Friday, May 31, 2013

After Earth [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (3 1/2 Stars)  ChicagoSunTimes (1 Star)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
Chicago SunTimes (R. Roeper) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

After Earth [2013] (directed and cowritten by M. Night Shyamalan along with Gary Whitta, story by Will Smith) is a very nice father/young teenage son sci-fi drama (starring the actual father/son team of Will Smith and his14 year-old son Jaden) that I believe that any military/vet/cop family would probably understand.

The film begins far in the future on a planet far far from Earth (as Earth had become so polluted that humanity had to abandon it 1000 years ago) and it centers on the relationship between General Cypher Raige (played by Will Smith) a decorated indeed almost legendary special forces military officer and his 14-year old son Kitai (played by Jaden Smith) who, often missing his dad (because he's so often away on various, always distand and always dangerous missions) desperately wants to become "just like his dad." Again, ANY military family or one with a hero could probably relate to this situation.

There are women in this family too, of course.  There's Faia Raige (played by Sophie Okonedo) Gen. Cypher/Kitai's loving wife/mother and then there was Senshi Raige (played by Zoe Isabella Kravitz), Kitai's older sister, and who had clearly been otherwise hard-nosed/cold Gen. Cypher Raige's "apple of his eye." 

Senshi had died when Kitai was only 5-6 years old protecting him (Kitai) from a horrible monster-like animal living on the planet where the Raiges and other humans now live, an animal species that literally "smells fear."  If Cypher had always been quite cold/distant (indeed trained to "mask his fear") in the past, he had become even more so, emotionally and otherwise, after Senshi's death.  Beyond grieving the loss of his favorite daughter "in his own way" by perhaps volunteering to go off on those always distant, always dangerous missions, it becomes clear that he partly blamed his son (even though he could not have been more than 5-6 at the time) for the loss of Senshi.  For his part, Kitai, racked by guilt that his older sister had died saving his life (and sensing the devastating effect that her death had on his father) Kitai was trying all the more to prove himself to his father ... who was almost never around (and who as noted above at least on some, if irrational, level blamed him for her death).

This then is the emotional set-up for the film.  Things come to a head, when Gen. Cypher, having come home from one of his missions is asked by his wife to take their 14-year-old son, Kitai (who's now "a cadet" after all, trying so hard to become a special forces Ranger "just like his dad") with him on his next mission.  After all, it was supposed to be "just a training mission," with cadets not unlike Kitai though a few years older than him anyway.   Gen. Cypher, reluctantly agrees.  But when they set-off on the "routine (training) mission," he asks his son to basically just strap himself into his seat in the interplanetary transport that they are traveling in with his gas mask on -- basically to out of the way -- while all goes according to plan ... until, of course, it does not.

The transport finds itself running-into a freak meteor-shower and is so damaged that it needs to crash land on the nearest hospitable planet available -- which turns out to be Earth, abandoned and quarantined by humanity some 1000 years previous (for reasons mentioned above).  The crash landing results in killing everybody on the ship except for the always heroic Gen. Cypher Raige (though he suffers two broken legs) and his 14-year-old son Kitai, who though a Ranger cadet, had been ordered by his heroic father to just sit in strapped in his seat with his gas mask on, had as both a "good cadet" and a "good boy" (if somewhat disappointedly/resentfully) ... "followed orders." ;-) 

Now decorated Gen. Cypher is forced to entrust his 14 year old son Kitai, cadet though he was, to traverse 100 km of uncharted wilderness (again, Earth had been abandoned by humanity for 1000 years) to retrieve a distress beacon that was located on the other end of their ship that had broken apart in pieces as it entered Earth's atmosphere, so that a rescue ship could be summoned to save them.  Much ensues ...

A fair amount of the critics reviewing the film complain about the stiffness of the performances of Gen. Cypher and his son.  Yet, I return to my belief that, while perhaps the stiffness is exaggerated a bit (for effect), any military family would understand.  This is to say that the IMHO stiffness in the performances of the two Smiths playing their roles was INTENTIONAL.  To support this view, I'd point out that, in contrast to Gen. Cypher who almost never smiles in the film (except in flashbacks involving his beloved and deceased older daughter Senchi) and Kitai, who's so much of a basket-case (if a heart-rending one) throughout most of the film, first trying to prove himself to his father and then plunged into a mission that was for real on which both his and his father's survival depended, that he had no time to smile, THE KEY WOMEN in the film, both wife/mother Faia and daughter/sister Senchi are portrayed as nothing but ever smiling/nurturing LOVE.

There are things that I would wonder about in the plot construction of the film.   I'm not sure why Earth had to be "abandoned" a 1000 years before the story was to have taken place with the father's/son's craft then crashing back on this "abandoned Earth."  Perhaps any "Earth-like planet" would have sufficed. 

Then the hideous monsters who "smelled our fear" who both existed on humanity's new home planet and then Kitai had to confront on Earth anyway (as it was part of the "cargo" being carried on the transport that carried father/son and the other Ranger trainees on their otherwise "routine mission") were certainly "over the top."  (Why do all of Hollywood's space aliens these days seem to look like hideous monsters bent on destroying us?)

Still I suppose, poor 14-year-old Kitai finds himself on a mission requiring him to confront truly "the sum of all (his) fears" -- (1) new fears - he has to traverse 100 km of, to him, utterly unknown terrain to save both him and his father, (2) old fears - he has to eventually confront a hideous monster (again somewhat inexplicably carried on the ship that crashed then with him and his father on Earth) of the same species that killed his older sister back on his home planet (a monster that could literally "smell" his fear), and (3) even more ancient fears - he finds himself on a planet that may be utterly new to him but that's filled with the consequences of mistakes made by his ancestors 1000+ years before.  So it all makes for one heck of a parable if at times a rather crowded one.  And it's one that I'd recommend to families with fathers who have been military heroes / otherwise "heroes on the force" and children trying really, really hard to become just like them.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Pietà [2012]

MPAA (UR would be R) Chicago SunTimes (3 stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Chicago SunTimes (B. Stamets) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Pietà [2012] (written and directed by South Korean director Ki-Duk Kim) is an often brutal (definitely hard-R) yet not without its point, award winning film that IMHO probably appropriately (certainly it was worthy) though somewhat amusingly won both "The Golden Mouse" (for the best "small film") and "The Golden Lion" (for best film, period) at the Venice International Film Festival last year (2012).  It played recently at Chicago's Facets Multimedia and is available at Amazon Instant Video.

Set in a grimy oil, pipe and rust covered section of an ultra-industrialized, scant tree to be found, South Korean town where an entire neghborhood of tiny "mom and pop" machine shop businesses are stacked one next to another all presumably competing with each other to survive, the setting has an intentional "post-Apocalyptic" (but emphatically "post-Apocalyptic NOW") feel to it.  Overcast, less rainy but certainly colder, imagine the setting as Ridley Scott's Bladerunner [1982] but covered in snow and set in South Korea today rather than in some near or more distant future.  This is the second such "post-Apocalypse NOW" film that I've seen in the last couple of years, the other being an arguably "lighter" film named Viva Riva! [2010] by Congolese director Djo Munga in which that film's hero "Riva" enters Congo's capital of Kinshasa with a truck full of stolen petrol (gasoline) and is greeted by the local inhabitants from the mob to the local bishop ;-) as a hero torn out of a Madmax [1979] / Road Warrior [1981] story. 

Both this current film, Pietà [2012] and Viva Riva! [2010] along with Filipino film Graceland [2012] that played here and I reviewed recently serve as reminders to me (and which I share with readers here now) of the oft expressed view of a lot of the Asian and Latin American friars of my (Servite) Order with whom I studied at my Order's international college in Rome that Americans (and really Westerners in general...) simply don't have a clue about the struggles of life in the poorer countries of the world today, again "not in some distant Apocalyptic time in the future" but today.

Trying to appreciate this in earlier years, I led several groups of Americans from Servite apostolates in the United States to places like the Servite Mission in the Acre/Amazon region of Brazil and another Servite Mission in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico.  But I also tried to explain to both our guys on the ground there and others who we met through them in both places that the vast majority of Americans really couldn't afford to go on trips like this either.

Indeed, a good part of my reasoning in creating my blog (and then choosing to operate it in the way that I have -- lets face it, there are _a lot_ more reviews of "small international films" reviewed on this blog than one would probably initially expect to see on movie blog from the States -- was to offer Catholics (both American and non) as well as other readers of the blog an opportunity to "visit" other countries / realities otherwise beyond their/our reach at least through the movies (and then where possible through movies made by people from the places where they are set).  Most American Catholics can not afford to spend $1500-2000 to visit the Servites in the Philippines (or to visit the Servite Sisters in South Korea).  But for $7-8 they can at least download a film recently reviewed here from each of these places through Amazon Instant Video and perhaps better understand the "joys and sorrows" of our brothers and sisters living there ;-).

