Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Saving Mr. Banks [2013] (directed by John Lee Hancock, screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) tells the story of the struggle of legendary Hollywood Studio / Theme Park owner Walt Disney [IMDb-1] [IMDb-2] (played magnificently in the film by Tom Hanks) to attain the rights to make what became the celebrated Disney musical Mary Poppins [1964] from P.L. Travers (again played in the film to Oscar worthy heights by Emma Thompson), the prickly Australian born, since London, England residing author of the original Mary Poppins children's books

Clearly, it was not easy for Walt get those rights from Ms. Travers ;-).  And clearly there was a story as to why it was so hard for Ms. Travers to "let go" of this her story.  And as is the case of many children's book authors, the inspiration for their later children's book came from their experiences (and their sufferings) during their own childhoods.

So then this film really tells two stories:

The first was the story of the writer P.L. Travers causing Walt Disney and his crew of very talented writers including Don DaGrady (played in the film by Bradley Whitford), and Robert and Richard Sherman (played by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) all kinds of problems as they tried to come up with a script that was both marketable and acceptable to her often seemingly incomprehensible demands: NO RED at all (!) in the film, NO facial hair on Mr. Banks, NO pears, NO animation, NO since legendary Dick Van Dyke [IMDb] ... ;-). 

The second was that of the little girl Ginty Goff (played magnificently by Annie Rose Buckley) growing-up in rural Australia, the daughter of Travers Goff (played again magnificently by Colin Farrell), a small town banker _and_ an alcoholic who eventually died of tuberculosis, and her mother Margaret Goff (played by Ruth Wilson) who was beside-herself, not knowing what to do about her on one hand fun-loving, on the other hand ever drinking (and when he got too drunk, making-a-fool-of-himself) husband.  When things got really difficult, that's when Margaret called in Aunt Ellie (played by Rachel Griffith) to come-in as a de-facto nanny ...

Presented here are then the elements of a very nice, if at times very sad, intertwining story reminding us all that when people act strangely, there's often enough a story behind that strangeness.

Not necessarily for really little kids, the film would certainly be a nice one from preteens and teenagers particularly ones with relatives who at times may seem rather odd. 

Good job Disney, Good job!

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoSuntimes (3 Stars)  RE.com (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Cape Times (K. Aftab) review  coverage
Johannesburg Mail & Guardian (S. De Waal) review  coverage
The Sowetan (SAPA) review  coverage

The Nairobi Standard  review  coverage
The Jamaica Gleaner  coverage
The Times of India  coverage
The Guardian (U.K.) (H. Barnes) review

CNS/USCCB (J. McCarthy) review
ChicagoSunTimes (R. Roeper) review
RE.com (S. Abrams) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom [2013] (directed by Justin Chadwick, screenplay by William Nicholson, based on South African freedom fighter / South Africa's 1st post-Apartheid President Nelson Mandela's own autobiography by the same name) is one of several momentous biopics released this year.  Others reviewed here include Jobs [2013] and Walesa: Man of Hope [2013].

As I've written in my reviews of the other two biopics, these are films that are often hard to difficult to make honestly.  Often films made about "Great Leaders" become either fawning works of adulation or hatchet jobs depending on persuasions of the film-makers regarding their subjects.  (And if one is honest, reviews of such films depend largely on the persuasions of the reviewers regarding the persons in question as well ;-).  Still, if a "Great Leader" biopic is done right, the viewer is given an insight into _why_ the particular Leader proved "Great"/truly Great.  I don't want to either repeat or add to the reviews that I wrote about the other two "great" / great men about whom significant and often insightful biopics were made this year.  Instead I wish to refer readers to the reviews that I wrote of those two films and continue here with consideration of the current film.

So how does the current biopic on Nelson Mandela (with Idris Elba playing the title role) fare?  Well, as I already noted above and in my previous reviews, a credible "Great Leader" biopic can no longer portray said GL as simply "a living saint."  An added twist to the portrayal of Nelson Mandela here is that the source material is his own autobiography.  So there is a certain (and appropriate) Confessional (as in St. Augustine's Confessions) quality to the presentation of Mandela's life here:

He's portrayed early in life as a womanizer, as being at minimum emotionally abusive to his first wife Evelyn Mase-Mandela (played in the film by Terry Pheto) and in any case an adulterer to her, and finally rather dismissive (at least at this stage of his life) of Christian religion/morality (Note here that in addition to having to deal with the reality that Christian religion was often being used by whites of the time to justify somehow their views of "white superiority" (both tragic and stupid since neither Jesus nor any of his Apostles nor the overwhelming majority of his early disciples were white...) Evelyn herself was apparently a Jehovah's Witness, that is, a member of a Protestant sect that is rarely particularly easy to reason with...). 

We are also presented with Mandela's own reasoning (rather than that of propagandists on either side) of why in the aftermath of the 1960 Sharpesville Massacre, as leader of the African National Congress already for some time, he made the momentous if ever controversial decision to set-aside the ANC's previous non-violent tactics and instead embrace a strategy that included a campaign of sabotage to bring pressure on the South African apartheid-era government to accede to the ANC's consistent demand for a nonracial South Africa.  Eventually, of course, Mandela was captured.  Since he had been leading a campaign that now included violence against the State he was convicted of Treason against said State (he and the other ANC  leaders arrested, of course, rejected the authority of a State that denied full-citizenship to the vast majority of its people...) and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Thus Mandela spent the next 18 years (from 1964 to 1982 at South Africa's notorious Robben Island prison.

The film portrays well the personal sufferings that such a lengthy stay in prison entailed.  During his time on Robben Island, his mother and his oldest son died (the latter in a car accident), and was unable to see his two young daughters whom he had with his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (played by Naomie Harris) until they were 16.  His youngest daughter was 3 when he was arrested ... During this time, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a college educated social worker when they first met, herself was arrested, jailed and radicalized against the Apartheid state.

Finally, viewers are given Nelson Mandela's version of events as to why after his final release in 1990 from South African state custody he and his wife during the whole of his imprisonment parted ways:  Winnie had simply become far more radical in her opposition to the white-dominated Apartheid state than he was.  In a sense, Nelson Mandela was given a "devil's choice" with regard to Winnie (and others like her):  He could have chosen to stand by her (and others) _who had stood by him_ while he was in prison even at the cost of _enormous suffering_ on their part (many were killed, many lost loved ones), or FOR THE SAKE OF THE CAUSE for which ALL OF THEM had suffered (for an end to Apartheid), he could make peace with the regime which had oppressed them all.

Basically Nelson's, Winnie's et al's, dilemma became the classic one of Forgiveness.  How can one forgive those who've TRULY HURT YOU, and NOT JUST YOU but ALL KINDS OF PEOPLE, LOVED ONES, AROUND YOU?  Yet it was clear from the film / Mandela's own autobiography that he came to the conclusion that there was NO OTHER WAY FORWARD OTHER THAN FORGIVENESS. In a televised speech near the end of the film, Nelson Mandela is portrayed as telling his supporters that there was simply no other way forward telling his followers that "We can not win a war, but we CAN win an election."  In a sense, NO ONE WOULD WIN with further conflict, but EVERYONE WOULD win with a just peace.

