Saturday, April 27, 2013

La Playa D.C. [2012]

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

IMDb listing

La Playa D.C. [2012] (written and directed by Juan Andrés Arango Garcia) is a simple yet well crafted Afro-Colombian film playing Apr 26-May 3, 2013 at Facets Multimedia Theater in Chicago.  It's about an Afro-Colombian teenager named Tomás (played by Luis Carlos Guevara) whose family had recently migrated from the countryside to the slums at the outskirts of Bogota.  Why?  There'd be plenty of reasons: poverty/ongoing violence in the countryside, the death of (abandonment by) the father of the family, etc.  In any case, the family felt compelled to move, and as expected the move proved to be difficult.

With the father out of the picture, the mother had entered into a relationship with a Bogota local, a security guard with whom the children, above all, the story's central protagonist, teenage Tomás, had difficulty. Indeed, the conflict had proven so great that the film pretty much begins with the mother's new man giving her an ultimatum: Either Tomás leaves home or he's gonna leave her.  The mother with a new baby (presumably with her new man) and with few options, reluctantly asks Tomás to leave.

Tomás packs up his things (in what would be a single school backpack) and heads out.  He does have an older brother who lives on his own, in a single room (with simple mat for a bed) further in town.  The older brother talks to his landlady, explains to her the situation (above all that Tomás is a relation and not a potential lover), they make an arrangement and Tomás now has a roof over his head.

Much of what follows is about Tomás figuring out a way to make a livelihood.  Fortunately he did have a small talent/skill: he liked/knew how to draw.  Now normally that skill and a few bits of change would get you a cup of coffee... However, Tomás had the sense to turn that small skill into something that could make some money: he decided to try to become a barber offering to shave those those little pictures/designs that he'd draw into peoples hair for a small fee.  Even for this, however, he still needed to make some money -- to buy a few razor blades and then a set of electrical clippers.  Tomás made a deal with a somewhat more established barber and seemed to be on his way to make enough money to buy the electric clippers that the more established barber had lent him.

All would be wonderful (or at least more manageable) if not for Tomás having a younger brother, honestly no more than 10-12 years old, who had become addicted to Colombia's equivalent of crack cocaine.  At first, Tomás along with the rest of his family (including his mother who had thrown him out of her house) had been simply looking for this younger member of the family who had disappeared into the streets of Bogota soon after Tomás thrown out of the house.  Since Tomás had that skill of being able to draw, he even created some simple "missing child" posters that he put-up with moderate success around the neighborhood (some of the shopkeepers weren't too keen these "missing child" posters near their stores (they tended to depress people or make the neighborhood appear more dangerous than they would have liked it to appear).

But when Tomás finds his brother, new problems arise.  After all, Tomás' younger brother is addicted to drugs which cost money, money that really no one in Tomás' family had.  So here's Tomás trying to hustle up enough business with his borrowed clippers and a few razors cutting/shaving designs into people's hair hoping to eventually save enough money to buy those clippers from the good man who had lent them to him.  IN THE MEANTIME there's his younger brother consuming more crack than he could pay for ... with thugs (not particularly big thugs but enough of them) beginning to circle 'round Tomás to try to shake him down for the money that his younger brother owed.  What a nightmare... Eventually something has to give, and it does ...

La Playa D.C. is a sad but obviously poignant glimpse into the struggles of a simple afro-Colombian family living at the edge (margins) of a big city in Colombia today.  It's also a reminder how drug addiction, already a problem when a family has some means, becomes an almost unbearable burden (and certainly life and death struggle) when one's family is poor.  All in all a very good if very sad film.

ADDENDUM - My religious order, the Servants of Mary, has its own experience working in Latin America (Brazil) with families already facing marginalization and difficult circumstances struggling on top of that with drug addiction at the home.  Here's a link to a chapter on the subject from the book produced by the Brazilian Servites on The Amazonia We Do Not Know (2006)

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Mud [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (J. Emerson) review

Mud [2012] (written and directed by Jeff Nichols) is a small well acted/crafted "indie" style film set in a small random hamlet in Arkansas along the banks of the (Great) Mississippi River.  As such, "small in scope" as the film may be, it immediately evokes the grandeur of  "Old Man River" and the legacy of America's greatest story teller, Mark Twain.

Does the film live up to such "Great Potentialities" if not "Expectations?"  Well Mark Twain / Huck Finn it is not, indeed, can not be, but IMHO the film's both small/intimate enough and its thematics universal enough to do quite well.  And certainly the film is worthy of the interests of actor Matthew McConaughey who can definitely ham-it-up in crowd-pleasing / blockbuster fare like Magic Mike [2012] or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past [2009] but also appears interested in taking on roles in IMHO far more interesting "Southern Noir"-ish projects such as in Bernie [2012], Killer Joe [2012] (a film that I do believe "crossed the line" but at least there was "a line to cross" ... ) and The Paperboy [2012].

The current film centers on two 14 year old boys, Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) and his best friend nick-named "Neckbone" (played by Jacob Lofland) from said small hamlet who are growing-up with their parents/kin, living in houseboats perched along the River (hence the River necessarily plays a BIG role in their lives).  One day, while exploring along the river on their little motorboat, the two encounter a drifter (played by Matthew McConaughey). When asked by the boys for his name, the drifter introduces himself as Mud.  He's been sleeping in a boat that due to a previous flood is holed-up in a tree on a random island along the Mississippi.  Looking at him with one pair of clothing and small convenience store plastic bag of groceries to his name, one of the two 14 year-olds mutters under his breath "Bum."  "Excuse me, I'm a hobo.  Presently, I may be homeless but I work and pay for my keep!"  Indeed, one day, as the two boys progressively begin to trust / befriend the curious Mud, he has a cooler of already gutted and cut-up fish for them to take back to town to sell for him...

Okay, so what's a guy in his late 20s-early 30s doing living in a boat holed-up in the tree on some random island along the Mississippi River somewhere in Arkansas?   Well, there's obviously a story and the story's obviously, at least in part, rather seamy and not particularly great for 14 year olds to hear.  On the other hand, they're 14 and as long as they keep some distance from said "bum/hobo" named Mud, they get to learn a little about life ... life that they themselves, living in houseboats at the edge of a small Arkansas town along the Mississippi River, are already living somewhat "on the margins." 

Between what Mud himself tells them, and what they hear over time from others, the boys (as well as the viewers) piece together the (Mud's) story: There's a young woman involved, Juniper (played by Resse Witherspoon).  There's also a recluse/distant relation of Mud's, a retired former Marine sharpshooter named Tom Blankenship (played by Sam Shepard) who actually lives somewhat close to Ellis' family if "across the channel" (already on an island).  He knows Mud and has been "looking after him" if at a distance since Mud's teenage years and (for reasons unclear / I don't entirely remember anymore... ;-) the breakup of Mud's family.

