Thursday, February 27, 2014

My 2014 Oscar Picks

IMDb listing
Previous/Other years

Since beginning my Blog some 3 1/2 years ago, I've come to the conclusion that all the Oscars are basically "lifetime achievement awards," and that a lot of great performances, especially in smaller films, are ignored.  As such, each year I also offer my own "Denny" Awards.   But the Oscars are, of course, the "Biggest Show in Town."  So here is my annual survey of who IMHO will win, should win and deserved consideration for the major categories at the 2014 Oscars

     WILL WIN - Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers' Club
     SHOULD WIN - James Franco as "Alien" in Spring Breakers
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - James Franco as "Alien" in Spring Breakers and Garrett Hedlund as Neal Cassady in On the Road

     WILL WIN - Lupita Nyongo'o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave
     SHOULD WIN - Lupita Nyongo'o Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, June Squibb as the Matriarch Kate in Nebraska or Jennifer Lawrence as Roselyn Rosenfeld in American Hustle
 Octavia Spencer as Wanda in Fruitvale Station, Kirsten Dunst as Carolyn Cassady in On the Road, Kate Bosworth as Billie in Big Sur and even Jessica Chastain as Anabel in Mama

     WILL WIN - Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordon Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street
     SHOULD WIN - Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, Christian Bale as Irvning Rosenfeld in American Hustle or Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in  Dallas Buyers' Club
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby (2013)Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis, Ernie Hudson as Marcus Wells in The Man in the Silo
 and Robert Redford in All is Lost.

     WILL WIN - Cate Blanchett as Jasmine in Blue Jasmine
     SHOULD WIN - Cate Blanchett as Jasmine in Blue Jasmine or Judy Dench as Philomena Lee in Philomena
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Mavis Fan as Lan Feng in Will you still love me tomorrow? (orig. Ming tian ji de ai shang wo), Paulina Garcia as Gloria in Gloria, Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha

     WILL WIN - American Hustle
     SHOULD WIN - Blue Jasmine, The Man in the Silo, Spring Breakers, Her
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Frances Ha, The Man in the Silo, Spring Breakers and Inside Llewyn Davis

     WILL WIN - 12 Years a Slave
     SHOULD WIN - Before Midnight, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - On the Road, The Bling Ring, The Great Gatsby (2013)

     WILL WIN - Gravity
     SHOULD WIN - Gravity
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - The Great Gatsby (2013), Big Sur, Spring Breakers, The Place Beyond the Pines, Will you still love me tomorrow? (orig. Ming tian ji de ai shang wo)Much Ado About Nothing (2013), The Great Beauty (orig. La Grande Bellezza)

     WILL WIN -  David O. Russell for American Hustle
     SHOULD WIN - David O. Russell for American Hustle or Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Richard Linklater for Before MidnightHarmony Korine for Spring Breakers, Sofia Coppola for The Bling Ring, Phil Donlon for The Man in the Silo and Woody Allen for Blue Jasmine


     WILL WIN - Frozen [2013]
     SHOULD WIN - Frozen [2013]
     WILL WIN - American Hustle
     SHOULD WIN - American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave
     DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Spring Breakers, Frances Ha, The Man in the Silo, All is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis

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In Secret [2013]

MPAA (R)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

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

In Secret [2013] (directed and screenplay by Charlie Stratton, based on the novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) [wikip] [IMDb] by Émile Zola [IMDb] and its stage adaptation by Neal Bell [IMDb]) plays-out like a sexed-up version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) [wikip] [IMDb].  The thematics are similar and, interestingly enough, the original novels came out within a year of each other.

Thérèse Raquin (played briefly in film as a girl by Lily Laight and for the rest of story as a young adult by Elizabeth Olsen) is handed-over as child by her father to his sister/her aunt Madame Raquin (played by Jessica Lange) because Thérèse's mother had died and as her father confesses, "[he] didn't know what to do with her."  So Thérèse grows up "in the (French) Provinces" in the home of her aunt and her first sickly and (when he grows up) socially inept son Camille (played in the film by Tom Felton). 

Madame and Camille, however, had a plan.  After Camille was able to land an accounting job of sorts in Paris, they decided to pick-up sticks and move there.  What of Thérèse?  Well, what of her?  They decide to marry her to ... Camille (!).  Now remember that Thérèse and Camille are first cousins, but ... let's face it Camille's a loser and where'd Thérèse get a dowry?  From her father?  Where the heck was he?  From Madame and Camille?  Yeah, right.   Madame's been paying for Thérèse's keep since her brother dropped her off at her doorstep as a child.  So ... "That's just the way it's gonna be honey..."

The three find probably the most depressing flat in Paris.  Madame and Thérèse would run some kind of a small seamstress shop on the ground floor while Camille would be off at work and they would (all) live upstairs.  Camille was generally "off in his own little world," apparently often "stopping at the zoo" after work "to look at the bears."  When deathly bored Thérèse offers one night (in bed) that she "could also be a bear," he looks at her and responds "don't be silly," adjusts his pillow, rolls over and goes to sleep.  Sigh ... something's got to give ...

Well, things turn (in a sense ...) "for the better" for our French "Jane Eyre" [IMDb], when Camille comes home excitedly one day with a long-lost childhood friend named Laurant (played in the film by Oscar Isaac) who he ran into in Paris one day.   Well Laurant is everything that Camille is not.  He's good-looking, quite confident in his demeanor, exuding a "knowledge of things of the world."  But also as an artist (remember Camille is an accountant) Laurant was also broke. So soon enough the desperately lonely (today we'd add sexually frustrated) Thérèse and the broke bohemian Laurant jump headlong into a torrid (and admittedly, at times amusing) affair. 

The circumstances of the affair were (again, for lack of a better word) "amusing" because it turned out that the dingy, awfully depressing flat where Thérèse, Camille and Madame all lived had at least one "redeeming" (of sorts ...) "virtue" ... It apparently had a side door/staircase that led to the second floor.  SOO... good ole Thérèse started to feint headaches around noon time to go upstairs "to rest" while Laurant would skip-off on his lunch-breaks from his odd jobs to visit her using that side-door / staircase with Madame (apparently getting old) and "out of it" Camille "none the wiser."

This worked for a while ... until ... Camille became tired of his rather boring accounting job and sensing (finally) that he's _probably_ failed his wife, tells Thérèse that "Paris was not for them (him)" and that he wanted to take her and Madame back to the family homestead back in the Provinces where they grew up. 

Of course Thérèse didn't not want to go, but Camille decides to "put his foot down" on the matter (after all, "he's the husband...").  So Thérèse and Laurant come up with a desperate plan to "get rid of" (kill) Camille, and ... they do.

It's here that the story (or at least Part II of the story) _really begins_.  Okay, the two killed him.  Now how continue to see each other while NOT arousing suspicion that they did so ...?   There's Madame who's heartbroken over the loss of her admittedly socially inept son.  There turned out to be all kinds of mutual friends/acquaintances.  Then as much of "a loser" that Camille was, he had been a human being.  So it proves _really hard_ to live with this secret ... and much ensues as the two try ...

