Monday, August 26, 2013

The World's End [2013]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RogerEbert.com (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

The World's End [2013] (directed and cowritten by Edgar Wright along with Simon Pegg) is certainly one of the most creative and I would say ONE OF THE BEST (Anglo-American) films of this year.  Since the Oscars offer now up to 10 spots for BEST PICTURE, if there's any justice at all, this film ought to get a nomination in that category as well as a nod for BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY.  In a fairly dismal year in at least Hollywood movies, I honestly found the film a veritable BREATH OF FRESH AIR ;-).

So what's the film about? ;-).  It's about Gary King (played by Simon Pegg) reminiscing today about how 20 years past on the night of their (high school) graduation he and his 4 best friends set-off on an epic "bar crawl" of 12 pubs in their hometown of Newton Haven somewhere in the rolling countryside of "small town England."  Recalling the night to his AA group ... ;-) ... he noted that one of his companions dropped out at 4 pubs, another at 6 and none of them were able to get past 9 ... that they never made it to the last pub, at the edge of town, named "The World's End."  Rolling their eyes (no doubt frustrated that Gary didn't seem to "get it" as to what the AA group was about ;-) some of the other members of the AA group nevertheless concede that his had been an "epic" quest. 

And so Gary King (or "King Gary" as he had been known when he had been "at the top of the world" in high school) leaves his London-based AA meeting with the goal of recreating and FINISHING this "epic journey" with his old high school buddies.  The problem is, of course, that ALL FOUR OF HIS HIGH SCHOOL BUDDIES have since established themselves and have gone on with their lives.  NONE of them recall their "high school days" as fondly as Gary and indeed, it would seem that ALL OF THEM have for one reason or another dumped Gary as a friend years ago as well ;-(.  What to do? 

With an enthusiasm akin to Jake and Elmwood Blues from The Blues Brothers [1980], Gary cajols, guilts and to one, his former best friend, Andy Knightley (played by Nick Frost), he flat-out lies (telling Andy that his mother had died and that she always loved him as the best of all his friends ...) to get them together to do this thing. 

So they all meet at a London Tube station at the edge of town on a Friday night.  Gary, of course, is late ... ;-) ... None the other four is surprised ... ;-).  But when he does show-up, they are ALL astounded to see him arrive with his old legendary car.  "Is THAT the Beast?" one asks.  Gary proudly replies: "Well, except for the brakes, the suspension, the carburetor, transmission, the whole engine really, upholstering on a couple of the seats, and a fender or two, YES IT IS!"  The four, ALL a "few pounds worse for their wear" get in ... and they are off!

Soon they approach their home town of Newton Haven, which NONE of them had gone back to in years, in good part because it was, well, except for those 12 pubs ... BORING.  How boring?  Well, it's claim to fame appears to have been that it was "the site of the first round-about in England" (those horrible traffic circles that exist all over England/Ireland and are supposedly "safer" than traffic lights).  So ... quaint as the town may have been (or may be ...), this was a town that was ... quite boring.

No matter.  The five check into a bed and breakfast somewhere at the edge of town and are soon off to their first pub.  To Gary's disappointment, the pub, though with its old name-plate hanging outside, inside LOOKS NOTHING LIKE the pub of old.  Instead, it looks just like any pub that one could expect to see anywhere in London or any other big English city.  And instead of serving anything "local," the employee at the tap just tells Gary that "they serve beer."  As disappointed as Gary may have been, one of the four accompanying him shrugs without much surprise saying: "Just another example of the 'Starbuckization' of the world..."

No matter (again ;-).  The next pub's gonna be better, 'cept ... ;-) ... the next pub, except for the sign outside, INSIDE LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE THE FIRST ONE.  Depressed after their pint (they are at 2 now ...), they head to the third pub.

Now the third pub starts to look a little bit different (maybe 'cause they've had a few pints ..).  But here first Gary and then the rest start to notice THAT THE PEOPLE of their old home town, WHICH ALL OF THEM HAD LEFT YEARS AGO, seemed "odd."  How odd?  Well ... that's the rest of the film ;-).

The rest of the film requires a certain flexibility of the audience that a lot of people may not have.  This is because the film does make a leap into "science fiction land" (I'm not going to say more ;-).  But for those who can make the leap (or prove at least willing to try ...) THE FILM OFFERS ENORMOUS REWARDS.  This is because this "stupid little film" about a drunk and arguably "loser" trying to "relive his past" becomes surprisingly profound:  What exactly makes us human?  And is anyone really a "loser" so long as one remains free?  Yes free to make mistakes, free to pay for them, but still free.

Honestly, I am in awe of this film.  As silly / stupid as it seems at first, it really packs a punch ;-).

So a final question: Do the five make it to "The World's End"?  ... Go see the movie, I'm not gonna say :-)


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Mortal Instruments: City of Bones [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  ChiTribune (2 Stars)  RE.com (1 Star)  AVClub (C)  Lost'nReviews (3.5/5)   WeLiveFilm (7.5/10)  Fr. Dennis (1 Star)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (Roger Moore) review
RogerEbert.com (Simon Abrams) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review
LostinReviews (Sarah Ksiazek) review
WeLiveFilm (Nuffin Muffin) review
DigitalJournal (Sarah Gopaul) review

About an hour into Mortal Instruments: City of Bones [2013] (directed by Harald Zwart, screenplay by Jessica Postigo based on the novel by Cassandra Clare [IMDb]) I realized something fairly important, IMHO, in appreciating this film -- I'm not a 12 year old girl ;-).  HOWEVER, in my line of work, I do know a fair number of 12 year olds, including a number who had been quite excited that their mother was going to take them to see it.  So ... since all three of the girls that I knew had gone to the film with one of their moms were altar servers, I decided to ask them what they thought of the film ;-).  And their opinions then inform a good part of this review.

Ah, to be a 12 year-old again ;-).  One thing to understand immediately here is that most 12 year olds don't go "to the show" often.  So from the get-go, it's a fairly big deal.  Then it was an even bigger deal for the three girls because the movie promised to be about MAGIC and OTHER MYSTERIOUS THINGS (again, folks put yourselves in the mindset of a 12 year old) AND THE HERO PROMISED TO BE A TEENAGE GIRL NOT MUCH OLDER THAN THEY ARE AND THEN SOMEONE WHO WAS KINDA LIKE THEM.  Like Bella in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga [1] [2], the heroine here, named Clary (played by Lily Collins) was really a "regular girl," not a basket case but not particularly "popular." So she was "relateable."  Comparing Clary to Bella, the three girls actually preferred Clary because they felt that Bella may have been too much of a depressed "drama queen" or basket-case especially at the beginning of that series.  And Merida from Brave [2012], didn't feel like an appropriate person to compare Clary with because, well, Merida was a "cartoon" and Clary was "real."  So the three girls really liked Clary the best. 