Ex-marine sniper (and literally "uncle Tom" ;-) Blankenship thinks Mud's girlfriend has been "nothing but trouble."  He explains to the boys that Mud's been in love with her for years and that Juniper "kinda loves him back."  But then "she's flighty" hanging out with the biggest dregs of society (probably part of the reason she kinda likes Mud as well ...) and then depends on Mud to come along and "save her" from the mess that she's created.

Well, the last time when Mud came to clean-up a Mess that Juniper created, he ended-up killing a young man of Mud's / Juniper's age, a man whose father holds grudges.  Hence Mud's living in a "tree house boat" on a non-descript island along the Mississippi being helped by two 14 year olds, because he's wanted for murdering a well-connected a-h... who was hitting on a young woman who can't decide whether or not she loves Mud (or could love Mud) anyway.

What a murky/muddy Mess ... ;-).  Anyway, dead a-h...'s father has bounty hunters out looking for Mud and staking-out Juniper's residence as well.  Something has to give ... And, of course, it does.   The rest of the movie ensues ...

What a simple and yet great story about life-lessons and growing up!  True, this is not exactly a story for girls/young women as they not necessarily portrayed well in this story even if Ellis' mother Mary Lee (played by Sarah Paulson) is portrayed quite nicely/positively.  Still it's not necessarily a bad lesson for either boys or girls to least: Just because you like/are attracted somebody doesn't make them a good person.  At times, you have to step back and look at them for what they really are.

So I just found this film to be great.  It reminds us that a good story doesn't need a high budget / great special effects to sell.  In the tradition of the great story-teller Mark Twain, a good story can sell itself ... 

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Pain and Gain [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  S. Adams (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (1 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (S. Adams) review

Pain and Gain [2013] (directed by Michael Bay, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely based on the magazine reporting on the case in question of Pete Collins) is about such a searingly crass (but unbelievably true) crime story that it probably justifies making some kind of film about it.  Yet the violence (again often boneheadedly executed) does get to such hard-R levels that the film is definitely not for the squeamish.

The film, set in the mid-1990s, is about Miami body builder, South Florida trendy fitness gym trainer Daniel Lugo (played in the film by Mark Wahlberg) who had always lived by a "no gain without pain" weightlifting ethos.  As a result, Danny gets sick of hearing a scrawny, balding, 60ish, not even close to benching his weight, 1/2 Colombian 1/2 Jewish businessman client of his, named Victor Kershaw (played by Tony Shalhoub) bragging about all the money, hot cars, hot boats and hot women he has.

After going to one of those those "Get Rich by Sheer Will" motivational seminars headlined by "Johnny Wu" (played hilariously by Ken Jeong), Danny decides that he's a "Doer" rather than a "Don't-er," and comes up with a "3 fingered plan" -- (1) come up with an idea, (2) execute (DO) IT and (3) "F-U all you suckers /  live life rich afterwards!" -- to (1) kidnap said Victor Kershaw, (2) get him to sign away ALL OF HIS MONEY (cars, homes and boats...) to him and (3) dispose of Victor. 

To help him kidnap Victor, Danny assembles a small crew, including himself and fellow gym-trainers Adrian Doorbal (played by Anthony Mackie) who needs some extra cash because his constant steroid use has finally made his (blank...) inoperative (given him E.D...), and a reasonably good-hearted but not even close to (or even in the same neighborhood as) "the sharpest tool in the shed," buff former ex-con named Paul Doyle (played by Dwayne Johnson).  Much, often involving stunning ineptitude, ensues...

So despite "almost" getting away with it all ... they don't.  Victor, survives his ordeal, hires a private-eye (played by Ed Harris) after Miami police, after seeing his Colombian background don't want much to do with his case ... and the three get caught, two of which Daniel and Adrian, finally getting the death penalty for their crimes (no kidding and by the end, they've racked-up enough of a list that by law they've more than crossed the threshhold...), while Paul, a good if stupid, stupid soul, gets 15-years and a life of forever saying that he's really, really, yes, really sorry.

If one isn't reminded -- at the beginning, in a key point in the middle and at the end of the story -- that this film really is based on a true story, one would simply not believe it.

Finally, I would say that along with the recent film Spring Breakers [2012], the film does remind viewers in a stark, indeed searing, sort of way, that "money isn't everything."  But are we so utterly stoned/desensitized as as society that we have to be reminded of this in such an utterly unforgettable sort of way?

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The Big Wedding [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O) I. Vishnevetsky (1 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (0 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (I. Vishnevetsky) review

It's approaching wedding season in the U.S., so "wedding" themed movies are to be expected.  However, honestly, unless your own wedding/marriage proved a disaster (over 1/2 the marriages in the United States end in divorce, and though domestic violence is at times a reason (and a justifiable one - if one beats or otherwise truly abuses one's spouse one obviously doesn't know what a marriage is supposed to be), the vast majority of the times divorce comes when one or the other party convinces themselves that their partner is simply a disappointment in one way or another - or just plain getting old - and convinces oneself that one could still "trade up" somehow) I wouldn't recommend  The Big Wedding [2013] (written and directed by Justin Zackham) to anybody.

Particularly galling to someone like me is that the families in the film are supposed to be Catholic, not random religion, but CATHOLIC.  Okay, one of the families is racist.  Are there racists in the Catholic Church?   I can with ABSOLUTE CONFIDENCE BASED ON MY PASTORAL MINISTRY SAY _YES_.  NO DOUBT, NONE.  There CERTAINLY ARE racists in the Catholic Church in this country AND A FAIR NUMBER OF THEM (certainly not all but far more than one really ought to be at all comfortable with).  But having said that, it gets "complicated": 

For one, half the Catholics in the United States are now Hispanic.  Add to those non-white Catholics, Catholics from Asia -- the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, a non-inconsequential number of Catholics from India and from the Middle East (Lebanon, Iraq, even more recently Syria), then Catholics from Africa (the Congo, much of West Africa), the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba as well as from some of the smaller islands) and then African American Catholics with family roots in Louisiana (which actually was the only predominantly Catholic slave state in 'the Old South') ... the substantial majority of Catholics in the United States are NO LONGER WHITE

Then let's go through what the Protestant majority in this country has called the various Catholic immigrant groups that have come to this fair land over its history:  The Irish were "drunks," the Italians were "crooks," the Poles (there isn't a building of consequence standing in Chicago that wasn't built largely by Poles) were "stupid," and, of course, the Hispanics coming over the Rio Grande or on boats from Cuba and Haiti are "crooks" (okay the Cubans are generally anti-communists, so we put a flag in their hands first and then call them "drug dealing crooks") as well.  That's why we have to build a wall between us and our southern borders.  Oh, yes, and young Hispanic women, like "Alejandro's sister" in this film are _also_ "sluts."