And so it was.  The Whites proved happy to be able to relinquish power PEACEFULLY after convinced that they were not going to be lynched once they did.  And South Africa, with all its problems since, has lived _happily ever after_ ever since.

I noted that the dilemma faced by the Mandelas and the ANC movement as a whole was the classic one of Forgiveness, because while perhaps initially difficult to grasp, Forgiveness has always been seen in the Christian faith as being for the benefit/well-being of all concerned - as much for the one doing the forgiving as the one being forgiven.  Perhaps the situation in South Africa was so stark that the wisdom of forgiving one's enemies was more clearly seen than in more mundane cases.  Nevertheless, Nelson Mandela was certainly right when he came to the conclusion, perhaps during his time in prison, that it's actually easier to Love than to Hate.  For carrying Hate / Resentment becomes an enormous burden.

As such, of all the recent "Great Leader" films that were made, this one about Nelson Mandela becomes the easiest for us regular folks to apply.  For we all have people that we need to make peace with / forgive.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Grudge Match [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars)  RE.com (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (R. Moore) review
RE.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Grudge Match [2013] (directed by Peter Segal, story by and screenplay cowritten by Tim Kelleher along with Rodney Rothman) is an IMHO surprising crude "boxing movie" that brings together two now older actors (sigh ...), Silvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, who both played iconic roles in "boxing movies" early in their careers -- It's hard to imagine talking about Silvester Stallone without remembering him playing (the fictional Philadelphia, PA boxer) Rocky Balboa in the always crowd-pleasing Rocky movie franchise (extending from 1976 to 2006) and Robert De Niro's portrayal of New York born (from the Bronx) Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull [1980] certainly helped to solidify his place as one of the more formidable "tough guy" Hollywood actors (but also with a range) of his generation.

So the current film's promised match-up between these two iconic Hollywood actors in no less a "boxing movie" promised to put smiles on the faces of generations of us, American moviegoers -- those of us who were barely 13 when the first Rocky [1976] came out, our parents who took us to those early Rocky movies, and our own generation's kids who've probably heard "more than a few words of praise" from us about those movies over the years.  And yet, what was surprising to me was the crudity of the current film, noted also by the CNS/USCCB's (U.S. Catholic Bishops' Media office's) review as well.  Was the crudity necessary?  Maybe it was a concession in part to Robert De Niro's presence (after all, his Jake LaMotta / in Raging Bull [1980] was _no_ sweetheart).  But I'm certain that a better screenplay here could have been written, even one containing most and perhaps even all of the film's plot twists and elements.

So what then was this current film about?  Well Grudge Match [2013], was about two fictional world class boxers from the 1970s both from Pittsburgh, PA, one Henry 'Razor' Sharp (played by Silverster Stallone) and the other Billy 'The Kid' McDonnen (played by Robert De Niro), who at the top of their form had fought two fights against each other, each having won one, and then Henry 'Razor' Sharp walked away from a third "rubber" match that would have decided once and for all who was the better of the two.  Why?  Well that becomes a good part of the rest of the movie though it involves a woman (played by Kim Bassinger) and her now approaching 30 year old son (played by Jon Bernthal) with his own son now (played by Camden Grey).  Since the two boxing rivals were from the same town, one can kinda guess what had happened.  Yet, this still is largely a Rocky-like movie, so filmgoers are asked to just go with the flow.  There's enough fodder here for drama even after one has put the pieces more-or-less together.

Okay, 'Razor' had walked away from his boxing career and subsequently had lost most of his money, but he didn't seem to care, just taking a job as a welder at a Pittsburgh foundry just like his dad.  In the meantime, Billy 'The Kid; McDonnen, continued with his boxing career and eventually retired back to Pittsburgh, buying with his winnings a local car-dealership and (of course) a local sports bar.

Now why, after 30 years, would this boxing match ever take place?  Well Billy 'The Kid' had _always_ been up for that third match as his loss to Henry 'The Razor' had been the only blotch on his career and 'The Razor's' walking away from that third match had denied him the opportunity win-or-lose to set the record straight as to who of the two had been the better boxer.  In contrast, Henry 'The Razor' had left the rink in anger and at the beginning of the story had no interest at all in setting any record straight.  He was done with boxing 30 years ago and didn't see any reason at all to take it up now.

'Cept ... one day, Dante Slate, Jr (played by Kevin Hart) playing the son of a flamboyant, Don King-like 1970s-80s era boxing promoter named Dante Slate, Sr (in the story now deceased) arrives at Henry, the Razor's doorstep with the idea of (at least) creating a video game featuring both Billy 'The Kid' McGunnan and Henry 'Razor' Sharp.  And he asks Razor and Billy the Kid (separately, they still don't talk to each other) to come into a local studio (again separately) and dressed in these stupid sensor-covered suits to go through the motions of punching and jabbing and moving about a "blue-screen" boxing rink, all of which would then help the video-game makers make more realistic avatars of the two.

Well, as the advertising trailer to the film already shows, the two end up at the studio at the same time, and since they hate each other, both dressed in those stupid sensor covered suits really go at each other in the "blue-screen" studio.  Well, most of the young people working at that studio have smartphones ;-) So ... this "epic" if very impromptu fight ends up all over YouTube ;-).  Now an actual rematch between the two fighters becomes inevitable...

Initially, Henry 'The Razor' still didn't want to consent to an actual rematch.  However, it turns out that he had his father/mentor (played magnificently by Alan Arkin) in the hospital needing an operation (remember, the film still has its Rocky-like elements ... ;-).  So he finally consents, and much, much ensues.

Again, I LIKED/LOVED the Rocky movies, and I still kinda like this film.  But I do have to say that this film proved cruder than IMHO it needed to be.  Bottom line, the film-makers probably should have let Stallone have more creative control of this film than perhaps the film-makers let him (Stallone had _written_ that first Rocky [1976] movie and was far more involved in the writing of the other Rocky films than apparently he was here).  Now Robert De Niro was the other big actor here and perhaps it would have been impossible to simply let Stallone the shots.  Still, nobody has done a boxing movie in as family friendly fashion as Stallone.  So it's a shame that the film didn't truly bear his mark here.

For his part, De Niro played recently in another, IMHO far better, "ensemble film" named Last Vegas [2013] with a whole bunch of other "older actors of his generation."  So it's clear that he can do a "light movie" with his acting peers.  So it's just a disappointment that this film, IMHO, didn't end up nearly as good as it could have been. 

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Friday, December 27, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars)  RE.com (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

I do believe that any contemporary moralist thinking about writing about American films ought to take a look at a collection of Martin Scorsese's films.  Let's make a list: Taxi Driver [1976], Raging Bull [1980], The Last Temptation of Christ [1988]Goodfellas [1990], Casino [1995].  This is _not_ to give Scorsese (or any other film-maker) a free pass, but it can serve to help the moralist film critic focus his/her thoughts and questions.  It's obvious from this above list that Scorsese prefers _edgy_ material (indeed, his choices would fill-out the definition of what is meant by the often lazy if popular term "edgy").

