Thursday, January 30, 2014

That Awkward Moment [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (Not Applicable)

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

That Awkward Moment [2014] (written and directed by Tom Gormican) is one of those films that I simply could not bring myself to see.  Yet its premise -- after one of the three leads, Micky (played by Michael B. Jordon), is dumped by his wife, he and the other two leads (played by Zac Efron and Miles Teller) decide that they are not going to get involved with women anymore.  Sure, they'll sleep with them, just not get "emotionally involved" anymore, "bros before hoes" they say -- does deserve some comment here.

Now yes, it would certainly suck being dumped, betrayed and all.  And one would certainly understand not wanting to get invested rapidly with someone new.  BUT WHY THEN SLEEP WITH PEOPLE ONE DOESN'T WANT TO GET INVOLVED WITH?  DOES ONE NOT CARE THAT ONE MAY CREATE A CHILD WITH SAID PERSON THAT ONE DOES NOT CARE ABOUT?  To make this approach "work" requires EXACTLY the "contraceptive mentality" that the Catholic Church has been lamenting in our time one where a child ceases to be seen as a Gift (from GOD) but rather as a Curse.

TALK ABOUT AN "AWKWARD MOMENT" ("Molly/Earnie, now don't take this the wrong way, but I never liked your mom/dad.  Sure he/she was hot, I think (you know I used to get drunk a lot back then...) but I don't know where he/she is or what he/she does. I know nothing about her/him and I don't really want to.  But, hey, you may have your dad's/mom's eyes.") OR WORSE (a trip to an abortion mill).  

It brings to mind one of the "Confessions from Hell" scenarios that I as a Priest sometimes play out in my head:

"Father, I'd like to confess the sin of Abortion, or this may really be Infanticide, Father.  Honestly, you be the judge.  You see, I'm a journalist who writes reviews for a 'Players website' (if you know what I mean...) in our town.  Now, I don't normally get involved with anyone anymore.  I mean Father, I've seen it all.  Trust, me, I've seen it all.  But you know last year, I was at this club and this stripper, I mean she was fine.  She was really, really fine.  And again, I don't normally get involved.  But with this one, I really had to get it on.  And we hit it off just fine... 

"Now, Father, I thought had a vasectomy (in fact, as I'm talking to you, I'm SERIOUSLY thinking of filing a complaint against that doctor who said he gave me one a few years back...) and she told me that she had her tubes tied.  And in our lines of work Father, we're careful.  Between the two of us, we must have been using, SIMULTANEOUSLY, 45 different methods of Birth Control.  I mean, I myself, never wear LESS than THREE CONDOMS and between the two of us, we had like the Berlin Wall, the Korean DMZ, MINE FIELDS FATHER of contraception lined up there between us.  BUT SHE GOT PREGNANT.  I don't know how.  It had to be a Miracle.

"At first, I thought it had to be a hysterical pregnancy of some sort.  But the kid had a heart beat.  And it just kept BEATING AND BEATING AND BEATING.  And then the kid just kept KICKING in there.  I mean Father, it was like IT KNEW that it was in trouble in there and was just trying to get the hell out of there ...

"But neither one of us wanting a kid, we decided to end it.

"But this then brings up another problem, Father.  Both of us are TERRIBLE PROCRASTINATORS.  I mean we kept putting it off, putting it off.  I mean that's why I 'write' for that 'Players' Website' ... If I could meet a deadline, I'd be working for the Times...  Anyway, she finally calls, and gets an appointment.  I finally get around to depositing my checks into the ATM.

"And so there I was, getting my $300 bucks out of the ATM, and she calls out to me THAT HER WATER BROKE.  So now I'M IN A PANIC.  I take the wrong turn, then another.  By the time we get to the abortion clinic, the kid's head is already almost completely out of her.  But the attendants, they were really professional.  They threw her into a wheel chair and raced her inside.  The doctor then asked the nurse to run over and get the axe next to the fire extinguisher down the hall and with one maybe two swings, they put the kid down....

"... SOOO for these Sins and all the Sins of my past life, I'm heartily sorry Father and ask for Penance and Absolution..."

Yup, "just hooking up" is NOT EXACTLY GOD'S PLAN ... ;-)

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Gimme Shelter [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (D+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
EWTN interview with Director Ron Krauss / Kathy DiFiore
National Catholic Register (D.M. Cooper-O'Boyle) review
National Catholic Reporter (R. Pacatte) review

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Gimme Shelter [2013] (written and directed by Ron Krauss) is an extremely well-written and well-acted film "based on true events" about a 15-year old teenager named Agnes/Apple (played magnificently by Vanessa Hudgens) who runs away from her drug addicted mother (played again magnificently by Rosario Dawson) in search of her suburbanite father Tom Fitzpatrick (played with appropriate initial cluelessness by Brendan Fraser) who she had never met.

When she arrives at his home (all she has is an old envelope and an address) the housekeeper calls the police on her.  Fortunately, as the police are cuffing her, Tom arrives with Joanne, his wife (played again quite credibly by Stephanie Szostak) and two small kids.  With a pierced nose and a pierced lip and a "hairstyle" looking just like it was (cut short by her own hand looking in a mirror -- we saw her cutting her hair in the film's initial scene) Agnes/Apple looks utterly out-of-place out there in some upscale New Jersey suburb outside of the New York where she had been born and had lived all her life previously.  But she protests her innocence and her reason for being there (and she has the envelope with her ...).  So mild-mannered Tom and confused (and perhaps even a bit angry) but well-mannered Joanne eventually tell the police that "It's okay" that they'll "handle things from here."  And they take her -- along with their two other kids, who had watched the whole incident with mouths gaping wide open from their parents' car -- into their stately upscale suburban home, large enough to require the housekeeper who had initially called the cops.

What now?  Well ... while unclear, it would seem that Tom had some now urgent autobiographical details about his life to tell his rather blindsided wife, either that or "Well you know how I told you when we first met that ... well ..." Either way, that conversation that takes place off screen must not have been easy.  And even if Joanne would have wanted to beat her husband senseless with a shovel now, they still had a scared 15-year-old in their house now, who except for the biographical detail that she was Tom's daughter, they knew absolutely nothing about.

What to do?  Well, dinner was awkward.  Thankfully, Tom and Joanne dismiss their younger children from the table when they begin to ask childish, inappropriate questions of "Apple" (which they find to be an "odd" name) as one _could_ expect young children confronted with a situation _way outside_ their previous (and necessarily limited) range of experience.  Hearing her tale of abuse and having been passed on from one foster home to another, Tom and Joanne decide to let her spend the night.

The next morning Agnes/Apple has another surprise.  She throws up (one gets the sense that she herself didn't know that she was pregnant).  Well, keeping her composure, Joanne takes Apple to a clinic (while Tom heads off to his Wall Street job) where it's confirmed.

The next day, it's Tom's task to sit down with Agnes/Apple to tell her what he and Joanne have decided to do with her.  Joanne had drawn the line -- "I'm not going to have a 15 year old that I do not know have a child in my house." -- Tom tells Apple that Joanne has made an appointment for her at the clinic for an abortion, that she'll even go with her, to hold her hand through it all, but that simply "this page must be turned" before ALL their lives "return to normal."  Agnes, a cauldron of so many levels of anger that one honestly would have trouble listing them all here, responds, "Oh yes, 'turn the page,' just like YOU 'turned the page' ON ME."  Still what's she gonna do?  She reluctantly goes with Joanne to the abortion clinic to "make this go away."

