Saturday, June 29, 2013

White House Down [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Chi SunTimes (0 Stars)  Chi Tribune (2 Stars)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
Chicago SunTimes (R. Roeper) review
Chicago Tribune (R. Moore) review 
RogerEbert.com (M. McCreadle) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

We have got to stop blowing-up the White House in our films... honestly, we have to.

I had not planned to see White House Down [2013] (directed by Roland Emmerich, screenplay by James Vanderbilt) as I'm tired of these films and thought I had written about as much as one can write about them reviewing the quite recent Olympus Has Fallen [2013].  I found myself talked into it, having read some of the surprising and at times surprisingly positive reviews of the film (see above) and then listening to Facet Multimedia's Milos Stihlik's talking about the film on WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio's) WorldView program as I was coming home from a Communion call.

Having seen the film, I still think it is generally a waste of time though I do agree that part of what makes the film interesting is that the dasterdly Enemy this time DOESN'T come from the Outside: space aliens as in Emmerich's signature movie Independence Day [1995], weird euro-terrorists as in Die Hard [1988], more conventional but no less uncompromisingly Evil left-wing Cuban/PLO-style terrorists as in Under Siege [1992], or even North Koreans (arriving disguised as South Koreans, "how could one tell...?") as in Olympus Has Fallen [2013]. Instead, the Enemy in White House Down [2013] is essentially a "right wing conspiracy" (a la "militia" man Timothy McVeigh but more organized) a conspiracy more resembling the one postulated in Oliver Stone's film JFK [1991] involving the "military industrial complex" opposing a JFK-like, now Obama-like President (played in this film by Jamie Foxx).

That we would be just as capable (or even more capable) of  "blowing things up" by ourselves as having them blown-up by outside bad guys has actually been a long-held view by my own dad, born no doubt of 81 years of life-experience and watching some really stupid/self-destructive things done by people (and peoples) themselves.

One of my dad's favorite examples of this self-destructive phenomenon (remember my family is of Czech descent, thus Slavic and originating in Centeral Europe) was what the Serbs and Croats did to the lovely Serbo-Croatian coastal city of Dubrovnik (before the 1990s listed as a UNESCO world heritage site): "Even the Nazis didn't touch that town because it was so beautiful and it would have been a crime to destroy it.  Yet, two weeks into the Serbo-Croatian wars of the 1990s, the town was reduced to rubble looking like Stalingrad."  Then remember former Russian President Boris Yeltsin (the first democratically elected leader of Russia ever) ended-up bombing his own Russian Parliament Building (and arguably legitimately to thwart a back-sliding neo-Communist coup).

So there may be value in seeing a film where one domestic faction or another tries to seize power in this country by a de facto coup d'etat.  And that is what this film is about.  Apparently upset that Obama-like African-American President Sawyer (played by Jamie Foxx) had made a deal with Iran to pull all U.S. troops out of the Middle East in exchange for peace (and a pledge by the sitting Iranian president to make public decades-long documentation showing how U.S. military contractors had manipulated Middle Eastern governments and exacerbated tensions between them to justify a large open-ended U.S. military presence in the region and arms sales to everybody), those allied with said U.S. military contractors try to stage a coup in the U.S. to prevent this.  Much ensues ...

Yet what ensues on screen, I'm not sure is helpful ... to anybody.

Even as these Titanic forces are stomping in Godzilla-like fashion over the centers of power in Washington, the real "heroes" of the story are simply a divorced dad named Cale (played by Channing Tatum) who had served three tours in Afghanistan (in good part because "being at war" seemed easier than "being at home" with his family) and his somewhat estranged 6th-7th grade daughter Emily (played by Joey King).  At the beginning of the film Cale's trying to re-connect with his daughter who living in the D.C. area seems very civically minded.  So Afghan war vet that he is, he pulls a few strings and is able to get them a White House tour.  It's during this tour that the coup attempt takes place.  Now remember Cale is a 3-time Afghan War vet ... and 12 year old, ever on her smart-phone, Emily has her own talents: She runs a little 'current affairs blog' ("No dad", eyes-rolling "a YouTube channel") on the internet using said smart-phone as a computer/camera.  Well ... do those Titanic forces of Evil stand a chance against this little father - daughter team? ;-) 

There's certainly a cuteness to the movie ... even as revered national symbols get blown-up all around.

But I can honestly say to folks that even though "it all ends well," I FELT SORRY FOR THE 12-YEAR OLD EMILY.  And it's not just because she was a hostage by the bad guys holding the White House for a while, and that near the end of the film she does what amounts to a heart-rending flag-waving tribute to the similarly little flag-waving kid on the barricades in Les Miserables [2012], but because I do think we've failed young people like her. 

Honestly, let's stop blowing up the White House, or Big Ben, or the Eiffel Tower or the Kremlin, or what have you (even simply "on screen").  Why can't we just give our young people a world (or at least a youth) where they can live and grow-up in peace?


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Friday, June 28, 2013

The Heat [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
RogerEbert.com (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

The Heat [2013] (directed by Paul Feig, screenplay by Katie Dippold) is the Bridesmaids [2011] of  "odd couple" / "cop buddy" movies: Think here of the Eddie Murphy / Judge Reinhold Beverly Hills Cop [1984+] series or the Dan Aykroyd / Tom Hanks vehicle Dragnet [1987] only here both the "stuffy, by the books" character, FBI Agent Ashburn (played by Sandra Bullock), and the "gritty, streetwise" character, Boston P.D. Det, Mullins (played by Melissa McCarthy), are women.

Ever by-the-books (indeed, she probably knows them from Yale by heart...), the moderately successful but not particularly liked by most of her coworkers (and thus never promoted...) New York based FBI agent Ashburn is sent by her boss (played by Damian Bichir) to Boston (perhaps in part to just get rid of her ...) to investigate / take-down a new and particularly vicious if still somewhat shadowy drug lord who had recently arrived there.  Soon after arriving, she crosses paths with a local force of nature in the form of BPD Det. Mullins, also super-competent, also disliked by her coworkers but at least also feared by them.

After giving-up on trying to get Mullins to stand-down and get out of her way, Ashburn (on advice of her far more pragmatic boss back in NY who simply doesn't understand why Ashburn would not want to work with local law enforcement "One would think that you'd want to learn from her...") accepts the inevitable and brings the streetwise Det. Mullins into the case.  Many, often extended laugh-out-loud (way into the next scene or two) situations ensue... ;-)

Particularly amusing in the film is Mullins' family -- basically the same family from The Fighter [2010] though taken to comedic extremes.  With her hair ever frazzled, chain smokin' Ma (played by Jane Curtin) always greets her hard-boiled (but actually moderately successful...) police detective daughter by flipping her off.  Why?  Well Det. Mullins had sent her own brother to jail.  "What kindah pehson would rat-out her own brahther?" Ma asks.  Well we find out why and while none of us would particularly enjoy doing that to our loved ones either, most of us would probably understand ...