I have to admit, I very much enjoyed this story of "Jane Eyre" [IMDb] meets "Raskolnikov" [IMDb].  I enjoyed all the performances and yes as the two struggled with their guilt, it becomes ever more clear that the Moral Order has to come to be vindicated ... With themes of adultery and murder and some passionate (if covered) love scenes (Parents take note...) the film deserves its R-rating. 

Yet, for young adults and above, I do believe it makes for a good, thought provoking story and a very good film.  Good job!

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Wedlock (orig. Zendegi Moshtarak-e Aghaye Mahmoodi va Banoo) [2013]

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

IMDb listing listing listing*

The Wedlock (orig. Zendegi Moshtarak-e Aghaye Mahmoodi va Banoo) [2013] [IMDb] [Cin] [SC]* (directed by Rouhullah Hejazi [IMDb] [Cin] [SC]*, screenplay by Ali Telebabadi [IMDb] [Cin] [SC]*) is (as far as I could see...) a very well-written, well acted and certainly quite thought-provoking (for _everyone_) contemporary Iranian urbanite/upper middle class "family drama" piece that played recently at the 24th Annual Festival of Films from Iran held recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago.

The entire film takes place in the very nice, upper middle class home of a middle-aged urbanite (I'm guessing Tehran) couple -- of a traditional (and liking it...) had-some-college (majored in Persian poetry) yet stay-at-home wife/mother Mohaddeseh (played by Hengameh Ghaziani [IMDb] [Cin] [SC]*), her more amiable, salt-and-pepper haired/mustached, some kind of professional, bread-winning husband Mansour (played by Hamid Farrokhnejad [IMDb] [Cin] [SC]*) and their ipod-listening, at times eyes-rolling, talk-backing (hence quite normal...) yet still largely wide-eyed, innocent 14 year old daughter Negin (played by Tarlan Parvaneh [IMDb] [Cin] [SC]*).

For not particularly clear reasons, they decide that their home could use some renovations.  The couple may be seeing their daughter getting older (and thus realizing that they are getting older), they may feel that their lives are a somewhat stagnant, or just feel "a yen to do something."  Why do upper middle class families in the United States decide "to redo the house" or "the kitchen" or whatever?  Whatever the reason, they've decided to do this, to renovate the house a bit.  And they decide to do it in a manner that a lot of nice families all across the world often decide: "Why not let [a random relative] 'who's in that business' do it?"  So they invite a niece, Mohaddeseh's sister's mid 20-something daughter Sameh (played by Taraneh Alidoosti [IMDb] [Cin] [SC]*), who's apparently some sort of an interior designer, over to begin the job.

Well, it's been a while since they've seen their quite independent, university educated, "somewhat of an artist type" niece who now has an interior decorating business.  So after the initial smiles (she was apparently quite well remembered from when she was, well ... perhaps 14-year-old Negin's age... ;-), Sameh kinda stuns everybody by bringing over a guy named Ramtin (played by Peyman Ghassemkhani [IMDb] [Cin] [SC]*) to help her with doing the initial measurements for the job.

Now who the heck is Ramtin? ;-)

Well, he's something of a partner.  It becomes clear that he's definitely _more_.  Now 14-year-old Negin just loves this as she figures out that whatever the situation actually is between Sameh and Rantin it's bound to embarrass her mother, while in fact 40-something Mohaddeseh does kinda crumple into herself in despair.

How long has it been since they've seen Sameh?  Mohaddeseh remembers now that Sameh (her niece) and Sameh's mother (her sister) hadn't gotten along much in those years (about 5-10 years back) before Sameh's mother had died.  Now Mohaddeseh understood a bit of why the two didn't get along.  It's not that Ramtin was around when Sameh's mother / Mohadesseh's sister had died.  He wasn't.  But now Mohaddeseh remembered what kind of a "free spirit" Sameh had been in her early and mid-twenties.  And her daughter's just getting into that "teenage rebellious age" ;-).

Finally, the ever smiling, amiable Mansour (after all, he's supposed to be "the man of the house" ;-), and also one who appears to have always kinda liked Sameh when she was growing-up, decides to break the tension by asking: "So ... are you two married?"

They answer "No, not really" ;-).  Apparently, in contemporary Islamic Iran (as it also appeared to be in Biblical Israel/Palestine at the time of Jesus) marriage is two step process: Sameh and Rantin had taken their "Engagement vows" but not their full "Marriage vows." BUT they lied to their landlady and were essentially living together unmarried.  ("Where there's a will, there's a way..." apparently even in contemporary Iran ;-)

So Mansour (like amiable, regular/traditional folk all over) asks, "Why don't you two just get married?" to which Ramtin answers, "I'd get married to Sameh in a minute." It turns out that it's Sameh who really doesn't want to get married ;-)

Why?  The same conversation -- where EVERYBODY is at least PARTLY RIGHT (but then also where EVERYBODY is at least PARTLY WRONG) -- that we hear in this film taking place among the members of this very nice Shiite Muslim family in Tehran could be _easily_ be imagined taking place among many very nice parish (Catholic) families here in Chicago ;-)


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

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The Bright Day (orig. Rooz-e Roshan) [2013]

MPAA (Unrated would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars) listing listing*

The Bright Day (orig. Rooz-e Roshan) [2013] [Cin] [SC]* (written and directed by Hossein Shahabi [Cin] [SC]*) is an independently made Iranian film that premiered in Feb 2013 at the 31st Annual Fajr Film Festival in Tehran where it won Awards for Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Actor and Best Actress.  Subsequently, it has done well at various international film festivals and it played recently here in Chicago at the 24th Annual Festival of Films from Iran held at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

On one hand it is a typically "small story" focused on two people, a Tehran kindergarten teacher named Rashan (played by Pantea Bahram [Cin] [SC]*) and then a random taxi driver (played by Mehran Ahmadi [Cin] [SC]*) who she hires to take her around town one school morning.  On the other hand, thematically the film is quite surprising / challenging:  Why is school teacher taking the day off to ride around Tehran running errands on this particular day?  Well, the father of one of her little students, a widower with a sick mother, is standing accused of murder.  Who is he accused of murdering?  The son of his boss, and his boss' family is relatively powerful.  Well did he do it?  Not really.  There were plenty of (coworker) witnesses to an argument between the accused and the deceased.  But at the end of it all, the boss' son fell down the stairs, hit is head on something sharp, and ... died as a result.

Now deceased pushed by the accused?  That's the question.  There were seven witnesses.  But the Boss, whose son died (or was killed) in this tragic way turns out to be from a rather powerful (and wealthy family).  And he wants vengeance (the Death Penalty).  So Rashan, who knows the accused and his circumstances (that he has a little boy and a very sick elderly mother) is making the rounds to try to convince at least two of the seven witnesses to stand-up for the accused.  None of them appear to be convinced that the accused killed the man.  But many are not sure that he did not.  And in any case, ALL are afraid of the Boss and his powerful family.