But ... of course, she finds THAT SHE SIMPLY CAN'T GO THROUGH WITH IT.  She's SOOO ANGRY at SOOO MANY PEOPLE.  And yet she HAS A PHOTO of the ONLY UTTERLY INNOCENT PERSON IN THE ENTIRE SITUATION (an ultrasound of her unborn baby).  And so she can't do it.  She runs out and away from the abortion clinic.  To where?  She doesn't have a clue ... BUT AWAY.  (Joanne, pointedly DOESN'T go out to "LOOK FOR HER...").

Wandering in a stew of confusion, Agnes/Apple, she gets stopped by a would be pimp, and with some gumption, she actually STEALS HIS CAR.  But she's a 15 year old "from the hood" so she CAN'T DRIVE.  Some 15-20 seconds into her getaway, she SMASHES the car into something ... and wakes-up HANDCUFFED to a hospital bed somewhere in presumably Newark, New Jersey.

It's actually HERE that her story BEGINS TO CHANGE for the better.  The first person she sees when she wakes up is a kindly EXPLICITLY CATHOLIC CHAPLAIN Fr. Frank McCarthy (played dead-on by James Earl Jones) who SLOWLY, over several days, is able to calm her down.  And he gets her into a home for unwed mothers run by Kathy DiFiore (played in the film again, dead-on precision, by Ann Dowd).

The rest of the film still follows and there are a lot of loose-ends that still need to be resolved, the main among them are that Agnes/Apple is 15-years-old and has parents.  One may be struggling with drug addiction and the other may have been completely absent and still generally clueless.  But despite that, they still have rights over her.  So there's still a lot here that needs to play out.

My ONLY, ONLY, ONLY CRITICISM of this otherwise EXTREMELY WELL WRITTEN AND WELL ACTED FILM is that the actual Agnes/Apple on which the film was based was WHITE, while AS GOOD AS Hudgens' and Dawson's performances were in the film, they are both people of color (while suburban Tom and his wife are white) resulting in the film playing itself out in a direction that reinforces stereotypes that would not have been present if the film-makers had just stayed with the original story where EVERYONE in the story was white.

That aside, I agree COMPLETELY with the critics that have written that if there was ANY DOUBT that Vanessa Hudgens could act, she proves here that she can.  And it was a gutsy decision on her part to play in a self-evidently pro-Life film.  Good job Vanessa!

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Generation War (orig. Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars)  Slant (2 Stars) AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

DerSpiegel* (C. Buss) review  coverage
DieStern* coverage
FrankfurterAllgemeineZeitung* coverage
SudDeutscheZeitung* (K. Vahland) review  coverage

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review
Slant (S. MacFarlande) review
Generation War (orig. Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter) [2013]  (directed by Philipp Kadelbrach, screenplay by Stefan Kolditz) originally a critically/audience acclaimed three part German miniseries about five young Berliners (three men, two women, four of them German, one Jewish) becoming who they became during the height of World War II (1941-1945), playing now in the United States as a two part (4 1/2 hours in total) German language/English subtitled movie to decidedly mixed (and IMHO even partly hysterical) reviews, will probably be "deflating" to a lot of Americans / Westerners.

And that is because, STRIKINGLY, NOT A SINGLE SECOND OF THIS FILM TAKES PLACE "IN THE WEST."  There are references fighting in North Africa and Sicily.  There's passing reference to the Normandy Invasion.  Except for odd visual references to the Western Allies Bombing Campaign (taped windows, and then post-War imagery of rubble strewn streets) there's no reference to that either.  There's no reference to the "London Blitz," "Battle of the Bulge" or "Patton's 3rd Army" or other treasured Anglo-American memories.  Instead, the ENTIRE STORY is about the brutality of the War and Occupation IN THE EAST.

Again, many Westerners may honestly be "confused" by this. However, Coventry/London Blitz notwithstanding, World War II BECAME A CRIME "OUT EAST."  It began with the invasion and enslavement of Poland and then escalated rapidly to new, utterly unheard of, levels during Operation Barbarosa (the Nazi code-name for the Invasion of the Soviet Union) with the S.S. "Einsatzgruppen" following, rounding up and shooting Jews and ended, of course, with the Jewish Death Camps ALL OF WHICH WERE AGAIN "OUT EAST."  AND while the Western Allies' Bombing Campaign certainly HELPED DEFEAT NAZI GERMANY, and NORMANDY especially certainly HELPED DEFEAT NAZI GERMANY, NAZI GERMANY WAS, IN FACT, GROUND DOWN, BEATEN, AND INDEED, BLUDGEONED TO DEATH in the FOUR YEAR LONG EXTENDED STREET-TO-STREET, HOUSE-TO-HOUSE, FIELD-TO-FIELD, TREE-TO-TREE, SEWER-TO-SEWER BRAWL that the Germans themselves came to call "RATTENKRIEG" (RAT WAR) that was the WAR "OUT EAST."  This is not to take away the heroics of our own veterans from the West.  But it is go give the Russians (and the Poles) their due.  

So yes, this may be a tough film series for a Westerner to see.  The execution of a random/insignificant if patriotic low-ranking captured Soviet Communist Commissar near the front is given emotionally equal billing to the rounding-up and execution of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen behind it, as is the summary execution of captured partisans and the public hanging of Polish civilians in reprisal for tiny, arguably "fly swatting," but doggedly persistent Polish Home Army raids against the German occupiers.

And the Polish Home Army partisans are NOT portrayed in simply "heroic" hues either, but also with their own demons.  The commander of one such unit asks disbelievingly the lead-Jewish character in the story, who after many twists and turns finds himself at the Polish Home Army's mercy out in the Polish countryside: "So you're BOTH a GERMAN and a JEW?" as if willing to accept him as a partner-in-arms if he was one or the other, but not both.  That he was BOTH was simply "a bridge too far" for him.  And yet he DOESN'T kill him, turn him in, etc.  What he does do, is (TELLINGLY...) _WALK AWAY_ FROM HIM ... but ... NOT without leaving him with a revolver and fully loaded clip to defend himself with.  THIS KIND OF INSIGHTFUL IF OFTEN _PAINFUL TO WATCH_ AMBIGUITY CHARACTERIZES THE WHOLE FILM.

So then, what is the story arc?

Five young Berliners -- Wilhelm and Friedhelm Winter (played by Volker Bruch and Tom Schilling), brothers, Greta (played by Katharina Schüttler), Greta's friend Charlotte (played by Miriam Stein) and Greta's beau Viktor Goldstein (played by Ludwig Trepte), Jewish -- get together, after hours, in back of the pub where Greta works.  Wilhelm, already a veteran of the Polish and French campaigns and his younger brother Friedhelm, new, have been called-up to head East in preparation for what everyone in Berlin expects to be the coming invasion of the Soviet Union.  Charlotte arrives with news that she's been accepted to serve as a nurse in the coming campaign as well.  "Bohemian" in style (if not nationality), Greta isn't particularly interested in the politics of it all, but just wants to throw her friends a "good party" before they leave.  She pulls out a swing record or two, and they have a good time... until some neighbor complains about the noise.

The local police respond to the call, ask as a matter of course for everyone's IDs.  Now Viktor's Jewish and it's against the law for him, as a Jew, to be out  "after curfew" but they seem more distracted/upset by "the music." So before they get to Victor, they write Greta a ticket, confiscate her record and tell her to appear some days later at whatever random Berlin court it would be to respond to this petty citation.

So in the days following, brave/proven Wilhelm and his less enthusiastic and no doubt trying "cut out his own identity" Friedhelm as well as wide-eyed Charlotte all "go off to war."  Viktor returns to his parents' board-up and repeatedly vandalized (since at least Krystalnacht now 2+ years back) neighborhood tailor shop.  And Greta, some days later, "puts on a nice dress..." and heads off to the random court / police station to deal with the above mentioned citation.

