Friday, August 29, 2014

The Forgotten Kingdom [2013]

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

IMDb listing (T.Bang) review (T. Owen) review (P. Mabandu) review

IndieWire (V. Martinez) review
Orlando Weekly (B. Manes) review

The Forgotten Kingdom [2013] (written and directed by Andrew Mudge), a movie filmed in South Africa and Lesotho using entirely local actors and actresses recently closed the month long, ever popular 2014 (20th) Annual Black Harvest Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. The film is also now available for streaming using the Amazon Instant Video service for a reasonable price.

The film tells the story of an initially directionless 20-something youth named Joseph / Atang Mokoenya (played by Zenzo Ngqobe) who at the beginning of the film was living in a small apartment in a tenement in Johannesburg ("Jo-berg"), South Africa.  He's informed by some of his friends that his father (played in flashbacks throughout the film by Jerry Phele), living in a shack in the Soweto neighborhood at the outskirts of town, was very ill.  Receiving the news as more an imposition on his time (not that he'd have much else to do with his time ... as he was unemployed and not particularly concerning himself with looking for work) than a concern, he sighs, rolls his eyes and decides to (eventually) go out there.

When he arrives, he's chewed-out by a neighbor-woman for being such a typically uncaring grown child of a sick parent.  Seething, but trying not to show disdain now, he endures her lecture and then proceeds to his father's shack, only to find that he's not answering when he knocks on the door.  Removing a plank from a window, her crawls in, and discovers, of course, that his father is dead.

Since the father wasn't terribly old, about 50 or so ... the assumption is that he probably died of some AIDS related illness.  This in part, but certainly _only_ in part, explains some of Joseph's disdain for his father.  Contracting HIV/AIDS remains a cause for shame in South Africa.

Some of Joseph's similarly listless, directionless friends from Jo-Burg arrive.  One of them goes over to a local tavern to get some beers.  Together they pull off a few planks from Joseph's dead father's shack to light a small bonfire, and together they toast with _some_ (but certainly not a lot) of respect the memory of Joseph's dad.

It is now that somebody asks Joseph what he's going to do with his dad's body.  Joseph shrugs not really knowing the answer.  However, someone then, a neighbor perhaps, informs him that Joseph's dad was prepared in this regard for his demise (as well as for his well-predicted assumption that his son wouldn't have a clue what to do ...).  As such, the father had paid the local undertaker for a respectable casket and transport ALONG WITH AN ACCOMPANYING TICKET FOR HIS SON to his home village in Lesotho.

Now Lesotho is small mostly mountainous kingdom in Southern Africa that due to its very inaccessibility had always kept its independence through the whole of the Colonial and later Apartheid Eras.  It was just "too far away" and didn't have much to offer in terms of minerals for the white settlers / colonial powers to bother with conquering.  So except for Anglican / Catholic missionaries the people of Lesotho were left alone (and the legacies of both the Catholic and Anglican missionaries were also portrayed in a generally benign way in the film as well).  Lesotho, for the most part, would seem to be as "forgotten" a Kingdom as the title of the film proclaims.

But Joseph's dad, being from there, did not forget.  And if not really in life then at least in death, Joseph's dad reminds him of his roots (and early childhood there) as well.  Indeed, the neighbor who tells Joseph of his dad's already purchased funeral plans reminds Joseph that his Lesothan name was actually Atang.

Wonderful.  So Joseph (er Atang), unemployed anyway, takes his dad's body back to Lesotho for burial.  And this is when the story, of course, really begins:

Since Joseph-Atang had little except for a generic set of friends "of the street" back in Jo-Berg anyway, he "lingers" in Lesotho for a while after his dad's burial.  It's not that Joseph-Atang suddenly "fell in love" with the remote country of his birth.  He did not.  It's just that _nothing_ in Atang-Joseph's life had much of a direction to it.  So there was no particular reason for him to rush back home now.  And he stays long enough to run into a childhood friend, a school teacher, named Dineo (played by Nozipho Nkelemba) who remembers him and he takes a liking to (and she to him).  And so he decides to stay for a bit longer than he thought he would before.

Now Dineo's father (played quite well by Jerry Mofokeng) sees the recently arrived (but apparently penniless) "city slicker" Atang hanging around his daughter suddenly.  And so he decides to scare him back to Jo-Berg: "Hey you, if you respect me and my daughter then do the right thing and marry my daughter.  And my bride's price (for her hand in marriage) is no less than ..."   Since Dineo's father _was right_ about him (at least initially), and Joseph-Ateng was indeed penniless, Joseph-Ateng "snapped out of his spell" and got on the next bus back to Jo-Berg.