Now choosing "edgy" material is certainly _not_ in itself bad.  It _can_ reflect a concern for those living at the margins (Taxi Driver [1976] or even The Last Temptation of Christ [1988] where Christ in both Nikos Kazantzakis' book and in Scorsese's film is portrayed through the lens of the Hymn of the Suffering Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) "He had no stately bearing, no beauty to draw us near, he was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, like one from whom you turn your face, spurned and we held him no esteem" (Isaiah 53:2-3) which actually gets proclaimed annually in the Catholic Church as part of its Good Friday Liturgy).  Then Raging Bull [1980], Goodfellas [1990] and Casino [1995] are about rarified, largely inaccessible subcultures -- the world of boxing and then the mob.   

Recognizing this, one could ask Scorsese about (or question, period) the value of glamorizing the lives of "people on the edge" of psychosis like the protagonists of Taxi Driver [1976] and Raging Bull [1980] or the value of arguably glamorizing crime as in Goodfellas [1990] and Casino [1995] or the value of taking-up an approach to Jesus that was certainly going to confuse (and with proper provocation, enrage) a good number of Christian believers.  Of the list of Scorsese's films that I give above, I do believe that the least justifiable one was probably Goodfellas [1990] because I really don't know what it added to society except "another Godfather-like film" and Francis Ford Copolla already did that.  I do think that Casino [1995] added something new to society/culture/humanity as it provided viewers an absolutely devastating primer on how Las Vegas/the modern gambling industry in the United States works and how there's absolutely _no way_ for someone to go to Las Vegas and actually win.

One then could go through Scorsese's films scene by scene and ask if their often searingly graphic imagery was truly necessary: Did it add something substantial to the story or not?  Could the _same message_ be expressed in a less graphic/shocking/controversial way?  I do think that _most_ of Scorsese's cinematography would actually "pass muster" if put to this test BUT that challenging him (and other film-makers of his vein) to justify his/their use/recourse to graphic imagery would make for better films.  

With all this in mind, let's then turn to the film being considered here The Wolf of Wall Street [2013] (directed, of course, by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Terence Winter, based on the "tell all" semi-autobiographical book by Jordan Belfort).

In the spirit of Raging Bull [1980], Goodfellas [1990] and Casino [1995], this film, The Wolf of Wall Street [2013], considers the rarified world (and excesses) of stock-trading, certainly a timely subject since in the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis perhaps 80-90% of the Americans, if given a chance, would probably want to lynch the stock brokers who work on Wall Street, even as, let's be honest, most would envy their life-styles.  Scorsese then plays on this mix of fascination, envy and rage.  And certainly, Leonardo DiCaprio playing the lead role of Jordan Belfort (again, the film's based on Belfort's own "tell all" semi-autographical book) plays his role of a rags-to-riches-to-a-hole (but still with something of a heart) persona to the nines.

I saw this film at a later-night showing filled with young people the vast majority of whom were of the same blue-collar/city-worker socioeconomic class as my parish and watching their reactions to the movie was as fascinating as the movie itself: the simultaneous rage at and admiration of Belfort's lifestyle was palpable.

Afterall, Belfort's shown at the beginning of the film starting as a neophyte stock broker just out of college working for some big Wall Street firm and actually after only a few months on the job, he loses it in the "Black Monday" crash of the late 1980s.  However, learning something from his mentor at that firm (a bit role actually though played magnificently by Matthew McConaughey) about never letting the person that one's selling to say "no," and encouraged then by his first wife "from the old neighborhood sweetheart" Teresa (played by Cristin Milioti) Belfort takes a job in Queens at a "penny stock" firm and never looks back.

Now sure "penny stocks" are nonsense but then he's already learned that many/most of the non-blue chip stocks sold on Wall Street are utterly unpredictable (basically nonsensical) as well.  Soon he begins his own "penny stock" selling business, hiring "the best" salespeople that he knew from his old neighborhood -- Nicky Koskoff aka 'Rugrat' (played by P.J. Byrne), Robbie Feinberg aka 'Pinhead' (played by Brian Sacca), Alden Kupferberg aka 'Sea Otter' (played by Henry Zebrowski), Chester Ming (played by Kenneth Choi) -- most having previously distinguished themselves in mostly "selling weed."  Well, he teaches them how to sell stocks over the phone and the business just goes through the roof.  Along the line he picks up Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill) who was simply stunned that someone, _anyone_ from his neighborhood could possibly be making as much money as Belfort was making.

As business continues to boom, Belfort's first wife eventually challenges him to start selling something other than just "penny stocks" to "suckers" from back-grounds such as theirs.  SO ... he changes the mix ... Since he had been an actual licensed stock-broker, he begins to sell (and soon has his whole company sell) actual "Blue Chips" _along_ with the penny-stocks, but now targeting rich people.  With a now trained (and still hungry) sales-force AGAIN business just rises to a whole new level, to the point that he could move his business to Manhattan and become a still "newcomer" but "basically legit" stock-brokerage firm.  With this, they catch the attention of the venerable Forbes Magazine.  They write a hatchet job about his firm and its debauched greedy lifestyle/culture -- Each week would end with a weekly act of debauchery (hookers, drugs, dwarf tossing, one Friday, they paid one of their secretaries 10-grand to just have her head shaved in front of everybody).  No matter.  Now Belfort has college grads pounding on his door wanting to "get in." 

Now this kind of "we can do anything" arrogance, of course, carries with it inevitable problems.  Every last one of them become drug addicts, Belfort dumps his first wife who arguably helped him get where he was for an (also) clawing-climbing Brooklyn model named Naomi (played by Margot Robbie).  And finally, their loudness brings in the Feds lead by (also) Brooklyn residing F.B.I. agent Patrick Denhem (played magnificently by Kyle Chandler).  Initially, Belfort thinks that he could just buy him off, inviting him to his GIGANTIC YACHT which he brags to Agent Denhem would be "fit for a Bond villain."  But Denhem, even if coming from a similar part of NYC as Belfort did, is not interested.

The rest of the movie then ensues.

Okay, like most of Scorsese's films, this one is heavy on the graphic imagery ... the hookers (dressed and undressed), the drugs, even talk (at least) of dwarf tossing.  Was it all necessary to tell the story?  Great question.  CERTAINLY the film DESERVES (IN SPADES) its R-rating.  But I find it hard to imagine a PG-version of this film that would carry the same impact:  Belfort is shown in Scorsese's film as someone that many of us (at least in part) would want to be -- confident, successful, rich, lucky, indeed, almost-Godlike -- but he's also portrayed as a jerk (a real "a-hole") as someone who clearly dumped his first wife, "trading up" for a model, someone who came to believe that he could simply buy anything, and someone who came to believe that he could defy the laws of both medical science (with his increasingly insane drug abuse) and physics (he orders the captain of his "yacht fit for a Bond villain" to travel into a storm that nearly kills them all).  And while he did have good qualities too (he showed an obvious loyalty to those who he hired into his firm) he also is portrayed as showing no sense of mercy/responsibility toward the people (often of his original social class) that he swindled to get rich.  All this is portrayed quite clearly in the film.  So it's hard to believe that ANYONE leaving the film would think that Jordon Belfort was a good guy or that he did not pay dearly for his excesses -- and not merely by jail time (which he did end up serving) but also through obvious and painful costs to his personal/family relations.

