Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On the Road [2012]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review
AV Club's (N. Murray) review

On the Road [2012] is based on "The Original Scroll" of Jack Kerouac's seminal post-WW II American "Beat Generation" semi-autobiographic novel On the Road [1951-1957].  The film is directed by Brazilian born director Walter Salles, screenplay by Puertorican born Jose Rivera, the two previously having collaborated in the making of The Motorcycle Diaries [2004] about the "epic" formative road trip of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the early 1950s from Buenos Aires, Argentina across the Andes Mountains to Chile and Peru, a "road trip" that took place at roughly the same time as Kerouac was making and writing about his.  The film also stars a veritable who's who of young Hollywood actors and actresses (Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, KRISTEN STEWART, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams) and its executive producer was Francis Ford Coppola [IMDb]

Why such an effort / such hoopla to (finally) put this book on the screen and why now?  One reason may be that its "time has come."  Kerouac wrote his book in the years immediately following World War II.  It's obvious that the both his book (and his life, it's semi-autobiographical after all) which became a post-World War II, 1950s "Beat Generation" classic was heavily influenced by the post World War I, 1920s "Lost Generation" writers like Ernest Hemingway and then by Depression Era writer John Steinbeck.   We're currently coming out of a decade of post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and perhaps finally turning the bend following the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  All these eras, WW I, WW II and the Great Depression were marked by necessary national "pulling together" / regimentation.  The eras following, the "roaring 20s" and then the 1960s were marked by a "national letting-go / catharsis."  After a decade of war followed by economic pressure/uncertainty, we may be due for a "national catharsis" once again.

To those who do not know / have not read Kerouac's book (and I have to admit that prior to seeing the movie I was one of them too) the film initially may be disorienting.  The characters though dressed in late 1940s-early 1950s period garb and speaking in cadences of the time, nevertheless seem surprisingly contemporary, so much so that initially I honestly thought I smelled a rat.  "You jerks," I thought, "You dressed these characters in period clothes and then made them act like the most trendy artistic young people of today."  Then I looked-up articles about Jack Kerouac on the internet, bought the book (by then knowing even to buy the "original scroll" version, as the book as stunning as it was at the time that it was published, had gone through several re-drafts before it was finally published in 1957) and I found myself having experienced something of a "revelation."

All things considered, it's a relatively "small" revelation but one nonetheless, and this forms the basis of why I'd definitely recommend this film (and book) to American young adults (and their parents) today.  Why?  The reason is this:  While it is possible (though with a fair amount of difficulty) to draw a path explaining how American culture passed from the legacy of such writers as Ernest Hemingway / John Steinbeck to American culture of today, if Jack Kerouac's book "On the Road" is in one's cultural universe THEN THIS PATH BECOMES A STRAIGHT LINE.  There are parts of Jack Kerouac's novel that seem to take place just "Down the Road" from Steinbeck's world of Of Mice and Men (1936), Grapes of Wrath (1937) and Cannery Row (1945) and there are other parts that could be taking place at any college town party or in any otherwise "trendy" or "semi-intellectual district" in the United States today.

I find this honestly remarkable ;-).  And it actually might not be bad for young people today (or of any age) who find themselves frequenting trendy clubs and cafes to work sometime "on the railroad" or "spend a summer picking tomatoes in California's central valley" and reconnect thus with the legacies of some of America's cultural giants like writers Steinbeck and Hemingway, who I've already mentioned, but also others like Woody Guthrie (musician), Ansel Adams (photographer), and Georgia O'Keeffe (painter), all of whom could look at American young people today (and really since the 1960s) and see a bunch of espresso drinking, video-game playing wimps.

So On the Road [2012] is a "finding oneself" journey (a story of self-discovery) with the attendant sex, drugs and alcohol, but IMHO (I could be wrong...) so much more purposeful than the simply the sex, drugs and alcohol of the "spring break" experience so utterly (and IMHO justifiably) lampooned and trashed in the contemporary film Spring Breakers [2013]. (The two films have actually followed almost identical release trajectories, both being screened at the international film festivals in Cannes and Toronto in 2012 and then being released on the same weekend in the United States in March (spring break season) in 2013.  To be sure, Spring Breakers [2013] has generally received a "better response" both by critics and audiences than On the Road [2012].  Yet I do believe that On the Road [2012] is the more positive piece.  There are aspects of On the Road [2012] worth emulating, while Spring Breakers [2013] is simply a critique.

So what is On the Road about?  It's a semi-autobiographic story set in the late 1940s about the years when Sal Paradise (based on Jack Kerouac himself and played by Sam Riley in the film), a young French-Canadian-born writer who had subsequently grown-up with his family in New York City where he was living at the story's beginning, found himself inspired/under the spell of a friend named Dean Moriarty (based on Jack Keroauc's friend Neal Cassady and played by Garrett Hedlund in the film) who had come-up from Denver to New York City with his young randy wife named MaryLou (based on Neal Cassady's first wife LuAnne Henderson and played by Kristen Stewart in the film) on invitation of a mutual friend Carlo Marx (based on Jack Keroauc's friend and "Beat Generation" icon/poet Allen Ginsberg played by Tom Sturridge in the film).

Sal (Jack Kerouac) was a writer.  Dean (Neal Cassady) was not but was impressed by writers and lived at that time of his life with a confidence that could be overwhelmingly inspiring to a young writer like Sal.  Then both Sal and Dean (Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady) lost/grew-up without fathers.  They didn't lose them in any dramatic way.  Neither "died in the war."  Sal/Jack's dad had died, presumably of cancer, at the beginning story. Dean/Neal's dad was a bum who apparently spent a good part of his adult life (and may have died) in jail.

The funeral of Sal/Jack's father with which the film begins also serves the purpose of reminding the audience that both Sal and Jack Kerouac who Sal represents in the film were Catholic.  This is made reference to several times throughout the story though (in the film) generally not in a particularly positive way.  However, Kerouac's Catholicism was part of his identity that he did claim throughout his life even if due to his largely closeted homosexuality he also struggled with it.  At least one biographical essay that I read about him referred to Kerouac as a largely closeted homosexual and tormented Catholic.  While I honestly don't wish anyone much "torment," as a Catholic, in fact, I don't necessarily see some "torment" in one's life a bad thing.  It keeps one grounded, appreciating that that one is not a god.  The above characterization of Kerouac also makes his life and his work much more interesting than it would have been otherwise, both during his life and now.  And I would note here that one of the "papabili" before the recent papal election, Italian Cardinal Scola of Milan, apparently had made reference to Kerouac's book when speaking recently to Italy's youth.  Life is indeed a journey, and there is absolutely no doubt that there is a wide-eyed sincerity, even if apparently partly benzedrine enhanced, in Kerouac's book that over the decades has made it interesting far beyond American shores, even to a Brazilian born director and an Italian Cardinal...

Sal and Dean meet in the film at Dean's short-leased apartment after mutual friend Carlo Marx takes Sal there.  Dean answers the door completely naked.  In the backroom is Dean's young wife MaryLou, lying on a bed.  Presumably the two, married after all, were having sex.  Dean's matter-of-fact answering the door (filmed with some discretion from the back) is actually taken directly from the book, though in Kerouac's book it takes place later in the story.  Writing of the incident, Kerouac wrote that Moriarty answered the door "completely naked" and yet with confidence that "it wouldn't have mattered if (President) Harry Truman was at the door." ;-) If nothing else Dean (and Kerouac wrote his book before James Dean) was really, really cool ;-).

Dean lets the two in, gets dressed and joins Sal and Carlo in hitting the Harlem jazz scene of the time.  During Dean's time in New York, the three talk life, talk books, talk music, talk writing books, talk beer, yes talk (and take) some drugs and talk some more.

At some point, Dean has to pick-up and go back to Denver.  It wasn't particularly clear why Dean / MaryLou picked-up and went back.  Perhaps MaryLou was getting bored in New York (After all, Dean seemed to have spent more time with Sal and Carlo than her...).  Perhaps Dean himself (from the West after all and even if interested in good books was certainly less educated than either Sal or Carlo) was getting bored as well.  In any case, Dean and Mary Lou are quite suddenly ... gone.

