Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Walking with the Enemy [2013]

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

IMDb listing

Historia y Cine (J.L. Urraca Casal) review*
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review

Background Materials:
     ShalomMagazine.com (M. Michelson) article about Hungarian WW II era Jewish Resistance Hero Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum
     NYTimes (A. Gates) review of documentary Unlikely Heroes [2003] which included the story of Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum and was narrated by Ben Kingsley
     JewishStandard.com (J. Friedman) article about a stage play entitled "Unlikely Hero" about Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum
     Wikipedia entry about post-WW I / WW II era Hungarian Head of State (Regent) Miklós Horthy
     Wikipedia entry about Swiss Vice-Consul to Hungary Carl Lutz credited for saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews

My Review:
While in truth the final verdict on the film Walking with the Enemy [2013] (directed by Mark Schmidt, screenplay by Kenny Golde with additions by Richard Lasser) will need to come from both the Jewish/Israeli and Hungarian press as well as Jewish/Israeli and Hungarian public opinion (in both Hungary/Israel and abroad), IMHO the key to appreciating this film is that, set in WW II era Hungary during the closing year of the war, the film actually tells the stories of a number of people, both Hungarian and non, including Hungary's WW II era leader the Regent Miklós Horthy, trying to navigate their way through the horror/mess of the War "In the East," that is, seeking a way to "walk in the midst of enemies" on many sides. 

The primary protagonist of the film, fictionalized (for reasons unclear to me), is Alec Cohen (played by James Armstrong) who is based on the actual Hungarian WW II era Jewish resistance hero named Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum (article about, review of 2003 documentary in part about, review of stage play about).  After escaping a Hungarian forced-labor-camp for young able-bodied men of Jewish ancestry and discovering that the rest of his family had been deported from their home village, he went back to Budapest where he became involved in the Jewish underground there.  Since he had "Aryan features" (looked German ...) and like many educated Central Europeans at the time he spoke German fluently, he came to _impersonate_ a German SS officer in late-1944 Nazi occupied Budapest (Obviously he had to get a hold of an SS officer's uniform to do so).  Then together with several others Jewish resistance members (also dressed in captured SS uniforms) playing as if they were under his command, he would interdict attempts by the Hungarian National Socialist Arrow Cross units to round-up and capture Budapest's Jews, sending them instead to safe-houses throughout the city and giving them forged Swiss citizenship and travel documents obtained from the offices of Swiss Vice-Consul to Hungary Carl Lutz (played in the film by William Hope).  Of course, together they were but a tiny squad of impersonators in the midst of Hungary's capital city under Nazi occupation and as time went on, increasingly under siege by the approaching Soviet army.  So the number of people that they could actually save was necessarily "small" (though the number approached thousands to even tens of thousands) and of course involved enormous risk (capture meant torture and followed by summary execution).  Still, a remarkable number of episodes recalled in the background materials about the historical Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum cited above are dramatized in the film.

Then Hungary's story during World War II was about as complex as they come.  The World War II era Kingdom of Hungary was led by a conservative (former admiral) Regent Miklós Horthy (played in the film by Ben Kingsley) since the chaos following the dissolution of the Austria-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, a chaos that had included a brief period when Hungary had been under Communist rule.  Hence Regent Miklós Horthy was very wary of the Communist Soviet Union even as he mistrusted the mass movements of Fascism as well.  As "Regent" that is a "stand-in" (if for several decades ...) for the "vacant" throne of Hungary, he was, if nothing else, a rather "old school" Aristocrat, or at least espousing the values of that old Aristocracy.  As such, the "mass movements" of the time, especially those espousing thuggery (like both the Communists and the Fascists) were ever suspect by him.  Yet, post WW I Hungary was a small country between two regional powers -- Soviet Russia on one side and later Nazi Germany on the other.  So Miklós Horthy is portrayed in the film (and the wikipedia article about him seems to agree) as one who navigate Hungary between these two powers.  Yes, for much of the War, he did consider Nazi Germany as "the lesser of the two Evils," but so long as Hungary remained not outright occupied, he did the minimum to cooperate with the Nazis.  Notably, while Hungary remained unoccupied he refused to allow Hungary's Jews to be deported.  In late 1941, under pressure from Nazi Germany, he did come to expel (to Nazi occupied Ukraine, and hence to their deaths ...) Jewish refugees who had fled to Hungary (non-Hungarian citizens).

History seems to bear-out his resistance to Nazi pressure as he was NOT tried as a War Criminal after the War).  It was when Miklós Horthy tried to negotiate an Armistice with the Soviet Union that the Nazis stormed in to occupy Hungary and the persecutions / deportations of Hungary's Jews to the death camps of Nazi occupied Poland began.

Anyway, the story of Miklós Horthy's (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to "walk between Hungary's enemies" is also portrayed in this film.

It all makes for a complicated story, but one that many of Central European ancestry would certainly appreciate.  I, of Czech parents, have an aunt who has always quite adamantly maintained that if Austria-Hungary had been able to survive as a "Central European Federation" respecting the rights of all its constituent ethnicities then neither the Nazis nor the Communists would have been able to come to dominate Central Europe and perhaps WW II would have been able to have been prevented.  The splintering of Central Europe into many tiny nation states (including post-WW I Czechoslovakia) resulted in none of these little countries being able to stand-up to either the resurgent Nazi Germany or the post-WW II Soviet Russian juggernaut.

Again final word on the accuracy of the portrayal of WW II era Hungary in this film should be left to both Hungary's (and Israel's) press and public opinion (both in Hungary/Israel and abroad).  But I do appreciate the attempt.  Also Catholics (as well as Protestants) would appreciate that the film-makers tried to underline that many attempts, often successful, by both Catholic / Protestant institutions as well as clergy and laypeople to provide safe-havens to Hungary's many (hundreds of thousands) of Jews.  The Nazi and Hungarian Fascist Arrow-Cross jackboots often carried the day.  However despite brutal occupation, tens of thousands perhaps upwards to several hundred thousand Hungary's Jews across the country were saved.  And that is something to note (and honor) as well.

So over all, pretty good job folks, pretty good job!  This was _not_ a simple story to tell and you did IMHO quite well!  Congratulations!

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

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Monday, April 28, 2014

The Other Woman [2014]

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

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

The Other Woman [2014] (directed by Nick Cassavetes, screenplay by Melissa K. Stack) will probably not win many academy awards.  There I said it ;-).  A lot of Cameron Diaz vehicles are like that (I think of the quite trashy but at times honestly very, very funny Bad Teacher [2011] ... yes she played there an awful teacher and on oh so many levels ;-).   I would also add that I find the current film's PG-13 rating very hard to justify (PARENTS TAKE NOTE...).  After all, teens and even children can be admitted to see R-rated films.  They just have to attend the film with an adult (usually a parent). 

Further, since the film's clearly adult focused / oriented -- there's not a single child or even teen cast in the entire film -- I'd honestly think that most teens wouldn't find the film particularly interesting.  It's basically about a fairly large bunch of (to teens) OLD PEOPLE (folks in their almost 30s, late 30s, 40s and beyond) acting "very badly."  Mom and dad might find parts of the movie quite telling or otherwise funny.  BUT I WOULD IMAGINE THAT THE AVERAGE TEEN WOULD QUICKLY NOTE: "HEY THIS FILM ISN'T ABOUT US _AT ALL_" and declare it "lame."  And they'd be RIGHT.

