Saturday, June 28, 2014

Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death [2003]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Slant Mag (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

NYT (M. Dargis) review
AVClub (N. Rabin) review
Slant Magazine (E. Gonzales) review
Village Voice (J. Land) review

Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death [2003] (written and directed by Peter Bate) is an originally BBC produced documentary that I recently purchased at the 2013 Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival held recently at Facets Multimedia in Chicago.  (As my religious order's annual Provincial Chapter conflicted with much this year's festival, instead of attending many of this year's selections, I purchased a number of films from previous festivals that they had on-sale at the showing, of the one film, Jews of Egypt [2013] at this year's festival, that I did manage to see).  The current film, is available for purchase on DVD at AfricanDiasporaDVD.com as well as Amazon.com.

Using several contemporary documentary techniques (that annoy some of the reviewers above) including some re-enactments and an IMHO quite interesting/compelling "courtroom" device in which late-19th century Belgian King Leopold II (fictiously) stands trial for crimes against humanity, Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death [2003] certainly makes its point: What Leopold's henchmen perpetuated in HIS PERSONAL COLONY of the Congo conceded to him by the "Berlin Conference of 1884-85" (which he then had the gall to give the truly Orwellian name "The Congo Free State") was simply ghastly ... and arguably gave rise to the modern human rights movement.

So what did Leopold and his henchmen do?  Well, as soon as he received title (from the other European powers, NO, ZERO, NONE AFRICANS INVOLVED) to the still largely unexplored Congo basin of Africa, he declared ALL VACANT LAND in the Colony "the State's" (that is HIS) and all work done on said "vacant land" could only be done "for the benefit of the State."  So in effect, HE TURNED THE ENTIRE CONGO BASIN INTO A GIGANTIC LABOR CAMP WHERE ALL THE INHABITANTS BECAME HIS SLAVES.  Having set this ground rule for the function of HIS PERSONAL COLONY, the colony was then organized TO SIMPLY EXTRACT the wealth of this region (and boy did it turn out to be phenomenally wealthy in natural resources -- in rubber, ivory, later gold, diamonds, rare-earth minerals, etc) FOR HIS OWN ENRICHMENT and (EVENTUALLY) Belgium's.  His approach became A MODEL for the Czars, Stalin and Hitler when they came to build forced labor camps of their own...

The atrocities were appalling.  Native inhabitants of the land, requisitioned for various extraction services (in the early years, mostly for the collection of rubber and ivory) who did not "meet quota" were simply shot, often several lined-up and shot with ONE SHOT together (to SAVE BULLETS), THEIR RIGHT HANDS CHOPPED OFF (and SMOKED, so that they would not decay...) AND KEPT "AS A RECORD."  When the threat of CERTAIN DEATH was not deemed a "sufficient incentive" to make the laborers work, soldiers TOOK THE VILLAGERS' WIVES/DAUGHTERS HOSTAGE (having their way / VIOLATING them in the meantime...) while the men stuggled in the forests to collect their quota.  AND ALL THIS WAS DONE UNDER THE VAINER OF BRINGING "EUROPEAN CIVILIZATION" (!!!!) TO THE CONGOLESE "SAVAGES."  Such then was "the white man's burden" in the Leopold's "Congo Free State" ... a "burden" that ONLY PERHAPS a Nazi SS-Einsatzgruppen member or a Soviet NKVD officer tasked with machine-gunning Jews or putting bullets into the backs of the heads of "class criminals" could "appreciate."

This is an absolutely galling documentary but rightfully so.  If Leopold II lived today, he'd certainly deserve a cell in the Hague next to Milošević, Karadžić and Mladić if not worse.  Great documentary!


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Friday, June 27, 2014

Cinemanovels [2013]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review

Cinemanovels [2013] (written and directed by Terry Miles) is a Canadian indie film, that in its politeness, even as it touches potentially explosive subjects, feels to this American (re)viewer remarkably ... Canadian ;-).  The film has played recently at Chicago's Facets Multimedia,

The film centers around a nice if seemingly ever disappointed 30-something Canadian woman named Grace (played by Lauren Lee Smith) married to a polite (if at times amusingly contradictory) 30-something Canadian investment banker named Ben (played by Ben Cotton).

Together they've been trying to have a child and it hasn't been particularly easy.  Indeed in the opening scene, we see the two in a rather perfunctory if at least apparently "private" room in a fertility clinic with Grace (hand off-screen) apparently tugging at Ben's ... in hopes of collecting a sperm sample to leave at the clinic, the sounds of some sort of a porn film heard in the background.  It seems rather clear that neither of them are particularly into it -- it becomes clear as the film goes on, that they've been "there" before -- but the task needs to be done.   Eventually, there's "success."  Ben's sperm sample is dutifully collected in a specimen cup and just as dutifully capped.  Ben puts his pants back on, kisses his wife and presumably heads off to work.  Grace is dutifully left to carry the capped specimen cup to the nurses' station for analysis.  But it's obvious that she's tired of this, or otherwise doesn't see the point.  On the way to the nurses' station, she stops in a bathroom and ... switches the sample for a few mL's of hand soap ;-).  Would ANYONE really recognize the difference (of course they would ... BUT WOULD IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE ANYWAY ...)?

So we get a sense of Grace's state of mind fairly early on.  Now why would she be like that?

Well, it turns out that she's the daughter of an über-famous Canadian, francophone to boot, (fictitious) director, recently deceased, named John Laurentain.  We hear him eulogized by two super-earnest, indeed fawning media critics at the close of some random CBC television program as: "One who taught us all, anglophone and francophone, what it means to be Canadian."  Wonderful.  The only problem for Grace is that SHE HARDLY KNEW HIM.  WHY?  BECAUSE HE RAN OFF WITH A YOUNG (presumably) QUEBECOIS STARLET NAMED "SOPHIE" WHEN GRACE WAS THREE (Sophie, who then starred in most of Laurentain's films, was played absolutely perfectly in her magnificently _pretentious_ existentialist 60s-70s era roles by Cate Michaud).

So, "national" / "Quebecois" treasure though he was, he was also a "___" as Grace's best friend Clementine (played by Jessica Beals) reminds her.

Yet "____" though he was, he was ALSO Grace's dad.  So ... early in the film, after going over to sign some papers at her father's film production company (presumably in Montreal or Toronto), she finds herself volunteering to curate a "retrospective" of her father's work EVEN THOUGH SHE HATED HIM AND HAD NEVER EVEN SEEN ANY OF HIS THIRTY-FOUR (!) FILMS, but also PRECISELY BECAUSE IN LIFE SHE KNEW NEXT TO NOTHING ABOUT HIM THIS COULD PERHAPS HELP HER TO UNDERSTAND WHO HE ACTUALLY WAS.  Talk about inner conflict ... When she explains all this to Clementine, she (as supportively as she could) just shakes her head ...

The rest of the movie unspools from there.  Unsurprisingly, Grace procrastinates with the project, even as she ALSO remains supremely ambivalent about whether she really wanted a child with her investment banker husband (who for amusement liked collecting and READING pompous, extremely _heavy_ "classical Communist literature" on the side ;-).  Eventually, she gets help from a young media exec / neighbor of theirs named Adam (played by Kett Turton) who it turns out to have written his thesis on her father's work.