Add to this that while there are actually quite a few prominent Catholic-Jewish interfaith couples in America today, I can think of EXACTLY ZERO prominent Protestant-Jewish couples today.  Why?  My sense is that lived-out Catholicism is actually far closer to Judaism than Protestantism is to either: Catholicism is NOT MERELY theology/doctrine.  Like Judaism, Catholicism is a way of life. There are seasons, there are feast days, there are traditions and there are ALWAYS opportunities to celebrate key milestones in the lives of the (individual) faithful in the context (and with the blessing) of the Church. 

So Mr. Zachham, who my friend is being a racist?

And I honestly find it hard to believe that Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Katherine Heigl, Amanda Seyfreid and Robin Williams (who I've liked for most of my life) would associate themselves with such a blatantly racist anti-Catholic picture such as this.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tlatelolco, Summer of 68 (orig. Tlatelolco, Verano del 68) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Tlatelolco, Summer of 68 (orig. Tlatelolco, Verano del 68) [2013] (directed by Carlos Bolado, script by Carolina Rivera along with Luis Felipe Ybarra and Carlos Bolado) is an well written/crafted and certainly significant Mexican historical drama surrounding the events surrounding the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre [Wkpd-ESP]* of at least 300 possibly thousands of Mexican students in Mexico City, just 10 days prior to the opening of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.  The film played recently to repeatedly sold out audiences at the 29th Chicago Latino Film Festival

This tragedy, indeed Tiananmen-style crime, had been quickly buried (the blood quite literally hosed away...) by Mexico's authorities wishing to present a welcoming/peaceful (and above all "in control") face to the 1968 Summer Games even as the rest of the world (from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in the United States, to street protests against the U.S.-led War in Vietnam across the United States and Western Europe, to the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia) seemed to be in chaos.

This was also an event like the Cristero Rebellion (that finally brought the chaos of the Mexican Revolution to an end) that was both KNOWN BY JUST ABOUT EVERYBODY IN MEXICO but NOT PUBLICLY DISCUSSED (let alone taught in schools...) until after the year 2000 (more than 30 years later...) when Vicente Fox became the first non-PRI candidate to be elected President of Mexico since the end of the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s. 

I first heard of the Tlatelolco Massacre [Wkpd-ESP]* from my teacher when I was in Guadalajara to learn Spanish back in the late 1990s.  She presented it to me as precisely a Tienanmen-style massacre that no one outside of Mexico knew about and no one inside Mexico was allowed to openly discuss.  Her parents were students, in Guadalajara, at the time... The lack of opportunity, indeed "permission" to discuss this event in decades past, help explain the sold-out crowds when the film was shown at the Latino Film Festival here in Chicago (Chicago having the largest Mexican-American population in the United States, second only to Los Angeles).  This was first film of its kind (other than a documentary made only a few years previous) about the massacre. 

The film makers for their part did IMHO a very good job in presenting the human complexities/tragedy of this story.  Thankfully they felt no need to further propagandize the story to promote any particular current agenda, as the tragedy of the story told itself:  Those who were massacred were students.  Hence, even though they were to some extent "elite," they also came from a broad base of society.  Mixed among those students protesting (and later being shot...) were sons and daughters of both those in power AND those who (like the world over) were the first ones from their families who've made it to college.

Indeed the two central protagonists in the film were (1) Maria Elena (played by Cassandra Ciangherotti) who was portrayed as coming from a rich family and the daughter of Ernesto (played by Juan Manuel Bernal) portrayed as a significant if still upper-mid-level government official at the Ministry of the Interior and whose grandfather Flavio (played by Juan Carlos Colombo) had been a hero of the Mexican Revolution and (2) Felix (played by Christian Vasquez) who was an architecture student at the Instituto Polytecnico in Mexico City, the first from his family to make it to college and whose older brother Paco (played by Armando Hernández) was a plainclothes policeman in Mexico City.  BOTH Maria Elena's father and especially Felix' brother warned their idealistic kin to avoid/stop participating in the student demonstrations that were growing in Mexico City during the summer of 1968, telling them these demonstrations could only end badly.  Of course they didn't stop participating in the protests, and of course their more informed kin were right ...

It's a real tragedy and those who did die deserve to be remembered.  To be honest (and writing now with the perspective of a 50 year old ... ;-), I'm not sure what the students would have necessarily accomplished if they had succeeded (it's one thing to protest the way things are, it's another to actually know how to fix it...).

On the other hand, for the sake of a "calm" Olympics, Mexico's authorities decided to have them as "tranquil as a cemetery ..." and what would it have really mattered if they had just let the students protest?  Mexico would have been "just like every other place (free) at the time."  Instead, Mexico's authorities showed themselves, at least for that generation, as "unable to bend."  And one wonders what contributions to Mexico's society (and indeed to the world) were lost among all those students (300 to as many as 3000) who were shot dead... so that the 1968 Olympics could be "calm" (even as the world's athletes themselves made protests against both superpowers anyway...). 

* Immediate machine translation of foreign (in this case Spanish) language links are generally best viewed using Google's Chrome browser.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Florbela [2012]

MPAA (UR would R)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

Florbela [2012] (written and directed by Vicente Alves do Ó) is an award winning biopic about Florbela Espanca [PT]* (played in the film by Dalila Carmo) an early 20th century Portuguese proto-feminist poet with a typical for artists of the time difficult/troubled life.  The film played recently at the 29th Chicago Latino Film Festival.

The film begins in 1925 with the beginning of her marriage (her third at still only 30) to Mário Lage (played in the film by Albano Jerónimo), the reason for the dissolution of her first marriage unclear but the second being because her husband beat her.

Needless to say to have been married three times in the 1920s in a traditionally Catholic country like Portugal would have exposed her to a great deal of social criticism.  Yet, from the beginning, her life was a tormented mess.  She was the daughter of a maid-servant and though adopted by the family for whom her mother worked, her actual paternity remained unclear until after her death.  

Mário Lage's estate was in the countryside by the sea.  She would have been largely sheltered from the social criticism that she faced if she stayed there.  However, she was close to her adoptive brother Apeles Espanca (played in the film by Ivo Canelas) and thus returned back to Lisbon to be with him after the tragic death of Apeles' fiancee.  It also allowed her to go back to some of writing, even though, as a tormented introvert, she didn't allow most of her work to be published while she was still alive.

After Apeles died tragically in a plane crash (was it suicide? no one ever really knew for sure) she returned back to her father João Espanca (played in the film by António Fonseca) where she twice apparently tried committing suicide as well (in the film, one attempt is shown as she tries jumping down a well).  Eventually she died, on Dec 8, 1930 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and also her 36th birthday), officially of tristeza (sadness).

Yet today, her works, tormented/sad, are considered some of the most significant Portuguese poetry of her time.  Some of it is available (in Portuguese) online.  Those who read some Spanish or Italian could probably understand some of it.  What I've read is quite lovely, if also very, very sad.