BUT ... on the way back to Jo-Berg, he perhaps realizes that in Dineo HE FINALLY HAS SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR.  So HE DOES GET A JOB in a number of the mines in area ... and eventually returns back to the Lesothan village of his birth to pay the bride's price for Dineo ... only to find her and her father / sister GONE.

Where'd they Go?  Well Atang knew that Dineo's sister was ill (again in some stage of HIV/AIDS).  That's why Dineo, healthy, had stayed on at home ... to take care of her.  Again, HIV/AIDS remains a cause of shame for a family.  SO when it became impossible to hide his other daughter's illness, Dineo's father MOVED THE WHOLE FAMILY ACROSS THE MOUNTAINS CLEAR TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE KINGDOM to "protect" them (and himself...) from "gossip."

The rest of the movie then is about Ateng-Joseph along with an orphan boy (played by Lebohang Ntsane) from the village of his birth (who reminded Ateng-Joseph a lot of himself when he was the boy's age) crossing the mountains of Lesotho to return to his, now, Love.

It makes for a very nice story.  The last part of the film, shot in the mountains of Lesotho, is absolutely beautiful.  And the story also touches on universal themes.  Indeed, in the past year, I've three movies from three continents -- the Argentinian/Bolivian film La Paz [2013], the Indian film The Lunchbox [2013] and this one from South Africa / Lesotho -- in which the central (or otherwise key) characters only found peace by leaving their largely meaningless existences in Buenos Aires, Mumbai, and (now) in Johannesburg and finding starting new lives in the mountains of Bolivia, Bhutan and now Lesotho

I appreciated the film further because my (United States) Province of the Servite Order founded and has maintained the Catholic mission to KwaZulu (Zululand) which borders Lesotho (and one of our Italian Provinces was responsible for the Catholic mission to nearby Swaziland.  The film, beautifully shot, particularly in the latter two-thirds of the film, when the story takes place in the Lesothan countryside can help viewers appreciate the rugged beauty of that part of the world.

Overall, great film!  And, again, it's available for streaming for a reasonable price on Amazon Instant Video.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Most Wanted Man [2014]

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

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

Set post-9/11 in the dreary German port-city of Hamburg in autumn/winter, A Most Wanted Man [2014] (directed by Anton Corbijn, screenplay by Andrew Bovell, based on the novel by John le Carré [IMDb]) is a deliberately slow-burning post-9/11 spy story about Western intelligence's attempts to penetrate its Muslim immigrant community (9/11-mastermind Mohammed Atta as well as several others among the 9/11 hijackers had lived in Hamburg previously) an unassimilated community (due to cultural differences and exacerbated by previous racism) that seemed to the Authorities to be about as opaque as the city's sea of grey, featureless concrete and steel buildings and infrastructure and whose intentions were as unknowable yet as threatening as the ever-present storm clouds overhead. 

What to do?  How to get insight into a community that perhaps would never be particularly open / talkative and which after 9/11 would reflexively seek close itself off even more tightly?

Enter Günther Bachmann (played with magnificent precision by the tragically recently deceased Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who _patiently_ heads a clandestine squad from German intelligence, tasked with finding a way into this community using (surveillance?) methods that (as he somewhat proudly proclaims) "the German Constitution would not allow."  His mantra is: "You need a minnow to catch a fish, a fish to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark."

So we see him mostly handling "minnows," in particular a Jamal (played by Mehdi Dehbi) the twenty-something son of a prominent Muslim university professor named Dr. Faisal Abdullah (played by Homayoun Ershadi) who by all accounts _seems_ very clean, an upstanding, if articulate, if then also quite measured leader of the local Muslim community in Hamburg.  The question on Bachmann's mind and on the minds of his superiors in German intelligence back in Berlin AS WELL AS THE CIA hovering in the periphery is: Is Dr. Abudullah _really_ a good guy or is he just being really careful?  In the words of Martha Sullivan (played by Robin Wright) a CIA agent who had worked with Bachmann (in Lebanon) before (and whose work, again back in Lebanon, she had ultimately betrayed before): "Dr. Abdullah seems like a good man, but every good man has a little bad in him, and that little bad in this case may get a lot of people killed."

How to get into the head of Dr. Abdullah?  Well, that's why Bachmann and his team recruited (actually more like "squeezed") Abdullah's son Jamal.  But even a 20-something son doesn't necessarily know all that his old man is doing.