But to return then to the current film ... Pietà [2012] is set in this rundown district of an industrial city somewhere in South Korea today where the families owning these little "mom and pop" machine shops, one stacked on top of another, are all trying to eek out a means to survive.  In this environment when times get hard, people go into debt.  So the story focuses on Gang-Do (played by Joeng-jin Lee) a 20-something enforcer for a loan-shark/mob operation.

The scam that the local mob had set-up was the following:  They would loan the owners of these tiny metal shop operations who had fallen into hard times $3000 to pay off their debts but they also insist that they sign a disability insurance policy worth $30,000 to get the loan.  Then, if they couldn't pay back the $3,000 loan IN ONE MONTH'S TIME, the amount that they would owe would jump to $30,000 and an enforcer like Gang-Do would come by to MUTILATE the owner (cut off his arm, crush his leg, what-have-you...) so that the mob could collect the $30,000 on the insurance.

The beginning sequence of the film shows Gang-Do stringing up and torturing the owner of one of these small machine shops who was already in a wheel chair (apparently someone who had already been mutilated once for failing to pay back a previous loan ...).  Satisfied that he's performed enough damage on the owner of that machine shop so that his bosses could collect their insurance money, he returns then to his home, a dingy all metal and plastic apartment.  Inside the apartment, there's a metal stove, a metal table, a couple of chairs, a small not particularly algae filled fish-tank and a tiny one person bed.  Oh yes, and on the wall over the table is a single (on wood) painting of a nameless and topless young woman.  When he comes home, he takes off his coat.  Takes out his dagger, throws it at the wooden painting, PIERCING HER HEART ... and then he crashes on the bed.  The next scene shows him masturbating (under the covers) still half asleep as his cell-phone vibrates a few times, apparently sending him a few more names and addresses of shop owners to shakedown and mutilate.

Such then is Gang-Do's life -- and the viewer gets to "see" (or at least hear...) a few more times what becomes a sad, sad variously desperate symphony (if not a cacophony) of differing reactions of the owners (and often their loved ones...) when he as a veritable "Angel of Death" comes by to collect "his Master's due."

Yet one day, an older 40-something woman shows up (played by Min-soo Jo).  She starts following Gang-Do from a distance and she follows him all the way home.  Who is she?  She introduces herself with a pleading apology, "I am your mother, who made you into who you are, because I abandoned you when you were born."  "Yeah, right."  He enters his dingy apartment, leaving her outside (in the snow), throws his dagger into the heart of the topless young woman's picture hanging on the wall again, and goes to bed.

The next morning ... she's still outside.  He brushes her aside and continues in his work.  She follows him ... if at a distance.  When one of the shop-owners that Gang-Do is shaking down, spits on him, she enters the shop and SLAPS THE SHOP-OWNER and says: "How dare you talk to my son that way!  If you want to spit on someone then spit on me.  I'm the one who made him this way..."  Gang-Do proceeds then to throw the shopowner off of some balcony or something (high enough to severely injure him, but not enough to kill him ...) but at this point the woman has Gang-Do's attention.

At the end of the day, he takes her home.  Still not convinced who she is, even though she's protesting that she's his mother, he proceeds to do what would certainly be the most depraved act in the whole film.  Yes, he violates her.  Note that this as well as the other scenes in the film are shot with some discretion.  The camera always turns away or otherwise the viewer is shielded from what happens, but the viewer is also left with no doubt whatsoever about had  happened.

Yet this scene becomes a turning-point.  Her sobbing (rather than anger) afterwards do seem to convince him (finally) of the truth of what she was telling him.  Having violated her and witnessing her reaction to this, he (finally) opens up his life to her.

What now?  Well this is just the set-up for the second half of the movie... ;-)

Throughout the rest of the film, the viewer is left to wonder about the identity of this woman.  Is she really his mother?  If she is, then it becomes clear that she's more than just that.

Alternatively is she supposed to be MARY?  Well if she is supposed to be Mary, then BESIDES Gang-Do HAVING VIOLATED HER (even though he was an utterly inhuman thug at the time...) she'd be certainly MORE THAN JUST HIS MOTHER.  SHE'D ALSO BE THE MOTHER OF HIS VICTIMS.

Yet, once she has his confidence, the woman (finally) begins to increasingly aggressively reprove Gang-Do for his previous crimes AND (finally) show obvious concern for his victims.  Indeed, the question arises: In the traumatized, certainly fallen, arguably hellish setting of this film, was she actually one of the mothers of one of his victims, who insinuated herself into Gang-Do's life (even at such a great cost to her) so that she could then avenge the death her (other) child?

But returning to the question of whether she was supposed to be a Marian figure in this film:  Mary would have to be the Mother of both the Oppressor and the Oppressed.  How would that play out?  And how could both Justice and Reconciliation be accomplished?

The scenario presented in this film is clearly an extreme one.  The viewer may not even like the way the writer-director resolves the situation in the film.  Yet the film does raise interesting questions to the viewer.  If Mary would be "The Mother of All Her Children" (again of both the Oppressor and the Oppressed) and people at times do truly awful things to each other, what would a reconciliation between her estranged children look like?  And if some of those children were already dead, would such reconciliation even be possible in this world?  Do we really still live "in Exile" in a "Valley of Tears?"

As a final note, South Korea is actually one of the most Christian / Catholic countries in East Asia (18.3% Protestant, 10.8% Catholic in 2005 according to S. Korean gov't statistics cited in wikipedia).  Additionally, the Catholic Church in Korea has had a storied 250 year indigenous history complete with martyrs.  I make note of this to remind readers that writer-director Ki-Duk Kim was not approaching this film "randomly."  The imagery is obviously very, very strong but it's also obviously informed:  In one of the more amusing scenes in the film, after Gang-Do finally starts believing the woman who was claiming to be his mother and lets her stay in his home, one morning while he's still sleeping, she takes the Dagger that he keeps throwing into the Heart of the picture of the topless (abused) Young Woman that he has hanging on his wall, then pulls-out Gang-Do's pet eel (a "small serpent" after all) from his fish-tank, chops it up (against his previous objections) and serves it to him later for breakfast ;-).   Only an informed Catholic could come up with a scene like that ;-)

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Monday, May 27, 2013

Epic [2013]

MPAA (G)  CNS/USCCB (A-I) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

I admit that I approached the children's animated film Epic [2013] (directed by Chris Wedge, screenplay by a veritable army - James V. Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember) somewhat skeptically.  I found the title of the film somewhat pretentious.  After all, how "epic" could a battle between little green "leaf men" and darker, cellulose-devouring "insect men" all playing out in a forest grove next to the house of the main human protagonists in the story be?  And then how many films does this setup to the story remind you of?  Let's see: Ants [1998], A Bug's Life [1998] and more recently The Secret World of Arrietty [2010] and Rango [2011].  (I'm told that the story also follows the essential plot-line of the Japanese Studio Ghibly animated classic Spirited Away [2001], which now I'm going to "have to see" as well ;-).  Then the flying battle scenes involving the green leaf-men saddled on hummingbirds and the beetle/insect-men saddled on bats and ravens, already shown in the film's previews, more or less obviously pay homage to Avatar [2009], all the more so since Epic is intended to be primarily seen in 3D.  So if nothing else, Epic's makers set themselves up for one heck challenge -- meeting a truly "epic" set of expectations ;-).

How do they do?  Well approaching this movie skeptically, I decided that I was not going to pay full-price to see this movie and then definitely not see it in 3D.  (Note to parents, having seen the movie now, while the film works perfectly well in 2D and I've always considered 3D to be largely a "price-gouging gimick," if you "get stuck" seeing this film in 3D, you could probably have done worse.  A lot of the scenes are crafted in a way that the 3D would probably look pretty cool.  But I do sympathize with you: paying $4/ticket per kid for the 3D glasses could well be a deal-breaker and the cheaper 2D (which I saw) works perfectly fine as well).

But returning to the question at hand, I found myself LIKING THIS FILM and actually QUITE A BIT ;-)  Then also, since I saw it as a matinee, it seemed rather clear to me that the kids watching the film along with their parents/guardians clearly enjoyed the film as well, responding to things in the film that I would not have caught (or found as funny ;-) otherwise.  But I'd generally get these 'added' gags (if sometimes a little "after the fact" ;-) saying to myself, "Okay, if I were a 4-6 year old, I probably would have found that funny too" ;-).  Specifically the human family's older "three legged dog" (which anyone who's ever had an older dog would appreciate) was JUST ADORABLE ;-) ;-).  What a reminder that you don't have to have a dog-show quality dog "with papers" at home to have a pooch more than worthy of your love.