And perhaps inevitably as Rashan goes about Tehran trying to convince at least two of the witnesses to standup for the accused so that he would not be executed leaving his five year old son and orphan and his elderly mother alone and on her own, a number of the potential witnesses pointedly ask, "Hey, why are you so interested in him?"   Then, what exactly were accused and the soon to be deceased Boss' son arguing about anyway?

This is a very small and yet very pointed movie.  And the random taxi-driver increasingly plays the role of the "Everyman" in the story.  What would you do if you had her in your car and you watched this sad story play out?  His passenger has until 2 PM, maybe 3 PM, maybe (if the accused's lawyer really, really stalls ...) until 3:30 PM to get two witnesses to the court to stand-up for the accused or else the accused ... will be sentenced to die.

And yes folks, this Iranian film about Iran, made in Iran and which premiered in Iran, swept the awards at Iran's premier (and government sanctioned...) film festival last year.  Something to perhaps consider, at least for a while, as one thinks of Iran today.

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

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pompeii [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (R. Rodriguez) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

I think the key to understanding Pompeii [2014] (directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, screenplay by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson) is the PG-13 rating, that is, like in his "kinda crazy" rendition of The Three Musketeers [2011], Anderson was aiming for a teenage, and perhaps younger teenage audience (13-15 year olds).  When do we normally take "World History" in high school in the U.S.?  Freshman year (when we're 14-15 years old).

And here I have to give director Anderson credit.  Just like IMHO he captured _the spirit_ of The Three Musketeers (intended originally as an _adventure novel_ for young teenagers) and expressed it, yes, "crazily" but for teens of the modern day, I think he did it again with regard to teaching some basic Roman history / culture with this current film Pompeii [2014] INVOKING SOME "MEMES" FROM CONTEMPORARY CULTURE that every teenager (at least in the U.S.A. today) would know.

The destruction of the seaside city Roman city of Pompeii in 79 AD was an enormous tragedy for that civilization comparable to the destruction wrought by recent Tsunamis particularly the Tsunamis of 2004 in the Indian Ocean and 2011 in Japan.  Just about every high school student in the country (and perhaps across the world) will have images of those two tsunamis burned into his/her memory.  So, even though there's no historical mention of a tsunami associated with the eruption Mt. Vesuvius that completely buried the city of Pompeii in ash in 79, it's BOTH NOT an impossibility (both Pompeii and Vesuvius were close to the sea) AND including a "tsunami scene" in the film during the course of its depiction of the cataclysmic eruption HELPS VIEWERS APPRECIATE FROM THEIR OWN EXPERIENCE THE MAGNITUDE OF THE DISASTER THAT THEY WERE WATCHING.

Then, the discovery during excavations at Pompeii of eerily hollowed out remains of some of the victims (basically holes left in the ash where they would have fallen as they died) of the tragedy has over recent decades added a uniquely human dimension to the disaster that happened nearly 2000 years.  At excavations have found at times entire families huddled together (and killed and buried by the burning ash).  Thus though the tragedy took place nearly 2000 years ago, we today can actually "see" some of the victims, or at least what the ash left of their forms as they died on that day.

So I understand Anderson and his screenwriters' decision to explain the disaster in Pompeii using a similar story-telling technique to that used by James Cameron in Titanic [1997], which also sought to put a human face on that disaster.  James Cameron created "a doomed love story" between one who survived the Titanic's sinking and one who did not.  In the case of Pompeii [2014], with the hollowed-out remains of those who had died now having been found across various parts of the excavated city, Anderson and his scriptwriters basically created a story around two of the victims found in an embrace.  "Awww...." BUT THAT'S A STORY THAT A 14 YEAR OLD COULD BE HOOKED INTO: "They were in love, but then came this disaster and ..."

Then, to tell the story of the "whole" of Pompeii (or even of the "whole of Roman civilization of the time") it behooved Anderson, et al, to CHOOSE to make the two lovebirds found in that embrace OF WIDELY DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS.  Again James Cameron did the same in his telling of the "whole story of the Titanic."  In Cameron's Titanic [1997] Rose was from an upperclass family traveling firstclass to the U.S. on the Titanic while Jack was essentially a stowaway from the lower decks in steerage.  In the case of the current film, Milo (played by Kit Harington) was a Celtic "gladiator slave," while Cassia (played by Emily Browning) was a young woman from a reasonably wealthy (but still "provincial") family from Pompeii.  Further, like Rose from the Titanic, Cassia had an unwelcome yet powerful suitor, here amusingly named Corvus (played by Kiefer Sutherland) from Rome (amusingly named because "Corvus" literally translates to "Raven" or "Crow" from Latin).

Now how would the "gladiating" slave Milo ever meet the sweet and somewhat rich girl with a problem?  Well, go see the movie ;-).  And once they do meet, well, the rest of the story follows...

Certainly this film is not a documentary, nor an Alistair Cooke [IMDb] / PBS Masterpiece Theater [IMDb] quality piece.  However, I do think that a 14 year old would be entertained and would learn actually quite a bit about life in the Roman Empire at the time of Pompeii's destruction.  All the social strata are there, the cosmopolitan nature of that Empire (one could run into "anyone from anywhere" on its streets, highways or byways) and even some of the abuses of power and corruption that eventually brought the Empire down were shown.  And this was all done in a manner that a teenager could easily understand and even be hooked into seeking to go out and learn some more

So I have to say that like director Anderson's The Three Musketeers [2011] before it, I enjoyed this film and can not but be impressed by his willingness to "risk" in bringing these stories to life in a way that teenagers today could appreciate.  Good job!

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Monday, February 17, 2014

Winter's Tale [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Winter's Tale [2014] (directed and screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the bestselling novel by Mark Helprin [IMDb]) will probably irritate a fair number of viewers perhaps particularly (but by no means exclusively) of a more conservative bent for its at times almost crushingly heavy "air of self importance."

 As in the case of many stories like this, buy-in into the story requires enduring a rather (I have to go back to the word) "heavy" introductory voice-over that helps explain to us the metaphysics/world-view of the story to follow.  In the case here: (1) We are _each_ put into this world to fulfill a particular purpose/destiny. (2) We'll remain in this world, in one way or another, until our destinies are fulfilled. (3) Time becomes somewhat elastic as we strive to fulfill our individual destinies. (4) When we fulfill our destinies, our spirits will rise to the heavens to become stars.  As the story progresses, we're also told that as we struggle to fulfill our destinies we will be (5) helped by various angelic forces or otherwise "spirit guides," while (6) there are also evil/demonic forces afoot in this world that seek to thwart our reaching our destiny.

It's easy for many to sigh at the pretentiousness and arguably narcissism (each and every one of us is destined to do something "great") of the particular metaphysical world view underpinning this story.  And certainly there have been a fair number of other stories based on other based best selling novels with similarly heavy/burdensome often pretentious metaphysics underpinning put on screen in recent years (Mortal Instruments [2013], Beautiful Creatures [2013], the Percy Jackson, Twilight Saga (!) / Harry Potter (!) series and even the Chronicles of Narnia / LOTR-The Hobbit series), but I would note to readers here that there are hundreds-upon-hundreds, perhaps even thousands-upon-thousands of pulp scifi/fantasy novels, graphic novels and even video/computer games available to interested readers/consumers that _all_ have their own metaphysics and battles between the forces of Good and Evil within them.