The rest of Det. Mullins' family is a similarly sincere if often hopelessly disordered mess.  Dad (played by Michael Tucci) had a thing for hopelessly corny "athletic/religious art:"  Ever on velvet, Jesus in a Red Sox uniform with a giant bat hitting a baseball outta Fenway Pahk, Jesus in a Bruins uniform bodychecking some other hockey player into the bahds at Bahston Gahden.  At one point in the film, the family has to be quickly evacuated from their home to a hotel for their protection -- ma, pa, three or four brothers, plus two rather high-maintenance girl-friends of theirs -- and one wonders: "Oh my, if these people really had to go into a "witness protection program" how could one possibly "hide" them? ;-)

Then as Agent Ashburn / Det. Mullins work on their case, they encounter a veritable parade of villains and potential villains of every conceivable look or ethnicity.  It's one really messed up Bahston.  But it is all done with a smile. 

Parents, this film is very crude.  So I'm not sure you'd want to take a pre-teen to the film (though I'm not sure that they'd get many of the jokes anyway).  However, like most of Melissa McCarthy's other films, if one can get past the occasional crudity, this is often a very funny movie especially if one's ever been faced with "a glass ceiling." 


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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dirty Wars [2013]

MPAA (R)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
RogerEbert.com (S. Boone) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

Dirty Wars [2013] (directed by Rick Rowley, writer David Riker and Jeremy Scahill) is a documentary in which Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondant for The Nation magazine seeks to shed light on the largely secret war that's being fought in our name against Al Queda and other terrorist groups.

Why would one care?  Well, when something is secret, not just "the good" and "the necessary" are hidden but also "the problematic," "the corrupt" and "the screw-ups."   And if this underside of our secret war is not periodically exposed, then this can eventually cause some real problems.

The documentary follows the story of three problematic screw-ups:

The first occurred in Afghanistan where a journalist Scahill came learned of a previously nondescript Afghan family in the hinterlands screaming for justice after four of their family members were killed for no reason in a night raid that even local NATO commanders did not know about.  The family had been celebrating the birth of a son (home video shows the family dancing).  Then the father of the newborn went outside (either because he heard something or because, well, he just needed to go outside) and ... got shot dead an American sniper.  Before the killing stopped, 3 other members of the family were dead.  And for what?  Nothing.  The family was screaming to the journalist that they had been pro-American and that the father who had been shot had been actually an American trained Afghan police officer.  And yes, it would seem that this really was a screw-up because a some days after the incident, an American general showed-up at their family's compound with a ceremonial sheep given to them to sacrifice in compensation.  (The Afghan family had photos of the conciliatory visit of the American general as well...)  But who was he?  Well he was the head of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), the command that later killed Bin Laden.

What else does JSOC do?  Well it did kill Bin Laden.  It has also been responsible for the majority of the drone and otherwise remote strikes across that part of the world, including apparently a cruise missile strike in Yemen that, rather than wiping out a terrorist training camp, all but wiped-out a harmless Bedouin clan in the hinterlands of said Yemen that has been herding sheep in those mountains since the basically the time of Abraham.  And a Yemeni journalist who first exposed this tragic remote massacre is languishing in a Yemeni jail as a result of an expressly requested personal favor asked for by President Obama of the President of Yemen.  Basically, a Yememi journalist is languishing in a Yemeni jail so as to not embarrass an American President.  (We don't jail journalists.  We have others jail journalists for us ...).   

Finally, JSOC was apparently responsible for the drone strikes that killed the American Muslim preacher al-Awalki (who had, in fact, radicalized and had joined AlQueda out there in Yemen).  Yet some days later in a separate strike JSOC also killed al-Awalki's 16 year old son.  What did _he_ do?  Nothing ... yet.  But Scahill does ask the question of where have we come to when we've started to kill people simply because they _may_ grow-up to want to kill us?  (Think of The Godfather Part II [1974], that was basically the plot-trajectory the young Vito "Corleone" growing-up to come back to Sicily to avenge the death of his father).  Have we really come to this?

So what's the value of a documentary like this?  Well, even if one doesn't particularly like facing its content (nobody likes to be embarrassed, nobody likes to hear bad things about people who we love, trust and hope are doing their best), documentaries like this are informative and therefore help us to make informed decisions.  Without said information, it is (by definition) impossible to do that.

So as uncomfortable as this documentary must make the viewer feel, it will help make future mistakes like these less likely (other mistakes though hopefully less of them will still probably occur).  And our interest in documentaries like this will also help us to appreciate what others, non-Americans, are going through in the War on Terror, hopefully helping us to empathize with their suffering as well.

So all in all a very good film.  It's painful to watch, but necessary if we are to remain the country that we are hoping to be defending.


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The Source Family [2013]

MPAA (Unrated, would be R)  Roger Moore (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars w. Expl.)

IMDb listing
Chicago Tribune (R. Moore) review

The Source Family [2013] (directed by Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille) is a documentary that I recently saw at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.  The film is now available at Amazon Instant Video.  I went to see the film after reading the review by Roger Moore in the Chicago Tribune the week that it played here.

I found the film intriguing because it is about a 1960s era Los Angeles based cult, now defunct, originating around a health food restaurant named The Source and its charismatic founder/owner, born James Edward Baker in Cincinnati in the 1920s but who after fighting in WW II settled in L.A., became interested in "healthy food/healthy living," founded said health food restaurant and came to go by the name of Father Yod and later YaHoWha (yes, that's pretty close to the Divine Name of the Biblical Old Testament, and yes he came, for a time, to believe that he was God ...).  Most interestingly for me was that the film was made by some of his former followers who, even 40+ years after the experience of living with him at his "commune" first in a Hollywood Hills mansion in L.A. and later on a farm in rural Hawaii (both clearly costing a pretty penny... all ostensibly paid for by said health food restaurant The Source...), did not find the experience to have been a particularly negative one.  To be sure, the former followers are pretty honest in the film about "Father Yod's" behavioral oddities and some of the problematic (at times frankly, illegal) doctrines of his teachings.  Still I do believe that the film does serve as a window into the world of a charismatic cult FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE CULT'S OWN MEMBERS and can provide clues as to why someone would join such a group.  (Parents, obviously this film is for adults and not for your kids ...)

It's pretty clear that post-WW II Los Angeles / California became something of a hot bed for the formation of some rather strange (and, often enough, quite dangerous) cults.  The list is not a particularly pretty one:  Charles Manson and the Manson Family, Jim Jones and his Peoples' Temple (which ended-up committing Mass suicide in Guyana, even L.Ron Hubbard and his Church of ScientologyFr. Yod's Source Family would certainly fall within this milieu.  Note also that I've reviewed a number of films here -- Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011], Higher Ground [2011], The Master [2012] and even The First Rasta [2010]  -- which deal with cults or otherwise "new(er) religions" / communities.  Together the films can help one better understand both the origins of "cults" and also the origins/dynamics of their excesses. 

And indeed, the current film, The Source Family [2013], follows the trajectory of this group from the arrival of the one who became its founder James Edward Baker to L.A. as a veteran following WW II all the way to his death following an (odd) hang-gliding accident in Hawaii in 1975 as Father Yod / YaHoWha with a cult of followers who thought of him as (a) God.  That's one heck of a trip ... So how did he / his group get to that point?