Then the three twelve-year-olds that I talked to liked the "drama" and even understood the "love triangle" in the story between Clary, her best friend Simon (played by Robert Sheehan) who they characterized as a really nice guy (and liked/felt sorry for) and then the 'dreamier' Jace (played by Jamie Campbell Bower) who comes into Clary's life after he notices that she seems to see the same "demons" as he does.  In the story, "mundanes" (humans) generally don't see "demons," but "Shadow Hunters" (half-angels, half-humans) do.  Jace was a  "Shadow Hunter" and discovers that Clary who previously could not see demons, apparently was seeing them now as clearly as he was.  Thus Jace recognizes that Clary must be a "Shadow Hunter" as well.

Those who remember Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga [1] [2] would probably be able to quickly catch the similarities between MI's Simon and Twilight's Jacob and MI's Jase and Twilight's Edward.  However, there prove to be substantial differences as well.  For one, Twilight's Jacob was a Werewolf, Simon was a Mundane (Human).  Another was that both Clary and Jace were "Shadow Hunters" (mixed race Angels/Humans) while Twilight's Bella was initially a very "mundane" human and Edward was, of course, a Vampire.

Indeed Cassandra Clare does brew a good stew that blends a lot of contemporary cultural motiffs into her tale: There are quite literally "Angels and Demons" present (a nod to Dan Brown).  There's a "chalice" that came into the story during "Crusader times." This cup/chalice wouldn't seem to be the Holy Grail (a Cup associated with Christ) as traditionally understood  but there obvious similarities.  Further, in something that could become a mild "spoiler alert," as per Dan Brown's Da Vinci code, there becomes something of an ambiguity as to what potential "Vessel" is actually important -- the "cup" that Clary's mom apparently hid in some way, or ... (I'll let you complete the sentence yourselves ;-).  Then the film, set in New York (instead of London) is set around an "Institute" that only non-mundanes (non-humans) can see, the "Institute" playing a role similar to Hogwarts Academy of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter [1] [2] series.  Then there's still a battle between Werewolves and Vampires (as per the Twilight Saga and perhaps even the Underworld franchise).  The dress of the "Shadow Hunters" appears to be a further and honestly IMHO not altogether age appropriate further tribute to the Underworld franchise as well as Sucker Punch [2011] (interestingly enough both Clary and Simon don't particularly like the dress of the punk-looking half-angel/half-mundane "Shadow Hunters" look with Clary asking one of the other Shadow Hunters why she was being asked to "dress like a hooker" to fit in with them (Good question actually, and a lot of Parents would probably want to know...).  Finally, in one of the more problematic plot twists in this, still the first episode, (SPOILER ALERT but IMHO IMPORTANT FOR PARENTS TO KNOW...), it turns out that Clary and Jace (half-angel/half human that they are ...) COULD BE BROTHER AND SISTER (shades of George Lucas' Star Wars saga...).

This last plot-twist (again SPOILER ALERT but IMHO IMPORTANT FOR PARENTS TO KNOW) was clearly "a bit too much" for the 12 year olds that I interviewed to handle.  Honestly, none of them really knew what to do with it.  They all found it "gross" and hoped that Jase / Clary really weren't "brother and sister" because "if they were, then there'd be no love triangle" as one of the 12 year olds put it ... hoping that the story would again follow more closely the tensions of the Twilight Saga.

Admitting then that there are elements (and even a lot of them) that clearly "worked" for the three 12 year olds that I interviewed for this review and that they really did enjoy the film, I DO FEEL IT'S MY DUTY HERE as a Catholic priest / reviewer to point out some significant problems that Parents ought to take into account when deciding whether or not to take their girls to THIS FILM:

(1) The dress of the "Shadow Hunters" really is punkish/slutty and so forth.

(2) Further, the "Shadow Hunters" as depicted in the film are covered almost head to toe with tattoos.  That in itself would cause concerns to many parents.  True, "body art" has become more and more popular in recent decades.  However, given the PERMANENCE of tattoos and THEN THE PERMANENCE OF BOTCHED TATTOOS, INAPPROPRIATE TATTOOS, STUPID TATTOOS, TATTOOS THAT "SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME ..." I honestly don't think it a particularly WISE idea to propagandize TWELVE YEAR OLDS about the "coolness" of tattoos when a 12 year old wouldn't have anything approaching a concept of PERMANENCE/ETERNITY, etc.  Tattoos are NOT "stickers" that "wash away..." TATTOOS STAY... TILL DEATH DO YOU PART.  (Note that I'm not totally against tattoos and have over the years defended late teenagers and young adults to their parents when the parents got upset over their young adult getting a tattoo. But tattoos are not to be taken lightly. THEY STAY).

(3) However, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Mortal Instruments' use of Tattoos are the depictions of Clary burning TATTOOS (in the film they are called "Runes") INTO HER OWN SKIN for "magical purposes."  IN MY PASTORAL WORK, I'VE HAD TO DEAL WITH TEENAGERS WITH "CUTTING" PROBLEMS.  And ANY PARENT who's had to deal with a young girl with "cutting problems" would probably become IMMEDIATELY CONCERNED WITH THIS ASPECT OF THE FILM.

(4) Yes, that two of the main characters Clary and Jace find out AFTER THEY HAD PASSIONATELY KISSED that they MAY be brother and sister is something that MANY/MOST TWEENS would not have ANY IDEA of what to do with.  And it's SIMPLY NOT RIGHT to THROW THIS AT TWEENS (and THEIR PARENTS) without WARNING.

So even though I honestly sympathize and HOPEFULLY EMPATHIZE with the three 12 year olds who went to see this film with one of their mothers, and the mother herself who was trying to be a good relateable mom as well, I really do think that the story ultimately betrayed its viewers.  And it's a shame because there was a lot of potential in the story.  And I also wish to say that I kinda feel sorry for the author of the original story because she really did come-up with a brew that could have been interesting.  Still I don't think it's useful to make a film that depicts arguably "good uses for 'cutting,'" or even that it offers a "tweenage exploration of incest."  Most like the 12 year olds I talked to for this review, would find that "gross" and needlessly confusing.


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Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Canyons [2013]

MPAA (NR would be R / NC-17)  Film.com (5.3/10)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars)  RE.com (1 Star)  AVClub (C)   Fr. Dennis (3 Stars w. Expl)

IMDb listing
Film.com (M. Patches) review
NPR (I. Buckwalder) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

The Canyons [2013] (directed by Paul Schrader, screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis) is an intentionally edgy unrated (would be R less probably NC-17 rated but Parents do take note.) offering that a number of critics (see above) really didn't know what to do with (Others some young, others venerable/respected "stepped up" and IMHO understood).  The film played recently at Facets Multimedia in Chicago.

So why the hoopla or confusion?  Well, among the film's headliners is a porn star, who goes by the name James Deen, who has some 1000 credits to his name, most unrepeatable on most film blogs (including, honestly mine ;-), and another is Lyndsay Lohan whose in-and-out of rehab / in-and-out of jail life has been catnip for the tabloids for years.   And yet the casting results in a remarkable even searingly honest "hardboiled film" IMHO completely in the "film noir" tradition about Hollywood's "fallenness" / "brokenness" TODAY (an era awash in Porn, often enough produced "in the Valley" just to Hollywood's north and west). 

