Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Gatekeepers [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  Chicago Sun-Times (4 Stars)  AV Club (A-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Chicago Sun-Times (Omer M. Mozzaffar) review
AV Club (S. Tobias) review

The Gatekeepers [IMDb] (directed by Dror Moreh) is a remarkable Israeli documentary featuring interviews with the last six heads of Israel's security service Shin Bet.  It is inspired by Errol Morris' 2003 Academy Award winning documentary The Fog of War [IMDb], which featured interviews with Vietnam War era U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

Documentaries of this sort inevitably elicit concerns about the intentions of the film-makers and their subjects.  Is the documentary presented intended to be a hatchet job?  Alternatively, is it intended to be a "puff piece" exercise in apologetics, something akin to showing 'Pinochet eating flan with his grand-kids,' admitting perhaps that "mistakes were made" (What's a few 10,000 mothers and fathers, sons and daughters tortured and disappeared over 10+ years of dictatorship?) but if  such "mistakes were made," they were done "only for them..." (with a shot showing grandson 'Ricardo' kicking around a soccer ball and/or 'little Isabelita' chasing bubbles in the garden...).

Certainly more than a few Palestinians will be throwing their shoes at their television sets if the documentary gets shown in the Palestinian territories.  In probably the most difficult scenes to watch, one of the former heads of Shin Bet admitted that probably the worst part of a notorious incident in which the Israeli army / Shin Bet summarily killed two of four Palestinian terrorists who hijacked a bus (the Kav 300 affair) was that there were "(Israeli) journalists present who photographed the whole thing."  And in another scene, another of the former heads of Shin Bet explained that a Palestinian incarcerated by Shin Bet had died of basically an adult version of "Shaken Baby Syndrome" (According to the explanation given, the prisoner was "shaken around" by Israeli interrogators so much that his brain hit his own skull causing a concussion and subsequently his death.  Yea, right ... nobody in the United States would believe that kind of an explanation if someone died in police custody here.  Still since 9/11 we've been calling torture "enhanced interrogation techniques" as well...).

Still, the former heads of Shin Bet did come across as thoughtful intelligent people, all patriots but open basically a group of intelligent/pragmatic/"good soldier" Canaris-es rather than ideological/dogmatic (and ultimately Evil) Heydrich-s.  All six former heads agreed that Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories since the 1967 Six Day War has been brutal.  One former head noted that the Shoah/ Holocaust notwithstanding ("that was a necessarily special case") that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories since the Six Day War was akin to the Nazi occupations of most of the countries of Europe during World War II. Another noted that "every colonial regime inevitably becomes corrupt" and agreed "absolutely" with an Israeli professor who had predicted shortly after the Six Day War that continued occupation will result in Israel not having any partner to work with other than a group of corrupted Quislings who will never have the respect of their own people.

So what's the solution?  Well, actually documentary offers two.  One, is to talk, talk with everybody.  One of the former heads of Shin Bet said that he'd happily talk to everybody, including Ahmadinejad, noting that nothing is gained by not talking and that it's the informal conversations, with those kids and grand kids present, perhaps playing in the background, that help enemies to see each other's humanity.   The other approach is more pragmatic but one that apparently was used by Yitzhak Rabin's administration, the last time that the peace process had a chance: "Continue with the Peace Process as if there is no Terror, while going after the Terrorists as if there is no Peace Process."

All in all, I do think that this was a documentary that was worth making, and, who knows, could actually further a serious peace process in the future.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

85th Annual Academy Awards [2013] - Few Real Surprises in a Very Competitive Field

IMDb listing
Previous/Other years

The 85th Annual Academy Awards came and went yesterday with, all things considered, very few surprises.

Host Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame by-and-large stepped-up and proved that there was no need to work on an animatronic Billy Crystal or Whoopi Goldberg to continue hosting the awards show 20 or 30 years from now.  Still MacFarlane's "regular," mildly to wildly inappropriate, updated "Archie Bunker" persona on Family Guy perhaps made for a rather good fit for the Oscars.  I say this because it's become rather obvious to me since beginning to cover the Academy Awards on my blog that Hollywood / the Academy are far more "middle of the road" indeed "Americana" than many, especially those on the right would give them credit for.

Hence, both the audience in the theater and at home would wince a bit as MacFarlane (or his "bear" "Ted") made jokes about women, Jews and Hispanics and then happily applaud Hollywood giving itself recognition through the Best Picture Award (for Argo) for its "stepping-up when Washington (or Langley) call."

This "see we can be as Patriotic as anybody else..." sentiment on the part of mainstream Hollywood / the Academy becomes all the more clear when one considers its effective "deep-sixing" of Kathryn Bigalow's Zero Dark Thirty (one award for ... sound editing which it shared with the Bond picture Skyfall ;-).  "America does not torture" in Hollywood productions anyway (except when it looks really, really cool, like on 24) and wow does it not want to talk about it if it does.  Left utterly unanswered with Zero Dark Thirty's abandonment, is, of course, the question of the actual role of America's post-9/11, largely Bush Administration's, water-boarding of Al Queda's prisoners in the capture of Bin Laden.  Did it work?  One can only imagine Dick Cheney cracking his knuckles and with his half-smile responding: "Boy would you like to know..."  Apparently some matters are, well, "best left unresolved..."

But let's then "take out the flags" and celebrate Argo, honestly the only possible "positive" story that one could assemble (and it took 30+ years to do so...) out of the otherwise universally awful story of the Iranian hostage crisis if taken from almost any other perspective: US (humiliating), Iranian (despicably shameful), diplomatic (absolutely no one is safe), human (people are pawns).  And of course the real "payoff" will come if in a number of years we find ourselves bombing Iran.  Ahmadinejad, is Argo in your Netflix queue?   

So then perhaps the only real surprise of the night (Argo came into the Oscars the odds on favorite for Best Picture) was when the honestly nice, sweet, talented (and with many, many Oscars/nominations in her future) Jennifer Lawrence won the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award (for her nice sweet role in Silver Linings Playbook) over similarly prolific/talented Jessica Chastain's Award-deserving performance in Zero Dark Thirty completing Zero's near complete shutout.