So what to say about a movie that's about adultery, adultery and more adultery? 

Well, at least the film shows pretty well the pain that the said adultery causes.  One can't help but feel sorry for "living far-off in the Connecticut suburbs" wife Kate King (played by Leslie Mann) who discovers that her Manhattan-working well-dressed wheeling-and-dealing "entrepreneur-of-some-sort" husband Mark (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has been cheating on her. 

One even feels sorry for the Manhattan apartment living, "living the dream" (even if previously "unattached"), late-30-something/40-something corporate lawyer Carly (played by Cameron Diaz) who thought she found "a soul-mate" (someone who could understand her) in the confident, ever well-dressed, above mentioned wheeling-and-dealing "entrepreneur-of-sorts" Mark.  He clearly knew Manhattan.  He clearly knew the "dog-eat-dog" pressures of life/business there.  And yet, he seemed to "stand above it all" ... finding time to be romantic with Carly despite the pressures of the pitch and the sell and the job. 

But then a life of "wheeling and dealing" in a high-stakes / "dog-eat-dog" world of commerce, especially if one's wife lives blissfully "far away in the suburbs" can present Temptations to use those "wheeling and dealing skills" (being "everything for everybody" in order to make the sale ...) in "other fields" besides business.  And so we find that good ole Mark even has another mid-late 20-something babe named Amber (played by true Sports Illustrated supermodel Kate Upton) squirreled away at a beach house in The Hamptons and finally another brown-haired, light-sundress-wearing beauty in the once Caribbean Pirate haven, more recently recast as a "tax haven," of The Bahamas.   Mark would make a few airline pilots, traveling salesmen and even spies jealous ... sigh ... ;-).  And yet in the end as I write this, I can't but feel a little sorry for him as well:  One _could_ say that he had arguably become a (up until he got caught) "multi-tasking monster" of our time, juggling _a lot_ of "balls" (yes, I get the double meaning ;-) "in the air."  YET LOOK AT THE DAMAGE TO SO MANY PEOPLE THAT HE CAUSED ...

Anyway, bottom line ... this is not necessarily a bad reflection piece FOR ADULTS.  But I still don't understand the PG-13 rating.  If I were a teen, I'd find the film "kinda boring/lame." ;-)

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Friday, April 25, 2014

Rio 2 [2014]

MPAA (G)  CNS/USCCB (A-I)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars)  RE.com (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (K. McFarland) review

Rio 2 [2014] (directed by Carlos Saldanha, characters and story by Carlos Saldanha along with Don Rhymer screenplay by Jenny Bicks, Yoni Brenner and Carlos Koktin) surprised me in a good way, through truth be told, I should not have been surprised.  After al,l the director Carlos Saldanha is orignally from Brazil and so would be expected to make a even a kids' film several orders of magnitude more respectful and enlightening of his country of origin's culture than Hollywood films for the big (Grand Budapest Hotel [2013]) and small (Muppets Most Wanted [2014]) made by film-makers with at best a "reader's" or "tourist's" appreciation of the cultures that they were portraying (and frankly making fun of...). 

I held off on viewing and reviewing this film because it came out theaters here in Chicago on the very same weekend as the annual Chicago Latino Film Festival featuring dozens of excellent films made by Latino film makers about their own cultures and national histories (I still have a couple of films that I saw at the festival to review here).  I did not want to confuse authentically Latin American / Latino films made by authentically Latin American / Latino film makers with a Latino-based film coming from Hollywood, but seeing it now, I kinda regret that ... ;-) because Carlos Saldanha honestly did a great job here (and he is in fact, from Brazil ;-).

However, talking for a moment  to adults and not really here to kids -- yes I realize that Rio 2 [2014] was a kids film ;-) -- we live in a globalized time in which for the very small "annoyance" of watching films with subtitles we can (if we choose to) see films at festivals like Chicago's annual European Union, Latino and Black Diaspora Film Festivals about different places in the world, made by film makers from those places in the world.  These kind of festivals take place NOT JUST in larger cities like Chicago but ALL OVER THE UNITED STATES. One just has to look for them: Just Google "Film Festival" and the state or major city that you live in or near and you'll be surprised how many of these festivals play ANNUALLY near you.  The films playing these international film festivals, which are held all over the country and indeed across the world, are made by film-makers from all over the world.  And far more often than not, they are far more intelligent than the one-two-or-even-three-step removed productions made by "far away from the subject matter" Hollywood.  Yes, one will run into propaganda pieces, but (1) one runs into domestically made propaganda pieces as well (consider said Muppets Most Wanted [2014] mentioned above as well as Hop [2011] and Hoodwinked 2 [2011] among even domestically made KIDS' FILMS), and (2) many/most foreign films playing at these festivals are personalist human dramas about what it's like to live in "fill in the blank" country made by a film-maker ACTUALLY FROM THAT COUNTRY.   So ADULTS (and again, not really kids) for the price of "putting up with subtitles" for $10-12 one can get in 2 hours a better perspective into what it's like to live in "fill in the blank" country, the country's history, what the country's proud of, etc, than one could get spending THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS on taking "a tour" there.  That's not to say that tours and MISSION EXPERIENCES are bad.  But international film festivals ARE A LOT CHEAPER ...

Muito bem (very good) ... back to the film at hand ;-).  Rio [2011] and now Rio 2 [2014] is that rare Hollywood children's animated film franchise that's made by a director who's actually originally from the country in which the films are set.  And honestly both films become WONDERFUL AMBASSADORS TO VIEWERS with regard to Brazil and its culture.

THE CURRENT FILM'S VERY FIRST SEQUENCE links the flamboyance of the world-famous carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro with the flamboyantly colorful BIRDS and other wildlife of Brazil.  The people dancing in the streets and on floats parading through the streets -- the people often dressed in elaborate and colorful feathers -- are juxtaposed with the film's lovable and colorful BIRDS DANCING AND SINGING (chirping) AWAY AS WELL.  Wow!  What a GREAT WAY to explain the uniqueness of Brazil's carnival celebrations as compared to the ways it's celebrated (always flamboyantly, but ever differently) across the globe and in a way that even a kid could understand:  Brazilians often dress for Carnevale in flamboyant dress often accented by feathers BECAUSE THEIR OWN BIRDS ARE DRESSED THAT WAY.  And they sing and they dance JUST LIKE THE BIRDS OF THEIR LAND DO.  Again, even a 6 year old could understand that ;-)

Then the fundamental story in the Rio franchise about the relationships between Birds (to a large extent conflated WITH BRAZILIANS) and various people (often enough but not always WESTERNERS / NORTHERNERS, that is "non Brazilians").  And to the franchise's credit, the franchise shows IN BOTH FILMS that there are both "good and bad Birds" (again often linked to Brazilians) and "good and bad People" (again often linked to Westerners/Northerners that is, non-Brazilians).

So Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenstein) is a rare Brazilian Blue Macaw who in the first film actually spent much of his life "up North" (in the United States) among humans and even at the beginning of this film remains quite at home among people perhaps even more so that with birds.  Indeed, he and his wife Jewel (voiced by Anne Hatheway) actually were introduced to each other as a result of intervention of humans: In the first movie Tulio (voiced by Rodrigo Santoro) a Brazilian ornitologist (one who studies birds) came all the way up to the United States to find the very rare Blu (to bring back for Jewel then thought to be only other "Blue Macaw" left in the whole world).  Dr. Tulio finds Blu happily residing in snowy North America (as the first film notes "NOT Brazil" ;-) with Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann) a (North) American pet-shop owner.  Not only does Dr. Tulio bring Blu back to Rio (for Jewel) but also Linda because the two "bird geeks" fall in love with each other in the process ;-).  The result is that both Bird and Human, and South American and North American, are shown to being able to get along and indeed help each other.

In this second film, we find that Tulio and Linda go out into the Amazon (to look for rare birds) and THERE discover (on basis of a feather) that there _may be_ other Blue Macaws living out there somewhere deep in the Amazon.  That news sends Blu and Jewel and their family out to the Amazon as well: Blu's not particularly happy as one who's lived all his life around the comforts of the city, he'd prefer to stay home, while Jewel, more comfortable with the ways of birds would like to go out and see if they could find "more of their kin").  Much ensues ...

Among that which ensues is that Blu / Jewel (and their other feathered friends) DO FIND the "lost flock of Blue Macaws" that Tulio and Linda were looking for (and actually help the two humans find the flock as well ... ;-) and, we find that at the head of this flock of Blue Macaws is ... Jewel's father, the rather stern and very "pro-bird chauvinistic" Eduardo (voiced by Andy Garcia), who for a while dismisses Blu as "a pet" for being too "lost in the jungle" and way too favorable of people ("I can't believe he used to the p-word" poor Blu complains at one point).

Well, of course, _that_ attitude will have to change and by the end of the film even Eduardo comes to recognize that while there are evil people out there (like a foreman of a logging enterprise that just wants to cut down all the trees around where they live), there are also good ones (like the hapless if kind Tulio and Linda) AND THAT IT'S A GOOD THING THAT PEOPLE (err BIRDS ;-) like BLU EXIST, who can form bridges between Birds and People (between "us" and "them") rather than just "stay with one's own kind." ;-)

And the film also features Evil Birds.  Nigel (voiced by Jemaine Clement) who had been something of a "king pin" of a "bird gang" running out of a Rio de Janeiro "favela" in the first movie, makes an appearance again as a sinister bird out to just cause trouble among the other birds as well.

All this plays out with some very authentic Brazilian and Amazonian imagery and motifs:  I've actually been several times to the my religious order's (the Servites) Mission in the Acre.  So I can attest to the authenticity of the boats and Amazonian towns portrayed in the film.  Then one of the truly inspired _gems_ of this film portrays the Blue Macaws and their Red Parrot neighbors settling a dispute. How?  With "a war."  But what do they mean by "a war"?  A "bird soccer match" with a Brazilian chestnut serving as the soccer ball ;-).

So folks this is a very nice movie with some very very nice messaging to young kids: (1) The Other need not be your enemy, and indeed could become your friend, (2) Indeed can all enrich each other just like all those tropical birds enrich the life and culture of Brazil, and (3) DISPUTES NEED NOT BE SETTLED WITH GUNS ... WHY NOT A BALL GAME OR TWO INSTEAD ;-).

And that's honestly NOT A BAD MESSAGE FOR CHICAGO (my hometown and where I'm currently stationed as well), plagued in recently by a vicious wave of gang violence, AS WELL.

So parabens (congratulations) Carlos Saldanha parabens!


I mentioned above that I had gone (led a group from the United States) out to the Servite Mission in Acre, Brazil deep in the Amazon some years back.  I was also the principal translator into English of a book published (in Portuguese) for free by the Servites about the Amazon.  It was called The Amazonia We Do Not Know.  The English translation, worth the read, is available here

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Transcendence [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Transcendnce [2014] (directed by Wally Pfister, screenplay by Jack Paglen) is a sci-fi-ish thriller set in the near future that explores the possibility (and some of the ramifications) of uploading a human mind onto a computer, in effect, digitizing it, making it (at least the digitized copy) as portable (and malleable...) as a computer virus or a jpeg file.

The concept and possibilities/dangers therefore will be fascinating to many, and yet also probably further in the future than the film's "near future" setting.  Why?  At minimum, a _functioning_ digitized copy of a brain from nature could not reside in just _any_ computer.  There are questions of brain architecture that would have to be resolved/simulated that would make the architecture of a computer fit for containing such a functioning digitized copy of a brain very different from the common-place computer or smart phone of today.  Hence said digitized copy of a brain couldn't just "swim across the internet" at will and "parking itself in just any given computer" at will ... So in the "real world" it would probably be PRETTY EASY to find where the digitized mind of AI-guru Dr Will Caster (played in the film by Johnny Depp) was residing.  And once one knew where said computer containing the digitized mind of AI-guru Will Caster was located, I'd be pretty certain that EVEN TODAY the good folks at the NSA (or even "Anonymous") would find a way to hack and destroy it without resorting to the (MILD SPOILER ALERT) rather Apocalyptic ending that the current story culminates in.

Still, I do find the possibilities / potential dangers raised by the very concept of "digitizing a human brain" fascinating: (1) If one could make a functioning digital copy of someone's brain, one could (obviously) make digital clones.  Yet those digital clones, from the very moment that they were created would necessarily begin to diverge from themselves.  (2) Could some law enforcement entity in the future do some kind of "MRI scan" of a captured "terrorist suspect's" brain and then "extract information" from the digitized copy of that prisoner's brain? (virtual "enhanced interrogation" /  or even virtual torture?).  (3) Could a future employer do said "MRI-like scan" of a potential employee's brain to make a digital copy "to run simulations with" to see what that potential employee would be capable of?  Could the employer then not hire the potential employee but keep the digital copy of the potential employee's "on file just in case" ... or even (unethically) use that digital copy of the potential employee's brain to do the employer's work without paying the potential employer for its services? (virtual slavery?)

Above, I've "played jazz" with basic concept behind the film, but the story-line of the film itself is not bad:  After AI-guru Dr. Will Caster is shot (and more importantly poisoned by a toxin-laced bullet) by a radical anti-technology terrorist group, his desperate wife and colleague Dr. Evelyn Caster (played by Rebecca Hall) decides to try to upload the contents of Will's brain into their computer before he dies (They were AI specialists working on advanced computers that were trying to mimic mammalian brain processes).   The radical anti-technology terrorist group tries to stop her, but ... well you guessed it ... she succeeds.

'Cept ... is the digital copy of Will's mind, really Will?  That's what Will and Evelyn's best friend and also colleague Dr. Max Waters (played by Paul Bethany) asks.  And the rest of the movie is about answering that question ... even as Will's "digital mind" becomes "bigger and bigger and bigger" (more and more capable) ... and hence, scarier and scarier ...