What to do?  Well, of course, some time later Sal and Carlo pick themselves up and go off to Denver as well and Sal/Jack writes: "So began period of my life that I would call 'On the Road'..."

When they arrive Sal (and the audience) aren't probably altogether surprised that MaryLou is kinda "out of the picture" (asking for a divorce).  However, what perhaps does surprise is that Dean's now shacked-up with another, somewhat older, mid-thirty-something year old woman named Camille (based on Neal Cassady's future second wife Carolyn Cassady played by Kirsten Dunst).  Then when Sal and Carlo arrive, Dean also has another surprise for Sal:  he sets him up with a (partying) "friend named Jane" (based on again a real person named Joan Vollmer and played by Amy Adams in the film).

Dean's life is getting complicated.  MaryLou's dumping him.  Camille doesn't believe it though.  So after a fight, Camille picks herself up and heads back to San Francisco where she's originally from and Dean picks himself up and goes after her... 

With Dean gone again, Sal goes back to New York, then back to Denver, then to California.  During this time, he runs variously into friends: MaryLou (okay she was the ex-wife or soon to be ex-wife of his friend Dean, but she still kinda liked Sal and besides she was kinda a friend), Jane (Sal didn't particularly like her in any particularly romantic way, but Dean was right ... she was kinda cool), and Sal even takes a detour out there in California, spending some time with a nice Mexican-American woman, Terry (named in reality Bea Franco and played in the film by Alice Braga) who he met on the bus heading to San Francisco to find Dean. With Terry, he works for a season out there with her in the vegetable fields of California.

At different times, Sal runs into Carlo as well.  Eventually, he does run into Dean too.  And in the pages / time that follow(s) various random combinations of the characters mentioned above make the trip back and forth across the country (mind you, this is in the late 1940s!) any number of times.

What does Sal's mom think of all of this?  Yes, Kerouac includes his mom (played by Marie-Ginette Guay) and apparently more sensible sister (played by Imogen Haworth) in the story ;-).  Well, mom spends much of her time on screen rolling her eyes disapprovingly and muttering things in Quebecois French that one guesses were along the lines of "What now?" or "Oh, grow up" :-).  But she remains in his life and occasionally, sighing, helps him out.  And her presence in the story is not portrayed negatively.  If anything, my sense is that Kerouac, "good tormented soul" that he was, knew that this was a time in his life when he probably "looked like an idiot" to his mom and more sensible sister.  After all, mom was a widow and besides Sal's "better" sister, Sal was all she had.  Yet Sal was spending much of his time traveling back and forth across the country at a time when almost nobody did so (and most would not have imagined that it would have even been possible to do so) for no particular reason, even if it must have seemed really, really cool to be doing so ... ;-)

So how does the story end?  Well of course, I'm not going to tell you ;-).  But I honestly think that it ends pretty well.  For all the drugs, all the drinking and yes all the sex (most of all of which was implied, though at times "implied" so thinly that one would have to be an idiot to miss what's going on) the story (both book and movie) arguably ends with a moral tone: the more virtuous end up in better shape than the less.

But what I liked most about the story (both the book and the film) is the authenticity of its presentation.  Once I realized that the film was really portraying what Kerouac wrote (back in the 1950s!) I honestly was in awe.

Now parents, CLEARLY this is not a book or movie for high schoolers.  But I do believe that it is a great book/movie for young adults.  And having studied for three years in the seminary in Italy it doesn't surprise me at all that a serious and respected Italian Cardinal would find Kerouac's story worthy of positive reference as well.  Good job!

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen [2013]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Chicago SunTimes (B. Zwecker) review

While certainly improbable and Parents take note at times needlessly violent, Olympus Has Fallen [2013] (directed by Antoine Fuqua, screenplay by Creighton Rothenburger and Katrin Benedikt) is an action thriller about a fictional North Korean surprise strike on the White House as a prelude to a renewed war on the Korean Peninsula.  It appears to evoke the shock and surprise of the Tet Offensive in 1968 during the Vietnam War when suddenly even the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon was attacked by North Vietnamese commandos (that attack quickly proved to be a suicide mission...).

The film also appears to me to be a psychic vestige of the shock of the actual 9/11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., attacks that were experienced by our nation to have come out of nowhere, indeed, "out of the clear blue sky."  Finally, stories like this may even serve a reminder that in the Biblical Prophetic tradition and more recently in the Jungian School of Psychology (Carl Jung came from the German speaking world after all...) peace/security doesn't really come from strength.

In the Bible, mountains and buildings of all kinds are expected to come down eventually:  "All that is high will be brought low" (Isaiah 2:12) and "As Jesus left the temple area and was going away, his disciples approached him to point out the temple buildings. He said to them in reply, 'You see all these things, do you not? Amen, I say to you, there will not be left here a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.'" (Matt 24:1-2).  And in the Jungian school of thought, greater reliance on one's strength and other gifts just makes one ever more paranoid as one's "Shadow" rises even as one's own conscious/acknowledged abilities increase.

The Biblical psalmist summarizes the situation in this way: "Some rely on chariots, others on horses, but we on the name of the LORD our God" (Psalms 20:8).  This is not to say that the Lord will save "Olympus" (the Greek home of the Gods) from "falling." After all Jesus himself was crucified.  It's just that one learns to continue on without "the Temple"/"Jerusalem," or "Olympus"/"the White House."   God/Jesus continues to be with us, even when all kinds of things, big and small, come crashing down around us throughout our lives.

But we're not there yet.  So we have this films like this one about a surprise, indeed dastardly strike against our White House and then our battle back to regain it.   

The film begins 18 months before the attack.  Trusted Secret Service agent Mike Banning (played by Gerard Butler) is boxing with President Benjamin Ascher (played by Aaron Eckhart).  They are at Camp David.  It's around Christmas time and it's snowing.  The First Family has to make an appearance at a Fund Raiser back in Washington.  During their trip from Camp David back to the fund raiser, an accident takes place and Mike Banning, who's first priority was always for the safety of the President, finds himself to blame for the death of the First Lady Margaret Ascher (played by Ashley Judd).  So despite having previously been President Ascher's favorite Secret Service agent and also the favorite of the Aschers' 10 year old son Conner (played by Finley Jacobsen) after the death of his wife, the President doesn't want to see Banning around and so Banning is demoted to a desk job at the Secret Service's main office at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Such it is until July 5 (the day after the 4th of July) some 18 months later... when with tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula (what else is new...?), President Ascher has invited the President of South Korea Lee Tae-Woo (played by Keong Sim) over to the White House as a show of continued U.S. support for South Korea.

While the President of South Korea is over at the White House, North Korean agents and commandos take the opportunity, often using American weapons including a Korean piloted AC-130 arial gunship, to launch a lightning and coordinated assault on the White House succeeding it overrunning it in 13 chaotic minutes.  (North Korean intelligence had previously discovered, from hacked or otherwise stolen documents that American military contingency plans anticipated a 15 minute response time to get "boots on the ground" to the White House in an emergency, hence their planning and need to over-run and secure it in less time than that). 

How could a raid like this possibly succeed?  Well North and South Koreans speak the same language and were the same people.  There's always been a concern about how much of South Korea's intelligence and military establishment has been compromised/infiltrated by North Korean agents.  (I would think that the concern has been diminishing as it has become patently obvious over the years that South Korea's political and economic system has been far more successful in meeting the needs/aspirations of its people than North Korea's regime.  Hence even if there were a fair amount of North Korean agents operating in South Korea in the past, one would suspect that a fair number of those agents would have "turned" or simply decided to stop working for North Korea).  However, the film assumes that there would be enough highly motivated North Korean agents burrowed into South Koreas intelligence and military institutions to pull this thing off.  (As I mention above, a similar assault was actually conducted by North Vietnamese sponsored commandos on the U.S. Embassy in Saigan during the infamous Tet Offensive in 1968.  However, the South Vietnamese regime in 1968 was far weaker (and far more infilitrated) than the South Korean government today).

In any case, the film envisions that lightning well-coordinated strike on the White House was possible perhaps precisely because we would not expect it.  (Consider again that before 9/11 almost no one would have envisioned the kind of coordinated attack involving hijacked aircraft that occurred on that day). 