Then for older kids and adults the fundamental set-up to the story told to us by the narrator at the beginning is immediately graspable: "If you look at a forest, it may seem initially that not much is going on.  But if you look more closely it becomes clear that there's a constant battle taking place between the forces of Life and the forces of Decay."  And there you have it.  Even without the "leaf-men" and personified beetles, dandelions, water lilies and snails/slugs, I will never look at a forest grove the same way again ;-).

So this "battle between Life and Decay" is taking place in the little forest grove by the house of the human family involved, and the father (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) had become absolutely obsessed with it convinced that there are "little people" on both sides of this struggle who were involved in it who we can not see only because their being smaller results in their experience to time being much, much faster than ours.  So over time, he's setup all kinds of microphones and security cams all over that little forest grove in an attempt to prove that all these "little people" running about (and battling each other) actually exist.

Well, any family or community that's had to deal with a middle aged man becoming seemingly obsessed with some crazy quest (like perhaps even dealing with a middle aged priest who decided a couple of years ago to "start writing a film blog" ;-) could probably relate.  And yes, taking obsessions "a bit too far" does have consequences.  In the case of the human family in this story, the father's obsession with proving the existence of these "little people" cost him his marriage.  His wife had left him, taking their daughter with her.  Indeed, the film begins with the daughter, Mary Katherine (voiced by Amanda Seyfried) who as a teenager now calls herself "M.K." for short, returning back to her father after the tragic death of her mother.  And yes, she was not looking forward to this as she was convinced that her dad was self-absorbed/crazy.  (As is now the formula that works in stories like this - the story is both entertaining/funny, but it is also rooted in some aspect of painful/relateable reality).

It turns out, of course, that the father is not altogether crazy.  (At least in the story) he's actually onto something.  There really are these little people in two camps (representing Life and Decay), who really are battling it out in the midst of that small grove of trees.

Now according to the story, each of these two camps is led by a leader, a Water Lily Queen named Tera (voiced by Beyoncé Knowles) and a Dark Lord named Mandrake (voiced by Christoph Waltz).  The two forces exist generally in equillibrium.  Whatever Mandrake's forces kill or reduce to decay, Queen Tera is able to regenerate.  However, once every 100 years or so, on the night of a summer solstice falling on the same day as a full moon, the Queen is obligated to go to the water lily patch and pick-out a pod that would bloom into her successor.  Mandrake and his forces see this as the opportunity for them to strike, steal the lily pod from the queen before the rising of the full moon and claim it for themselves (giving birth to a Dark Prince instead of a new Life Giving Princess). 

Well, good old M.K., who after coming to stay with her father had become even more convinced that her father was crazy, walks into the middle of this attempt by the "forces of decay" to steal this "lily pod" from the Queen Tera just after she picked it, and the pod ends up in M.K.'s hands.  Then to her amazement, she sees a dying little Lily Queen (Tera) on the ground, who tells her that she's entrusted to bring this pod, yet to bloom, "to the sanctuary" so that it would become the new Lily Queen.  As Queen Tera dies, M.K. magically shrinks to the size of these little people and soon encounters the Queen's guard that of course is distraught over this despicable attack on/murder of their Queen and the attempted abduction of her future successor.  Much, of course, ensues ...

And by the time that the Dark Lord Mandrake sends out a huge swarm of bats to "block out the light of the full moon" thus coming quite close to forcing the birth of the Queen's successor to "take place in darkness" (which would have resulted in the birth of a Dark Prince rather than a Princess of Life), I do have to admit that the story had become worthy of its "Epic" title ;-).

I also have to say that if all the talk of "solstices" and "full moons" may sound a bit, well, "pagan" ... the creators do such a good job with it by the end -- the pod about to be born is put on an appropriately "epic" stone altar recalling something from Celtic/Stone Henge times ... that I honestly did not mind. 

Indeed, the scene reminded me that one of the items on my "bucket list" is to one day to be able to go to England or Ireland to visit one of those old Celtic sanctuaries where light enters through a specific stone lined portal/window on the occasion of one or another of the solstices (and I'd happily "settle" on witnessing something similar among the Mayan ruins in Guatemala/Mexico).  To a priest of _any_ religion, this kind of stuff is simply really, really "epic" / "awesome" ;-)

So it should be clear then that the story became satisfactorily "Epic" / "awesome" for me.  And once again, I write this with some happy surprise ;-)  Further, I do believe that the film really had "something" for just about everybody from the little ones to teens to parents/elders.  And yes, be assured that daughter M.K. and dad reconcile and gain mutual respect for each other by the end.

So all in all folks, I really do believe that the film is quite good and (surprisingly) meets my expectations of a film bearing such an initially rather audacious name ;-)   Good, err "Epic" job folks ;-)  Good job ;-)

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Frances Ha [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (B. Keninsberg) review

Frances Ha [2012] (directed and cowritten by Noah Baumbach along with Greta Gerwig) is IMHO a well written, well acted bitter-sweet comedy about "growing-up" ... after college ... on one's own in a big American city today.  The film is set as a matter of course in New York, but with adjustments the story could easily play-out in Chicago/Los Angeles or Boston/Philadelphia, Seattle/Portland or Miami for that matter, basically any major U.S. city with a relatively vibrant theatrical / artistic community.

The story follows Frances (played by Greta Gerwig) who we meet as an apprentice dancer at a New York dance company. When we meet her, she is living with her best friend from college, Sophie (played by Mickey Sumner), in a shared apartment in Brooklyn.  Sophie is working her way up (with apparently some success) from her presumably entry-level position at Random House (the famous publishing firm) in Manhattan which she landed some years before.

There is a sort of "are they or aren't they" vibe about their relationship, an ambiguity that may distress some viewers, but one that I believe many/most college age+ young adults would probably comprehend.  That many/most college aged young adults would understand the situation may in itself distress some readers here. But 25 years ago, when I was in grad-school, these kind of ambiguous relationships were already going on (And how would I know that?  Because I personally knew a couple of women who lived in exactly this still ambiguous sort of way).  My sense would be that these kind of relationships would be even more common now than back then.  Now why would such relationships be ambiguous?  Well, given both the age and the stakes for the people involved, why would one be surprised?

But I'm getting away from the point ... The point is that the relationship between these two women in the film is ambiguous.  And I give the film-makers a lot of credit for making it so (because it's honestly more real that way).

Indeed, at the beginning of the film BOTH Frances and Sophie actually have boyfriends.  However when Frances is asked at the beginning of the film by her boyfriend to move-in with him, she declines telling him that her and Sophie's apartment is nice, that the lease is going to come-up for renewal in a few months and that she "wouldn't want to put Sophie in a bind afterwards."  Frances' boyfriend takes her response to be effectively a "kiss-off" line (However one slices it, she's appears to be telling him that there isn't a future in their relationship) and so the two break-up.

Two weeks later, guess what happens?  Sophie tells Frances that HER boyfriend, Patch (played by Patrick Heusinger), who works on Wall Street had asked her to move-in with him to HIS new apartment in the swanky/cool Tribeca neighborhood of New York and that she accepted his offer.  NOW Frances is left to fend for herself ... (To be clear here as well, Patch was a serious boyfriend ... the two, perhaps to Frances further dismay, get married soon afterwards...).

What does Frances do?  Well, she crashes for a time with two friends (though both male now) still from college, Lev (played by Adam Driver) and Benji (played by Michael Zegen).  However, the new problem is that their apartment is more expensive than the previous one that she shared with Sophie, and even though they're dividing rent three ways, Frances can't fully cover her share.  No problem, come the Christmas season, she tells the two that she'll be dancing with her company "like every day" and that ought to bump-up her income.  Just there comes a problem ... come October, she's told by her Dance Company's boss Nadia (played by Britta Phillips) that "though her performances are good," the Company "won't be needing her" for the Christmas shows.  What does that mean?  Well Nadia doesn't outright fire her (though what does it mean to be "not needed" in what would have seemed to have been the busiest time of the year for the Dance Company...?)   Instead, Nadia tells her to "come back in February and we'll talk about your future."

What the heck to do now?  Well, she can't afford to stay with Lev and Benji  -- Incidently, again neither of two is gay.  Living in New York as unattached late 20-somethings, they're simply roommates. Lev seems to be more successful in both work and with women and is seemingly leading a somewhat "revolving door" / "one night stand" lifestyle.  Benji on the other hand, is a "struggling writer" and like Frances also "clinging to a dream" that may not be altogether realistic.  In any case due to his insecurity in his work life Benji declared himself (at least temporarily) "undateable" and declares Frances to be the same -- With Christmas rolling around with no income and not wanting to mouch off of her two friends, she heads back home to Sacramento, California to be with her parents.

HOWEVER, Frances doesn't give up.  After all, her Boss at the Dance Company did tell her to "come back in February."  So come mid-January, Frances is back in New York, now in another precarious living arrangement, living this time (at least temporarily) with Rachel (played by Grace Gummer) who is an actual (paid) member of the Dance Company that Frances had been an apprentice for. Why?  Because "in 5 weeks" he believes that she's gonna be working there too.

