Monday, March 31, 2014

Cesar Chavez [2014]

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

IMDb listing - Archive Articles about Cesar Chavez' Life / Work at the Time of his Work
NatlCatholicReporter (M.T. Garcia) background article

LaOpinion (Los Angeles) coverage of film*
     (J. Perera) review*
     (A. Martínez-Ortega) interview w. relatives*
     (A. Martínez-Ortega) director / film in Chavez' Delano, CA* coverage of film*
Univision coverage of film*
ViveloHoy coverage of film*

CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review

HollywoodReporter (D. Rooney) review 
ChicagoTribune/LA Times (B. Sharkey) review (G. Chelshire) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Cesar Chavez [2014] (directed by Diego Luna, screenplay by Keir Pearson with collaboration with Timothy J. Sexton) is a biopic that's going to feel "flat" to a lot of people.

I believe that this is in part because non-violence is never particularly easy to put compellingly onscreen (though there have been compelling onscreen portrayals of champions of non-violence.  One simply thinks of the unforgettable Oscar winning Gandhi [1992] and even the recent Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom [2013] reviewed here).

I believe it's also in part because the Solidarity of the Union Movement in the United States and elsewhere that so inspired Cesar Chavez' organizing efforts has been decades-long retreat -- indeed since Ronald Reagan who was elected Governor in California at exactly the same time as Cesar Chavez was organizing those migrant farm-workers of its hot arid Central Valley, went out of his way to crush the Air Traffic Controllers' strike soon after being elected President a decade and a half later.

So to most young viewers there must be an almost "Gone With the Wind" quality to the current film.  Plenty of reviewers (above) have noted that while there are streets, schools and plazas all over the United States named after Cesar Chavez, many Americans and especially the young would wonder: "Who's Cesar Chavez?"  I'd honestly go further: Many young people in the U.S. may sincerely ask "What's a Union?" With the ascendant American right-wing (and its Australian Billionaire funded FoxNews mouthpiece) answering dogmatically: "Communists" (even as the Right would choose to forget that the U.S. under Reagan actually supported Lech Walesa's Solidarity trade union in Poland as a tactic to help _bring down_ Communism ... and then "Solidarity" the joining together to oppose injustice is actually a Catholic Value, enshrined in Catholic Social Teaching, that reminds us simply that "we are our brothers' keepers" and above all ALL CHILDREN OF THE SAME GOD.

Very good, the film would probably feel to many viewers as "flat" and to many viewers (especially non-Hispanics) even "irrelevant."  If Cesar Chavez wasn't exciting in a conventional Hollywood sense, why bother make a movie about him?

I THINK THAT THIS IS WHERE THINGS COULD BEGIN TO GET INTERESTING.  For I would suggest that this movie WAS INTENDED to be this way.  Why??  To present Cesar Chavez (played IMHO excellently in the film by Chicago born actor Michael Peña) and his wife Helen (played even better by America Ferrera) and even Chavez' co-organizer Dolores Huerta (played by Rosario Dawson) as credible, family oriented, Catholic believing Hispanics.

To put it bluntly: CESAR CHAVEZ WASN'T SUPERMAN (Indeed, he may be most comparable to the other Catholic "union man" of his time Poland's Lech Walesa, about whom the Poles recently made a very good and similarly styled film Walesa: Man of Hope [2013]

Cesar Chavez was committed to his cause to bring justice to his brothers and sisters (at the time both Mexican and Filipino) in the fields.  He had principles (most notably non-violence which he did understand as coming from his Catholic faith).  But after that, he was NOT A LAWYER.  He enjoyed being out there in the field (and in the hot sun) with a bull-horn or perhaps marching "on pilgrimage" through the same said fields under the same said "hot sun" with a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe and/or the Native American stylized Eagle emblazoned banner of the United Farm Workers union "to Sacramento" only to periodically "stop for Mass" (often held outdoors, in the same said fields, under the same said sun.  And yes, his was a campaign -- as Catholic as can be -- of gently but unremittingly "GUILTING" his opposition into submission ;-).

And guilting "opposition" into submission didn't involve simply guilting powerful "Evil" farm-growers often Catholic, often immigrants or children of immigrants themselves (John Malkovich playing one such, fictionalized, immigrant Croatian grower plays him perfectly ... "But, but ... I worked for all of this, why should I now pay my workers more than I absolutely have to?" "Because it's the right to do?"  "Oh mannn...!"), but also "GUILTING" _his own kids_ into submission ;-).  

There's a great scene near the beginning of the film when Cesar Chavez makes the decision to move his family (wife and count them 8 kids) FROM LOS ANGELES to "the boonies" (Daleno, CA).  Needless to say, especially the older kids, especially the oldest son, already a teenager, were/was not excited.  So dutiful and loving wife Helen calls a "family meeting" to explain their father's seemingly crazy decision to move them ALL out (lets face it) "to the middle of nowhere" and ends saying with all sincerity: "Okay, lets now put it to a vote. All in favor ... of moving ... raise your hands ..." NONE of the kids raise their hands. POOR HELEN'S HEART VISIBLY SINKS BEFORE THEM  But even as it does THE KIDS' FACES ALSO CHANGE.  HOW CAN ONE POSSIBLY "VOTE AGAINST MOM" :-) ;-)

In my continued work in Hispanic ministry going-on now 15 years, I've witnessed DOZENS of similar scenes of gentle persuasion: the Hispanic mom crushing all opposition with her tears ... Our Lady of Sorrows, par excellance ;-).

Yes, the film is slow but it is IMHO credible.  And perhaps in reading this review and looking-up some of the links I provide above, the reader here will appreciate both its intention (to appeal to a Hispanic audience) and also why Catholic priests, religious, dedicated lay leaders (including Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-NY portrayed in the film) FLOCKED TO CESAR CHAVEZ laboring OUT IN THE FIELDS, OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, OUT IN THAT HOT BEATING SUN, back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Along with one of my Province's old timers Fr. Dave Brown, OSM we counted 5-6 of our Servite priests from the United States -- Fr. Marty Jenco, OSM, Fr. Mark Franceschini, OSM,  Fr. Damian Charboneau, OSM,  Fr. Albert and Fr. David Gallegos, OSM -- who along with similarly interested Servite Sisters made the pilgrimage over the years AND EVEN SPENT SUBSTANTIAL TIME with Cesar Chavez out in those fields, out in that sun, in Solidarity with the farm workers he was trying to support and organize.

So for many, this film is a nostalgia piece.  But it may inspire others today to see QUE "se puede" when in fact we choose to work together.


I've mentioned above that to many Americans, Cesar Chavez could best be compared to "fellow union man" of his time Lech Walesa.  There's also another man, Latino as well, that he could be compared to, and one who the Sisters and Friars of my Servite Religious Order also supported: Chico Mendes of Brazil's Amazon region, who set about (and was ultimately assassinated) organizing the seringueros (rubber tappers) of the Amazonian Rain Forests of Acre.  In recent years, the Servite Order commissioned a book by Brazilian writer Milton Claro about the The Amazonia That We Do Not Know.  There's a chapter there on the Chico Mendes's Last Day prior to his assassination.