Now obviously _at best_ the digital copy of Will's mind IS A COPY (a CLONE).  On the other hand, since the original Dr. Will Caster died shortly after his mind was "uploaded" to the computer, "digital Will" could be (at least at the beginning) a _pretty good facsimile_.  And if "digital Will" changed/grew/evolved afterwards, well ... don't we all (change/grow/evolve) during the course of our lives?

Then theologically (metaphysically) speaking, there could be a question of whether one really could transfer the mind (and arguably the soul) of a person from a biological substrate to a digital one.  Then if one could make out of the digital copy thousands of other copies, would the soul copy/multiply/individuate as well?  The CNS/USCCB reviewer reminds readers that certainly the traditional Catholic/Christian metaphysical answer would be a rather emphatic no.  On the other hand, the book / film Cloud Atlas [2012] suggests that the final bastion of human prejudice will be against artificial sentient beings.

My own concern would be that even if becomes possible to upload a person's mind onto a computer, WHAT ELSE WOULD THE "GOOD PEOPLE" OFFERING SUCH A SERVICE "BUNDLE" WITH THE PROCESS ... Would the "digital you" suddenly become "incompatible" with all "name that brand" competitor products/services?  Or on the other hand could the "digital you" suddenly find itself _craving_ "name that brand" allied products/services?   Would the "Good People" who uploaded and would be storing one's digitized mind become "part owners" of its contents (our memories) and therefore be able to "sell" them?  Could some NSA-like agency be able then to get a search warrant to "scan through" our digitized mind's memories stored somewhere by the "Good People" offering us this "service" of "parking" our "digitized minds" with them?

As I wrote in my review of the recent film Her [2013] that raises similar questions, we can be thankful that whether we were created by chance OR (as we Catholic/Christians believe) BY A NOW CLEARLY, TRULY SURPRISINGLY BENEVOLENT CREATOR we do apparently truly have Free Will.  There have been no "Name that Service Ads" appearing in front of our minds' eyes or in our dreams.  In contrast, it's hard to imagine an "electronic companion" created by some for-profit corporation that would not have some kind of "adware" bundled inside that "e-friend" or accompanying our new digitized "virtual minds."   And then honestly how much "bundled adware" or other "non/post-human functionality" could there be added to a digitized human mind before its previous "human soul" would be altered beyond recognition/destroyed.  A mechanized "transformer" being only capable of using "name that brand" products/services would definitely not be a human any more (but rather some kind of weird cyber-slave) even if it was driven by an initially human brain "uploaded" to make the mechanized thing run.

But wow!   What kind of thoughts / concerns this film raises!  Several reviewers (including some I list above) have compared this film to the Frankenstein story where the lead character, Dr Will Caster plays the roles of both "mad scientist" and his "monstrous creation."  It's funny, but this may be the first time I've ever thought this (I turned fifty late last year): I'm happy that I'll probably be dead before most of what's portrayed as playing out in this film comes to pass ;-)

But still honestly, what a discussion piece!

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Heaven is For Real [2014]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-1)  AARP (3 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 - 4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune/Variety (J. Chung) review
AARP-MfG (B. Newcott) review 
RE.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Heaven is For Real [2014] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Randall Wallace along with Chris Parker, based on the book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent) released just in time for Passover and the Christian celebrations Easter ends a remarkably respectful Lent this year by Hollywood, one which featured other Biblically themed films including Son of God [2014] and Noah [2014].

It's a hopeful (and true) story about a little boy named Colton Burpo (played by Conner Corum) who had a near death experience of Heaven after he nearly died.  Coming to after nearly dying, he surprised everyone, including his parents (played by Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly), with his straight-forward talking of things literally "not of this earth," things about both his family history and "things of God / the Christian faith" that AS A FOUR YEAR OLD he could not have known or easily made-up, things like Jesus' Stigmata (Colton was growing up in a Methodist household, Colton's dad being a Methodist minister) or Jesus' eye color (few to no one would have invented this detail, much less a four year old, much less the color that the four year old matter-of-factly mentioned it was -- neither "really weird" nor particularly expected).  So what happened?

It's a lovely and again hopeful story released as a film just in time for our (Christian) celebration of Jesus' Resurrection at Easter.

Do Catholics / Christians have to believe the contents of this film?  Of course not (one does not have to believe ANY "private revelation").  But it does support the basic message of the Jesus' Gospel, that "God is With Us" (Matt 1:23, Matt 28:20) through the whole of our lives and that even Death does not have he Final Word, the final Word remains with God, "the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End." (Rev 22:12-13).

So in the midst of a very busy next few days (I'm writing this during Holy Week as we approach the beginning of the Triduum tomorrow) this would not be an entirely waste of time to see (but do go to the Liturgies first ;-)

But in any case Happy Holy Week and Happy Easter all!

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Elena [2012]

MPAA (UR would be R)   Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Official website

BrCine.br (C. Nader) review*
O Fohla.br (M. Laob) review*

Elena [2012] (directed and cowritten by Petra Costa along with Carolina Ziskund) is a heart-rending documentary that played recently at the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival.  It's about the young Brazilian director's older sister Elena who at 19 and an aspiring actress in New York had committed suicide some 20 years earlier. 

Why did Elena do it?  Isn't that ever the question?   Petra had been only seven at the time.  What she remembered of her older sister was what a seven year old would remember plus pictures, film clips, and even voice recordings of her, as Elena, self-conscious about her "bad" handwriting would often send audio cassette tapes in lieu of letters back home to her family.

It's clear that Elena had a depressive personality.  Artists of all types are also notoriously moody.  New York, the home of the United States' "serious artists" is arguably chock full of them.  Recent films about tortured artists in New York include Black Swan [2010] (for which Natalie Portman won an Oscar), A Late Quartet [2012] (which costarred the brilliant and tortured in life Philip Seymour Hoffman, who recently died of a drug overdose) and Frances Ha [2012] (which starred the ever-smiling even if her characters face sooo much failure and pain, Greta Gerwig).

Further, this is an IMHO quintessentially Brazilian story, where family history already carries with it a great deal of suffering/pain. Though born out in the provinces in "Mines Gerais" Elena and Petra's mother had already been in her youth an aspiring artist.  She then married dashing young man who had come back from studies in the United States a convinced Leftist and Che Guevara supporter.  Together they had joined the Brazilian Communist Party and IF NOT FOR HER MOTHER BEING PREGNANT WITH ELENA WOULD HAVE ALMOST CERTAINLY JOINED THE EMERGING "BRAZILIAN COMMUNIST INSURGENCY" OF THE 1960s FORMING ON THE BORDER WITH URUGUAY WHERE THEY WOULD HAVE ALMOST CERTAINLY BEEN KILLED.  Instead, the Communist leadership had convinced them "guerrilla warfare" was NOT good for a young couple with a child and convinced them that they could play "a different role" away from the fighting.  ALMOST ALL THEIR FRIENDS WHO JOINED THE BRAZILIAN COMMUNIST GUERRILLA FIGHTERS HAD BEEN KILLED OR EXECUTED IN THE YEARS IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING ELENA'S BIRTH.  The irony, of course, that Petra and her parents ALL owe their lives to ELENA who grew up to kill herself is again just heart-rending.