Led by a super-deep cover North Korean intelligence commander named Kang (played by Rick Yune) whose name had apparently shown-up in U.S./South Korean on occasional intelligence intercepts but had previously never been positively identified, the raid succeeds in not only overrunning the White House but also in capturing U.S. President Ascher, U.S. Vice-President Charlie Rodriguez (played by Phil Austin) and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (played by Melissa Leo) as well as the South Korean President even as they head down to the White House's previously assumed to be utterly secure command bunker. (I'm not going to mention here how the North Koreans manage to pull that feat off as it's somewhat key to the story).  Kang makes quick work of the captured South Korean President who he summarily executes after communicating his demands to outside U.S. officials assembling at the Pentagon's command bunker using the secure closed-circuit television connection between the two bunkers.

His demands involve the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the DMZ in Korea and the standing-down the U.S. 7th fleet in the area.  Soon it also becomes clear that he wishes to beat the self-destruct codes for U.S. nuclear missiles out of the key U.S. officials he has captured in the White House command bunker.  Again, Parents take note that this is an R-rated movie and some of the violence/beatings in the film is/are quite and IMHO needlessly brutal.

It would seem, Kang has actually "pulled this thing off..." But ... good ole Secret Service agent Mike Banning upon witnessing the beginning of the shocking assault on the White House from his window at the U.S. Treasury Building next door to the White House, instinctively runs out to the Mall and then into the White House during the chaos of the attack seeking to do what he can to help defend it.  At the end of the initial raid, he actually finds himself inside the White House and since he used to work there, he knows where the weapons and the communications gear are ...

Soon he makes contact with the Defense Department's command bunker at the Pentagon where his boss, Secret Service Director Lynn Jacobs (played by Angela Bassett) has gone (After all, it was her people who were defending the White House and she and her people would still know the ins and outs of the White House better than anyone).   Also arriving at the Pentagon bunker is the Speaker of the House named Trumbell (played by Morgan Freeman) who, since the President and Vice-President have been captured has become the acting President of the United States.  Since it appears that pretty much all of the Secret Service agents at the White House have been killed, that the formerly demoted Secret Service agent Mike Banning actually finds himself INSIDE the White House becomes important...

What follows is a story that resembles a mash-up of the first Die Hard [1988] movie with Kang playing the role of the nefarious villain and Under Siege [1992] with Mike Banning playing "former U.S. Navy SEAL now humble cook" Steven Seagal's role in that movie with, yes, a James Bond like "clock ticking scenario" playing out at the end.

I don't think it'd be that much of a "spoiler" to report that "the Good Guys win," that we recapture the White House and the formerly demoted / "exiled" agent Mike Banning succeeds in redeeming himself in the process ;-)

Again, it would seem to me that films like this are driven by both the psychic scars left-over by the 9/11 attacks (After all, we were surprised before...) and then lingering fear that no matter how strong we are, we'll never be truly safe.  So we play out scenarios that both scare us and ... perhaps help us be more prepared. 

But I do honestly believe that our security (big and small) is not in "chariots or horses" but:

"Though the mountains may fall 
and the hills turn to dust, 
the love of the Lord will stand 
as a shelter for all who call on his name.
Sing the Praise and the Glory of God."
     -- Dan Schulte, S.J. "Though the Mountains May Fall"

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Monday, March 25, 2013

Beyond the Hills (orig. Dupa Dealuri) [2012]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Chicago SunTimes (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A-) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Chicago SunTimes (S. Boone) review
Chicato Tribune (M. Phillips) review
AVClub (S. Tobias) review

Beyond the Hills (orig. Dupa Dealuri) [2012] is an award winning Romanian language (English subtitled) film directed and screenplay by Cristian Mungiu based on the non-fiction novels of Tatiana Niculescu Bran that could serve as a much needed corrective to the plethora of increasingly problematic Hollywood "exorcism" movies that IMHO honestly don't serve the Church much good except to marginalize us further into a ghetto of superstition and needlessly stupid backwardness.

The story that plays out is based on a true incident in which a young female Novice to an Orthodox Christian Monastery in rural Moldova (today an independent country but linguistically/culturally related to Romania) died as a result of an exorcism performed on her that "went awry" (and it would appear that ALL concerned were in agreement that in better circumstances the exorcism probably would not have been performed at all ...).  Please don't get me wrong.  I do believe in the existence of Evil and I do certainly believe in the existence of the Devil.  BUT ANY HONEST CATHOLIC/CHRISTIAN would understand, and the Catholic hierarchy in this matter is CERTAINLY HONEST, the need for Exorcisms is _rare_. 

So what happened here?  Well the fictionalized case (set in the film in rural Romania) is as follows: Two young women, Voichita (played by Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (played by Cristina Flutur) had grown-up together in a Romanian orphanage.  After reaching maturity, Alina went to Germany and found work there while Voichita stayed in Romania.  The film begins at a Romanian train station with Alina having come back to fetch Voichita to take her back with her to Germany.  Voichita, however, had found another calling in the meantime.  She had become a Novice at a Orthodox Christian Monastery in the hills outside of town (hence the name of the film...).  So when Alina arrives, she takes her with her to her new home.

Now here something needs to be said that I do believe was excellently portrayed in the film but none of the American movie-critics that I cite above were able to catch or appreciate it: Life at the Monastery, while austere and certainly regimented was also freely chosen.  Absolutely no one had a gun to their heads to come or to stay.  There were simply rules and the price of staying at the Monastery was respecting the rules. (One thing that I've long respected about the Orthodox Christians is that they are quite serene in their faith: Whether or not one chooses to accept their faith/way of life is up to the individual.  They simply march on, whether or not any particular individual buys into it or not.  At the end of an excellent documentary called Russian Reserve [2010] about a Russian Orthodox priest and his little church in a small village somewhere in the middle of the Russian Steppe, the priest simply declares to the documentary's viewers: "There is no need to 'Save the World,' because it will outlast us.  There's no need to 'Save the Church' because it will save us.  There's no need to 'Save Russia,' one simply needs to love it.  There's no need to 'Save the Village,' one simply needs to live in it."  Again, there's IMHO a remarkable serenity in Orthodox Christianity ;-): "You're free to join us but whether you do or not, we'll go on without you." ;-).  How's that as a serene reply to ever  "exquisite" contemporary American narcissism? ;-)

So this then forms the backdrop to the story.  The "problem" isn't "the Church," here, the problem is the conflict existing in Voichita: Alina desperately loves Voichita (yes, in the carnal, lesbian sort of way).  But Voichita would prefer to put that past behind her and spend the rest of her life in the Monastery.  Since Voichita won't budge, Alina who doesn't even believe in God, in increasing desperation CHOOSES TO TRY to join the Monastery as well.  OF COURSE SHE "DOESN'T FIT IN," which is obvious to everyone, to Alina, to Voichita, to Father superior ("Papa" played by Valeriu Andriuta) who presides at the Monastery's church and to Mother superior ("Mama" played by Dana Tapalaga) who presides over the nuns consecrated, of course, to perpetual celibate chastity.  And with every rejection of every advance that Alina makes toward Voichita, she gets increasingly desperate to the point that after an incident where she wanted to throw herself down the Monastery's well, the nuns call the paramedics/ambulance.  They take her to the local hospital.  There after a few days in a straight-jacket, they release her "home."

BUT THERE IS NO HOME.  Alina (like Voichita) is an orphan.  She has nobody.  The foster family in town that took care of her in her later teenage years has another girl in their charge.  Now, if the Monastery could be faulted in anything, it should be faulted for not simply EXPELLING Alina for her own good saying in effect: "You're in your 20s.  Yes, you have no job and no family, but YOU CAN'T STAY HERE, you don't believe in God for goodness sake..." ;-).  Instead, with truly tragic Christian concern, THEY KEEP HER (and Voichita, who I honestly would have expelled as well...) even as ALINA gets more eratic/crazier by the day.

That's when Mother Superior tells "Papa" why don't you "do those prayers over her (perform an exorcism). It MAY give her peace." "Do you know what you are asking?  I can't do this without permission of her family and in the presence of OTHER PRIESTS."  But there is no real family (okay there is actually a simple brother of hers, who actually does menial work at the Monastery, and told that it could do her some good, agrees to it) and THEY'RE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE in the ROLLING HILLS OF RURAL ROMANIA.  So there aren't exactly a ton of priests with nothing to do but come over from miles away to (ROLLING THEIR EYES) help perform an Exorcism on a troubled woman who ALL KNEW WAS TROUBLED but also ALL BASICALLY KNEW WASN'T POSSESSED TO BEGIN WITH.  But after Alina sets her Cell (room) on fire, "Papa" decides to give it a shot.

