the writing of the screenplay along with Irene Mecchi) is a PIXAR production that continues the company's celebrated run of simply outstanding young family oriented animated films.

The story is about Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald) a young princess growing up in Scotland at the dawn of time.  Her mother Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) is trying to raise in a manner to prepare her for her destiny of becoming "a lady" and, one day, queen of the realm.  Merida, however, prefers much more to be like her dad, King Fergus (voiced by Bill Connolly), being loud and carefree, riding-off on her trusted horse Angus into the forest and glens seeking adventure, becoming _really good_ at shooting her bow and arrow, etc.  Elinor, shaking her head tries repeatedly to bring her daughter down to earth.  All this running around may be wonderful, but not particularly useful for what Merida's gonna do when she grows older.  Perhaps just as frustrating to Elinor was the apparent lack of support on the part of Fergus, her husband after all, who's frankly enjoying hearing Merida talking of her exploits at the dinner table.  Yes, Fergus and Elinor have sons -- triplets -- but they are still way to young to do anything other than cause "terrible two" like mischief around the house/castle.  So Fergus is enjoying listening to Merida talking about her exploits while Elinor's increasingly reduced to shaking her head.

Things come to a head when Queen Elinor announces at the dinner table one night that she had written to all the heads of the major clans of the realm to come over to present their eldest sons so that Merida could become betrothed to one of them and that they had all accepted.   Yes, since Merida's parents were the King/Queen of the realm, it would be Merida's choice as to which of these eldest sons she'd become engaged to.  But it's clear that Merida's _not_ ready to choose anybody at this time (besides, to us viewers, it'd all seem really, really early to be doing this as Merida appeared to be no more than about 10-12 years old at the time).  And the whole affair becomes even more a disaster when it becomes obvious that NONE of the three "eldest sons" (of the three major clans coming over to present them) was particularly impressive.  They're all ... basically "losers." What now?

Well, Merida upset over all this being imposed on her, jumps on her horse and rides off into the forest.  There, by an ancient stone henge somewhere in a clearing in the forest, she comes across these little floating/glowing "willow wisps" that in Gaelic folklore lead one "to one's destiny."  So she follows them and they lead her to a little house where an old woman seems to live.  She seems to be a very crafty lady, having all sorts of little hand-made trinkets on display.  Merida, intrigued by her and her house (or shop?) ... out there in the middle of nowhere ... comes closer.  Talking to the old lady, she realizes who this lady is ... "You're a witch!" she declares.  The old lady, initially responds, "No ... I'm not a witch, I'm a ... woodcarver, see look at all my nice little trinkets and wood carvings, all _very reasonably priced_  ;-)"  However, after Merida keeps pushing the matter, she admits "Yes, I'm a witch..."

But actually Merida's _not_ upset that she's encountered this witch.  Having been led to this house by those willow wisps, she asks the witch: "Can you make me a spell?"  The witch does not want to.  Merida insists: "I need a spell that will change my destiny."  Again, the witch tries to change the subject: "Don't you want to buy any of my lovely wood carvings...?"  Merida (apparently Princess that she is ...) and not wanting to be distracted from what she really wants tells the witch/crafty wood carver:  "Yes, I'LL BUY ALL OF THEM ..."  But she makes clear that she _really wanted_ was that spell to change her destiny.

The witch tries to dissuade her.  She tells her that she's had that kind of request once before, and that it didn't particularly turn-out particularly well.  But after further insistence on the part of Merida she relents and conjures up a little cake that after being consumed would change her destiny.

So Merida takes the cake home with her.  Interestingly, she gives it _to her mother_ Elinor, believing that upon having a piece of that cake, her mother would change.  And she does ... the rest of the story follows... ;-)

My hat off to PIXAR Studios.  Once again, the animation studio has produced a wonderful, wonderful story of surprising depth.  I think of Finding Nemo [2003], Up [2009] and Toy Story 3 [2010].  As in the case of those stories ... you may want to bring some Kleenex.  Honestly, it's a lovely, lovely story worthy of being watched together by pretty much the whole family.