Indeed, I wonder what the award's going to do to Jennifer Lawrence's career now as the roles that I thought she was at her best were in the X-Men: First Class [2011] and the House at the End of the Street [2012] to say nothing of The Hunger Games [2012].   Is she going to be "too good" for those kind of roles now?  (That would be a shame and a waste of her youth).   And Jessica Chastain was certainly no "one note schmuck" either, having played varied and Award caliber roles in The Tree of Life [2011], The Debt [2011], The Help [2011], Take Shelter [2011] and even Lawless [2012].

The rest of the Awards seemed to me to be scattered rather fairly among a remarkably diverse and competitive field: Both Christoph Waltz (in Django) and Daniel Day Lewis (in Lincoln) certainly deserved their awards even as they edged-out other actors who gave similarly outstanding performances.  Anne Hathaway won the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance as Fantine in Les Miserables [2012].  She was outstanding but also certainly the safer choice to Helen Hunt's equally outstanding, if far more challenging, performance as a "sex-surrogate" in The Sessions.

While Ang Lee (Life of Pi) was certainly a worthy choice in the very competitive category for Best Director this year, I do wonder if Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) wonders now if he'll ever win another Best Director award.  I was mildly surprised that Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) won the award for Best Original Screenplay, though his award here might have been in partial compensation for not giving him the award a number of years back for his equally original Inglourious Basterds [2009].  The Best Adapted Screenplay Award going to Argo was not surprising as it was destined to win Best Picture as well.

That various make-up and staging awards went to Les Miserables [2012] and Anna Karenina [2012] seemed appropriate as these aspects of the films made these versions of the two stories distinct from the others that preceeded them.

Another mild surprise was the Bond movie Skyfall's winning of two Academy Awards (Best Original Song and Sound Editing). Live and Let Die [1973] famously won an Academy Award for Paul McCartney's original song for that film.  However, generally Bond films are generally passed-over at the Oscars.  Perhaps this year, because it was the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film, Dr No [1962], was exceptional.  However, I do wish that Judy Dench and Javier Bardem (Spanish accent and all...) had gotten nominations for their performances in the current Bond film.

The "show" itself went quite well.  Highlights for me were the tribute to Hollywood musicals of the last 10 years especially when the cast of this year's Les Miserables [2012] came out to sing "One More Day" burying any lingering question about whether the cast was really up to the task of singing in the film and then Seth MacFarlane and "On the Red Carpet" pre-Oscar Show's Kristin Chenoweth tribute "To the Losers" at the end of the show ;-).  Lyrics like: "This to those who're wearing fake smiles now and wondering why they went out and got dressed for this thing" deserve their due credit. ;-).

I'm also happy that the Independent Spirit Awards [2013] given out earlier in the weekend gave The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Safety Not Guaranteed their just due... There are _many_ films that come out each year that are excellent and don't find recognition at the Oscars.

So all in all, in what was a rather competitive year at the Oscars this year, most of the films and performances nominated were given their just due.  Still I remain in my conviction the Academy is actually far more "middle of the road" / "safe" than most critics (especially on the Right) give it credit for.  But then, given the Academy's size and breath, can one really expect it to be anything else?

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

John Dies at the End [2012]

MPAA (R)  Chicago Sun-Times (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
Chicago Sun-Times (C. Schmidlin) review

John Dies at the End (screenplay and directed by Don Coscarelli based on the novel by David Wong) is an "indie" young adult oriented zombie/alien-invasion horror comedy about two friends Dave (played by Chase Williamson) and John (played by Rob Mayes) from somewhere in the United States who find themselves inadvertently opening the doors for an inter-dimensional alien invasion of earth, spending much of the movie trying really, really hard to close it.

How could two very average young 20-somethings from "anywhere USA" possibly mess-up so badly as to put the whole world in such peril?   Well after inviting journalist Arnie Blondestone (played by Paul Giamatti) to meet him in a random Chinese take-out restaurant somewhere in town, Dave explains to Arnie that "well there was this party ..." At this party (just like any other party...) there was this "young Jamaican dude" going by the name of Robert (Bob...) Marley (played by Tai Bennett) who had this "supply of pills" he called "the sauce."  Well these pills made one see things that one otherwise would never be to see.  The problem is ... that the things that one was suddenly able to see were actually quite real (and quite sneaky as they would shape-shift and so forth) and then really hungry/mean.  More to the point they came from another dimension and were bent on ravaging/destroying the earth.  Oh dear ...

From the party onward, Dave and his friend John had spent their time fighting an increasingly desperate battle of beating back this really odd alien invasion that only they and an otherwise very small group of people could see.  Strangely enough, the only person these beings from another dimension seemed to really fear was a white leisure suit clad Italian celebrity psychic named Dr. Albert Marconi (played by Clancy Brown) who could exorcise these inter-dimensional aliens and send them back to their world just by talking to them on the phone.  The rest of humanity either could not see these beings (until it was too late...) or somehow came to be "in league" with them.  The only other character who seemed to come around to believing the two's story was a Catholic school educated police detective (played by Glynn Turman) who despite initially disbelieving Dave and John's story when he first encountered them, nevertheless "came around" as the number of otherwise unexplainable happenings taking place the two 20-somethings mounted.  "I may not know much about these sort of things, but my Catholic school upbringing helps to know Evil when I see it," and so the detective joins the fight on Dave and John side.

It all makes for a goofy and at times "strange things going splat" sort of story.  But my sense is that a lot of young people and otherwise those with a somewhat "off" / "slacker" sense of humor would enjoy it.

Since we're still all here, it would appear that Dave and John "won" their battle ;-).

Finally the film may actually have something of an "edifying message" for young people by the end: Be careful what you try 'cause something that may seem innocuous enough could really, truly bring about (or at least bring you) "a world of pain."