Well it would seem that James Edward Baker returned from WW II (presumably in the Pacific) interested in martial arts, Eastern philosophy and Eastern (largely vegetarian) diet.  So he studied those subjects in Los Angeles (on the Pacific coast, with as much contact with East Asia as any in the United States).  At some point, he founded said health food restaurant called "The Source" on the Sunset Strip.  The restaurant became popular because it was one of the first of its kind and also perhaps (my conjecture) because it served Eastern (largely vegetarian) food but was run by an (American) Westerner.  So if any patrons had any questions, he was able to quite easily explain (in language that they could readily understand) the various ins-and-outs of Eastern cooking, Martial arts and, as time went on, of Eastern philosophy.  A group started to form around him.  And since he did apparently see himself as a "bridge figure," as he read up on Eastern philosophy, he also tried to read up on Western religious traditions/mysticism, the result being that he became a rather interesting "guru"/"go-to guy" in late-50s / early-60s  Los Angeles.  Then came the mid and late 1960s and "all h.. broke loose.  His restaurant became a "go-to place" of ALL THE HIP AND HAPPENING PEOPLE who both LIVED and simply PASSED THROUGH LOS ANGELES.

Well, he was BOTH generous (both the Hollywood Hills Mansion and later the farm in Hawaii where he and his cult followers lived were bought/supported with his money...) and THE ABOVE KIND OF ADULATION (rock stars, movie producers, all kinds of people were _coming to him_ with questions looking for answers) HAD TO GO TO HIS HEAD.  Hence he started dressing like a guru, took to going by the name Father Yod (and eventually the even more proglematic YaHoWha) and began to systematize "his previous teachings" into increasingly rigid/strange "doctrines."

It always fascinates me how both FOOD and SEX become such big doctrinal issues in religion.  (One would suppose that this is because the two comprise our two most basic instincts -- the drive to eat/survive and the drive to create/reproduce).  Almost every religion has rather complicated yet set rules regarding both diet and sexual relations and Father Yod's group certainly came to have both.  The group was strictly vegetarian and (at first) experimented quite freely with sex.  Later as James Edward Baker / Father Yod became more and more megalomaniacal (in his soon to be YaHoWha stage) HE simply took a fair amount of the women (a fair amount of them MINORS, this when he was in his 50s-60s ... and apparently parents BOTH inside and OUTSIDE the cult LET HIM).

His story is honestly a great testament to why adulation of anybody is NOT GOOD.  We need people not to simply "enable us" but to keep us grounded.

Perhaps the saving grace for James Edward Baker / Father Yod (even though he was a STATUTORY RAPIST having by the end of his life several under-aged wives) before he died in his rather strange hang-gliding accident (he had never hang-glided before but decided to jump off an 1100 foot cliff in a hang-glider for the first time anyway...) was that in those weeks before he died, he apparently came to the conclusion (on his own) that he wasn't God and BY LUCK (or perhaps providence) he died soon afterwards ... leaving his followers with good memories of him, RATHER THEN them ending up in Jail (like many of the followers of Charles Manson) or Dead (like the followers of Jim Jones and later David Karesh). 

In any case, NO ONE except perhaps GOD (God ABOVE/BEYOND US not "here") deserves unreserved adulation ... but what a fascinating / informative story. 
 

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Much Ado About Nothing [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  RE.com (4 stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing
RogerEbert.com (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Much Ado About Nothing [2012] (directed and screenplay by Joss Whedon, based, of course, on William Shakespeare's celebrated play by the same name) is arguably the happiest (err... "merriest" ;-) surprise of this summer.  THIS FILM IS A JOY TO WATCH ;-)

Filmed over two weeks at the Santa Monica, CA home of director/screenwriter Joss Whedon and his wife, using actors/actresses from his various film and TV productions of the past, it is obvious from the get-go that the actors and actresses (and probably the film maker and crew) were having a ball making this film.  Though set in the current day (the male characters being "corporate warriors" relaxing at the home of their Boss rather than Knights relaxing at the home of their Lord) as far as I can tell, the dialogue is taken directly from Shakespeare's play.  Part of the joy of watching this film is seeing the actors/actresses so beautifully "sell the lines."  Yes, they are speaking in Shakespearean English, but "sold their lines" so well that they could have been simply speaking in a somewhat more obscure modern-day dialect.

So what then is the story about?  Well it is about Benedick (played by Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (played by Amy Acker) both handsome/pretty, popular and witty but both tired/bored with MOTOS and at least at the beginning of the story a "merry war" of words against each other ;-).  Well in this, arguably one of the truly first "romantic comedies," could not stand.  So Benedick's boss Don Pedro (played by Reed Diamond) and friends Leonato (played by Clark Gregg) and Claudio (played by Fran Kranz) along with Beatrice's cousin Hero (played by Jillian Morgese) conspire together to "bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection with each other."  Much, of course, ensues ... ;-)

Among that which ensues is a subplot, which is potentially far less "merry" than the rest of the story, and one which derives from a second understanding of the meaning of the title of Shakespeare's play:  For in Shakespeare's time Much Ado About Nothing could be understood as it is commonly understood today as being necessarily a story that is "light" and "happy" (about "nothing").  However back in his day, title could also be understood as a play on the phrase Much Ado About Noting (that is, about gossip).  In the story, a rather vicious rumor about Beatrice's cousin Hero threatens to turn this otherwise very merry story into something else ... BUT since "All's well that ends well" (another title of one of Shakespeare's comedies) this story too ends well, with a reminder to the audience that "noting" (gossip) often amounts to "nothing" (nonsense...).

Anyway, I found this film to be an absolute delight to watch and would recommend it to anyone from High School age to Seniors (who still hear well enough to be able to enjoy the dialogue).  And at minimum, this film will deserve a "best adapted Screenplay" nomination come Oscar time ;-)


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Monsters University [2013]

MPAA (G)  CNS/USCCB (A-I)  RE.com (4 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

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

IMHO, one's opinion of Monsters University [2013] (directed and screenplay/story cowritten by Dan Scanlon along with Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson), a "prequel" to Monsters Inc [2001] is going to depend both on (1) how much one loved the first movie and (2) how much one is willing to allow this movie to be different from the first

I write this because while many have lamented the PIXAR's "inability" to "capture the magic" of its much beloved previous film, I understand this second film, its relationship to the first and even PIXAR's current competence / legacy differently: To understand/appreciate this film, IMHO, one simply has to accept that it is a different film from the first.  Both as a prequel to the first and because of the nature of the first film (so focused on the absolutely adorable little human toddler who accidently enters into the Monsters' world) I believe that it simply had to be different from the first

Consequently, I actually applaud PIXAR's courage in making this second film in the manner that it did and I further applaud its courage in delivering the message that it did.  At it's best PIXAR has been both innovative and courageous inserting themes about loss (Up [2009]), loneliness (WALL-E [2008]) and even the facing of death (Toy Story 3 [2010]) in ostensibly child-oriented films that have left adult viewers both simply in awe and often wiping away tears.  There's a rather blunt/courageous message to Monsters University [2013] that becomes evident by the end that IMHO both needed to be said (even if in a "cartoon fashion" ;-) and makes THIS film worthy to be in the league of the other surprising/challenging PIXAR films listed above. 

But enough of defending the worthiness of Monsters University [2013] to carry the PIXAR imprimatur, what's the film about? ;-)  Well it gives the story of how amiable one-eyed goblin Mike (voiced again by Billy Crystal) and similarly amiable blue-furry Big Foot like monster Sullivan, Sully for short (voiced again by John Goodman) first became friends: they met in college, at ... Monsters U ;-). 