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Friday, June 22, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Roger Ebert (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter screenplay written by Seth Grahame-Smith [IMDb] based on his novel by the same name as the film and directed by the Russian-Kazakh-American film director Timur Bekmambetov (Sasha Baron Cohen who randomly, viciously and gratuitously made fun of "Kazakhs" in Borat [2006] eat your heart out ;-) is ... well ... "an experience."  I'm certain that the film is going to be enjoyed by many, generally, younger viewers even as it will probably disturb a great many older ones.

Indeed, I would discourage anyone who has an aversion to seeing gore (blood, decapitations, rotting flesh, etc ...) on the screen from seeing this film.  It will simply not be for you.  I would also note that this film isn't exactly "The Apocalypse" either.  Though certainly gory, there's nothing in this film that one would not see at any of number of "haunted houses" that spring-up each year across the United States each year around Halloween-time.  And I do know something of this as I've been responsible for my parish's youth group over the years and have therefore been to a fair number of such "haunted exhibits" during that time ... ;-)

Now how does one even come-up with the idea of "re-imagining" the revered American President Abraham Lincoln [IMDb] as a "vampire hunter?" ;-)  Well, Seth Grahame-Smith caused something of stir a number of years back by publishing a novel called Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, where 90% of the text was Jane Austen's [IMDb] celebrated novel Pride and Prejudice with Seth Grahame-Smith adding the other 10% (including, of course, the zombies).   Overall, the critical reaction to his works has been that of bemusement and grudging admiration.  And the claim has been, and one that I am somewhat willing to believe ... that the addition of "zombies" to Jane Austen's work (and "vampires" to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln) has worked to revitalize interest in both Jane Austen [IMDb] and now Abraham Lincoln [IMDb].

And while I can certainly imagine Seth Grahame-Smith "having beers" with Franz Kafka and Salvador Dalí I do have to admit that on Carl Jung's "deep psychological" / "archetypical level" I kinda get him.

Pride and Prejudice was, after all, in part about class distinctions and, well "pride and prejudices." So re-casting the novel in a manner that brings to fore a "fear" on the part of  "polite society" of late 18th-early 19th century England that it was going to be overwhelmed by terrifying and perhaps not particularly educated/intelligent "new comers" ("zombies"...) actually makes some sense ;-).  Remember that was the time of the American and French Revolutions as well as the Napoleonic Wars.

Similarly the re-casting here of the whole American Civil War as basically a war between human beings from the North fighting blood-sucking vampires from the South (yes, folks, that's the basic premise of the current film...), while certainly loud and arguably _over-the-top_ propagandistic, does make some sense as well.  After all, while a fair number of American Southerners today would not necessarily like the imagery here, the whole American Civil War was largely about a whole lot of poor-white people being convinced to fight and die to protect the right of a far smaller group of rich-white people to own (and do utterly what they willed with) black-people.   So arguably, those "rich white people" were "akin to vampires" feeding on (and sucking the blood out) of _both_ black people and poor white people.

Again, folks like Franz Kafka and Salvador Dalí would understand the analogy completely ... to the consternation/anger of the great dictators and proponents of the totalitarian ideologies of their time.  (Hitler apparently absolutely hated the "degenerate Jew writer" Kafka. And Salvador Dalí was actually thrown out of the Surrealist movement that he was instrumental in founding by left-wing French intellectuals after he painted picture of "Lenin with a fat butt playing a piano.").  One would imagine that a fair number of Southern whites wouldn't necessarily like the sweeping (and ridiculing) imagery of this film.  Nevertheless, slavery and really the racist assumptions underlying it as well as underlying the post-Civil War "Jim Crow" laws and the racist bickering that continues to this day (as well as the once more _race-driven_ obliteration of the Native American populations indigenous to what eventually became the United States by European (white) settlers in both the North and the South) has been the United States' "original sin."  So we may cringe when we see rich Southern "patriots" portrayed as seemingly "hard to kill" yet blood-sucking "vampires."  BUT it's _not_ an image or analogy that "comes out of nowhere."