I suppose what made this particular story different from any number of more "pulp fictiony" experiments (and put it in the same league with other stories that have been made it from book form to the silver screen) is that this story offered a compelling enough (yet also middle-of-the-road/staid enough) blend of Romance with Fantasy genre metaphysics for Mark Helprin's original novel to have made it onto the New York Times Best Seller List. If the story proved _too_ "out there" or _too_ burdensome it would have never made it this far. 

So then, to the story ...

After the above mentioned early exposition of the metaphysical "rules" of story, we're introduced to Peter Lake, the central protagonist in the story.  It's the late 19th century and he and his parents have arrived, from Russia, at Ellis Island.  After Peter's mother fails her medical exam for "consumption" (tuberculosis) they are ordered deported back to Russia.  Still in New York harbor but already on the ship heading back to Russia, Peter's father finds a model of a sailing ship named "City of Justice" on display in the ship's museum.  Desperate, he breaks the glass case protecting the model boat and then he and his wife a la the infant Moses (Exodus 2:1-10) place their child in the model boat, put it (somehow) in the water and push it in the direction of land.  Apparently the boat lands onshore and Peter grows up in a New York orphanage where, though he was originally of Russian origin, he curiously acquires an Irish accent (most probably the orphanage would have been Catholic...).

The story then jumps several decades ahead to 1916.  At this point, Peter Lake (played as an adult by Colin Farrell) under the "care/protection" of a local (mob) boss Pearly Sommes (played by Russell Crowe) starts to have dreams of a red-haired woman who he only sees from the back.  He doesn't know what this means but Pearly certainly does.  Peary, it turns out, is more than just a local New York-Irish mob boss.  He's long ago sold his soul to the Devil (whose "regional representative" (played by Will Smith) lives and operates out of a seemingly random if rather dark and dank Manhattan warehouse along the Hudson River ... in the world of this story, agents of the Devil live and work in this world appearing to be "just like us" except ... they are not AND they tend to work in already quite nefarious fields, like in the Mob ).

Pearly understands Peter's visions as meaning that he's coming close to meeting his purpose/destiny in life AND PEARLY'S JOB, AS AN AGENT OF THE DEVIL, IS TO FRUSTRATE HUMAN BEINGS' ATTEMPTS TO ACCOMPLISH THEIR PURPOSE / MEET THEIR DESTINY.  On the other hand, other strange things start to happen around Peter Lake, notably a Pegasus-like white horse with wings (a "spirit guide") materializes by good ole Peter just as he's about to be beaten up and perhaps even killed by Pearly and his henchmen (which would have "set back" Peter's ability to meet his destiny ...).

So "Game On" ... the Peter Lake jumps onto the Pegasus-like white horse with wings and escapes Pearly and his men.  The Pegasus-like white horse takes him upriver to a mansion that turns out to be owned by a newspaper magnate named Isaac Penn (played by William Hurt) and ... it turns out that he has a beautiful young REDHEADED daughter named Beverly (played by Jessica Brown Findley).  Is she then wrapped-up somehow in Peter's destiny?  OF COURSE SHE IS, BUT ... she, of course, her own purpose/destiny to fulfill. So much then ensues ... so much so, that Time, in fact, has do be (sort of) warped to do so... but then when Love and Destiny are at stake, what's Time to stand in the way?

Yes, it's kind of a sappy story.  And as I've written above, the "metaphysics" of it all can be rather burdensome.   But the metaphysics is _not_ completely incomprehensible.  A lot of the story's metaphysics is based on traditional Christian metaphysics.  And then ... there's the white horse ... ;-).

The tag line of the film is: This is NOT a "True Story."  It's a Love Story.

It's also not a particularly profound story.  BUT a love story it is and a rather sappy "heavy on the period dress" one at that.  But if you like that sort of thing, you'll probably like the film.

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Robocop [2014]

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

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

Robocop [2014] (directed by José Padilha, screenplay by Joshua Zetumer, based on the screenplay of the 1987 original by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner) is the third of three "back-to-the-80s" remakes to be released for this (Valentine's Day) weekend, the current film obviously conceived as "not much of a date movie" indeed, the "anti-date movie" of the weekend ;-).

Why there were so many "back-to-the-80s" movies released this weekend would make for an interesting reflectuion in its own right.  However, here I'd like to limit the question to whether there was really a need to revisit this particular (Robocop) franchise at this particular time in our history.

Here I would actually answer in the affirmative.  Why?  The Robocop franchise explores to possibility of using robots for policing work and technology has progressed since the 1980s.  The use of weaponized drone aircraft _overseas_ in the U.S. War on Terror is a reality today.  And it is a reality to the point, as the recent documentary Dirty Wars [2013] by Nation magazine's Jeremy Scahill, amply _documents_ the annoying (and telltale) _buzzing sound_ of these American drones HAS APPARENTLY BECOME A PART OF DAILY LIFE over the Sana capital of Yemen and over various cities of PakistanSo the beginning scenes of this reboot of Robocop [2014] showing, among other things, an "occupied Tehran" of the near future being "policed" by terrifying robotic solders, is a possibility _not that far away_.

Now there would be advantages to this.  The Normandy Invasion, for instance, during WW II (or the U.S. Marines' retaking of Fallujah during the insurgency that followed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003) would have been been _so much easier_ if robots could have been used rather than human soldiers.
On the flip-side, one could easily imagine the _added horror_ of Hitler's Operation Barbarossa (the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union) with its attendant Einsatzgruppen following behind the invading troops to round up and kill Jews if any or even all of those soldiers were pre-programmed killing-machine robots....

So this no longer altogether distant world, where military (and "peace keeping") operations would be done almost completely by robots, is the world of the rebooted Robocop [2014].  And the question being asked in the film (similar to the question ALREADY BEING ASKED TO TODAY with regards to "surveillance drones") is: Should this technology be used domestically?

The film predicts, probably correctly, that there would be some fairly loud voices like Pat Novak (played to exaggerated bug-eyed paranoid perfection by Samuel L. Jackson) and his The Novak Element, a show certainly modeled after Bill O'Reilly's current FoxNews' The O'Reilly Factor, speaking in favor of domestic use of such technology designed and built by an Orwellian "OmniCorp" headquartered in a still crime-ridden but industrially revitalizing Detroit of the future.  The film predicts, also probably correctly, that there would be widespread domestic opposition to relinquishing policing responsibility to "soul-less" (operating without a conscience) mechanical robots.

So, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (played perfect machiavellian fashion by Michael Keaton) comes up with the idea of "putting a human inside the machine."  What he means is essentially putting the head (mind/brain) of a severely wounded soldier or, in the case this story, severely wounded Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (played IMHO again quite well in the role by Joel Kinnaman) inside an adapted version of one of his robot soldiers, err police officers. 