So Florbela's life seemed to have been tormented mess.  And yet, this seems par for the course for many artists and intellectuals of the early 20th century.  The film, a "period piece," certainly shows the sounds and styles of the time exquisitely and even hints at the foreboding nature of the time.  After all, these were the years between the two World Wars and just a few years before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War which took place next door.  Florbela appeared to be completely apolitical but as someone more or less obviously prone to depression certainly had to be effected by the atmosphere around her.

That artists are often very sensitive (and rather sad/tormented) people is an insight that Italian director Paolo Sorrentino recently applied in his film This Must be the Place [2011] to help understand some of the strange and rather depressed behavior of some of the 1960s-80s era Rock Stars: Why did some of these "Rock Gods" write so many lyrics that were so sad?  Well, Sorrentino's insight was that artists throughout the ages were often very sad, sensitive people.  In anycase, Florbela's life appears to be a clear testament to this view.

Now someone who was married three times (and later tried committing suicide at least twice) could not have been at that time particularly religious in the sense of that time.  (Yet, the film indicated that after the death of her brother, she did put herself in front of an altar to Mary offering her a flower).  When considering  someone who's endured so many difficulties in life (and add to that had a sensitive disposition to begin with) it honestly becomes very hard to judge.

In any case, this is a beautiful if often very, very sad film.

* Immediate machine translation of foreign (in this case Portuguese) language links are generally best viewed using Google's Chrome browser.

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Speechless (orig. Sin Palabras) [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Speechless (orig. Sin Palabras) [2012] (written and directed by Ana Sofia Osorio and Diego Fernando Bustamante) is a small yet poignant full-length feature Colombian film that played recently at the 29th Chicago Latino Film Festival.

Raul (played by Javier Ortiz) is a young artist studying at the University in Bogota, Colombia.  To make ends meet, he works at a small store front hardware store.  When business is slow, he draws.  He's also mourning the departure of his girlfriend, who had departed some time earlier (and perhaps with bigger plans) for Germany.

Well one day, after opening-up shop and chitchatting with the owner, who wants to get over said girlfriend and set him up with a niece of hers, Raul notices a young Chinese woman (played by Xuan Liao) about his age (late teens to early 20s) sitting quietly and rather sadly on a bench across the street by a Chinese owned store that was apparently closed for inventory. (At least that's what the placard on the door indicated). 

After some time, noticing that she didn't seem to be going anywhere, he asks his boss' permission and goes over to her to see if anything is wrong.  She doesn't speak any Spanish, and he doesn't speak any Chinese.  By signs, however, he asks her if she's hungry  -- she indicates no -- and introduces himself as Raul.  She nods acknowledging his gesture but also indicates that she'd like to be left alone.

Well a few more hours pass, it's about lunch time and she's still there.  So Raul goes over to her, smiles and through signs, asks her if she's hungry.  She indicates no, but also responds to him saying "Raul" and then pointing to herself says Lian. 

In the conversation by signs, he convinces her to get-up with him anyway.  So they get up and start walking.  Above all, he thinks of taking her to a Chinese restaurant where he could find somebody to talk to her so that he'd better understand what she needs.  Alas, as we would quickly remember here in the United States as well, the restaurant is run by a Cantonese family (from Southern China) and she's from the north hence speaking Mandarin rather than Cantonese.  However, Raul gets a number from them of who to call to get her some help.  He also is told by one of the family members running the restaurant that Colombia is actually a transit point for Chinese trying to enter into the United States illegally.  (The director Ana Sofia Osorio explained after the movie that a lot of Chinese travel from China to Paris (because France doesn't require a visa for Chinese travellers) and then to Ecuador (because of all of the countries in South America only Ecuador requires no travel visas).  Then the Chinese would sneak into Colombia and then be transported by either boat along the Pacific Coast to California or perhaps by plane/boat across the Caribbean to parts in the Eastern United States).  Raul is told that the men taking this journey are generally put to work in Chinese restaurants across the United States, while the women work either in restaurants, or, often enough, work as prostitutes.

Why was she suddenly on the streets alone?  Well something must have happened.  It becomes, however, clear that Lian really wanted to go to the United States.  As they walk back to the hardware store, they pass by a travel agency.  There's a picture of the Statue of Liberty there.  She stops, points to the statue and smiles.  Then pointing to herself and then to the Statue of Liberty again, she says in Engish: "America ... everybody happy."

But Raul knows that she's probably going end up becoming a prostitute there.  Does she know that?  Does she care?  Is she willing to accept that as the price of going there?  Neither he nor the audience ever really know.

The number that the person at the Chinese restaurant gave him was for a group of Chinese cayote's (smugglers) who'd take her (for the money that she had or would owe) to America.  The question then becomes: Should Raul take her there (to those people)?  And then does Lian really know what awaits her if she rejoins the group (or perhaps another group) to take her to the States?

The rest of the film ensues...

It's a fascinating film and one that I'd recommend to anyone who's been interested in the topic of human traficking.  Finally, after the film I asked the director how/if the film will become available in the United States in the future.  She answered that sometime in May 2013 it should become available through iTunes.

Again, this is a very simple film but with a very clear message.  Good job! ;-)

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Did You Score? (orig. E Ai... Comeu?) [2012]

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

IMDb listing (AdC)* listing

Did You Score? (orig. E Ai... Comeu?) [2012] [AdC]*(directed by Felipe Joffily [AdC]* screenplay by Marcelo Rubens Paiva [wiki-pt]* and Lusa Silvestre based on the stage play by Marcelo Rubens Paiva [wiki-pt]*) is a well-written/well-crafted, often very funny, popular Brazilian comedy and one that (North) American viewers (still my primary readership) would immediately understand as it is centered around three 30-something friends Fernando (played by Bruno Mazzeo [AdC]*), Honório (played by Marcos Palmiera [AdC]*) and Afozinho (played by Emílio Orciollo Neto [AdC]*) who get together in the evenings at a small open air neighborhood bar (somewhere in Rio de Janeiro) called "Bar Harmonia" (Harmony's) whose name even basically means Cheers [IMDb].  While clearly different from the North American sitcom (and the current film is based on a Brazilian stage play), it should also be clear that if one sets a story around three young men regularly getting together at a bar anywhere in the world the potential for comedy is almost endless.  And indeed the film-makers (story-tellers) here do not disappoint ;-).

So it doesn't surprise me that the film, which played recently at the 29th Chicago Latino Film Festival, recevied much popular acclaim [AdC]* back in Brazil, if interestingly not necessarily particularly high critical acclaim [AdC]*. The film is therefore also a reminder to me that popular comedies are often the most difficult to review, and then especially for someone like me, a Catholic priest after all ;-).