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

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Those Happy Years (orig. Anni Felici) [2013]

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

IMDb listing listing*

TheHollywoodReporter (D. Young) review (S. Santoni) background article* (A.M. Abate) review* (C. Catali) review

Those Happy Years (orig. Anni Felici) [2013] [IMDb] []* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Daniele Luchetti [IMDb] []* along with Sandro Petraglia [IMDb], Stefano Rulli [IMDb] and Caterina Venturini [IMDb] story again by Daniele Luchetti [IMDb] []*) is an excellently crafted and acted Italian film that played recently at the 17th Annual European Union Film Festival held at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.

Patterned at least in part on writer/director Luchetti's [IMDb] []* own childhood experience, the story is told through the perspective of an adult named Dario looking back on the summer of 1974 when as a 10 year old (played in the film by Samuel Garofalo [IMDb] []*) and was growing-up in Rome in the household of a grasping, initially self-absorbed wannabe avant-garde artist, his father Guido (played by Kim Rossi Stuart [IMDb] []*), he observed the awakening of his mother Serena (played by Micaela Ramazzotti [IMDb] []*).  To be sure Serena must have always been quite formidable.  Beautiful and yet also a good wife and mother, and one who already and always knew that about herself.  Yet, in that summer of '74 with the winds of Feminism penetrating even into Italy and encouraged by an art-dealer and mutual friend of hers and husband's, named Helke (played by Martina Gedeck [IMDb] []*), she begins to assert herself in ways that changes the whole family. 

Were those changes without cost?  Certainly not.  (Since there is a chance that this film might actually play art-house circuit in the United States, I don't want to get into Spoilers).  But did these changes result in everyone in the family becoming more honest and arguably better people?  Certainly yes.  (Okay, I will add this minor spoiler -- her awakening and challenge to her husband improves his own art).

But what Dario seems to remember most is that though these were painful times in the life of his family, _looking back_ they were also "good" or "happy" ones.

Parents, this film is definitely not intended for children.  There is a good deal of female nudity in it (Again, Dario's father was trying to "live the dream" of a 1970s "avant-garde" artist... and Serena's own journey is not without its own infidelities).

But I do believe that it is a very honest, and then a very very well crafted film:  There are no stupid or careless use of "handheld" shots except and honestly ONLY when they do serve the plot (and that is RARELY).  Instead, this film bella figura all the way.

And some of the cinematography is truly worth an envious look by camera-folk even by those who would otherwise not be interested in the film's content: There's an extended shot in the film, for instance, in which several of the story's characters are heading back to Rome on a train in the late-evening.  The chaotic interplay of the lighting both inside the compartment and (through the glass windows of the train) outside is both remarkable and powefully _reflective_ of the confusion being experienced by the film's characters at the time. (And regardless of how any of the story's characters felt about things at the time, they were sitting in that train which was inexorably careening forward, beyond of the control of them sitting in their compartment, to its preset destination).  It's a stunningly, well-executed visual metaphor to what was going on at that point in the story and alone is WORTH THE TIME TO LOOK-UP THE FILM.

Then Micaela Ramazzotti [IMDb] []* playing Dario's mother Serena gives perhaps a CAREER DEFINING PERFORMANCE here as early 30-something _mother_ who's beautiful, elegant and strong -- a credible awakening feminist (and by the film's end, a fully awoken feminist) who can still pull-off (and enjoys pulling off) dressing-up (and looking really, really good) in a light summer dress and heels.  Why does she continue to dress-up so "nicely"?  For her husband (or men in general)?  No.  It's clear that she dresses nicely _for herself_ and perhaps also because she comes from a country with a LONG TRADITION of cutting some of the best-looking clothes in the world.   Italy is the land of Armani, Gucci and Versace, et al, after all, and with a fashion sense that goes back to Michelangelo, Da Vinci and the rest of the Italian Renaissance.

So this is a very very well crafted film, both elegant and yet real / nostalgic, done in the best Italian bella figura tradition: a visual feast with also some great acting performances.  Good job!

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

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Noah [2014]

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

IMDb listing

CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review

Nat'l Cath.Register (S.D. Graydanus) review
         Q/A regarding controversies
         Interview w. Aronofsky/Ari Handel
         Vat. Radio Interview w S.D.Graydanus

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

First of all, I would like to complement the National Catholic Register's Steven D. Graydanus for his excellent reporting (above) regarding the hoopla / controversies surrounding the release of Noah [2014] (directed and cowritten by Darren Aronofsky along with Ari Handel, based on the story of Noah in the Book of Genesis).

I would also agree with the USCCB/CNS reviewer J. Mulderig's assessment that the film is NOT INTENDED FOR SMALL KIDS (Honestly, DON'T DEPRIVE THEM OF THEIR INNOCENCE.  Let them happily continue to imagine or even draw the animals -- giraffes, elephants, lions, racoons, ostriches, aligators, etc -- entering the ark "2 by 2" as most of us have done for generations ... There's absolutely nothing that this film adds that would help an 8 to 10 year old "better understand the story").

Teens and above?  That's a different ball game.  And here I would definitely recommend the reporting of Steven Graydanus, especially his Q/A article about the film.  Teens would certainly understand his explanations of some of the film's "surprises" (most notably the presence of those strange Tolkeinesque stone giants the film called "Watchers" (which are Aronofsky's depiction of the Biblical Nephelim (Gen 6:4).

Regarding the film's telling of Story of Noah, I personally didn't mind, and truth be told ENJOYED, the flourishes of the Stone Giant Nephelim and even the "magic ignitable stones" called sohars explained in Graydanus' interview with Aronofsky and Handel (there's also a footnote about the meaning of sohar in the the Catholic New American Bible at the appropriate verse Gen 6:16).  I LEARNED about God's apparent "pre-flood" instruction to both humans and animals to live as vegetarians (Gen 1:28-29) vs the  "post-flood" permission to begin eating meat (Gen 9:1-3).

I don't even necessarily mind Aronofsky/Handel's "environmentalist" theme -- that among humanity's (or specifically "The Sons of Cain's") post-Fall sins was the devastation of the Environment.  I just find the charge somewhat tendentious with regard to contemporary concerns as (if one insisted on taking the first chapters of Genesis literally) I'd find it hard to imagine that there'd be enough people around then to really devastate the world's environment.

My biggest qualm with Aronofsky/Handel's portrayal of Noah (played in the film by Russell Crowe) is with their Noah not wanting his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth (played by Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and Leo McHugh Carroll respectively) to have wives and hence to have children.  Gen 7:7 reads "Together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, Noah went into the ark because of the waters of the flood." 

While in a sense, film makers (as all artists) can "do whatever they want," I nevertheless take issue with the contention that God would have wanted to destroy humanity COMPLETELY (even the obedient Noah and his sons and especially after they had completed their task of saving all the animals).

Fallen as we are, we're nevertheless told in the Bible's first creation story Gen 1:26-27 that we were made "in the image of God" and then in the second creation story (about the creation of Adam and Eve) that God created essentially everything else that there is, the trees/plants (Gen 2:8-9) and all the animals (Gen 2:18ff) to make us happy.

So to eliminate humanity COMPLETELY (and leave the animals / rest of Creation behind) just doesn't make sense to me.

Further it certainly goes against the Catholic Church's conception of both God's Creation and our place within it.  And note here that the Catholic Church in no way advocates a "disrespect" MUCH LESS "PLUNDER" of Creation: For the World Day of Peace in 1990, Pope John Paul II issued a mini-encyclical entitled "Peace With God The Creator, Peace With All of Creation." And the current Pope even took the name Francis after a Saint WHO LOVED ANIMALS and EVEN PREACHED TO THEM.