So the film begins with two young couples having "cocktails and dinner" at some presumptuous, though not overly so (still B-league) restaurant probably "in the (San Fernando) Valley."  Why characterize the establishment as "B-league"?  Because none of the four drinking their drinks, eating their food, not even rich kid (25 or so, living off of his multimillionaire dad's trust fund) Christian (played by above mentioned James Deen) is anywhere near "A-team."  But they can hope, and, especially Christian, they can "pretend ..."

The above-mentioned pretentious Christian, who lives alone with his current girl friend Tera (played by above mentioned Lyndsay Lohan) in a fabulous Pacific Ocean facing mansion (with both a drop-dead awesome view and a large luxurious pool) in the mountains outside of Malibu given/left to him by his super-rich father, "dabbles" in producing movies.  They're not exactly serious movies, mostly mad-slasher/horror films.  But then, he doesn't have to be serious ...

The other couple seated with Christian and Tera at their raised table (they're all sitting on bar-stools) at the somewhat pretentious but still B-league restaurant "in the Valley" are Christian's sweet (and largely clueless) administrative assistant Gina (played by Amanda Brooks) and her boyfriend Ryan (played by Nolan Funk) a young hunkish struggling actor that Gina and we soon find out Tera had convinced Christian to cast as a lead in an upcoming horror/slasher film slated to be shot some weeks hence out in Mexico. 

Now why would Ryan and Tera know each other?  Well, they were boy-friend/girl-friend when they first arrived in L.A. some three years past.  (They met actually in L.A.).  At the time, both were struggling and at some point Tera dumped him for more verdant pastures.  Not necessarily evil, she tells Ryan when they meet again sometime after that dinner that nice guy though he is (and creep though Christian is...), that she's simply not going to back to eating "ramen noodles" forever. (She's a gold-digger, but then ... put that way, one does sorta understand, especially when one thinks of a 20-something year old who believes she "has options"). 

For his part, Ryan's found his 3 years in Los Angeles something of a nightmare.  Perhaps a good actor, perhaps not, he was certainly a looker and he's found himself repeatedly forced to "put-out" in homosexual trysts with superiors (producers, potential producers, club owners, etc).  And one gets the sense that he'd probably prefer to be straight.  After all, at the start of the film, he's with one girlfriend Gina, we soon find out that he had another girlfriend, Tera, some years back.  There's even a third young woman who enters the mix named Cynthia (played by Tanille Houston).  Yet, when he needs a job, he's asked/coerced repeatedly to "put-out" for powerful men. 

The story plays out from there.  It's somewhat predictable.  But then what hard-boiled "b-film," "Film Noir" films are not "somewhat predictable"?  Yes, given both the casting and point of the film, there is also a fair amount of nudity present (but definitely not overwhelming).  Is that nudity strictly necessary?  No.  Similarly sultry films have been made without it.  Yet, neither is the nudity simply gratuitous.  The scenes where it is present do make sense.  Finally, strip away the nudity, is there still a story?  Definitely.  So this film is an intelligent piece of work.  (And I would add that both Lyndsay Lohan's and even James Deen's acting was quite good.  I'm not sure if this film was particularly healthy for Lyndsay Lohan to have made.  However, throughout the film there's a courage/honesty that needs to be acknowledged). 

In a good "Noir" film, there's generally some "unspeakable secret" on which the disorder present in the story hinges.  The obvious secret "revealed" in this film is that (b-league) Hollywood films often depend on the caprices of "psycho rich kids with money" like Christian.   But perhaps the more interesting and arguably even more subversive "secret" is that the reason why Hollywood has become so "gay friendly" over the years is that a fair portion of its male actors, whether initially straight or not, have had to follow Ryan's rather humiliating trajectory to "make it in the business," that is, that the "casting couch" is for everybody these days.

That may be disturbing.  But then, disturbing/inconvenient truths are what good "Film Noir" is generally about ...


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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

Lee Daniels' The Butler [2013] (directed by Lee Daniels, screenplay by Danny Strong) is a historical drama about the 1950s-1980s Civil Rights Era in the United States inspired by the real life of Eugene Allen an African American butler who served eight presidents in the White House from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan and who was the subject of an article by Washington Post journalist Wil Haygood [IMDb] in the heady days immediately following the election of Barrack Obama as the first African American president of the United States.

I do characterize the film as a historical drama, IMHO far more like Doctor Zhivago [1965] / A Man for All Seasons [1966] than Forrest Gump [1995] to which the film has been at times been somewhat unfortunately compared, because while on one hand it is clear Lee Daniels' The Butler [2013] was inspired by Wil Haygood [IMDb] article and subsequent book about Eugene Allen even the name of the central character in the film was changed from Eugene Allen to Cecil Gaines (played as an 8 year old by Michael Rainey Jr, as a 15 year old by Aml Ameen and as an adult by Forest Whitaker).  Further, entire characters in the film, like Cecil's and his wife Gloria's (played by Oprah Winfrey) eldest son Louis (played by David Oyelowo), were largely invented for the purposes of the story.

On the other hand, I do believe that the story is legit as a serious historical drama, with a clear historical sweep and a serious message.  No one would seriously dismiss Doctor Zhivago [1965] as a work of serious historical drama even if there was no "historical Dr. Zhivago" (or "Strelnikov," "Komarovsky", "Lara", "Tonya" and so forth ...).  Further, the character of Cecil's fictionalized, largely invented eldest-son Lewis serves a similar story-telling purpose as Saint Thomas Moore's fictionalized, largely invented "son in law" in A Man for All Seasons [1966].   In both films, these characters provide a contrast to the path chosen by their respective story's central character.  In any case, the current film is intended to be a more serious one than the effervescent "life is a box of chocolates" Forrest Gump [1995]Lee Daniels' The Butler [2013] is a film about the struggle against heavy odds of an entire people personified in the life/family of Cecil Gaines.

Thus the film begins with Cecil as an 8 year old, living on a cotton plantation in the Macon County, Georgia in the Jim Crow South (the actual Eugene Allen grew-up in Southern Virginia ... still in the Jim Crow South, but not Macon County, GA).  After Cecil's father was shot and his mother raped by the privileged, white A-hole son of the plantation owner, the white Matron of the plantation (played by Vanessa Redgrave) takes the 8-year old orphaned Cecil "into the house" and promises to train him as a "House N...".  This is how Cecil gets his initial training and it serves him after he flees from the plantation at 15 and makes his way all the way up to Washington D.C. at the edge of the Old South as an adult ... Working as a waiter at a Washington D.C. establishment in the early 1950s, he gets noticed by someone working on the staff at the White House and gets offered a job among the largely (arguably all black) serving staff there.