Comedy is in good part about "letting go" about saying things "with a smile" that one may not be able to say without that smile.  In reviewing other "problematic" comedies (No Strings Attached [2011], Friends with Benefits [2011], et al) I've noted that there's often a (to quote the Beach Boys song) "Wouldn't it be Nice?" quality to romantic comedies.  Indeed, this day-dreamy "wouldn't it be nice" quality to romantic comedies has been around since at least Shakespeare's comedies Midsummer Night's Dream, All's Well that Ends Well and Much Ado about Nothing.  So often, romantic comedies go off in a direction that a Church official like myself would not particularly like, but SOMEWHERE in the film, reality would set in, and the plot would return closer back to earth.  The "dream" would come to a close, and "all would be well" at the end.

A second device that's often used in comedies has been to make the central characters obviously "stupider" (amiable but ... not particularly bright...) than the audience.  The North American Hangover [2009+] films obviously use this second device.   After all, who'd be so stupid as to get so drunk as to pull out one's own tooth (with a set of pliers) somewhere "out on the town" and then not even remember doing so the next day?  No one.  And that's the point.  We're given permission to relax/laugh because those telling us the story are telling us:  WE'RE JUST TELLING YOU A STORY. IT'S NOT REAL.  To be honest, I saw the first Hangover [2009] movie a couple of years before I began my blog and have basically refused to see the others because IMHO they are just too stupid.  Yet, I have to also admit that the Hangover films have been incredibly popular among parishioners at my parish.  And I have to say then that these films clearly speak to them (and tens of millions of others across the U.S.) no matter what the Church (or other, more high-brow critics) may say.

These two devices are used in all kinds of North American comedies, and are clearly coming to be used across the globe -- one thinks of the wildly popular (in Poland) romcom Letters to Santa (orig. Listy do M.) [2011],  the Czech offbeat but funny "romcom of sorts" (based on an English script) Perfect Days (orig. I ženy mají své dny) [2011], the again wildly popular (in Spain) comedy Cousinhood (orig. Primos) [2011] and now Did You Score? (orig. E Ai... Comeu?) [2012] [AdC]* from Brazil as well.  All these films have proven competitive to North American comedies in their own markets, all clearly borrow from North American scriptwriting techniques and yet all in their final product feel quite native to the applause of local audiences (and to the financial success of local film-makers). 

Okay, the techniques work, but are they good (morally acceptable)?  I haven't beaten-up the films that I've listed above, so I'm not going to beat-up this film either.  I would also note that the alternative would be to create a level of censorship that still produces reasonably good films (one thinks of the excellent, but self-evidently "limited in scope" recent Iranian film Meeting Leila (orig. Ashnaee ba Leila) [2011] about a nice/responsible soon-to-be wife who just wants her lively/smiling soon-to-be husband to "just quit smoking ...").  However after a while such limited subject matter inevitably becomes boring as it is further and further separated from actual lived experience.

So then, what is this current film about?   Well it's about these three friends Fernando (played by Bruno Mazzeo [AdC]*), Honório (played by Marcos Palmiera [AdC]*) and Afozinho (played by Emílio Orciollo Neto [AdC]*).  They are all middle class, indeed arguably at the lower end of upper middle class.

Fernando is a journalist of some sort.  He's married to Leila (played by Dira Paes [AdC]*) who also works outside the home and actually seems to have more regular hours than Fernando.  Together, they have three young daughters.  Perhaps because he's surrounded by all those women during other times of the day, Fernando likes to get out of the house in the evening to go to the bar to meet with his friends.

Honório is an architect who's wife Vitória (played by Tainá Müller [AdC]) just left him for reasons unclear, but perhaps because she found him a bit of a schmuck (boring).  Yes, he carries around boxes (models) and charts all the time, but he works in a small office in a high rise for some larger architectural firm and it's clear that he's probably not going to outshine many others where he's working.

Afozinho is single, a writer, who makes his living writing crossword puzzles, but like any writer, dreams of publishing "his novel."  Indeed, he has about 20 different versions of it in his apartment.  His big problem appears to be that he's been largely writing about life rather than living it.  His book is supposed to be a romance/love story, but ... he himself, sitting a lot in front of the computer, is addicted to cam-sites and (presumably) internet porn.  A potential publisher tells him as much: "Your book is supposed to be a romance, but the romance seems to be far more researched rather than lived."

So when the three get together, all three have steam/frustration to blow.  Fernando, who seems a little bit older and certainly more mature than the other two, would perhaps like to live vicariously through Honório and Afozinho.  But one's getting divorced and the other spends his time looking at internet hookers or perhaps hooking-up with a real one (this is Rio after all...) but doesn't have a clue about how to get a real date (even if the bar's got plenty of women in it, also meeting-up with other women to talk / let off steam.

Fortunately, there's the waiter/bar-tender (played by Seu Jorge [AdC]*) who Fernando hits up each evening to give them some sage advice. Most of the women in the bar, and there are several groups of regulars, who meet up at the place to chat with friends, think that the three, especially the two younger ones, are a bunch of cretinhos (cretins...).

As the story goes on, Honório (the one dumped by his wife) finds that he's caught (actually much to his dismay) the eye of Gabi (played by Laura Nieva [AdC]*) an attractive (but still morally if perhaps not absolutely legally underaged) 17 1/2 year old from his apartment complex.  At one point, he tries to tell her once and for all that she's just too young.  But she argues with him saying that by "state statute number..., article..., section ... ... it'd be okay," adding, "I researched it.  My dad's a judge." (Yes, that's even more wonderful...).

Afozinho in the meantime, trying to take the advice of his publisher (but clearly in the wrong way ...) to "actually live life" tries to meet-up with one of the cam models (from Rio de Janeiro) that he's been talking to (paying for ...) over the internet.  (Yup, that's got a big chance of working ...)

And Fernando, after spending so much time with his two (let's face it, kinda problematic and often inert) buddies starts wondering if his wife's now cheating on him ... ;-)

So there it is.  The film begins with "all" being (more or less) "well."  Then "all's" definitely "not well."  Obviously, by the end, "all's well" again. 

It's not a super comedy.  But honestly, it's not a bad one, reminding a (North) American viewer a lot of Cheers (remember that in that series the Ted Danson character Sam was something of a lech and a lot of the women thought he was an idiot too).  And then, despite often coarse language and various sexual situations, there is actually no nudity in it.  Much more is said, again often with a smile, than shown.  All in all, like comedies are supposed to do ... it gives a good laugh.  And a foreigner would perhaps get a sense of what a bunch of "regular guys" in a "regular bar" in Brazil would sound like.  And I do think that this is kinda cool ;-).  Good job!

* Immediate machine translation of foreign (in this case Portuguese) language links are generally best viewed using Google's Chrome browser.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Love (orig. Un Amor) [2011]

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

IMDb listing* listing

A Love (orig. Un Amor) [2011] [CN]* (directed and cowritten by Paula Hernández [CN]* along with Leonel D'Agostino [CN]* based on the short story by Sergio Bizzio [CN]* is a simple, poignant, well-crafted romance from Argentina that played recently at the 29th Chicago Latino Film Festival.  The film won the 2012 Argentinian Academy Award for best adapted screenplay* [IMDb].