At the police station, she's given a lecture on her "degenerate taste in music by an utterly unimportant (if not that he was Gestapo...) low-to-lower-middle-rank official who tells her that "as a matter of course on this matter" the police has made inquiries about her AND (1) that her "degenerate tendencies" don't seem to end with poorly chosen taste in music (that is, that he knows about her interest in a certain Jewish young man ...) and (2) that it appears that she's known around the neighborhood as having a certain talent in singing.  He asks her if that's true.  She tells him that yes, she can hold a note reasonably well.  He asks her if she'd be interested, perhaps, in pursuing a career in singing.  She responds, "sure, what do you have in mind?"  He tells her that he has "some connections" and it "could all be arranged."  The ugly little matter involving a ticket for owning record or two of un-Aryan music (and hanging out with a non-Aryan and more precisely JEWISH beau) was then "set aside' and ... for the price of sleeping with a not-particularly significant but potentially troublesome low-to-lower-middle-ranking Gestapo official ... she got the chance of perhaps cutting a record or two.  Of course her Jewish sort-of boyfriend Viktor wasn't altogether pleased.  But then, he should have been "grateful" (!) because ... by sleeping with the low-to-lower-middle-ranking Gestapo official she was actually "protecting him."  Dictatorships always make for rather complicated sexual politics ...

In the meantime, the other three are ... AT WAR.  And while War is going quite well actually through the summer and into the beginning of Fall of 1941,  THIS War is already proving to be, as it had been already billed, "unlike any other":

Several months into the war, the brave, previously proven Leutnant Wilhelm finds himself confronted with the above mentioned "ugly task" of executing a captured Soviet (Communist) Commissar.  They capture him in a battle over a random grain silo somewhere in steppe leading toward Moscow.  His underlings ask him: "So do we execute the Commissar?"  Not wanting to do it, he tells them instead: "Nah, he might have intelligence that may prove useful to us." So they take him along with the 2-3 others that they captured back to company HQ.  Some time later, the company commander comes to Leutnant Wilhelm telling him, "Yes he's certainly a fanatic. He was telling our interrogators that we'll NEVER defeat the 'Great Soviet Army,' blah, blah, blah... In any case, we've extracted all that we could out of him.  So you can kill him now" (!), the message being that he really should have killed him at the grain silo.  That Wilhelm did not was, perhaps, somewhat of a waste of time.  But, "all could be rectified" now, if he just took him out to the woods now ... and ... put a bullet in his head.  The company commander reminds Wilhelm: "The Soviet Union didn't sign the Geneva Conventions.  As a political commissar, he's a dangerous fanatic.  We're fighting an ideological war.  We have standing orders to execute captured political officers of the Soviet Army.  So now just get up, take the prisoner out back a ways -- we don't want our own troops to get 'too jumpy'  -- and ... finish the task at hand."  So ... brave, previously proven Leutnant Wilhelm takes his prisoner out back into the woods.  At some point, he asks his prisoner to kneel.  He pulls out his luger, cocks it, ... shoots his prisoner dead in the head ... and YES SHAKEN ... returns to camp.

When he returns to camp, he has other things to deal with: He has to reprimand his younger brother Friedhelm for "never ever volunteering for anything."  This comes up again with the other soldiers in the unit with Friedhelm responding to them sarcastically, "But guys I'm doing you all a huge favor by never volunteering for anything.  Think of how much faster you'll ALL get your 'iron crosses' by being allowed to be so brave." WELL, that kind of attitude results in what would probably happen IN ANY ARMY UNIT ANYWHERE ... eventually the members of his own unit BEAT THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF HIM for ENDANGERING THEIR OWN LIVES by NOT carrying his load.  LESSON LEARNED ... a few scenes later, he's summarily shooting lined-up captured partisans with the rest of them... even as he ALSO walks in on the remains of an Einsatzgruppen massacre of Jews (the blood of the victims was still seeping out from the soil pressing down on the recently killed / buried bodies).  AND HE KNOWS VERY WELL WHAT HAD JUST HAPPENED THERE.

Meanwhile back in Berlin, Greta wasn't completely an opportunist.  She tries to get her low-to-lower-middle-ranking Gestapo lover to help her beau Viktor get out of the country.  He plays along.  Gets him a "passport" and papers to "go to Marsailles" (and "from there to where-ever").  'Cept whether the papers were EVER legit, he has Viktor arrested before he ever gets to the train station, and after getting a chance to have him beaten up, has him put on a very different train ... heading East ... That's how Viktor gets to Poland ... and it was very, very clear where he was being sent.

Then Charlotte has her own increasingly horrifying adventures and morally damning episodes as a field nurse: "We're here to treat ONLY our own people ..." and yet, even in the "best of times" even the German army needs help from the locals.  Now who's willing to help (collaborate) and ... why?  And can one really trust ANYBODY in the "occupied lands"?

This then is the set-up to the story... which continues then for about 3 1/2 hours more (through 3 1/2 more years -- from the rest of 1941 to the summer of 1945).

I found the film to be doggedly the "greyest of grey" in its portrayals of almost all of the major characters.  None of them were saints but also, with the exception of the Gestapo guy, none of them had horns.

I do know that many Americans and Westerners will be challenged by the film.  But I do honestly believe that it's worth seeing.

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser. 

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Ride Along [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

TheSource (JP Tarpav) review

CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

BET articles
Ebony articles
Essence articles
TheSource articles
Ride Along [2014] (directed by Tim Story, screenplay by Greg Coolidge, Jason Mantzoukas, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, story by Greg Coolidge) is an African-American cop/buddy comedy/romcom that like most romcoms of our time, would almost certainly not altogether please the good preachers of the African American community or people of faith of any color.  Indeed, "romcoms" are generally among the most morally problematic genres of cinema or stagecraft today even if they are so "with a smile."

So "what's the problem" here?  Well, the central couple in the story -- Ben Barber (played by Kevin Hart) and Angela Payton (played by Tika Sumpter) -- ARE LIVING TOGETHER without being married.  "So? Why should that make a difference?" one may ask.  But the question could be reversed: Why ARE they LIVING TOGETHER WITHOUT BEING MARRIED?  What's the fear?  What's the problem?  And what's the plan if as a consequence of their living (and sleeping) together they produce a child together?

And it should be noted here folks that there is actually ONE recent romcom, Jumping the Broom [2011] about a couple that's preparing for marriage that ISN'T already living/sleeping together prior to marriage.  YES, EVEN IN HOLLYWOOD SUCH A STORY "IS POSSIBLE" and IT DOESN'T SURPRISE ME _AT ALL_ THAT _THAT MOVIE_ COMES FROM THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY, a community of _churchgoing folks_ after all.

But let's return to the story at hand... ;-).  THERE IS, INDEED, "A PROBLEM" between BEN and ANGELA: There seems to be a question of Ben's worthiness of marrying Angela.  SHE actually seems to be the most "okay" with her choice of Ben as her partner/future husband.  But BEN HIMSELF, working as a security guard at a local high school, doesn't seem to feel worthy of her.  And Angela's brother, James Payton (played by Ice Cube) a hard-nosed Atlanta Police Officer definitely doesn't think that the softer, more fun-loving Ben is worthy of her.

Trying to prove his worth to both Angela (who doesn't need to be convinced) and her brother James (who does), Ben applies to the Atlanta Police Academy and ... gets in.