Now, POSSESSED OR NOT, NO ONE is going to be willingly exorcised.  So Alina has to be tackled, tied to a makeshift stretcher and then taken into the Chapel to be "prayed over" (Again, I honestly would have expelled her...again FOR HER OWN GOOD, but I do actually buy the sincerity of this group that decided to try to "pray over her" to try to give her Peace).

Well after A FEW DAYS OF THIS Alina PASSES-OUT and after the Monastery calls in the paramedics, in the presence of the paramedics SHE DIES.  How to explain all this to the authorities?  WELL "Papa" and the nuns DON'T TRY TO HIDE ANYTHING and appear completely willing to serenely accept "come what may."

What a tragedy and HONESTLY what a great if excruciatingly sad film.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Spring Breakers [2012]

MPAA (R)  Chicago SunTimes (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars with Explanation)

IMDb listing
Chicago SunTimes (R. Roeper) review
AV Club (S. Tobias) review

Note to all.  Due to the nature of this movie, this review itself is not really intended for younger readers.  It's intended more for parents and older teens/young adults.  Yet, as you will read, the film is certainly worthy of review.  This is because for all the (generally female) nudity, drugs (both pot and coke), and stylized gangsta violence (much of the film runs like a truly uncut "Girls Gone Wild" video drawing the line at out-and-out sex), it's difficult for me to understand Spring Breakers [2012] (screenplay and directed by Harmony Korine) as anything but a surprisingly total - root and branch - condemnation of the whole MTV-style College Spring Break phenomenon.

For this reason, while the film is certainly a hard-R, bordering on / crossing into NC-17 territory, this may not be a bad film for parents with college-age children to see and not to, as the youth oriented AVClub's reviewer feared, to "keep their daughters locked-up" but above all to promote honesty in communication with their college aged / young adult children.  For no one goes to "find themselves" on the beaches of Cancun, or Mazatlan (Mexico), or Daytona, Pensacola or Fort Lauderdale (Florida) or South Padre Island (Texas) during Spring Break.  They go there to Party.  And with that come the risks of drug overdose, drunken accidents (of a truly phenomenal variety - I knew a guy in college who lost a friend trying to jump between balconies 10 stories up in Fort Lauderdale), rape and yes even drug violence (all those drugs being consumed there have to come from somewhere...).  And this then, the underside of the "MTV style" Spring Break phenomenon, is what this film is about.

The film starts off at a random rural State College apparently somewhere in Tennessee.  Two classmates, Candy (played by Vanessa Hudgens) and Brit (played by Ashley Benson) are taking an evening class on the Civil Rights Movement, but Candy and Brit could care less.  Amid the sea of glowing laptop screens of other students ostensibly taking notes, the two instead exchange pornographic messages confessing to each other that they crave a man (or at least a part of his anatomy) and promising each other that they'll surely find one or even a bunch of them during the upcoming Spring Break.  After class, they come back to their dorm apartment, strike up the bong, do a line or two of coke, and then check with roommate Cotty (played by Rachel Korine) as to how much money they have "saved-up" for the trip...

Their other roommate, Faith (played by Selena Gomez) is at a campus prayer meeting.  She doesn't look all that excited to be there at the prayer meeting but she is there.  The bearded student leader of the prayer group is authentic enough.  And he leads the group in a sharing on the theme of "Resisting Temptation," his final message being: "If you're tempted remember that God will always offer you another door to get out" adding with kind, youthful sincerity: "How cool is that?"  And the rest of the group, dutifully and generally with similar sincerity respond: "Amen."  Faith doesn't necessarily roll her eyes, but doesn't necessarily seem convinced either.

After the meeting, Faith's walking with a couple of the other girls who participated back toward the dorm and the girls warn her about her roommates.  Faith defends them saying "Listen, I've known them since forever.  We grew-up together in the same town.  Yes, they may be a bit crazy sometimes, but they're basically good people."  She then tells them that she's probably going to go on Spring break with them.  Bewildered and with the lovely sincerity of youth (folks remember that I am a Catholic priest after all) the two advise her to at least: "Pray hard, yeah, pray 'hard core'" ;-) that she come out okay.

Faith comes home and between her three randy/by now quite stoned roommates and herself, they add up that they have $325 "saved up" for Spring Break (all those drugs back at the dorm, must have cut into their savings...).  One of the girls declares with, again, all the certainly of youth: "That ain't enough to pay for a single night's hotel over there.  They jack up the prices you know..."  Faith herself really wanted to go, "to finally see something of this world besides the same old, same old..."  Telling Faith not to worry, the three others leave her in the dorm room telling her that they "have a plan."

The plan was to steal one of their professor's cars and then knock-off a local Chicken joint.  So Candy and Brit wearing black ski masks and armed with a plastic gun (it's actually a cigarette lighter) and a very large hammer, storm the Chicken joint and proceed with all the gangsta chutzpah that they've learned watching MTV to terrorize the cash register clerk as well as the patrons into giving them their money, while Cody watches "the show" through the restaurant's windows as she drives to the back to pick them up after they're done.  After getting away, they torch the car in a nearby forest (using the cigarette lighter ...) and come home with oodles of cash.  Faith isn't particularly concerned where the money came from when they return.  And the next day they're off on the bus to Florida.

Spring break becomes all the debauchery that they expected it to be.  And all of them, including Faith are mesmerized.  Only Faith is actually calling home at the time, but she's talking nonsense, telling among others her own grandmother how wonderful it all is, how she and all these other people are "finding themselves" and how "next year" she'd like to TAKE HER (her GRANDMA) DOWN THERE TO SPRING BREAK WITH HER ;-).  Again, she's babbling.  And it's clear that she's babbling because the film shows that they had spent the day on the beach doing everything that the other revelers were doing: beer bongs, topless chicken fights, flipping-off / trash-talking random passer-bys and so forth.

The babbling stops and the movie descends to a new level when police inevitably raid a party where the four girls were attending, and soon the four find themselves in just their bikinis cuffed outside the hotel with a whole bunch of similarly clad and similarly cuffed revelers.  And it's actually kinda lucky that they're cuffed in at least their bikinis because before the cops storm in, Faith (the character if probably not the actress) is shown lying on a coffee table topless with others snorting coke off of her stomach).  And to underscore the point while they're outside, cuffed, waiting to be taken away by the police, the only one whose bikini top and bottom don't match is good ole Faith ... (Yes, folks the film's a hard R ...)  What the heck happened?

The four are brought in before the judge who gives them each of them a $150+ fine or two more days in the County jail for public intoxication and drug use.  Since the four tell the judge that they don't have the money, he sends them back to serve the two days in the clink.

The film then descends to the next level when the four are surprised to find themselves bailed-out a few hours later by a local drug-dealing, platinum teeth wearing rapper nicknamed "Alien" (played stunningly if utterly terrifying by James Franco), who after bailing them out takes them in his custom detailed Camaro convertible to party with some of "his homeys."  This is where Faith's had enough and asks to leave.  After a very tense and creepy conversation with "Alien" who kinda liked her (no doubt because all things considered, she was still more of a challenge than the other three) he decides to let her go and even "graciously" helps her get on the bus and go home.  (That door that the prayer leader had talked about near the beginning of the film did appear to open for her ... and she definitely took it).  For his part, "Alien" probably figured that spending too much time trying to corrupt "Faith" wasn't worth the effort.  He had three other young, scantily-clad beauties in tow, who were far more enthusiastic about indulging in his "lifestyle."

Indeed, the three that remained are just mesmerized by Alien's "sh#t" -- A cool beach house, drugs of all kinds (along with one other guy, who's turning out to be a rival..., "Alien" has been basically supplying the Spring Breakers in that part of Florida with their drugs), all kinds of really cool gangsta weapons (glocks, uzis, numchucks), a big bed (of course) covered with his drug money, even a big white grand piano by his pool (he was "a musician" after all...).