Anyway, while I would not recommend this film to kids (the film deserves its R-rating), I do believe that the film is ultimately a morality tale: Would you really want to end-up like this guy?  Sure he was rich (for a time) but look at the cost as well.

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Her [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (4 Stars)  RE.com (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Wired (A. Watercutter) review
Popular Science (E. Sofge) review 

Her [2013] (written and directed by Spike Jonze) is certainly one of the most original American movies of the year.  Set in the "near future" along the lines of other recent "light scifi-ish" films like Robot & Frank [2012] and Safety Not Guaranteed [2012], the current film is about late 20/early 30-something Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) living in Los Angeles of say 20-30 years in the future and working in a nice, actually quite spacious cubicle on an orangey/salmon-colored office floor with lots of realistic looking fake-wood (you know ... pulp and glue with a nice fake wood-grained plastic adhesive finish) furnishings for a firm called "beautifulhandwrittenletters.com" which specializes in ghost-writing love-letters and other tributes for people too busy to write them themselves.

Apparently customers would send the firm 4 pictures and a few short notes to help the ghost-writer out.  Then the ghostwriter (and Theodore appeared to be quite good at this) would compose a really good/heartfelt love-letter or tribute printed on made-to-order stationary and in truly remarkable adjustable/personalized fonts, so that the letters/tributes look so eerily "real" indeed so hyper-"real" that receiver could believe that they were written by the customers themselves, perhaps _better_ than the customers themselves.  Wow, what a stunning image of the current/internet age! ;-)

Yet this film is not intended to portray a dystopian world, just one which is (at least in some elements) even "more like our own" than than "our own" is today. 

Now in a hyper-perfect world, do human beings/human relations stand a chance?  Of course not.  Indeed, we find that Theodore, who writes fake love-letters and tributes for a living, is in the midst of finalizing a divorce with his ex (played by Rooney Mara).  We learn that the two had been sweethearts since childhood.  So she would have known him (and on multiple levels) better than just about anyone else.  And indeed he might have acquired some of his "praising skills" from his relationship with her, as we hear him recounting to someone that Catherine had grown-up in a household where "nothing was ever good enough," and their relationship, in good part, involved him lifting her up from her feelings of worthlessness.  Well he succeeded ... and it would seem ... that now she outgrew him ;-).

After a disastrous blind date (played by Olivia Wilde) setup by mutual friends including another longtime/since childhood friend named Amy (played by Amy Adams) who as a video-game developer/struggling documentary film-maker, like Theodore has been living and working at the boundary between reality/hyper-reality (Amy becomes more important as the story goes on...), and after some (PARENTS take note ...) flat-out "phone sex" with someone/some disembodied voice going by the avatar/call-sign/stage name of "Sexy Kitten" (voiced by Kristen Wiig), Theodore decides to try something both "more conventional" and more compelling ... an iPhone-like device with "an intuitive / artificially intelligent operating system" (basically a virtual personal assistant like Apple computer's already existing Siri only several generations more developed).  After "configuring" the operating system based on a couple of  "eHarmony.com" like questions, voila "Samantha" (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) introduces herself to Theodore.

The rest of the film becomes an exploration of whether a relationship between Samantha/"Samantha" and Theodore could work and really something even more profound: When does "Samantha," a created/programmed entity created to serve the User and/or its Creator (think Google Aps, the NSA, Apple...) become Samantha, a truly autonomous/free-thinking/creatively intelligent, if "virtual" (existing only on some computer / the Internet) being?

And the story is a heck of a ride.  Initially, "Samantha" feels herself insecure/jealous/at somewhat of a disadvantage to Theodore because she doesn't have a body.  Indeed, "she" kinda obsesses about it.  As the film goes on, however, she becomes more and more comfortable with herself, and, again, ... arguably "outgrows Theodore" ;-).

Interestingly, the only one in the film who understands any of what Theodore goes through in the story is (the human) Amy, who as a "video-game developer" seems most to be living most closely in Theodore's half-real, half virtual/hyper-real world.  A great, great and very creative film!

Now having given the film the effusive praise above, let me note now that there are aspects to this film that (certainly at first look) seem positively juvenile / sophomoric, earning it an R-rating not necessarily for its "elevated story-telling/wisdom" but rather for its "adults behaving badly" portions.

The writer/director Spike Jonze would probably defend the film's fleeting yet "out of the blue" utterly gratuitous nudity, references to internet porn, and _various_ depictions "simulated" sex (by phone, by voice, even by "surrogate"...) as helping to make the film "real."  However, I do think (and I'm a Catholic priest after all...) that these scenes _may_ cheapen the story overall, as sex here is reduced to being simply a "means of validation" and little more (not exactly the kind of message one would probably want to give a 14 year old ...).

Indeed, amusingly after obsessing for a good part of a movie about "not having a body" (which would probably be even worse than obsessing over not having a super-attractive body...) and hence not being able to have sex, "Samantha"/Samantha eventually "grows-up" and realizes that okay, she didn't didn't have a body, BUT ... wow was she capable of doing a heck of a lot of things that humans could never do! (And interestingly after "growing up" ... she dumps Theodore again, just like his ex-wife ;-).  There could actually be a lesson there for all kinds of human beings obsessed/depressed about their lack of or declining physical attractiveness: Sex is not all ... ;-)

Finally, in my capacity as a Catholic Priest, as I was watching this film, I found myself reflecting on our own human nature.  For whether created or evolved (or created via evolution...) we do really appear to be Free.  In contrast, though appearing to be free as well, I would think that the most unrealistic aspect of this film was "Samantha"/Samantha's supposed "freedom."  For after years of understanding that every single word that I type on my Facebook page, or on my yahoo / gmail account is "mined" for commercial value (and now former NSA contractor Edward Snowden reminds us that pretty much every single word is mined by our and probably a whole lot of other nations' spy agencies) it just seems utterly unrealistic to me to imagine an entity as sophisticated as "Samantha"/Samantha without her being, at least in part, an advertising platform for a particular brand of potato chips, or perfume, or hotel chain or whatever.  And YET, we ourselves do not appear to have been Created that way.  How remarkable!  In traditional Catholic theology, we're told that we were Created out of Divine Love / Pleasure ... that God simply wanted to make us out of sheer joy ... and to share in his joy.  Again, how Wonderful ;-)

Anyway, this certainly is one of the most original/creative/thought-provoking movies of the year (!) even as its R-rating is largely (and stupidly) deserved.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Oscar Pickers (U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) - Mostly old, mostly male, definitely mostly white

Those who've been regular followers of my blog will know of my concern for diversity in the movie business.  I've written about this in my annual reviews of the U.S. Academy Awards programs.  I've noted the surprisingly largely unchallenged racism present in many contemporary Hollywood films (New Year's Eve [2011], Casa de Mi Padre [2012] and most recently Anchorman 2 [2013]. Okay none of these films are/were exactly "Oscar material" but one is surprised that they were made at all and then largely left largely unchallenged by movie critics) and the often stunning racism present in contemporary American children's films (the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Hoodwinked Too [2011], and most recently Despicable Me II [2013]).  And it is not by accident that I've given a great deal of space on my blog to reviews to both independent and foreign films especially those playing at various generally well organized film festivals here in Chicago.