Who would have thought that John's taking of a single pill would have (in Dave's own words to the journalist)  "opened the gates to the Apocalypse" ;-) gates that both Dave nor John were never really sure that they were able to close again. (And boy, were they really, really apologetic about that ;-)

This was one strange and often very funny film ;-).

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Bless Me, Ultima [2013]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review
La Opinion-Los Angeles (EFE) [ESP][ENG-trans]

Bless Me, Ultima (directed and screenplay by Carl Franklin, based on the novel by Rudolfo Anaya) is a lovely, if at times also challenging story about a 7 year old Mexican-American boy named Antonio Mares (played by Luke Ganalon) growing-up in the llano (prarie/flatlands) of New Mexico during the latter stages of World War II.  (When the story begins, his three older brothers are all still serving in the war, and early on in the tale an incident happens in town involving another fairly young Mexican-American veteran who had just come home from the conflict).

As the story begins, Antonio's mother Maria Luna-Mares (played by Dolores Heredia) asks her husband/his father Gabriel Mares (played by Benito Martinez) if a curandera (native healer) and somewhat distant relation of her family-of-birth, the Luna family, named Última (played by Miriam Colon) could come and live with them.  Última had been present (as a midwife) at the birth of all their children, was a relative, and now in her old age, didn't really have a place to live (Why? Though left unclear in both the book and the movie, it probably had something to do with her being a curandera, which to many in the community made her something of a bruja (or witch), something that Última adamantly denied).  Not particularly excited, Gabriel nevertheless accedes to his wife's request.

Though there is reference to this in the latter stages of the movie, the difference in temperament Antonio's parents' families of birth, the Luna and the Mares families, is very clear in the book.  The Luna (meaning Moon) family was both far more religious (Catholic) and much more tied to the land (hence, why there'd be a native/natural healer like Última among them).  Antonio's uncles from the Luna side of the family were all peaceful, tranquil farmers.  In contrast, the Mares (or "of the seas") family of Antonio's father were all "unsettled" vaqueros (cowboys) who were never really happy where they were.  At the beginning of the film, Antonio's father was waiting impatiently for the older sons to come back from the war, so that he could move the whole family to California.  When the three older sons returned, he found to his dismay that they all had their own plans none of them involving either California or the llano of New Mexico, but rather to set-off to "the (bigger) city" (Santa Fe) to find work there....

Interestingly enough, the Luna family had no trouble at all melding their Catholic faith with presumably pre-Catholic (pagan) traditions of the pre-Columbian past.  In a lovely passage in the book, Antonio equates the moon (Luna) with its "horns" with Our Lady of Guadalupe (who in the traditional iconography stands gently on top of a horned moon.  The iconography works excellently in Catholic spirituality as well as it evokes the "woman clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet" of Revelation 12:1).  In contrast, Antonio's father and older brothers, all with a distinctly Mares family outlook, appear far more skeptical/worldly than the tranquil Luna family.  (It's clear in the book, less so in the movie, that Antonio initially prefers his mother's Luna family outlook to his father's ... but in both the book and the film, as the story progresses he also he starts to better understand his father's outlook as well).

Antonio was seven when the story started.  In the Catholic world, it follows then that a good part of the story would necessarily involve his preparing to receive First Communion.  Now Antonio lived in an overwhelmingly Mexican-American (hence overwhelmingly Catholic) community.  But the community was not entirely Mexican-American or entirely Catholic.  The town's parish priest, Fr. Byrnes (played by David Rees Snell), is "Anglo," and while perhaps sounding somewhat gentler than he would have sounded if he was stationed in a more "Anglo" dominated parish of the era, (as played in the movie) he still sounded discordingly harsh for the community to which he was speaking to.  Yet, certainly, that would have been how an Anglo-priest of the time would have sounded like: "If you die with mortal sin on your soul, you will go to hell and burn in hell for eternity," he unhesitatingly tells his 7-8 year old First Communion class with no "ands, ifs or buts" about it.

The problem was that there was the Anglo-looking boy named Florence (played by Deigo Miró) who was attending the class not because he wanted to make First Communion (he was a strange/somewhat heretical "Protestant" as some of Antonio's classmates had found out about him) but because as an orphan (both his parents died tragic deaths) he just "didn't want to be alone."  So even if he didn't want to make First Communion and insisted at a practice "First Confession" that he didn't sin against God but that God had sinned against him, he doggedly insisted on attending the class with the others, because he considered Hell to be "being alone."  (Doesn't one just want to cry hearing that... ;-(.

Anyway, much happens in the story, much of it involving Última, the curandera, who's always suspected of being something of a witch even though there are true witches (three daughters of a rancher, who did actually make a pact with the Devil and at one point cursed one of the Luna family uncles who falls sick shortly afterwards.  After the priest had come to bless his house but failed to cure him, Última had to come in to reverse the curse).  Última always insisted that she was on the side of Good and of God and the whole Luna family had no problem in living-out their Catholic faith in harmony with their pre-Columbian native roots.

This theme of living in peace with Christianity and pre-Christian native/land respecting paganism would probably pose a challenge to a fair number of contemporary American viewers.

Yet, I think I honestly understand it, because though I come from a Slavic (mostly Czech but also part Russian) background, my grandmother, who I knew well, was still "born in the village" in picturesque, forested, rolling-hilled Bohemia.   She came from a village where the picturesque village Church (Catholic, as a matter of course) stood (dedicated to the Assumption) on top of a hill for nearly 1000 years.  At every crossroad, meadow or forest where anything ever happened (even if it happened 500 years ago) there's a cross or a chapel, and every rock, lake and tree of note has a story.  Every good Czech with any connection with his/her pastoral past, still knows how to pick mushrooms (which ones are edible, which ones are not) and most know their berries as well.  Catholicism and the traditions of a native central European (hence generally Slavic) pre-Christian paganism extending so far back that no one knows where some traditions even come from have lived there in peace since time immemorial as well.  And the Irish would know of this kind of pastoral communion as well.