Then from what I've experienced of Brazilian families (my religious order, the Servites, has a significant presence in Brazil), distance especially for young women, from their families is REALLY, REALLY HARD.  So even though Elena initially went ENTHUSIASTICALLY to New York to study performance arts (acting and dance), and even made some connections -- she apparently reported back home that she met people like Francis Ford Copolla -- soon she found herself deathly homesick, quit everything and went home to Brazil.

So what did the family do?  Again, something IMHO quintessentially (if they have the means) Brazilian: both mom and younger daughter Petra accompanied Elena back to New York to LIVE THERE WITH HER TO SUPPORT HER so that she'd complete her studies.

Of course, Elena was a mess.  And despite a family that loved her and clearly wanted to support her, she spiraled inward and eventually took a bottle of pills and killed herself.

What could have been done?  Elena had apparently gone to get help.  She was on lithium in the months before she died.  This was apparently just before Prosac and similar anti-depressant drugs had come-out.  

She was above all a very sensitive person, an artist type in a family with both perhaps predispositions toward sadness/depression and then a family history (the friends around the parents who were all killed) with much to feel sadness / depression about.

So how does the director tell the story of Elena's life and her death.  Beautifully.  She interviews people who knew her as a friend and as a student.  She uses those audiotapes of her reports back home.  She uses old 8-mm and Super-8 movie clips of her when she was young and then performing at school in New York.  She also uses the metaphor of water (see the poster) showing Elena as simply feeling overwhelmed.

Does the film glorify her suicide?  It's a question to ask.  I'd say emphatically no.  If anything, the film so clearly expresses the sadness of the family that lost her, misses her and has experienced her suicide as a very big hole left by her in their lives.  They do go on, but they wonder why (she did it) and wish (for both her and their sake) that she was still with them.  No it's not a glorification of suicide at all.  The film just shows it to be a big, sad hole, for everyone it touched.

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

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Patagonia of Dreams (orig. Patagonia de los Sueños) [2013]

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

IMDb listing
Cinechile.cl listing*

Official website*

Cinechile.cl Interview (English) w. Director

Patagonia of Dreams (orig. Patagonia de los Sueños) [2013] [IMDb] [CCh]* (directed and co-written by Jorge López Sotomayor [IMDb] [CCh]* along with Gerardo Cáceres [IMDb] [CCh]* based on the Diary of Chantal Rouquaud*) is a Chilean / Argentinian film that played recently at the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival.  The film played at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival last year.

Set in Buenos Aires and Patagonia of the latter part of the 1800s, it would be fair to compare the film to the famous Hollywood Post-Colonial "Colonial epic" Out of Africa [1985] as the issues / conflicts present are remarkably similar:

(1) In each case a European couple or family already of some means sets out to another land (actually under the jurisdiction of another European/Western power) to make (or re-make) their fortune.

Out of Africa [1985] is based on the memoirs the Karen Denisen (played in that film by Meryl Streep) who at the beginning of her story married a Swedish (lesser) baron named Bror von Brixen.  She soon moved with her new husband to Kenya (then British East Africa) where they wished to (re)establish a name for themselves with a coffee plantation.

Patagonia de los Sueños [2013] [IMDb] [CCh]* is inspired by the diary of Chantal Rouquaud (played in the film by Juanita Ringeling [IMDb] [CCh]*) who at the beginning of the story was the 17 year old daughter of M. and Mde. Rouquard (played by Martín Neglia [IMDb] [CCh]* and Alessandra Guerzoni [IMDb] [CCh]*).  The family though "already-of-some-means" back in France had emigrated to Argentina some years earlier in hopes of "increasing their station" there.  At the beginning of the story, we learn that M. Rouquard has staked the family's fortunes on establishing a "fish processing" operation out in the coastal wilds of Argentina's southern Patagonia region, to the distress of the 17-year-old Chantal who had been looking forward being a young and sought-after "belle of the balls" back in B.A.

(2) In each case, arrival out "in the colonies" (Kenya / British East Africa for the Von Brixens), Patagonia for the Rouguauds was a shock.  In both cases, they found themselves among truly tiny communities of Europeans/Westerners (white people...) in lands that, naturally, had belonged other NATIVE populations. What were the white European colonists doing there?

That's a very good question noted Patagonia de los Sueños [2013] [IMDb] [CCh]* director present at the film's screening and part of the reason why he made the film (not in any way to "glorify" Chile / Argentina's expansion Southward into Patagonia during the late 1800s but rather to put it in a general context of other Western/European colonial expansions occurring at the time all across the globe.

What made the Rouquauds feel that they deserved to go down to Patagonia to start a fish processing enterprise on land nominally conceded to them by Argentina but had clearly been inhabited by others since time immemorial?  What made the Von Brixens feel that they deserved to leave their smaller possessions in southern Scandinavia and try luck with a coffee plantation on land nominally conceded to them by the British Colonial authority but was on land that was inhabited by native Kenyans since time immemorial?  For that matter, what made the artist Paul Gauguin feel that he could to leave everything (including his own wife and kids) in France and "reestablish himself" on the French colonial "possession" of Tahiti and spend the rest of his life painting half-naked native Tahitian women on land nominally controlled by France but in reality had belonged to the Tahitian Polynesian people since time immemorial?   What made countless Europeans from 1500 through to the end of World War II leave their native lands and "try their luck" with all kinds of commercial ventures big and small on "other peoples' lands" and requiring various levels of immorality (ranging from simply setting-up a Mission or trading post on land that was initially largely empty but certainly _never_ previously "theirs" to displacement/marginalization of the native populations to enslavement to genocide) to do so?

Yet, of course, I write my blog from CHICAGO, today a city of 2.5 million and a metropolitan area of 8-10 million which started as a simple trading post founded in the 1780s by Jean Baptiste du Sable of African (Haitian) and French descent who thought it a wise idea to set one up near the mouth of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan (about 100-200 meters from where the AMC River East-21 Movie Theater where I saw the current film stands today ;-).  A few miles upstream, the Chicago River comes within a mile of the Des Plaines River, which flows into the Illinois River and then into the Mississippi.  So Du Sable's trading post (and modern Chicago) fell on the crossroads of a shipping route that could extend from the North Atlantic (the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Canada) down the St. Lawrence River across the chain of the Great Lakes and then by means of this geographic accident of the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers coming so close to each other all the way down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.  Is North America a better place because Du Sable had the foresight to setup a trading post here in what subsequently became the metropolis of Chicago?   And while it is true that Native American tribes who used to live in the Chicago area were eventually forcibly removed / wiped-out (as a consequence of the Blackhawk War) that was not an inevitability but rather a subsequent choice by the American government that eventually took definitive hold of the region.  (The same could be said of the fate of the the native peoples of Patagonia on whose lands the Rauguauds initially set-up their still quite little fish processing facility.  It wasn't necessarily inevitable that the Argentinian government would unleash a campaign of genocide against the native peoples on their lands, or the Chilean government would marginalize the natives onto North American style reservations).    