In this regard, I'd like to call attention to a remarkable article by John Horn and Doug Smith that appeared recently in the Los Angeles Times (12/21/2013) and was reprinted Chicago Tribune (12/24/2013), both papers are owned by the Tribune Company, entitled Efforts to Diversify Oscar Voters in Slow Motion (the Chicago Tribune title), this following a 2012 L.A. Times study (graphics, full article), referred to in the article which found most of the Academy's voters "old" (54% over 60), mostly male (77%) and overwhelmingly white (94%).

So if one wonders why, after all is said and done, the voting of the Academy is always quite conservative [2011, 2012, 2013] this gives a pretty good explanation as to why, and why Hollywood in general often seems to have trouble seeing any color other than white (except when it is in need of villains ...).

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis [2013]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

I suspect a lot of young musicians / artist-types are going to like Inside Llewyn Davis [2013] (written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen) though "appreciate" might be a better word than "like" as it's hard to "like" a film as sincere but depressing as this one.

The film's about Llewyn Davis (played masterfully by Oscar Isaac) a young folk singer (fictionalized) destined to become an utterly unrecognized/anonymous voice (among oh so so so many others...) of the "great folk music revival" centered in Greenwich Village, Manhattan just, just, just before it came to produce the likes of Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel.  For while those acts became famous across the world, and both arguably changed the direction of world history (think of the world-wide cultural significance of songs like Bob Dylan's "Blowing In the Wind" or Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs Robinson") no one, and I mean no one outside of the Greenwich Village's folk scene of 1961 was going to remember specifically Llewyn Davis singing the no doubt sincere but desperately sad lyrics "Hang o Hang me, I wouldn't mind hanging 'cept for lying in the grave for so long ..." which we watch/hear Davis singing with his acoustic guitar in hand at a random, just bricks and mortar club, modeled after Greenwich Village's legendary Gaslight Cafe in the opening scene of the film.

The obviously moved, and certainly "in the groove," audience dutifully (and no doubt sincerely) applauds him as he finishes his song.  The club owner, smiling, pats Llewyn on the back when he finishes his set and tells him (again with more or less obvious sincerity) that "a friend" of Llewyn's was waiting for him in the alley outside.  Llewyn dutifully steps outside to meet the supposed friend, only to find himself having the daylights kicked out of him for no apparent reason.

The next day, Llewyn wakes up on the couch of a friend/fan of his with a bright colored red-haired cat staring right at him.  (In an otherwise gray film, set amid the slush and snow of winter, this brightly colored red haired cat is more-or-less something of a symbol throughout the film as he/she always seems to appear / disappear and otherwise act utterly unpredictably around him throughout the whole of the story and he can't _ever_ seem to grab and truly hold onto it during the whole course of the film).

We find other things soon enough about Llewyn.  He has a dad, who spent most of his life as a merchant marine, who's now wasting away in an old folks home/sanitarium.  He has a (somewhat) more responsible sister named Joy (played by Jeanine Serrales) with a son (is she unmarried?) who resents his "freedom."  He has an ex-lover named Jean (played magnificently by Carey Mulligan) who's actually the wife of a friend/fellow though sappier (and _happier_) folksinger named Jim (played again magnificently by Justin Timberlake).  Jean's pissed off at Llewyn because he _may_ have gotten her pregnant "though it could have been Jim (her husband) as well" and (PARENTS TAKE NOTE) pressures Llewyn to pay for a (pre-Roe v. Wade) abortion on account of _his_ irresponsibility.  When Llewyn tries to bring up that "You know, 'it takes two to tango'" she wants none of it and tells him that though they may be "destroying a perfectly good baby" (Jim's) she simply didn't want to take the chance that it'd be Llewyn's.  Sigh ... On top of all this, we find that Llewyn is (more or less obviously, he's a super-depressed musician after all ...;-) _always_ broke.

His eternal "broke-ness" (and perhaps broken-ness ...) leads him to take some very strange odd jobs like helping to drive a (it turns out) heroin-addicted Jazz musician (played by John Goodman) and his James Dean look-alike (lover?) valet (played again to the nines by Garrett Hedlund) from New York to Chicago.  Why?  Llewyn doesn't get paid for this "gig" and he even has to split the cost of the gas _anyway_ BUT presumably it's still cheaper than if he had to crash in some dive somewhere back in New York...

By the end of the film, one understands why Llewyn is singing so sincerely the lyrics: "Hang o Hang me, I wouldn't mind hanging 'cept for lying in the grave for so long ..." ... and also why he gets beaten-up right afterwards.  Llewyn, poor, poor Llewyn doesn't seem to stand a chance ... while that stupid bright colored red haired cat seems to come and go, enter into his life and then ... disappear, over and over again ... even as the rest of his life seems like an eternal winter full of slush and snow just waiting to be stepped into.

What an image! ... and I again suspect that a lot of struggling artists / musicians and a lot of struggling people in general could very much relate (an embarrassed/wary/weary :-).  Great film, if super, super depressing ;-)

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

American Hustle [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (4 stars)  RE.com (4 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J.P. McCarthy) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

American Hustle [2013] (directed and cowritten by David O. Russell along with Eric Singer) while cynical (from _top to bottom_ about deceit and far more problematically often _celebrating it_) and hence definitely NOT for "young minds" (NOT for minors, the R-rating, _for theme_, is certainly deserved) is still probably one of the more compelling American films of the year. 

Telling the story, sort of (the film begins with the introductory line "Some of this actually happened ..."), of the late 70s post-Watergate FBI-sponsored "Abscam" sting operation that sent 7 members of Congress (six Representatives and one Senator) to jail, the film centers on two "kindred spirit" small-time con-artists, Bronx native Irving Rosenfeld (played magnificently by Christian Bale) and transplant to New York from Albuquerque, NM, Sydney Prosser (played outstandingly as well by Amy Adams), both characters apparently on the low-level con-artists that the FBI used/"flipped" to set-up the Abcam operation.

Rosenfeld had inherited his dad's struggling "glass business" (experiencing his dad as having been "a terrible businessman," he had on his own "started to help his dad out" by... "creating business" for him, that is, basically picking-up an occasional stone or two, and well...).  He had expanded into running a series of dry-cleaning shops in both the Bronx and Manhattan, but made his real money selling fake art to more-status-conscious-than-smart/ladder-climbing/wannabe investors and above all offering "loan services" to people with debt problems (For a non-negotiable cash upfront fee of $5000 he promised them $50,000 from "overseas connections."  Of course, after paying the $5000, the folks never saw him again...  Who would fall for such a scam?  Well ... someone who's had a gambling addiction, had embezzled, etc, etc, that is, someone for whom losing of _an additional $5,000_ would really be the least of his/her problems ...).