Working then at the White House from the time of Dwight D. Eisenhower [IMDb] played in the film by Robin Williams) through the administrations of John F. Kennedy [IMDb] (played by James Mardsen), Lyndon Johnson [IMDb] (played by Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon [IMDb] (played by John Cusack) to that of Ronald Reagan [IMDb] (played by Alan Rickman), Cecil is shown quietly doing his job of serving as part of the White House staff, even as momentous events often directly touching African American civil rights take place around him, like the implementation of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision during the Eisenhower Administration, the beginnings of the Sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights Movement during the Kennedy Administration and continuing during the Johnson Administration (While Cecil quietly does his job as a servant at the White House, his son Louis is portrayed as participating in many of these protests) to the brief Black Panther Era (following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr [IMDb] (played in the film by Nelsan Ellis) and Robert F. Kennedy [IMDb]) during the Nixon Administration, to the protests in the U.S. against Apartheid in South Africa during the Reagan Administration to finally the election of President Obama.

Across this 50 year sweep of history, the film devotes about 1/2 its time portraying Cecil quietly at work at the White House and 1/2 the time portraying him at home dealing with various often timely/poignant "family issues" in his own house.

All in all, the film makes for a nice well structured story.  This film isn't a biopic.  However it makes for a quite good to excellent (mainstream) Zhivago-esque historical drama.  
 

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Jobs [2013]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RogerEbert.com (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (K. Ryan) review

To be honest, I'm generally wary of "Great Leader" films:  

On one hand they can be absurdly adulatory ("The Great Leader/Innovator is/was just Godlike in his Awesomeness.")  The "arrival scenes" of (1) HITLER IN NUREMBERG in  Leni Riefenstahl's [IMDb] infamous Nazi-Era "documentary" Triumph of the Will [1935] and of (2) STALIN IN BERLIN in Mikheil Chiaureli's [IMDb] infamous (and utterly fictionalized) Stalin-era propaganda film The Fall of Berlin [1950] (Stalin played by the poor sop Mikheil Gelovani [IMDb], talk about having an awful gig ...) truly set the bar for what is horribly possible.

On the other hand these films can be hatchet jobs ("The Great Leader/Innovator is/was actually a Real Dick...") made by people who obviously hated said "Great Leader"/"Innovator" for any number of reasons or agendas.  Here one thinks of the recent film Hyde Park on Hudson [2011] reducing the venerable FDR (The New Deal / leading the US in World War II) to a pervert or even The Social Network [2010] which presented Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a creep who arguably created Facebook to cyber-stalk a (fictionalized or even invented) ex-girlfriend.  

Finally, there's the third way, admitting: "Okay, the Great Leader/Innovator may have been a Dick but look at what he/she also accomplished..."

I'd put the current film Jobs [2013] (directed by Joshua Michael Stern, screenplay by Matt Whiteley) about Apple Computers co-founder Steve Jobs (IMHO played admirably in the current film by Ashton Kutcher) in the third category as Jobs both in the film (and apparently in real life) was BOTH a "Great Visionary" and often "a Dick." 

Job's dickishness was repeatedly presented during the course of the film from (1) breaking-up with his live-in girl friend when she got pregnant and REFUSING FOR YEARS to acknowledge that her child Lisa WAS HIS even as he actually named an Apple computer project ("Lisa") that he was working-on at the very same time after her, to (2) his cutting-out of three buddies who he had quickly hired to help solder 500 "Apple 1" circuit boards for him and fellow Apple Computers co-founder Steve Wozniak (played again admirably in the film by Josh Gad) as they, still working out of Steve Jobs' dad's garage, struggled to complete their very first order (to a SF Bay electronics hobby shop) back in 1977.  At the time of Apple Computer's IPO, Jobs declared that he could have hired "any three electricians with a soldering iron" to help solder those first 500 circuit boards.  That may be true, but most of us would still be appalled as those three  were his friends at the time and without them he and Wozniak never would have gotten that first order done in time (and perhaps there never would have been an Apple Computers afterwards).

Yet the film, which focused on Steve Jobs' / Apple Computer's (now Apple, Inc) pre-iPod years, did show Job's arguably rare capacity to integrate technology, aesthetics and business acumen.   He was portrayed as someone who was someone who not only understood technology (if not as well as perhaps Steve Wozniak) but also understood that this technology had to "look good" / "look cool" for it to get out of the hands of the "geeks" and into those of regular / other creative people.  Finally, he was portrayed as one who could defend himself in the sphere of business.  Yes, he was forced out by the business folks at Apple Computers for some years following the below expectations launch of the Macintosh.  However, after a number of years in exile (during which he founded a moderately successful software firm named NEXT) he did make his way back to Apple and turned it in the arguably "post PC" direction that it finds itself today.  Again, Jobs appeared (both in the movie and in real life) as interested in "more" than "just computers."  As important to him appeared to be aesthetics: how the computers/technology products looked and what one could do with them.

Still his focus on aesthetics was portrayed in the film (IMHO accurately) as also a drawback: A cool-looking and very capable gizmo is almost always going to cost more than a more "boxy" less capable one.  The result has been what pretty much all of us know: Apple products are ALWAYS expensive, enough to put themselves out of reach of most potential buyers.  Still Jobs appears to have been most interested in "setting the bar" or at least "setting the trend."

The viewer of the film is ultimately left to decide whether Jobs was (1) a genius, or (2) a flawed genius (that he was often a jerk when dealing with others, and that he always kept Apple products too expensive for most people to buy).

However what frustrates me the most about the film is that it leads viewers to choose only between those two options.  I would suggest that with the exception of his rather interesting preoccupation with aesthetics (IMHO something rather rare in the world of techies) that Jobs may not have been "a genius" at all.

Perhaps Jobs'/Wozniak's creation of "the first PC" (the Apple II) was a stroke of genius even though almost immediately afterwards arrived the rival Commodore 64 (which as always with Apple's innovative products, was soon beating Apple in sales. Why? Surprise, the Commodore was cheaper).  A similar thing could be said of the iPod.  Was it a stroke of genius or was it basically historical inevitability?  If Jobs/Apple had not come up with it, would someone else have?  And given how fast cheaper (and often more capable) knock-offs of Apple products have been brought to market, one could argue that if Jobs/Apple had not come-up with these products then perhaps any of hundreds of other engineering shops, big and small, would have come-up with them anyway.