Okay, to the story...  Seth Grahame-Smith uses a heck of a lot of "imagination" to string together a number of historical facts (and personages) surrounding Abraham Lincoln [IMDb] to recast his story as that of a "vampire hunter."

Abe Lincoln's aversion to slavery is explained as the result of a childhood incident when a he (played by Lux Haney-Jardine) witnesses the capture and deportation from his hometown in Illinois back to the South of a black childhood playmate named Will (played as a child by Curtis Harris).  Lincoln's aversion/hatred for "vampires" is explained by the death of his mother Nancy (played by Robin McLeavy).  She had come forward to try to defend Lincoln's childhood friend.  In retribution, little Abe Lincoln watched a strange man, come to their home a few nights later and _bite_ Nancy in the arm.  She died shortly thereafter of disease (in reality, Lincoln's mother Nancy died when Abe was 8-9 years old of "milk sickness").

In the story, Abe Lincoln grows-up determined to eventually find and kill the man who had bitten his mother (who, in the story, he believed was responsible for her death).  In seeking who he believed to be her mother's killer, Abe Lincoln meets a strange figure named Henry Sturgess (played by Dominic Cooper).  He tells Abe that killing the man who killed his mother would prove much harder than he thought.  Abe does not believe him.  But after shooting his mother's killer, Jack Barts (played by Marton Csokas), in the eye (with a normal lead bullet from his revolver) and finding to his horror that this didn't kill him but just got him angrier, the good old, and still quite naive Abe was willing to listen to Henry.

Henry tells him that Abe's mother's killer was a vampire, that there were many vampires both in the North and at the South, and that the only way to kill a vampire was with silver.  So from now on, Abraham Lincoln would carry silver coated bullets, and (certainly for dramatic effect in the movie...) an _axe_ with a silver coated blade (Abe Lincoln's first job was famously that of an "axeman" or "rail splitter.")  Henry tells him that the life of a "Vampire Slayer" was fraught with danger and that it'd be best if he lived quietly and never married.

However, the young Lincoln as naive and quiet/to himself as he was, nevertheless seemed to have bigger ambitions.  So he eventually comes to Springfield, Illinois' capital to study to become a lawyer.  There he is shown meeting the _then_ young and vivacious Mary Todd [IMDb] his future wife, as well a young Illinois congressman named Stephen Douglas [IMDb] (played by Alan Tudyk) who became Abraham Lincoln's [IMDb] primary pre-Civil War political rival.  (In the story, Lincoln and Douglas don't merely spar in a series of now famous pre-Civil War debates.  In the first place, they are shown here as competing for Mary Todd's affections. I doubt that there's any historical basis to this but certainly adds drama/romance to the story.  Mary, of course, chooses the quieter and more honest Abe in the end).

As Lincoln is getting himself established in Springfield, his childhood friend Will (played by Anthony Mackie) returns to Illinois as a "Fugitive Slave."  Lincoln resolves to defend him despite the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court Decision and the Fugitive Slave Act.  This sets Lincoln on a course for getting involved in public political action to the consternation of Henry who would have preferred that he just remain in the shadows quietly "killing vampires." 

All comes to a head, when Lincoln, the candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party is elected President.  The Southern States, of course, secede and the American Civil War begins.  To Lincoln's horror, the vampires take the side of the South and the North's fortunes in the War only change when Lincoln remembers that vampires can be killed with silver.  So according to the story, the North's bullets and cannon balls come to be coated in silver, and from that point on, the North starts winning the war... ;-)

Obviously this is a highly imaginative tale.  But as one realizes what the story describes, I think one can start to understand the connections that writer and film-director are making.

Finally, while I'm not sure that a lot of folks from the Southern United States would particularly appreciate the way the "vampiric South" was being portrayed, I am personally exhausted with people like Southern General Robert E. Lee being portrayed in "heroic terms" in American history.  He went to war to defend an Evil cause (the right of human beings to _own_ other human beings) and I do think that Lincoln was absolutely correct in taking Lee's Plantation (on the other side of the Potomac River from Washington D.C.) and converting it into the gigantic Arlington National Cemetery.