Indeed, as I watched this film and then quickly read the book on which it is based, I could not help but be reminded of a book that I read (in Czech, every day, page by page) with my grandmother as a child called Školák Kája Mařík (Schoolboy Charlie Marik) about a boy exactly Antonio's age, growing-up in rural Bohemia pretty much at the same time (though necessarily before the war).  I've long wondered if I should set-out to translate that book (only 130 pages) into English because it could give millions of American Catholics often disconnected from Slavic pasts (not just Czech but Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Croatian or Slovenian) a window into where their families came from and to see that past as not necessarily being just "sad" or otherwise "bad."  (I offer a rough translation of the first chapter of Schoolboy Charlie Marik here).

In any case, Bless me, Ultima as either book or film offers the contemporary Catholic, be he/she Hispanic, Irish or Slavic much to think about and perhaps, like the more pastoral Luna family of the story, an opportunity to find a great deal more peace.  It's a GREAT STORY.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

My 2013 Oscar Picks

IMDb listing
Previous/Other years

Since beginning this blog two and a half years ago, I've found myself surprisingly ambivalent when it comes to the Oscars.

On one hand, it's become clear as day to me that there are many excellent though generally smaller films being made both in the United States and across the world that aren't going to find recognition at places like the Oscars.  In part for this reason two years ago, I created my own "Denny Awards" list to offer some recognition to films and performances that I felt deserved such attention.

On the other hand, one can not but feel for both the actors/actresses and film-makers in general for whom the Oscars are, well "The Oscars" [TM].  So one would have to be a pretty hard-hearted person to not feel empathy with those who for the first time and/or after much struggle/sacrifice find themselves up there on stage tearfully beginning their acceptance speeches with: "I'd like to thank ..."

Finally as another über-movielover at my parish put it, the Oscars this year are about as competitive as they've been in recent memory.  Just about every major category contains several nominees that both deserve and have the clout to win. 

So here then is my annual "week before the event" Oscars list: 

       WILL WIN - Alan Arkin (Argo) or Robert DeNiro (Silver Linings Playbook)
       SHOULD WIN - Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wall Flower) or Alan Arkin (Argo)
       DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wall Flower), Michael Peña (End of Watch), Matthew McConaughey and/or John Cusack (The Paperboy), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (for A Late Quartet instead of The Master)

         WILL WIN - Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)
          SHOULD WIN - Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) or Helen Hunt (The Sessions)
          DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Scarlett Johansson (Hitchcock), Judy Dench (Skyfall) and Anna Kendrick (End of Watch)

          WILL WIN - Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln) or Denzel Washington (Flight)
           SHOULD WIN - TOSS-UP among the three given above along with Christopher Walken (A Late Quartet)
           DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Christopher Walken (A Late Quartet) possiblyLogan Lehrman (The Perks of Being a Wall Flower), Bradley Cooper (for The Words instead of Silver Linings Playbook)

           WILL WIN - Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) or Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
            SHOULD WIN - Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) or Blake Lively (Savages), Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy)
            DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Blake Lively (Savages), Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy), Barbara Straisand (The Guilt Trip), Chloe Grace Moretz (Hick), Greta Gerwig (Lola Versus), Leila Hatami (Meeting Leila)

            WILL WIN - Toss-up between Amour, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained
            SHOULD WIN - Any of those three plus Flight (nominated) or A Late Quartet (not nominated)
            DESERVED CONSIDERATION - A Late Quartet, End of Watch, Lola Versus, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Meeting Leila (orig. Ashnaee ba Leila), Have You Seen Lupita? (orig. ¿Alguien ha visto a Lupita?)

             WILL WIN - Argo, Life of Pi or Silver Linings Playbook (TOSS-UP)
              SHOULD WIN - Lincoln
              DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Cloud Atlas, Hick, SavagesThe Perks of Being a Wall Flower, Cosmopolis

              WILL WIN - Life of Pi or Lincoln
               SHOULD WIN - Samsara, Cosmopolis, Cloud Atlas, Anna Karenina
               DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Samsara, Cosmopolis, Cloud Atlas, End of Watch

               WILL WIN - Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Ang Lee (Life of Pi) or David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
               SHOULD WIN - Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Kathryn Bigalow (Zero Dark Thirty), David Ayer (End of Watch), Ron Fricke / Mark Madigson (Samsara) or Oliver Stone (Savages)

               DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Kathryn Bigalow (Zero Dark Thirty), Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), David Ayer (End of Watch), Ron Fricke / Mark Madigson (Samsara), Oliver Stone (Savages), Adel Yaraghi (Meeting Leila (orig. Ashnaee ba Leila

               WILL WIN - Brave or Wreck-it Ralph
               SHOULD WIN - Brave, Wreck-it Ralph
               WILL WIN - Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Lincoln, or Zero Dark Thirty
               SHOULD WIN - Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Cosmopolis
               DESERVED CONSIDERATION - A Late Quartet, End of Watch, The Paperboy, Savages, Cosmopolis, The Perks of Being a Wall Flower, Hick, Anna Karenina

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Safe Haven [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L) Chicago Sun-Times (1 1/2 Stars)  AV Club (D+) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
Chicago Sun-Times (R. Roeper) review
AV Club (S. Tobias) review

Ok it must be admitted at the outset that Safe Haven (directed by Lasse Hallström, screenplay Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks [IMDb]) is schmaltzy.

But (1) I've been a consistent and unblushing fan of schmaltz on my blog (Country Strong [2010], Crazy Stupid Love [2011], Damsels in Distress [2012], The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn [2011-2012]) and (2) hello, this film is being released FOR VALENTINE'S DAY.  And among the other films being released in the United States this Valentine's Day -- the Bruce Willis ultra-shoot-em up vehicle A Good Day to Die Hard ;-), and the pro-witch (err "caster") movie Beautiful Creatures -- it would seem TO ME ;-) that Safe Haven is by far the best film being released for the occasion this year though I also honestly liked the teen/young adult 1/2 zombie romance Warm Bodies (again über-schmaltzy) released a few weeks ago.

Additionally, Safe Haven actually has a nice message to it -- stalking / abuse destroys all that is good about life and love -- that's not necessarily something bad to be reminded of on Valentine's Day as well.