BUT ;-) ... Jobs/Apple WERE the FIRST to come-up with the Personal Computer, FIRST to come-up with a commonly available MP3 player, FIRST to attach a cell-phone to the MP3 player and FIRST to make the "smart phone" into a Tablet.  That's a lot of FIRSTS ;-)

So perhaps Jobs really was a genius (and not just lucky/ruthless) after all ;-).  All in all, this is a good film and IMHO a better one than most of the critics would give it credit for.  Still I do think that Jobs was often a jerk ;-)


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Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Man in the Silo [2012]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13/R)   Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
IndieWire review

The Man in the Silo [2012] (directed and cowritten by Phil Donlon along with Christopher E. Ellis) is a Hitchcockian thriller that played recently at Chicago's 19th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival held at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The film's about a middle-aged African American executive named Marcus Wells (played with stunning intensity by Ernie Hudson) who appears to have come to a breaking point:

He had a high stress but in all likelihood well compensated job and he had married a beautiful (white) "Midwest farmer's daughter" named Emily (played by Sandra Robinson) with whom he had mixed race boy named Carl (played by Brandon Ratcliff).  Following the death of her father in an accident "in the silo," Emily had asked Marcus if they could move back to her parents' farm so that she could take care of her elderly mother (played by Jane Alderman).  No problem, granted it extended his commute to 3 hours each way from her parents' farm into the city each day, but for the sake of his wife okay.

But when they moved in, it became apparent that Emily's parents had never really accepted their daughter's decision to marry a black man (no matter how successful he was...): Though the house was filled with family pictures including pictures of Emily as a beautiful young woman prior to her marrying Marcus, there were NO PICTURES AT ALL, ANYWHERE, of Emily with Marcus or their son Carl.  And the elderly and arguably already "half senile" Sara (also grieving the loss of her husband) took-on a habit of trying to brush the curls out of Carl's hair WITH A BIG BRUSH that Marcus soon took to calling a "dog brush."  

The "coup de grace" came when Emily and Carl were killed (even before the movie started, all the above is revealed to us in flashbacks) in a car accident.

So the film began with Marcus commuting three hours each way each day between his high-stress job and his wife's parents' home, somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin, taking care of his mother-in-law (who hated him) still on behalf of his recently deceased wife who hadn't wanted to put her mother "in a home."

How would you feel?  And could YOU take that kind of pressure?  Great film!


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Babe's and Ricky's Inn [2011]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Los Angeles Times (B. Sharkley) review
Hollywood Reporter (F. Scheck) review

Babe's and Ricky's Inn [2011] (written and directed by Ramin Niami) is a documentary that played recently at Chicago's 19th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival held at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It is also available for rent or purchase at both Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.

The film is about the legendary Los Angeles blues bar "Babe's and Ricky's Inn" founded in 1957 by Mississippi transplant Mama Laura Mae Gross after her husband died of a stab wound he received in the course of being robbed of his paycheck one day.  Honestly, talk about the blues ...

But rather than weep forever, she went into business, opening in 1957 a place called Laura's Bar-B-Que (located at Wilmington and Imperial Hwy in L.A.) and in 1964 she purchased a place located at 5259 Central Avenue in the heart of the then club section of Watts, renamed it "Babe's and Ricky's Inn" (after her nephew and son, and the iconic blues club was born.  In the 1990s, the club moved to 4339 Leimert Blvd (still in South Central L.A.) but closed in recent years following Mama Laura's death. 

The film features testimonials of dozens of blues musicians, local, "from the South," from the rest of the country and indeed from across the world, black, white, mixed black-korean (those who lived in L.A. in the years surrounding the 1992 L.A. Riots would know the pointed/poignant significance of that combination), chicano and even a young Japanese American guitarist who Mama Laura nicknamed "Tokyo Mississippi" (the name stuck ;-).

The only criticism that other reviewers have leveled at the documentary that IMHO any blues lover would cherish -- "Cracker" though I am ;-), I've loved the blues since college days, frequenting the Checkboard Lounge "back in the day" when it was still a "one lightbulb joint" on 43rd Street on Chicago's South Side (in today's Bronzeville) after a high school friend of mine discovered it while attending the University of Chicago.  And since coming back to Chicago ten years ago, I've taken a parade of friends, visiting relatives from the Czech Republic and visiting Servites from Mexico, India, South Africa and Brazil (and even the occasional parishioner... ;-) to "Lee's Unleaded Blues" at 74th St. and South Chicago Ave (about 15-20 minutes north or my current parish) -- is that the documentary is mostly about the music and only a little, at the end, about Mama Laura herself.

Still as the documentary progresses one gets a taste of her personality.  All sorts of younger musicians testified throughout the course of the film how she served as a mentor figure to them, that she wouldn't openly criticize, but if she didn't particularly like what they were doing on stage she'd "just turn away" and "start doing other things" ;-).  And then she was also a tough lady, by legend going to sleep at her club each night after closing "on the pool table with a .38 under her pillow."  With an image like that seared into one's imagination, what more does one really need to know? ;-)

ADDENDUM:  Babe's and Ricky's Inn [2011] is available for rent / purchase at both Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.  


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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

For the Cause [2013]

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

IMDb listing

For the Cause [2013] (written and directed by native Chicagoan Katherine Nero) had its premiere recently at Chicago's 19th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival held at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Readers of my blog will certainly note that I've come to enjoy the calendar of film festivals held here over the course of the year in our fair city.  After a while, one also gets a sense of the relative sizes of audiences that attend these film festivals.  So here I do wish to note that perhaps since (1) Katherine Nero, the film's director is from Chicago, (2) she filmed the movie during the course of the previous summer on Chicago's South Side and (3) most of the actors/actresses were recruited from Chicago, that though the film's themes are serious and definitely transcend Chicago and I would argue even the United States (see below) the showing of the movie to a packed mostly African American audience at this film festival in Chicago dedicated to African-American Cinema had a cheerful "hometown feel" to it.  Indeed, before the showing of the film, a smiling, cheerfully dressed Ms Nero, happily acknowledged the presence of a good number of similarly cheerful attendees to the screening from her Church as well as others who had been her sorority sisters during her college days. Yet the cheeriness belies the depth and multifaceted challenge of this film...

So what is it about?  It is about a young professional African American woman named Mirai M. Scott (played by Charlette Speigner) a lawyer working for a firm specializing in cases of African-American prisoners who had been incarcerated (either found guilty on bad/tainted evidence or forced to take plea deals) for crimes that they did not commit; her parents Fredi Scott (played by Shariba Rivers) now a university Professor presumably in history or political science and Rolly Spencer (played by Eugene Parker) who jumped bail / fled the country to Canada (Windsor, Ontario) in the early 1970s when Mirai was a young child due to his involvement locally (in Chicago) with the Black Panther Party; and then Mirai's boyfriend Paul Godfrey (played by Jerod Haynes) also a young African American professional (though more of an accountant/businessman) and his parents Harry and Claudia Godfrey (played by Anthony Lemay and Pam Mack respectively).

Present in this mix are two African American families who have largely "made it" in recent decades having achieved upper-middle class / professional status but who arrived at this point by different (if interrelated) means.

It's obvious in the film that Mirai's family was more "politically conscious" than Paul's but it also carries the scars of its past radical political involvement: Rolly had to flee the country (and though he apparently had started a new family out in Windsor he apparently never achieved the status/economic security of any of the others).  Further, the circumstances of Rolly's departure also caused obvious hardship/pain to both Mirai and Fredi.  (He comes back into their lives after being extradited, decades after the fact, to the United States from Canada and asks his daughter to defend him at trial ...).  Indeed throughout much of the film, Fredi seemed more angry at Rolly for abandoning them than at the circumstances that appeared to drive him to do so.