This plot item calls to mind recent (post-Afghanistan/post-Iraq) advances in prosthetics while taking them a few steps further.  In the film, Dr. Dennett Norton (played again IMHO quite well, here in quite conflicted fashion by Gary Oldman) is introduced in the story by showing him giving a previously wounded American soldier a new prosthetic arm that is so good that he could play a guitar with it.

Sellars comes to Dr. Norton with the proposal of putting a human head into an entirely prosthetic body.  The good/conflicted Dr. Norton initially opposes the project because he knows that it would be used for non-peaceful purposes.  But he's given a deal that he can not refuse:  Sellars essentially offers him a blank check for any kind of research he desires besides completing this "one project" for them.  And the good doctor wants to help war veterans/amputees.

HONESTLY, this is VERY REALISTIC DILEMMA faced by the "good"/"conflicted" Dr. Norton as FOR DECADES all kinds of "dual use" scientific research has been financed by U.S. government defense (DARPA) dollars.  The most obvious example of this would be the development of the technology behind the Internet itself, which was initially funded as a DARPA/Defense project.  The difference here is that in this story, it's a Corporation, an Orwellian "OmniCorp" promising the "good Doctor" Norton to finance the "good doctor's" pet/priority projects if he "just did them this one favor" (work on ITS pet project) for it.  Note here folks that Nazi rocket scientist Werhner Von Braun justified his work on the Nazi-era London and Antwerp terror bombing V-2 as his "devil's bargain with the Nazis" to develop rocket technology that would eventually take humanity to the moon.  So he wasn't really building _vengence weapons_ (that's actually what the "V" in V-2 STOOD FOR) for Hitler.  Instead, in his (Post-War, and potentially facing the gallows at Nuremberg for War Crimes, and not just for building these weapons which bombed London/Antwerp but for killing many, many POLES and other slave workers from aphyxiation in the tunneled-out mountain-side factories where these rockets were made to begin with) mind, he was building the rockets that would eventually take us to the moon.  Yeah, right, maybe...).

Anyway, the good/conflicted Dr. Norton had experience in advanced almost human-like prosthesis and OmniCorp had an already proven robotic killing machine.  All that one needed to do was (1) figure out how to put them together and (2) oh, yes, find a sufficiently burned, crumpled body to justify replacing everything but basically his/her head and attaching it to a new, mechanical body.

Note here also that the already in the 1950s, under Pius XII the Catholic Church declared its moral opposition human head (brain) as well as human genital transplantation.  Why?  Older people with means would be tempted to harvest younger people without them for their bodies (and/or reproductive capacities).   In the 1980s, under John Paul II, the Catholic Church came out against in vitro fertilization.  Why?  In good part because of the manifold possibilities for genetic / developmental manipulation that become opened once the fertilization of human eggs is allowed to take place outside the human body: For instance, geneticists have already created "glow in the dark" rabbits by adding jellyfish genes to rabbit eggs, before fertilizing them and implanting them back into a rabbit mother.  There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TECHNICALLY PREVENTING some _crazy_ human couple from creating a "glow in the dark" child in an analogous way. 
The robotic/mechanical manipulations explored in this film, while somewhat different from the ones already opposed in the Catholic Church statements above, are nonetheless similar.  How much control would a human brain/mind/soul have over the mechanical body that it was implanted in?  Answer: ONLY as much as the designers of the mechanical body prosthetic allow it.

So, when OmniCorp's R&D folks find that even a more-or-less "okay with it" human mind (Alex's) driving a mechanical prosthetic body was not quite the "killing machine" as an all robotic machine was ... they demand that the "good" Dr. Norton come-up with a "work around." 

The work-around that he comes up with is that in NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES the human subject, Alex's mind/head, would be in control of his mechanical body.  HOWEVER, ONCE IN "COMBAT MODE" the _computer driven_ robot mechanics would kick in and FOR THE MOST PART "Alex's" mind would NOT REALIZE THAT THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENING.  He'd just believe that his combat instincts/reflexes "were that good."

Yet this "work around" wouldn't just fool Alex (or other human subjects inside such robots).  It would ALSO fool the public.  The public would believe that such "RoboCops" (or "RoboSoldiers") would still be controlled by the human subjects within them, when in reality ONCE IN COMBAT MODE, they would revert to being pure robotic killing machines (with the human brain inside there "just for the ride" and for the PR of giving the public the false belief that "people are still controlling these things.")

Pretty scary stuff...

Anyway, things go wrong (or sideways...) with this evil work-around, when former Detroit PD Alex, now inside his robotic body, begins to use the technology available to him (his brain is connected essentially to the internet) to investigate the circumstances of his own murder (the circumstances that brought him to the state where the only way he could possibly continue to live would be to have his head/brain transplanted to an all mechanical body).

Much, much, often violent, of course ensues ...

Yet, in the midst of that mayhem, the film then does raise some very current questions: Do we want robots doing this kind of (policing) work?   And if we don't want them used at home, why are we so okay with using them abroad? 

Then where do we start drawing the lines when it comes to human mechanical prosthetics?  Certainly there are obvious benefits to amputees.  But at what point does a human become a machine?  Finally, the film raises the question of possible future manipulation of sensory and cognitive functions in the brain (rendering one to believe that one is "in control" of something when one is not).

Again, this is pretty scary stuff ... and, it ought to make us thankful that when created naturally, we really created Freely and with Free Will.  (I wrote also about this at the end of my review of Her [2013])  We are what we are.  And we're free to think (and even to make mistakes) on our own.

In contrast, computers and computer programs do the bidding of their programmers.  Thus though as users we may feel "in control" of how we use our computers, we're actually in far less control than we think.  For instance as we surf the internet, we're bombarded by advertisements, _not_ because we want to be bombarded by such advertisements, but because the providers of the programs that allow us to surf the internet want us to be bombarded by them.

Similarly, this film reminds us that robots and even prosthetic devices can be designed in ways that serve not simply their users but also their manufacturers (and other outside interested parties like advertisers that may "bundle" their interests with those of the manufacturers).  

In any case, we're asked here to reflect on these very modern concerns, which are already upon us or will be shortly.

Yes, the film is probably needlessly violent.  But that in itself is perhaps a warning.  Honestly, how concerned are we about the mayhem caused by our drones flying all over the place overseas.  "Out of sight, out of mind," the saying goes.

Well, what's "out of sight" now, will in one way or another come home.  So it behooves us to think about what we are doing and the possible Pandora's boxes that we may be opening.

In this regard, this film is really quite interesting!

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Friday, February 14, 2014

About Last Night [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

About Last Night [2014] (directed by Steve Pink, screenplay by Leslye Headland, based on screenplay of  the 1986 original screen version by Tim Kazurinsky and Denice DeClue in turn based on the 1974 stage play "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" by David Mamet [IMDb]) is definitely an R-rated movie intended for 20-something young adults and above. (Doubting Parents please just take a look again at _the name of stage play_ on which the film based).