Okay, so what is the film about?  The movie begins with what appears to be a crime scene and a young woman who we later know as Katie (played by Julianne Hough) fleeing the scene in a driving rain storm, taking refuge by a sympathetic neighbor.  We next see her with shorter and blonder hair dressed in a very innocuous way (jeans, t-shirt and a hoodie) boarding a bus (still during a driving rain storm) to "head out of town" (the "town" apparently being Boston).  After she boards, we see a police officer (played by David Lyons) frantically running from bus to bus looking for her (though alas expecting someone with longer and browner hair) in a scene somewhat reminiscent of the closing scene of Sucker Punch [2011] of a few years past.  As in the closing scene of that movie, she gets away...

In the next scene, we see Katie getting off the bus "somewhere in the South" (it turns out to be a beach side community somewhere in North Carolina inevitably evoking the film Cape Fear [1962][1991]).  The stop is actually just a rest stop for the bus, which is heading further south to Atlanta.  But Katie decides to stay.  Since this is a story, some suspension of disbelief is necessary to accept what follows -- in short order she finds both a job (as a waitress at a seaside seafood diner) and place to live (in a somewhat rundown and very secluded cabin in the woods outside of town).  It does not take a great deal of life-experience to know that securing either is not nearly that easy, especially if one is "new" in town, presumably using "only cash," and presumably / necessarily not carrying a lot of it.  But again, it's a story ... ;-)

Traumatized as she is (we see that she experience flashbacks/nightmares) and initially wary of others, she finds herself making friends, specifically with two people (1) a young woman, about her age, brunette named Jo (played by Cobie Smulders) who shows up one day at her house and introduces herself as someone who also lives at the edge of the woods and (2) a young widower named Alex (played by Josh Duhamel) again her age, who operates the town's general store and lives in town with his two little children Josh (played by Noah Lomax) and Lexie (played by Mimi Kirkland).

Inevitably an initially cautious romance begins between Katie and Alex with the encouragement of both Jo and Lexie and initial skepticism of Josh.  But of course it's an "impossible romance" so long as whatever happened back in Boston remains (something that Katie's not found a way to share with anybody down in the sleepy little town in North Carolina she begins to call home).  And indeed, we find the police officer back in Boston methodically tracking her down with Les Miserables' Javert-like doggedness.

Of course, all this must come to a head, and it does.  There is a climactic scene that takes place in the midst of the North Carolina town's 4th of July (Independence Day) fireworks display.  And much comes to be revealed as it all comes to be (happily) resolved.

Again, it's a schmaltzy movie, but a lovely one and one that even reminds the viewer of the Demi Moore / Patrick Swayze romance/tear-jerker Ghost [1990].  And I have to admit that I'm a complete sucker for these kind of films, especially since I also lost my mother when I was young (though definitely not as young as the kids in this film) and I watched my dad rebuild his life afterwards (with all the attendant pain and initial incomprehension/misunderstandings).

So very nice film folks and Happy Valentine's Day to all ;-)

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Amour [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (1 Star)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
Roger Ebert's review

Amour (written and directed by Michael Haneke) is a generally well-written and well-acted French language (English-subtitled) film about an elderly couple Georges (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (played by Emmanuelle Riva) that stupidly chooses to "go controversial" in its last 5 minutes.

(Spoiler Alert I suppose): After presenting a lovely and gentle film about Georges taking care of his wife after she has a stroke and her health deteriorates quite rapidly afterward with all the attendant issues very poignantly presented -- Anne asking George promise that he won't institutionalize her in a nursing home; her adult daughter (played by Isabelle Tharaud), married and with her own life, proving perhaps not being as helpful as she could have been and perhaps not as appreciative of what her mother and Georges were going through; and finally the home care nurse (played by Carole Franck) again perhaps being not absolutely perfect in her care of Anne -- Georges decides after Anne's largely unconscious and no more than a week or two from death anyway to take a pillow and suffocate her and presumably kill himself afterwards.

Wow, but honestly why?  Viewers who do see the movie will see so clearly that the woman was so close to death anyway, why not just have let God take her rather than "playing God" instead?  And if he had come to the end of his rope in terms of his caring for her, his "betrayal" of her wishes to not be institutionalized for the last short days of her life would have certainly less a betrayal than having him kill her in her bed ("at home") instead.

And while the film certainly seeks to tug at emotions and justify Euthanasia: "Look at how much he loved her..." what of an alternate scenario in which the adult child of the elderly person would be pressing medical personnel "let their parent go" more quickly so as to perhaps receive a larger inheritance?

On my first ever pastoral call after being ordained a priest, I actually had to deal with an adult daughter who wanted to "pull the plug" on her not any where near approaching death mother (neither was a parishioner just a family that the hospital wanted a priest to talk to).  I told the daughter: "Look, you could probably pull the plug on your mother if you want.  But when she gets hungry, she'll just get up and _walk to the cafeteria_ to get a hamburger herself."   I honestly was stunned.  And while certainly I believe that a person has a right to decide to undertake "no extra-ordinary means" to remain alive and I do believe that a family has a right to decide that for someone after all honestly reasonable options have been exhausted (I've had cases like that too: After trying to resuscitate one's loved one for the seventh time after suffering a massive heart attack, it is probably the time to honestly weep and let go) actively seeking to kill someone because they appear to be inconvenient (or even for potentially financial gain) is clearly against Catholic Teaching and honestly ought to be obviously seen as an offense against common morality. 

Yet when we see films about Euthansia, we see only these kind of films presented ... "Oh, he loved her sooo much."  If he did, he would have respected her wishes until he could not take care of her and then have had her taken to a nursing home (and _visited her_) for her remaining days until she passed away herself.  And then finally, he would have asked God: "I'm still here, You must have a reason, what do You want of me now...?"