(3) As in the case of the experience of the Von Brixens in Kenya (British East Africa) the experience of the Rauguauds in Patagonia was one where there was international tension in the air.  Not only was there the question of the morality of "coming from far away" to "establish themselves" on "other peoples' land", there was competition between "Great" or "Regional Powers" over the land.  In the case of the Von Brixens, the competition was between the British in what today is Kenya and the Germans whose East African possessions became today's Tanzania.  In the case of the Rauguauds, the tension was between Argentina and Chile, who both claimed large portions of Patagonia and even the British who had a colony on the Falkland Islands / Malvinas (over which there was the (in)famous 1982 War between Argentina and Britain).

(4) If there is a lot of subtext to both stories -- colonialism, the mistreatment of the native peoples as a consequence, international rivalry, even the role of women (as both Out of Africa [1985] and Patagonia de los Sueños [2013] were told an basis of recollections by (then) relatively young women of their experiences of "colonial life" that wasn't necessarily chosen ... both probably would have preferred initially to stay in their native lands if they had been given a choice, instead they had to obey the men in their lives and try "to make the best of things" when they go there -- both stories are ultimately about the individuals present in the stories.

In both cases, there scoundrels, and there were noble types. Both Out of Africa [1985]'s Karen Denisen von Brixen (played in that film by Meryl Streep) and Patagonia de los Sueños [2013] Chantal (played by Juanita Ringeling [IMDb] [CCh]*) matured as a result of their experiences in the colonies.  And both found their soul mates out there: Karen von Brixen found the dashing bush pilot Denys (played in the film by Robert Redford), while Chantal found the German born ethnographer/artist Thomas Ohlsen (played in the film by Ariel Canale [IMDb] [CCh]*) whose drawings of the Tehuelche people of Patagonia remain among the best records of their way of life in the early years of contact with the Europeans/the West.

All in all, North American and European viewers who like history would probably find this historical drama about the Rauguaud family's experience in Patagonia of the late 1800s fascinating and its viewing might inspire discussions about the nature, circumstances and legacy of the European/Western Colonial Era in general.  Again, what (besides simply "Manifest Destiny" arrogance) drove so many Europeans to seek both better lives and even fortunes all across the globe at that time? 

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

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Draft Day [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
AARP.org (B. Newcott) review
RE.com (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Draft Day [2014] (directed by Ivan Reitman, screenplay by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph) is a "sports film" really "sports front office film" that a lot of middle-aged men are probably going to relate to. 

Sonny Weaver Jr (played by Kevin Costner) is the (fictionalized) GENERAL MANAGER of a PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL TEAM.  This would seem like the DREAM JOB for millions of "fantasy football" fanatics and other sports fans across the country and even across the world.  'CEPT (there's always a 'cept...) and here there are a whole bunch of 'cepts:

(1) He's the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, an NFL team that's been mediocre for decades,

(2) He's Sonny Weaver, JUNIOR, the son of the (fictionalized) LEGENDARY CLEVELAND BROWNS COACH, Sonny Weaver, SENIOR who as General Manager AT THE PLEADING OF HIS MOTHER (SENIOR'S WIFE) HE (JUNIOR) HAD TO "LET GO" the year before (because of a heart conditon).  It was probably a good call as dad died quietly at home only a few days before (presumably of a heart attack) but thankfully NOT before millions of viewers at an NFL Game.  YET MANY CLEVELAND SPORTS FANS ONLY REMEMBER THAT THIS "UNGRATEFUl, NOBODY SON" "FIRED" HIS OWN DAD THE SEASON BEFORE "FOR NO GOOD REASON..."

(3) The new coach Penn (played by Denis Leary) that he was given (presumably under pressure from the team's owner Anthony Molina (played by Frank Langella), who one gets the sense didn't particularly like Weaver, Sr EITHER, is a prima donna who was recently fired from Dallas (where he had won a Super Bowl... though with a team he had inherited rather than built-up himself).  But owner Molina seems to like Penn because "at least he makes a splash" something that the Venerable and VENERATED, "Old School, "X-s and O-s" Weaver, Senior hadn't done in years and owner Molina has his doubts that Weaver, Jr will ever do either.  Draft Day's coming up (the film's title) and Molina more-or-less makes it clear to Weaver, Jr that unless he "makes something happen", "makes a splash" that he'll be gone...

(4) Ma' (played by Ellen Burstyn), who after all convinced her son to fire her husband/his own dad (perhaps for dad's own good, but ...) continues to have a larger influence on Junior's life than perhaps she should... 

(5) In this pressure cooker, Weaver, Jr, divorced, adds _his own_ peccadillo by sleeping with one of his higher-ranked (but still...) subordinates, the team's lawyer (and responsible for keeping the team under its salary cap) Ali (played very nicely by Jennifer Gardner).  Near the beginning of the film, she informs him that she's/they're pregnant.  Now there is something genuine between them.  HE'd like to bring her out into the open (almost everybody knows that there's something between them anyway).  But this is an office romance.  Now ("Draft Day...") doesn't seem to be a good time.  BUT WHEN EXACTLY WILL IT EVER BE "a good time?"

So if you thought that your life was complicated ... ;-)

Okay, so it's "Draft Day" the day each year that the NFL teams go through the roster of eligible college athletes AND VERY PUBLICLY SELECT THEM TO THEIR TEAMS in the NFL. 

Cleveland's first round pick is #7.  The team has its sights on two players -- a linebacker Vontae Mack (played by Chadwick Boseman) who's a great player, will help build the defense "but won't make a splash," and Ray Jennings (played by Arian Foster) a running back from Florida State, who "plays with heart" whose dad played for Cleveland before, but who in recent weeks had gotten arrested for "assault and battery" in some sort of gang fight "back in the hood" back home. 

But then the Seattle Seahawks, who have the #1 pick, call with an offer that's hard to refuse, which would give Weaver/Cleveland the #1 pick and presumably a future star QB Bo Callahan (played by Josh Pence) from Wisconson.  But Cleveland already has a QB in Brian Drew (played by Tom Welling), who okay, hasn't necessarily performed to expectations (he's been injured) but Coach Penn likes him (and HATES ROOKIES...).  So what to do...?

And in fact, what would you do...?  And remember, in the pressure cooker of "Draft Day" ALL KINDS OF WHEELING AND DEALING, TRADES AND NEGOTIATIONS CAN TAKE PLACE ...

How can one "at the END OF THE DAY" end up FOR ONCE with "the team that one wants?"

Isn't that the question? ;-)

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Trip to Timbuktu (orig. Viaje a Tombuctú) [2013]

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

IMDb listing

Official Website

Press articles*

Trip to Timbuktu (orig. Viaje a Tombuctú) [2013] (screenplay written and directed by Rossana Díaz Costa, an assistant professor of Communications Sciences at the University of Lima) is a Peruvian film telling the story of two young people Ana and Lucho, who grew-up, middle class, in Lima during the Guerrilla War in Peru of the 1980s-90s between the government and Shining Path and MRTA guerrillas.