So I do have a real issue with the contention that God would want Noah and his sons to simply "die off" after effectively saved the rest of Creation for Him.

With regard to the rest of the film, clearly it's very interesting.  If nothing else it will keep both teens and adults awake and interested throughout. 

I'd also like to note that both Jennifer Connelly (who played Noah's wife, portrayed as something of the family's "herbalist" - she would have supervised most of the family's food prep - and who comes up with a incense concoction that puts the animals in the ark to a restful sleep for the duration of the ark's journey) and Emma Watson (who played Shem's future wife, the character around whom most of the above-mentioned controversy swirled) did excellent jobs in their roles as did the aging Anthony Hopkins who played Noah's ancient grandfather Methoselah.

I hope that in reading this review, that readers would appreciate the (at times surprising) insights offered in the film (even if one disagreed with them) and also would understand that while not necessarily for kids (they just wouldn't understand the film), the film could actually be quite interesting for teens, especially if they were encouraged to do "some homework" reading up on the film afterwards.

Finally, my hat off, once again, to National Catholic Register's Steven D. Graydanus.  You honestly did a great job in covering launch of this film, and made the work of the rest of us (including myself) trying to review this film, much, much easier.  You did all of us and then the ENTIRE CHURCH a great service! (And that's honestly SAYING A LOT ;-)  Thanks!

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Our Women (orig. Nejem, nőm, csajom) [2012]

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

IMDb listing

HMDb listing* listing* (Z. Aprily) review* (Z. Poor) review*
FilmTekercs (S. Esther) review*

Our Women (orig. Nejem, nőm, csajom) [2012] [IMDb] [HMDb]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Péter Szajki [IMDb] [HMDb]* along with Adél Vörös [IMDb] [HMDb]*, story by Iván Angelusz [IMDb]  and Péter Reich [IMDb]) is a Hungarian romantic comedy/dramedy about the stories of four women living in contemporary Budapest.  Indeed, though they don't know each other (their stories are being recounted by two ladies working in a hair salon) the story plays-out like a contemporary Hungarian Sex and the City [IMDb].  The film played recently at the 17th Annual European Union Film Festival held at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.

The lives of all four of the women (and their husbands / significant others) are totally relatable to an American /Western audience.  Yet they also have a distinctly Hungarian twist:   For instance, after the devastation of World War II and then 50 years of Communism, morals are on the one hand looser than in most of the U.S. On the other hand, Christianity -- Catholicism being the dominant form, but as this film shows Protestantism, most likely in the form of Lutheranism, is present as well -- still who holds some sway if for many in perhaps often limited to a nostalgic sort of way.

So what are the stories/trials of the four women?

In the first case there's Vera (played by Ági Gubik [IMDb] [HMDb]*) who's married to Attilla (played by András Stohl [IMDb] [HMDb]*) a medical doctor, but together they've had a great deal of trouble having children.  Well, 6 years ago, Vera got pregnant.  How after all those years of trying?  She tells him then that perhaps it was a miracle.  Not necessarily believing in "miracles" (Attilla's a medical doctor after all) he shrugged it off back then.  Now, seeing that their five year old son is not taking after _anybody_ in his family -- Attilla's family was one of athletes, soldiers and otherwise "macho achievers" and the son obviously going to be an artist -- he has renewed questions.  What happened back then?  And why?

In the second case, there's Szilvi (played by Rozi Lovas [IMDb] [HMDb]*) who's living with Bálint (played by Béla Mészáros [IMDb] [HMDb]*) who she'd love to marry and start a family with, but he's "not ready" and would first like to "swing" (!) "for a year or two."  At first she tries to go along, and they even find (in eminently "sophisticated fashion" ... over the internet) another (again "very sophisticated"...) couple to do so with.  But when it comes to the point of actually doing this, she can't bring herself to do so.  What now?

The third case involves Helga (played by Judit Schell [IMDb] [HMDb]*) a very successful now 40-something Hungarian TV personality, but one who's never been able to land a guy who's neither intimidated by her nor a jerk.  Well, she is now seeing someone, József  (played by Péter Rudolf [IMDb] [HMDb]*), somewhat older than her, certainly less successful than her, but at least "bag over the head" ugly or with some other more or less obvious problem.  But after two months, why is _he_ not interested in taking their relationship to the next level?  (No he's not gay, and yes he's had mutually satisfying relationships with women before... so what's the problem _now_?)

Finally, there's Flóra (played by Kátya Tompos [IMDb] [HMDb]*) a good dutiful wife of a seemingly good dutiful/humble Lutheran/Protestant (or otherwise some kind of lay Catholic) minister named Péter (played by Tamás Keresztes [IMDb] [HMDb]*).  Together they have several children and they are certainly of a more humble social class than the three other couples presented in the story.  Yet Flóra becomes convinced that Péter is cheating on her.  Well is he?  And if so why?  And if he is, what now?

All of these stories are IMHO surprisingly good.  I myself have had to deal with the "swinging" issue in Confession a couple of times over the years (nothing is new under the sun ...) with the partner confessing telling me exactly what Szilvi was trying to tell her boyfriend (who she wished would become her husband): "I DON'T WANT TO DO THIS" with the partner apparently having difficulty hearing (and more to the point respecting) that.  Then the episode with the self-evidently Christian couple is _surprisingly_ nuanced.

This is a very good story, and it'd be interesting if Hollywood or _perhaps_ the African American community (Tyler Perry, are you listening? ;-) would pick this one up.

In any case, very good job!

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

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Exhibition [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R)  IndieWire (A-)  TheTelegraph (3 1/2 Stars)  TheGuardian (3 1/2 Stars)   Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Cine-Vue (P. Gamble) review
The Telegraph (R. Collin) review 
The Guardian (R. Gibley) review

Exhibition [2013] (written and directed by Joanna Hogg) is a minimalist, visually elegant, experimental film from the United Kingdom that should interest visual artists, photographers and cinematographers alike, as well as those who enjoy "getting beyond the visuals, beyond the surface" and try to figure-out the riddle of "what's going on" (what's being told) here.  The film played recently at the 17th Annual European Union Film Festival held at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.  And it does make for an amusing and insightful tale ...

The film is about a childless (by all appearances by choice though, both in life as in the film, the outsider could never know), early middle-aged couple, my guess in their 40s, H (played by Liam Gillick) and D (played by Viv Albertine), he an architect, she a fashion designer.  Both work (in their-made "offices") on separate floors... of their stylish modernist home (lots and lots of glass, the staircase between the floors, really, really elegant/cool, is arguably a third character in the tale).

During the day, H and D communicate with each other mostly by house-line/intercom.  And since both find themselves mostly "in their own little worlds" of their creative professions.  Inevitably when one calls it's "a bad time" for the other.  Since their home, modern as it is, looks/functions like an office building, it's visually amusing presentation of the "downside" of "working at home" or "bringing your work home with you."

But home it is, and particularly fashion designer D, who seems to enjoy the range/play of light available to her by this house full of glass with roll-up-able, roll-down-able curtains and blinds of every kind, finds herself rather anxious at the prospect that the two have "decided" to sell the house and move on.

Or did they "decide" at all?  I could imagine that husband H, an architect after all, had become bored with the house and would like (to build?) something new.  Besides, it's clear that he's frustrated that he rarely sees his wife in the current arrangement.  On the other hand it's clear that D "loves her space."