Soon donning now pink ski masks (and looking kinda like "aliens" as a result of the masks' "big wide eyes"), while still in those bikinis, but now brandishing "Alien's" uzis, the three join "Alien" by his grand piano to sing a corny rendition of a Britney Spears number before setting off on a crime spree with him, going out and shaking down/terrorizing the same "Spring Breakers" that "Alien" had previously sold his drugs to for their remaining cash. (That little experience knocking off the Chicken joint "back home" came in handy, though this time they were definitely "going pro").

This of course gets the "other guy" who's been selling drugs on the strip rather upset.  So there are some loose ends still still to resolve ...

And oh yes, Candy and Brit do eventually "call home," telling their folks that they're not coming back north to school, that perhaps they'd find some other school down in Florida to attend. But in the meantime, "not to worry" because they've "found some really incredible people," and have "found themselves" ... Yup... there it is. 

Now who could possibly read this film as anything but an absolutely scathing condemnation of the in-your-face crass "gangsta bling" materialism / hedonism that the "MTV-style Spring Break," indeed MTV itself, has stood for?

Certainly a fair question could be asked: Did the film need to be so graphic?  Sigh ... chances are the audience (young adults) would probably not watch a Dateline or 20/20 segment on "Spring Break."  As graphic as it it, its unmistakable point (this is NOT the way to live) will probably stick in the minds of those who watch it. 

Neither did the film condemn in anyway "Spring Break" in general.  It did not condemn a "Disney Spring Break" (I was stationed in Kissimmee, Florida for 3 1/2 years.  ALL KINDS OF NICE KIDS OF THE SAME AGE GROUP AS THIS FILM WOULD GO DOWN TO DISNEY FOR SPRING BREAK) or a "Mission Experience Spring Break" (For older teens / young adults of my Order's apostolates in North America, my Order's Mexican Province offers an annual Holy Week Experience among the Tlapaneco people that they serve at their Mission in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico) or even a "Visit France / China / Machu Pichu Spring Break" (I've known teens and young adults who've had wonderful experiences visiting all those places as part of Chicago Public School / College sponsored trips over Spring/Easter Break.  And indeed, Selena Gomez along with "Gossip Girl" Leighton Meester even starred in a very nice "Visit France" film called Monte Carlo [2011] a few years back).  What Spring Breakers [2012] does condemn is a "Drink till you don't remember (and all that follows...) Spring Break."

So yes, this is a graphic movie. But it is certainly not a mindlessly graphic film. Pretty much every scene in this movie has a purpose and the result is, IMHO, an absolutely clear condemnation of the lifestyle it so excruciatingly portrays.


While still agreeing with the basic point of the film (and of my review of it), I did find myself subsequently asking myself some rather uncomfortable questions about the film's elitism (and consequently the elitism of my review):

How sexist, racist and classist is the film?

Sexist: The film clearly chooses to focus on, indeed "go to town," lampoon, make fun of the bad choices of four young college women who go on Spring Break. What about the bad choices of the college men who were there with the four women as well?

Racist: Faith becomes uncomfortable with her Spring Break experience only when she finds herself bailed out by the hip-hopping local "Alien" (still white) AND HIS BLACK FRIENDS.

Classist: In my review of this film, I listed a series of much more positive alternatives to the "MTV style Spring Break" - "A Disney Spring Break," a "Mission / Volunteer Experience Spring Break," a "Visit to France / China / Machu Pichu, (or perhaps even Quebec/Toronto/Vancouver) Spring Break."  BUT all these alternatives COST MONEY.  Spring Break at Daytona or Pensacola would probably be cheaper than many/most of these alternatives (and of course Canada would be far colder than most of the U.S. during the Spring Break time of year...).

Continuing with the "classist" angle: "Alien" and his posse in the film were simply the "local townies" whose communities get invaded each year for a couple of weeks by randy college students (arguably better educated and with more options than the locals).  Who were the real "Aliens" in this story?

Anyway, this all makes for interesting fodder for reflection as well.  After conceding (even wholeheartedly agreeing with) the basic point of the film, was the film too hard on its principal characters? 

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Friday, March 22, 2013

The Croods [2013]

MPAA (G)  CNS/USCCB (A-I)  Chicago SunTimes (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
Chicago SunTimes (N. Minow) review

The Croods[2013] (story, screenplay and directed by Kirk de Micco and Chris Sanders) is a generally lovely and certainly action packed children's animated story about "a family of Neanderthals" that's been trying really, really hard just to survive. 

It hasn't been easy.  Late teenager Eep (voiced by Emma Stone) explains in a voice-over at the beginning of the film that pretty much all their Neanderthal friends and neighbors had been progressively wiped-out or eaten by an assortment of saber toothed animals and even "the common cold."  They've survived because they've learned to function as a super-well disciplined team (honestly, the sequence at the beginning of the film when the family "goes out for breakfast," entailing going-out to steal a giant Pterodactyl egg and then running with it back home, keeping the egg away from not only the now very angry Pterodactyl parent as well as a whole host of similarly hungry/angry/desperate all saber-toothed animals (all drawn in a whimsical if also vicious "Dr. Seuss" style) would make any professional football team proud) and have been led by a truly self-less and brave patriarch (dad) named Grug (voiced by Nicholas Cage).

Grug clearly was not be the brightest of people, but NO ONE could doubt his bravery/concern for the well being of his family composed of himself, his wife Ugga (voiced by Catherine Keener), his mother-in-law Gran (voiced by Cloris Leachman), oldest daughter Eep (voiced by Emma Stone), son Thunk (voiced by Clark Duke) who just worships his father, and the youngest addition to the family, a rather feral baby named Sandy (voiced by Randy Thum) who often serves as the family's "ace in the whole" on their hunting/gathering expeditions (When surprized with otherwise impending doom, one or another of the family members would call out the dreaded words: "Release the Baby" with all the drama of Zeus calling out "Release the Kraken" in the Clash of the Titans [2010] ;-) and baby Sandy proves sufficiently and utterly unpredictably vicious to scare even the largest saber-toothed nasty away from them / their prize to save the day ;-).

But even Grug and his family apparently had qualms about the morality of "Releasing the Baby" on unprepared sabertoothed tigers, etc, too often ;-).  Instead, Grug generally took the lead in protecting the family:  Each morning, he'd roll away the HUGE rock he'd roll in front of their cave as night fell the evening before.  After rolling away the rock, Grug would make a mad and loud dash in front of their cave, FULLY EXPECTING THAT ANY NUMBER OF SABER-TOOTHED ANIMALS COULD BE JUST WAITING TO POUNCE ON HIM.  Then, if "all was clear" he'd signal the rest of the family that it'd be safe to leave the cave as well to begin the day.

Whereas ALL THE OTHER NEIGHBORS WERE EITHER EATEN or otherwise DIED, Grug's kept his family SAFE and alive by following a very simple code: "Never be not afraid.  Fear keeps us alive. Curiosity, doing things differently kills."

It's not overly surprizing that while this way of life has kept the Croods alive in a truly vicious and merciless world, as daughter Eep grows up, she begins to yearn for more.  Is "living in truly constant fear, truly living?"

Enter a guy, named ... Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) ;-).  He too has had a rough life, losing his entire family as a child.  But having lost "his team" when he was small and facing the same vicious world all alone, he's had to survive differently ... by his wits.

So inevitably, big, strong Grug, living by his code (of always living in fear, mistrusting anything new) doesn't particularly like Guy when suddenly Eep finds him and brings him home ;-).  But Eep just loves him, precisely because Guy does things differently:  He gives her a "shell phone" which she can blow into to "call for help" ;-).  He helps the family "make shoes" when they have to cross a plain of very sharp stones. (Eep just loves the shoes ;-).  Most miraculously of all, Guy seems to be able to make "little suns" (Fire ;-), something that for the first time allows the Croods to not have to simply cower in their cave (and in total darkness) every night ... hoping actually that the sun will come out again the next morning (something that they're still never really sure would really happen again).

Then even as the entrance of Guy into Grog's world "rocks" it enough, Grog and his family find that the ground is literally "shifting beneath them" (a continental shift, is apparently taking place).  So Grog and the rest of the Croods have to change whether they like it or not.