The purpose of the original 1974 stage play, the original 1986 film version and now the 2014 remake has always been _in good part_ to shock.  (And yes, "shock" can make for "good comedy," one laughs as one thinks: "I can't believe what I'm seeing/hearing..." ;-).

And so it is, the opening scene of this remake (moved from Chicago to L.A.) has Bernie (played by Kevin Hart) recalling to his more staid best friend / coworker Danny (played by Michael Ealy) in vivid, blow-by-blow, YOU CAN'T POSSIBLY NOT "be there" detail the sexual encounter with a woman named Joan (played by Regina Hall), who he had picked-up in the bar in which they were sitting the night before (the film's called "About Last Night" after all ...).  And even as we hear Bernie recalling that (last) night, we see Joan walking toward said bar with _her more sensible room-mate_ Debbie (played by Joy Bryant) in almost exactly the same detail.  Indeed, as the film is cut, the two are _completing each other's sentences_.

No matter what one may think of Bernie and Joan ... it would seem that they were truly "made for each other" ;-).  And so it should not to all that be surprising that they made a second date, and indeed, invited their two best friends to join them perhaps to validate their experience and to "share their joy."

Well, honestly Bernie and Joan continue to be "made for each other." After introductions between Danny and Debbie are made, Bernie and Joan (each talking a mile a minute) proceed to get absolutely plastered while their more sensible best friends, both somewhat exasperated and somewhat embarrassed, look on.  Eventually, the two drunks "excuse themselves."  We all know what they probably want to do (go somewhere to have ...) but we have a pretty good idea of what they're gonna do (pass out ,,,).

And so it goes ... finally having a chance to talk, Danny and Debbie find that they kinda find each other interesting ... and, well, Debbie ends up spending the night Danny's place.

The next day, Danny and Bernie meet back at work, Danny begins to recall that, to his surprise after Bernie and Joan had left them to themselves, he and Debbie kinda hit it off.  Bernie interrupts him and says, "I know."  "How??" "Joan and Debbie are roommates!"  But, though cutting-off Danny with his story, it's clear that Bernie's happy that his best friend.coworker and his emerging girl-friend's roommate hit it off.

The rest of the movie, up-down-and-all-around, follows....

Now someone in my position, Catholic priest after all, could certainly lament that THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE COURSE OF THE FILM, THROUGHOUT ALL OF THE SEXUAL ACTIVITY (actually relatively discreetly shot, for all the sexual _talk_ very little is actually shown) NOWHERE, NOWHERE, NOWHERE is there ANY DISCUSSION OF MARRIAGE AMONG ANY OF THEM.

ON THE OTHER HAND, ALL FOUR OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS (paired up in basically two on-again / off-again couples throughout the whole of the story) ARE ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED THAT THEIR RELATIONSHIPS WILL EVENTUALLY FAIL (and indeed, during the course of the film, both couples experience extended periods of breakup).  So I suppose the four would respond "Why talk of marriage, when we're absolutely convinced that somehow / someway it's gonna fail anyway?"  Honestly, FOR SOMEONE LIKE ME, THAT'S INTERESTING.

ALSO INTERESTING TO ME is how the story deals with IMHO the inevitable: The possibility of pregnancy (with all that sex after all...).  Yes, it's clear that they are all practicing birth-control.  Yet despite this, BOTH COUPLES find themselves facing the possibility (in the case of Danny-and-Debbie) or at least talking about the possibility (Bernie-and-Joan).  INTERESTINGLY while ALL FOUR SEEMED CONFLICTED about the possibility of creating (or having created) a child it seemed that ALL FOUR OF THEM WOULD HAVE ACCEPTED THE RESPONSIBILITY OF HAVING THE CHILD (abortion as an option was never considered by any of them).

So for someone like me, this is actually a very interesting movie about: (1) four young people, paired up in two couples, drawn in such a way that WE VIEWERS REALLY DO BELIEVE that each of the two couples "were made for each other", yet THEY THEMSELVES ARE CONVINCED THAT SOMEHOW, SOMEWAY THEY THEMSELVES ARE GOING TO SCREW IT UP and (2) four young people who despite using birth-control and thus CERTAINLY NOT LOOKING to create a kid NEVERTHELESS STILL BEING OPEN IT, IF THEY ENDED UP CREATING A KID ANYWAY.

So certainly, this movie is NOT FOR MINORS.  The R-rating is richly deserved.  And certainly as far as CHURCH TEACHING GOES, the four people in the story DEFINITELY PUT THE CART WAY, WAY, WAY AHEAD OF THE HORSE (having all kinds of sex with each other before even beginning to articulate whether there was a future to their already existent relationship...).

Still, the film is not without value even for a Pastoral worker: How to convince skeptical, fearful, perhaps previously burned young people that serious relationships between two people who really do have a lot in common, who their families / friends see as "made for each other" NEED NOT END IN FAILURE? 

Anyway, while this film wouldn't necessarily make any top-ten list of mine, like the 1986 version (WHICH I SAW as a young adult in my 20s), THIS IS NOT A BAD FILM for _young adults_ (20 somethings) to see.

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Endless Love [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAlleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

The first thing that a parent ought to know of  Endless Love [2014]  (directed and screenplay by Shana Feste [IMDb] along with Joshua Safran based on the novel by Scott Spencer [IMDb]) its actually a toned-down remake of Franco Zeffirelli's 1981 screen adaptaion of Spencer's love story between a previously quiet 15-year old girl and her troubled 16-year old pyromaniac beau with the tagline "A Love Every Parent Fears" ;-).   So the story's intended to push parents' and other authority figures' (like a blog-writing Catholic priest's ...) buttons ;-).  

In the current version, the ages of the characters are a little higher.  The film begins at the high school graduation of both the beautiful and rich but previously quiet Jade (played by Gabriela Wilde) and the poorer and generally more outgoing, but as it happened ever tongue-tied around her David (played by Alex Pettyfer).  So they are both 17-18 years old and out of high school rather than the 15-16 in the original and right in the middle of it.

So why was Jade so quiet?  Well, we find that the daughter of a generally very successful Atlanta based surgeon named Hugh Butterfield (played by Bruce Greenwood) BUT when Jade was only a freshman or sophomore in high school, Jade's oldest brother and previously the apple of Dr. Butterfield's eye had tragically come down precisely with cancer, a very aggressive kind, and despite Dr. Hugh's BEST EFFORTS died soon afterwards.  The death of a young family member is always hard, but the reader here would certainly appreciate that the circumstances of Jade's older brother to cancer when Jade's father was actually supposed to be a cancer specialist would have to be particularly hard for the surviving family and especially the father to cope with.  And so, though this all took place some three years before, it would not be surprising that it's had its effects -- on Jade, on her father (Dr) Hugh, as well as mom/wife Anne (played by Joely Richardson) and middle son/brother Kieth (played by Rhys Wakefield).  And it does.  Jade's previous response to this tragedy was to close in on herself and her immediate family, not really talk to anybody through most of high school and try to be a really good girl at home. 