So enter, by luck enters a similarly young, angry, less cautious half-Chechen, half-Russian Issa Karpov (played by Gregoriy Dobrygin).  He arrives in Germany in search of money had been laundered away in Germany by his a-hole of a father who had been a former KGB intelligence officer during the Cold War.  Apparently Issa's Russian KGB father had a rather "unequal relationship" with Issa's Chechen mother.   However, Issa grew-up knowing enough about both -- enough to hate his father and yet know a fair amount about what he did in his job, including that he hid some money apparently in Germany AND enough about his mother to feel more close to her and to her Chechen people -- to come angrily to Hamburg with an admittedly half-baked but somewhat understandable "plan": Get a hold of his father's stashed-away money and put it in the service of the Chechen cause.

Now obviously Issa didn't come to Hamburg, wide-eyed and flailing a gun or Molotov cocktail in his hand demanding of passerbys: "Where's my dad's ill-gotten cash and how can I get a money order out to my Chechen friends in the Caucasus?"  However, he did talk loudly enough to enough people that his presence came to be known by Bachmann and his people.  And he talked loudly enough that his presence came to be known by Germany's robust and well meaning human-rights establishment (seeking to say "Never Again" to anything smacking of the human rights trampling Nazi-era Gestapo or the Communist-era Stasi...) Among them was an idealistic young lawyer named Annabel Richter (played beautifully by Rachel McAdams) who seeks to protect Issa from "the likes of" Bachmann and his squad.  Sigh ... Bachmann dismisses Richter when she first enters the scene in hopes of "protecting" Issa: "So you're a human rights lawyer?  You're nothing more than a social worker for terrorists." 

But Bachmann is not totally unsympathetic to Issa's multi-leveled (and quite personal) predicaments.  However, what he sees in Issa is, above all, his much needed "barracuda."

Can he use the well-meaning Richter and the confused/angry Issa to, with help of Jamal, FINALLY penetrate the inner workings of Dr. Abdullah?  The rest of the story follows ...

This is a very, very well crafted spy-story and will be appreciated by those viewers who do like nuance.  The end may disappoint some viewers (including myself actually) but the overall story is far more sophisticated than the average "chase scene" heavy / "shoot-em up" spy-thriller. And that is something to applaud.  Good film!

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Half of a Yellow Sun [2013]

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

IMDb listing

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
NYTimes (B. Kenigsberg) review
TheGuardian (P. Bradshaw) review
Variety (G. Lodge) review
HollywoodReporter (L. Felperin) review

Vanity Fair / Ebony (J. Miller) Interview w. Thandie Newton (Y. Sangwani) Interview w. Anika Noni Rose
TheSource Interwiew with AFI Fest director J. Lyanga

Half of a Yellow Sun [2013] (directed and screenplay by Biyi Bandele [IMDb] based on the award winning novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) set in the context of the 1967-70 Nigeria-Biafran Civil War following Nigeria's independence in 1960 has been compared to Gone With the Wind (film) and Unbearable Lightness of Being (film).  The film played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago.

The film tells the story of twin sisters, the more idealistic Olanna (played by Thandie Newton) and more practical / social climbing Kainene (played by Anika Noni Rose) from an upper-class / educated Nigerian family who reached adulthood just as Nigeria gained its independence (from Britain) in 1960.  Olanna moves out to a university town in northern Uganda with her lover Odenigdo (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), an young, rather radical sociology professor.   Kainene, in contrast assumes responsibility for the family's commercial interests which were located in the coastal, oil rich, south-eastern part of the country from where their family was originatate.  She also takes on a (white) British expatriate writer (and married man) named Richard (played by Joseph Mawle) as her lover and after he divorces his first (white) wife, he becomes her husband.

Now the Big Question debated in intellectual circles across Africa in the early years of the post-Colonial era regarded how Africans should view the boundaries of the new African nation states, which had, after all, still been imposed on these African states (and the peoples living within them) by the exiting European colonial powers.  Odenigdo, firebrand that he was, advocated the position that often heard at the time, that "the only truly indigenous, pre-Colonial political unit in Africa was the Tribe," that both "the national boundaries of the emerging post-Colonial States as well as even the concept of 'Race' were concepts imposed on Africans by the (European) Colonial Powers." 

Hence, though initially teaching in the above mentioned university town located in Northern Nigeria, he becomes an ideological advocate of the secession of the south-eastern region of Nigeria where his tribal roots were from.  When this region does secede, the region declaring itself the Republic of Biafra and taking on a flag which included an emblem of a (rising) "half sun" from which the current film and the novel on which it is based derive their name, he becomes an enthusiastic defender of the move.