James, so tough that he can't seem to work with ANYBODY even in his own department, is still not convinced that Ben will make the grade.  And so, he offers to take Ben along with him on a "RIDE ALONG" to show him what awaits him on the "mean streets" of Atlanta.  The rest of the movie follows ...

Since this is a romcom afterall, "all ends well" ... Ben proves himself to his future step-brother James (and James learns a bit about humility and valuing teamwork as well).

All in all, it's not a bad romcom, it just _begins_ (from the get-go ...) with a premise that's definitely problematic from the Christian point of view, where one either decides to get married or one break-ups in search for someone else who one will marry.

"Trial marriages" are in the end for the dishonest and/or for cowards.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

I, Frankenstein [2014]

MPAA (PG-13) (1 Star)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing

ChicagoTribune/Variety (A. Barker) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

I, Frankenstein [2014] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Stewart Beattie along with Kevin Grevioux [IMDb] and inspired as much by Mary Shelley's gothic novel Frankenstein as by the Underworld films that Kevin Grevioux has previously been involved with) surprised me.

Okay, the aesthetics of the film were relentlessly dark and gloomy, and much of the story felt like a Underworld retread substituting Lycans and Vampires for Angels (er Gargoyles) and Demons.  BUT, perhaps because of my field (I'm a Catholic priest after all, and I was a chemist before that) I found the film's concept surprisingly interesting ;-).

The central pivot on which the current story turned was for me fascinating: The mad-scientist Victor Frankenstein (played oh so briefly in the film by Aden Young before being killed by his own creation), reanimated a stitched-up corpse (played here by Aaron Eckhart).  In doing so, this arrogant human scientist accidentally created a "soul-less being."

Well, this "soul-less" being becomes a "person of interest" to ... Demons who've been LOOKING FOR AGES for SOME "vessels" to enter into, POSSESS, and then to use to DESTROY HUMANITY (God's Creation) with. 

So soon after Frankenstein is created, these Demons start hovering around him.  This brings into the mix an Order of Angels.  To humans they appear to be only stone "Gargoyles" standing watch along the edges of Medieval Christian Cathedrals.  But at night, when the Demons themselves are active, they "fly off" the churches to do battle with said Demons while humans are largely asleep / unawares.  We're told that this Order of Angel/Gargoyles was sent by St. Michael the Archangel to protect humanity from the Demons.

Well the Angel/Gargoyles see the interest that the Demons have in this new "soulless creature" and see the risk that this creature (and others like him) would pose to humanity should he (and others like him) come to be possessed by the Demons.  Some of the Angels/Gargoyles, indeed, want to destroy this man-made "abomination" but the "Queen" (or more properly Leader) of this Order of Angels named Leonore (played by Miranda Otto) protects him saying that even if he wasn't created directly by God, God must have a purpose in his creation/existence. (Note here that that in the traditional Catholic conception, the title "Queen of the Angels" belongs to Mary).  Leonore then gives the new reanimated, but (still?) soul-less, creature the evocative name "Adam."

But this "Adam" feels really alone.  Apparently "soul-less," rejected/feared by humans, coveted by Demons, mistrusted by Angels, and yet -- after having had more than 5,000 Volts put into him by his mad-human "Crator" to reanimate him -- apparently no longer able to die ... "Adam" (Frankenstein) spends the next two hundred years (from Mary Shelley/Victor Frankenstein's time to our own) trudging alone, hiding in "the northern mountains" (the Alps or Scandinavia?) in darkness, cold and driving snow.

Finally, he can no longer stand his solitude and descends to what looks like a dark, rainy, modern-day, yet "gothic" city ... perhaps a stylized Paris or perhaps Geneva, Switzerland.  There he finds all the characters that he's spent 200 years avoiding -- arrogant yet clueless humans, covetous-to-rapacious and certainly driven Demons as well as conflicted and somewhat depressed Angels (they feel that they're slowly losing their fight with the Demons, who seem to continue to fight with a seemingly unending reserve of energy, even as both sides have been at this battle "for Ages.")

He also finds that there is a central Demon named Naberius (played by Bill Nighy) who's quite energetically encouraging a modern-day "electro-neurologist" named Terra (played by Yvonne Strahovski) to pursue her research in reanimating corpses (of animals) with electricity.  She herself doesn't see the need to rush: "But we're only working with mice and rabbits now.  It'll be a very long time before we get to humans and it may never work."  But Naberius pushes her harder and harder.  Why?  Because he knows, of course, that "it'll work"  Why?  Because he knows "it worked at least once before ..."  And then, once it does work, "he has plans ..."

So into this mix returns "Adam" Frankenstein, who soon after returning to Civilization after wandering ALONE for 200 years in the Wilderness, wonders if it was a good idea.  Nothing has changed.  In the City, HE HAS TROUBLE TRUSTING ANYONE.  Yet, in the wilderness, he was ALL ALONE. 

What to do?  The rest of the movie follows ... Again, an interesting/surprising concept, huh? ;-)

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Chorus of Angels (orig. Kita no kanaria-tachi) [2012]

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

IMDb listing
AsianWiki listing

JapanTimes (M. Schilling) review

A Chorus of Angels (orig. Kita no kanaria-tachi) [2012] [IMDb] [AW] (directed by Junji Sakamoto [IMDb] [AW], screenplay by Machiko Nasu [IMDb] [AW], based on the novel by Kanae Minato [IMDb] [AW]) is an award-winning Japanese film that I've seen recently.  I write about it here not only because there aren't that many Japanese films that play out here in Chicago, but also because I found it surprisingly "Christian" both on a superficial level (a lot of the story takes place in what appears to be a Christian school) and arguably on a thematic one (in Christian parlance this film seems to be definitely about "the wages of sin").

Now I could honestly be far off-base.  It could be that elementary schools across Japan hold Christmas concerts and most Americans would consider Japan to have at least traditionally been a very "honor-shame" culture.  Hence it would not have required the introduction of Catholicism (with the arrival of the St. Francis Xavier, S.J. to Nagasaki in the 1500s) or Protestant Christianity (in the years following the arrival of American Commodore Perry in Tokyo Bay two hundred years later) to Japan to inculcate a sense of moral revulsion toward adultery and especially (as has been the case elsewhere across the world) adultery on the part of a woman.

So it could just be coincidental that Kanae Minato [IMDb] [AW]'s novel made here into a film was about a former elementary school teacher named Haru Kawashima (played in the film by Sayuri Yoshinaga [IMDb] [AW]) who used to lead a children's choir in a Christmas concert at the school where she taught on a small island off the coast of the Japanese northern home island of Hokkaido before being forced to leave the school and the small island in disgrace after being caught carrying-on an extramarital affair even as her husband was dying of cancer.  (Note that in the story, the husband (played by Kyohei Shibata [IMDb] [AW]) himself seemed to be ambivalent with regards to her having the affair as he knew he was dying and both of them were young and he did want her to be happy afterwards.  BUT the outside community could not understand at all...)

However, at least the English titles of a fair number of Kanae Minato's* works [IMDb] [AW] [Amazon] repeatedly evoke Catholic/Christan (or at least generally religious) themes -- Confession, Penance, Atonement, Clergy -- even as Confessions [2010] [IMDb] [AV] at least is quite violent tale of revenge (following a heinous crime) and her other works could be similarly only superficially (or even tangentially) inspired by Catholic/Christian concepts.

It would be a fascinating question to find out what influence, if any, has Christianity or Catholicism had on her work. In preparing to write this review, I've tried to find the answer from interviews of her online.  There are almost no interviews of her in English.  Japanese interviews of her (which I ran through google translate), where she's become something of a phenomenon as "the housewife turned award winning author," didn't broach the question.  And in Italy, where at least some of her books have already come out in translation, no one has apparently asked her this question either.  But perhaps the question will eventually be asked ;-).