David (played by Alex Pettyfer), of course, has his own story.   He's son of an amiable / salt-of-the-earth auto-mechanic named Harry Elliott (played by Robert Patrick) who when David was about 9-10 was dumped by his high-school sweetheart wife who apparently "traded up" / "found a better deal."  Coming home from school one day and finding his mother in bed with another guy, did apparently cause David some trauma in those early-to-middle school years.  He's grown out of that, but it's also part of his past.

Jade and David _finally_ have a chance to talk when some days after graduation, Jade's family goes out to a relatively swanky Atlanta-suburban restaurant (to celebrate Jade's recent graduation) where David and his best friend Mace (played magnificently by Dayo Okeniyi), African-American, work as valets.  As David comes to open her door and kinda stumbles when he sees whose door, Jade's, he's opening, she in turn trips and drops, of all things, her largely empty high school yearbook.  He picks it up for her.  She says, "Thanks."  He responds, "Sure, anything."  She turns then to follow her family to the restaurant, AND THEN STOPS, turns around, and says to David, "Sure, there is one thing.  Could you please sign my yearbook."  he says sure, flips the yearbook to the page of the "Auto-Shop (mechanics') club" and writes something witty along the lines of "I never had the courage to talk to you in high school, but I'd really not want to wait another four years to talk to you again."  When she reads his note while sitting in the restaurant with her folks and middle brother, she smiles.  And he gets another chance to talk to her when they come out.  Obviously they hit it off, and the rest of the movie follows ...

Now most of the drama in the film is one of class difference.  Jade's father, Dr Hugh Butterfield after all, had staked a good part of his aspirations for his children in Jade after his oldest son's (Jade's oldest brother's death).  Keith, the middle son (Jade's middle brother) he had dismissed as something of a "loser."  And in these past years, Jade had been nothing (...) if a "good girl."  Now as she's about to go off to college (pre-Med, of course...) and he's already pulled strings to get her an internship BEFORE THAT (during most of the latter part of the summer), she's fallen in love with David who until finally striking up a conversation with Jade (and finding that she LIKES him) was PERFECTLY HAPPY TO JUST STAY IN TOWN AND EVENTUALLY TAKE OVER HIS FATHER'S AUTO REPAIR BUSINESS.

So the central conflict is Jade's father's head (and perhaps a bunch of PARENTS' watching this film's heads): Could he see his pre-Med (on track to become a surgeon in her own right) daughter married to an auto-mechanic?

And yet, they're soon head-over heals in love ... and though it's kept just, just, just off the screen, they're almost certainly soon sleeping with each other.

THIS ACTUALLY BECOMES A FASCINATING CHALLENGE TO TODAY'S SOCIETY:  Why are we pushing contraceptives on young people?  Are we really concerned about their freedom / choices?  Or do we just want them to remain childless until 10-15 years after their hormones have NATURALLY kicked-in when they are finally finished with Med or Law School?

To be sure, the Church would always be counseling self-control to young people BUT DEFINITELY NOT FOR THE SAME REASONS (The Church _doesn't care_ if Johnny ever gets enough money together to buy a BMW or if Molly ever gets her CPA or Law Degree).  The Church would always tell young people: "Hey, control yourselves, BUT if you can't THEN JUST GET MARRIED."  And the church has ALWAYS defended young people against one or another (or both) set(s) of parents: Witness in Romeo and Juliet, the Friar Lawrence marries them even though it'd be obviously against the wishes of both the families (and in the nearly 800 year old history of my Servite Order, we have countless other examples of this over the centuries).  It just means that the approach to life is different and getting a good house and a good car _isn't_ considered necessary.

So while a fair amount of parents could indeed cringe (even viewing THIS PG-13 version of the story), the Church would simply say "Hey folks, just please don't go all the way unless you get married.  But honestly, otherwise we have your back.  YOU SHOULD MARRY SOMEONE YOU LOVE."

Anyway ... Parents be assured that unless your daughter is going out with someone who's really, really in love with them THIS IS A WEEPY CHICK FLICK (I can't imagine ANY TEENAGE BOY unless he's truly "head over heals" going to see this film ... EVEN IF IT'S "VALENTINES DAY" ;-).

On the other hand, for reasons above, it might not be a bad movie for PARENTS and their TEENAGE / YOUNG ADULT KIDS seeing (in some form) together.

Finally, it has been asked whether there was any _plot-serving point_ of moving the remake of this story to Atlanta (in "The South").

Now the film's screenwriter/director Shana Feste [IMDb] appears to have been born and lived most of her life in Southern California.  However, she did get her Masters' Degree in Creative and Screenwriting at the UT in Austin (Texas also being in "The South") and she was the writer/director of the film Country Strong [2010] also set in "The South" (Nashville, TN and then Texas).  So at minimum, she appears to have an affinity to the South.

But IMHO there is _an_ interesting plot-point made by setting the film in the South: Blue-collar David's best friend is black and, indeed, the (Atlanta) suburban high school that David and Jade attended appears to have been QUITE DIVERSE both racially and economically.  ALL THE YOUNG PEOPLE IN THE FILM ARE FINE WITH THAT (contrast that with the LILY WHITE setting of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid [2011] [2012] franchise) while Jade's dad is clearly not.

So in a way, this film is pretty subversive:  It places the human values of love and inclusion over economic status / success and a winking acceptance to continued racism.  And IMHO that's pretty cool and certainly QUITE CATHOLIC (it's hard to be doctrinally consistent and yet racist in a UNIVERSAL Church ;-).

So despite my initial "eye rolling" doubts about this film, I have to say that the actors/film-makers did a pretty good job! ;-)

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Great Beauty (orig. La Grande Bellezza) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars) (4 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing*

La Repubblica (N. Aspesi) review

Avvenire (A. D'Avenia) review*

CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. Abrams) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review

The Great Beauty (orig. La Grande Bellezza) [2013] [IMDb] []* (directed and screenplay cowrtten by Paolo Sorrentino [IMDb] []* along with Umberto Contrarello [IMDb] []*) is a critically acclaimed Italian film and making the five finalists for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this year (2014).

Made in a grand style that immediately reminds the viewer of the great Federico Felini's [IMDb] []* films especially La Dulce Vita [1960], the film's about "celebrity," specifically about a particular (fictional) "celebrity" named Giuseppe (Jep) Gambardella (played with magnificent utterly unflappable gentile "worldliness" by Toni Servillo [IMDb] []*).  The reason for his celebrity?  He wrote _a single book_ some 30-40 years before that was a smash, and he's been hanging out at parties, INDEED PRESIDING OVER THEM (or EVEN MORE CORRECTLY GIVING THEM THEIR "IMPRIMATUR") EVER SINCE.

In a key voice-over as his character in a still almost impeccable white-to-beige suit strolls along the bank of the Tiber early one morning (joggers running by BEGINNING THEIR DAY while HIS IS ONLY NOW GENTLY COMING TO AN END) he serenely explains to viewers: "I always wanted to be a mondano (lit. 'a man of the world', IMHO more clearly translated here as 'celebrity'), indeed the KING of the mondanos, ONE who could bring down a party with a single (dismissive/disapproving) glance."  And indeed, ever white/beige suited with martini in hand, he's reigned over Rome's celebrity party scene with the "soft power" gentile despotism of a ("thumbs up / thumbs down") glance that would make both Nero and the Borgias proud ;-).