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Identity Thief [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L) Chicago Sun-Times (2 Stars)  AV Club (C+) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (A. Shaw) review
Chicago Sun-Times (R. Roeper) review
AV Club (T. Robinson) review 

Identity Thief (directed by Seth Gordon, screenplay by Craig Mazin story by Jerry Eeten and Craig Mazin again) is an often funny that both places its two stars Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy in rather familiar territory and yet also surprises.

Bateman plays Sandy Patterson (named by his father for baseball legend Sandy Koufax) who is introduced to viewers at the beginning of the film as a respectable (if "put upon" by his boss) Denver-area family man with wife Trish (played by Amanda Peet) two lovely little daughters Franny (played by Mary-Charles Jones) and Jessie (played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and one more child on the way.

McCarthy plays "Diana" a short, heavy-set, always with a story, modern-day electronic "grifter" introduced to us at the beginning of the film as operating out of Orlando, Florida.

Even as the opening credits roll, we hear "Diana" impersonating "a representative from an identity protection service" calling Sandy Patterson at his work telling him that "someone had attempted to steal his identity," that "they" (her firm) had blocked the attempt but that his recent brush with identity theft would perhaps make him interested in "enrolling" in the "free" identity protection service that her firm offers.  As perhaps many others would, Sandy, who had never before been a target for identity theft but perhaps caught a little offguard by this apparent recent attempt to do so, decides to enroll in "Diana's" service "as long as the service is free ."  Diana happily responds "okay!" and proceeds to ask him for his birth date, social security number and other key personal information to "enroll" him.  Wonderful.  A few hours later, Diana has printed out for herself perhaps a dozen or so credit cards in Sandy Patterson's name (she herself was an identity thief ...) and goes out on a spending spree on his dime.

A few days later back in Denver, the real Sandy Patterson finds his credit card blocked when he tries to purchase gasoline at a service station and soon afterwards finds himself stopped and arrested by Denver police because of an "outstanding warrant" for "Sandy Patterson" in Orlando, Florida (Diana Patterson had gotten into a bar-fight after a night of buying an entire bar drinks on one of Sandy Patterson's credit cards...).

What a nightmare!  When the Denver police get a print-out of the mug-shot of the "Sandy Patterson" arrested in Orlando, FL and it looks _nothing like_ him, the nice, respectable family-man Sandy Patterson of Denver, CO they are able to release him.  However, Diana has by this time destroyed Sandy Patterson's credit rating and racked-up tens of thousands of dollars of debt on his credit cards.  Would Denver's police do anything about that?  No.  It's not their jurisdiction and even if they filed a warrant for "Diana's" arrest and extradition to Colorado, Denver Police Detective Reilly (played by Morris Chestnut) tells him "if she bought something fraudulently on your credit card with Amazon, then Seattle would want a piece of her, if she bought something through Apple, then Palo Alto in California would.  She could have fraudulently purchased goods and services in dozens of communities across the United States.  It could take years before we'd finally get her here to Denver."  With his own job (at a financial services firm) in Denver on the line, good ole honest Sandy Patterson who always had paid his bills on time decides to go out to Orlando, Florida to catch Diana himself and bring her to justice back in Denver himself.  The rest of the film unspools from there...

Among the intrigues that un-spool, is, of course, that Diana is in trouble not only with nice guy Sandy Patterson but also (perhaps inevitably) with various other more unsavory underworld characters.  Hence, even as Sandy Patterson catches up with her and starts taking her from Orlando, Florida to Denver, CO she has two sets of bounty hunters a younger black and hispanic team of Julian (played by P.I.) and Marisol (played by Genesis Rodriguez) and an older, more "hickish" more traditional looking bounty hunter going by the name "Skip Tracer" (played by Robert Patrick).  Much ensues...

Among that which ensues is an appreciation by each of the characters (and perhaps by the audience as well) of the two central characters' "worlds."  Sandy Patterson (played by Jason Bateman) really was a nice honest guy who didn't deserve to have his and his family's life so grievously wounded, while "Diana" (Melissa McCarthy's character) had her own pain and truth.   Short, chunky and growing-up largely abandoned, she really made the life that she's had largely through her own whits.  The scene in which she picks up similarly short blue-collar chunkster named "Big Chuck" (played by Eric Stonestreet) at a random road-side bar somewhere in Georgia ought to run through every American moral theologian's mind when he/she writes and/or reflects on his/her work because there is pain and poverty expressed there that generally doesn't make its way into Sunday sermons of Catechetical instruction.  This is not to say that "non-photomodels" ought to get a "free pass" when it comes to sexual morality, but there ought to be an acknowledgement that life for the "not stunningly beautiful" (that is for most of us) is _not easy_ and that there is a special (and _real_) pain that is experienced by the "fat and frumpy" (and again that includes more of us than perhaps we'd like to admit ;-).

Finally, the film eventually finds itself carrying itself into the realm of asking the question of whether there are people (generally rich, arrogant people) who deserve their money stolen from them.   Interestingly, this is the second film in several weeks that explores this theme (the other being the far more violent and far less funny or convincing Parker [2012]).  Here the CNS/USCCB's reviewer reminds his readers that theft generally remains theft.  Yes, a case could be made to steal a loaf of bread to feed one's starving children.  Yet, the case really can't be made to permit stealing from one's boss simply because he/she is a rich, arrogant jerk. 

Yet, what a remarkable movie this film turns out to be ;-).  Simple as it is (and often somewhat crude.  Parents the film is appropriately R-rated.  It won't necessarily "damage" your teens if they see it.  On the other hand, you really deserve to have the right to have a "final say" on whether you'd allow your teens to see a film like this) it actually gives viewers much to think about with regards to practical "feet on the ground" morality.

Finally the film, IMHO, has a surprisingly _appropriate_ "happy ending."  Those who've read my blog over the years would know that I've repeatedly pointed out that Hollywood is not necessarily as "swinging from the chandeliers liberal" as many would portray it as being.  Yes, it wants its stories to "end well."  But actually more often that not, it also wants its stories to end in a way that's believable and acceptable to its audiences.

Crimes were committed in this film.  And to its credit, the film does not let them be simply "talked away."  Good job folks, good job!