Introduced to poor-but-ambitious Sydney Prosser at a party, Rosenfeld takes to her, and introduces her to his little operation and she, who presents herself in a voice-over as someone "who'd like to have been ANYONE but who she was" is smitten as well, responding to his "partnership offer" in a British accent, re-introducing herself to him as "Edith Helmsey of high social pedigree and Royal connections" from "across the pond" in England.  And so both the "fake art" and "loans from overseas" business (scams) really take-off from there, even if good-old Irving Rosenfeld is actually married ... to Roselyn (played wonderfully in the film by Jennifer Lawrence) who he largely keeps in the dark about his business because ... though he is smitten also by her, he simply finds her too unpredictable to be able to trust her (her unpredictability is apparently exactly what he finds attractive about her, even if, in his "line of work" ... conning people ... unpredictability is incredibly dangerous).

And so it goes.  Since "business" was going so well for Irving and Sydney, err Edith Helmsley, eventually they attract the attention of the FBI, agent Richie DiMaso (played magnificently by Bradley Cooper, yes ALL THE LEAD CHARACTERS IN THIS FILM PLAY THEIR ROLES OUTSTANDINGLY) making the sting.

BUT Agent Richie DiMaso has "bigger plans" for them.  So impressed by their con-operation, he recruits them to help him set-up a sting operation "from the ground up" (what became known as Abscam) to catch/entrap politicians taking bribes to help an FBI stand-in (played by Michael Peña) posing as an Arab sheik get U.S. citizenship in order to help invest in the building of new Casinos in Atlantic City (it is true that just around that time, New Jersey had legalized gambling in order to bring-in casinos to Atlantic City to help return it to its previous weekend tourist-Mecca glory).  Irving doesn't like this at all, as he'd always seen his operation as being "small" and now he was being asked (forced really by FBI agent DiMaso) to "go big" and help them entrap politicians, which Irving felt could only go badly.

The first person they try to entrap is the big-haired (Rod Blagojevich-like?) and largely big-hearted (perhaps also, honestly, like Blagojevich) mayor of Camden, NJ, Carmine Polito (played again magnificently by Jeremy Renner).  The character of Carmine Polito again seems based on the actual mayor of the time of Camden, NJ Angelo Errichetti.  Believing that casinos in Atlantic City would bring jobs to his neighboring Camden, NJ, he wholeheartedly enlists, introducing then Irving Rosenfeld, Edith Helmsley, and Richie DiMaso to all kinds of New Jersey politicians AS WELL AS (perhaps inevitably ...) THE MOB (a representative of whom is played, again magnificently, by Robert De Niro).

The entry of THE MOB into the picture scares the daylights out of Irving Rosenfeld, who of course knows that "there is no Arab shiek," etc.  And he also grows increasingly uncomfortable in framing the heart of gold mayor (if clearly mobbed-up) Carmine Polito.

What to do?  Well that's the rest of the film ... ;-)

Great, great story even if it is built from top-to-bottom on deceit.  Perhaps it does teach the lesson: "Oh what webs we weave when we first come to deceive."  Irving Rosenfeld saw himself as basically "an honest crook" but wow ... what mess he found himself in ...

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (0 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues [2013] (directed and cowritten by Adam McCay along with Will Farrell) is a really unending parade of racial/racist jokes about Blacks, Hispanics, even Filipinos (!) with a smattering of Polish jokes (to remind Poles and really all Slavs/Central and even Southern Europeans that when white hooded folk of WASPish / Aryan stock talk of "white people" they don't really mean to include them ...).  Of course the trailer to the film already featured a racist dinner scene at an African American home (all that was missing would have been Will Farrell's character asking "Where's the watermelon?") so what would one really expect?

Well, I would have expected a boycott of the film by critics AND THE CNS/USCCB (U.S. Catholic Bishops' Media Office) to give the film at minimum an "L" rating ("limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling") which the CNS/USCCB recently gave 12 Years A Slave [2013] (!), and more appropriately an "O" rating ("morally offensive") which it recently gave American Hustle [2013] (FOR LANGUAGE and _PROVOCATIVE CLOTHING_) and had previously given to the children's film Gulliver's Travels [2011] (because it contained a scene in which Jack Black's "giant" Gulliver (discretely) pissed on the Lillipots' castle and, accidentally, their king to put out a fire, when the Lillipots' fire fighters had run out of water ;-). 

Given that the majority of American Catholics today belong to the very ethnic and racial groups targeted in Anchorman 2's dimwitted dialogue while NOT A SINGLE REVIEWER FOR THE CNS/USCCB is of non Irish / German extraction, perhaps some changes in the CNS/USCCB's media office are in order so that the reviewers become far more reflective of the tremendous ethnic/racial diversity of the Catholic Church in the United States today and really in the world.  We are supposed to be a universal church.  Racial jokes especially when it's NOT EVEN CLOSE but A PARADE OF THEM ought to earn a film at minimum an "L" and more appropriately "O" rating.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Book Thief [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars)  RE.com (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

The Book Thief [2013] (directed by Brian Percival, screenplay by Michael Petroni, based on the novel by Markus Zusak) is the story of a German girl named Liesel (played magnificently by Sophie Nélisse) growing-up in the adoptive home of an older, otherwise childless couple Hans and Rosa (played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), living on Himmel Strasse (Heaven Street) in Nazi-era Stuttgart, Germany.

A fair number of critics (see above) have complained about the "sappiness" of the film, intended for younger / pre-teen audiences.  Yet regular readers here will note that I'm not necessarily against "sap" and often A FAN of it, and no exception here.  Indeed, if the intended audience to The Book Thief, both novel and now film is understood to be grade-school kids (say 4th or 5th graders) then I'd say that it's an excellent age appropriate story.  A fourth grader would probably not understand much of Schindler's List [1993] to say nothing of Sophie's Choice [1982] but would almost certainly understand this story about a little girl, his/her age, growing-up on a quaint little street near the edge of a very average German city like Stuttgart during the Nazi era / World War II.  And the story is woven so nicely that pretty much all the notable (and awful) aspects of growing-up in Nazi Germany are portrayed ... and yet in an age appropriate manner:

The reader/viewer learns that all kinds of people were persecuted under the Nazi regime, including Communists (among them the original parents of Liesel and her brother, who dies early in the story) as well as, of course, Jews, among them Max (played magnificently by Ben Schnetzer) who comes to Hans, Rosa and Liesel's door in Stuttgart in need of help in 1938 in the aftermath of Krystallnacht.  Why did he come to Hans' door?  Because Max' father had saved Hans' life during the First World War (one of the most bitterest memories of many Jewish Holocaust survivors was that many of their German Jewish parents had been proud German patriots prior to the rise of the Nazis and had fought with distinction IN ALL OF EUROPE'S / THE U.S.'s ARMIES during World War I).  Hans therefore takes Max in, and 10-11 year old Liesel is given the very, very adult-beyond-her-years responsibility of NOT TELLING ANYONE, ANYONE AT ALL, that Max was hiding in their house.  IMAGINE BEING A 10 YEAR OLD TASKED WITH THAT KIND OF RESPONSIBILITY (This was absolutely _beautifully_ portrayed in the film).