Both had their issues/stories when first met, freshman year:  Mike had always dreamed of going there and was apparently a first generation college student from his family.  Sully, on the other hand, was a "legacy" coming from a long line almost legendary "scarers."  Hence Mike arrived, wide-eyed and enthusiastic, eager to prove himself, while Sully arrived lazy and feeling entitled.  Both were set straight soon enough by the tough Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren).  Try as he might, Mike simply did not impress her as someone capable of being a "successful scarer," and Sully quickly put himself on academic probation by simply not doing the work.

In peril of being thrown out of Monsters U., the two had a chance to redeem themselves: winning the annual scaring competition organized by Monsters U's fraternity council.  HOWEVER, since both were deemed "losers" by most of the frats -- Mike for being "geeky" and Sully for not applying himself, the two end up in the "loser frat" (the Omelunga Kappas ... that is "the OKays" ;-).  Such "losers" were the members of this frat, that their frat house was actually the house of one of one of its most geety frat members, his mom being the "house mom" ;-).  The cool frat were the ROAR M ROARS and they were more or less expecting to win (and they even offered Sully a chance to join their frat if only after got his act together...).  Much often very funny ensues ...

The surprise is ... the ending.  As I write above, this is what makes the film worthy of PIXAR's label.  And it ought to give both "Dean Hardscrabble" as well a lot of actual university deans as well as parents and their children preparing to go to college in the years to come much to think about.  To say more here, would say too much... ;-)

In any case, folks at PIXAR, once again, good and surprising job!


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Monday, June 24, 2013

The Bling Ring [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  RE.com (1 1/2 Stars)  AVclub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
RogerEbert.com (I. Vishnevetsky) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

The first thing that needs to be said about The Bling Ring [2013] (screenplay written and directed by Sofia Coppola, based on the Vanity Fair article "The Suspect Ware Louboutins" by Nancy Jo Sales) is that it does not paint a pretty picture of contemporary youth and celebrity culture.  This is an appropriately R-rated picture for rampant, almost incessant, drug use (financed here by stolen goods looted from celebrity homes) and a powdered/fake smiling sociopathic morality that really (sincerely here...) doesn't care so long as "the good times roll."  That said, the second thing that should be said about this film is that this is, of course, its point.  For the second time in several months a youth directed film (the other being Spring Breakers [2012]) has come out that is so searing that it should be able to cut through even the deepest of denials / ecstasy-driven hazes screaming (1) to parents/authority figures WAKE-UP, (2) to the culture HAVE WE REALLY COME TO THIS? and (3) to young people themselves FOR GOD'S SAKE DON'T DO THIS.

To be sure, there have always been films like this.  In my young adult years there was Less Than Zero [1987].  In my parents' generation there was The Wild One [1953] (which the New York Times reviewer at the time commended for being "a picture of extraordinary candor and courage, a picture that tries to grasp an idea even if it falls short of it").  The difference between those films of yesteryear and the two that came out recently is that the older films could be more easily dismissed.  Less Than Zero [1987] was about "rich kids from Beverly Hills" and The Wild One [1953] was about "bikers" (both a relatively small subsets of society).  In contrast, the main characters of the two more recent films (interestingly in both cases, predominantly young women) are thoroughly "main stream."  The central characters of Spring Breakers [2012] are to have been attending a utterly nondescript state college somewhere in Tennessee.  The main characters of the current film, The Bling Ring [2013], come from an utterly nondescript suburb (nominally Calabasas) of Los Angeles.  And in both cases, the young people play their parents and actually even their religion (significant if passing allusions to which are present, again interestingly enough, in both films) for fools. 

What then to make of a film that dramatizes a real crime spree perpetrated by five real-life suburban L.A. teenagers -- played in the film by Katie Chang, Israel Brousssard, Emma Watson, Claire Julian, Taissa Farmiga --  who were so enamored by the lifestyles of today's young "rich and famous" (Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, Lyndsey Lohan ...) that they figured out a way to steal a bit of it (if for the time that it lasted) for themselves?  Well, at minimum, the film should disturb us:

How is it that the parents of these five teenagers would not have an idea that their kids were doing all of this?  After all at minimum, the crime spree itself required that their teenage kids be "out partying" quite late at night repeatedly over an extended period of months (and one would imagine on relatively odd nights ... unless they always broke into celebrity homes "on weekends").  Then these were teenagers, there's only so much "clubbing" that one could do without valid ids (or jobs for that matter to pay for said "bar hopping" ...).

From a societal point of view, I suppose one could say that some of this would be inevitable.  A celebrity culture requires "fans" to adore the "celebrities."  Inevitably, there are going to be "fans" who will take their "adoration" a few steps further one (or even society) would like.  While Katie Chang's character appeared to be less discerning (stealing from rich/flashy people, period), as a group, these teens were fixated on stealing from celebrities (stealing a $1000 purse from Paris Hilton's belongings seemed to mean more than "simply" stealing a $1000 purse...).  But then, honestly, celebrity culture is largely about achieving such "brand recognition."

Finally, to the young: Even if one doesn't immediately understand theft to be morally wrong -- it is, "Thou shalt not steal" is a pretty unambiguous part of the Ten Commandments, and even "coveting" (desiring other people's spouses / stuff) is ALSO against said Ten Commandments -- then at least self-preservation ought to come into play. Eventually everybody gets caught, and the tragedy for those perpetrating this sin is that if one is "really good" at stealing, all that it means is that one's going to get caught with something far larger (and be punished far more greatly) than if one wasn't particularly good at it and was caught right away stealing something much smaller.  This is a standard explanation that I give to kids confessing stealing the proverbial "pack of gum at Walgreens" - Please DON'T DO IT, because EVERYBODY EVENTUALLY GETS CAUGHT and THE "BETTER" YOU ARE AT DOING THIS, THE MORE LIKELY YOU'RE JUST GOING TO GET CAUGHT STEALING SOMETHING BIGGER AND YOU'LL JUST GET INTO EVEN MORE TROUBLE).  It is a very good thing to have a healthy respect for Evil.  We are NEVER "smart enough" and if we "walk the dark side," WE ALL EVENTUALLY GET CAUGHT.

So great film folks!  I hope your film helps prevent other young people from doing something similarly stupid.  Again folks, EVERYBODY eventually gets caught.


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Friday, June 21, 2013

World War Z [2013]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
Chicago SunTimes (R. Roeper) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

World War Z [2013] (directed by Marc Forster, screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof, screen story by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski, based on the novel by Max Brooks [IMdb]) is a summer blockbuster zombie/horror movie, end of story.  It's ancestors might have been much lower-budget fare, but somewhere in the 1970s-80s Hollywood's larger studios figured out that if they improved the special effects a bit, these films would almost always oodles of money.  More recently, the studios realized that if they tweaked the formula a bit more -- "internationalizing" the carnage, perhaps adding "3D" -- they could make even more.