By now, the reader could guess what happens ... Nadia wanted to talk to Frances in February about Frances' "future" at the Dance company but not about her dancing for the company ...

What now?  By now, the reader ought to have a pretty good idea of the trajectory of this film.  So I'm not going to say anything further except (1) what's remarkable about Frances' character throughout the story is her undaunted optimism in face of a seemingly unending avalanche of disappointments/failures and, (2) SINCE THIS IS A COMEDY, AFTER ALL, IT HAS TO END WELL ... and so it does, though not without a lot of further pain.  However, as everyone who's passed through young-adult age would know, "growing up" and finding one's footing in life, almost always involves a good deal of embarrassment and pain.

Still, I have to say that I've grown to really like Greta Gehrig's characters.  I've seen her starring now in three films -- Damsels in Distress [2011], Lola Versus [2012] and now Frances Ha [2012] -- and I love the cheerful earnestness and the optimism of her characters in face of seemingly overwhelming challenges/disappointments to the point that she reminds me of the comical optimism of a lot of Woody Allen's roles in his films of yesteryear.  I'm not sure how Ms Gehrig would respond to having her roles/style compared to Woody Allen's, but I do mean it as a compliment!  ;-)

Finally, I find it fascinating that while her films certainly don't evoke religion in any explicit sense at all, at least two of her films, Lola Versus [2012] and the current one, strike me as having some more-or-less obvious religious undertones (if not overtones ;-):

In Lola Versus [2012], she plays a doctoral student (a lit major) who was dumped by her fiance' three weeks before their wedding (and for no apparent reason other than perhaps sheer panic on his part).  Yet, despite that disaster in her life, she has to continue with her studies and make a proposal to her Doctoral Board for her Dissertation.  The proposal she gives would be one that ANY Judeo-Christian theologian worth his/her salt would understand: She wanted to study THE SILENCE, THE PAUSES in Poetry, "the commas" as it were.  Someone of my background can not help but think of Book of Job (Job 2:13) or the Prophet Elijah's meeting God in the "silent sound" on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:11ff).

In the current film, in the midst of all her disasters, Frances is asked at an otherwise rather awkward dinner party what she really wanted in life.  She answered somewhat similarly as above, that ultimately all that she really wished for was the assurance of a simple glance, perhaps at a party, perhaps from a distance, from a friend, a glance "that would not even have to have a sexual meaning" but simply one that would indicate to her that "all is okay."

Folks, Matthew effectively began and ended his Gospel with his understanding of the meaning of the whole of Jesus' incarnation, life, death and resurrection, the assurance that "God is with us ... always, till the end of the age." (Matt 1:23, 28:20).

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Hangover Part III / Fast and Furious 6 [2013]

Last year there was also a weekend, perhaps even the same one (the one falling around Memorial Day), when I honestly couldn't justify spending the money or even the effort to go out and see the weekend's new "main attractions" and yet feel obligated, again like last year, to write something (and _not_ altogether negatively) about them ;-)

The Hangover Part III [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L) (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

The Hangover Part III [2012] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Todd Phillips along with Craig Mazin, characters by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) is the third installment in the franchise about a group of "regular guys" (if they weren't sooooo.... stupid) 30s-ish in age, generally vulgar/immature-ish in attitude from Southern California who by this installment have come to call themselves "the wolf pack."  Playing the four are Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha and Zach Galifianis

The shtick in the series is that these four find themselves falling into some truly unbelievable situations (in good part due to their stupidity) and then have to struggle to find their way out.  The formula has been wildly popular.

I saw the first film when it came out in 2009 (back before I began my blog) and found it to be basically funny/stupid (stupid-funny...) and already _somewhat_ "immature" (basically along the lines of Animal House [1978] but for 30 year olds ...).  What honestly surprised me was the film's remarkable popularity in my parish.  It seemed to me that just about everyone across all our various ethnic lines from (honestly) pre-teenagers to seniors (! ;-) had seen the film (often as families) and almost everyone of them talked about the film as if it was the greatest thing to come out in a long-long time.  When a film that, let's face it, is kinda/rather vulgar -- "Honestly, you took your kids to see this?"  "Yes, (with all sincerity) why not Father?"  "Did you see the final credits?"  "Yup, what of them?" ;-) --  is THAT popular, someone like me CAN'T HELP BUT NOTICE and then scratch my head and try to figure-out "why?"  What is it about these films that makes them so popular?

The answer that I came up with is that these film "work" because they portray "regular people" behaving stupider indeed MUCH stupider than we generally do.  Hence we laugh at the nerdy / generally straight-laced dentist (played by Ed Helms) getting SOOOOOO DRUNK in the first film that during the course of the evening he pulled out his own front tooth (with a pair of pliers...) without having ANY recollection the next day of him doing so.  (How drunk would you have to be to do that and then not remember doing so? ;-)  In the trailer to the current film, we see the stupidest of the characters (played by Zach Galifianis) happily speeding along on the freeway, driving home a giraffe that he had bought from a carnival somewhere ... only to "accidently" knock its head-off as he drove his car/trailer under a bridge (How stupid would you have to be to do that? ;-) ;-) -- It is funny ;-) -- just really, really, really stupid funny ;-)

One can't help but laugh at both of these gags and there are plenty of others just like them in the films.  Indeed, my favorite gag in the first movie was when the characters in the story get into trouble with the police for having _stolen a police car_ the previous night (Again how impossibly drunk would you have to be to not remember stealing a police car? ;-) After much talking/apologizing and noting that actually "no harm was done," the police allow them to go free if they did them "a favor."  What was the favor?  The police had a class of grade-school kids at the Police Station on a field trip and the cops thought it kinda cool to taser the three of them in front of the class as part of a demonstration! ;-)  My gosh, as a 10 year old, I would have found THAT DEMO to be WAY WAY COOL ;-)  And even now, I can't stop laughing just thinking about it ;-).

So as crude as the Hangover films have been, they've honestly been very, very funny showing "regular people" doing unbelievably stupid things.  It allows one say: "I may have done some pretty stupid things in my life, but at least I've never done anything that stupid." And since all of us find ourselves having done some really, really stupid things in the course of our lives, being reminded that we could still have been stupider can be a relief ;-)

Fast and Furious 6 [2013]

MPAA (PG-13) (2 Stars)  AVClub (B)

IMDb listing (S. Boone) review
AVClub review

Fast and Furious 6 [2013] (directed by Justin Lin, screenplay by Chris Morgan, characters by Gary Scott Thompson) is the other blockbuster film released this weekend that I nonetheless couldn't get myself to spend the money or effort to see.  However, like the latest Hangover installment that I discussed above, my inability to get up and go see the film does not mean that it is necessarily bad.  Indeed, the whole Fast and Furious franchise is "geared" ;-) torward teens and perhaps even pre-teens and is a celebration of raw, thundering, leave half the tires on the pavement behind you, wheel screeching/supercharged POWER. (And that in itself is not necessarily bad, as a celebration of POWER can be actually a celebration of BEING ALIVE, of having THE POWER TO ACT).

And I get why that would be attractive to teenagers/young adults really of both sexes.  For guys there's something really really cool to be driving a thundering, smoke/fire breathing MONSTER that's already SHAKING IN IDLE let alone when one puts it in gear.  After all, ballads were written not for MEN who slew "wombats or weasels" but for MEN who slew Bears, Lions and DRAGONS.  No one gains esteem for "taming a chevette."  Yet BRONCO BUSTING and even MECHANICAL "BULL RIDING" with the attendant chaos / danger can be positively inspirational.

Similarly one can smirk at some of the somewhat sexist imagery in these films -- the Chicago Tribune's critic for this film noted that Warner Brothers must have gone through its entire annual budget for "tank tops" in the making of the film ;-) and I understand that criticism as well.  Yet to be kinder and perhaps to understand better what's going on, women are generally more responsible than men _anyway_.  So there's not necessarily a great deal of attractiveness for a young woman to find a similarly (or even more) responsible guy.  Yet the guy who knows how to TAME / CONTROL POWER can be _very attractive_.  So that there would be young women, perhaps a bit more scantily ("attractively") dressed than the average, congregating around events involving men showing-off their skills at taming thundering, fire-breathing mechanical monstrosities actually makes some real primal sense. 

And then add a few women who decide to give it a try at TAMING / CONTROLLING these monstrocities as well, HOW COOL IS THAT? ;-).  For guys watching this, it's akin to "allowing their Jungian animas out to play" and for women doing this, it's their embracing of their own "inner superhero" (Jungian "animus").