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Side Effects [2013]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig)'s review
Roger Ebert's review
AV Club (S. Tobias)'s review

Side Effects [2013] (directed by Steven Soderbergh, screenplay by Scott Z. Burns) is a glossy contemporary noirish psychothriller that probably solidifies actress/star Rooney Mara as one of the most compelling if arguably "scariest" (in a "don't mess with her characters" sort of a way ;-) actress of her generation.  In The Social Network [2010], Mara played "the girl who dumped (Facebook co-founder) Mark Zuckerberg."  After seeing her in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011] and now Side Effects [2013], one would think that Zuckerberg's character in that film should probably have been grateful to have been "let off" so easily ;-).

Side Effects begins by giving the audience a blood-stained glimpse of a murder scene in what appears to have been a moderately priced apartment "somewhere in the city" (which we soon find out is New York).  What happened?  Well, the film quickly tells us that it's going to transport us to "three months before" this frightful scene.

We meet therefore Emily Taylor (played by Rooney Mara) a young adult working for some small "graphics design" firm in New York, three months before the murder, thanking her boss (played by Polly Draper) in a soft, mildly depressed voice, "for the support" she's given her over the past (unspecified) period of time.  Emily's boss responds with compassion, "Well I know that these things are always far more complicated than what we see reported."

With her boss' blessing then Emily takes the rest of the day off.  Why?  Because she's heading somewhere not altogether far "upstate" to pick-up her husband, Martin Taylor (played by Channing Tatum), who's getting released (after 4 years) from prison following an "insider trading" conviction.  Before arriving at the prison to pick-up her husband, she also stops to pick-up Martin's mother/her mother-in-law (played by Ann Dowd) to take her to the prison as well.  (Apparently, they've been on good terms throughout the ordeal as well).

So Emily and Martin's mom pick Martin up from prison.  Martin remains apologetic to both and promises Emily that quickly bring them back-up to the standard of living that they were accustomed before.  Emily kind of shrugs her shoulders in a disinterested sort of a way and drives them back to the city.  The next scene shows Martin and Emily having sex in the rather small apartment that Emily's taken-up in the city since Martin's arrest and conviction.  After four years of prison, Martin definitely seems "into it," Emily clearly does not, instead just laying on the bed, looking disinterestedly "to the side" appearing to want to avoid looking at her husband.  Again, Martin promises to make things better.  Again, Emily does not seem to care.

A few days later pulling out of her parking spot in a parking garage with her average-looking sedan, she first lazily stops by a parking attendant (who notices enough of her to take note that she's acting somewhat strangely) and then speeds up to smash her car directly into a wall.  We see the airbags inflate...

We next see Emily later that morning at the hospital being interviewed by a Dr. Jonathan Banks (played by Jude Law) an onstaff psychiatrist at the hospital who asks her about "what happened there?" noting that the circumstances of her accident suggested that she "wanted to hurt herself" that morning.   He recommends that she stay at the hospital for observation for a couple of days.  She instead begs him to let her go, telling him part of her sad story (that her husband was just released from prison for a white collar crime; that yes, she's been down/disoriented a bit of late; but that she simply has to be able to go home to her husband that day or else would only get worse, with him as well as with her).  He consents to her request to be released but only on the condition that she come to see him at his practice in the next several days so that she could be treated more or less obvious depression that she's suffering.  She agrees.  He also gives her a prescription to one or another anti-depressant, and they part.

The next several weeks involve Emily coming for appointments to see Dr. Banks several times a week.  During this time, see seems to only be getting worse.  She nearly falls off the platform waiting for a subway train not out of any direct attempt to commit suicide but out of drowsiness or general "out of it-ness" resulting from either her depression or the side-effects of the various anti-depressants that Dr. Banks has been prescribing her.  One day, she simply doesn't come to work to the consternation of her boss who (remember above) had been "patient" before but has been getting increasingly irritated with increasingly "detached" behavior.  Emily tells her that she didn't mean to miss so much work that day, but that she simply "forgot to get off the train."  Emily's boss shakes her head and tells her that this behavior has got to stop because "this is not working for me (as your boss)."

Emily shares these incidents with Dr. Banks who compassionately listens and wonders why none of the medications seem to be working.  At some point, she shares with him that she had been previously seeing another psychiatrist a Dr. Victoria Siebert (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) out in suburban Connecticutt where she and Martin had been living prior to and in the immediate aftermath of Martin's arrest.  Not having any idea of what to do with Emily, Dr. Banks decides to pay a visit to Dr. Siebert.

When he comes out to suburban Connecticutt to see Dr. Siebert, he finds a confident, enterprising psychiatrist who's actually something of an "industry promoter" of various anti-depressant drugs.  He tells her of his problems with finding an antidepressant which could lift Emily out of her depression, noting that "all the regular anti-depressants out there don't seem to work."  Dr. Siebert then suggests "well, maybe something new then" and drops the name Ablixa (obviously fictional) which is to have been relatively new anti-depressant drug on the market that she's been marketing and even looks in her purse to see if she has any samples (she does not).  Not particularly impressed with Dr. Siebert who seemed to him to be a rather irritating "mercenary for the pharmaceuticals," he nevertheless suggests Ablixa to Emily the next time they meet and prescribes it to her when she consents.

Boy does Ablixa seem to work!  The next scene has Emily full frontal naked ... (Parents take note...) jumping up and down all over Martin in bed a short time (a few days/few weeks?) after starting to take the drug.  After they finish, Martin, the former trader (and still trying to get back into the business) tells Emily, "whoever makes this drug is going to make a fortune!"  HOWEVER, Martin soon finds that there are some rather disconcerting "side-effects" to the drug as well -- Emily starts "sleepwalking."  Frightened by this, we see Martin with Emily at Dr. Banks' office relating to the good doctor Emily's recent sleepwalking episodes and Dr. Banks suggesting that perhaps Emily try something else.  But Emily is adamant.  After months or perhaps years of walking in a persistent "fog," Ablixa seems to work!  So Dr. Banks keeps Emily on Ablixa for the time-being, perhaps figuring that she was coming in for appointments several times a week anyway.  So what could go wrong...?