So folks, if you're expecting "Citizen Zombie" then save your money, there's more intelligent fare out there.  But if you're looking for basically a dumbed down (err ... "more Expressionist") version of Contagion [2011]  (Let's face it, even a world-wide outbreak of a mutated Ebola virus couldn't possibly compete with the "worst case scenario" of a zombie plague that turns previously healthy people into crazed flesh-craving zombies within 10-15 seconds "after first bite" by an infected ex-human/turned ravenous zombie) then this might be the summer diversion for you ;-)

And we get to watch the ever likable Brad Pitt playing Gerry Lane, a vague "U.N. super-hero" (an investigator of some sort who the U.N. "goes to" when there's some crisis somewhere and the world is screaming for answers) frantically flying around the world trying to figure out what's causing this zombie apocalypse, how to bring it under control, and perhaps most amusingly, its "Patient Zero" ;-).

His globe trotting takes him (1) to a rain-drenched airbase (that really could be anywhere, but we're told is S. Korea, check, Asian market...), (2) to Israel which probably to its own surprise has found that the "protective wall" that it built around its country to separate it from those living in the Palestinian territories also "works remarkably well against zombies..." (well, as even the trailer suggests, "only to a point ..." ;-) and (3) to an appropriately looking, appropriately "nestled in the foothills" of some European mountain chain, "W.H.O. facility" (European scientists/bureaucrats always knew where to build their labs ;-) where he can talk to some important-looking people with accents and lab coats about what he's discovered outside.

Yes, as goofy as all this may sound, it really is quite entertaining ;-).  Just think, the same movie that used to be made for $50,000 can now be made for $200,000,000 AND STILL MAKE MONEY and more than those who used to make those $50K productions would have ever imagined ;-)

So what can one say about this film: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky would probably have hated something as stupid as this.  But Kafka?  My sense is that he'd probably gotten a kick out of it ... ;-). 



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Aluku Liba: Maroon Again [2009]

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

IMDb listing
Official Website

Aluku Liba: Maroon Again [2009] (written and directed by Nicolas Jolliet) played recently at the 11th Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival at Facets Multimedia in Chicago.

It's a fictionalize story of Loeti (played by Loeti Mais) a black man from French Guiana who had left his home village long ago to seek his fortune working as a garimpiero (gold-miner) dredging gold from the mud of the rivers of the rivers of the French Guianese part of the Amazon rain forest.

After a raid by French troops on the illegal gold mine where he was working, he's forced to flee into the forest.  His subsequent journey leads him to appreciate the beauty of the forest beyond the camps where he had worked.  He encounters various exotic birds and animals as well an Ameri-Indian who saves him at a critical point in his journey.  Finally by the river again, he runs into a fellow Afro-SouthAmerican named Captain Laurence (played by Laurence Alota) who takes him then with his boat to the Aluku village where he lives.

The Aluku or Boni people are descendants of self-liberated former slaves from French Guiana and neighboring Suriname.  Once free in the jungles of French Guiana / Suriname, they kept much of their original West African culture.  Needless to say, they have remained very suspicious of European encroachment.  However, for the most part, especially in French Guiana, they have been left in peace.

I first read about similar communities of self-liberated former slaves while stationed at a then Servite parish in Kissimmee, FL, a parish with a primarily Caribbean Catholic population including a substantial Haitian contingent.  

It turns out that similar communities of self-liberated former slaves like the Aluku people of French Guiana/Suriname have existed across the whole of the Americas where slavery once held sway.  In Jamaica they have been called Maroons, in Brazil Quilombos.  Even in the United States in the Gulf Coast regions of the South East (Alabama, Mississippi and Florida) in the 1820s, prior to the subjugation of this territory by the U.S. military, there were communities of self-liberated slaves called the Black Seminoles.

I have also been involved in the translation of a book published by the Servites of Brazil called "The Amazonia That we do not know" which made mention of the Quilombos in its Introduction (the Quilombos of Brazil live in a different part of the Amazon Region from where the Servites generally work) and devoted an entire chapter to the Garimpieros (gold miners) of the Amazon region.

Hence I made it a point to see this film when I read the summary of it by the 2013 Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival organizers.  The film did not disappoint.  Anyone interested in various cultures, Amazon Rain Forest, and even in West African Native Religion would probably find this film fascinating.


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Thursday, June 20, 2013

DonT Stop [2012]

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

IMDb listing
CSFB* listing
FDb* listing

DonT Stop (2012) [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDb]* (written and directed by Richard Řeřicha [IMDB] [CSFD]*[FDb]*) is a contemporary Czech/Slovak "nostalgia piece" about growing up loving rock and roll (specifically the punk rock of the style of The Clash) in the 1980s in still Soviet Bloc/Communist Czechoslovakia.  The film played recently at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the 2013 Czech That Film series sponsored by the Czech Republic's Diplomatic Mission in the United States (along with Prague's Staropramen Beer ;-)

Since the 1950s/60s when Rock and Roll took the world by storm, it has been opposed by "traditional authority" pretty much across the world.  Witness films like Footloose [1984] [2011], Oliver Stone's The Doors [1991] and Pirate Radio [2009] or the current controversy regarding the Russian feminist punk rock group named Pussy Riot (more on that controversy almost necessarily below ;-).

In the Soviet Bloc, however, paranoia on the part of the authorities regarding the inherent improvisational freedom present in the rock and roll phenomenon was taken onto another level altogether.  The arrests, trials and convictions of the members of a Czech psychedelic rock group The Plastic People of the Universe in 1976 actually led to the birth to the Charter '77 dissident movement in Czechoslovakia.  The Charter '77 document, cowritten by Czech dissident playwright and future President of post-Communist Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, was signed by Czech and Slovak artists, intellectuals and _religious figures_ (including Catholic priest and after Communism's fall, Catholic Bishop, Václav Malý*), called on the Communist authorities to recognize and respect the right to free expression along with other fundamental human rights.

It is then in this context, that of the still Communist era in Czechoslovakia, when/where being a member of a rock band wouldn't necessarily just get one in trouble with one's own parents but could conceivably land one in jail ... ;-) that the story of this film plays out.  Yet the story is also about much more than that.  It's above all, a reminiscence (colored of course by time ;-) of what it is/was like to be young:

So late 30-something and (rather respectable looking) Miki (played by Pavel Řezníček [CSFD]*[FDb]*) finds himself stuck in traffic in Prague today.  Putting a tape into the tape-deck in his care, he gets transported back to 1983 ... when as a moody/unsure 17/18 year-old guitar playing and not particularly studious high schooler (played by Patrik Děrgel [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb]*) with a similarly nice/still unsure of herself girlfriend named Pavla (played by Viola Cernodrinská [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb]*) he had met a far more "together"/confident/"rebelious" drummer (with a spiked, colored Mohawk haircut) his same age named Dejvid (played by Lukáš Reichl [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb]*).   

Now a key to understanding the film: Could a 17 or 18-year-old high schooler in Communist-era Prague of 1983 sport a spiked, colored Mohawk?  Dejvid seemed to live in a "tough-looking working class neighborhood," his mother (played by Stanislava Jachnická [CSFD]*[FDb]*) seemed to be "an artist," and Dejvid didn't seem to care what the authorities thought.  (One of the Czech reviewers of the film indicated that folks like Dejvid did exist at the time, but that he like most other high schoolers of the time would have avoided them like the plague, looking at them as being as troubled as the fet'aci (drug addicts) hanging around train stations of alleys today).  So while Dejvid's character was possible, it would seem that the presentation of his character in the film is "colored" by today's Miki (30-40 something, stuck in traffic) reminiscence of him... (He remembers Dejvid as being, above all, young and rebelious ... whether or not he actually wore an alternatively neon-green, blue, or orange spiked Mohawk really becomes beside the point ...