So this then would be the set-up for the films of the Fast and Furious franchise and it makes a lot of sense.  And if the plots are kinda flimsy -- in the case of the current film featuring among other things a high speed chase on a freeway WITH A TANK and the bringing down a MILITARY TRANSPORT PLANE taking off on a runway with only a "really fast" indeed super-charged vehicle armed with HARPOONS ;-) -- then let's remember that plot here is really beside the point ;-).

So I get the attraction, but at almost 50, I honestly just can't get myself out to see this one ;-).  But power-on folks, power-on ;-)

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness [2013]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Star Trek Into Darkness [2013] (directed by J.J. Abrams, screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof inspired by the legendary television series [IMDb] by Gene Roddenberry [IMDb]) is a second prequel to the current reboot of that original series.  Hence I have to hand it to the film-makers: They have really found a way to bring back all the characters of the original series (though played by a new set of actors) and yet offer story-lines that are both updated (to contemporary concerns) and fresh/new.

The film-makers do so precisely by making "prequels" to the original series.  Hence we see the characters of the original series when they were younger than in the original.   This offers the current film makers all kinds of possibilities, including, most obviously, the possibility of changing the new series' style.  All the characters are younger, hence their personalities are still somewhat "in flux" (as opposed to who the characters become in the original series that we know and love, that was filmed "way back" in the 1960s).  And since the characters are younger, the pace of the story-telling can also be much, much faster, indeed more frenetic, than it was ("became" ;-) in the original.  If the characters in the original series were all already in their late-20s or even 30s-early 40s (hence "established"/"settled"), in these new films, they are "still young" in their early / mid-20s when their personalities were still "being established."  And understanding this IMHO makes these new films then a lot of fun ;-).

I mean, Spock (played in the new films by Zachary Quinto) being in a relationship (!!) with Uhura (played in the new films by Zoe Saldana, honestly an inspired choice of casting) could ONLY work (and then work surprisingly well ;-) when the two characters were "young" ;-) ;-).  Then Kirk (played in the new films by Chris Pine) is, yes, brash and one can imagine how he would become the Kirk played by William Shatner of the original series, but Pine's Kirk is still, well, young ;-).  Bones McCoy (played in the new films by Karl Urban) is also younger than in the original series but already beginning to take on the mannerisms of the Bones McCoy of the original series: "Dammit Jim, I'm a doctor, not a ...." ;-).  The other new casts Anton Yelchin as Chekov, John Cho as Sulu, Simon Pegg as Scotty are also fun (Yelchin's Chekov is just adorable ;-).  And with this film ENDING with this crew JUST BEGINNING their "five year mission to explore new worlds ..." they could still go 2-3 more movies before they start running into the timeline of the original series, all this boding quite well for the new franchise ... if some of the technical issues (see below) can be resolved.

But let's then get to the film at hand.  Set sometime in the 23rd/24th century (some 200-300 years in our future), the key to this film (the second in the reboot) is actually the second Star Trek movie with the original cast, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan [1982].  The current film riffs repeatedly on the story / themes in the 1982 film.  To give one (and only one) example: Early in the film, Kirk disobeys Star Fleet regulations to save Spock's life a decision which Spock does not understand.  After all the regulations were clear and well thought out and he was more than willing to die for the sake of the good, well thought-out intent of those regulations.  Kirk, on the other hand, just wanted to save the life of a friend even if doing so broke regulations and even if it cost him with Star Fleet (it does ... if temporarily).

That incident partly sets the tone of the film.  The other event helping to set the tone is an apparent terrorist attack in London and followed by another one on Star Fleet HQ in San Francisco itself with the perpetrator escaping to an uninhabited/desert part of the Klingon home planet (that is to a 23th/24th century interstellar Afghanistan or the "tribal region" of Pakistan).  Kirk, who had been demoted following his "violating regulations" in the incident that saved Spock's life, now finds himself in command of the Starship Enterprise anyway, and is tasked by Starfleet to fly to the "neutral zone" between "the Federation" (comprising primarily of Vulcan and Earth and various other allied civiliations) and the Klingon empire and after locating (romotely) the perpetrator of these two terrorist attacks, to fire a single presumably cloaked/stealth photon torpedo (a 23rd/24th century cruise missile) at the perpetrator to simply kill him (a la the U.S.'s drone strikes in Afghanistan/Pakistan in recent years ...).

Well, Kirk and the Enterprise set out on the mission and ... much ensues ... Among what ensues revolves around resolving the question of who exactly is the villain who the Kirk / the Enterprise are being tasked to kill and what would have been the villain's motives for those two "out of the blue" terrorist attacks that he perpetrated against Earth / Star Fleet, all making fodder for a rather good film ...

Now regarding technical matters (which are not necessarily all that good) ... Much has been written about the frenetic pace of the new Star Trek films.  Yet, once one understands that the characters in the reboot are all "young," I do believe that the faster pacing becomes appropriate.  I have bigger questions with the 3D which frankly I found to be quite lousy and then honestly with aspects of the ending.

At the end of the film, Kirk is heard waxing eloquently at a 9/11 style commemoration "of all the events that took place in the previous year," happily proclaiming at the end that the Starship Enterprise, which had been almost destroyed during the course of the film (it's almost always destroyed in the course of any given Star Trek film...) was about to be recommissioned.  Given all that we see happen in those events being "commemorated,"  I do believe many inhabitants of 23rd/24th century Earth would find Kirk to be something of an idiot: "Yippie, your ship's about to be recommissioned, BUT ..." (On the other hand between the Present and the 23rd/24th century in which the Star Trek series is to take place, Star Trek's original story assumes that the Earth would have been rocked by at least one or two nuclear wars.  So perhaps the inhabitants of Earth of the 23rd/24th century would be more accustomed to "mega-disasters" than perhaps we would be today... Still, I found Kirk's speech at that commemoration to be uncharacteristically tone deaf).

All in all when the film focuses on the characters, it is quite good.  However, next time, I do wish that either the film-makers really go "all in" on the 3D and make it good (the current film was one of those that was "converted to 3D" after the fact) or just keep it 2D.   The clunkiness of the film's 3D was disappointing and then when one realizes that one's PAYING EXTRA for this effect really quite maddening.  I only saw the 3D version because of time constraints.  Even going into the film, I would have preferred seeing the 2D version. And after seeing the rather clunky 3D version, I was really quite irritated for having been forced into seeing it in 3D.  As as result, while I'd give the film 3 stars for the sake of the characters / story, from a technical point of view the film really deserves only 2 or 2 1/2.

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Love is all You Need (orig. Den skaldede frisør) [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (B. Sharkey) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review 

Love is all You Need (orig. Den skaldede frisør) [2012] (directed by Susanne Bier, screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, story by the two together) is a Danish (English-subtitled) at times appropriately R-rated romantic-comedy that's passing through the United States currently (May 2013).  In good part, the film's made it to the States because it co-stars former "James Bond" actor Pierce Brosnan.  However, since the film's also oriented at least as much toward middle-aged/older viewers as toward the young it offers American viewers possibly something "new" or at least "unexpected" in the realm of romantic comedy.  Finally, its orientation toward middle-aged/older viewers, probably helps explain why the film was released here for Mothers' Day weekend.

For my part, this is the second rather surprising (and honestly surprisingly entertaining) Danish comedy that I've seen in recent months, the first being Superclásico [2011] that played at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center's 2013 European Union Film Festival in March (honestly, comedies from Denmark?  Who would have guessed? ;-)  And yet the director Susanne Bier is no novice.  Her film In a Better World [2010] won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011 and her film After the Wedding [2006] was nominated for an Oscar as well.

Now the film comes from Europe, indeed Scandinavia, where at least by reputation much of traditional personal morality has "gone out the window."  And this film does certainly does push a number of potential buttons in this area.  So I don't approach this review with the intent to give the film an uncritical pass (and as a Catholic priest, after all, I really can't ;-)

However, I do intend to approach my review (as I've done throughout the whole history of this blog) in the spirit of the optimism/dialogue that I was taught in the Seminary at my Order's International College in Rome.  Specifically, I was taught in our hermeneutics class that we should be able to dialogue with ANYBODY and be able to discuss ANY TEXT (even Mein Kampf we were told :-).  OF COURSE, this by no means to imply that we have to agree with anything (much less with everything) in a given text or that we have to agree with the views of Nazis or Communists or "anything goes" hedonists, etc.

But we were taught that truly _any_ "text" could serve as a "teaching moment" (even Mein Kampf could offer an opportunity to talk about our fundamental values.  Are we in this world as brothers and sisters to each other? Or do see ourselves primarily as members of "competing tribes?" And even within those tribes do see some as fundamentally superior to others?  As I write this, I find interestingly enough Hitler's book's title "Mein Kampf" to be profoundly egotistical.  Honestly who should care if the book outlined Hitler's "struggle"/"aspirations" (other than it/they proved murderously toxic to millions of people)?  We share this world with billions of other people, each of whom have their own aspirations as well...