In contrast, the Paul's family appeared to be simply a happy and relatively successful contemporary African American family.  They didn't seem to have been particularly involved in ANYTHING during the Civil Rights Era (or in more radical language, the Black Liberation Era) of the 1950s-70s, even if they certainly benefited from its gains.  On one hand one could certainly be resentful of them: What did they do?  What sacrifices did they make?   BUT THIS IS ONE ASPECT OF THE FILM THAT MAKES IT MORE UNIVERSAL THAN ONE WOULD INITIALLY THINK: Maybe Paul's family was not OUT THERE, MORE COMBATIVE, INDEED MORE MILITANT, but IT WAS ALSO MORE "NORMAL." 

I think of my Slavic background and the famous scene in Dr. Zhivago [1965 IMDb] where the Radical (and still basically good guy) Strelnikov explains to the initially far wealthier/far better connected Dr. Zhivago (and clearly also a good guy, indeed the central protagonist of that story) of all the plans that he and the Party have for Russia and asks him what his (Zhivago's) part will be in these Grand Plans.  Noting the extensive "surgery" that Strelnikov was presenting to him, the Dr. Zhivago answers that he just plans "to live so that the patient (Russia) does not die."

How often across the course of my life have I heard people from often disparate but always ABNORMAL political situations -- folks from my parents' Czechoslovakia during the Communist Era, Catholics from Northern Ireland during "the Troubles," refugees from present day Iran, Coptic Christian refugees from Egypt, Israelis often survivors (often now children of survivors) of the Holocaust tired of living in a constant struggle to simply exist, Palestinian companions of mine in Grad school seething with anger as they recalled what it was like to spend hours passing through 2-3 Israeli checkpoints on a road and in a part of the West Bank that EVERYBODY agrees will one day go back to Palestinian control anyway -- all yearning to "just live a normal life," where one could "just worry" about educating the kids, being both a good spouse and happy in one's marriage, and (for those who are religious) to "live in peace with God the Creator of All." 

But what if one doesn't live in "normal" circumstances?  Be it in Franco's Spain or being African American in the United States.  And SELF-EVIDENTLY from the arrival of the first African slaves (in chains...) on American shores, the experience of African Americans has been marked by Radical Injustice.  And while we may look back today and consider NOW the success of the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1960s led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a foregone conclusion, (1) we also know now that (for instance) then US FBI director J. Edgar Hoover seemed hell-bent on destroying Martin Luther King, Jr and (2) the more radical alternatives offered by the Black Muslims (Nation of Islam) and, yes, the Black Panthers did much to help the white (and arguably WASP) establishment in this country "see the wisdom" of bending to the still peaceful, still praying, movement of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and the SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE.

This is all to say that Paul's happy and quite successful family owed its tranquility and happiness in good part to the sacrifices of Mirai's family.  And to my white readers, who might find terrifying/utterly incomprehensible even the possibility of even partly justifying the actions/existence of the Black Panther Party in the African American neighborhoods of America's cities in the 1960s-70s, I ask you to just take a few steps back.  There isn't that big of a difference between what the Black Panther Party was trying to do in the African American neighborhoods of American cities and what the ANC was actually able to do in the townships of Apartheid era South Africa or the IRA was able to do in Belfast, Northern Ireland.   In each case, peoples who experienced/perceived themselves to be oppressed had been "policed" by police/security forces overwhelmingly composed of their experienced/perceived oppressors: in the case of Apartheid era South Africa by white dominated security forces, in the case of Northern Ireland by an effectively ALL-PROTESTANT regional police force the Royal Ulster Constabulary (R.U.C.) and in American cities in the 1960s by still-overwhelmingly white urban police forces.  It was IMHO an extremely wise decision by America's cities to move to integrate their police forces -- I write this working in a parish with a good deal of police officers, both white and Hispanic, as parishioners -- because police forces that come from the same backgrounds as the people they are policing are instantly more credible to the people they are policing than people who come from elsewhere...

Very good.  So a good part of the story in this film takes place in the context of this backdrop:  Yes, some African American families have in recent decades "made it" into the upper middle / professional class, but ... On the one hand are they appreciative of the sacrifices made by others, "foot soldiers" as it were, to make their success possible?  And on the other hand, what of the lingering wounds often psychological/social of those who did sacrifice themselves so that others could succeed / achieve greater happiness in a more just society?  HOWEVER, this is actually ONLY ASPECT of this very thoughtful film, arguably its backdrop.

The OTHER IMPORTANT PART of the film BECOMES APPARENT as it progressively reveals to us viewers why Mirai's parents had their falling out.  On the surface, it would seem that Mirai's father Rolly really didn't have much of a choice but to jump bail and flee the country after being involved in an incident that ended-up wounding a Chicago Police Officer.  So why was her mother Fredi so upset with him?  This becomes the second half of the movie...

To those who do wish to see the movie, which I imagine will play other African American film festivals across the country in the coming year and will probably become available at some point on iTunes or Amazon Instant Video, I give a BIG SPOILER ALERT NOW.  However, for those who probably won't see the movie but have found its subject matter thusfar interesting, this is what happens:

The reason why Mirai's mother is so upset at Rolly is NOT because he abandoned her / Mirai by fleeing to Canada but rather that he abandoned her EVEN BEFORE by allowing her to be raped by several others belonging to the Black Panther group to which they belonged: "You let them run a train on me!" she yells at him at one point.

THIS IS THE SECOND ASPECT OF THE FILM with a MORE UNIVERSAL DIMENSION to the story than one would initially expect.  In recent years, SEVERAL MOVIES have confronted the topic of the abuse of women in times of conflict often by men who had been trusted/friends before the conflict and/or were often lionized as "heroes" in the initial histories written afterwards.

I'm thinking here of two movies in particular.  The first is Defiance [2008] which was about the otherwise heroic exploits of the Jewish partisans led by the Bielski brothers in Nazi occupied Byelorussia.  Heroes in a sense they were, but both the film and the original book on which it was based (which was written by a Jewish woman historian named Nechama Tec) made it clear that from the perspective of the women in the Bielski brothers' partisan group, they didn't exactly feel "free."  Most of the women had to "cut deals" with men in the band, serving them as "forest wives" in return for protection against other men in the group.   The second film is the one directed recently by Angelina Jolie named In the Land of Blood and Honey [2011]. That film was about the systematic abuse/rape of women during the Bosnian War in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, a situation that was personalized by a couple, she a Bosnian (Muslim), he a Serb, that knew each other casually before the war but progressively entered into a radically unequal relationship during it.  Yes, he "saved her" (and even arguably liked her and tried to be nice to her) but ...