It's all quite painful, but as the film proceeds (not much of a SPOILER) ... she inevitably comes to better understand her now deceased father.  And indeed, this is why I went to see the film, and why I do think that the film would be worth the time to see for MIDDLE AGED CHILDREN of (NOW) AGING OR EVEN DECEASED PARENTS.

I do honestly believe that as one enters into one's own middle age, one can come to start to understand the decisions / mistakes / "mistakes" of one's parents when THEY were middle-aged and PERHAPS then one can come to accept them and, as needed, forgive them.

This is a Canadian film, so it is LESS angry than the recent American film People Like Us [2012] that covered similar ground.  Still, it gives middle aged people, perhaps angry at their parents, a chance to reflect on their own parents' lives and perhaps be able to understand them better and forgive them as well.

In that sense, I can only applaud this very nice, if at times exasperating, appropriately R-rated, Canadian film: It tries really hard to make, in the end, a very nice point. 


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Transformers: Age of Extinction [2014]

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

As part of my contribution in our parish's participation in the Archdiocese of Chicago's Campaign "To Teach Who Christ Is," I've decided to forgo seeing (and therefore reviewing here) one or two movies a weekend and instead contribute the money I would have spent to the campaign.

I'm trying to be strategic about this, picking movies that would "hurt somewhat" to miss, that is, films that are not "so bad" that I wouldn't see them anyway nor movies that I really would need to see/review or else my blogging effort would cease to be worthwhile.

As per my custom, I will try to provide links to usual line-up of reviews that I also consider as I write my own.

This week I chose to not see ... Transformers: Age of Extinction [2014].  To some that may be "no surprise."  Yet, I did actually write extensively (and reviewed quite favorably) the previous installment Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon [2012].  It's just that on a limited budget ... Plus, why do these films have to be sooo loooonnnnggggg?  Anyway, since T3:DotM [2012], there have been several other popular films that have continued to discuss humanity's increasingly complicated relationship with technology (notably Her [2013] and Transcendence [2014]. In addition, the Science Channel's popular series Through the Wormhole [2010+] devoted an entire episode to the question of whether Robots will be the next step in human evolution).  So if nothing else, as one watches (or simply calls to mind the prospect of) GIGANTIC transformer robots descending onto earth to ABSOLUTELY DEMOLISH humanity's most prized previous achievements, perhaps this can be an invitation to reflect on the possibilities and implications of the increasingly blurred distinction between us and the gadgets we make.

Then again, we might just stand mesmerized in front of the fireworks and mayhem.  The 4th of July is coming up, after all...

In any case, there's plenty of mayhem in the Transformer films.  Perhaps though, they can still invite us to reflect on something more substantive than just crashing buildings ...(We've been through that for real afterall...)


ADDENDUM:

Fascinatingly, Transformers: Age of Extinction [2014] became the first movie of 2014 to break $100 million for its opening weekend in the U.S.  Generally movies like this are supposed to "do well" overseas.  But in this case, this movie hasn't even been released outside of the United States until the World Cup ends, and it still made this kind of money _here_, domestically in the U.S.A. 

I've long maintained on my blog that when a film like this -- basically "HUGE shape-shifting ROBOTS arrive FROM OUT OF NOWHERE to SMASH THINGS (as well as each other)" -- makes this kind of money, it's because it "speaks to people" on "a deeper level" that goes beyond the rational.  This film is clearly one of archetypes and the collective subconscious:  Technology can be experienced today as "shape-shifting" and punishing / humiliating to "ways" and achievements "of the past." 


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Kirikou and the Sorceress (orig. Kirikou et la Sorcière) [1998]

MPAA (Unrated/w. Parental Warning)  Eye4film (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars with Expl)

IMDb listing
NYT (E. Mitchell) review
BBC (J. Russell) review
Eye4Film (A. Wilkenson) review

Kirikou and the Sorceress (orig. Kirikou et la Sorcière) [1998] [IMDb] (written and directed by Michel Ocelot [IMDb] is a children's animated film based on West African folk-tales that I recently purchased at the 2013 Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival held recently at Facets Multimedia in Chicago.  (My religious order's annual Provincial Chapter conflicted with much this year's festival.  So instead of attending many of this year's selections, I purchased a number of films from previous festivals that they had on-sale at the showing, of Jews of Egypt [2013], that I did manage to see).  The current film, Kirikou and the Sorceress [1998] [IMDb] is available for streaming-rental on Amazon Instant Video and for purchase on DVD at AfricanDiasporaDVD.com.

Parents should know that this film is an originally French rendering (though dubbed in English) of a traditional West African folk tale.  So the characters are depicted as dressed, or more to the point, as undressed, as one would expect to find them in their traditional West African village: the women are depicted topless as a matter of course and children playing in rivers and streams or dancing on the village grounds are depicted naked as well.  This is all done basically in "National Geographic" style, but it certainly deserves note here.

The story is about a precocious boy named Kirikou (voiced by Doudou Gueye Thiaw in the French version and by Theodore Sibusiso Sibeko in the English one).  At the beginning of the film, still in his mother's womb, he tells his mother (voiced in the French version by Maimouna N'Diaye, and in the English version by Kombisile Sangweni) that it's time for him step-out and enter into the world.  She tells him that if he can tell her that already from the womb, that he could make his own way out on his own, which he then does -- crawling out from under her skirt.

He then asks for his father and his mother tells him that all the men of the village have been killed and eaten by a wicked sorceress named Karaba (voiced in the French version by Awa Sene Sarr and in the English version by Antoinette Kellermann).  Karaba was a hateful woman who lived in the woods outside the village.  She had been tormenting the village for years.  And yet, no one could get to her as she was protected by a large number of animated wooden fetishes (statues).

So leave it to the little boy Kirikou to slowly remove the curses set against the village by this seeming evil sorceress, peal away her defenses and finally through the assistance of a wise old man (voiced in the French version by Robert Liensol and in the English version by Mabutho Kid Sithole) who lived in a citadel deep inside a nearby volcano, figure out why the sorceress was acting so wickedly and how she could be changed.

Of course, the story ends well, with Kirikou saving everyone and all.  The traditional "National Geographic" style nudity may disconcert many American viewers.  However, the payoff to others would be the realization that this story, based on traditional West African folk tales, certainly predated the recent Disney film Maleficient [2014], and probably predated the first rendering (in story book form) of Wicked (1995) which sought to understand/give context to two of the most notorious "wicked" witches of Western / European folk tales.


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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case [2014]

MPAA (R)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (S. Linden) review
RE.com (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (D. Ehrlich) review

About Chinese avant garde artist Ai Weiwei:
         Wikipedia article
         NY Times coverage
         Amnesty International coverage

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case [2014] (written and directed by Andreas Johnsen) is a documentary which continues to chronicle the struggle of Chinese avant garde artist Ai Weiwei [en.wikip] [ny times] [amnesty.org] with the Chinese Communist government.  The film is intended as a companion piece / sequel to Alison Klayman's documentary about him Ai Weiwei; Never Sorry [2012] reviewed here previously.