A lot of people in the United States needlessly died in the Civil War before all its people could finally be free:

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

    Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
    He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
    He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
    His truth is marching on.

        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        His truth is marching on.

    I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
    They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
    I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
    His day is marching on.


        Glory, glory, hallelujah! ...


    In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
    With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
    As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
    While God is marching on.

      
Glory, glory, hallelujah! ...


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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Taxiphone (orig. El Mektoub) [2010]

Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing


Taxiphone (orig. El Mektoub) directed and co-written by Mohammed Soudani along with Lorenzo Buccella and Quittierie Duhurt is a Swiss and Algerian film (English subtitled) that played recently at the 10th Annual Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival held at Chicago's Facets Multimedia Theater between June 15-21, 2012.

It is about a young unmarried Swiss couple, Oliver (played by Pascuale Aleardi) and Elena (played by Mona Petri) traveling from Algiers, the capital of Algeria in North Africa by the Mediterranean Sea to (yes, to the actual) Timbuktu in the nation of Mali in the middle of the Sahara Desert.  Oliver had been hired to drive a large dump truck there from Algiers.

About 10 minutes into the movie, somewhere in the middle of this journey between Algiers and Timbuktu, the truck seriously overheats and breaks down.  They manage to get the truck towed to a town existing by an Oasis along the route.  But what now?

The only telephone service in the entire town is provided by a single shop (a "mektoub"...) run by Youssouf (played by Sid Ahmed Agoumi) located near the town's central square.  Anybody needing to make a call out of the town needs to go there to place the call.  Needless to say, Youssouf's little "mektoub" becomes a very interesting place.  Everyone from merchants and businessmen to wives with husbands working (illegally) in Europe would come to Youssouf's "mektoub" to place calls.  (Viewers who'd remember the Brazilian film Central Station [1998] would find similarities to this film.  In Central Station, one of the main characters in the movie made her living by operating a small table at the central train station in Rio de Janeiro where illiterate workers who had come to work in Rio de Janeiro from the Brazilian hinterlands would come to dictate letters to her intended for loved ones back home.  In this movie, Taxiphone, the wives/families of loved ones working in Europe would come to Youssouf's shop for the chance to be able to talk to them).

But it's also frustrating.  The phone service does not always work.  People have to be patient.  And the local residents are generally used to this.  Oliver is not.  Trying to find someone to fix the truck or at least to get the parts for the truck proves ... very, very hard.  At one point, Oliver loses his temper with Youssouf telling him: "I'm tired of hearing 'maybe' of 'if Allah wills.'  When are my parts going to arrive?"  Youssouf smiles.  Then after Oliver leaves the shop, he says in exasperation: "I've been living with 'maybe' and 'if Allah wills' all my life, welcome to the Third World ..."  Later Youssouf adds his own frustration about his town's situation: "We used to be a proud people traversing freely a land without borders and no one could touch us.  Today we're reduced to working illegally overseas or selling junk over here."

Indeed, an American viewer could experience this movie as presenting _in real life_ some of the "post-Apocalyptic scenarios" in Hollywood films exemplified, perhaps, by the Mad Max [1979, 1981, 1986] films.  This is the second African film, the other being the Congolese film Viva Riva! [2010], that I've seen in recent years that had this "post Apocalyptic" feel to it.  Now to be clear, the Mad Max films were very violent.  There was NO VIOLENCE AT ALL in this film.  (Viva Riva! had more violence).   Still the Algerian Oasis town in which this story played out was very, very isolated and it felt like it was truly "at the end of the world."

Still there's a lot going on in the world of this Oasis town in the middle of the Desert that perhaps would be missed if we were interested in simply "getting from here to there."  And this then becomes the meat of the film.

Here it becomes obvious that while both Oliver and Elena were obviously of the adventurous sort, the two approached their journey from Algiers to Timbuktu very differently.  Oliver was really driven by "the bottom line," arguably almost a "mercenary instinct."  He was being paid to drive a truck from Algiers to Timbuktu and that was what he was going to do.  Since he was so concerned about getting the truck working again, he probably had some sort of an investment riding on it.  As such, his being stuck at this Oasis in the middle of Algeria's desert was a unmitigated disaster.