Miki and Dejvid shared a love of western (rock) music of the time, specifically that of the British rock group, The Clash.  Now that's entirely probable.  I had cousins at the time in Czechoslovakia who were fans of groups like Pink Floyd and The Clash.  I remember in those years an older cousin of mine in Prague proudly playing for my sister and I (visiting from the States) his album copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (the record and cover, with the prism and all were authentic). Records like this were not necessarily super easy to find, but they definitely weren't impossible to find either.

Pretty soon, the two, Dejvid and Miki decide to "put a band together."  This becomes, of course, every bit as "epic" a project (especially in one's memories) as those portrayed in The Blues Brothers [1980] or The Commitments [1991] with, of course, elements particular to Prague of that time.  (And the challenges that the two young Czech "rockers" faced was not just dealing "with Communists" but also and above all with family and neighbors):

Miki has to bring his 8 year old sister (played by Monika Svadbová [FDb]*) along to one of their first practices.  She, of course, doesn't understand why they have to "play so loud" ;-), but she kinda likes what they do with her hair (Dejvid's mother, again or an artistic bent, had some hairspray at home.  And so to entertain the 8 year old after she started to get bored, Dejvid comes up with the idea doing something "weird and cool" with her hair.

Then there's a neighbor of Dejvid's (played by Leoš Noha [FDb]*)  who becomes tired of the incessant banging coming out of David's flat.  So he comes up to his flat, bangs on the door and tells him: "Look, you spoiled worthless punk, I actually work for a living, working the graveyard shift. So if you keep banging those drums up in your apartment while I'm trying to sleep, the authorities are the least that you're going to be worried about..."

Needless to say, Miki's parents (played by Jiří Štrébl [CSFD]*[FDb]* and Klára Pollertová–Trojanová [CSFD]*[FDb]*) aren't particularly thrilled with Miki's new friend particularly since Miki's grades were lousy and then they get really pissed off when Miki comes back with his little sister and her hair's sticking out in all directions ;-).

Miki's sensible girlfriend Pavla (played by Viola Cernodrinská [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb]*) puts up, at least for a while, with Miki's quest of putting together at band, but begins to remind him "You seem to be thinking mostly about yourself.  What about us...?"

Still things soon start to come together:  Dejvid comes across another, older, neighbor with a garage (and the "old guy" also proves to be hard of hearing ;-).  And they start finding other guys for the band.  There's Viktor (played by Jakub Zedníček [IMDb][CSFD]*[FDb]*) a leather-jacketed basist who also rides a motorcycle and wants to go by the stage name "Vicious."   Then there's Marty (played by Jiří Kocman [IMDb][CSFD]*[FDb]*) a hanger-on who finally convinces Dejvid and Miki that he could be their manager.  Finally there's Inža (played by Oliver Cox [IMDb][CSFD]*[FDb]*) a second, rhythm guitarist, who's kind of a nerd, but he makes his own amps ...

They practice in the neighbor's garage and get reasonably good as a "garage band."  Meanwhile their "manager" hits around a few leads and actually gets them a "gig" down at a club Kladno-way (Kladno being a big industrial town to the west of Prague).

The "gig" proves to be every bit as "Epic" [TM] as they (still teenagers after all ...) would have dreamed.  Marty had gotten them the gig by partly misrepresenting them.  So when they get out on stage, the people in the dance hall expect something very different from what they play (again, shades of the first gig in the The Blues Brothers [1980] ... ;-)  It all ends in a lot of broken glass and a big fight.  (That is, really, really awesome ... ;-) Since the police (even in a Communist/totalitarian country....) can't be everywhere, they manage to get away...

They do get into some (minor) trouble with the law.  Miki's parents, of course, get pissed.  Then the group starts to break-up.  Dejvid and Viktor (aka Vicious) really start to despise/make-fun-of the more nerdy Inža.  Paula gets increasingly frustrated with Miki ("I don't know you anymore ...")  Dejvid finds a "really cool replacement" for Inža who's named Kalič (played by Richard Fiala [FDb]*).  Miki starts to see Kalič as just one big drug-addict who's just bringing Dejvid and the rest of the group down.  So ...

... eventually Miki parts ways with Dejvid, Vicious and Kalič, reconnects with his girlfriend Pavla who helps him pass his Chemistry test (that he had flunked before the end of school the previous year) and Miki even reconciles with his dad.

In other words, Miki's "walk on the darkside" came to an end ... but now, 25 years later, findhing himself "stuck in traffic" ... WHAT MEMORIES THEY MADE ... ;-)  What a lovely little story! ;-) ;-)

Yet, rock and roll, continues to make controversy and make news.  Perhaps the most famous controversy of recent years was that caused by the Russian feminist punk-rock group named Pussy Riot who, in 2012, chose to crash the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, attempt to play a song called "Punk Prayer" and were promptly stopped by church security officials.  By evening they turned the event into a music video called "Punk Prayer - Mother of God Chase Putin Away."  The Russian Orthodox Church was aghast and Putin's government using cover provided by the Russian Orthodox Church took the opportunity to make examples of them.  The members of the punk rock group were sentenced to 2 years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."

Someone in my position has to ask: Was any of this really necessary?  The group could have made the very same video OUTSIDE of the very same church (Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior) to make the same point without any of the resulting repercussions. 

Then to be honest, no one put a gun to any authority's head to respond to Pussy Riot's provocation in the manner that Putin's government did.  One thinks only of a similar stunt performed by Sinéad O'Connor on a Saturday Night Live performance in 1992 the United States, when at the end of her performance on live TV she tore-up a picture of Pope John Paul II saying "Fight the Real Enemy."  She embarrassed the show.  Something like 4,000 complaints were made to the F.C.C. about it afterwards.  But nothing happened.  Nothing needed to happen except that Ms O'Conner simply embarrassed herself ... and Pope John Paul II now Blessed John Paul II will be canonized as Saint John Paul II later this year.  And life, almost immediately after she tore up that picture on t.v. ... went happily on.  Anybody listening ...?

Closer to the ground, it would seem to me that Catholicism has had the least trouble with accepting and even at times blessing "rock and roll" than other religions.  Perhaps this is because the Catholic Church sees itself as a universal Church extending across all space and time.  So "rock and roll" is seen as simply "another cultural expression," one among many, that have existed across time.  Hence in The Commitments [1991], set in Dublin of the 1980s, the group's first "gig" is actually at a local parish function and they receive the blessing of the local priest.  Then, at the current parish where I am stationed, Annunciata in Chicago, our parish business manager (basically my age) was part of a local rock band when he was in his 20s.  Where did he used to play?  Often parish festivals.  And our parish's annual Annunciata Fest is, by and large, a neighborhood music festival.