Indeed, as I watched this film, I was saying to myself THIS IS ROME.  This is what it has been since the time of the Emperors, through the time of those randy (and if also artistically productive) Renaissance Popes through to today.   

As in any great Fellini inspired film, there are some really great, well-drawn/well-acted characters.

There's Jep's friend from childhood probably more productive than Jep ever was, even though NEVER nearly as successful in either work or as we find out ... in love.  His wife Elisa (di Santis) had recently died, and he confesses to Jep: "I can't believe it.  Going through her things, I found her (locked) diary.  Since she's passed now,  I jimmied it open.  You know in 35 years of marriage, she wrote TWO LINES about ME -- that I'm a 'good provider.'  And ... HALF THE DIARY'S ABOUT YOU."  Jep, kinda surprised and yet certainly kinda flattered, replies trying to be comforting to his LIFE-LONG FRIEND, "Well as a writer (mind you Jeb, famous as he was, had ACTUALLY ONLY WRITTEN/PUBLISHED ONE BOOK IN HIS ENTIRE "CAREER" ...) I  can assure you that once one starts writing, what one puts down on paper is really, above all, fantasy.  So what she wrote in her (private) diary doesn't really have much to do with reality" (and yet, we know, of course, THAT IT DOES ... Jeb's kinda right. People do write all sorts of things in a diary that they'd NEVER want/expect to be read "outside," BUT that diary almost certainly reflected the private truths of her life, no matter what her outward, public actions of her life may have said otherwise).  So WHY would the wife of Jeb's best friend from youth spend "1/2 her diary" writing about Jeb?  Of course there's a story to that ... BUT since this IS an elegant Italian film, the story's actually far more subtle (and arguably poignant) than one could initially (with "eyes rolling") believe ...

Then there's another long-time  friend of Jep who he seemed to meet in the writing/artistic circles when he first came out to Rome who has an interesting problem.  Presumably in his early 70s, he's still taking care of his very well kept, still on an allowance, 50 year old (!) daughter Ramona (IMHO played magnificently by Sabrina Ferilli [IMDb] []*  Note here that I have something of a soft-spot for Sabrina Ferilli as she was the (voluptuous)/glamorous not-quite Sophia Loren [IMDb] []*-like actress (but honestly oh, so close...;-) in Italy during my seminary days back in the mid 1990s) who he laments is trying, at 50 (!), to "breaking into" the "showgirl" business as a "sophisticated stripper."  Now SHE sounds like Jep's kind of woman ;-) and so the two have something of a fling during the middle portion of the film.  And Ramona (as well as Sabrina Ferilli [IMDb] []* playing her) certainly shows (quite discretely filmed actually) what _really good_ (and _really expensive_) skin care can achieve these days ;-).

Then, what's a really good Federico Fellini style film without presence of the Church?  It's represented in this film (about the celebrity life of Rome) by two REALLY WELL DRAWN/ACTED (though, of course, exaggerated) characters.

The first is the ever "in his uniform" (black-cassock/pectoral cross/red-hat) "celebrity cardinal" named Cardinale Belluci (played magnificently and ever with a smile by Roberto Herlizka [IMDb] []*) who's also a jovial fixture in Rome's celebrity circuit having made it "in" through apparently writing a series of "cooking books" (though I smile, I also wince as the Cardinal's "cooking book schtick" is not  altogether "a planet away..." from "a priest writing a (hopefully somewhat insightful) BLOG ABOUT MOVIES" ;-) ;-)).  Both smiling, both holding martinis, it's clear that "writer Jep" and "the cooking cardinal" don't much like each other ;-). 

And then there is AN ANCIENT (104 year old) Mother Teresa-like Missionary Nun already dubbed "Santa" (played fantastically and largely in pantomime as, for goodness' sake, she's supposed to be 104 years old, by Giusi Merli [IMDb] []*) who's arrived in Rome after DECADES of MISSIONARY WORK / RUNNING ORPHANAGES IN AFRICA on PILGRIMAGE to climb ON HER HANDS AND KNEES the "Scala Sancta (Holy Steps)."

Now Scala Sancta (Holy Steps) is an actual and IMHO quite poignant shrine (that I've visited / seen with my own eyes) located just outside the Lateran Basilica in Rome  By ancient tradition, the "Scala Sancta" is said to be the stone staircase in Pontius Pilate's Praetorium in Jerusalem on which Jesus would have walked on Good Friday during his trial by Pontius Pilate after his arrest.  Of all the relics that Emperor Constantine's mother Saint Helen brought back from Jerusalem and the Holy Land, I've always thought that THIS ONE (a fairly large, 30-40 step stone staircase) was among those most authentic.  (It would be too big for the Romans to completely destroy during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and it'd be again TOO BIG to bother "faking" for Saint Helen afterwards (after all, she had it packed-up and shipped from Jerusalem to Rome in 326 AD).

So at 104, after many decades "in the field," Sour Santa comes to Rome on pilgrimage to climb the steps of the Scala Sancta on her hands and knees.  Well, when she comes to Rome, OLD as she is, she does come as "something of a celebrity" AND "the celebrity circle" of Rome (both INSIDE and OUTSIDE of the Church ...) certainly want to welcome her.  So the Church organizes solemn audiences and the "mondani" parties.  And though she is 104, she's there (or at least wheeled/delivered there ...) for all these "festivities."

NOW IT TURNS OUT, that Suor Santa "knows" good ole Jep.  Why?  Well SHE READ HIS (ONE) BOOK "back in the day" 35 some years ago (when she was last in Rome).  SO he's actually ONE OF THE FEW PEOPLE SHE ACTUALLY HAS SOMETHING TO SAY TO.

What does she say?  She asks him: "Why didn't you ever write another book?" ;-) ;-).  Telling him that she liked the first one ;-).

Still holding his martini, still kinda smiling, but certainly a little shaken, Jep answers, "Dear Sister, I guess it had something to do with _climbing another set of stairs_."

The last sequence of the film, which follows shortly, juxtaposes the 104 year old nun making her way on her hands and knees up the Scala Sancta with "the stairs" that Jep was talking about.

Now what was that "other staircase" that Jeb refers to?  Well, as I've already noted above, this is ultimately an _elegant_ (and as it comes to its end approaching _poignant_) Italian film.  Hence, it's not necessarily what you'd expect.  Even if "writer / mondano Jep" spent much of his life living an UTTERLY SUPERFICIAL LIFE it does seem that (as it has across the whole arc of the story) there's "more to his story" just that.

It may all add-up to a rather extravagant (and perhaps still "rather lame...") apology for superficiality but nevertheless IT IS A VERY, VERY WELL MADE ONE ;-).  And it _leaves one_ with "a fair amount" to think about.  Great film!

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