So this is honestly a fascinating film about "modern life" ... and about a modern couple that arguably "has it all" ... and yet ... doesn't.  Wow ;-)

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Dog Killer (orig. Môj pes Killer) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R) (3,5/10) (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis-Zdeněk (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CSFD listing* listing

Hollywood Reporter (N. Young) review (M. Spáčilová) review* (J. Gregor) review*
Č (J. Kábrt) review*
My Dog Killer (orig. Môj pes Killer) [2013] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*(screenplay and directed by Mira Fornayová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) is a Slovak and Czech co-production, starring actors/actresses from both countries and even playing-out in rolling borderlands between the to countries.  It played recently at the 17th Annual European Union Film Festival held at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center and the film served as Slovakia's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the Oscars.

The film, definitely not for kids, is about a troubled Slovak teen named Marek (played by Adam Mihál [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) approaching adulthood living on the Slovakian side of the border with the Czech Republic with his uncle (played by [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) in a small house on a field that the two have been converting into a vineyard, the house and field owned by Marek's estranged parents.  Marek's father (played by Marián Kuruc [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) lives someways "down the hill" and "in town" (still in Slovakia), Marek's mother (played by Irena Bendová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) living in another, still reasonably nearby town across the border in the Czech Republic.

What's Marek doing living with his uncle in a small house with an attendant small field that the two have been converting into a vineyard and NOT with either of his parents?  We never really find out.  But it's clear that Marek's parents had separated a fair number of years back, with Marek's mother eventually packing-up and moving across the border (why? That we do eventually find out, read on).  By the time of the beginning of the story, Marek hasn't been getting along with his father either, hence living with his uncle on this property "outside of town" and yet, strangely enough still owned by his parents, who weren't talking to each other either.  Sigh ... talk about "ties that bind."

Living in such circumstances could produce anger in a teen and ... well, we see signs of that.  Marek's shaved his head, wears a hoodie and has tried to join with a local group of skinheads.

SKINHEADS? one could ask.  There'd be Czech or Slovak "Supremacists"?  Who'd they feel "superior" to?  (When I first saw this phenomenon in Prague, oh about 15 or so years ago, I honestly "didn't understand" ...)  One would think that this would be primarily an "Anglo" / "German" thing.  After all, they're the ones who've had a _whole tradition_ of considering themselves as racially superior to others...  Slavs were not exactly high on _their_ racial totem pole.  But ... as we'll soon find out, "it all makes sense" unfortunately, BECAUSE there is racial group that both Czechs and Slovaks also have a _long_ tradition of feeling superior to ... the Romas (Gypsies).  (And in the U.S., Czechs and Slovaks along with most Slavs are often among the most racist toward people of color, even as we've been looked down-upon for centuries by the "true" white people of the west. To Neville Chamberlain, we were "a people _he_ did not know" and to the Nazis to whom he sold us out to ... we were to be "renationalized" (made German) or to be(come) slaves...).

Back to the story ...;-) ... So how's it been going with joining the local skin-heads?  Not particularly well.  Though Marek himself was "all white" (indeed ghostly pale in this movie filmed in late autumn, with snow / frost already on the ground), his mother (the one living across the border in the CR) had apparently left his father for a Roma (!) and had a second son, 10-y.o. Lukášek/little Luke (played by Libor Filo [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) with him.  This had caused enough scandal in her (and Marek's) hometown that she had to move across the border (not because the CR is any more "enlightened" when it comes to the Roma/Gypsies than Slovakia but because at least she and Lukášek's father would have been "less known" there).  So though Marek's mom had quite literally "fled the country" years ago because of this "scandal," everybody in town "knew" that Marek's mother had "run away with a Roma/Gypsy lover. 

On the other hand, Marek (and his uncle) had this dog, a pit-bull that they had given the English, foreign sounding name "Killer" (but again, the _right kind_ of foreign sounding name), guarding their house/field that they were developing into a vineyard, that, well, did impress those Skinheads, lead by their leader nicknamed Mobidyk (played by Jozef Hrnčirík [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*).  Why a local Skinhead leader nicknamed Mobidyk?  Well, again it's an ENGLISH nickname and Moby-Dick was, of course a "bid white whale." ;-)  (Even white racists can have a sense of humor at times ;-))

Well, this then is the setup of the story.  It's about a confused Slovakian teen who's angry at both of his parents, is trying to join the local skin-heads, but has a 1/2 gypsy little brother that said local skin-heads would never understand BUT he also has pit-bull named "Killer" who his friends seem to really respect.

Everything comes to a head when Marek's uncle finds out that he needs some papers signed by both of Marek's parents -- mind you, they're not talking to him, to Marek or to each other -- to do something on that property on which both he and Marek are living (and de facto squatting). 

So what does Marek's uncle do?  He sends 16-17 year old Marek on a motor scooter to talk to both of his estranged parents (Mind you, they live in different towns and, though the distances are not that far, even in different countries ... and Marek's had difficulty with both of them as well).


And ... at one point in the story, he finds himself with both his 10 year old 1/2 Gypsy little brother Lukášek/little Luke WHO ACTUALLY LIKES HIM / LOOKS UP TO HIM BECAUSE DESPITE EVERYTHING MAREK IS HIS "BIG BROTHER" ... and his dog named "KILLER" and MAREK HAS TO CHOOSE BETWEEN little Lukášek and his dog.

And sigh ...

This is one very, very sad film.  And if forces EVERYONE who sees the film to ask Marek: "How could you possibly choose that way?"

And yet, there'd be MILLIONS of Czechs and Slovaks (and there are not many of either, so we're talking about SIZABLE majorities of both populations) who'd, yes, probably would not want to choose at all, BUT if they had to ... would probably choose the way Marek did.

One heck of a film.

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

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Repentance [2014]

MPAA (R)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

BET coverage
Ebony coverage
Essence coverage
TheSource coverage

TheSource (J. Kaye) review

Repentance [2014] (directed by Philippe Caland, screenplay by Shintaro Shimosawa, based on the film The Guru and the Gypsy [2014] by Philippe Caland) is about, well, ... Repentance.  What does it mean to Repent?

The film begins at night somewhere in the back-country of Louisiana with two young 20-something brothers, African American, Tommy and Ben Carter (played by Anthony Mackie and Mike Epps respectively), intoxicated, driving recklessly, indeed with abandon, down some country road, Tommy at the wheel, Ben riding "shot-gun."  Out of the darkness, an elderly African American woman steps onto the road.  Tommy can't do much other than hit her with their own car crashing then into a tree.  They're both knocked-out.

Older brother Ben wakes up first, attempts to wake Tommy up...  The next scene fast forwards to 4 years later.

Four years later, we're reintroduced to Tommy, who turns out to be (or have become) a successful spiritual writer.  It seems that both he and his wife Maggie (played by Sanaa Lathan) are very much into the power of various meditative and relaxation therapies.  Together they run a Yoga studio in New Orleans with Tommy writing about the spirituality of it all:  with "coming to peace" with who one is and with one's world. 

What happened to Ben?  We don't really know at first but later find out that he had spent some time in jail.  For the auto accident?  We're not sure.  Besides he hadn't been driving.  And what of Tommy?  HE HAD BEEN DRIVING.  What happened to him?  Why was he writing books about RELAXATION THERAPY??