This is where Guy becomes something of a Savior figure, leading this good if super-rigid family out of "Fear and Darkness" into "Hope and (with his magical Fire-making ability) "into the Light."

This is a really cute movie.  Clearly there is much for older kids and adults to find in this film.  But the little kids who were sitting in back of me as I watched the movie seemed to like the goofily drawn yet surprisingly vicious animals and the antics of the Croods defending themselves from them.

It's one of those films that pretty much everybody "gets" and enjoys.  Maybe there were a few too many "mother in law" jokes in the film, and Grog may be made a bit stupider than he needed to be (I liked the portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship in Brave [2012] better than the father-daughter relationship in this film), but honestly it's an enjoyable movie about a family that has really learned to work together in order to survive, and then with the arrival of  "Guy" proved flexible enough to accept some new things in order to thrive.  Wonderful film ;-)

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Monday, March 18, 2013

Upside Down [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  Chicago SunTimes (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (D-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
AVClub (T. Robinson) review
Chicago SunTimes (P. Sobczynski) review

Upside Down [2012] (written and directed by Argentine-born, French-educated director Juan Solanas [IMDb]) is a film that clearly exasperates young (North) American viewers (see the review links above):

On one hand the stunning CGI visuals can not be denied.  This is a fantastic story of two sister planets existing somewhere in the universe that are so close to each other that the mountain peaks of one world practically scrape the mountain peaks of the other and skyscrapers from one world could be built to extend from the base of one world to base of the other thus becoming bridges between the two worlds, albeit actually crossing from one world to the other proves "difficult" as each world is made up of matter "inverse" to the other resulting in each other's matter igniting after a relatively short period of time.

An added wrinkle to the setup of the story, no doubt born of the writer/director's Argentine (Southern hemispheric) origins, is that one world, colloquially called "UpTop" has become far richer than the other, colloquially called "DownBelow," so much so that people from the world "DownBelow" have taken to stealing pieces of the world "UpTop" to use as fuel to warm their hovels below (Remember, the matter from the one world ignites after some time after contacting the inverse matter of the other).  As such migration between the two worlds already very difficult/dangerous because of the physics (presumably no one would really want to ignite in flames after spending an extended time in the other world) but is being actively discouraged by the richer world "UpTop" afraid that the people of the world "DownBelow" would come to "steal" pieces of their world to help heat their own.

Only "bees" apparently flying where they will (and beyond the reach of armed border guards) have been able to fly back and forth between the two world producing a pink pollen with magical (gravity cancelling) properties in both worlds ;-)

Such then is the "magic" of this concept that immediately evokes cinematic wonders like that of the silent film era SciFi classic Metropolis [1927] and the more recent CGI big-budget wonder Inception [2010].  Smaller, more "indie" style films touching on similar themes include the outstanding Another Earth [2011] as well as a small Chilean film that played here at Chicago's Latino Film Festival in 2012 called Third World [2009] (A film that suggested that to the poorer residents of Earth's "third world" countries, visitors from the richer "first world" could just as well be "space aliens.")

The radical dividedness of the the world "rich" and "poor" / "north and south" even "indigenous" / "modern" appears to be clearly appreciated by residents of the Global South.  The current film comes from an Argentinian director.  I've mentioned the Chilean Sci-fi film touching on the same subject.  And I myself was involved in another project, this one a book by Brazilian author Milton Claro and supported by my religious order called The Amazonia that We Do Not Know [2006], which was about the largely unknown and certainly under-appreciated residents of the Amazon, that often dealt with the same theme.  Indeed, that book's chapter, The Story of Judith, describing a Brazilian parliamentary investigation regarding the unequal/abusive relationships that had developed between Brazilian soldiers staffing military outposts in the Amazonian jungle and Yanunami tribespeople they had been sent to protect, sounded to me from the beginning to a story worthy of a science fiction novel in its own right: As I read first read it, I thought to myself: "On my, TO BOTH OF THESE SETS OF PEOPLE, the Yanunamis and the young Brazilian soldiers, the "Others" must have seemed like 'People from another world.'").

Alright, the Concept of this story is simply AWESOME (other AWESOME films from simply a "conceptual" point of view would include the Tron and Transformers franchises).  How about the execution? 

This is "the other hand" of the story where most of the young North American reviewers (see again above) get exasperated.  Too many inconsistencies.  Why don't the star-crossed lovebirds Eden from the world "UpTop" (played by Kirsten Dunst) and Adam from the world "DownBelow" (played by Jim Sturgess) eventually explode or something as a result of all their interaction (first in the mountains of each others worlds as children, then working in the same "Transworld" office building as young adults)?  Heck, they even create a baby (off screen) at the end! (And one thought Bella and Edward of the Twilight Saga [2012] were doing something dangerous/radical ;-).  Then if the worlds are meshed so close together, how does their sun ever rise or set in their worlds?  The questions could be endless... Indeed, both of the young reviewers I refer to above "give up" and one suggesting "just turn on your ipod and watch the graphics" and the other suggesting that the film's true future will be in the home-made "fan videos" that will inevitably appear on YouTube after the film becomes available on DVD (and hence available to be "spliced up" ;-).

But I would suggest to the people (young and no longer so young) who watch the film to do what one's supposed to do when one goes to the movies and just "suspend disbelief" (as if the recent movie Oz: The Great and Powerful [2103] is realistic ...) and enjoy the show.  This film does come from Latin America and there's a whole literary tradition of Magical Realism that comes from there.

Catholics in particular should give the story a chance.  Half the Catholics in the United States now come from "DownBelow" Latin America.  And indeed, we have a new Pope Francis I, who's made it clear that he's going to be interested in dealing with addressing the universal (though in the South patently obvious) problem of poverty.  This film addresses that issue as well and does so in a way that is quite honestly VISUALLY SPECTACULAR.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

No [2012]

MPAA (R)  ChicagoSunTimes (4 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Chicago SunTimes (O.M. Mozaffar) review
AV Club (M. D'Angelo) review

No [2012] (directed by Pablo Larraín, screenplay by Pedro Peirano based on the play by Antonio Skármeta) is the 2013 Academy Award nominated film (for Best Foreign Language Film from Chile) about how a previously terrorized and initially woefully disorganized opposition was able to win defeat Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1988 Referendum on his rule that he himself had called, set the rules for, and had fully expected to win.

The proposition was this:  By Chile's 1980 Constitution, every 8 years Chile's voters were to be given a simple "Yes" or "No" vote on continued military rule in Chile.  In 1980, Pinochet's military government "won" handily.  But 1988 had come and "hope springs eternal."  For a month before the election, both the "Yes" and "No" campaigns regarding continued Pinochet rule were to be given access to 15 minutes of otherwise state-operated television.  (So in effect, even during the referendum campaign, the "Yes" camp had 23 hours and 45 minutes daily to promote its point of view, while after 15 years of being kept off the air completely, the "No" camp had 15 minutes a day for 1 month to promote its position).

The challenges were many:

(1) Needless to say, the Opposition contained many points of view, including that of surviving Communists/Socialists whose ascendency in 1973 under Socialist president Salvador Allende had served as the pretext for the (U.S. sponsored) military coup.  Allende's rule and the years immediately preceding it had been marked by increasing social/economic tensions and chaos.  The "Yes" camp was certainly going to emphatically argue that "A vote 'No' is a vote for Chaos, Economic Decline and Communism," a characterization that even the surviving Communists/Socialists would have emphatically denied believing (probably rightly) that they had never ever been given a chance.  But more to the point, the Opposition didn't include just the Communists.  It included pretty much everybody who wanted a return to Civil Society (ALL parties had been banned under the military dictatorship).  How can an opposition of very divergent views come together to promote a unified vision?

(2) How does one get people to vote for a Negative?  The "Yes" camp, in as much as it felt it had to bother run on anything, was going to run on a record of "Yes to what you know: Stability, Economic Progress," while at the same time threatening the specter of renewed instability, indeed a "Red Apocalypse" if the "No" camp won.  And just as post-9/11, G.W. Bush Administration taunted the Democrats to campaign on something other than "Anger" to its policies, so too, the Opposition to Pinochet had to promote something positive even as they were actually CONSTITUTIONALLY CONSTRICTED to advocating a position of "No" to the Regime.