Then Liesel was portrayed going to school, having school-time/neighborhood friends like Rudy (played again excellently by Nico Liersch), and others from school/the neighborhood like Franz (played by Levin Liam) who she didn't particularly get along with.  This was Nazi Germany, so all the little boys and girls were expected (in reality forced...) to belong to / wear the black uniforms of the Hitler Jugend (boys) / brown uniforms of the Deutscher Madchens Bund (girls), which aside from not really having a choice, all the kids found quite natural (to this day grade school kids in the United States generally enjoy wearing their Catholic school and/or their boy/girl scout uniforms).

Still it was _very nicely_ (and I would say _realistically_) portrayed that the kids did not necessarily understand what these _mandatory_ Nazi indoctrination groups were about:  Rudy, who prided himself being "the fastest kid on the block," is shown pretending quite sincerely to be the African-American sprinter Jesse Owens (!) who was one of the great heroes of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (Americans to this day take pride that Jesse Owens "showed-up" the Nazi dogma of Aryan racial superiority ... forgetting of course, that when Owens came home, he couldn't even eat at the same lunch counter or go to the same bathroom as "white people" in much/most of the United States....).  Anyway, Rudy gets reported and his father, a low level Nazi party member, is told _in no uncertain terms_ by a local Nazi authority (whose job it would be to look after such neighborhood matters, sort of a Nazi precinct captain) to teach/punish his son that as "a good Aryan boy" he's NOT to pretend that he's someone of a "lower race."   And so it is.  Rudy's father whacks him a few times and tells him basically to "not embarrass the family" in this kind of way again.  (Rudy both understands ... "don't pretend to be Jesse Owens again" ... but also does not ... "I kinda liked him.").  Such is life growing-up in any dictatorship / authoritarian system.  There are arbitrary rules that are to be rigidly observed so as not to put one's family / loved one's in trouble.  Regimes like that of the Nazis (and also the Communists) simply had _more of these rules_ and punished people far more severely when occasionally some "fell out of line."

Among the rules to be observed was to "put out the flag" (the Nazi era flag) on Hitler's birthday, and a great scene is presented with Hans being shown looking about the cellar trying to find where he "put the darned thing" while Rosa nervously reproves him, noting that "all the other neighbors already have their flags up" and "it's going to be noted" if their flag's not up soon.  THIS BRINGS TO MIND A GREAT STORY IN MY OWN FAMILY WHO HAD LIVED IN COMMUNIST ERA CZECHOSLOVAKIA WHERE I REALLY DID HAVE AN UNCLE WHO WAS "REPORTED" IN THE 1980s (!) FOR HONESTLY FORGETTING TO HAVE THE CZECHOSLOVAK / SOVIET FLAGS UP IN FRONT OF HIS HOUSE DURING SOME VISIT OF SOME RANDOM SOVIET OFFICIAL.  His family lived on EXACTLY THE SAME KIND OF STREET as that portrayed in this film ... NO ONE EXCEPT FOR SOME NOSY LOCAL OFFICIAL WOULD HAVE EVER KNOWN THAT MY UNCLE'S FAMILY'S FLAGS WEREN'T UP THAT DAY.  But my uncle had to go to the local police station and APOLOGIZE for making the _honest mistake_.   Having been jailed in his college years by the Communists, and always therefore "somewhat suspect," he _knew very well_ to "have the flags up" on the right days.  Here he had forgotten ... and SOMEBODY (from the neighborhood...) REPORTED HIM.  Again, such is life in a very paranoid / totalitarian system ...

Celebration of Hitler's birthday (as that of any "great leader" with AN ENORMOUS fawning/butt-licking security force behind him) involved more than just "putting up flags" however.  The Communists would have parades.  The Nazis had street gatherings and bonfires.  The requisite firebrand (to the point of screeching) / paranoid speeches were given there by local party leaders and, this is where the "Book" part of the story's title (and even the "Thief" part of it actually) comes from ... said Nazi bonfires offered occasions for local Party officials / communities to "show their loyalty" by burning "subversive books."

Now Liesel, who had been picked-on in school for having originally come from _a lower-class_, Communist sympathizing family (and hence at the beginning of the film ... _unable_ to read) finds the Nazis fetish with burning books "odd."  After all, she had been previously picked-on for not being able to read well, and now those above her own teachers were encouraging the people to burn books.  (Imagine yourself as a 10 year old ... what a crazy contradiction: Which is it?  Do you want us to read or not?)  BEAUTIFULLY AS A TEN YEAR OLD STILL REMEMBERING BEING PICKED-ON FOR NOT BEING ABLE TO READ, THE FILM SHOWS HER COMING OVER THE PILE OF LARGELY BURNED BOOKS AT THE END OF ONE SUCH RALLY and DISCRETELY PUTTING ONE OF THOSE STILL SMOULDERING BOOKS UNDER HER COAT ;-).

And by performing this little act of defiance (though she doesn't even know that she was being defiant) she's "noticed" but here by the wife of the local burgermeister (a member of the old German aristocracy) whose _intellectual_ son apparently had been arrested (and presumably taken off to Dachau where German intellectuals during the Nazi era were often held).  She invites Liesel over to her manor house nearby, surrounded by a lovely garden, shows Liesel her family's lovely library of books and tells her that she "could come over _any time_ to read if she liked."

The rest of the story continues in this very gentle (in the midst of terrible awfulness of dictatorship and war) manner.  And by the end of the story, one honestly sees everything that a 10 year old growing-up in Germany during the war years would have seen, including, yes, tellingly obvious glimpses of the Jewish Holocaust, but also the bomb raids that eventually (something of a SPOILER ALERT) _level_ good old Himmel Strasse by the story's end.

What a gentle, lovely and sad story recalling an truly awful time in human history ... and presented in a manner that even a 10 year old could understand!  EXCELLENT JOB!

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Philomena [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Irish Times (5/5 Stars)  Entertainment.ie (3.5/5 Stars)  Movies.ie (4/5 Stars)  RE.com (3.5/4 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (4/4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Irish Times (D. Clarke) review  coverage
Entertainment.ie (R. Cashin) review
Movies.ie (P. Byrne) review

CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review

LA Times (K. Turan) review
RE.com (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Philomena [2013] (directed by Stephan Frears, screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith) tells the true story of Philomena Lee (played in the film as a teenager by Sophie Kennedy Clark and as an older woman by Judy Dench) who finding herself unwed and pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1962 was sent to the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary convent at Seán Ross Abbey, Roscrea, Co. Tipperarary, Ireland, where in return for her stay at the abbey during her pregnancy she relinquished all rights rights to her child (who was subsequently put up for adoption, usually to parents coming from the United States) and then required to work in what's come to be known as a "Magdalen Laundry" (for "fallen women") operated by the nuns at the abbey for four more years to pay off her debt to the sisters.

Such was the situation of many unwed and pregnant teenage girls in Ireland up until quite recent times (far more recent -- look at simply the year of Philomena's case 1962 ... -- than many would hope or believe).