The tone here may come as a surprise to some Anglophone readers, both Catholic and non, but this really was the generally optimistic tone of our instruction at our International college in Rome, where we were taught largely by cheerful and definitely well-read Italian theology professors, many of whom also worked in various ways directly for the Vatican whose approach toward theology was largely informed from the experience of living "in the center" (Rome) a city that at least one of those professors happily reminded us students has been visited by people from all over the known world for at least 2500 years and a city that's been threatened and at times even sacked by all kinds of invaders / barbarians over the millenia (from Hannibal to Hitler, from the Vandals to the Nazis ...).  And yet both Rome (and its Church...) have proven despite all kinds of predictions to the contrary (by all kinds of people, long since gone) to be Eternal.

So there's an optimism that comes from the Church in Italy that may not be as apparent "in the Provinces," an optimism that does not necessarily fear "romantic comedies" even if they don't necessarily follow (or even want to follow) "traditional Church teaching."

The job of someone like me is reviewing a film from a Catholic perspective is to point out some of the issues at hand (and why in fact they would be issues) even as one also acknowledges the film's positive points that could be surprising and/or even edifying. 

Indeed, imagine where we would be today if St. Augustine of Canterbury in the early 600s would have gotten all upset at the still pagan Anglo Saxons he was sent to evangelize for "stupidly making fetishes of trees by bringing them into their houses during the winter time."  Instead, he looked at the trees, remembered that trees show-up at various times in the Bible, blessed them and ... today throughout most of the English speaking world, and indeed throughout most of Europe, we celebrate Christmas, how?  In part by decorating Christmas trees in our homes.  Thus in all times, we can choose to bless things that are good or even simply cute / neutral.  No one requires us to approach religion with the attitude of the Puritans or the Taliban ...

So then, with this rather long introduction (I wrote out the long introduction because I am actually approaching a film that comes from a rather distant culture and one that since the wars of the Reformation may not see itself as having much in common with the Catholic Church long since broken away from.  And yet, here we are in this ever more globalizing world finding running into each other and watching each others' films (and other cultural products) and hopefully over time learning from one another ;-) ... So let's get then to the movie:

The film is built around a wedding.  Patrick (played by Sebastian Jessen) and Astrid (played by Molly Blixt Egelind) both young Danes in their early 20s, though Patrick has a British father named Philip (played by said Pierce Brosnan) met somewhere in Europe and after a whirlwind romance (of actually only 3 months) have decided to get married ... at a house, actually a lovely (and perhaps symbolically) "lemon orchard" owned by Patrick's family standing at a lovely spot by the sea somewhere outside of Naples, Italy.  (Part of the subtext of this film is clearly the mixing of the different peoples of Europe as a result of the EU and the experience of this mixing -- here Danes, Englishmen and Italians -- to be actually largely, or at least often, very positive.  The collaboration between various EU countries  in countless film projects -- actors from two or three countries playing in a story set in a fourth with funding of the film coming from a fifth and/or a sixth  -- appears commonplace today and played-out repeatedly in the above mentioned EU Film Festival that played here in Chicago a few months ago).

Philip, Patrick's dad, had indeed worked much of his life "with lemons."  At the time of the film, Philip ran a fruit and vegetable distribution firm out of Copenhagen, but we're told that he "started with lemons."  And if Philip came across at least initially in the story as being "rather sour" ;-), it was the result of the "lemons" that life had given him.  The big tragedy of his life was that he lost his Danish wife (Patrick's mother) when Patrick was young to a completely random auto accident.  From the time that Patrick's wife had died in that tragic accident to the present, we're told that neither Philip nor Patrick had returned to that lemon orchard where Philip had actually presumably started his business.  And yet Philip buried himself in his work and had made it thrive (in a sense "turning lemons into lemonade ...") even if he remained at least at the start of the film a largely terribly "sour" person to work for (or to live with ...).

Astrid's parents, Ida (played by Trine Dyrholm) and Lief (played by Kim Bodnia), and especially Ida, had their own story.  At the beginning of the film, we see Ida at her oncologist receiving word that her bout with breast cancer appears to have ended, at least for the moment, successfully.  Her cancer appeared to have gone into remission.

But the cost of the bout had also been great.  Ida had to go through a partial mastectomy and the chemo had left her at least temporary without her hair something that could not have been easy for her as we soon find that she was hairdresser by trade.  Further, we soon find that she's been betrayed by her husband.

When Ida comes home early from the doctor's office with a bottle of wine to celebrate the good news that she's (at least for the moment) cancer free and thus free to go without worry to their daughter's wedding, she finds Lief carrying-on with Thilde (played by Christiane Schaumburg-Müller), a young blonde accountant from Lief's place of employment, on the couch in the living room.  Embarrassed, Thilde runs to the bathroom to put her skirt back on, while Ida demands from Lief: "What the...?  Who the heck is she?"  "She's Thilde from accounting."  "I'm here dying of cancer and you're screwing some bimbo named Thilde 'from accounting' on the couch that my mother gave us when we got married?"  "Your mother didn't give us the couch for our wedding."  "That's beside the point!  Now get out, both of you!"  So Ida's left opening the bottle of wine to drink for her health.... by herself.

This then is the set-up of the story.  And yes some of it is cheap.  Lief's flagrant/stupid infidelity becomes the film-makers' excuse for setting things up for Philip and Ida to get together.  And there is more.  Remember the two young lovebirds, Patrick and Astrid, really knew each other for a only very short period of time -- three months.  So there is some unresolved, indeed as yet undiscovered business that needs to be dealt with, notably that while Patrick is honestly a REALLY NICE GUY, as the wedding approaches, both he and Astrid realize that something is wrong ... that indeed, honestly _nice_ though he is, and honestly wishing to be both a good son and soon a good husband ... he's also gay.  Now how's that as a challenge for a Catholic priest setting out to write a review of the film? ;-)

Well returning to my experience in "my day job" (as a Catholic Priest in a parish here in Chicago), it turns out that in the course of the six month or so Catholic marriage preparation program prescribed to us by the Archdiocese, the question that Astrid and Patrick find themselves having to deal with at the last minute, just days before their wedding, comes up twice:

The first time it comes up is in the initial interview, where I as the priest would take down the basic information of the couple seeking to get married (and yes, I'm positive that there will be those reading here that would be laughing at me and the Chruch for there being a marriage prep process at all ... But look one of the main things that we priests do in the marriage prep process is to ensure that the couple is, indeed, free to marry and then knows what the heck it is getting into...) I'm required to ask each of the two seeking to get married the following questions: (1) Have you been married before (either in church, civilly or by common law? (2) Are there any canonical impediments to your marriage (age, sacred orders, public perpetual vow of chastity, crime, public propriety, or impotence)? (3) Do you understand the nature and obligations of marriage and do you agree, without any condition or reservation: (a) to enter into a marriage that is for life, (b) to give your spouse the right to have children, (c) accept the obligation of being faithful to your spouse, (d) to give your consent freely and without force of any kind?

Now I've always found the question regarding impotence to be kinda funny.  After all, as I tell the couples (and always with a smile): "If you're good Catholics and entering into marriage for the first time, how would you know?" :-) But given that we've been at war for the last ten years (with tens of thousands of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with all kinds of injuries...) and there are all kinds of (for instance) young cancer survivors who as part of their treatment may have lost their ability to have children, the question is an honest one.  And if one knows that one can't have children, then this is something that the other person entering into marriage has a right to know.

The second time the matter in question (of whether one or the other of the partners is actually gay) comes up is during the couple's taking of the FOCCUS exam (a questionnaire involving about a 150 brief statements to which each of the two preparing for marriage answer with responses of (a) agree, (b) disagree, (c) uncertain), with the question: "I'm concerned that my future spouse may have homosexual feelings."

Normally, the FOCCUS exam is taken near the beginning of the marriage prep process, so the couple has close to six months to "figure things out."  And yes, I have known couples of my generation (not so much of the younger generation) where after 10-15 years of marriage, one or the other came out as gay to the bewilderment (and at least at some level betrayal) of the spouse who was straight.  (Note also that after taking the FOCCUS exam, regardless of whatever it may indicate, we always tell the couple that they remain free to marry.  It may come out that the groom wants to live with his mother forever, the couple has no mutual friends, and as a couple they do _only_ what one or the other partner wants them to do ... if the couple still wants to get married, we as Church are NOT standing in their way.  However, since marriage in the Catholic Church is a life-long commitment, it behooves the wife-to-be to know that "ma's" gonna be living with them until she dies and the husband-to-be to know that "having a single beer or playing basketball with friends after work once in a while" is gonna be a life long source of conflict prior to entering into the marriage).

Anyway all this is to say that Patrick and Astrid's problem in the film is a real one and that the Catholic Church which does take marriage preparation seriously thus requiring that the process be reasonably slow and deliberate, could have helped these two discern the problem before it came to a head right before their wedding.  