Well, one day at a book signing, he meets an unusual fan, an older African American man named Angel Sanchez (played magnificently by Forest Whitaker).  He's still kinda from the countryside, which in Louisiana means the Bayou (swamps).  He comes across as being not particularly educated, but he's read all of Tommy's books.  And we learn that he's already had his little girl Francesca (played by Ariana Neal) participate in Tommy and Maggie's "children's yoga classes."  Why?  It's kinda strange.  Country bumpkin Angel lives kinda far from the center of New Orleans and doesn't seem like someone one would expect to be interested in Eastern philosophy or yoga.  But he _does_ seem tormented, like someone who has been desperate to find peace.  So ... perhaps for THAT reason, Angel stumbled upon Tommy's books and became an avid fan. 

Okay, Angel Sanchez asks Tommy for some personal counseling sessions.  Tommy tries to explain to him that he doesn't do that much any more, perhaps wondering if Angel would even have the money for that.  But Angel insists that he needs the help and that despite his somewhat rough looks and demeanor, as a former construction contractor, he would have the money to pay for such counseling.  Feeling compassion for the man (and perhaps not wanting to seem prejudicial, if not in terms of race then in terms of class) Tommy takes on Angel as a client.

But why was Angel so tormented?  Well ... that's the rest of the film ;-).

And by the end of it, the film poses some _very good questions_ about what is really required to "find peace with oneself and with one's world."

Excellent film!

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Unit 7 (orig. Grupo 7) [2012]

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

IMDb listing
SensaCine listing*

Correo de la Andalucia (J. Gallego Espina) article*

CineParaLeer (F. Lopez Bejarano) review* (S. Sanz) review*
SensaCine (A.G. Calvo) review*

Unit 7 (orig. Grupo 7) [2012] (directed by Alberto Rodríguez [IMDb] [SC]*, screenplay by Rafael Cobos [IMDb]) is a 6 Goya Award (Spain's equivalent of the Oscars) winning (largely fictionalized?) Police Detective Drama that played recently at the Chicago's 17th Annual European Film Festival held at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.

The film's about a unit of anti-corruption police in Seville, Spain tasked with "cleaning up the town" in the years leading up to the 1992 World's Fair held there.  But how does one "clean up a town" of its vices to put on a "bella figura" without getting at least partly "tainted" in the process?  So this is about a unit of police officers that comes to realize that they really can "knock heads" and "do what they want" because the city's and indeed the countries' officials are willing to accept just about anything aside from "being made to look bad" at least "while the show's going on."  Afterwards?  Well ... who's gonna know ... or care?

The film's thematics are perennially current.  Last year, a film, Tlatelolco, Summer of 68 (orig. Tlatelolco, Verano del 68) [2013], played at Chicago's Latino Film Festival, about the Tienanmen style massacre of 300+ protesting university students in Mexico City in the run-up to the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.  Then consider recent years: The Sochi Winter Olympics just ended, the Men's Soccer World Cup is scheduled to be held across Brazil this summer.  Then in 2016, Rio de Janeiro will be holding Latin America's first Summer Olympics and four years ago, in 2010, South Africa hosted that continent's first Men's Soccer World Cup.  In each case, there've been plenty of government officials who desperately didn't want to look bad, even as they wanted their events to "run smoothly, without incident," and yet the temptation to "cash in ..."

So in the crucible of the lead-up to the 1992 World's Fair is this unit of four vice cops, "anti-corruption police" -- rookie Angel (played by Mario Casas [IMDb] [SC]*) with a young wife (played by Inma Cuesta [IMDb] [SC]*), the unit's head Rafael (played by Antonio de la Torre [IMDb] [SC]*), Miguel played by José Manuel Poga [IMDb] [SC]* and the pudgy middle-aged, oldest guy in the unit Mateo (played by Joaquín Nuñez [IMDb] [SC]*) who becomes enamored with a similarly aged Madam (they've both been "around the block") going by the name Mahogany (played by Estefanía de los Santos [IMDb] [SC]*).

With an ensemble like this much can happen, and neither the script nor the actors/director disappoint.  yes, the Unit-7 becomes remarkably successful in getting arrests and otherwise driving crooks out of town.  But how exactly do they do it?  And in the end, does it, ANY OF IT, really matter? 

A very, very interesting and thought provoking "gritty police drama" from Spain.

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

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Excursionist (orig. Ekskursantė) [2013]

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

IMDb listing listing* listing* (U. Milkintaitė) review* review* (E. Zabulėnienė) review* (R. Jaščemskas) review*
The Excursionist (orig. Ekskursantė) [2013] [IMDb] []* []* (directed by Audrius Juzėnas [IMDb] []* []* screenplay by Pranas Morkus [IMDb] []*) is a Lithuanian historical drama that played recently to packed showings at Chicago's 17th Annual European Union Film Festival organized by the Gene Siskel Film Center.  (Seriously, it seemed that 1/2 of Chicago's substantial Lithuanian-American community was present.  And the Consul from Lithuania's Consulate in Chicago said a few words after the showing as well).

The film is set in the early 1950s during the period of mass deportations of Lithuanians from their native country to Siberia.   The film focuses on the story of a 12 year old Lithuanian-girl named Mariya (played by first time actress Anastasija Marčenkaitė [IMDb]) whose father had already been shot by the NKVD before her and her pregnant mother's deportation (in typical "cattle car" fashion) East.

Along the way, Mariya's mother expires as well.  After her mother's body was unceremoniously removed from the train by soldiers at a checkpoint en route, the distraught 12-year-old is helped, arguably pushed out of the still stopped train through a small window/air hole opposite the doors of the cattle car (police and dogs patrolling the train's other door-opening-side) by the other (Lithuanian) passengers.  They probably did this, in part to "help" her, to "give her a fighting chance to survive."  But they also probably did this in good part to simply get rid of her.  The stress of Deportation under such literally inhuman, cattle car, conditions would have been difficult as it is.  To have a hysterical orphaned 12-year-old bewailing the sudden (and total) loss of her mother (her body just ripped from the train at said checkpoint) would have been all but unbearable.

So the other passengers pushed 12-year-old Marija out the backside of the still-stopped cattle car with the words: "God be with you!  Find some way to live!"  And that was that.  The train soon started moving, the dogs started barking, and 12-year old Marija, had still the survival instincts TO RUN into the woods before the train passed away and the police dogs could go after her.

Now how could a 12-year-old survive out in the Siberian Taiga on her own?  The short answer ... she would not have been able to.  SO THE REST OF THE STORY is about A WHOLE LOT OF STRANGERS (MOSTLY RUSSIANS (!) HELPING HER TO SURVIVE AND OVER THE COURSE OF SEVERAL YEARS MAKING IT BACK TO LITHUANIA.  And indeed, some of Russia's MOST FAMOUS ACTORS (notably Raisa Ryazanova* [IMDb] []* and Sergey Garmash* [IMDb] []*) CHOSE to PLAY SIGNIFICANT ROLES in this mostly Lithuanian film about what could only be described as Soviet Russia's shame.

And to be clear, not every Russian in this film was "good."  There were a-holes including a Principal at a Siberian Reformatory School, where Mariya found herself during at least part of her journey.  The Principal did consider Marija, a 12 or perhaps 13 year old by then (and would have been only about 5-6 years old at the end of World War II) a "Fascist," and treated punitively at times sadistically her as such.