I have long believed that the Arts have an intrinsic prophetic _potential_ to them.  Obviously fawning propaganda pieces can also be made to support any "power that be."  However, the Arts can also expose and shame the same powers when they become too arrogant.  I'm also something of a child of the 1968 Prague Spring, my parents' childhood home, a city which dominated by two foreign imposed totalitarian dictatorships for the better part of their lifetimes now proudly celebrates Franz Kafka as one of its own. 

So while there is something of a "piggishness" to Ai Weiwei, a good part of me honestly "gets him," appreciates him and sympathizes with him.  And one gets the sense that famed Czech absurdist playwright, dissident leader during the Communist era, and Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic's first post-Communist President, Vaclav Havel, would have absolutely loved him.  For Ai Weiwei clearly uses his art to provocatively shame Chinese government for its arrogance and its negligence. 

For instance (this documented in the first film) after the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake which destroyed dozens of schools throughout central China, killing thousands of children (in a country with a rigid one child only population control policy...), after the government proved very much disinterested in compiling the names of the deceased, Ai Weiwei HIMSELF organized hundreds of volunteers to go through the towns and villages to compile the names of the deceased children.  With the least of names (which he displays in his office), he promises to build one day a Washington Vietnam War Memorial style "Wall of Names" in their honor as well.  Then for an exhibition of his art in Munich, he composed a banner along the side wall of the museum utilizing 7,000 children's backpacks declaring in Chinese "She had a happy life until she was seven." This kind of use of art, _contemporary art_, where "the medium" itself can become part of "the message" can not but bring tears to one's eyes.

The current film deals with the harassment of Ai Weiwei by the Chinese authorities.  Nominally, he was accused by China's authorities of "tax evasion."  Yet, he spent some 80 days IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT (except for interrogations...) following his arrest prior to being released on bail (close to $1 million) with the case allowed to more or less expire one year later.  Could ANYONE imagine someone in the United States or in the European Union being held IN SOLITARY / INCOMMUNICADO for 80 days upon arrest for tax evasion?  (Now Vladimir Putin's Russia _did_ order a number of years ago a nationwide confiscation of the computers of opposition organizations and NGOs in a "crackdown" on "pirated software" ... and members of the Russian "punk collective" Pussy Riot [en.wikip] [NY Times] [Amnesty.org], of course, did spend time in jail for "hooliganism" following a "guerrilla art" performance of a "Punk Prayer" at Moscow's Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Divine Savior asking, among other things, "Mary, Mother of God, drive Putin away." ;-)

The tax evasion case against Ai Weiwei dealt with his company called Fa-Ke, apparently meaning "Drawing and Development" in Chinese, but which carries several amusing meanings in English: transliterated, the company name comes to "Fake" (but what is Art but "faked reality" ;-), and pronounced, the company name sounds remarkably close to sounding like the F-word: "Fah K-eh" (Yes, I did mention that there is a "piggish" quality about him at times ...).

Anyway, Ai Weiwei did apparently eventually "pay up" what he owed (or what he "owed," it's hard honestly to tell...) the government, mostly apparently from donations of supporters (many of whom were local Chinese...).  And he did proceed to make a six scene, sculpture series, chronicling his time in prison, each scene encased in a cell, with viewers required to view the insides of the cell through a slit "just as guard would." 

It all continues to make for an interesting documentary series, and reminds one of both the power of art, as well as of the freedoms in the West that we often take for granted.


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Monday, June 23, 2014

Jews of Egypt [2013]


MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Cairo 360 (3 ½ Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 ½ Stars)

IMDb listing
Cairo360 review
The Independent (A. Beach) review

Brightlightsfilm.com (P. Keddie) intervieww. director 

Official website

Jews of Egypt[2013] (directed and cowritten by Amir Ramses along with Mostafa Youssef) is a remarkable documentary, made in Egypt, one which required several attempts at passage through Egypt’s censorship board before finally being released with strong public support in the heady days of the recent “Arab Spring,” when “all things seemed (briefly?) possible.” The film played recently at the 12th Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival held recently at Facets Multimedia in Chicago. 

The documentary tells the story of the (up-until the duel blows of the 1948 creationof the modern state of Israel and the 1956 Suez Crisis) once thriving and now virtually extinct Jewish community of Egypt.    

Being in the profession that I’m in – a Catholic priest – I’ve long wondered what happened to the Jewish community of Egypt.  After all, Alexandria, Egypt had been a center of both Jewish and Christian thought for centuries, approaching a millennium prior to the arrival of Islam.  By tradition, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (into what has been called the Septuagint) in Alexandria.  The great Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo lived and taught – in Alexandria.  And during the first millennium of Christianity, Alexandria along with Antioch located in modern day Syria were the great centers of Christian theology (with both Rome and Byzantium/Constantinople, by differing means and for differing reasons, largely reduced to “playing referee” between them).  Over the years, I’ve had acquaintance with a number of CopticChristians, who still consider Alexandria, Egypt to be their “Vatican/Rome” and their Patriarch (of Alexandria) their Pope.  


It turns out that the fate of the Jewish Community of Egypt, at the turn of the 20th Century 80,000 trong, and the 20th century struggles of the Coptic Christians of Egypt are quite analogous.  For the documentary points out that for rather self-evident (if somewhat tragic) reasons both the Jewish and Coptic Christian communities of Egypt found themselves naturally aligned with the (Christian) colonial powers of England and France.  A number of the Egyptian born Jews, most now living in France, interviewed in the documentary noted that French was really their first language (“as it was with our Coptic neighbors” one interviewee notes) and that they learned Arabic “only to get by in the streets and markets of Alexandria and Cairo.”  So perhaps it became inevitable that when Egypt gained true independence from England following the “young officers coup” led by Gamal Nasser, et al, the position of both the Jewish and Christian communities in Egypt had to diminish.  They had been aligned (or were perceived by Egypt's Muslim majority as aligned) with the previous colonial powers, hence...  However, the situation of Egypt's Jewish community became even more precarious than that of Egypt's (Coptic) Christian community with the creation of the modern state of Israel and then 1956 War in which Israel even sided with the former colonial powers of England and France against Egypt.
Ironically, of course, the vast majority of Egypt's Jewish community didn't emigrate to Israel after being pressured to leave (and at least in part, expelled from) Egypt.  Instead, the vast majority emigrated to England and France.  As one of the Egyptian born Jews interviewed in the documentary pointed out: "Back then Israel was seen as the place that _poor Jews_ emigrated to.  Those with means when elsewhere."  Egypt's Jewish community had been a community with means.  And it was a community that _liked_ Egypt.  Indeed, striking in the documentary was the repeated refrain of the various Jewish interviewees (and their children) that their years living in Egypt, prior to being forced/pressured to leave, were among the happiest years of their lives.

The film runs squarely against decades of Arab world propaganda equating "Jew" with "Enemy" or even "Jew" with Israel.