This film, For the Cause [2013] whose title takes on an ironic quality, is a third film that confronts this subject.  Indeed, after this terribly painful secret is revealed, the whole of Mirai's mother's life begins to make sense.  She remains a radical.  Yet she devotes her life to studying and writing about the abuse of women (both in Bosnia and Rwanda and then across Africa).  One understands her and indeed the message of the film: Justice requires Justice across the board.  And in our day and age this means Justice for Women.  It's becoming increasingly hard to justify lionizing "Freedom Fighters" who end up abusing women.

This is film that truly carries a punch.  Good job!


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Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Spectacular Now [2013]

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

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

The Spectacular Now [2013] (directed by James Ponsoldt screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber based on the novel by Tim Tharp) is a surprising and intelligent coming of age story, which despite its title arguably works to undermine "the Now's" glorification:  For is any "Now," no matter how perfect, capable of standing up against a Sea of Tomorrows?  And yet "the Now," any "Now," has Value, even when "a Now" becomes "part of the Past."  Wow!  Honestly, this is one heck of a story about the central characters' last semester of High School (one of those periods in Life that seems both Awesome / Eternal at the time, but of course is not  ...).

Sutter (played by Miles Teller) is a damn good kid.  Yes, it becomes patently obvious 15 minutes into the film that he's going to have to face a drinking problem.  But he's also a really, really good guy.  He's popular, often "the life of the party" but he uses his popularity to help his friends and classmates who are less (socially) capable than he.  His friend (played by Masam Holden) is less successful than he is with girls, so he sets him up.  He runs into Aimee (played by Shailene Woodley) the other main character in the film, whose name he's embarrassed he does not know/remember at that first encounter, even if she goes to his school.  Yet after a few moments of experiencing her goodness (she finds him passed out on her lawn after a party...) he decides that he's going to be nice to her and make her see her potential even if she's perhaps too shy/insecure to see it herself.

Indeed, Sutter seems to have plans for everybody, except for himself.  He's far smarter than his grades would indicate, but can't seem to focus on writing an effective answer to an essay question on a college entrance application that COULD perhaps do much to explain away those poor grades.  Instead, he drinks, spiking his soft-drinks with alcohol that he's become rather adept in getting a-hold-of despite being clearly underage.  Indeed, he spends his time being "Comfortably Numb" (there's no reference to the famous song by Pink Floyd in the film, but IMHO that's EXACTLY where he keeps himself).

Why?  Well, we learn that he comes from a single parent home.  His mother (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a nurse (again someone who helps people).  His father has been out of his (and his family's) life for at least 10 years.   What Sutter remembers of him was that he too was also "a good guy" / "the life of the party" but he left or was thrown out by his mom for reasons that she adamantly refuses to talk to him about.  His older sister, already married, knows more, but also chooses not to talk much their parents' breakup AND HE IS BOTH TOO NICE AND PROBABLY TOO AFRAID TO ASK.

It is only after Aimee challenges him to be brave (just as he challenged her to be braver in facing her mother) that Sutter finally does not allow his mother / sister to continue to keep the story of his parents' breakup (and his father's whereabouts) a secret anymore.  Of course, what Sutter's told / pieces together on his own is painful, BUT NOT IN ANY CHEAP AND PREDICTABLE WAY.  His mother had told him (repeatedly) that he reminds her of his father ... and ... (well that's the rest of the movie ;-)

Is Sutter really like his dad?  How much is he like his dad?  Was/is his dad all bad?  Of course not, his mother never would have married his dad if he was.  But his dad did have clear flaws/failing.  Can he, Sutter, his dad's son, change?

Can Sutter learn to live in more than a "Comfortable Now" ... especially since the "Now" WON'T LAST FOREVER?  This is a great, great story! ;-)


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Friday, August 9, 2013

Elysium [2013]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review 
RogerEbert.com (B. Kenigsberg) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Elysium [2013] (written and directed by Neill Blomkamp) is a SciFi parable set on earth and its environs in the year 2154 after life on Earth (according to the story) had become so problematic (pollution, crime, overpopulation) that its rich had abandoned it for the ultimate "gated community" a utopian wheel-shaped space colony (a la Gerald K. O'Neill's post-Apollo era book The High Frontier (1975) [wikip]) called Elysium where the air was fresh, the water was clean, the lawns were lush and the medical care so top-notch that all diseases, (most notably skin cancer due to radiation) is cured in real time by means of a MRI like scanning/treatment device.

On Earth, well ... life appears cheap, violent and brutal, yet not without hope.  In probably one of the most interesting portrayals of Catholic nuns by Hollywood in recent decades (let alone the happy surprise of portraying Catholic nuns as relevant even in a vision of a distant future in a science fiction film), the nun (played by Yolanda Abbud L.) running the orphanage where Max (played as a child by Maxwell Perry Cotton and later as an adult by Matt Damon) and Frey (played as a child by Valentina Giron and later as an adult by Alice Braga) grow-up tells Max who dreams of "one day" finding a way of reaching the space-wheel in the sky: "Never forget where you come from and never forget how beautiful it is here" (amidst all of Earth's chaos/problems).

And so it is, Max along with all kinds of others grows-up dreaming of getting out/off the "hell hole" that Earth has become and going to the "perfect gated community in the sky," while the beautiful/carefree inhabitants of said "perfect gated community in the sky" go to all kinds of lengths, including blowing-up "illegal shuttles" trying to evade the "gated community's" / space colony's defenses, to keep "intruders at bay." Writer/director Neill Blomkamp who was born and raised in South Africa knows and works now in Los Angeles, by far the largest American metropolitan area near the border between the United States and Mexico, knows a thing or two about both Apartheid and the current immigration debate in the United States/elsewhere.

And Blomkamp reminds viewers that "post-Apartheid Apartheid" is not about just physical borders, it's really about access.  So the film is not merely about "sneaking across borders" for "a better life" in general.  It's also about access to medical care.  While Max was always resentful of the rich floating above him in their "gated community in the sky," when he finds himself doused with a dose of radiation at work that would kill him in 5 days time (and yet his body would be cured within minutes by the above-mentioned MRI-like reconstruction device floating up there in the sky), getting to the space colony, by hook or crook, becomes a matter of life and death.  And when he finds out that Frey's daughter Matilda (played by Emma Tremblay) needs to get up there for treatment (for leukemia) as well, the quest becomes all the more urgent.

Yet, of course, there are obstacles.  There's a "space cayote" (people smuggler) named Spider (played by Wagner Moura), there's a merciless Earth based deep undercover "border control agent" (played by Jackson Berlin) who gets called upon to "bring down" unauthorized shuttle craft heading toward the space colony with shoulder fired SAM missiles.  Finally there's an "ice"-cold "Defense Secretary" named Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster) bent on defending "what we've built" at the high flying space colony against "all intruders" for the sake of her "children and grandchildren."

Yes, it's a left-wing parable.  But like Upside Down [2012] and In Time [2011] it tells a story about radicially unequal societies with those on top hell-bent on keeping things that way.  Blomkamp's contribution would be that the ideology that justifies such separation between those who have and those who do not is basically that of Apartheid.  It's something to think about ...