The story is about three people, Bruno, Lalo and Lisa who as 15 year-olds back in 1970 had spent summer vacation together in the same town, Victoria (perhaps Victoria Entre Rios), some 3 hours from Buenos Aires.

Lalo (as a 15 year old played by Agustin Pardella [CN]*) and Bruno (as a 15 year old played by Alan Daicz [CN]*) were both locals from Victoria / friends from the same school even if not from the same social classes.  Lalo's father was an auto-mechanic who owned his own garage, Bruno's family appeared to be more white collar.

Into their world entered Lisa (as a 15 year old played by Denise Groesman [CN]*), presumably from Buenos Aires, whose 30-something parents appeared to be genial intellectuals/hippies. (Part of the subtext to the film is the "gathering storm" of what became the notorious Dirty War of the mid-70s).  As such, Lisa simply appeared in Bruno/Lalo's world one summer day in 1970 and then along with her family drove away (in presumed haste) near the end of it (but after having left a lifelong impression on both of them).

Lisa's "big city" / "intellectual" roots played out in the film in a number of ways, though above all through her confidence bordering (to the "provincials" Lalo and Bruno) on being "bossy" (this even though her parents, in as much as one saw them, seemed so "laid back").

Bruno and Lalo experienced Lisa's assertive character differently.  It would seem that Bruno experienced it as being "big city, worldly" (and arguably even somewhat "slutty/loose").  He really always seemed to see Lisa as basically a sexual conquest to be hoped for if not (necessarily) had.  Lalo, in contrast, fell in love.

So much, often poignant/cute (especially when looking back to one's own adolescent years) ensues... until, of course, one day Lisa and her family are gone.  They simply packed-up / left in haste, leaving no means of contacting them in the future.

The story resumes then in the more recent past.  (Mind the reader, that the story actually bounces throughout the film between "the summer of 1970" and the "recent past").

Bruno (played as an adult by Diego Peretti [CN]*) is now married (his wife played by Valeria Lois [CN]*) in Buenos Aires with two young children, a boy and a girl.

Into his life appears once more Lisa (played as an adult by Elena Roger [CN]*) who just shows up one day at the front door to his family's flat.  She, world-traveling (one could say, jet-setting) but never married, worked apparently for one or another international NGO, was in town for a couple of days, and above all ... really wanted to meet Lalo.

Lalo (played as an adult by Luis Ziembrowski [CN]*) remained back in Victoria, never married but with a small boy who he had with a local woman who he never married and had since broken-up with.  And he seemed to have taken over his dad's former garage, working again, as his father had, as an automechanic.

Bruno hasn't been back to Victoria in years.  When first asked by Lisa for Lalo's number, he answered that he didn't know it, but when pressed further, it becomes clear that he still had it memorized.

On the other side of the coin, Bruno's wife, who had previously not even really heard of Lisa, would really like to get this Lisa out of her / her husband's life again.  Bruno, who clearly hadn't thought much about Lalo, Lisa or Victoria much at all during the past years, is now confused.

Things begin to head toward a resolution when Bruno visits Lisa at her hotel room, and just as he's there, Lalo returns Lisa's previous day's phone call.  Since Lisa's in town for just a day or two more, Lisa and Lalo quickly make arrangements to meet, in Victoria, three hours away, the next day.  Bruno who leaves Lisa's room after the phone decides, when he gets home to his family, to go down to Victoria (which he himself hasn't visited in years) the next day as well ... even if it meant skipping a previously scheduled and fairly important event with his wife/family (a bat mitzvah on his wife's side of the family...).

Much, obviously, still ensues ...

I found the movie to be very nice.  I do think the film-makers were a bit crueler at times with Bruno's character than they had to be, even if at the end he comes out reasonably okay as well.  But above all, the film's about "A Love" that may have happened when one was 15 but clearly lasted a lifetime.  It's a very nice and (generally) gentle film.   Good job ;-)

* Immediate machine translation of foreign (in this case Spanish) language links are generally best viewed using Google's Chrome browser.

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Apaporis: In Search of One River (orig. Apaporis: En Busca del Río) [2010]

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

IMDb listing

Apaporis: In Search of One River (orig. Apaporis: En Busca del Río) [2010] (written and directed by José Antonio Dorado) is a Colombian documentary that follows the famed cultural anthrologist/ethnobotanist Wade Davis (most famous his book The Serpent and the Rainbow [IMDb] about the phenomenon of zombification in Haiti) retrace the footsteps of his mentor Richard Evans Schultes who explored the northwest reaches of the Amazon rainforest (found in southern Colombia) during the war years of the early 1940s.  The film played recently at the 29th Chicago Latino Film Festival.

As the documentary notes, the exploration of the outer reaches of the Amazon rainforest, primarily in Brazil but also apparently in Colombia, was driven by the Allied wartime need for rubber.  (After the fall of Malaysia in the war in the Pacific 90% of the world's rubber supply was suddenly in the hands of Japanese forces).  Following the war, the desperate need for alternate supplies of rubber crashed once more.  However, new problems arose...

My own Religious Order, the Friar Servants of Mary, has a connection to this story as they have been responsible for the Catholic Church's Mission in Acre, Brazil, which became a center for the harvesting of rubber from naturally occurring rubber trees in that part of the Amazonian rainforest.  The struggles of the rubber harvesters (seringheiros), often simply poor Brazilians from Brazil's north-eastern coastal regions who were simply shipped out by the Brazilian army to the edges of the country during the war years to harvest the rubber, along with the struggles of the indigenous population of Acre became a cause celebre of the Servite Order on an international level by the 1970s and has continued to this day.  The publication of a book in Portuguese and Italian called The Amazon That We Do Not Know (2006) -- I myself have worked on the English translation of the book, provided here --- seeks to talk about / acquaint readers to the various groups of quiet simple people (both indigenous and simply poor/marginalized) who largely inhabit the Amazon region, people who in Brazil are being largely trampled over by timber and agribusiness concerns. 

In Colombia, the threat to its Amazon region and its indigenous populations hasn't come from the military seeking to define/solidify its country's borders or from greedy cattle ranchers seeking to increase their grazing lands (at the expense of tragically incalculably valuable forest flora/fauna), but (as this documentary notes) primarily from narco-traffickers and then the decades long civil war that has raged in Colombia's hinterlands, the two becoming interrelated as the various guerrilla groups / paramilitaries (the left-wing FARC being the most prominent) have used the cocaine trade (the growing of the coca leaves, harvesting them and then extracting/purifying their active ingredient - cocaine - out of them) to finance their conflicts.