All good in theory, 'cept ... it turned out that the south-eastern region of Nigeria was ALSO the most oil rich region of the country at the time.  Hence the Nigerian state (and the rest of Nigeria) had not merely ideological reasons for fighting to keep the nation together (the majority view among intellectuals across Africa came to be that however inappropriately drawn the boundaries of the newly independent nation states of Africa may have been, _changing them_ now would plunge the continent into chaos) but also obvious economic ones: Allowing south-eastern region of Nigeria to secede would economically damage the rest of the country.

So when Biafra declares its independence, Odenigdo and Olanna along with their emerging family (rather complicated actually as Odenigdo had a child by another woman) move rather enthusiastically down to Biafra to "build up" the new country.   In contrast, Kainene felt more or less dread.  Why?  Well she had previously managed "the family's" commercial interests there quite well and her personal life was clearly _not_ organized along "tribal lines" -- she had married James, outside of her tribe, indeed outside of her race, after all.  Yet she was also Biafra's dominant tribe, so what could she (and the rest of the family) as ideologically "unconvinced" as they were, do ... but "go along."

The rest of the story ensues ...

Since Nigeria's national boundaries remain what they were at independence and there no longer is a secessionist Republic of Biafra, one can assume how the story has to play out.  Still it makes for a fascinating modern post-colonial African tale, told by modern Africans themselves.

EXCELLENT AND THOUGHTFUL (if appropriately R-rated) FILM! 

For those interested in this part of recent African history, the film is now available for streaming at a reasonable price on various services including Amazon Instant Video.

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Calvary [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

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

Calvary [2014] (written and directed by John Michael McDonaugh), released in the United States three weeks past, is obviously a film that I took my time to see.  Despite quite good reviews, I dreaded seeing a film about a "'good priest' 'martyred' for the 'Sins of the Church.'"  It seemed like an unbearably pompous cliché.  It didn't help matters for me that I was told by a community member who doesn't go to the movies that if he did that THIS would be the movie that he'd go see.  With limited time -- I was about to go visit relatives overseas -- I chose to see the much lighter but certainly _not_ pointless, 100 Foot Journey [2014] instead.

... But over the past weekend, I was reminded by my dad to go see the current film anyway.  And for the credibility of my blog, I knew I had to.  And honestly was I surprised / impressed when I did.  By midway through the film, I was wondering if the Church, which, after all, has been forced in recent years to face terrible sexual scandals within its ranks, _even deserved_ such an eloquent defense of its work and mission as that presented in this film. 

In the film's opening scene, Fr. James (played by Brendan Gleeson), parish priest in a small coastal town near Sligo, Ireland, is hearing confessions on Sunday morning.  A "penitent" comes into the Confessional and declares to the priest "I was seven years old when I first tasted semen." (Extended Pause). "What do you have to say to that Father?"  (Pause as well). "Certainly a startling opening line," replies the priest.  Indeed.  The voice on the other side of the Confessional screen continues, telling the priest that he had been raped repeatedly, twice weekly, orally and anally, by a priest for four years, from age 7 to 11, until the priest presumably moved on to another parish.  He tells the priest that this was long ago and that the offending priest himself was now long dead.  What then to do?  The voice says that actually even if the offending priest was alive it would make little sense to kill him.  "What would that do, to kill a bad priest."  Instead, he tells Fr. James, that he's decided to kill a good priest, him. "THAT," he says, "will draw notice."   But he tells Fr. James that he's thought this through.  He wants to give Fr. James a week to "get his matters in order."  Still, he tells Fr. James to meet him THE FOLLOWING SUNDAY MORNING on the beach outside of town, where ... he would shoot the priest dead.

The rest of the film runs like a combination of High Noon [1952] and Graham Greene's celebrated novel The Power and the Glory, it counts down the days ...

What does Fr. James do with his final days?  WHAT HE'S ALWAYS DONE.  He administers the Sacraments.  He makes a number of pastoral calls.  There's a case of domestic violence that he has to deal with, an older recluse waiting for death who muses about suicide.  At the nearby hospital, he anoints the dying husband of a French tourist brought into this state as a result of a car accident.  He even visits a notorious if confused inmate at the local jail.  Fr. James' own life is a little more complicated than most as he entered the priesthood AFTER his wife had died.  So he has to also deal with the depression and listlessness of his twenty-something daughter.

So he goes about his work.  But there are also regular reminders of the Sentence that has been put on him by the anonymous "penitent" who he had encountered in the Confessional.  On Wednesday, the Church suddenly burns down.  A day or two later, Fr. James finds his beloved dog with his throat slit ...

Saturday comes, and Fr. James' associate, a younger priest "skips town" upset after an argument with Fr. James the previous ngiht.  Besides, he notes, "There's no Church (building) anymore ..."