Well, Emily's sleepwalking incidents don't stop.  And one evening Martin comes home, perhaps somewhat late.  He finds her "preparing dinner" (strangely "for three") in her sleepwalking state.  He asks her what's going on?  She turns around and stabs him several times in his abdomen with her kitchen knife, then as he tries to flee, once more in the back.  She then goes back to bed ... Sometime later she finds her husband dead on the floor with the knife in his back.  She calls 911.  The police respond.  They find her husband dead on the floor and her hysterical.  They take her in for questioning and eventually arrest her for her husband's murder (her prints were all over the knife).  What now?

Well, Dr. Banks comes to her defense.  He knew of her sleep-walking episodes after her beginning to take Ablixa and it seemed clear enough to him what happened: She may have killed her husband but she had no consciousness of what happened (hence had no criminal intent).  The courts accept the explanation and she is found "Not Guilty on account of (temporary) insanity," and is remanded then to a state psychiatric facility for at least some time with Dr. Banks remaining her court appointed doctor.  Dr. Banks was confident, in fact, that after (obviously) getting her off the Ablixa and establishing that she was not otherwise insane she could be released from the state hospital after some time.

All this would have worked-out well, except, of course, Dr. Banks himself starts to feel repercussions from the incident.  He had, after all, prescribed the Ablixa to Emily and kept her on it even after she exhibited symptoms (sleepwalking) that were potentially dangerous to her/others.  Would you want to be treated by someone who was at least partly responsible for a terrible tragedy like this, especially after both he and Ablixa made inevitable headlines in the News?  So his patient list inevitably takes a deep hit.  His partners in his practice also come to want him out their office because their association with him was hurting their credibility as well.  Finally, a pharmaceutical company with which he had received a contract to help them study another anti-depressant drug (and he was going to receive $50,000 for this work for them) terminates its contracted with him.  He and his wife Diedre (played by Vinessa Shaw) had just bought a new rather expensive home or condo somewhere in Manhattan ...

In trying to defend his own practice/reputation, Dr. Banks finds to his surprise that it was Emily's former psychiatrist Dr. Seibert who had written the clinical article warning about Ablixa's causing "sleepwalking" in some patients.  Yet, it was she who had recommended Ablixa to him in the first place... Why would she have done that?  The rest of the film unspools from there ... :-)

The film therefore plays on a number of contemporary phenomena -- (1) an addiction to the high flying "Wall Street"/"Professional living on Manhattan" lifestyle by those who've experienced it, (2) the betrayal/pain caused to loved-ones by those caught in "white collar crimes" and (3) the proliferation of all kinds of anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, etc psychiatric drugs many with various "side effects" but still prescribed (or even demanded by patients) because these drugs do actually help many people even as the risks of these treatments are often minimized -- which all combined make this a very sleek if scary "noirish" tale.

A note to Parents/Adults.  This film is definitely R-rated (for the nudity and generally adult themes) and is definitely not for the squeamish.  There is the blood from the murder of Emily's husband described above.  There's also the very convincing indeed stunning performance by Rooney Mara as the simultaneously arguably sympathetic yet clearly troubled young woman, Emily (talk about a classic but also contemporary femme fatale).  The film makes for a great thriller, but it can turn one's stomach inside out.  So honestly, as good as the film is for young adults and above, it is certainly not a film for the kids.

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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Quartet [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Quartet (directed by Dustin Hoffman, original play and adapted screenplay by Ronald Harwood) is a lovely arguably too idyllic story about growing old, retirement and coming to terms with it all.  I say the story may grate some folks as being "too idyllic" because it is centered around the life at "Beecham House" a retirement community  "somewhere in England" for former operatic singers and classical musicians.  As such, this is not exactly the average "senior community," much less a nursing home that the vast majority of Americans would understand (and often honestly and with some reason fear...).

That being said, the story is a reminder that economics aside, coming to terms with "growing old," fixing what relationships need to be fixed, etc is still not easy.  And perhaps with economic questions largely set-aside in this film (though central to the story is actually the "plot device" of the residents having to perform an annual "benefit concert" to help pay for the continued operation of their lovely retirement home) the more universal concerns of "grief" / "loss" and reconciliation can come to fore.

Central to the story is the attempt to bring back together for said benefit concert the four operatic singers, all now retired and -- with the arrival last, Jean Horton (played by Maggie Smith) -- all now living at Beecham House, for a reprise of their famed performance/recording of the Rigoletto Quartet (YouTube) by GiuseppeVerdi.  This, of course proves "not particularly easy," as there are egos and past hurts that need to be overcome.  Reginald Paget (played by Tom Courtenay) had been briefly married to Jean when they were young and their marriage collapsed after Jean confessed to cheating on him (once) while she (apparently always a bit more successful than he) had been singing for a season at "La Scala" in Rome.  Reginald also has seemed to have a tougher time of retirement than former colleague Wilf Bond (played by Billy Connolly) who enjoys happily flirting young women in his old age in contrast to Reginald's (remember, he had been hurt by someone cheating with his wife ...) wounded rigidity on the matter.  Still Reginald has tried to "keep himself young" in another way: by engaging the contemporary generation of young musicians and keeping up with their styles and times (Operatic singer though he was, he seemed quite happy to engage and applaud the ability of a young rapper he encounters during a music theory/history class that Reginald continues to offer in his retirement).  Finally, there is the good-hearted Cissy Robson (played by Pauline Collins) who has remembered the four's long-ago recording of the Rigoletto Quartet as one of the high points of her life, and apparently not just from a "career" point of view, but simply that their previous time working together had brought her great joy. 

Much of course needs to be fixed/reconciled as the story progresses ... but it makes then for a very, very nice story such coming to terms with the Past, the Present and even what awaits in the Future.  So it all does make for a very lovely story offering everyone much to reflect on as one considers these questions in the context of his/her life as well. 

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