But there were also good people, including Baba Nadya (played by Raisa Ryazanova* [IMDb] []*) an old and believing Orthodox Christian woman who first nursed the Catholic 12-year-old Mariya (all Mariya has of her mother is the crucifix of her mother's rosary that she keeps through the whole of the movie) back to health after her daughter's boyfriend (played by Igor Sovochkin* [IMDb] []*) first found her after she had escaped from the train and brought Mariya to her.  And then there is an NKVD officer (played by Sergey Garmash* [IMDb] []*) who uses his position -- he was State Secret Police after all -- to help the girl (again more or less clandestinely) get back to Lithuania.  Why did he do it?  Well, though he was NKVD, it becomes _also_ clear that he had some life experience that made him perhaps more compassionate than others in his position to innocent CHILDREN like Mariya who were in need.

So this is a remarkable film.  It's about the horror of the deportations of the Stalinist Era.  BUT it's also about finding good people, often SURPRISING PEOPLE, in the midst of that horror.

Then from a technical aspect both the cinematography and the gentle if often very, very poignantly sad classical sound track are certainly of the highest caliber.  Westerners often think of Siberia as simply a frozen wasteland.  Actually the vast majority of it is Taiga -- seemingly endless coniferous forest.  Indeed, part of the HORROR of Siberia becomes: HOW COULD SUCH EVIL BE ALLOWED TO TAKE PLACE IN ENDLESS ROLLING FOREST LAND THAT OTHERWISE WOULD HAVE BEEN EXPERIENCED AS BEING SO BEAUTIFUL?

Anyway, I just wanted to cry through almost the entire movie.  What this poor little girl went through, what her family had went through, what millions of others like them went through.  And then yes the existence of people who did try to help.

In the end, the film becomes a Lithuanian/Siberian "Saving Private Ryan [1998]" where "Private Ryan" is 12-13-14 year old Marija.  And yes, it's intended to make one want to cry.

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

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted [2014]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-I)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (B. Tallarico) review
AVClub (E. Adams) review

Probably the single most important thing that one should remember about Muppets Most Wanted [2014] (directed and cowritten by James Bobin along with Nicholas Stroller characters by Muppets creator Jim Hensen [IMDb]) is that like its immediate predecessor, The Muppets [2011] reboot, the film is "just a dumb Muppets movie," :-) and hence not altogether "politically correct."

So if in the last movie, the villain was an "Oil Baron" bent on buying the Muppets Theater in order to destroying it so that he could drill for oil there, in this case the villains are a French crook literally named "Badguy" (played very well by Ricky Gervais) -- who tells the "taken aback" Muppets that his name's pronounced "Badghee" :-) to which the muppets all nod still with incomprehension but, not wanting to "look stupid," approval saying "ooooooh..." -- and a Russian "Kermit the Frog" look-alike named Constantine (voiced by Matt Vogel) with the reputation of being "the world's most dangerous frog."  Add to this the "Gulag Master" Nadya (played by a "Russian accented" Tina Fey, she's actually quite funny :-)) and an ""super-lazy, ever on break" French Interpol agent named Jean Pierre Napoleon (played by Ty Burrell)...

So this is not exactly "America at its Best." In fact, it would be _just perfect_ for some upcoming Putin-sponsored Moscow State U. "See how they hate us..." film seminar.  And I honestly don't know the film could be marketed in France except under the title "Les Americains sont les houls" :-).  But to be fair, it's hard to imagine the previous Muppets movie being particularly popular in the Dick Cheney household: "Come kids, come see how Evil your Grandpa is ..."

Other countries -- the Italians for instance -- are able to make very good comedies and very good children's films without requiring there to be _any_ "villains" to ridicule or tar-and-feather.  But we still have to "drop safes" on them ... ;-).  But there we are ...

Okay, what's then the set-up for this "kids lets learn to hate each other" story ...?

Well it begins quite literally the moment after the last film ends.  The Muppets have saved their theater.  They've finished their last song and ... as the Muppets (and children often) are ... immediately, they're asking: "What now?"

That's when M. Badguy comes in ... and offers to take them on a "European tour."  Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmire) would prefer to wait, reflect on it a bit.  But even the rest of the Muppets realize that "A Sequel's Never as Good as the First Film" (one of the funniest songs that they sing in the course of the film) ... the alternative is ... EEEK ... BOREDOM, which most of the Muppets (like most kids) find worse than just about anything.  SO ... after M. Badguy suggests they put it up for a vote, most of the Muppets vote for "a bad idea" to "no idea at all." ;-)  And so they're off ... to Europe ... with no idea really what they're gonna do there (they have no show prepared) BUT ... "it's better than doing nothing at all ..." ;-)

Enter then the Russian fiend Constantine, "the world's most dangerous frog," who turns out to be a friend and partner of the French M. Badguy.  Constantine breaks out of a Siberian prison and ... soon finds himself (somehow) in Europe where, since he looks _almost exactly like_ Kermit the Frog, he manages to do with the switcheroo with Kermit and fool most of the Muppets into believing that he's him, while Kermit gets arrested by Interpol and sent back down to the Russian Gulag as Constantine.

So how could the other Muppets be so stupid?  How could they not recognize that "Kermit's not quite the same" (actually it must have been fun for an American voice artist to play a Russian trying to quickly learn an American accent ;-).   Well, Russian-accented, trying to quickly learn an American accent, Constantine (unlike the more responsible Kermit) lets the childish Muppets "do what they want."

The rest of the Muppets JUST LOVE THIS, but "childish" as they are ... they have some really stupid ideas ;-) :

One of them has always dreamed of staging an "Indoor Running of the Bulls..." ;-) ... Poor, poor. poor Salma Hayek, who comes out ALL DRESSED IN RED, when this Muppet gets his dream fulfilled by the evilly permissive Constantine while they're in Madrid ...  ;-)

Then Miss Piggy wants to sing her renditions of 5-6 Celine Dion songs at every show ... Eeek!  Talk about a "Crime against Humanity!" ;-)  Indeed talk about a "Crime against Celine Dion" ;-)

The Muppets band's drummer wants to fulfill his dream of banging out a 2-3 hour drum solo at one of the shows ... ;-)

You get the picture... ;-)

The ideas are all "stupid" but so long as Constantine lets them "do what they want" NONE of the Muppets "asks any questions"  (And that's why kids we need a "wise-but-firm" benevolent SEIG HEIL FUHRER ... to keep us all in line ;-).  Peter Sellers' Dr. Wirklichlieber (err... Dr. Strangelove) couldn't have put the message more clearly.   And Putin (and Dick Cheney...?) actually would probably agree... ;-)

Sigh ... meanwhile our wise and responsible Kermit languishes in a Siberian Gulag.  Well, Gulag commander Nadya (knowing actually who he is, but for her own reasons wanting to keep him there) decides to try to make Kermit "feel better" by allowing him to organize the annual "Gulag Talent Show!" ;-)  This actually produces some of the funniest scenes in the movie as Kermit organizes the inmates, played by some of the toughest looking mugs in Hollywood, among them Ray Liotta and Danny "The Machete" Trejo, singing and dancing selections out of Fame [IMDb] and A Chorus Line [IMDb] ;-).

Back to The Muppets European Tour:  A strange thing about the venues.  It seems that M. Badguy and Muppets leader Constantine, er "Kermit-the-Frog with a persistent Cold," seem to always stage their shows RIGHT NEXT TO RENOWNED ART MUSEUMS and while the Muppets are doing some REALLY REALLY STUPID THINGS (but also REALLY REALLY FUNNY THINGS... again that "Indoor Running of the Bulls" / the "2 hour drum solo..." / Miss Piggy singing the "Theme From the Titanic", etc ;-) ON STAGE ... something, often VERY ODD (they're Muppets villains after all ;-) "goes missing" from said Museums.