Elena, on the other hand, was traveling with Oliver for the adventure of it.  She didn't know anything about trucks.  So when it broke down, she wasn't overly concerned about it.  Indeed, it wouldn't help a single bit more if she was concerned about it.  All she could do is to offer Oliver "a shoulder to cry-on" (and if one's honest, initially "a bit more...") every so often when he got frustrated.  But the truck wasn't going to get fixed by her.  HOWEVER, while Oliver spent his energy trying to get the truck fixed, Elena got to "explore," and not so much "geographically" the town and its surroundings, but instead explore/become interested in the people and their way of life.

To this end, of learning about the culture, both Elena (and Oliver) had some useful skills.  Being Swiss, they spoke three languages -- French, German and Italian.  Indeed, one gets the sense that if Oliver did not speak French, the whole opportunity of driving a truck from French/Arabic speaking Algiers to French/Arabic speaking Mali (presumably for some profit) would not have even come up.  And since many/most people in Algeria speak both French and Arabic, the search for parts to fix the truck was not and out-and-out impossibility.  But here Elena comes to really shine.  Most of those residents from the town who had gone to Europe to work were working in France, Italy or Germany.  Indeed Elena's knowledge of Italian helped her help a wife of one of these workers communicate with one of his bosses in Italy when she got a message that he had gotten hurt in some way.  As a result of her interest/helpfulness, the women in the town come to adopt her.

And this becomes all the more interesting as a lot of those women who adopted Elena as one of their own wore headscarves (and therefore one would expect them to be rather "conservative").  But this was also taking place in Algeria.  Some of the women _did not_ wear headscarves and presumably ALL/MOST of them had relatives who did not.  Indeed, one of the women that Elena meets had a head-scarfless cousin who was returning/visiting from (as it was presented, almost) "hippie liberal Algiers."  In any case, it's another reminder to us here in the West that the Moslem world is far more diverse/complex than at times we may assume that it is.

Finally, someone like me, a Catholic priest, certainly would notice the "lifestyle arrangement" of the unmarried central couple in the story, Elena and Oliver.  And here I would honestly note that it should not surprise _anyone_ what more or less obviously happens to this couple as the story plays out.  It would seem that they had been together only for "the adventure" of it all (symbolized by their "driving a truck through Africa").  And while things went well, they were happy together.  When "the truck broke down" however ... well ... and why would anybody be surprised?

So theirs was a "lifestyle choice" that wasn't exactly thought-through.  Now we could choose to live life in a manner that is "not thought through" / "not serious" but at some point ... one has to say that kind of "lifestyle choice" becomes rather shallow.   We're called to be more than merely "shallow..."

Still, what a well-done and thought-provoking film regardless!


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Monday, June 18, 2012

Leaving (orig. Odcházení) [2011]

Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1464251/
CSFD listing - [CZ, ENG-Trans]

Leaving (orig. Odcházení) [CSFD, Eng-Trans], which played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago as part of an eight U.S. city "2012 New Czech Films Tour" sponsored by the Czech government, was written and directed by the late Czech President Václav Havel in retirement in the last year before his death.  Based on his stage-play by the same name it is on many levels a truly unique film.

First of all, I don't think that any former President of any nation has ever written and directed a film.  Second, this wasn't Nero or "Saddam Hussein" writing/directing a movie.  Instead, this film was made by someone who had been a legitimate avant-guard playwright turned dissident who had, after leading his nation to freedom and serving out his terms then as its President, happily returned to his original craft to write this play (available in English translation on Amazon) and then took the opportunity to make it into a film (under his own direction) before he died.  Noting the uniqueness of this project, the official release notes to the film quote Havel explaining his motivations:  "A stage play is something of a 1/2 finished work that the playwright offers to theatrical companies, which then put their own mark on the work as they put it on stage.  And the playwright ought to be fine with this or else turn to writing novels instead of stage plays.  However, after many decades of having my plays staged this way, I felt the desire to finally take the opportunity to interpret myself.  Additionally, [making this stage play] into a movie gives me a certain amount of satisfaction.  This because originally and really throughout my whole life. I've really wanted to be a film-maker.  Now perhaps I get the opportunity to fulfill this dream."