(3) Many in the populace were convinced that the whole exercise was a sham anyway.  Why stick one's neck out when all it invited was getting oneself in trouble AFTER the election whose results were a foregone conclusion?

How then to proceed?

The opposition decided, however reluctantly, to go with a commercial style "ad campaign" selling Freedom with basically the same tools and imagery as if they were selling a soft-drink.  Key to the campaign was the decision to go with a Chilean "ad man" named René Saavedra (played by Gael García Bernal) who had impressed some of the more creative "outside of the box"-thinking Opposition leaders with his silly but effective campaigns on behalf of consumer products.  Could actual FREEDOM be as "free-ing" as buying a microwave oven? ;-).

Indeed, one of the funniest scenes in the movie was when Saavedra presented his ideas for this kind of a campaign (smiles, rainbows, mimes, dancing children and butterflies...) to the "leadership council" of opposition politicians including Communists (who were willing to "repackage themselves" by calling themselves "Socialists" but, honestly before this meeting weren't even considering repackaging themselves as anything else ...):

Was such a "stupid" campaign an insult to tens of thousands of tortured/disappeared martyrs and their widows and orphans?  Yet what was the alternative?  Bring up torture and the government would trot out a campaign stoking fears of renewed instability and economic paralysis.

So the Opposition reluctantly gave its approval to a campaign that decided pointedly to talk neither of the Past or the Present but of a Bright Future of "NO more (torture, oppression, division)" a future where EVERY CHILEAN was respected and allowed to pursue his/her "Alegria" (happiness) in peace.  (And a "united" Opposition of 17 some-odd banned political parties ALREADY SHOWED that it's possible to RESPECT one another's views and DIFFERENCES).

The government found itself surprised and flatfooted.  It expected to compete with accusatory images of beatings and torture.  Instead it was faced above all with images smiling children holding hands and (necessarily) multicolored rainbows.

Honestly, this is a lovely, often humorous film that a lot of people should see:

Even in face of crime and injustice, one needs to smile.  Indeed, EVEN JESUS SAID AS MUCH on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7): "You must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" (5:48) noting that God makes "the sun rise and the rain fall on both the just and the unjust" (5:45).

It's not to discount crime and injustice, for "blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" (5:6) it's just that even "the Evil doers" are God's children as well.

Running a campaign of calling Pinochet and his supporters Evil doers would have just brought-out the riot police and the water cannon (again...).  Focusing on smiling children and the Future ("Do we want to live like this forever...?") proved a better and certainly far more disarming way.  A great film and a great message!

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Friday, March 15, 2013

To the Wonder [2012]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

To the Wonder [2012], written and directed by Terrence Malick, continues in the theologically reflective path of his previous film Tree of Life [2011].

If in Tree of Life [2011], Malick's point of departure was the Biblical Book of Job, where that film begins with various human characters crying out to God: "Where are you O Lord?" and a twenty minute sequence that follows chronicling the whole history of the world from the creation of the universe to the present (including a 5-6 minute segment featuring dinosaurs only to have them destroyed by a meteorite) cinematically presents God's awesome response to Job beginning with "Where were you when I founded the Earth? (Job 38:4) and ending with "Will the one who argues with the Almighty be corrected, let him who would instruct God give answer" (Job 40:2), in To the Wonder [2012], Malick continues his reflection on our relationship with God, leaning perhaps on two other Wisdom books in the Bible, that of the Song of Songs, "Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine ... draw me after you, let us run" (Songs 1:1, 4) expressing God's promise of intimacy, and Ecclesiastes, "Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity," (Eccl 1:2) and "There is an appointed time for everything..." (Eccl 3:1) expressing God's distance / unknowability. 

This grand question of whether or not we could truly become intimate with God is explored then through the experience of people, a young couple in their late 20s-30s, Marina and Neil, she French, he American (played by Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck respectively) as well as a Hispanic Catholic priest in his 40s, Fr. Quintana (played by Javier Bardem).  Could Marina and Neil really understand each other?  And could Fr. Quintana, whose primary relationship is necessarily with Christ, really understand Him?

It's clear at the beginning of the film that Marina is "in love with love," not unlike the sentiments expressed in the Song of Songs.  The two had met in Paris. And after sometime, go to the grand, seemingly eternal monastery of Mont Saint Michel on the Atlantic coast of France where in her own words, they "climb the steps into The Wonder."

But while through most of the film, Marina's skipping about, "in love with love," Neil, a good, solid, honest guy though he is, is far less talkative.  He's an environmental engineer, originally from a small town from the plains of Oklahoma.  Throughout the film he quietly goes about his job monitoring various locations for environmental pollution, responding to the basic needs of people, seeking to try to keep them safe.

Marina noticing that Neil doesn't talk much, does most of the talking for him.  And when he does invite her and her 10 year old girl named Tatiana (played by Tatiana Cheline) from a previous relationship to return with him to Oklahoma, they both respond enthusiastically by saying "yes."

Yet living in a subdivision at the edge of the prairie in Oklahoma is not exactly like living in Paris.  Always of  few words/needs (and also "back home"), Neil is of course content.  Marina also seems happy enough.  But 10 year old Tatiana, who has to learn English while trying build-up a whole new set of friends, rapidly get's bored.  While initially happy to consider Neil her step-father, she soon realizes "you're NOT my father" and soon wants to go home to her real father back in France.

And while things start hitting a rough patch with Marina, we're reminded that she's not necessarily Neil's first and only rodeo.  He's lived most of his life there in Oklahoma and had an old flame named Jane (played by Rachel McAdams), who was, of course, also perfectly content with life on the plains.  (Why they broke-up is left largely clear, though one guesses that it had something to do with Neil's "quiet distance" from her as well...). 

Then out there in this quiet, suburban looking town at the edge of Oklahoma's vast prairie is Fr. Quintana, quietly going about his work of tending for the spiritual needs of his Parish.  But in his prayers he tells the Lord that he feels seco (dry).  He yearns for a closer relationship with the God who called him into this way of life/vocation.  Yet, he feels that he hears nothing.  At a wedding, in fact, an older parishioner tells him quite pointedly "I'm going to pray for you."  "Why?"  "So that you receive the Gift of Joy."  It's that clear that Fr. Quintana is unhappy.

Now folks, this is not a cheap film.  No, Fr. Quintana does not jump into bed with a distraught Marina.  By the looks of the film, it does not even cross his mind (or hers for that matter).

But there it is, both Marina and Fr. Quintana are in "spousal relationships" with rather distant, not particularly talkative but basically honest, salt-of-the-earth "providers."

Is it enough?  Both arguably find answers.

Now folks, this is an "artsy" often subtitled film with French (Marina and Tatiana), Spanish (Fr. Quintana in his personal reflective moments) and even some Italian (when Marina's vivacious Italian best-friend Anna played by Romina Mandello briefly comes to visit her in Oklahoma) and a few words of Russian (as Marina, a Russian name, was conceivably Russian in ancestry) spoken thoughout many parts of the film.  So I know that this film will not be for everyone.  BUT this is a very intelligent, theologically reflective film.

It's not necessarily the film that I would have made, but one certainly can not criticize it for its lack of intelligence or its attempt to ask some very profound questions about what one can expect from one's relationship with God, and it's CERTAINLY an invitation for discussion / faith sharing on the matter ;-)

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The Call [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O) SunTimes (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
SunTimes (I. Vishnevetsky) review
AV Club (S. Tobias) review

Even before the opening credits finished rolling for the thriller, The Call [2013] (directed by Brad Anderson, screenplay by Richard D'Ovidio, story by Richard D'Ovidio, Nicole D'Ovidio and Jon Bokenkamp), I was certain that I'd been presented with a job (that of serving as a 911 dispatcher) that while ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL for the smooth operation of our society today is one that I could never, ever be able to do.  Much of the job is repetitious ("You've reached 911, what's your emergency ...?") and yet every so often, one would get a call where ANY mistake could leave someone dead.