There's no reason to fight if we don't really want to ... and "rock" is, as this film reminds us, often simply about celebrating (and later remembering) "being young."  So smile and enjoy the music ... ;-)

* Czech language links presently are most easily translated using google's chrome browser


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Shadow Dancer [2012]

MPAA (R)  Entertainment.ie (4/5)  Movies.ie (3/5)  TheGuardian.co.uk (3/5)  ChicagoSunTimes (3 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

Entertainment.ie (G. Burke) review 
Irish Times (D. Clarke) review
Movies.ie review
The Guardian (P. Bradshaw) review

Chicago SunTimes (M. Houlihan) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Shadow Dancer [2012] (directed by James Marsh, novel and screenplay by Tom Bradby) is a reminder to me that every people has its story.  Since this film deals with the closing years of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Provisional_Irish_Republican_Army, the VERY FIRST THING that I did after seeing the movie (that was co-produced by both the BBC and the Irish Film Board) was to check what was written about the movie back in Ireland and the U.K. (see links above).  Since the film was film was fairly well received in both places I proceeded onward.

Now it's not as if I don't know anything about Northern Ireland.  Something like a 1/3 of the Catholics in the United States are at least partly of Irish descent.  The Servites (my religious order) in the United States is also very Irish, including many friars both of Irish American ancestry (born in the United States) and others who were born and joined the Servites in Ireland itself.  Indeed in the years immediately following WW II, it was one of the American Provinces of the Servite Friars who brought the Servite Order to Ireland and the first community that it founded in Ireland was in Benburb located a few miles from St. Patrick's resting place in Armagh in Northern Ireland.

Not being of Irish ancestry and yet being prepared to serve in the American Catholic Church and as part of a (Servite) Province that was heavily Irish, at the close of my seminary studies in Rome, I asked the Servites if I could spend some time in Ireland prior to returning to the United States and I remain honstly profoundly grateful to the Servites for having granted my request, because as the reader will see below, I honestly was given a remarkable experience as a result, and one that directly impacts on my ability to write about this film intelligently:

During my stay in Ireland besides being able to visit Armagh and Knock and Trinity College in Dublin, all the Servite ministries in Ireland, as well as various "towers" and other sites from pre-Christian / early-Christian days ;-), I was given both a whole bunch of reading material (which I devoured) about Ireland as well as the opportunity to stay for a week with a family in Belfast that's affiliated to us through the Servite Secular Order (OSSM).

Among the books that I read, was an excellent one by Robert Kee, entitled Ireland: A History that had served as a companion to a television series, again co-produced by the BBC and RTE (Radio and Television of Ireland), on Ireland's history.  The book, sober, documented, fascinating, challenged some of the longstanding myths about the land and people of Ireland cherished by both sides in the conflict there.  First, Ireland was not simply Gaelic.  It had contacts with Mediterranean peoples from Phoenician/Greco-Roman times.  Further, Dublin itself was first founded as a Viking settlement.  On the other side of the coin, the book helped me to understand why England only began setting up colonies in the New World nearly a hundred years after the Spaniards had come and conquered Mexico and South America, the answer being basically: Why go all the way to the New World to colonize new land when Ireland is right around the corner?  And indeed, BOTH of the major styles of colonization (the Jamestown, VA / Caribbean "Plantation Model" and the "Settlement Model" of the New England colonies, etc) that took place later in the British colonies in the New World took place in Ireland.  Southern Ireland was basically colonized along the lines of the "Plantation Model" (large estates with often absent English landlords), while Northern Ireland was settled by Calvinistic (non-Church of England) Presbyterian Scots fleeing religious persecution in progressively English dominated Scotland, the soon-to-be-called Scots-Irish displacing/marginalizing the native Irish (Gaelic-speaking and Catholic since St. Patrick in religion) population.  Finally, the book pointed-out that at different times in history both Catholic and Protestants in Ireland sought independence from the English crown (in the early 19th century, there was a Protestant Irish independence movement as the Scots-Irish of Northern Ireland didn't much like the English either...).

Then the stay with the family from the Servite Secular Order in Belfast (in the mid-1990s prior to the signing of the Good Friday Accord, at actually roughly the same time in which the current film was set) was truly an experience:  I saw the walls, I saw the murals both pro-IRA and pro-RUC.  We drove past the Sinn Fein HQ with GIGANTIC BOULDERS strewn all around it (said GIGANTIC BOULDERS serving as a rather obvious and apparently quite effective "anti-truck bomb barrier").  I got to see a rather nervous looking patrol of British soldiers walking down a street by a house where we were having tea with a family one time.  Finally, we were even stopped by the British army one time: two armored Land Rovers, with troops jumping out of them briefly surrounded our car.  (We were probably seeing "too much of Belfast..." than would have been typical at the time ...)  Calmly, smiling, with my hands visible, I gently pulled out my American passport to show to the commander.  He took a look at it and soon enough the soldiers were jumping back into the two Land Rovers.  The commander apologized for any inconvenience and they were off again and so were we.  My driver, the wife/mother of the Belfast family where I was staying, started breathing again shortly thereafter ;-)
All this is to say that I honestly "get" the seriousness of the story being told in the film reviewed here:

Okay then, let's get to said film ... Shadow Dancer [2012] begins in 1973.  A ten year old girl is asked by her father who's busy talking on the phone, to run down to the corner store to get him a pack of cigarettes.  Going to the next room, she convinces her little brother run the errand instead.  He goes out.

A few minutes later, there appears to be some sort of commotion outside.  We don't really see the commotion except by way of a glancing view (through the home's front window) to one side.  There is commotion outside but the family itself, minus the little boy who had run out for those cigarettes, is sitting in the kitchen.  Shadows are seen running past that (front) window to the side.  Shots are heard.  More shadows are seen running.  Finally, there's a frantic knock on the door.  Mother and daughter answer, while dad's still on the phone.  A couple of people come rushing into the home carrying the little boy.  Of course, he's been shot.  Of course ... he dies.  Of course, one assumes that the ten year old girl would probably blame herself for her little brother's death.  After all,  she was the one who sent him to get those cigarettes instead of running the errand herself...

Flash forward to 1993, a young woman is seen walking quite carefully along the stairs/corridor of a not particularly busy London Underground station.  When no one is it sight, she lays said purse down on the stairs and then proceeds with a quicker pace to walk away.  She seems to be somewhat schooled in this task.  She turns a few corners, finds a utility door that presumably is normally locked, but isn't now.  She goes through said utility door, passes through a whole series of other, smaller, darker passages.  Finally she comes to another utility door that leads out of the station.  She opens it, gets out of the station, closes the door and proceeds walking at still a relatively adrenaline-driven pace down a nondescript alley becoming more and more confident with each step that "all's gone well" ... 'cept that it hasn't.

Two plainclothes police men with earpieces suddenly appear from around a corner.  They descend on her, and grab a hold of her.  A car pulls up, they push her into a car, get in it themselves and ... take her to ... an "undisclosed location."   Eventually, they take her to a room in some utterly nondescript building.  Inside the room, are simply two chairs and a desk.  There is a fairly large window, but nothing of note can be seen outside.  The walls are white, the floor is tiled, the ceiling looks like sheet-rock.  The room could be of an unfinished office or residential building.  And the place is empty, except of course for the interrogator's station in the room immediately next door.

The would-be interrogator, who we come to know as Mac (played by Clive Owen) lets the woman who we come to know as Colette (played by Andrea Riseborough) stew sitting in her chair in her room for a while to "ponder her situation."  Eventually he gets up, enters her room and proceeds to tell her calmly yet forcefully: "It's over.  We have you.  We have a stack of documents and photos against you. You're going down (for decades of your life).  If you ever want to see _your little son_ again ... you're gonna have to make a deal with us."  She tells him to "F-off" and he leaves the room leaving a stack of the documents and photos against her with her to ponder...