But to the film ... 

The arc of the story here is a rather simple one:  Twenty years after Haru was forced to leave that idyllic little island for Hokkaido in disgrace, a police investigator comes by her retirement party (she found a job as a librarian in Hokkaido's main city of Sapporo) asking if she could help him better understand the behavior of a young man who had once been her student back when she taught at that school on the small island.  She remembered him to be precocious even if already somewhat "at risk" as a child.  He was now being accused of a murder on that island.  The police officer tells her that he had specifically mentioned her as someone who could shed some light on his case.

This news shakes her even as it comes at a time when she could actually be of some help.  She hadn't been back to that island in 20 years, but the student had been one of her favorites.  And so she decides to go back.

The rest of the story that follows is both remarkable and very, very sad.  She is repeatedly reminded of the hole that she left in the community and in the lives of the kids that she had taught when she FELL (due to her adultery) and had to leave the island.

I may be reading the film very superficially.  I know very little of Japanese culture (and would welcome insight into how this film was understood by Japanese viewers themselves.  Please comment if you would know).  But it seemed so clear to me that what was being portrayed here were the tragic/horrific effects of a single and often considered "simply" personal sin:  She committed adultery.  As a result she had to leave the community and the kids who trusted her.  And as a result EVERYONE of that community lost, most especially that little "at risk" boy who grew-up to fulfill a destiny that PERHAPS she could have helped him avoid.

Through her sin, she let down "A chorus of angels ..."  Wow.  How terribly, terribly sad.

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser. 

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Monday, January 20, 2014

Some Velvet Morning [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Chicago SunTimes (3 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
Chicago SunTimes (M. Houlihan) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review

Some Velvet Morning [2013] (written and directed by Neil LaBute) is a well-crafted, well-acted unrated (would be R) dialogue driven film that involves just two characters and takes place in its entirety in an upscale Brooklyn townhouse.  It played recently at Facets Multimedia here in Chicago.

The film begins with a late-40 to mid-50-something Fred (played by Stanley Tucci) apparently some middle-level guy on Wall Street appearing on mid-to-late 20-something "Velvet's" (played by Alice Eve) quite elegant townhouse's doorstep with two bags in hand and news: "I've finally done it, I've left my wife!" 

Wow, talk about starting a story with a bang.  'Cept immediately there's a problem.  "Velvet" hasn't seen Fred in 6 months.  And while they did have something of an affair previous to that -- the two had met on account of Fred's son, as she was a friend of his while he attended college a number years back -- Fred and "Velvet's" "affair" was really more of a prostitution arrangement: he'd buy her stuff or even just pay her in cash and she'd sleep with him.  And not particularly surprisingly, Fred was never, ever Velvet's only such client.  So when he stopped calling six months back, she didn't particularly miss him.

But here he is now ... on her doorstep announcing six months after they had last spoken that he's left his wife and ... presumably wants to enter.  Being a basically nice/accomodating person, she lets him in with the more-or-less obvious hope/desire that soon he'd be on his way again.  But with his two bags in hand, it's clear that he'd really like to stay. ;-)  The rest of the dialogue driven film follows.

The film to me is fascinating because no matter how "adult" / "sophisticated" ADULTery (or sexual sin in general) is, it is Sin and it puts one into situations that one would really not want to be in.  AT DIFFERENT TIMES ONE WOULD NOT WANT TO BE EITHER OF THESE TWO CHARACTERS -- the guy who declares that he's "left his wife" only to find out that he has NO PLACE REALLY TO GO, or the woman who may have thought herself previously smarter, more in control of situations (including ones more or less inherently "off the reservation") than she probably should have.

Anyway, while this is a film that's definitely not for kids, I would imagine that it would make for a very interesting discussion piece among young adults and above.

A word about the ending: I don't particularly like it but I also understand the dilemma of the film-makers here.  I think most of us would know that a story like this can't really end well.  And yet, story-telling conventions kinda demand that the story like this end better than we'd suspect it would.  So while I don't think that the film's ending works particularly well, the rest of the film certainly makes its point.

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Nut Job [2014]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-1)  ChicagoTribune (1 Star) (2 Stars)  AVClub (F)  Fr. Dennis (1 1/2 Stars and really not for kids, see below)

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

The Nut Job [2014] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Peter Lepeniotis along with Lorne Cameron, story by Daniel Woo based on characters from Peter Lepeniotis' 11 minute animated short Surly Squirrel [2005]) is an animated film that IMHO really didn't deserve to be made and certainly not in its (PG / A-1) configuration. 

Both the animated short Surly Squirrel [2005] and now the feature film The Nut Job [2014] are about a rather unsympathetic squirrel named Surly (voiced in the current feature film by Will Arnett).  Why is Surly, well ... surly (rude, unfriendly)?  Well, he's presented as scheming and selfish.  He doesn't seem to care about the other nut eating rodents in the city park where he lives.

Now, in the actual "wilds" in front of my Rectory, it would seem that our neighborhood squirrels are, while cute as can be with white pelts on their tummies, not particularly altruistic either.  They don't seem to fight over nuts (or bulbs that they love to dig out of our garden) but they seem to "bury their stashes" of nuts, bulbs and acorns, each on their own.  So with the exception of being something of a foul mouthed squirrel (in the short) or simply "a squirrel with an attitude" (in the somewhat toned down feature), Surly doesn't really behave much differently than the average cute as a button squirrel "squirreling away" fallen crab apples from our tree gracing the front of our Rectory or the tulip beds gracing its sides.

How then to make a compelling movie about a squirrel acting like a ... squirrel?

Well both the short and the feature film postulate that "all the other rodents and nut-eating animals" of the city park where Surly lives "share all the nuts and other food stocks that they collect."  Communism.  And to make the point, both the short and the feature film posit a Raccoon (voiced in the feature film by Liam Neeson) as the Park's "Boss" in the short, and first its "Benevolent Leader" then exposed as its chief "Crook" in the feature.  So in good part, Surly is "surly" simply because he's living in a strange city park where the rest of his companions are behaving unlike normal animals (They seem to share what they find rather than keep what they find for themselves).

So is the message (remember that this is a children's film that's received a PG rating from the MPAA and an A-1 general admission rating (!) from the U.S. Catholic Bishops' media office) that sharing is unnatural (even a slippery slope to Communism) and humans too should be allowed to simply fend for themselves??  Hmm.

But the message gets even more confusing when one realizes that both short and feature film juxtapose Surly the squirrel's avarice for foodstuffs that he has no intention of sharing with anybody with a gang of humans seeking to rob a bank next door to the park.  So here the film makers seem to compare Surly's attitude of "the nuts I find are mine" with stealing. 

So what the heck are the film makers trying to say?  And is this really a film that you'd want your children to see?  At minimum, Surly is really a quite nasty (surly...) squirrel who never really changes for the better.  Parents, would you want your generally cute little kids to be nasty and never really change for the better either?

This is an odd little movie (the feature itself is only 87 minutes) and honestly not really for kids.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit [2014]

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

IMDb listing listing*

CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit [2014] (directed by Kenneth Branagh, screenplay by Adam Cozad and David Koepp) is an ideologically cumbersome and technically silly reboot of the characters around American spy-thriller author Tom Clancy [IMDb]'s most famous hero, the mild-mannered Langley based "CIA analyst" who when need be becomes a butt-kicking field agent Jack Ryan [IMDb] and who's become Anglo-American pop-literature's most famous spy after Ian Fleming [IMDb]'s James Bond [IMDb].