The film was shot largely in the seaside Lima neighborhood where Ms Diaz Costa grew-up with most of the actors being her students as well as children from the neighborhood. The film played recently at the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival

The film serves as a very good reminder to viewers of the tens of millions, probably hundreds of millions of people across the planet growing-up in immediately recognizable middle class circumstances -- Both Ana's and Lucho's parents were educated.  Their fathers both worked in offices "downtown." And as both Ana/Lucho matured, they entered University.  However, neither family was "super rich" either: Ana's family did have one, older somewhat beat-up car.  Neither family had "servants." And Ana's grandparents (presumably Ana's father's parents) lived with them in their townhouse home throughout the whole of the story (which spanned Ana's childhood and into her 20s)  -- Yet their circumstances were also _different_ from the experience of most others growing up in such middle class circumstances.  In the case of Ana / Lucho, they grew-up in Peru during the very brutal insurgency war of the 1980s-90s

That insurgency did wear on everyone's lives: One simply had to travel everywhere, at all times, "with one's papers."  Curfews came to be imposed and even largely followed out of common sense.  No one in his/her right mind wanted to be "outside on their own" in the countryside or a neighborhood they did not know long after dark.  People learned the difference in sounds between harmless celebratory fireworks and gunshots, explosions and even artillery rounds (There's an excellent and very unnerving scene at the beginning of the film that drives this point home).  Electricity routinely went out across city and countryside depending on what substations and transmission facilities were attacked and when.  Lucho's father was wounded as a result of a car bomb explosion downtown one day...

Yet this is not a "The Communist insurgents were bad ..." sort of a film.  Ana, Lucho and their friends/families, all knew where they lived, where as Lucho put it: "Half the country is dirt poor..."

It's just that IT DIDN'T MATTER what anyone thought or did.  THE BOMBS WENT OFF EVERYDAY -- 1, 2, 5, 10 A DAY -- ANYWAY.  The authorities were AFRAID OF EVERYONE because in the middle of the insurgency EVERYONE FIT _SOME_ "PROFILE" whether being "a poor Communist peasant" or "a rich Communist hippie" or "a rich Communist elitist," or even "the (faux) naive wife/daughter of a rich Communist hippie or elitist" ... The only thing that kept one "safe" at a police/military checkpoint was keeping a smile, keeping one's hands up / visible and "having one's papers in order."  And being pulled out of a bus and "taken to the the station" for NOT "having one's papers in order" was a LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE for all.

In response to this constant pressure of truly "living in a war zone," what many Peruvians who had the means did (and many others who did not have the means at least imagined) was to leave Peru for destinations "far away" (hence the film's title ...)

So this is a pretty gut-wrenching film.   Yet it is quite soberly done, and could give millions of 30-40 year old Peruvians living across the world a way of explaining to their non-Peruvian friends (and their own children...) what it was like to live and grow-up in Peru in the 1980s-90s.

Honestly, an excellent film!

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

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Stoker of Delirium (orig. Fogonero del Delirium) [2011]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
FICG.mx listing

Official Site

Alejandro Colunga: Stoker of Delirium (orig. Alejandro Colunga: Fogonero del Delirium) [2011] (directed and cowritten by Gustavo Domínguez along with Jorge de la Cueva based on the original script of Dante Medina) is a feature length (90 min) documentary piece from Mexico that played recently at the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival.

Commissioned originally by the University of Guadalajara and a Mexican National Fund for the Promotion of Fine Arts, it is about the life and art of Guadalajara native Alejandro Colunga one of Mexico's most influential and interesting contemporary artists. 

For those who like surrealist art, the documentary itself is a delight.  For example, Colunga's childhood is presented through surrealist imagery inspired by his own art, employing both animation and masked and costumed actors in the process. 

The result is magical, at times somewhat controversial, but certainly insightful, getting to the playful and iconoclastic spirit of the artist underneath the work.  Thus we see masked mariachis playing their instruments in a windswept graveyard following Colunga's father's death when the artist was young.

To most readers of my blog, the most controversial scene in the film for some would be that of the 6-8 year old Colunga's experience of the the Celebration of the Mass: The Virgin Mary and many of the Saints turn into trapeze artists and other carnival characters during the Consecration.  Offensive?  Could be.  But put yourselves back into the mind of a ten year old and in the scene the young Colunga _isn't_ portrayed as laughing at the Mass or the Angels and the Saints but rather IN AWE OF IT ALL.  (I myself remember being in AWE of all the images -- the Angels, the Saints, the images of Jesus struggling on his way to Calvary -- all about St. Procopius Church back in Chicago where we'd go to Czech Mass whenever my grandmother (who didn't speak a word of English) was with us.  Priest's and choir's voices would echo through the Church anyway, so I couldn't understand a word ... but there was _plenty_ to look at, all around.  So _honestly_ I can relate to the image in the film ...

Throughout the film, various family members of Colunga, friends, patrons as well as Colunga himself were interviewed to give insight to the various stages of his life.  (Interestingly, he studied architecture, mathematics and other more technical fields in his life before entering into the field of art which he claimed he "didn't study at all" ;-). He also spent a brief period in the 1960s as part of a Guadalajara rock band ;-) before returning back to painting and handicraft/sculpture. 

So who is he then?  One would certainly recognize him as a "great" thoughtful, iconoclastic/playful artist of today for whom Mexican folk-flavored surrealism would certainly be an _ideal_ form of expression. 

The film is certainly not for all, but for those who do love art, especially contemporary art and the freedom that it often expresses, this film will probably be for you. 

The film also serves the purpose of reminding viewers (and indeed the world) that Mexico does have truly rich tradition in art and one that did not simply begin and end with Diego Rivera and Frida and the "Muralists" of the 1920s-40s. There are some GREAT artists like Alejandro Colunga living and producing some very insightful and often quite funny / entertaining contemporary art right now.

In any case, I found this to be a great and fun film!

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The Eternal Night of the Twelve Moons (orig. La Eterna Noche de las Doce Lunas) [2013]

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

IMDb listing
Indiewire listing

Official website

Gozamos.com (D. Delgado Pineda) review

The Eternal Night of the Twelve Moons (orig. La Eterna Noche de las Doce Lunas) [2013] (concept and directed by Priscilla Padilla) is a documentary that played recently at the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival.

It follows Pili, a 12 year old adolescent girl from the Wayuu people of Northern Colombia, who as per ancient tradition upon having her first period is largely separated from her community (from the men and children anyway) for a period of twelve moons (twelve months, a year) so that she could be instructed by the women of the village (led by her grandmother) in spinning yarn, weaving, and other traditional tasks that would be useful to her in her adult life. 

It is clear throughout the film that the purpose of her separation is both to underline to the community the girl's transition into womanhoon and to give her time to master the skills that would be necessary for her to emerge after her period of seclusion into the community as a marriageable woman capable of fulfilling the tasks that would be expected of her as an adult member of the community.

Of course there is a certain sadness that accompanies this transition: After all, this is a twelve year-old who has to say good bye to her childhood friends, many of whom don't necessarily understand she's being taken away from them, and she herself may have trouble understanding this.  Further, she's instructed by her grandmother and the elder women in the village that a grown woman "does not laugh" especially with men/boys.