So the concern of Wade Davis along with the documentary maker was whether or not the various indigenous communities that Richard Evans Schultes had found in Colombia's Amazon rain forest would have survived the ravages of the decades-long Drug / Civil War.  Indeed, the town from which documentary film crew embarked on their voyage (I wish I remembered its name...) had been over-run by FARC some years back before being recaptured by government forces in more recent years.

So this documentary is about 'wild country' in more ways than one.  To the relief of all those involved in the documentary, the various indigenous communities appear to have survived.

The film then shows some absolutely beautiful scenery of jungle still largely untouched and indigenous communties, which, while often enough Christianized (by one or another Church or denomination), have also been able to largely preserve their ways.  It is a remarkable film for all those interested in this part of the world and its native inhabitants.  (But I'd like then, honestly, to also take the opportunity again, to plug my own Order's efforts (and others like it) in neighboring Brazil where the problems are, perhaps surprisingly - after all there have been no real wars in Brazil - even more urgent).  Great documentary folks, great job!

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Friday, April 19, 2013

The Company You Keep [2011]

MPAA (R)  R. Roeper (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3  Stars w. Expl.)

IMDb listing (R. Roeper) review
AV Club (N. Rabin) review

Whatever the original intent of the book / movie, The Company You Keep [2011] (costarring and directed by Robert Redford, screenplay by Lem Dobbs based on the novel by the same name by Neil Gordon [IMDb]) may have been, its clear to me that events since -- notably the Boston Marathon bombing this year (which killed 3 including an 8 year old boy and a 22 year old foreign exchange student, and wound another 170 all of whom were just regular people) to say nothing of 9/11 (which killed over 3,000) -- make it very hard to attempt to rehabilitate Vietnam War era radical groups like the Weather Underground that also have innocent blood on their hands (notably that of regular beat cops and security guards who were leading regular lives with families and kids that loved them ...). 

To the book/film;s credit, several of the characters presented as former members of the Weather Underground notably Sharon Solarz (played by Susan Sarandon) and Jim Grant / Nick Sloan (played by Robert Redford) are presented as having regrets for their past actions.  In jail after being arrested after deciding to turn herself in after 30 years of hiding, Sharon Solarz explains to a young reporter, Ben Shephard (played by Shia LaBeouf) that age, having kids, having older parents that one loves, all serve to change one's outlook.  But she also then explained that the situation existing in the late 60s made her (and her group) desperate.  She and her group were seeing tens of thousands of young Americans and then millions of Vietnamese being slaughtered.  She and her group had agitated against the War, done their sit-ins with the Students for a Democratic Society and the War (with its attendant mass killing) was still going on.  So she and her group of friends that became the Weather Underground made the decision to go beyond the law (to seek ultimately the violent overthrow of the government that they came to see as Evil).

Now honestly, exactly the same logic drives the most radical opponents to abortion to seek to do exactly the same thing (or at least to stop abortion by "any means necessary") for exactly the same reasons"We followed the rules.  We tried every conceivable means of protesting peacefully (and even means that just barely "toed the line"), but the daily slaughter goes on ..."

Sigh, what to do when one sees a rampant injustice, indeed an ongoing slaughter, and all legal recourse has been exhausted?  That's the dilemma that that the former members of the Weather Underground had placed themselves in.  And again I say that the most radical opponents to abortion place themselves in a similar dilemma.  Finally, I would submit that even some of the Islamic radicals place themselves in a similar dilemma. Good Muslims, after all, are supposed to Pray (submit to God) and Give Alms to the Poor.  Yet all kinds of governments in Muslim majority countries all around the world are led by stupendously rich people who don't particularly pray and don't particularly give a damn about the poor with many of these regimes supported by the U.S. / Secular West (terrified of the Islamic radicals...). 

Sigh once more ... Honestly in the words of Rodney King:  "Can we just try to get along?"  Seek to see "The Other" as not someone "in the way" or "needing to be eliminated" but someone who is, (like we are ourselves) a "child of God" or "Created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them being Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

In any case, this film about some of the former Weather Underground radicals seeking to "come clean" and "face the music" for their past actions does give the viewer much to think about.

I would also say that currently it is not an easy movie to watch.

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Oblivion [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  I. Vishnevetsky (2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Oblivion [2013] (directed and cowritten by Joseph Kosinski along with Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt based on the graphic novel by Joseph Kosinski and Arvid Nelson) is an ambitious, often visually spectacular, if at times "derivative" Alien invasion / post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi film.  I tend not to punish "derivativeness" as much as others because I do find part of the charm of "genre films" in their homages to previous ones.   And there are certainly plenty of homages present here:  Planet of the Apes [1968] / 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] / Silent Running [1972], Independence Day [1996] / Transformers [2007], The Day After Tommorrow [2004] / 2012 [2009] to name a few.

With a list of sci-fi themed films this deep, one could ask if there is anything original in Oblivion at all.  My answer would be yes.

The setup of the story is the following:  At the beginning of the film we're told by Jack Harper (played by Tom Cruise) that Space Aliens called "Scavs" (short for scavengers) attack Earth around 2017-18.  Their opening salvo is fascinating: They blowup the moon, the result being that the physical equilibrium of the earth is thrown into total chaos.  Tides suddenly fluctuate wildly, presumably shards of the destroyed moon crash onto earth causing Super Tsunamis, etc.  Yet despite this, humanity is able to repel the invasion, in desperation resorting to nukes, resulting in the planet being rendered largely uninhabitable.  As a result, most of surviving humanity is evacuated from Earth to Saturn's moon Titan. 

Only a few humans remain, Jack (a pilot) being one of them along with his partner Victoria (played by Andrea Riseborough).  Their job is "drone maintenance," the killer drones being used to mop-up (hunt down and kill) the remaining "Scavs" on the planet and protecting a series giant fusion power-plants that extract their fuel from sea-water and help power the new human colonies way-out on Titan.

It's kinda lonely and boring work, this drone maintenance, and Jack says at the beginning of the film that both he and Victoria had been given "a memory wipe" prior to their assignment ostensibly to help them do their work more efficiently (so that they could complete it and then head to Titan to be with the others).  Each morning when the two receive a cheerful wake-up call by Sally (played by Melissa Leo) from "Mission Control," who also checks in on how they are doing, which all does boost their morale. 

Yet something doesn't make sense to Jack (and I would suspect would progressively make less and less sense to viewers).  Repeatedly, he asks himself: "If we won the war, why do we have to leave?"  Victoria keeps telling him "Just get this out of your mind and do your job.  The sooner we get done here, the sooner we can leave to join the others."  But that's it.  Jack doesn't really wanna leave.

Jack also finds himself increasingly tormented by a memory that doesn't seem to fit.  A dark haired woman (played by Olga Kurylenko) keeps showing up in his dreams.