And indeed, the Catholic Church does require the six month marriage prep process because in the Catholic Church, marriage is for life and not simply until one or the other gets disappointed and/or "someone better comes along."  Hello Lief and later Ida ... who provide the other drama playing out in the story. 

Now I have long understood that romantic comedies have a certain "Wouldn't it be nice?" daydream quality to them and I appreciate that there's a certain irony/justice in this film with Ida finding the dashing (and rich ...) Philip after balding and pudgy Lief betrays her for his young, "cute" and giggling accountant Thilde.  ("That slut!" Astrid calls her.  "Stop calling your dad's girlfriend a slut," Ida actually, if half-heartedly, defends her. "Oh come on mom, she's exactly for whom the word 'slut' was invented for!" Astrid responds in one of the funnier dialogues in the film ;-).  I get it, and I'm sure that pretty much everyone seeing the movie gets it.  Yet, the reality is that there are a lot more balding/out of shape Liefs in their late 40s-50s out there than "007 quality" Pierce Brosnans running around ... Still, I understand the occasional daydream: "Wouldn't it be nice?" ;-)

So all in all the film's, above all, a diversion ... and yet it has its definitely poignant moments like when Astrid and Patrick realize that really shouldn't get married (even if it involves the embarrassment of announcing this to their assembled guests) and when Philip (and the audience) see the bald, big chunk missing out of her breast Ida coming out of the sea one time after taking a swim no doubt trying to find some peace to "process it all."

Those two scenes IMHO more than justify the making of (and going-out to see) the film.  Obviously, the film deserves an R-rating.  However for families dealing with breast cancer or even dealing with the simpler transition of "the kids leaving home (and what now?)," I think the film is quite good.

Finally, I have to say that I did enjoy the film, and (who would have guessed...) having seen two very good Danish comedies in the last few months, the next time another one comes by, I'll probably go see it as well ;-).  There is a neat gentleness to the humor present.  Good job ;-)

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Aquí y Allá [2012]

MPAA (NR would be PG-13)  Richard Roeper (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Richard Roeper's review

Aquí y Allá [2012] (written and directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza), one of many similar films that I've reviewed here over the years that was initially supported by Robert Redford's remarkable Sundance Institute (website), is a quiet yet poignant family drama (English subtitled) that has received world-wide critical acclaim, winning awards in 2012 from Cannes to Mumbai and a lot of film festivals in between.  I saw it recently at Facets Multimedia here in Chicago.  

The film is about a humble family living in a mountain village nicknamed "Copa" nestled in the mountains of Guerrero near the larger bustling though still provincial town of Tlapa.  (By sheer luck, I actually know something of the region where this film was made as the Mexican Province of my religious Order, the Friar Servants of Mary operates a Mission in the nearby town of Acatepec, a mission that I've visited three times, including once taking a small group of Parishioners from Chicago there.  As such, I can attest to the authenticity of the portrayal of the family in the film, its way of life, the sounds and music of the region, and even the modes of transportation shown - sitting or standing in the back of open air pickup trucks or vans converted to serve as part of a regular mountain bus/taxi service to/from the remote mountain villages of the region).

The film begins with Pedro (played by Pedro de los Santos), the father, returning to Copa after having worked for sometime "por allá" (over there) / "por otro lado" (on the other side), that is, in the United States.

The reunion is initially rather tentative.  Pedro's wife Tere(sa) (played by Teresa Ramírez Aguirre) is happy to have him home, but his two daughters, 12-13 year old Lore(na) (played by Lorena Guadalupe Pantaleón Vázquez) and 7-8 year old Heidi (played by Heidi Laura Solano Espinoza) are initially standoffish, particularly the older one.  After all, dad's been away for some time... 

After a somewhat uncomfortable silence, the older daughter, Lore, smiles a smile that most parents wouldn't particularly like ... and asks papí (dad) "What's in the bag?" ("Are you bringing us 'stuff'?").  Somewhat embarrassed, Pedro opens the bag to reveal a somewhat beat-up (working but definitely not new) electric keyboard, promising (rather quickly...) that he'll teach the girls how to play (if they want to learn...).  But it's clear that he had bought that keyboard (and brought it down to Mexico) primarily for himself...

But ... Pedro did come back with a fair amount of much needed cash that the family needed to keep itself "areglada" (in order).  And it becomes clear that even that keyboard wasn't a completely selfish purchase.  Pedro was something of a musician and he did come back to Guerrero with a dream of (finally) putting together a ranchera band with some of his relatives and friends.  So Part I of the movie is still entitled "Aquí y Allá" because Pedro was just coming back from the United States and re-entering into the world of his birth and of his family.

Part II of the movie is entitled "Aquí" as he settles in, re-establishes his relationships with his wife and daughters, starts working (as one works in the mountains of Guerrero ... odd jobs).  One sees him traveling quite a bit in the back of those open-aired converted pick-up truck-buses working construction here, helping with the (corn) harvest there, "getting the band together" (and buying odd ends ... chords, miscellaneous parts, etc for that) and also having family time with his wife and now more happily/sincerely smiling daughters as well.

Soon Tere(sa)'s pregnant again and viewers get to appreciate what it's like to undergo a delivery that's not altogether "without its problems" out in the mountains of Guerrero and what that means for the family.  Both mother and third daughter survive, but Pedro has to find 8 donors of blood or pay the hospital 480 pesos (about $48 US) per donor he could not find plus pay for medications, etc.  So a fair amount of the "nest egg" that he came back to Guerrero with goes to pay the medical expenses.

The putting together the band also probably cost somewhat more than he had expected BUT, above all, it proved much harder to find paying "gigs" than he had anticipated...

Finally, his older daughter Lore(na)'s emerging boyfriend (remember, she's now about 14 and he's about 15) asks Pedro for some (monetary) help to get "to the other side."

At this point the film enters Part III - "Mirando al Orizonte" "Looking toward the Horizon."  Why should Pedro have helped his oldest daughter's emerging boyfriend?  Pedro even tells him: "I honestly don't have a lot of money."  But he helps him probably out of a sense of solidarity with those from his region.  The boy tells him that he's grown up largely an orphan raised by an elderly aunt.  (Pedro even visits the aunt after the boy leaves to head up north).  So Pedro makes a few phone calls (using again a public phone, etc) to help him and probably, in the end, gives him some of his left-over money.

In the end, Part IV begins with Pedro himself telling his wife and daughters that he's going to have to up North (go "por Allá") again.  His wife tells reminds of what the cost will probably be with regards to his, now three, girls: The youngest one, the baby absolutely adores him (and will miss him terribly when he goes) and the oldest one is probably not going to speak to him for a long time.  Finally, Tere adds, in a nice (no anger overt expressed) but clear voice: "And what about me?" 

This is a really, really nice (and often heart rending) film about what rural Mexican families go through when their men go "por allá" (here to the States) to find work ...

And the film definitely deserves the praise that it's received.


A number of years ago, I was part of a group of Friars asked by my Provincial leadership to prepare a presentation about the question of Immigration for our Provincial Chapter.  As part of the presentation, I subtitled two quite famous Latino songs about the theme.  Here are are the links:

Los Tigres del Norte (the Tigers of the North): "Tres Veces Mojado" ("Three times a Wetback" ;-)

José Feliciano: "¿Que Será? (What will be?)"

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Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby [2013]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Richard Roeper (3 1/2 Stars)  Michael Phillips (2 1/2 Stars) AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoSunTimes (R.Roeper) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
AV Club (B. Keninsberg) review

The very first thing I must say about The Great Gatsby [2013] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Baz Luhrman along with Craig Pearce based, of course, on the celebrated novel [Amzn] by F. Scott Fitzgerald [IMDb]) is that if the Academy does not give Leonardo DiCaprio the Oscar for his performance in the film's lead/title role as Jay Gatsby [IMDb] then they should line-up all the members of the Academy, every last one of them, and just shoot them all.