Yet it's also clear that a primary purpose of this custom of seclusion of young girls entering into adulthood is to underline their value and dignity, both to themselves and to the rest of the community (and especially to the men).

It seemed clear that the reason why the GRANDMOTHERS were leading the instruction here was that it had been felt by the community that the MOTHERS' GENERATION had been considered somewhat "lost."  Indeed, Pili's mother wasn't even in the village (but living/working somewhere outside of it ...) when Pili had her first period and began this rite, something that the grandmothers of the village reprimanded Pili's mother about when she did come to the village at some point during the year.  And when she comes to visit Pili in her hut, Pili does seem somewhat disappointed in her mother's previous distance/absence from the process and her life. 

Does this traditional maturation process work?  Do the men of the Wayuu community respect Pili more for going through this process?  The jury seems out here.  Yes, somewhere in the middle of the process an older Wayuu from another village comes inquiring to Pili's grandmother regarding Pili's marriageability after she emerged from the process.  He tells Pili's grandmother that he's there for his nephews, but one gets the sense that he might have been there in good part for himself...  He does however offer an apparently rather impressive "bride's price" which Pili's grandmother out-of-hand rejects but recounts to Pili afterwards with some pride that Pili is definitely going to come out of this process respected (and how better to quantify that "respect" than in terms of what she'll be able to "earn" in terms of a "bride's price"...).

Finally what does Pili think of it all?  Well, she goes through the process because her grandmother, her primary caregiver, wanted her to do so.  And it does seem that she's found it to have been of some value.  It does seem to give her some pride that she seems to be offered higher "bride's prices" than other girls (who didn't go through the process).  HOWEVER, she tells the documentarian at the end of the film that what she's learned above all in the process is that she doesn't want to get married yet but instead would like to "finish high school" and "become a career woman" ;-).

The grandmother and her other matriarchical friends always explained this ritual period of seclusion for the young girl as a means of increasing the girl's/emerging woman's respect in the community.  It would be fascinating if the documentarian were to follow the next several years of Pili's life to see how it all plays out: How will she be able to integrate the modern (finishing high school prior to getting married) with the traditional (now that she's marriagable)?  How will she continue to be respected in the years to come?

In any case, it's a fascinating film which offers viewers much to think about and discuss afterwards with regards to both appreciating the value of traditional customs and then applying them positively to current circumstances.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

For Love in the Caserio (orig. Por Amor en el Caserío) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Official Website

NBC Latino article
NY Times article

ElNuevoDia.com interview*
Primerahora.com report*
PuenteAlDia.com report*

For Love in the Caserio (orig. Por Amor en el Caserío) [2013] (directed by Luis Enrique Rodríguez Ramos, screenplay by Antonio Morales based on his own stage-play by the same name), which played recently to large enthusiastic audiences at the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival is a film that deserves to be seen, especially by those "in the industry" looking for "young Hispanic talent" in, honestly, any/all areas (acting, direction, writing, cinematography, sound, editing, music...) involved in the making of a movie.

The film is based on the stage-play by Antonio Morales which he wrote when he was a teenager living in the Caserio Project, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the second largest public housing project on U.S. territory anywhere.  In the 13 years since its initial production in 2001, the play has been staged over 500 times across Puerto Rico and has been seen by more than 50,000 people. 

Director Luis Enrique Rodríguez Ramos in this his first feature-length venture DOES NOT DISAPPOINT either.  His background is in advertising and music videos.  Hence he crafts here a WELL-PACED, WELL-EDITED, VISUALLY MEMORABLE PRODUCTION that "POPS."  I'm more-or-less positive that film-makers probably dread "cutting their teeth" working some years "in advertising," but I've seen it before (indeed, at this Festival a number of years back with a Brazilian film called Dia de Preto (Day of Black) [2011] made by a team of three, also first-time feature-length film-makers, whose "day jobs" were ALSO "in advertising" back in Rio...) the skills learned in producing EYE-POPPING 30 second television commercials will serve one well in making a WELL-TIMED, WELL-EDITED, ENGAGING, VISUALLY INTERESTING FILM (OF ANY LENGTH) AS WELL.

Then regarding the leads Anoushka Medina and Xavier Morales who play the lovebirds Crystal and Ángelo in this almost necessarily Romeo and Juliet-like story.  (ANY "teenage love story" set in a "gang infested neighborhood" is almost certainly going to fall back on "the Bard"), I'm glad to read that apparently the Mexico City based telenovela industry has already taken notice of Anoushka but it would not be a waste of time if film-makers or stage-play producers from Buenos Aires to Madrid to Hollywood, Miami and New York would take a look at her performance in this film as well.  The next Penelope Cruz?  Could be ;-). And regarding Xavier, he's almost certainly destined to play the current U.S. President Barrack Obama in _some_ Spanish-language production _somewhere_ in the years to come (Those who see the film will certainly know what I'm talking about as both his looks and even his demeanor fit our current President to a tee ;-).

What then of the story itself?  I've already mentioned that the film follows (loosely) the trajectory of Romeo and Juliet.  There's even an amusing balcony scene adapted _quite well_ to "The Projects."  The story involves two drug gangs.  Crystal's older brother leads one, Ángelo's cousin is in the other.  The rest of the cast is filled-out with friends, relatives and neighbors of both.

Interestingly enough, while there are mothers, Godmothers and aunts of the teens in the story, with the exception of a male director of a drama club to which Crystal belongs, there's not a single adult male in the story at all, let alone one who could serve as a positive role model.   So unlike in Romeo and Juliet where there were at least "patriarchs" of the Montagues and Capulets, in this film the leaders of both gangs were teens or young 20-somethings themselves with their mothers and tias (aunts) hating them for what they've chosen to do with their lives.

Does the story glorify gangs?  This is not an idle question for me as in my "day job" I've done three gang funerals over the years (all of them memorable, none of them "in a good way"...).  My answer here would be no.  The story does not glorify the gangs, as it's hard to imagine how anyone seeing the play or movie to feel that it ended in any way resembling "well."

WHAT I THINK WAS VERY WELL DONE HOWEVER IN THE SCRIPT/PRODUCTION was a point that is often missed in the reporting on gang tragedies: No matter how otherwise Evil or misguided a gangster may otherwise have become, THERE ARE ALWAYS (REAL/SERIOUS) PEOPLE WHO LOVE(D) THAT GANGSTER AND (REAL/SERIOUS) PEOPLE THAT THE GANGSTER LOVED AS WELL.  And I'm not talking here about "homeys" who are enablers / in the same boat as the gangster and don't necessarily deserve much sympathy/consideration, I'm talking about (serious) others: Crystal's gangster older brother, as utterly unsympathetic a character as he'd become still loved his little brother (and his little brother still loved/looked-up to him).  I've seen that with my own eyes.  I've also seen relatives sincerely weeping over the corpses of their dead (and up-until death) gang-banging children. 

As such the story offers much to all to think about and both the film and the stage play would probably be worth a look by youth ministers in specifically Latino (the film's in Spanish with English subtitles) gang-troubled neighborhoods both in the U.S. and beyond.  But returning to my original premise, the talent present in this film is really quite remarkable and deserves a look by those looking for Hispanic faces and voices across the film industry.

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