At the same time, the stories of the "Magdalene Houses" or "Magdalene Laundries" have been picked-up in recent years and used by anti-Catholic propagandists to beat-up the Catholic Church again as somehow _uniquely evil_ in this regard, when the Catholic League for Civil Rights notes that the first Magdalene Laundries for "fallen women" in Ireland were NOT even run by Catholics (nuns or otherwise) but by Protestants.  Indeed even before finding and reading the Catholic League's report "Myths of the Magdalene Laundries," I was going to note here that abuse of women in crisis goes back to at least the time of Jesus (with the Pharisees presenting him with the "woman caught in the very act of adultery").  And as any junior high or high schooler who's read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter [IMDb] (set in Protestant/Puritan New England) or Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre [IMDb] (set in 19th century so very righteous/Protestant England, and still keeping Catholic Ireland down ...) abuse and denigration of young women in crisis was certainly not an Irish thing.  Indeed, honestly ARGUABLY THE IRISH LEARNED THE CONCEPT OF THESE MAGDALENE LAUNDRIES FROM THE BRITS.  Finally, even current editorializing in the West regarding Muslim treatment of women (often gleefully crossing the line into flat-out anti-Muslim propaganda) ought to be tempered with the reality that to be a woman ANYWHERE 30, 40 years ago, to say nothing of 100-200 years ago meant facing all kinds of marginalization and abuse. 

That said, Philomena and her son's stories ARE BOTH AWFUL AND TRUE and hence need to be aired.  How else to atone, make amends, rebuild and go on?  Hence, I honestly encourage readers to follow the Irish Times' years long / continuing coverage of the issue of the Magalene Laundries.

To the film / Philomena's story: No one except her family and friends would have ever known of Philomena Lee if not for a series of coincidences:

On what would have been her child Anthony's 50th birthday, Philomena, by then living as a senior citizen in England, was caught weeping by her daughter with whom she now lived.  Asked why she was weeping, Philomena told her daughter (presumably in her late 30s / 40s and presumably for the very first time) the story of her first child Anthony, who had been put up for adoption (to the United States).

Some time later, Philomena's daughter, who worked as a caterer for various moneyed/"important" people events overheard Martin Sixsmith (played magnificently in the film by Steve Coogan) former BBC reporter, former press official in Tony Blair's administration, feeling sorry himself at one of these events (over having been forced to resign over something) and telling those around him that he was looking to "possibly get back into journalism again" (that or "writing a book on Russian History").  Philomena's daughter decided to come  up to him and tell him that she had a story for him (that of her mother) ...

Initially good ole Martin Sixsmith politely (actually not so politely) "declined" telling her that as a "real journalist" who's been stationed in places like Washington and Moscow and did, after all, only recently work for Tony Blair, he simply didn't do "human interest stories."  But after cooling down / having some time to think about it, he realized that this "human interest story" would actually be a very interesting one: "A little old lady, looking for her long-lost son, snatched away to America by the 'evil nuns' of Ireland of yore."  So he persuaded the newspaper that he was working for to let him pursue the story... probably THE BEST DECISION OF HIS LIFE.

The nuns certainly did their part ... by refusing to cooperate.  Coming back to Seán Ross Abbey, Roscrea, Co. Tipperarary, Ireland, and greeted by an African nun (vocations are down in Ireland as elsewhere in Europe ...), Philomena and now journalist Martin Sixsmith, are told by the (still white ... though now in a modified habit) Mother superior that tragically all records of Philomena's son's adoption papers "were lost in a fire" a few years back.  Interestingly all that seemed left from said fire was Philomena's little typewritten statement relinquishing all rights to any information about her child that she had signed back in 1962 when she had arrived to the convent "in crisis," a copy of said statement handed to her with the pertinent parts dutifully highlighted in oh so contemporary florescent orange in case she missed the point. 

But Martin Sixsmith didn't get to be a top BBC reporter stationed in Washington and Moscow and later getting a job working for Tony Blair by being a sop.  Over some Guinesses at the local pub, he's told by the villagers there the nun's "fire" that destroyed all those records was more like a "bonfire" set in the back of the Convent some years back because _no one_ recalled any fire damage repairs ever being done at the place (and this is the kind of stuff that villagers knowing _everybody's business_ would tend to know).

Hmm, so with no information to go by in Ireland, Martin and Philomena head off to the U.S. to see if they had better luck there.  Did they ever.  Having a picture (Philomena's) of 3 year old Anthony before he was adopted out of the Convent and knowing a little about the special circumstances of his adoption (that he was adopted by an American family along with another little girl from the place) Sixsmith was able to find who little Anthony became ... and what became of him.

I'm not going to say much more about the plot here except that it turned out that Philomena's son had ALSO gone back to the Sisters asking for help in tracking down his mother.  And he ALSO had been stone walled.

Well, "little people" get stone-walled and otherwise mistreated by all kinds of more powerful people all the time.  Except it turns out that Philomena's son turned out to have been "not so little / insignificant" after all.

To go further would really enter into SPOILER TERRITORY but honestly, Martin (played again magnificently by Steve Coogan) must have thanked (over and over) his lucky journalistic stars that he made the decision to "stoop down" and take-up this seemingly "inconsequential human interest story."

The blood-curdling question that the film lifts up, of course, is WHY?  Why would a group of Nuns (and really A LOT OF CATHOLIC NUNS of yore) endowed with RELIGIOUS POWER, would have CHOSEN to treat weak, marginalized people SO BADLY?  And let's be honest, our parents and grandparents ALL have stories of sadistic nuns hitting kids with rulers and so forth.  Not all nuns were so sadistic, but "the Nuns" were allowed (AND OFTEN CHOSE) to strut their POWER over the weak like that.  Again, why?

The answer that the film gives is predictable and laced with the religious justification of the time: The nuns saw themselves as "chaste" while these "fallen girls" were _not_.  So "they got what they deserved."

But I'd (again perhaps predictably) say it's more basic than that: PEOPLE (ANY PEOPLE) ENDOWED WITH POWER (ANY POWER) WILL BE TEMPTED TO USE THAT POWER SELF-SERVINGLY /  BADLY.  Why?  Simply: BECAUSE THEY CAN.  In this regard, I've been a many, many years-long Dilbert fan and in Parish life I've _always_ been a fan of distributing power across many, many committees to minimize the coalescing of power in ANY ONE PERSON OR GROUP.  Why?  Because power really does corrupt.  And various psychological studies conducted in the 1960s-70s to prove the point, including famous the Stanford Prison Experiment (which randomly divided a class into 'prisoners' and 'guards' soon found the randomly chosen 'guards' abusing the randomly chosen 'prisoners') and the Milgram Experiment (which tested the capacity of an 'instructor' to inflict ever increasingly painful 'electric shocks' on a 'test subject' even after the 'test subject' was heard _screaming_ simply because he (the 'instructor') was being told by a higher authority to do so).

In any case, the nuns of this little abbey in south central Ireland did terrible harm to both Philomena and her son, as well as to many, many others.  And they weren't alone.  Do we ban nuns?  No.  Even Philomena, portrayed as a life-long Catholic, would seem to not be for that.  But we need to learn from these mistakes and work on building / maintaining governing structures (both in Church and outside) that keep power distributed and not centralized where the temptation to use it self-servingly / badly could continue to cause harm.

Great film.

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