Those who had loved this man (and I, American-born but of Czech parents, had worn a "Free Vaclav Havel" t-shirt for years while I was in grad school in Los Angeles in the 1980s) would clearly appreciate the definite "swansong" feel to the film.  Here in this movie, we have a permanent record of at least one of Havel's plays made in the way that he wanted it to be made.  And IMHO, it is classic Havel:

Part Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, part Shakespeare's King Lear, a smidgen Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Physicists, and part Federico Felini's 8 1/2, it is about a departing "great man" Chancellor Vilém Rieger (played by Jozef Abrham [CSFD, Eng-trans]) who along with his family and entourage doesn't really know what comes next.  They are all still staying at a government-owned villa (Americans think of something like Camp David outside of Washington DC) somewhere outside of the capital and sense that they are probably going to have to leave but truth be said, they'd "kinda like to stay."

As outgoing Chancellor, Reiger is still receiving adulation/interest from fans and journalists.  At the beginning of the story, two journalists from the tabloid "Fuj" (translated best as "Yuck") come over to interview him.  And even though they are now just from a tabloid, Rieger gets a chance to still wax eloquent about "Freedom" and "the central importance of keeping the Human Person at the center of all political decisions."  But interviewer is inexperienced and he and the tabloid's photographer were sent there mostly to just take pictures...

Then Reiger sees a vision of a beautiful young woman, Bea Weissenmütelhofová (played by Barbora Seidlová [CSFD, Eng-Trans]), in a red dress walking across the pool in the garden to him to ask for an autograph.  Reiger's long-time companion and still striking 40-something Irena (played by Dagmar Veškrnová-Havlová [CSFD, Eng-Trans]) snifs, telling her partner, "Funny how you always find time to 'help' these beautiful young grad-students and funny how the only people who seem to be writing dissertations about you are young women, not one guy that I can remember ..." (Note that Dagmar Veškrnová-Havlová [CSFD, Eng-Trans] was actually Havel's wife ... ;-).

Sniveling two-faced Victor (played by Oldrich Kaiser [CSFD, Eng-Trans]) , the secretary to Reiger's secretary informs Reiger that the new Chancellor Vlastik Klein (played by Jaroslav Dušek) wants to come over to the villa to talk about Reiger's future.  When Klein arrives, his rhetoric sounds a lot like Vaclav Havel's chief nemisis during his presidency, the hardline Thatcherite Vaclav Klaus.  But he's dressed more like Vladimir Putin.  In any case, Klein is equivocal ... he wants some kind of deal from Reiger ...

In the meantime, Reiger's older daughter Vlasta (played by Tatiana Vilhemová [CSFD, Eng-Trans]) and her very odd-looking boyfriend, Albino, offer to "take-in" her father should he have to leave the villa but come with a contract asking for "certain concessions" (stuff from the villa?) before they agree.  Reiger's younger daughter Zuzana (played by Ivana Uhlírová [CSFD, Eng-Trans]) just walks around the villa's gardens with headphones on, talking to her friends via skype with her smartphone.  As unconcerned as she appears, she always seems to know everything that's going to happen before anybody else does ... ;-)

Much of course happens.  Does outgoing Chancellor Reiger and his family / entourage get to stay at the villa?  What does the new Chancellor Klein want from him?  What about Reiger's family and Reiger's long-time companion?  Will they make a successful transition from "being important" to being 'less so?"

It all makes for an interesting story.  And the film certainly does express both Vaclav Havel's whit as well his concerns about the future, notably that rhetoric about "Freedom" and the "Necessary Centrality of the Human Person" can really start to sound hollow after a while ... especially when the people using such slogans (Klaus?  Putin?) start intermixing such paeans with slogans from far more sinister times.


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