Such then was the life of Jordan Turner (played by Halle Berry) working as a 911 dispatcher in "The Hive," the command center for Los Angeles' Emergency Services.  During an evening of relatively "normal emergencies" and even dealing with an inevitable "regular caller" who calls 911 every so often because, well, he doesn't have many people to talk to ... Jordan gets a call from a young woman in hysterics because someone's in the process of breaking into her home.  Jordan, rapidly alerts LAPD but they are 8-10 minutes away.  In the meantime, the intruder is in the process of bashing down the door.

What to do?  Jordan asks the young woman to find a room to lock herself in.  She runs upstairs, but to her horror finds that SHE CAN'T SEEM TO LOCK THE DOOR.  "Okay, is there a window?"  Jordan helps her to set it up (QUICKLY) to look like she jumped out the window and ran for help while hiding (somewhere) instead.

In the meantime, the intruder has broken into the house and has begun looking for her.  When he gets to the young woman's bed room, he does see the window open.  Coming to it, it even seems like she dropped something outside after jumping out to run away.  He takes the bait and with a somewhat angry/frustrated "huff,"starts heading out of the house.

When he's outside her room, the woman, hiding under her bed, whispers to Jordon on the phone that he's leaving and even THANKS HER.  Then, suddenly, SHE ACCIDENTLY BRUSHES HER PHONE TOO CLOSE TO HER CHEEK AND THE PHONE HANGS UP.  (Anyone with a wireless phone these days would know how this could happen).  Jordon, REFLEXIVELY PUSHES HER OWN REDIAL BUTTON at the 911 Center TO CALL HER BACK.  The PHONE RINGS ... JUST ONCE ... but the intruder who was leaving HEARS THE RING. He goes back ... finds the girl ... and Jordon realizes to her horror that HER ONE REFLEXIVE SLIP-UP may cost that young woman her life.  Her worst fears are confirmed when a few days later, when police find the young woman's mutilated body buried in a shallow grave in a canyon outside of L.A.  Wow ... needless to say Jordan had to take "some time off..."

When story resumes six months later, is Jordan now working as someone TRAINING people for the job she used to have.  She needed of course the work, but quite understandably didn't want/feel capable of handling the pressure of working as a 911 dispatcher again.

Well as fate would have it while leading a group of trainees through "the Hive," a relatively young 911 dispatcher gets ANOTHER PHONE CALL from ANOTHER YOUNG WOMAN, this time a sweet, young teenager named Casey Welson (played by Abigail Breslin) who's calling frantically from the trunk of a car having been abducted while walking (alone) to her car in the garage of a shopping mall.  The young 911 dispatcher falls to pieces and doesn't know what to do.  Jordan steps up and takes the call.  The rest of the film ensues ...

The rest of the film, of course, is certainly "quite a ride" emotionally and otherwise.  And as a Hollywood movie rest assured that it ends well... that said, see the movie ... 

I would, however, add one more thing: Catholics and other Christians reading here, take note of the ending as once again it plays a variation of the "Virgin/Good Girl defeats the Snake/Monster" motiff (Gen 3:15) that I've written about previously with regards to these kind of movies [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]. Pay attention simply to WHERE the abductor ends-up at the end of the movie and HOW / BY WHOM he is sent there.  Fascinating stuff and Mary would be proud ;-). 

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy (orig. Romanzo di una Strage) [2012]

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

IMDb listing* listing

Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy (orig. Romanzo di una Strage)[2012] [IMDb] []* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Marco Tullio Giordana [IMDb] [TrCin]* along with Sandro Petraglia [IMDb] [TrCin]*and Stefano Rulli [IMDb] []* based on the book by Paulo Cucchiarelli is a critically acclaimed and award winning Italian historical drama (earning among other awards 3 Italian David di Donatello awards in 2012 and 14 additional nominations) about the December 12, 1969 bombing of the Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura at the Piazza Fontana in Milan [Eng] [Ital].*  It played recently as an Italian contribution to the 16th Annual European Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, IL.

During the Cold War (1947-1991), both Superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, jockeyed for advantage wherever they could, seeking to destabilize allies of the other side, while seeking often brutally to keep their allied nations in line.  The opening credits of this film make known that the events presented in the film are to be understood in the context of the 1967 U.S. supported Military Coup in Greece and the 1968 Soviet Invasion of Communist Czechoslovakia.  Italy, though a NATO ally throughout the whole of the Cold War also sported the largest Communist Party in the NATO bloc.  Hence it was always considered at least potentially "in play."  

The film begins presenting Italy in 1969 as a nation perhaps not in chaos (yet) but near the brink with Anarchists and militant Communists on the Left, and neo-Fascists on the Right (Remember World War II was still less than 25 years past, and Italy had entered that War on the Axis side with Fascist leader Mussolini having been in power for some 20 years previous.  Hence there would have been still plenty of people from that fallen regime still around who would have remembered it "fondly").  The Soviet Union was presumably backing the militant Communists (and perhaps the Anarchists) while the United States was certainly backing the ruling Italian Christian Democratic Party and presumably the more law-and-order hardliners in the Italian Military propping it up (and perhaps even the neo-Fascists lurking in the shadows). 

In the midst of this chaotic stew, a wave of anarchist bombings was taking place in Italy in 1969.  The bombs, while "small" (thus not producing significant casualties) were nevertheless serving their purpose -- sowing fear among the populace.  And on the other side there was Junio Valerio Borghese (Eng) (Ital)* (played in the film by Marco Zannoni [IMDb] [TrCin]*) from an old Noble / Fascist era family calling for a "Restoration of Order."  (Borghese did actually plot a coup, that became known as the Golpe Borgese (Eng) (Ital) for Dec. 8, 1970.  However, it never materialized and after being discovered, he was forced to flee the country).

Then suddenly, on Dec 12, 1969, a BIG bomb explodes in the Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura at the Piazza Fontana in Milan (Eng) (Ital),* killing 18 and wounding over 70.  Was this the beginning of an escalation?  That's what the fear was as Milanese police brought in noted local anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli [Eng] [Ital]* (played in the film by Pierfrancesco Favino [IMDb] [TrCin]*) for questioning.  Pinelli had been even seens a few days before the bombing near the Bank.  Had he been casing the location? 

However, after several days of questioning, Pinelli is suddenly dead, having "fallen" out a four story window.  Did he commit suicide?  Was he pushed (or dropped) by Italian investigators?  The story that the police present is that he simply "fell" (went over to the window to smoke a cigarette and simply/tragically fainted, falling to his death).  Few, of course, would believe a story like that. 

Suspicion regarding Pinelli's death fell on Luigi Calebresi [Eng] [Ital]* (played in the film by Valerio Mostandrea [IMDb] [TrCin]*) the detective responsible for Pinelli during the questioning.  Yet, Calabresi always maintained his innocence, insisting that he wasn't present when Pinelli died.  Also, despite rabidly inflammatory denunciations made against him by the Radical Left, he was actually investigating the trafficking of bomb making material by Right-wing extremist groups when he was assassinated in front of his home on May 17, 1972. 

Left-wing extremists were blamed (and convicted) for his assassination.  However, as time when on, suspicion regarding the perpetrators of the bombing of the Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura at the Piazza Fontana (Eng) (Ital) did actually move to from the Far Left to the Far Right and with it to hard-right elements within the Italian security services and even to the CIA.  Why?  It's partly conjecture (remember the beginning credits to the film making note the recent interventions by the Superpowers in nearby Greece and Czechoslovakia) and partly because apparently right-wing groups in Italy were, in fact, being found with explosives as well.  And ominously THOSE explosives that the Right had its hands on, apparently originated from NATO stockpiles.  Were they stolen?  Were they sold?  Were they handed to right-wing extremist groups to further a cause?  What cause?  The thesis of the film would argue: to create an environment justifying a military coup.

The film, intended naturally for primarily an Italian audience, nevertheless offers American audiences a glimpse into what the experience of the Cold War was like in Western Europe:  Lot's of "ins" and "outs," most of the "players" with agendas and with it often being very difficult to understand who to trust. 

And in the midst of this "big game of shadows," little people like Milanese Inspector Calabresi, with a wife, two children and a third on the way, could find themselves dead, not necessarily knowing by whom or why. 

Incidently already Pope Paul VI began the process of beatifying Luigi Calabresi as a "Martyr for Justice" by the Catholic Church [Eng] [Ital].*

* Machine translations into English of the Italian links provided are most easily viewed through use of Google's Chrome brower.

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