It all makes for a fascinating story, and makes for an interesting question.  Would a Middle East settlement tackling the question of "Right of Return" / compensation of Palestinian refugees and their descendents displaced in the creation of the modern state of Israel ALSO offer, at minimum, compensation (and perhaps even a similar "Right of Return") to Jewish families _throughout the Middle East_, who since the creation of Israel have had to abandon their property, businesses and communities as well?  This documentary was about the Jewish community that resided in Egypt prior to the creation of the modern state of Israel.  However, there were vibrant Jewish communities all across the Middle East / Arab world, including sizable communities that once existed in Iraq (Baghdad) and Syria (Damascus) as well ...


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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Obvious Child [2014] / Think Like a Man Too [2014]



As part of my contribution in our parish's participation in the Archdiocese of Chicago's Campaign "To Teach Who Christ Is," I've decided to forgo seeing (and therefore reviewing here) one or two movies a weekend and instead contribute the money I would have spent to the campaign.

I'm trying to be strategic about this, picking movies that would "hurt somewhat" to miss, that is, films that are not "so bad" that I wouldn't see them anyway nor movies that I really would need to see/review or else my blogging effort would cease to be worthwhile.

As per my custom, I will try to provide links to usual line-up of reviews that I also consider as I write my own.

This week I chose to not see:

Obvious Child [2014] - MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (3 1/2  Stars)  AVClub (B)

Think Like a Man Too [2014] - MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars)  RE.com (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (D+)

To be honest, both were kinda no brainers.

Obvious Child [2014] is a "comedy" about a young woman deciding to have an abortion, basically a "pro-abortion rights" response to the far more positive (and more pro-Life) films like Juno [2007] and Knocked Up [2007] where young women, finding themselves pregnant nonetheless decided to give their children a chance at life.  Obvious Child [2014] is a film about a woman, who, finding herself unexpectedly pregnant, decides to tear her developing child up and (in pieces) out, as she goes on with her own (apparently "more important") developing life.  Ha ha ...

Think Like a Man Too [2014], sequel to Think Like a Man [2012], continues to invite women to act as stupidly as (some) men (sometimes) do.  Bridesmaids [2012] falls into this genre as well.  Borrowing terminology from my seminary days, these films assume an "anthropology" that is fundamentally "disordered."  Are men really like those portrayed in the Hangover [2009, 2011, 2013] series?  Of course not.  But the very basis of Think Like a Man (and other "women's oriented" stories like it) is that this is the way "men" "are" / should be.  Again, ha ha ... but behind the laughs is a really depressing assumption and certainly not a Catholic / Christian one.


Friday, June 20, 2014

Jersey Boys [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McCarthy) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Jersey Boys [2014] (directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise based on their previous stage musical / book) is a film that will probably disappoint stage-musical goers, whose opinions in this matter, to be honest, I don't care tremendously about here, as stage musical productions are generally ridiculously expensive (and hence out of reach of those who are not either very rich, or very interested).  More interstingly to me, however, is the possibility that the film will also disappoint many New Jerseyans as the single most devastating charge that I read about the film comes from the CNS/USCCB reviewer J. McCarthy who noted that almost none of the movie was filmed in New Jersey but rather at the Warner Brothers Studio Lot in Los Angeles.

It seems clear to me that director Clint Eastwood intended to make this film _honestly_ (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of the AVClub noted that at the beginning of the story _three of the four of the members_ of the future Four Seasons made more money doing petty jobs for the local mob than with their singing.  And later, even after they achieved their success -- and even had the local mobsters _rooting for them_ -- they were never really able to break out of that past).  So it would seem to me that the better move would have been for Eastwood to have stepped back, if on account of his age his health was not up to filming the movie in New Jersey, take a more back-seat role as co-producer or co-executive producer, and find a "Jersey Boy" (Rogerebert.com's Olie Henderson suggested Jersey born Brian De Palma) to make the film.

That said, the film could actually have cross-cultural appeal and even be inspiring to young people growing-up in poorer/working class, often similarly mobbed-up, neighborhoods across the world -- from Moscow/Omsk/Kiev, to Bogota/Rio de Janeiro, to Bangkok/Manila.  

So what's the film about?  It's about the story of the above mentioned Four Seasons pop-group that attained tremendous popularity in the United States in the years immediately preceding the arrival of The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion of the mid-1960s.  Three of the four members of the Four Seasons -- Frankie Valli [IMDb] (played in the film by John Lloyd Young), Tommy deVito [IMDb] (played by Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi [IMDb] (played in the film by Michael Lomenda) -- grew-up in Belleville, New Jersey just outside of Newark, NJ.  Playing in a band calling themselves The Four Lovers, the fourth band member being Tommy's brother Nick DeVito (played by Johnny Cannizarro), they spent a number of years spinning their wheels, with them finding themselves often in trouble with the law (and the DeVito brothers, one or the other, in jail) for doing various small jobs often for the local mob, headed by (in the film) a Gyp DeCarlo (played by Christopher Walken), possibly the most sympathetic "family guy" mobster ever portrayed in American film (but "hey, in Jersey, if one stuck together with one's friends, the ones who 'looked after the neighborhood' EVERYONE was 'family'." That was basically The Code...)

Frankie, Tommy and Nick's break came, when one of them working in a bowling alley, ran into a young Joe Pesci (played in the film by Joseph Russo), yes THE FUTURE ACTOR Joe Pesci [IMDb] working (in the back, setting up the pins) in the same said bowling alley who also "worked" as a part-time talent scout.  It was _this_ "Joey" who put the Three/Four Lovers together with the fourth member of the future Four Seasons, keyboardist and songwriter Bob Gaudio [IMDb] (played in the film by Erich Bergen). 

Hearing Frankie Valli's striking falsetto voice for the first-time, Bob became convinced that this was the guy he needed to write songs for.  Bob also came with some connections in New York, notably a quite-openly-gay record producer named Bob Crewe (played by Mike Doyle).  After some lingering struggles with the group's name (the "Four Lovers" weren't going _anywhere_), they finally and quite amusingly changed it to The Four Seasons after the bowling alley where "it all kinda came together" (However, film's dialogue notes that the name ALSO actually evokes Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which makes some sense as well, as all four, even if "from Jersey," were also of ITALIAN descent and arguably even Frankie "Valli's" name itself evoked Vivaldi...).  Then they got their big hit Sherry followed by Big Girls Don't Cry, Walk Like a Man, etc.

However, even as their fame skyrocketed as they played gigs like American Bandstand and even the Ed Sullivan Show, they couldn't escape and then largely choose not to abandon their past.  Tommy gets into trouble with debts to loan sharks, Frankie out of loyalty to his friend decides to help him.  At this point, Nick Massi, "breaking the 4th wall of the theater" explains to the audience (To US the viewers) "If you don't understand why Frankie would do this, well, YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND JERSEY."

The rest of the story is something of a spiral downward.  Not only is Tommy in trouble, but Frankie finds himself with serious family issues at home (largely of his own doing -- he's never at home and he takes on the added burden of a mistress...).  The other two, Nick and Bob, for different reasons find themselves tired of the band.

But before it all collapses, Bob and Frankie do collaborate on one last, now almost haunting hit: Can't Take My Eyes off of You.

It's really quite a good, bittersweet, and even (above mentioned) haunting story about friends, family, neighborhood and precariousness of "fame."