But the presence of the Nuns in the story remains a remarkable addition because they remind us that "having" isn't all-important, that there is beauty/value even in the midst of chaos and even where there "isn't much" there can be Relationships and Hope.  And floating in a blissful "space colony in the sky" where every need is met but most of humanity is kept at bay could actually be akin to "floating in a grade-A grave."  Again, something more to contemplate ;-)

Finally, Parents, I would note that the film deserves its R-rating as it is at times IMHO needlessly gory/violent.  Perhaps this is so as to showcase the power of the MRI-like "reconstruction" machine which proves capable of reconstructing even the most mutilated of people (by either the sun's rays/radiation in outer space or by RPG / machine gun blasts below).  However, I do think that the same point could have been made in a less graphic manner.  That said, the film is certainly worth viewing by a young adult and above sci-fi inclined crowd.


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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters [2013]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
RogerEbert.com (M. McCreadie) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters [2013] (directed by Thor Freudenthal, screenplay by Marc Guggenheim, based on the book series by Rick Riordan [IMDb] entitled Percy Jackson & The Olympians (2005-) [wikip]) is the second installment of a somewhat derivative childrens' book series (a la J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series) about a young, previously listless boy named Percy Jackson (played by Logan Lehrman), who had been diagnosed as being ADHD, and had been growing-up in a single mother household in New York prior to being sent in the series' first installment Percy Jackson: Lightning Thief [2010] to "Camp Half-Blood" on Long Island one summer (CHB becoming the series' Hogwarts...) and only there discovering who he really was and why he didn't seem to "fit in" at home:  He himself was a "half-blood" (a demi-god, with his father having been the Greek God Poseidon).  There he made friends (again a la Harry Potter...) with other "half-bloods" (children of earth women and various generally deadbeat/never-really-around Greco-Roman dieities).  And at least the potential for a really fun series was born ... ;-)

Most of the critics have seemed unimpressed (see above).  I find myself in perhaps the surprising position of being more positive about the film / series than most, perhaps because:

(1) I don't necessarily find Greco-Roman paganism particularly threatening (It's really quite Earth centered ... what happens to Poseidon (a sea God after all...) once one steps off the Earth and goes to the moon or "Alpha Centauri..."?  These were not exactly conceived as "Gods of the Universe ..."), and ...

(2) I've always liked fun/creative takes on a good story:  So I did enjoy that chief Olympian God Zeus had his son Dionysus (known in the film as "Mr. D" and played by Stanley Tucci) as the Master at this "Camp Half Blood" for all the Gods' illegitimate/and often enough otherwise neglected children.  And yet, since Dionysus (the God of Wine after all) did like his vino (and yet was being made responsible for all these young kids...), Zeus put a curse on Dionysus' wine always turning it into water as he poured it into his glass.  Frustrated, Dionysus tells a Centaur: "You know the Christians have a guy who can do this in reverse ;-).  Now THERE's a God!" ;-)

In this story, Percy, Anabeth (daughter of Athena the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and played here by Alexandra Daddario), a young satyr (half-man/half-goat) named Grover (played Brandon T. Jackson) go on a quest to find the Golden Fleece, that was to have the power to heal, and particular heal a friend of theirs named Thalia (a daughter of Zeus), who had died at the end of the first story and had been converted by Zeus into a Tree that now protected the rest of the camp.

On the other side of the coin was Luke Castellan (played by Jake Abel) the rather bitter son of Hermes (played by Nathan Fillion), who as the messenger of the Gods, was truly "never ever there" for Luke when he was growing up.  So Luke was bent on getting a hold of the Golden Fleece as a means of resurrecting the Olympian Gods' great Nemesis, their father and king of the Titans, Chronos who once resurrected would presumably bring an end to the Olympians' rule.   (Amusingly, and a mild "spoiler alert" ... Luke had scoured the Earth and all its caves for the sarcophagus of Chronos and found it ... in a Cleveland museum ;-).  And so as this story proceeds there are some homages and send-ups of both Clash of the Titans [1981] [2010] and Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981]...)

All in all, I found the film quite entertaining, but I wouldn't recommend it anyone who hasn't had at least some exposure to Classical (Greco-Roman) Mythology as without some knowledge of the Greek/Roman Gods, a lot of the story would be missed.  So parents, I wouldn't see much of a point of taking a kid to this film who's below say 6th, 7th or 8th grade.  On the other side of the coin older teens might find the film a bit childish/boring.  Still a lot of the jokes/send-ups are quite funny ;-).


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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Blackfish [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
RogerEbert.com (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review

Blackfish [2013] (directed and cowritten by Gabriela Cowperthwaite along with Eli B. Despress) is a documentary centering on the treatment of Orcas known also as Killer Whales at marine-based amusement parks like "SeaWorld" in the aftermath of the 2010 death/killing of Orlando SeaWorld Trainer Dawn Brancheau by an arguably troubled Orca/Killer Whale named Tilikum who had already been involved in the deaths of two other people previously. 

While it is more or less obvious that Cowperthwaite's sympathies tend to side with Animal Rights proponents who question the morality of keeping of large sea creatures, clearly intelligent (otherwise one wouldn't be able to train them), often playful, in captivity often from childhood for decades at a time, IMHO she does a decent enough job navigating the minefield of ideology (on both sides) and money involved in the controversy.  SeaWorld is a money making enterprise, but it is also presumably capable of funding a lot of research that may be (or become) hard to fund otherwise.

Here I also confess that I've been fascinated by the question of "getting into the minds" of clearly intelligent animal species ranging from dogs to elephants to parrots/crows to chimps/gorillas to octopuses to dolphins and whales to even ants/bees and even vines/plants (whose rhythms and movements become discernible with time-lapse photography).  We have an annual blessing of animals around St. Francis' Feast Day at our parish and the little lawn area by the Church where we do so, has become over the years a surprisingly welcoming area for strays and even rabbits.  Do they "experience" that area as being "somehow special"?  How could one possibly know?  But I've seen over the years both strays (dogs) and even rabbits seemingly contently sitting there during summer evenings, again seemingly "contemplating" the vista of our rather large (and truth be told "needing work" parking lot ;-) and perhaps thinking: "Yeah, this is nice!" / "Life is good" and "I'm the Master of this space" (if for a while ;-).

Study in captivity could help researchers learn how to communicate with the seemingly more capable species with which we share our world and increasingly appreciate better how self aware they are (and then honestly see what they could teach us from their "point of view" / experience).  But I would hope that such study be done with respect toward the well-being of the creatures with which one would hope, over time, to enter into communication with.  In our world of webcams and even drones, all kinds of interesting, increasingly non-intrusive studies could be made.  And I would tend toward those kind of (increasingly non-intrusive) studies.  But I would not want to necessarily "throw away" the positive and potentially positive work that could be funded via for-profit institutions like SeaWorld.  They have a lot of money and certainly can be useful in funding such work.

In any case, this is a good thought provoking film that any dreamer / optimist / animal lover would certainly appreciate ;-)


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