SO ... both the CIA (represented by an eminently "wise" / "reasonable" and "don't you just love him (I suppose when he's not water-boarding anyone ...)" fuzzy Muppet Eagle (voiced by Eric Jacobson)) and Interpol (represented by the really, really by-the-book and the book says: "it's time to take my break", "time to call it a day", "time to take my wife and kids on our state mandated 8 week vacation" ... LAZY above mentioned Interpol Agent (played by Ty Burrell)) get on the case.

Much then ensues...

A lot of the gags are _really_ really funny.   It's just that the jokes are all done at the expense of Others.  And yet, at the end the message is:  "Kids we need wise, responsible people to do the thinking for us," a philosophy that a lot of those "Evil Others" would actually very much agree with.

But "Rock On," drum soloing Crazy Harry, "Rock On ..."

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Divergent [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 (M. Phillips) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (K. McFarland) review

At times, Hollywood has been called a "dream machine" both reflective and a trend-setter with regards to the happenings in (American) society.  I go back to this image of "Hollywood as dream machine" to help me understand the "why?" of current film, Divergent [2014] (directed by Neil Burger, screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, based on the first installment of a trilogy of novels by Veronica Roth [IMDb]) the latest book-to-movie entry of the currently popular (to the point becoming formulaic) YA (teen)-oriented "girl-hero-based" Post-Apocalypic genre.

Now please don't get me wrong.  That a story has become "formulaic" does not make it necessarily "cheap" or "shallow." Instead, if anything, it means that the story has "struck a chord," and somehow speaks to a society (or a portion of a society) in a way that other, less successful stories have not.

English author J.K. Rowling's enormously popular Harry Potter series of YA (teen)-oriented books (eventually made, of course, into an enormously popular series of movies, the last two installments reviewed here [1] [2]) opened the door to a renaissance in (and mainstreaming of) YA (teen)-oriented magical / fantasy literature not seen since J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy of the 1930s-40s.  And, of course, riding this "Harry Potter" wave of renewed interest in YA (teen)-oriented magical / fantasy literature, Tolkien's LOTR was made into an enormously successful trilogy of epic films, with Hollywood perhaps "over reaching" in trying to milk the magic once more, indeed, three more times, with the current attempt to turn even Tolkien's much smaller, earlier, indeed, arguably "pilot" novel The Hobbit into a trilogy of epic films as well (the first two installments [1] [2] reviewed here as well).

Then American author Stephanie Meyer's wildly popular Twilight Saga of YA (teen) oriented (and here specifically TEENAGE GIRL ORIENTED) books built on J.K. Rowling's success with two crucial changes (1) she introduced the "teenage girl heroine" to the genre and (2) she moved the story's setting to the United States.

First, by making a "once average teenage girl" Bella (played in the subsequent wildly successful films by Kristen Stewart) the heroine of her story, Meyer filled an enormous hole previously existing in that genre: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series at least had Hermione (played in the films by Emma Watson), but TOLKEIN'S LOTR and The Hobbit were, if typical of their time, SUPREMELY EMBARRASSING TODAY in being ALMOST ENTIRELY DEVOID OF SIGNIFICANT FEMALE CHARACTERS, this despite (I suspect) a far larger number of teenage girl readers (and potential buyers of books...) than teenage boys. (I would suspect that today, teenage girls would be far more likely to "listen to their parents and stay home and read" than teenage boys, who'd prefer "playing video games" or otherwise "doing something").

Second, by moving the story to the United States (in the case of her Twilight Saga to the "foggy" often "forgotten hinterlands" of the American Pacific Northwest), Meyer both tapped into our national narcissism (the term American Exceptionalism doesn't exist for nothing...) but also, frankly, made it easier for other American writers (and then Hollywood) to crank-out variations on Harry Potter's and the Twilight Saga's characters and themes.

And boy did our nation's largely East Coast based publishing machine and West Coast based Hollywood JUMP on that American "collective unconscious" gravy train:

Hunger Games [IMDb] (the first two movie installments reviewed [1] [2] here), set in a post-Apocalyptic U.S. (75-years after a brutal civil war), though largely in "Appalachia," the once average heroine being Katniss Everdeen (played in the film series by Jennifer Lawrence)

Beautiful Creatures [IMDb], set in a small town near Charleston, South Carolina (involving a society of "light and dark" though not-race-based witches), the once average girl heroine being Lena Duchaness (played in the film by Alice Englert)

The Host [IMDb] (the movie reviewed here) set in a post-Apocalytic U.S. (following an alien invasion) but mostly around the state of Texas, the once average heroine being Melanie (played in the film Saoirse Ronan).
Mortal Instruments [IMDb] (the first movie installment reviewed here) set in a rainy Harry Potteresque New York City (involving a parallel shadow/spiritual battle between forces of light and darkness), the once average girl heroine being Clary (played by Lily Collins).

Add to this the most "Harry Potteresque" series, that of Percy Jackson [IMDb] (the latest installment reviewed here), set in New York (rather than London) and involving Greco-Roman mythology rather than the world of pre-Christian Celtic based witchcraft, in which the lead character is the Harry Potter-like (male) Percy Jackson (played by Logan Lerman) with a Hermonine-like friend named Annabeth (played by Alexandra Daddario).

To this rather impressive list we now add the current film Divergent [IMDb] set in a post-Apocalyptic U.S.A. though largely in Chicago, Illinois (100 years after a devastating war plus attendant environmental catastrophe), the once average heroine being Beatrice / Tris (played by Shailene Woodley).

Further, neither did these stories simply share a "magical" or otherwise "fantastic" setting and basically the same "once average" hero or heroine.  ALL these YA (teen) oriented series included other common characters (archetypes) and themes:

For instance, in almost all the cases, the parents "didn't have a clue."  They weren't necessarily "bad" just largely outside the picture feeding again another kind of narcissism... that "nothing really existed before our time..." or, in the post-Apocalyptic variations of the story "the Past" was simply (and conveniently...)  "destroyed." 

Second, in every one of the teenage-girl oriented stories, there was a "dreamy" (often "shirtless" sometimes tattooed) slightly older (but appropriately so), _more experienced_ male heartthrob -- basically Jacob (played by Taylor Lautner) of the Twilight Series.   In the current film, Divergent [2014], the requisite slightly older, "more experienced" heart-throb Four (played by Theo James) keeps his shirt on through most of the film, but (MILD SPOILER ALERT) when he does take it off, he reveals ... one heck of a tattoo ;-). 

Now one could "lament" the potential "exploitative" nature of these films with (1) the authors / film-makers of these stories presuming to take-over the role of parents by marginalizing the parents of the fictional heroes of their stories and (2) more or less obviously (if somewhat "turn-about" amusingly ;-) pandering to the "lesser" (er ... "more lustful") "angels" of the predominantly teen-age girl audience that they are targeting.