Again, perhaps it would have been better if the movie had been filmed in New Jersey, but overall, it honestly remains a pretty good job!


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Saturday, June 14, 2014

22 Jump Street [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (B)

As part of my contribution in our parish's participation in the Archdiocese of Chicago's Campaign "To Teach Who Christ Is," I've decided to forgo seeing (and therefore reviewing here) one or two movies a weekend and instead contribute the money I would have spent to the campaign.

I'm trying to be strategic about this, picking movies that would "hurt somewhat" to miss, that is, films that are not "so bad" that I wouldn't see them anyway nor movies that I really would need to see/review or else my blogging effort would cease to be worthwhile.

As per my custom, I will try to provide links to usual line-up of reviews that I also consider as I write my own.

This week I chose to not see 22 Jump Street [2014]  giving what I would have spent on seeing the movie to the campaign.

To be honest, I don't think giving this film up was a particularly large sacrifice.  I had to give up something and there were IMHO better, more interesting / more challenging films to see.   Apparently, a number of the critics (above) found some value in the film's mockery of the "sequel formula."  It would seem however, that the film is, above all, what I expected it to be ... a long list of very stupid / tasteless "gross out" jokes, that well ... to pay $8-10 to see? 

How to Train Your Dragon 2 [2014]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-I)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (1/2 Star with Expl)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McCarthy) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (A) review


How to Train Your Dragon 2 [2014] (directed and screenplay by Dean Deblois based on the children's book series by Cressida Cowell) is ... sigh ... for me a tragedy. 

Sigh ... it is certainly a visual wonder.  As has been my policy, I made it a point to see the film in 2D rather than 3, and still was impressed.  But if nothing else were going on, I could also see that spending the extra $4 (per ticket ...) to see the film in 3D could actually be worth it this time.  The dragons in their variety and color portrayed are truly a chaotic wonder to behold and the flight sequences among the clouds, among the crags, forests and cliffs of the fjords that the Vikings of old called home are often spectacular.  All this is certainly CGI film-making / animation at its best.

The story?  That honestly is another matter.

First of all, part of the depth / charm of the first film lay in the father-son relationship between the burly heart of gold single-dad Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler) and his destined-not-to-win-any-homecoming-games son Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel).  We were told then that Stoick's wife/Hiccup's mother had died when Hiccup was young.  The decision to bring her, Valka (voiced by Kate Blanchett) back (we're told in this movie she didn't die, but left Stoick/Hiccup when Hiccup was young) while perhaps making "good marketing sense," I don't think is helpful either to the integrity of the story or to kids. 

While there is no doubt that kids would generally prefer to have their parents happy and together, the story-line here strains credibility.  (SPOILER ALERT: viewers are asked to believe that 20 years after Valka had apparently decided to leave Stoick - over his then intransigent attitude towards dragons - they'd BOTH be interested in _romantically_ "starting where they left off" upon seeing each other again for the first time after those many years).  PERHAPS, indeed ONE WOULD HOPE, that the renewed relationship between the two will be clarified in a subsequent film.  An honest a reconciliation would certainly be salutary / laudable.  THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IS ALL ABOUT RECONCILIATION -- but to pretend that they would return to being "husband and wife" again, as if nothing happened, simply does not make sense.  Friends, YES.  Husband and wife in all that it implies, come on.  AND THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT I'D BE ADVOCATING "FINDING ANOTHER."  I am saying that at some point the "romantic boat" does sail AND THAT _THIS_ IS OKAY.  Yes, let the two be friends anew.  But "renewed romance" ... come on.  Only an ideology that insists on frenetic sexual activity "up until death" would demand that. 


THE SECOND MATTER, AND ONE THAT HONESTLY CONCERNS ME MORE, is at least one "model of leadership" promoted in the story as well as THE FILM'S VIEW OF RACE.  Hiccup's father, Stoick, after all is the village's chief.  When their village gets threatened BY A DARK-SKINNED HUMAN IN DREADLOCKS NAMED "DRAGO" (voiced by Djimon Hounsou) who's learned to use dragons but in an Evil way, Stoick explains to Hiccup that "A leader protects his own."  Honestly, could there be a more succinct statement of "National Socialism" than that: "Der Führer defende sein Volk." (Add to this of course, that this story plays out among a village of VIKINGS (read: Aryans) and as at least one reviewer above noted that THE ONLY IRREDEEMABLE VILLAIN IN THE STORY WAS DARK-SKINNED DREADLOCK WEARING "DRAGO").

Sigh, and I had liked this story ...

I would note though, that the story does prefer Hiccup's (and his new-found mother's) approach to the crisis by seeking to talk to Drago (even if it turns that dark, black, Evil "Drago" proves unwilling to talk / negotiate with him). 

All things considered, this is actually one of the better Hollywood-made contemporary children's films.  But as I've written on this Blog before (notably with Despicable Me 2 [2013]), I'd wish that our story-tellers in Hollywood come to better appreciate that (1) OUR NATION'S CHILDREN are far more racially diverse than the white investors / studio heads giving the go-aheads for these films, and (2) Hollywood, in any case, speaks to the world.  How could a film like this play in say Jamaica or West Africa when the villain is so obviously BLACK.


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Friday, June 13, 2014

Innocent Sorcerers (orig. Niewinni czarodzieje) [1960]

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

IMDb listing
Filmweb.PL listing*

Culture.pl article

Official Website of Polish director Andrzej Wajda
Culture.pl article on the directing career of Andrzej Wajda
Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema: [MSP Website] [Culture.pl]

Innocent Sorcerers (orig. Niewinni czarodzieje) [1960] (directed by Andrzej Wajda [IMDb] [FW.pl]* [Culture.pl] [en.wikip]] [pl.wikip]*, screenplay by Jerzy Skolimowski [IMDb] [FW.pl]* and Jerzy Andrzejewski [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) is a simply OUTSTANDING ROMANTIC COMEDY OF ITS TIME (early 1960s).  The film played recently at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.

I do believe that continues the film's director Wajda's[IMDb] [FW.pl]* thematic, IMHO already present, if perhaps less openly, in his far more famous work of a few years previous Ashes and Diamonds (orig. Popioł i Diament) [1958] (reviewed here earlier).  That is, Wajda [IMDb] [FW.pl]* was giving permission young Poles of his time (after all that THEY and THEIR NATION had gone through in the years / decades previous) to just "be silly," "flirt a little," "fall in love."  And while THIS "OKAY" being given by Wajda in his film to the young Poles of his time MAY SEEM UTTERLY TRIVIAL to an American / Western (or even Polish...) viewer of today, Wajda's[IMDb] [FW.pl]* little film did apparently cause him trouble with the Communist censors of his time (he apparently had to change the film's ending to make it "more serious", perhaps less famously "petite bourgeoisie").

BUT TO BE FAIR, this film would have had objections coming from more religious based censors (read Catholic, read the Hollywood Production code) of the time as well.  Indeed, American viewers will _certainly_ note the "Production Code Era" feel of the film ... So, employing the universally successful censor bending strategy of  "Do you really want to object to a film about young people who actually are shown toeing all the 'powers that be' / censor imposed lines and still find a way to be happy?  That is to say, do you really want to be against people finding a way to be happy in our system and in our land?" -- with apparently a few tweaks, the film got made ;-).