The scene in which Gatsby [IMDb] (played by DiCaprio) finally meets after many years the love around whom he had built his whole life, the charming if flighty upper-class Daisy Buchanan [IMDb] (played again perfectly here by Carey Mulligan) has got to be one of the most heartbreakingly insightful moments in film that I've ever seen.  For in that scene, and really throughout the film, DiCaprio (talented, capable, and yes as good-looking as he is) captured the talent, capability, "dashing-ness" and yet fundamental INSECURITY of Jay Gatsby DEAD ON:

For here was a former "nobody," the former Jay Gatz, who literally grew-up "dirt poor" as a "farm boy" somewhere Minnesota/Dakota-way ... who had "pulled himself up by his own bootstraps" to absolutely stratospheric heights becoming the RICH, CULTURED, POPULAR, indeed the GREAT Gatsby and NOW, AT THIS MOMENT he was putting it ALL ON THE LINE ... for a young woman who he had met (and fell in love with) FIVE YEARS PAST, who was then "way, way out of his league" ... and yet NOW, perhaps, MAYBE, FINALLY ... WHAT A SCENE !!! ;-) ;-)  

And I do believe that honestly NOBODY could play THAT SCENE as well as DiCaprio did.  Robert Redford tried in Francis Ford Copolla's version of The Great Gatsby [1974].  But while Redford certainly has had a storied career (one thinks of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969], The Sting [1973], All the President's Men [1976] and then all that he's done off-screen for cinema, especially for independent cinema, with his establishment of the Sundance Institute/annual Sundance Film Festival) and while Redford seemed absolutely destined to play THE NATURAL [1984], playing Jay Gatsby really wasn't Redford's role/destiny to play in the way that it was DiCaprio's.  Think of DiCaprio's roles in Romeo + Juliet [1996], The Titanic [1997], even The Aviator [2004], Inception [2010] and J. Edgar [2011].  DiCaprio has proven capable of playing not merely a "pretty (or blessed) boy" but a tragically flawed even doomed hero.  And my friends GATSBY is the tragic/doomed hero in spades.

But then, let's get to the movie ...   As in the novel, the story is told through the perspective of Nick Carraway [IMDb] (again excellently cast and played by Tobey Maguire).  We're informed that at the time at which the story that he's recalling was taking place (in the early 1920s), he had been a recent arrival to New York, having taken-on a Wall Street job as a bond salesman.  (And yet he harbored some lingering ambitions of one day writing a novel...).

At the beginning of the story it was summer and as one working on Wall Street in the early 1920s, he rented a small cottage for the weekends along the shore somewhere midway up Long Island in a hamlet called West Egg.  Aside from the smallness of his cottage, West Egg suited him fine as it was largely inhabited by people like him, that is, others who had recently acquired the means to rent a place to escape the summer heat of New York if only for a short vacation or on weekends.  There was also an East Egg, across the bay from West Egg, that was more established and, more to the point, where the "old money" summered.

Nick had a somewhat distant relation (a second cousin once removed) his same age named Daisy Buchanan [IMDb] (played in the current movie by Carey Mulligan and in Copolla's 1974 version by Mia Farrow).  Both were originally from Kentucky though Daisy was from a wealthier side of the family.  Nick had stayed on in New York after having returned from Europe following World War I.  Daisy came to New York after marrying Tom Buchanan [IMDb] (played in the current film by Joel Edgerton) a young mustached and moneyed man from a long established/wealthy family (hence the estate on the shore in East Egg...).  Tom's also something of a filanderer carrying on an affair with a woman named Myrtle Wilson [IMDb] (played by Isla Fisher) married to an auto-mechanic and lives, quite conveniently, in a small dirty roadside stop about midway between New York City and playgrounds of East and West Egg where those with better means would spend their weekends during the summer.  Tom actually introduces Nick to Myrtle and a friend of hers early-on in the story, apparently utterly unconcerned that Nick's actually a relation, distant though it may be, to his wife ...

Near the beginning of the tale, Nick pays a visit to his wealthier relation Daisy in East Egg.  During his time there, conversation turns to Nick's somewhat mysterious but clearly very wealthy neighbor named Gatsby.  Now West Egg was where the "up and comers" lived.  The Old Wealth summered in East Egg.  Yet, Gatsby's apparently recently-made wealth (his estate seemed at least as big as that of the Buchanans, the two estates facing each other if separated by the now famous bay) and his quite extravagant parties had become the talk of the whole region (even Myrtle and her friend mentioned above knew of him and his parties, as did certainly the folks of East Egg...).  So Nick was asked about this Gatsby, who was he?  Nick answered truthfully that he didn't know except that he was actually a neighbor of his.  So the conversation continued the way that conversations often go in the absence of facts ... speculating on how he could have amassed all his apparently new-found money: "I heard that he had been a German spy." "No I heard he's a rum runner..."

Some days later, back in his small cottage in West Egg but next to the very large estate of Gatsby's, Nick finds himself receiving an invitation to Gatsby's next party.  When he arrives, he finds that Gatsby's home/estate is filled with all kinds of partiers, most of whom don't have the faintest idea of who Gatsby actually was, just that "there's a party going on at his place" and so there they were.  In the midst of this (Prohibition Era) booze flowing, jazz blasting, Charleston swinging party, Nick is surprised that the mysterious Gatsby actually searches him out and makes his acquaintance to him.

Now why would The Great Gatsby do that, be so interested in him, little ole Nick, a meager bond salesman from New York, with the smallest cottage in both the Eggs?

This is where the story really begins and when we find out that Gatsby, whoever he may be, seems to have met Daisy, Nick's distant cousin, some five years back.  His encounter with her back then, while they both still lived in the Midwest (but her station being much, much higher than his ...) had motivated him to create the world that he's since amassed around him since (the wealth, the erudition, the many, many medals of valor that he received during the Great War that he fought valiantly in afterwards) so that he could become worthy of her interest in him.  Wonderful, 'cept it's been five years (!!) AND NOW SHE'S MARRIED (yes, to a dirt bag, but to a wealthy old moneyed/established family dirt bag, and, yes, honestly, married nonetheless).
The rest of this terribly sad story ensues ... and it remains my opinion that honestly no one in Hollywood today could play Gatsby's role BETTER than Leonardo DiCaprio.  As the song goes: "Nobody [could do] it better..."

Okay, now some technical thoughts about the current film, directed and screenplay cowritten by Baz Luhrman along with Craig Pearce:

The two previously collaborated on two very visually extravagant films: Romeo + Juliet [1996] (which actually co-starred a younger Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role of Romeo) and Moulon Rouge! [2001].  Hence, it doesn't surprise me that the two would choose to be visually extravagant with this film as well especially since this would "move the ball forward"/"do something new" with regards to Fitzgerald's story from where Francis Ford Copolla had left it in 1974.  One could say that Copolla's 1974 version was "quite good" if also "kinda boring" perhaps because even in the 1970s it probably felt "kinda dated."  In any case, Copolla's version didn't seem to cut the way Fitzgerald's original novel did.  So enter Luhrman/Pearce who did choose to go "full in" visually.  And in our time, "full in" means 3D.

Now those who read my blog regularly know that I generally despise 3D, considering it to be largely a ticket-price-gauging gimmick and hence generally avoid 3D versions of films.  However, knowing both Fitzgerald's story and the reputation of the two film-makers making this movie, I made the exception here because it was clear to me that the two made this film with the definite intention that it be viewed that way.  And having seen the product now, I would DEFINITELY recommend to viewers that they spend the extra $4-5 to see the film as it was intended by Luhrman/Pearce in 3D.

Interestingly enough, I found that the film-makers' use of the 3D-effect DID NOT make the film appear "more realistic."  Indeed particularly near the beginning of the film, I found that the 3D effect made it seem as though the story was playing-out on/in a series of very, very elaborate "toy sets" or "doll houses."

However, I soon came to LIKE the effect because the "hyper-reality" of the sets, of the parties, etc served to remind me that what I was experiencing was the presentation of a very precisely structured yet ELEGANT / EVOCATIVE STORY.   A novel is, after all, a work of fiction, that is not real or un-realFitzgerald's novel was also always revered for both its crispness and its evocative elegance.  I would argue that the "hyper-reality" of some of the scenes in this film actually help express the crispness and even the elegance of Fitzgerald's original work.  The use of "hyper-reality" or otherwise stylization can serve as visual "shorthand" evoking more than just the image/action at hand.

Another stylistic means by which the current film-makers paid homage to Fitzgerald's original literary work was to use the device of having Nick, the story's narrator, recall the story "of the Great Gatsby" as he's trying to set it down on paper.  Hence we periodically see Nick writing, with letters and words  materializing "out of thin air" before us (above him, beside him, below him) coalescing then together into some of the more memorable phrases and sentences of what became Fitzgerald's work.   The effect -- in 3D -- is at times truly magical.

Finally, I do realize that there will be those who will object to the "hyper-visual" style of this film.  To them, honestly, I'd say: "Don't go, content yourselves with the novel."  However, cinema is a VISUAL medium and readers of my blog will know that I consistently favor and reward films that seek to express themselves well  VISUALLY indeed films that push the boundaries of what's possible in doing so.  Otherwise, I honestly don't see the point of making a movie.  One could (like Fitzgerald did) write a book, or perhaps make an audio recording.  But if one wants to make a FILM then I do believe it's important to make it VISUALLY INTERESTING.

Hence I can only applaud this film and I would encourage detractors of the current version to compare it to Copolla's 1974 version (available on Amazon Instant Video).  Copolla's was again quite good (and perhaps even lavish for its time) but IMHO the current film is a step forward and hence, in our time, better.

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