Hmmm, so what's so wrong with the story? ;-)  Well, above all, whatever Tom Clancy's political affiliations actually were (and the American-Right has certainly tried to claim him as its own) Tom Clancy was both imaginative and intelligent.  His villains were widely dispersed.  In his universe, the villains who crash a Boeing 747 into the U.S. Capitol Building during the U.S. president's State of the Union Address (a scenario described in his book Debt of Honor [1994] (!!)) killing the President, most of Congress and all of the U.S. Supreme Court WERE JAPANESE.  Now THAT's one heck of a ("didn't see that one coming...") compelling spy novel scenario as opposed to the eyes rolling "Ah, it's the Ruskies (TBtG at least it's not the 'turban heads') again..." pedestrian quality of the current film. 

Then while it's always a challenge to make compelling optics of spy-craft in our computer-based, digital age -- the last James Bond movie, Skyfall [2012], actually did a much better job with this -- the sort-of "cliff-hanging" scene, where the young rebooted Jack Ryan (played by Chris Pine) has broken-into the Evil Russian FSB-connected oligarch Viktor Cherebin's (played by Kenneth Branagh) post-communist glass-and-concrete by Moscow's Red Square fortress-like lair and then into Cherebin's computer (after calling back to his cover-job (now as an undercover "Wall Street Analyst") to ask his naive/salt-of-the-earth "just makin' money for da stockholders" Wall Street boss VIA CELL PHONE: "BTW can you quickly give me the password we have on file for Cherebin's accounts") and is then seen DOWNLOADING all of Cherebin's "secret accounts" to his (Ryan's) trusty little netbook / flash drive WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY ANALYZING the hundreds upon hundreds of lines of numbers and text scrolling down his screen PER SECOND from said "secret files,"  makes a mockery OF ANYONE who's ever tried to make sense of a simple "Google search" while the phone starts ringing or one's being "called down for dinner" back home ;-).  It's just insane: Jack Ryan presumably can read hundreds upon hundreds of lines of text scrolling down his screen at break-neck speed, PRESUMABLY IN CYRILLIC, to quickly (in real time) unravel the Evil Russian Oligarch Cherebin's plot to "crash the whole U.S. economy" in a single financial if coordinated blow.  Note to the NSA: there's no need for supercomputers to analyze ECHELON data (every phone call, ever made, anywhere ...) when one has superhuman analysts like the new Jack Ryan on staff ;-).

Then the film's makers can't seem to decide how Evil / closed they want to make Russia today.  One on hand, they want to make Russia a still largely impenetrable Cold-War like entity.  On the other hand, the CIA is apparently able to drive freely (and _discretely_) around Moscow with an NYPD-style surveillance van stuffed to the hilt with electronics gear.  Indeed, a far more interesting film could have been made of simply imagining how American intelligence would secret-in all the parts to make such a surveillance vehicle in Moscow.  After all, one would imagine that the FSB would have a surveillance cam (or two...) around the U.S. embassy monitoring traffic in-and-out of its motorpool ;-): "Sergei, looks like discrete Amerikanskij NYPD-style surveillance van going out for spin again today.  Tell Sasha to put on tail..."  Then wouldn't the Russians be able to confiscate such a super-secret "top of the line" surveillance van (if only temporarily ... but not before completely disassembling it and returning it to our embassy in boxes) by simply stopping it for a random "tail light" violation? ;-)

Sigh, Chris Pine seems to be doomed to play B-grade rebooted versions of legendary characters (he also has had the unenviable task of playing the new Captain James T. Kirk [IMDb] in the rebooted Star Trek films).   And poor Keira Knightley playing the young Jack Ryan's future wife Cathy [IMDb].  She played the hilt out of the script that she was given, but the Anna Karenina [IMDb] of two years back really deserved better than this.

What then of the overall nefarious plot?  The Evil Russian FSB pissed-off at the proposed construction of pipeline through the Republic of Georgia / Turkey (To carry whose oil/gas?  CERTAINLY NOT RUSSIA'S... so...?) decide nevertheless to retaliate by seeking to destroy the U.S. economy with a single coordinated blow.  To do so, they awake "sleeper agents" in the U.S. by sending a cumbersome coded message through the RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH.  Imagine ALL THOSE YEARS sitting at _endless_ Orthodox Christian liturgies (they are _lovely_ but they are so, sooo long ;-) waiting for a single out of place word to be said.  "Slava Bogu!" one sleeper agent exclaims on catching the coded message.  Slava Bogu indeed ;-).  And here one thought that the FSB was merely sending coded messages to its agents through endless piles of internet porn ;-).

Anyway, working on Wall Street, undercover (hmm... the CIA's charter must have been "discretely changed" post-9/11...), is CIA analyst Jack Ryan who finds something amiss with Evil Russian Oligarch Viktor Cherebin's accounts with his firm just as tensions between the U.S. and Russia appear to rise over said proposed pipeline.  SOOO he asks his naive, salt-of-the-earth Wall Street Boss if he could fly out to Moscow to ask Viktor Cherebin "what's up with that?"  He gets permission ... the rest follows ;-)

Sigh ... could the Japanese be hired to crash their 747 into ... never mind.

ADDENDUM - Since this film came out / I wrote my above review about it, obviously a number of things have changed "on the geopolitical scene" as it were, notably the crisis in the Ukraine / Crimea.  Please don't take any of the above review as somehow an endorsement of Putin, et al's policies.  It's not.  Yet I honestly don't believe it serves anybody's interests, American or the world's to make fun of people.

Indeed, one of the very, very few things that I'd agree with Putin in would be his assessment of many Americans' attitudes toward his country.  In one of the articles run by Time Magazine when Time selected him as their "Person of the Year" one year, they quote him as saying that it appeared to him that many Americans think of the Russians as "only one generation from swinging from the trees."

Unfortunately, I do believe he's right (in _this_) and no I don't believe it's anything remotely approaching "a good thing" that such disdain for another people is considered acceptable by many of us.  In fact, it's been my experience that common Russians consider themselves as "exceptional" as many common Americans think of themselves -- They see themselves as having a "proud history of 1000 years of expansion" (their version of "Manifest Destiny" ...) they remember themselves as having driven the Nazis back to Berlin (and Napoleon back to Paris before that), etc, etc -- It's not particularly good if common Russians think that Americans are blithely spitting the olive pits from their Martinis at them ... and yet many (including Putin) do ...

So IMHO films like this one really don't help ANYBODY.  Instead, they serve to confirm the worst stereotypes that both Russians and Americans have of each other.  And I can't see that as being even remotely "good" in any conceivable way.

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser. 

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Past (orig. Le Passé) [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars) (4 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review

The Past (orig. Le Passé) [2013] (written and directed by Oscar winning Asghar Farhadi [IMDb]) continues a wave of insightful, generally gentle, personalist dramas coming from Iran in recent years.  I've already reviewed two such films here Farhadi's A Separation (orig. Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) [2011] which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012 and Adel Yaraghi's Meeting Leila (orig. Ashnaee ba Leila) [2011].  A third Iranian film, by Rafi Pitts, The Hunter [2010], not nearly as gentle but still very much personalist in nature (about a troubled man and his family) I was able to see when it passed through Chicago sometime last year, but I wasn't able to write a review of it (for lack of time).  Everyone of these films has been excellent, films that if I were Iranian I would certainly be proud of, and they are films that offer Westerners an opportunity to see how Iranians would like themselves to be seen (beyond the hyperbolic rhetoric that American comic Jon Stewart of the Daily Show has had the insight to remind us is often driven by the requirements of populist politics across the globe).