So what is this subversive little film about?  Two Polish young people -- Bazili (played by Tadeusz Łomnicki [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) a young, easy on the eyes Warsaw medical doctor with his own place, and smart, ever smiling, eye-lash batting Pelagia (played magnificently by Krystyna Stypułkowska [IMDb] [FW.pl]*), a country girl with a big heart (but also nobody's fool) from a village at the outskirts of town -- finding a way to spend the night together in Warsaw circa 1960 ;-).

They're brought together at a club one night by Bazili's friend (Americans would recognize his role here as "wing man") named Edmund (played wonderfully by the famous actor Zbigniew Cybulski [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) even if Bazili wasn't particularly interested initially as he was somewhat down on women at the time as a result of an ex-flame named Mirka (played by Wanda Koczeska [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) who'd turned into kind of a stalker.  And truth be told, Pelagia comes to the club "with another" as well.  Yet Edmund pulls it off and at the end of the evening there's Bazili and Pelagia alone together in Warsaw, Pelagia having missed the last train back to her town for the evening... 

Again, this is a movie of the early 1960s, so that which ensues is all very, very _innocent_ ... and yet, is it also so very, very charming!  Hence the lovely name for the film ... and honestly WHAT A GREAT STORY!


 This film is currently available _without English subtitles_ on YouTube by the Polish studio KADR (the studio that made the original film).  It's also available for purchase at a reasonable price on  amazon.com.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Jump (orig. Salto) [1965]

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

IMDb listing
Filmweb.PL listing*

Culture.pl article

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema: [MSP Website] [Culture.pl]


Jump (orig. Salto) [1965] [IMDb] [FW.pl]* [Culture.pl] (written and directed by Tadeusz Konwicki [IMDb] [FW.pl]* [Culture.pl] [pl.wikip]*) is IMHO a truly excellent allegorical, psychological, bordering on horror film that would remind American/Western viewers of the Twilight Zone [1959-1964] [IMDb] [en.wikip] television series, Stephen King's / Stanley Kubrick's The Shining [1980] and especially the less successful/lesser known Jim Carrey film The Majestic [2001].  The film played recently at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.

Given Poland's enormous suffering / traumatization during World War II (per capita, no country in Europe suffered more during the Second World War and most of the most ghastly aspects of that War including the Nazi Death Camps took place on its soil), I find a film like this having been made in Poland all but inevitable and perhaps even psychologically cathartic.  (Honestly, _anyone_ who wishes to understand Poland in the years after the War ought to see this film along with Ashes and Diamonds (orig. Popioł i Diament)[1958] (also shown as part of Martin Scorcese's series on Polish Cinema) to which the current film serves as arguably a sequel).  
 
So ... set in rural Poland on "the exact day after the war's end," the current film begins with a young man dressed in black, with a black leather coat and dark-shaded sunglasses (played exquisitely throughout by Zbigniew Cybulski [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[Culture.pl] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*, Poland's "James Dean" and the same actor who played the tragic / tortured protagonist of Ashes and Diamonds [1958], a character that arguably _died_ at the end of that film) traveling on a train passing through the Polish countryside.  Is there _anybody else_ on that train?  We don't know.  The camera's focus is solely on him.   What is clear is that this mysterious figure seems agitated and appears to be running (running from what?  running from whom? we don't know).  At some point, standing by the door of the train compartment in which he is in, he spots a not-awful-but-not-particularly-good-place to jump from the train (there's a slope that would probably break his fall, but there are also all sorts of trees there), crosses himself and ... jumps. 

Surviving apparently uninjured this jump from the train, he brushes himself off from any dirt, wipes clean his glasses, and proceeds then to walk again a not-altogether-simple-journey to a small, seemingly random Polish village.  I write "not altogether simple" because when he comes to a stream, a not particularly large stream but a reasonably deep one (up to the hips) and a fast moving one, the previous small bridge that had been standing there seems to have been knocked out.  No matter, he simply fords the stream, apparently unconcerned that he was going to be soaked now up to his hips. 

As he crosses the stream he spots a couple of young women bathing, naked, someways upstream.  They also notice him, giggle (or scream slightly) in surprise and run off up-the-riverbank and away from him out-of-sight.

He comes to the village at night fall.  It appears that no one in particular is expecting him.  As he walks through the village he (and we, the viewers) are given glimpses through the windows of some of the houses, of what's going on in the random village that evening:  There's one who later we come to understand as the village's local heartthrob / playboy (played by Zdzislaw Maklakiewicz [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) having a shot of vodka with some new conquest  There's an old man (played by Jerzy Block [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) who seems to be sharpening his razor (but one gets the sense that he's _not_ sharpening it to give himself a shave but rather to try to kill himself).  And down the street he spots younger/middle aged woman who turns out to be the town's "card reader" / "fortune teller" (played by Irena Laskowska [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) in her window busy "setting out the cards" to discern the answer to some question.

He arrives at his destination, knocks on the door of the house.  There doesn't seem to be an answer ... Again no one seems to be expecting him.  Finally, the (current?) owner of the house (played by Gustav Hloubek [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) comes to the door.  "Who's there?" "You don't recognize me?"  "I'm sorry, I don't." "But I used to live here.  CERTAINLY you recognize me."  "I'm sorry I don't"  "I was Malinowski or perhaps Kowalski to you when I was here."  "Oh, perhaps I remember you."  "I need a place to stay."  "I really don't have anything for you."  "I used to stay in a room upstairs."  "I keep a lot of junk up there now.  It'd be a mess."  "That's okay, it'd serve for the night."  The owner of the house reluctantly agrees.

There is a small bed in the room along with said assortment of junk (bicycle parts, etc ... it's a storage closet now).  In the middle of the night, this mysterious figure Kowalski or Malinowski is awakened by a nightmare -- soldiers of some kind at the door.  He screams so loudly that the host is awakened and comes to the door "Is everything okay?"  "Yes, I thought there were soldiers at the door."  "Well there're not  Go back to sleep."

The next day, the mysterious man asks the host for a shovel, telling him that he'll bring it back afterwards but that he has to dig up something just outside of town.  The host reluctantly gives him said shovel, assured by the man that he'll bring it back okay. 

As this mysterious man Kowalski or Malinowski leaves the premises he runs into the host's daughter Helena (played by Marta Lipińska [IMDb] [FW.pl]*).  He recognizes her as "Maria."  She doesn't recognize him by sight and tells him that she's Maria's daughter, now grown, (It's been a while apparently since Kowalski / Malinowski's been in town).  She does indicate though that she knows something of him perhaps from her now (deceased?) mother.

As he passes through town to the field where he's going to dig (for something ...) the mysterious man Kowalski or Malinowski _does_ run into a man who recognizes him.  The man introduces himself as Blumenfeld (played exquisitely by Włodzimierz Boruński [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) a _Jewish_ actor from Warsaw from pre-War days.  He tells Kowalski or Malinowski that they met somewhere during the war.  Kowalski or Malinowski tells him that sorry he does not remember him.  The man tells him that's okay because he's spent the years hiding and hiding, changing his identity seven times (!) and that he himself is confused at times about who he really is.  But he is, in fact, "the famous pre-war actor" Blumenfeld (the name, of course, meaning of course "Field of Flowers").  Kowalski or Malinowski is not altogether convinced (perhaps he's some poor soul who having changed his identity so many times, believes himself to be Blumenfeld ...) but shrugs and takes his word for it.