Some time he comes back.  She asks for a lawyer.  He shakes his head and tells her "You don't need a lawyer.  You need us.  These are the papers, all already filled-out (he shows them to her...) All they need is a signature of a judge and your kid will become a ward of the state because you're going to go to jail on terrorism charges... unless ..." Unless, of course, she comes to work for them.  Who is them?  Of course MI5.  The rest of the story ensues ...

Of course, the IRA isn't stupid.  When she does reappear (after even a few hours of having disappeared) there are immediate suspicions... In this kind of shadow war, very few instructions are given to very few people at any given time.  So each time something goes wrong a quick and rather decisive "internal investigation" is done.  So how long can someone be in the IRA, yet spying for MI5 and ... live?


And yet, it's also even more complicated than that.  This is because the I.R.A. isn't portrayed as merely a "terrorist organization."  It's a neighborhood organization.  The people who Colette is being asked to spy on are her own friends and family.  Again, the details of any given "terrorist action" are known by only a very small circle of people (1-2 very close friends or family besides oneself).  And while Colette was caught placing a somewhat over-sized purse (that could have but didn't have to have any bomb in it ... the mere threat of there possibly being a bomb inside was enough...) most terrorist actions were really much more "up close and personal" ... like simply "whacking" (shooting/killing) a R.U.C. police captain (in retribution for a previous action on his part ...) as he got into his car to go to work one day ...

So IMHO the film captured the various dimensions -- official/bureaucratic, familial, both personal and stone cold/macheavellian -- of the conflict in North Ireland very well.  And I'm honestly, very very happy for the people who were involved (on all sides) that THANKFULLY the Good Friday Accord was reached in 1998 and that it has held since.  The shadow war in Northern Ireland was a terrible burden on absolutely all who lived there.  And it is a relief / blessing to all that it's over.


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Monday, June 17, 2013

African Independence [2013]



MPAA (UR)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Official Website

African Independence [2013] (written and directed by African American sociologist/film maker Tukufu Zuberi [IMDb]) is am excellent, well presented, feature length documentary that played recently at the 11th Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival at Facets Multimedia in Chicago.  Besides being scheduled to play this summer at film festivals throughout the United States both as part of the African Diaspora Film Festival program and beyond, it has also caught the attention of film festival organizers (and has played) in Brazil, Africa and Europe. 

The film follows the history of the modern African Independence movement from its origins following the end of World War II to the fall of Apartheid in South Africa in 1990.  Since Africa, the second largest and second most populous continent in the world, is both a large and diverse place with over 1 billion inhabitants living among 54 different countries spread across the continent, while making as needed references to others, the film-maker decided to focus on the experiences of four countries Ghana, Zambia, Kenya and South Africa in his presentation of the topic.

Ghana, the former British colony of "The Gold Coast" was the first sub-saharan African country to achieve independence.  Its independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first Prime Minister and later President, had studied abroad and was very much influenced by famed African American scholar W.E.B. DuBois. Indeed, both Kwama Nkrumah and W.E.B. DuBois were instrumental in organizing the 5th Pan African Congress in Manchester, England in 1945 which proved to be a seminal moment for the modern African Independence movement.  Ghana's independence did not arrive until 12 years later.  However, the seeds were planted at that conference and Ghana's independence was achieved by-and-large peacefully through philosophical persuasion (The colonial project had proven to be morally bankrupt in the horror of World War II when Nazi Germany had tried effectively to colonize Poland/Russia and even France.  In the post-War era, the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared all human beings regardless of race or national origin to be endowed with fundamental human rights.  Thus the moral underpinning behind Europe's maintaining large swathes of non-European lands under their domination had evaporated).

Ghana's independence offered the hope that all of Africa's independence could be achieved peacefully.  However, this proved not to be the case.  As noted by Kenneth Kaunda, independence leader and first president of Zambia, interviewed extensively in the film, wherever there was a substantial European minority present, independence came only after a protracted and often violent struggle.  Zambia, the former British colony of Northern Rhodesia still had a relatively small European population, hence independence still came relatively easily (though less easily and less peacefully than in Ghana).  However, in other places, notably in Kenya (whose experience was discussed extensively in the documentary) and Algeria (which perhaps due to similarities with the experiences of Kenya and South Africa, was not) where there were substantial European and otherwise non-native settler populations, the struggles proved to be much more violent.  Among those interviewed in the documentary was a woman who had been involved in Kenya's violent 1952-60 Mau Mau uprising. 

The most difficult situation proved to be that of South Africa.  Here the film-maker, Tukufu Zuberi [IMDb], does a truly remarkable job in presenting the complexities involved by interviewing BOTH of the last two Apartheid-era presidents of then white dominated South Africa P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk. (Honestly, film-maker,Tukufu Zuberi [IMDb]'s willingness to include extensive interviews with these to men, and then to allow them to express themselves calmly and clearly, testifies to the sobriety and quality of this project.

So what were the complexities of the South African situation?  First, as F.W. de Klerk pointed-out in his interview, the first modern anti-colonial revolt against the European powers in Africa was undertaken by the (white) South African "Boers," that is to say that after 300 years of living on the land of South Africa, the Afrikaners though of European origin (in times long past) did/do consider themselves to be African (and this was a position that Nelson Mandela's African National Congress also accepted even as it called for a true multiracial South Africa rather than one divided between races/ethnicities).  The second complication was, of course, that of the Cold War, which forced all African nation states to choose allegiances between the two Super Powers (the United States and the Soviet Union) that didn't necessarily make sense to, much less serve the interests of Africans.   P.W. Botha underlined this aspect of the South African conflict noting that a great deal of white South Africans (who were the richer and far more landed parties in South Africa) were simply terrified of the Communists.  (And it should be noted that within a year after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the still Apartheid regime of South Africa legalized legalized Nelson Mandela's African National Congress and released him from prison and four years after that Nelson Mandela was elected as the first president of today's multiracial state of South Africa).

Still the documentary notes well that the Cold War era battle that raged against the Apartheid regime in  South Africa engulfed not merely South Africa itself but also Namibia, Zimbabwe, the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique as well as the already independent but still "front-line" states such as Zambia and Tanzania.  And this decades long conflict came quite quickly to an end following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

So today Africa is no longer under colonial control.  Instead Africans now rule Africans across the continent.  What's next for Africa?  It would be the thesis of the film maker, Tukufu Zuberi [IMDb], that the next steps for Africa would be toward greater unity, to take-up anew the Pan-African project envisioned by W.E.B. DuBois and Ghana's independence leader Kwama Nkrumah.  As the film maker noted, Europe, divided for centuries and having suffered through two cataclysmic wars in the last century has recognized the value of coming together as a single entity.  Africa too would benefit from being able to speak more clearly with a united voice.  Finally, African themselves have to begin to think in terms of actions and policies that serve the interests of Africa rather than the interests of outsiders.

All in all, this is an excellent, well organized, thought provoking presentation about where Africa was, where it is today, and where it can go in the future.  For those interested in history, human rights as well as geopolitics, this documentary is well worth the viewing.  Good job!


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