Any Westerner who's actually gotten to know an Iranian or two during his/her life would come to appreciate how proud they are of their 3500-4000 year old "cosmopolitan" culture (they've been on the "Silk Road" since its beginning ...) who'd really like to compare Tehran to London, Paris or New York (Chicago from where I write, would seem to to most Iranians as being of  "second city" status, sort of the Tabriz of the United States, "nice" perhaps but not of "first league" status like the other Western capitals listed above or ... "one day" Tehran again...).  Even the structured/hierarchical Shiite Islam, dominant in Iran, would compare (and this would by my own insight) far closer to Catholicism than what most members of both faiths would (at least initially) like to admit. 

I do believe that the age, cosmopolitality of Iranian culture and even the paternalism of the (presently overbearing) ascendant Shiite "Church" in Iran make for fertile ground for the making of the personalist dramas coming from Iranian film makers today, just as similar personalist films were produced in post-Fascist Italy of the late 1940s (one thinks of the films of Vittorio de Sica [IMDb]) and during the Czechoslovak "New Wave" of the "Prague Spring" era of the 1960s.  For personalism, focusing on the dignity, problems and immediate relationships of the humble individual, can be poignant, _safe_, and even a subtle platform for protest when (fill in the regime) becomes overbearing and entering into parts of the lives of individuals against which most people would begin to chafe.  Interestingly enough, a big exponent of Christian personalism was none other than Pope John Paul II.

So then ... the current film, The Past (orig. Le Passé) [2013], has absolutely nothing to do with politics ... :-) ... but is instead a personalist drama about the final spasms of a marriage between Ahmad (played by Ali Mosaffa), Iranian, and his Parisian French wife Marie (played by Bérénice Bejo). 

At the beginning of the film, Ahmad, flying in from Tehran, is picked-up at Paris' airport by Marie. Why?  He's flying into Paris, after having returned to Iran some years before, at Marie's request to finalize their divorce.  Why?  The marriage has been dead for years now and Marie's found another guy, interestingly enough another Iranian immigrant/expatriate living in Paris, named Samir (played by Tahar Rahim) who she wants to marry.

The nationality/similarity in appearance of Samir to Ahmad is not lost on Marie's oldest (teenage) daughter Lucie (played by Pauline Burlet) of yet another relationship of Marie's (previous to Ahmad) who tells Ahmad "she's only marrying Samir because he looks like you."  Needless to say, Lucie's not excited about Samir's entry (as now her third father figure...) into her life.  One could say that she's had it with her mother in this regard. 

There are two other children in the mix.  There's Lucie's younger, 8-9 year old sister Lea (played by Jeanne Jestin) and there's Samir's again 6-7-8 year old Faoud (played by Elyes Aguis) from his marriage, also to a Parisian woman, who we find out, is lying in a coma after trying to commit suicide.

Now why did Samir's wife try to commit suicide?  That's much of the rest of the film.  What becomes clear is that Samir and Marie had entered into an affair prior to her attempting to commit suicide.  Was this a factor?  Yes? no? maybe?  To the story's credit, after exposing this central sin of the story -- the affair between Samir and Marie (after Ahmad's more or less permanent departure for Tehran...) -- the rest of the film is really about the nuances and distributed culpability for the sin and its effects.

And here Catholic moralist would be proud: (1) because it's absolutely clear that there was a fundamental sin here, and (2) it's _also_ complicated (NO ONE except for the littlest of the kids comes out looking good here).

Then there is a final question: Is a life (or a marriage...) "in a coma" truly over?  This is a gentle, nuanced film NOT done by a western-style (there are no rules) atheist but by someone who's still fundamentally a "there are rules believer."   Fascinating! 

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lone Survivor [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J.P. McCarthy) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. Boone) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Lone Survivor [2013] (directed and screenplay by Peter Berg, based on the memoir by Marcus Luttrell [IMDb] and Patrick Robinson) is about the skill, dedication and heroism of U.S. Navy SEALS fighting in the post-9/11 U.S. War on Terror, often, obviously, in the mountains of Afghanistan where this story is set.

From this description, it should be clear that the film carries with it a clear, basically, pro-American, pro-American-military point of view.  To many American readers here, this may seem like a somewhat annoying restatement of the obvious: Of course this is (and should be) a pro-American, pro-American military film, for it to be anything else would disingenuous or unpatriotic or both.  Yet though I am an American, I belong to a world-wide Catholic Religious Order (the Friar Servants of Mary), I've been on various national and international committees for my Religious Order over the years (including Justice and Peace), and a significant portion of my blog's Readership comes from overseas.   I know well that non-American Readers of my Blog (and non-American Viewers of the Film) would approach this same film with a great deal of skepticism wondering: Is this just "another American propaganda piece?"  I WOULD TELL READERS HERE, BOTH AMERICAN AND NON, THAT IN A CERTAIN SENSE IT (NECESSARILY) IS (an American propaganda piece) BUT (!) IT IS A RATHER GOOD / THOUGHT PROVOKING ONE WORTHY OF THE CRITICAL ATTENTION OF EVERYONE (of both Americans and non).

Why would I write that this film deserves "the critical attention of everyone?"  I write this because the film does deal with both moral questions AND portrays, I believe QUITE WELL certain fundamental characteristics of "American military doctrine" THAT ARE WORTHY OF REFLECTION UPON and COMPARISON WITH fundamental characteristics of the military doctrine of both "other lands" and "other times."

I write this because we all know well that ANY COUNTRY could produce wonderful, compelling "pro-Our Folks" military pieces.  American director Quentin Tarantino did the ENTIRE WORLD an enormous favor by including in his fascinatingly deconstructive "WW II" film Inglourious Basterds [2009] the subplot of the German propaganda machine seeking to produce an American style but PRO-NAZI GERMANY World War II film about "a brave lone Nazi sharpshooter in a bell tower keeping 300 American soldiers at bay" in some random town in Italy (One scene even shows the "brave Nazi sharpshooter" holed up in said "bell tower" pulling-out his pocket knife to carve the crisscrossing lines of the Nazi Swastika into the wood of the floor next to him, to the wild applause of the pro-Nazi German audience watching the film's premiere) the point being precisely that ANY COUNTRY can make its people look Good and "the Enemy" look Bad.   

That said, even propaganda films reveal more than "Our guys are Good and Their guys are Bad" and that is what I believe makes THE CURRENT FILM fascinating.

For the setup of the current film is conventional enough: A team of four über-fit, highly trained U.S. Navy Seals -- Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Danny Deitz (played by Emile Hirsch) and Matt 'Axe' Axelson (played by Ben Foster) -- are inserted on a "recon" mission into the mountains to Afghanistan to positively I.D. a Taliban leader by the name of Shah (played by Yousuf Azami) reported to be operating out of a small Afghan village in said mountains.  Once positively said Taliban leader, the rest of U.S. Navy Seal Team would be brought in by helicopter to take him and the rest of his company out.

All goes more-or-less according to the set plan until ... the four Navy SEALS perched in the mountains overlooking the village are happened upon by a number of goat herders -- two boys and an old man.  The Navy SEALS quickly overcome/bind the three Afghani goat-herders, but the question becomes, what now?   The team radios back to HQ for instructions, but alas, radio reception even today isn't ideal in the mountains _anywhere_ let alone in Afghanistan.   Without instructions (or the hope of immediate backup ...) the team has to decide what to do on their own.  The team's leader identifies three options: (1) let them go, which will almost certainly compromise their positions and virtually guarantee a firefight coming from directions/positions that they only guess (the Taliban is an army after all, with its own communications networks, and their garrisons aren't simply "sitting in town" waiting to be attacked by Americans ..., (2) leave the three tied-up, with the Navy SEALS bugging-out to another position (with presumably better possibility for communications), (3) "terminate the compromise" -- kill the three goat herders.