Blumenfeld is the first to invite Kowalski or Malinowski to "an anniversary celebration" that the town's having sometime that evening ...

Kowalski or Malinowski comes to a field outside of town and starts to dig, for something.  As he digs, we hear industrial sounds of some kind of other digging, coming from somewhere, apparently from just over the horizon.  As he digs, the owner of the house (or perhaps current/new owner of the house) where he was staying comes up to him (apparently he had been following him) and asks him: "Are you digging for the Treasure?  They say that there's some sort of treasure here outside of this town.  They say that this is why the Nazis left our town alone during the War and didn't destroy it.  It's supposed to be valuable, life changing.  Tell us if you find it."  In the meantime, Kowalski / Malinowski seems annoyed by the incessant and vaguely foreboding industrial banging coming from over the distant horizon.  The (current?) owner of the house in which Kowalski / Malinowski had spent the night explains: "Oh, that's coming from a uranium mine that they've started digging some time ago.  They say it will eventually extend to here ..."

The (current?) owner of the house in which Kowalski / Malinowski had spent the night then proceeds to invite him to the "anniversary" celebration that's going to take place in the town later that night as well.

What's the "anniversary" of?  We don't know.  Who the heck is Kowalski / Malinowski?  Who is the (current?) owner of the house in which he stayed?  Who is the man introducing himself as the famous pre-war actor "Blumenfeld?" Who is Helena the daughter of the (current?) owner of the house where Kowalski / Malinowski had spent the night who Kowalski/Malinowski had initially believed to be her mother "Maria?"  Who were ANY of these people (as well as others) from this village seemingly untouched by the War seemingly "blessed" by some Treasure buried in the ground outside of it but now also vaguely condemned to be destroyed by a uranium mine approaching it from just past the horizon? 

The Anniversary party DOESN'T offer any real answers either.  Indeed the obvious question that a viewer ought to be asking (and a reader here ought to be asking) is ARE THEY ALL DEAD?   Is the town itself simply a remnant/figments of someone's (WHOSE???) memory or imagination?

The film ends with the mysterious black leather-jacketed, dark sun-glass wearing figure named Kowalski or Malinowski leaving the town the morning after the "Anniversary" celebration, crossing the same fields, fording the same stream by the broken bridge, spotting the same two naked giggling young women, who on spotting him run off into the same woods, arriving at the same point where he had jumped off the train, just in time to meet the dark rumbling, perhaps _empty passenger_ train arriving at the same point again.  As the train approaches, he starts running to get up to its speed ... and jumps ... on to the train, which then heads off into the horizon, presumably to another town, where the same chain of events repeats itself....

GREAT FILM!

This film is currently available _without English subtitles_ on YouTube by the Polish studio KADR (the studio that made the original film). It's also available for rental-by-mail _with English subtitles_ in the United States at facets.org, and presumably for purchase on amazon.com.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Monday, June 9, 2014

Words and Pictures [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars w. Expl.)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (B. Scharkey) review
RE.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (J. Hassanger) review

Words and Pictures [2013] (directed by Fred Schepisi, screenplay by Gerald Di Pago) is a film that perhaps was doomed from the start.  After all, what's a film but an interplay of "words" and "pictures."  So from the get-go, the makers of this film were inviting every artist, writer, film-lover and critic to their show, all of whom arriving with fairly "high expectations."

On the plus side, the film-makers got the right setting: a random upscale prep-school somewhere in Maine (evoking cultural shared memories of the Robin Williams classic Dead Poets Society [1989]).  IMHO, the film-makers  also assembled the right cast, from the leads Clive Owen (as the once and still trying to be passionate/engaging but becoming increasingly bored/troubled/lonely "honors lit" teacher Jack Marcus who's finding himself leaning-more-and-more on his vodka ...) and Juliette Binoche (as the perhaps always somewhat aloof, more introverted/brooding artist / "honors art teacher" Dina Delsanto but becoming more so as her body slowly fails her as a result of rheumatoid arthritis), to some of the actors playing a number of the key student roles including Valerie Tian playing a quite talented student in both art and lit named Emily but honestly not knowing what to do with an increasingly annoying classmate/suitor named Swint (played also quite well as a teen locked in a seeming "death spiral" toward significant-consequence-resulting a-holehood by Adam DiMarco).

The above description of some of the key characters and setting would indicate that there was a clear dynamism present in the story's setup allowing for "many things" to happen in the story as it progressed.  So why then did the film ultimately fail for so many viewers (read the other critics view above) in "meeting expectations?"  Tragically, IMHO on account of both its "words" and "pictures."

To be sure, the dialogue does have its moments.  For instance, there's a scene where Marcus quite convincingly argues to his class (and to viewers of the film) that Words CAN inspire in a way that no other form of expression can: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [human beings] are created equal, and endowed with their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them including, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness..."  And there's another one where after having his class express by manner of grunt/gesture, attraction, hunger, anger, drowsiness, etc, Marcus asks his class to express: "Okay, let's meet after dinner to discuss tomorrow's hunt." (At some point language -- words -- had to be invented to convey even such relatively "simple" complex messages).  However, there are other times in film that the dialogue falls tragically flat.  Perhaps a co-writer could have been invited to improve some of the more "mundane" sections of the film. 

Similarly, the art in the film _ended-up_ being disappointingly flat:

Now much of the work shown in the film was actually made by Juliette Binoche made both before the film (when not acting, Binoche does apparently enjoy making quite serious works of contemporary art) and then during / for the film.  And truth be told, I found _some_ her work quite evocative/good. BUT then _the key painting_ that she then submits for school's battle between Art and Literature (that Marcus organizes in part to inspire the students, and in part to keep his job / not sink completely into boredom/despair) seemed UTTERLY RANDOM to me.

Other works of Binoche's (all generally "abstract expressionist" in style) seemed for more evocative.  Yet the students / audience are asked by the film to be somehow "impressed" in this all but random painting at the end.  Why?  When a _random painting_ with random color / markings is presented to us WITHOUT EXPLANATION or serious context.  Again, some of the other works at least appeared to use more evocative colors and the lines, 'splotches" (for lack of a better word), etc seemed more evocative of emotion. 

Further, there was a self-portrait being made by the student, Emily, that Delsanto keeps pushing her to improve that frankly remains "hanging" (We're _not_ told what happens to the picture).  And that's a shame because in the last (still "unfinished") version that we do see, it seems already to be quite evocative of SOMETHING: unsuredness (which would have been _perfect_ for the character).  However, one's left to guess that "something must have happened to that painting" that the film-makers decided to not make _it_ the center of the film's climax at the end.

So the film comes across to me as a GREAT IDEA ... and one that, even now, certainly could provide plenty of fodder for discussion after the film.  But the film's execution came across to me as flat.  And that's a shame.  The film could have become more -- a classic -- than IMHO it did.