That woman shows-up in reality one late afternoon when a meteor-like object crashes near their base.  Despite being told to just "let the drones take care of it," he decides to go himself.  That's when he discovers that the object that crashed was actually an "ancient looking" / "pre-War" spacecraft and among the wreckage he finds _humans_ in suspended animation capsules.  He also finds to his horror that the drones that come to investigate the crash site don't seem to recognize the humans inside those capsules as humans and proceed to obliterate them, one after another, in hails of Gatling gun bullets, all except for one, that dark haired woman who looks like the woman who appears in Jack dreams, who Jack saves by stepping between her capsule and the drone that would have otherwise obliterated it like the rest, thus causing the drone to turn its attention elsewhere and go away.  Jack attaches her capsule to his vehicle and takes it to his / Victoria's base.  Victoria's taken aback by the unexpected presence of this "other woman."  Sally, back in mission control seems to see the dark haired woman, who when she wakes up calls herself Julia, as someone falling outside the paramenters of Jack/Victoria's mission (but doesn't seem to give clear instructions as to how to proceed).  In anycase, the rest of the movie clearly develops from there...

It all comes together, at times somewhat heavy-handedly, but ends in an IMHO interesting (not altogether predictable) / poignant way.   So between the imagery of the film and way the film wraps itself up, the film does make for decent enough / satisfying sci-fi film.  Bladerunner [1982] or the first Terminator [1984] it is not.  But it's certainly a more thoughtful movie than say Independence Day [1996] to say nothing of Battle Los Angeles [2011].

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Devil's Hole (orig. El Hoyo del Diablo) [2012]

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

IMDb listing

The Devil's Hole (orig. El Hoyo del Diablo) [2012] (directed and cowritten by Francisco Disla Fierra (El Indio) along with Humberto Espinal) is a well-made and at times good humored/campy horror movie from the Dominican Republic that played recently at the 29th Chicago Latino Film Festival.

In many respects, the film follows the trajectory / conventions of classic (North) American horror films: A group of vivacious (at time obnoxious) college students set off for a weekend / vacation of fun and find themselves in a "cabin in the woods" that's haunted.

To this outline are overlaid various conventions of local traditional story telling.  The story comes from "Santo Domingo" (the Dominican Republic) after all, which borders with Haiti.  So the well of Santeria / Voodoo inspired lore is quite deep ;-).  The effect for this "gringo reviewer" (but who's still had family connections "with village lore" from his family's native Bohemia (today's Czech Rpublic) was fascinating.  And honestly folks, this story was more positive / edifying than most contemporary (North) American horror film as should become clear in the discussion below.

The story involves a group of college students from Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, who head-off to the countryside for vacation as school's out for Holy Week (Spring Break).  On their way to their destination, however, a truck swerves into their lane, forcing their car to plunge down a rather steep ravine.  When they get out of the car, all rather bruised and bloodied, and search for help, they eventually find themselves by an old abandoned country home.  With it getting dark, they decide to spend the night.

Obviously, this was a bad idea ... ;-) Indeed, the circle of apparently dried blood that encircling the place would probably serve as a good indication to not enter.  But most of the college students don't seem to notice the circle.  Besides it's getting dark and where else are they going to stay?

Who does notice the circle of dried blood is a rather tormented young woman named Sofia (played by Marta Gonzales Liliano) who the other friends kinda dismiss as being kinda weird.  But then they felt kinda sorry for her.  So they took her along on this trip.  Besides she was Miriam's cousin (played by Solly Duran) who was cooler/more fun.  Anyway, as Sofia (and remember her name means "wisdom") approaches that left-over barrier of dried blood, a ghost of a snow white-haired girl named Luz (played by Karla Hatton) in a white dress appears and tells her: DON'T CROSS THE LINE.  So Sofia hesitates.  She asks her friend Brian (played by Johnie Mercedes) if he saw the ghost of the lady in white telling her not to cross the line.  He says no.  So after some hesitation, she crosses.  After all, all her other friends had already crossed.

Well of course the house has a tormented history.  It had been a site in which the Dominican Republic's army under the infamous dictator Trujillo had tortured and killed thousands of Haitian migrants in October 1937.

Not happy that Sofia had "crossed the line," the "lady in white" nevertheless tells her that she's now destined to free the souls of the hundreds perhaps even thousands of Haitians who were murdered in this place by a sadistic Dominican Colonel who had become possessed by the demonic spirit Revenant (played by Juan Fernandez).  Indeed, whenever Sofia touches anything in the house, episodes of its sordid play out in stylized black and white fashion around her.

But before Sofia can free all those people, the other friends in her party that need to be "knocked off."  The first to go are the coolest/most popular in the group (though honestly they don't particularly seem like bad people... though certainly the most worldly).  Escarlette (played by Karla Fatule), who was perhaps most bloodied by the accident must goes first.  He confident/athletic looking, and revolver carrying Jhon (played by Fausto Rojas) soon follows (apparently revolvers don't work well in a house cursed by Satan ...;-).  Miriam initially avoids a really large snake, but eventually it gets her.  Finally even Brian succumbs.

So all who's left is Sofia.  And good ole Revenant comes back from apparently a pit that reaches down to Hell to get her.

HOWEVER, in the midst of this, Sofia's MOTHER (played by Carlotta Carretero) back home in Santo Domingo has a premonition that something terrible's about to happen to her daughter.  So she goes to the local Santoria priestess to ask for help.  Well the priestess tells her: "You know what you're supposed to do, do it."

Well Sofia's mother goes to an altar dedicated to the VIRGIN MARY and prays for assistance.  The Virgin then sends SAINT MICHAEL (played on Luis Filguera).  He appears at the tormented house on a nice Big White Horse, enters, saves Sofia from the clutches of the Evil Revenant, dispatches him back down into the pit of Hell where he belongs.  And afterwards one sees a greyish cloud of all those previously trapped soul leaving the house and ascending up to the heavens.

So Sofia with the help of her mother, the Virgin Mary and Saint Michael is able to defeat the Demon Revenant and free all those tormented souls of the Haitians who had been murdered allowing them to go up to Heaven.

I did find the story fascinating.  And obviously there is some Santeria / Voodoo present in the story.  (The most problematic for me being Miriam and the snake...).  On the other hand, when Sofia's mother does pray to the Virgin Mary, the Virgin does send Saint Michael who does save her daughter and all those trapped/tormented Haitian souls (and most of those Haitians would have been Catholic).

In any case, I found the film well constructed, often fun (as far as the horror genre goes) and arguably more edifying than most of these kind of movies in the States.  After all, GOOD WINS and indeed the Virgin Mary / St. Michael come through.

As far as advice would go:  If you're ever asked to make (or cross) a circle of blood or a pentagram, PLEASE DON'T.  And when in trouble, DO pray to the Virgin Mary (the Hail Mary) or indeed, the Prayer to Saint Michael:

Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle;
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray:
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.


Apparently this film, which has been very popular in both the Dominican Republic and in Puerto Rico will play by the end of 2013 on HBO Latino and be released on Netflix ;-).

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