ONE COULD IMAGINE AN ELITE SQUAD OF ANY NATION'S ARMY FACING A SIMILAR SET OF OPTIONS.  What distinguishes THIS ELITE SQUAD is that it is _American_ and thus two characteristic concerns/values pervade: (1) The four have been trained according to post-WW II U.S. Military Doctrine to value their team.  One of the Navy SEALS says it bluntly: "I don't care about them (the three Afghani prisoners), I don't care about the higher-ups, I care about you, you and you (the team)" and (2) professionalism / a learned sense of accountability.  Another of the Navy SEALS points out: "If we kill these three Afghanis, or leave them here to freeze/die, it will be found out (someone's going to go looking for them and those goats are going to remain in the area), it will make CNN and we'll end up in Leavenworth."

I DON'T THINK A RUSSIAN SQUAD to say nothing of a NAZI "ELITE" WAFFEN-SS SQUAD would think that way.  In both cases, they would be "fighting for country" rather than "team" and in both cases, there would be no "CNN" to worry about, let alone "accountability back at the base."

Now I am no "pie in the sky, we do no wrong" naive American patriot.  Indeed, I reviewed (and gave high marks) to a documentary film produced by liberal/left leaning Nation Magazine national security correspondent Jeremy Skahill named Dirty Wars [2013] which chronicled various time when U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) weren't nearly so careful and killed all kinds of civilians both in Afghanistan and in Yemen.

But this is exactly a good part of my point: In the United States these stories DO COME OUT.  Violating "rules of engagement," blithely killing civilians, does actually carry risk in the U.S. military (and other western armies).  It doesn't elsewhere.  And please, if I'm wrong, show it to me.  Please offer me an example or two when members of Russian Special Forces units have been held accountable for "accidental killings" in the Caucuses, or even members of Indian Special Forces Units for similar actions in The Kashmir?

Jeremy Skahill's documentary Dirty Wars [2013] did show _clearly_ that U.S. Special Forces have killed innocents in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the War on Terror.  Still, I do get the sense that U.S. special forces units DO TRY TO BE CAREFUL and do understand that there are consequences (including possible jail time) for unprofessionalism.

Anyway, the Navy SEAL team in question in this story lets the three Afghani goat herders go free and the rest of the film follows.  The title of the film itself is a spoiler, suggesting more or less obviously that only one of the four will make it out.  I'll add a SECOND SPOILER -- the one who got out alive, made it in good part because of assistance from Afghani peasants (other "goat herders ...") who ALSO "happened upon him" when he was wounded ...

Great story and honestly one giving one much to think about.

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Friday, January 10, 2014

The Legend of Hercules [2014]

MPAA (PG-13) (1 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (1 Star)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune/Variety (S. Foundas) review (S. Wloszczyna) review

The Legend of Hercules [2014] (directed and cowritten by Renny Harlin along with Daniel Giat, Sean Hood and Giulio Steve) is really kinda a mess.  Presenting an "origin story" for the Greco-Roman hero Heracles (Hercules), it actually borrows more from The Gladiator [2000], Oliver Stone's Alexander [2004] and 300 [2006] than from the classical myth.

Now why should this be a problem?  After all, Marvel Comics has done a pretty good job converting the Norse God Thor [wikipedia] [marvel] into one of its comic book Superheroes, a character that's happily appeared in three Marvel films reviewed here [1] [2] [3].  Further, the Percy Jackson series, its latter film Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters [2013] reviewed here as well, did a reasonably good job re-imagining the various Greco-Roman heroes for the present day (I've found it particularly amusing that Percy, et al have been portrayed as growing-up with largely "absent fathers" ;-).  And I didn't find it particularly necessary to check the classical mythology underpinning films like Clash / Wrath of the Titans [2012], the latter film reviewed here as well.  Yet in the case of the current film, The Legend of Hercules [2014], I did find it necessary to do so and let me explain why:

Though bearing the name that derives from the Greek Goddess Hera (the Goddess of Hearth and Home), in the classical myth Heracles was actually tormented by Hera throughout most of his story.  Why?  Because he was the illegitimate son of her serially unfaithful husband, Zeus (the head of the Olympian Gods).  Indeed, in the classical myth, so terrified was Alcmene, Heracles' mother, of Hera's wrath that she left her infant Heracles exposed (to die) after giving birth to him.  Yet Athena (the Greek Goddess of Wisdom) seeing this injustice taking place, had pity on the infant and (playing a trick on Hera) brought him up to her, who (as Hera is the "Greek Goddess of Hearth and Home") cheerfully raised him as her own even giving him the name Heracles -- meaning "Hera's glory" because ... well that's what a Goddess of Hearth and Home does when she sees an abandoned infant: SHE TAKES CARE OF HIM / RAISING HIM AS HER OWN.  Imagine then Hera's anger when she discovered that her "pride and joy" Heracles was actually the illegitimate son of her philandering husband-God Zeus!  So she then took-out her anger on Heracles in all sorts of ways for the remainder of his earthly life.  That's the classical myth.

In the case of THE CURRENT FILM, Queen Alcmene (played actually quite well by Roxanne McKee) irritated with her husband King Aphrytion's (played by Scott Atkins) endless-warlike ways prays to Hera (again the Goddess of Hearth and Home) to knock some sense into her husband who was causing SO MUCH PAIN TO SO MANY HOUSEHOLDS (including her own) with his constant wars.  Okay, that would kinda make sense.  In the Greco-Roman world, Hera would probably be the Goddess to pray to with such a request. What doesn't make sense is Hera's answer to Queen Alcmene's prayer: HERA sends her randy/ever-philandering husband Zeus to impregnate Queen Alcmene so that she'd give birth the to the future Heracles (here understood as "Hera's Gift").  ANYONE WHO KNOWS ANYTHING ABOUT GREEK MYTHOLOGY WOULD KNOW THAT THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN IMPOSSIBLE.  There's simply NO WAY that Hera would "vend out" her husband like that.  Not only was she EXTREMELY JEALOUS in the Greco-Roman conception, she was THE GODDESS OF HEARTH AND HOME.  She wanted peaceful households, NOT ones where there was infidelity present.

So from the get-go this story is "Hollywood, in your dreams" nonsense ...

Then the rest of the story simply plays on elements of the three above mentioned Hollywood films:  King Aphrytion is never sure whether Heracles (played by Kellan Lutz) is really his son (shades of Oliver Stone's Alexander [2004] where Alexander the Great's father is portrayed as having similar worries).  At one point, Heracles is betrayed by King Aphrytion and Heracles' older/half-brother -- and SOLD INTO SLAVERY (as in the Russell Crowe starring The Gladiator [2000]).  How does regain his freedom? Through a series of "Gladiator-like" arena fights...  Finally, in case one didn't remember from 300 [2006] what a phalanx battle formation looked like, I can't imagine how one would forget it after this film, as this CGI friendly formation is used OVER AND OVER AGAIN THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE OF THE MOVIE.  There's even an a la last Hollywood version of Troy [2004] "doomed love story" between Heracles and a Cretian princess named Hebe (played by Gaia Weiss) which could be have been at least partly inspired by the Classical Heracles' falling in love with a Princess named Iole.  However, one gets the sense that the film-makers here really could care less about the Classical Heracles and just wanted to produce a generic, heavy on the CGI, "sand and sandal" movie with a more imposing name than the film in any way merited.

Sigh, there's a second Hercules movie coming out in the summer.  We'll have to see what this next one brings ...

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