BUT LETS ALSO BE FAIR: If these YA (teen)-oriented stories seem to target teenage girl readers (presumably because they read more than teenage boys) the YA (teen)-oriented stories targeted to boys are often based on comic books and video games and often involve heroines (where dressed) dressed head-to-toe in spandex/leather and toting machine guns spraying all sorts of "bad guys" with lead.   I've written about this as well, describing this black-leather clad heroine with a REALLY BIG GUN as basically "the Jungian Anima let out to play" (Sucker Punch [2011], Underworld Awakening [2012], Resident Evil: Retribution [2012], The Avengers [2012]).

ALL THIS IS TO SAY is to say that when a PARTICULAR CHARACTER TYPE or STORY-LINE starts APPEARING OVER AND OVER AGAIN that character type or story-line seems to have "STRUCK A CHORD" with the society's "Collective Unconscious" and it's going to remain there until the society gets tired of it.  So when does the society get tired of it?  Well, a good indication will be when it will cease to be to publish books / make movies ESSENTIALLY REPEATING THE SAME STORY (with minor variations).

MY SENSE IS THAT WE'RE NOWHERE NEAR THE END of the popularity of this "previously average young girl asked/forced by circumstance to do great things" story line BECAUSE ... HONESTLY ... RESTATED IN THOSE TERMS, THE STORY-LINE becomes almost a modern day "cinematic apparition of Mary" the humble handmaid of the Lord (Lk 1:38) who exclaims in the Magnificat:

     "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
     For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness,
     and behold, from now on all generations will call me Blessed.
     The Mighty One has done great things for me
     And Holy is is name..."
             -- Lk 1:46-49

In other words, "we've seen this before."  Indeed, in the horror / slasher movies of my youth, it was always "the Good Girl" (we used to honestly call her THE VIRGIN) who remains to defeat the monster.  How?  Often by "crushing his head" with? "her heel" (c.f. Gen 3:15, honestly look at the closing sequence of The Terminator [1984] ...)

FURTHER, if we RESTATE the STORY-LINE in this imagery EVEN THE HUNKY ("DREAMY") SHIRTLESS MENTOR FIGURE BEGINS TO GET INTERESTING ;-) -- He becomes AN "ANGELIC" PROTECTOR FIGURE.  Indeed, often times the heroine's relationship with this "angelic protector figure" becomes "complicated": In the Twilight series, though Jacob protects Bella (and then her daughter) she ends up with Edward.  The other "protector" figures are similar.  It's never an easy thing for there to be a relationship between the "Good Girl heroine" and her slightly more experienced "Protector."

SO THEN, AFTER ALL THIS, how does "the Good Girl who ... comes to do great things" fare in this variation?

Well first, "The Good Girl" (played by Shailene Woodley)'s given name is Beatrice (an evocative name as Beatrice was the name of Dante's inspiration in his Divine Comedy...).  Then in a post-Apocalyptic society that divides itself into five castes (called "Factions" in the story), these being -- The Erudites (the intellectuals, scientists), The Amities (the amiable, hippie-like "granola people" who do the farming for the society), the Candors (who are honest to the point of argumentative, hence the lawyers and judges of the society), the Dauntless (the "courageous" people of the society, hence their soldiers and police officers) and Abnegations (the self-less ... who give of up to the service of the rest) -- she's born into an Abnegation household.

We're told that at least originally, or up until the beginning of the story, the Abnegation caste was given charge of the government of the society.  (As they were deemed "self-less" they were seen as the ideal people to be in charge of making sure that the government / society was run right.

Interestingly, the Abnegations' self-lessness makes them makes them the most Priestly / religious-like of the factions (something noted also by the J. McAleer of the CNS/USCCB in his review of the film).

Well Beatrice (like the Biblical Mary...) is born into this governing / "priestly" caste (The Biblical Mary's uncle was Zechariah, a Priest at the Temple in Jerusalem)

But there are two plot points that have to be added here.

(1) The teenage Beatrice kinda finds the Abnegations' self-lessness "boring."  So when she comes to her "choosing ceremony" (basically the society's "rite of passage to adulthood" not altogether dissimilar _in effect_ to the Jewish Bar Mitzvah or the Catholic understanding of Confirmation ... after celebrating this Rite / Sacrament the person is considered "a full adult" in their respective (religious) societies) she _chooses_ another Caste (Faction) ... the far _cooler_ Dauntless faction.  It's kinda like "serving sandwiches at a parish soup kitchen" could seem to be "far more boring" to a teenager than "jumping out of a helicopter with the 82nd Airborne somewhere in Afghanistan ..."  The "service aspect" is "still there" but it seems so much "cooler" to "serve" with bravado ...

and (2) all other Factions AND IN PARTICULAR, THE ERUDITES (the intellectuals).are kinda resentful of the Abnegations  The other Factions don't really trust them, they don't really believe that the Abnegations are as "self-less" as they've claimed to be.  (Hmmm.... sounds familiar ... ;-).  Added to this is the Erudites' suspicion that the Abnegations are _breaking the rules_ by coddling and even _sheltering_ "the Factionless" (also called "Divergent" ... those who don't really fit into any particular Faction well).

Now it actually makes sense that the Abnegations, the "nice people," would have compassion toward, literally, the "misfits."  But the Erudites, who've come up with this Five Faction system of societal control are irritated.  And so, one of the esteemed professorial heads of the Erudite faction (played by Kate Winslet) tries to stage a coup against the "soft" Abnegations to keep the society "ideologically pure."  How to do that?  Well, Erudites are the society's scientists/intellectuals, not its soldiers.  HOWEVER, being 'the smart people' they can perhaps find means of manipulating the soldiers to do their bidding ...

So this inter-Factional friction is in the air throughout the whole of the story.  But this "big picture conflict" isn't all that's going on.  On the far smaller scale there's what's going on with Beatrice and her family.

Beatrice (played again by Shailene Woodley) takes her test a few days prior to her Choosing Ceremony and finds that unlike what she's been previously (that everyone is simply born/destined to become a member of one or another of the five Factions), SHE actually has aptitudes to fit into SEVERAL OF THEM (to some extent, SHE'S SPECIAL ... on the other hand, arguably, she's also VERY NORMAL as most of us have varied interests and abilities).  Now, in our society, Beatrice's versatility would not be seen as a problem, BUT IN HER SOCIETY IT WAS.  What to do?  The medical technician applying "The Test" to her, simply suggests that she CHOOSE "Abnegation" (she was born in that group) and "no one would know."  But ... it's clear that Beatrice would also "like to be more" than "just self-less"

So ... when she comes to her CHOOSING CEREMONY, Beatrice, SURPRISES MANY (and POSSIBLY disappoints her parents, good, again, basically self-less folk played by Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwin) when she CHOOSES to become a "Dauntless" (part of the "brave" warrior caste).

So after the Choosing Ceremony, she goes off with the crazy / "cool" Dauntless folk and her subsequent training ensues.  BUT ... Does she really fit there?  Again, her test showed that she could have fit into several of the Factions, including Dauntless but also Erudite (she was also quite bright) and, of course, Abnegation.  Since she could have been "many things," she wasn't necessarily "the best" or even "top caliber" in any of them.  What to do?  Well this is where her hunky, somewhat more experienced, (I'm suggesting) "angelic protector" Four (played by Theo James).  He's one of the Dauntless' training instructors (hence by definition "more experienced") and he helps her to "get by" / "make it through."

Okay ... she's more or less able to "make it through" as a Dauntless.  What happens now?

Go see the movie ;-)

Again, it's a very interesting story, and only Part 1 of 3 about a "young girl from humble beginnings ... called to do Great Things" ;-)

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