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Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

The Fault in Our Stars [2014] (directed by Josh Boone, screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, quite faithful to the YA novel by John Green) tells the story of a group of Indianapolis teenagers facing terminal cancer together. 

The basic thrust of the story is that childhood / teenage cancer is so terrible that basically no one except other teenagers and possibly cancer teens' own immediate families could hope to understand.

A rather hapless 30-something Episcopalian youth minister named Patrick (played by Mike Birbiglia) who actually organized the support group through which the teens suffering through their cancer got to know each other is portrayed, both in the book and in the film, as at best sincere but otherwise certainly an idiot.  To perhaps "even things out" the writer of a somewhat edgy book entitled "The Imperial Affliction" about childhood cancer who the lead character here, 16 year old Hazel (played actually very well by Shailene Woodley) initially adored, turns out to be an embittered drunken fool himself (the drunken embittered writter played again quite well by William DaFoe)

To be honest, it doesn't surprise me at all that teens, both healthy and non, have flocked to both the book and now the movie that does in fact exploit teens' natural tendency toward narcissism.

Don't get me wrong, these is plenty of truth in the story.  No teen (or anybody else) deserves to lose one's limbs, eyes, breasts or (like poor hapless 30-something Patrick lost as a teen) one's balls to cancer.  No teen (or anybody else) deserves to lose one's hair, lose control of one's bodily functions, to have one's skin color turn a zombie-like brownish-yellow or orange, or to go into seizures.  Yes, cancer sucks, terribly, BUT ... (and most readers by now would be expecting an inevitable "BUT"):

(1) Honestly folks, no matter how bad it is, it CAN STILL ALWAYS ACTUALLY BE WORSE:

Recently I read another excellent/well-written if also at times biting book by a Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid entitled "How to Make it Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel" in which describing the childhood and young adulthood of his central protagonist (when he was still living "in the village" before he slowly "made his fortune") he writes about the central protagonist's mother's bout with cancer IN WHICH THE FAMILY HAD TO GO AND BUY _HEROIN_ FROM "THE LOCAL STREET CORNER DRUG DEALER" SO THAT SHE'D AT LEAST HAVE SOMETHING FOR THE PAIN.  And the street heroin (self-evidently not-FDA approved ...) had to be administered by the family ...

In my own young adult years (after my own mother died of cancer...) I would go occasionally to Mass at a Catholic Worker Community (I was going to grad school in Los Angeles at the time) and one of the families they had living with them in that Community at the time was a Salvadoran mother and her 6-8 year old son who was missing an arm up to his shoulder.  For some months, I thought that he lost his arm to grenade or a land-mine or something (this would have been the late 1980s / early 90s and there was terrible Cold War Era civil war going on in El Salvador at the time).  INSTEAD, I LEARNED THAT THE POOR 6-8 YEAR OLD WHO WOULD HUG US _WITH HIS ONE ARM_ AT THE "KISS OF PEACE" DURING THE MASS "MERELY LOST HIS ARM" TO _BONE CANCER_.

That image of the 6-8 year old kid hugging me with his one arm has stuck with me and has served to remind me that PART OF THE AWFULNESS OF WAR is that ALL THE OTHER AWFUL TRAGEDIES OF LIFE _STILL HAPPEN_ but ON TOP OF THAT "ORDINARY AWFULNESS" WE ADD A NEW LAYER OF VICTIMS FROM THE ADDED WAR.

I also remembered as a result of this poor 6-8 year old that though 3,000 people died truly awful deaths in 9/11 ... 3,000 people die in the United States every day or two "merely of cancer."

So in some sense I do appreciate this current film as a "revenge of the 'merely Cancer' victims" reminding us plenty of people die each day in homes and hospitals across this country (and indeed across the world) with no memorials built for any of them, except by their own loved ones in cemeteries ... next to other loved ones who died similarly "mundane" if ever tragic deaths before them.

(2) Given the tragedies that exist in this world, I SIMPLY CAN NOT IMAGINE FACING THEM WITHOUT GOD, PERHAPS EVEN BEING PISSED OFF AT GOD (asking why the heck GOD lets these things happen) but to bear this WITHOUT GOD seems to me utterly impossible.

Karl Marx did famously call "Religion the opiate of the people IN A HEARTLESS WORLD."  BUT LOOK, I'M NOT KIDDING ... HAND ME THEN THE OPIUM.  I simply can not imagine facing the disasters of life without feeling God SOMEHOW "at my side" (Psalm 23).  9/11 did teach me that Life is at least at times a "Valley of Tears" (as per the Hail Holy Queen).

Like all of us, I do know plenty of people including close friends who do get through life without believing in God, BUT IT JUST SEEMS SO MUCH HARDER.  The same problems still remain, whether one believes in God or not, but at least if one believes, one has someone to lean on, EVEN IF THERE'S NO ONE PHYSICALLY AVAILABLE TO LEAN ON.


But to the story ... ;-)

The Fault in Our Stars [2014] is principally about two teenagers, Hazel (played again exquisitely by Shailene Woodley) and Gus (played just was well by Ansel Elgort) who face oblivion as a result of their cancer.  Already by the beginning of the story, both have suffered a lot:

Hazel nearly died two years previous, before an experimental drug, but a fluke, she herself calls it a miracle, kicked in.  But her lungs are trashed and so she has to lug around an oxygen tank to help her breath.  And NO ONE KNOWS when the experimental drug will cease to work, or begin to cause side-effects that will eventually kill her anyway.  Yet despite her own suffering, she also carries on with guilt:  As her parents' only child, she fears what will happen to her parents (played again remarkably well by Laura Dern and Sam Tramwell).

Gus, a former, pretty good high school basketball player, with a few trophies to prove it, lost his leg to bone cancer the year before.  He also had a friend Isaac (played by Nat Wolff) who lost one eye to ocular (eye) cancer some years back, and was about to lose the other one well.  Both had enjoyed playing "stupid" "zombie invasion" video-games before ...

All these folks (as well as their parents) find themselves having to deal with suffering that, NO ONE OUGHT TO.  But there they are ...

In perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the story, Hazel and Gus do find themselves remembering the case of Anne Frank the famous Dutch teenager who also had to face oblivion (along with her family) during the Holocaust.  Again, no one should have had to suffer like that either...

But there they all found themselves, facing enormous suffering ... but also with opportunities to find hope, love even joy.

While I didn't appreciate the story's somewhat gratuitous potshots at religion ... certainly one can not but applaud all the characters' decision to seek to make the most of their lives (their "infinities") that they were given (even if their "infinities" were "smaller" than perhaps some other people's "infinities").

We're all honestly asked to do the same.  We are all given this life, all with gifts and with limitations.  And all we're all asked to the best that we can with what we've been given.

Even Hazel remembers at one point that even Mozart will one day be forgotten (if only after "the sun swallows the only earth that we will have ever known").  So the goal isn't to be "Great" ... it's simply to be able to say that one lived, and hopefully to have used one's choices well.  That is, to have been, fundamentally "Good."

Pot-shots at religion aside ... good story.


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