Fr. James?  Though he toys with the idea of "skipping town" as well ... (not much of a spoiler alert), he, of course, DECIDES TO STAY.  Sunday comes ... mid morning comes ... Fr. James picks himself up and heads off to the lonely, rocky beach ...

In my college years, I remember remarking out-loud, when the celebrated and quite "scandalous" for the time Thorn Birds [1983] miniseries was playing: "Why do they only make films about priests that do terrible, scandalous thngs?  Why don't they make a movie about a priest simply doing 'priestly things'?"  One of my then similarly college-aged room-mates laughed: "Not THAT would be one boring movie." ;-)

Now as _this film_ progressed, I realized, yes somewhat awestruck, that THIS WAS THE FILM THAT I HAD BEEN ASKING FOR back then.

Honestly, WHAT A FILM!  And even if it _is_ clouded over by the Sin of the sexual abuse scandals of the recent years, HOW ELSE COULD A FILM ABOUT THE PRIESTHOOD BE MADE TODAY?

And yet, honestly, what a beautiful portrayal of the SIMPLE and HOLY work of this HUMBLE village priest for the sake of often difficult, uncomprehending perhaps even "ungrateful" people (but how could one be grateful/ungrateful for something one does not understand?).  And yet not without total incomprehension.  The French (!) widow (talk about a modern "Samaritan or Syrophoenecian Woman" of our time) of the tourist killed in the car accident understood.

Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  (John 6:67-68)

Excellent, excellent film!

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Tenderness (orig. La Tendresse) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  LaCroix (3 1/2 Stars)  LeFigaro (3 1/2 Stars)  LeMonde (2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing
FrenchFilmSite listing
Alociné.fr listing* (C. Renou-Nativel) review* (M. Tranchant) review* (I. Regnier) review*

Variety review
HollywoodReporter (S. Dalton) review

Tenderness (orig. La Tendresse) [2013] [IMDb] []*(written and directed by Marion Hänsel [IMDb] []*) is a gentle French-Belgian-German co-production that played recently at the 2014 Chicago French Film Festival held at the Music Box Theater on Chicago's north side a festival cosponsored by the French Diplomatic Mission to the United States.

The film's about a long divorced Belgian couple, Frans (played by Olivier Gourmet [IMDb] []*) and Lisa (played by Maryline Canto [IMDb] []*), who receive word that their college aged/20-something son Jack (played by Adrien Jolivet [IMDb] []*) had an end-of-season skiing accident somewhere in the French Alps.  As is often the case, initially it was not clear how bad the accident was.  In any case, however, it was necessary for both to go down (together) to the alpine resort town where their son had the accident to pick-up Jack as well as his car/belongings to bring him/his stuff home.

This is then the setup to a lovely "road trip" of sorts (it's about 8 hours driving from Brussels to the French Alps) about the ties (and love/tenderness) that remain even after definitive separation/divorce.

The dialogue is priceless.  As the two begin their journey (Frans is remarried, Lisa is not) it's pretty obvious why the two came to part ways: He's a perfectionist, she's more adventurous / relaxed (even if perhaps somewhat forgetful as well).  He's a miser, driving 20 minutes out of his way into Luxemburg to save a few Eurocents on a liter of petrol.  She just shakes her head, when they arrive at the "cheap gas station" and ... it's closed ;-).  But they are both gentle enough to not kill each other on the road.  And by the time they arrive they've come to an accommodation with each other to the point that Jack's girlfriend Alison (played by Margaux Chatelier [IMDb] []*) comments about how surprisingly good (dare one say "in love") they seem to be with each other.

Honestly folks, this is GREAT AND GENTLE FILM that "the French" could make in a way that "Anglo-Americans" could not.  For 40-something couples married, remarried or divorced, this would make for a fascinating piece for reflection.

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

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Giver [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

The Giver [2014] (directed by Phillip Noyce, screenplay by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, based on the novel by Lois Lowry [IMDb]) plays like a somewhat updated and somewhat softened (suburbanized) version of George Orwell's 1984: Human attempts at "Climate Control" have instead totally devastated world.  A remnant of civilization has survived by, in fact, radically "doubling down" on this program of "Precision" and "Control" to the point that truly everything in the remnant society from language to even perception has come to be controlled by a self-perpetuating group of "experts" that specially breeds and forms its successors.  Essentially, society has become a well-manicured "ant-hill" where every "ant" knows (and is actually quite content in) his/her place.

And it doesn't necessarily look bad.  All looks quite clean and in order in society (everybody appears to do his/her job, and apparently does said job _well_).  It's just that everything is also quite bland.  All members of the society are required to take medications assigned to them each day, which among other things eliminate even the perception of color.  So we are presented with a society living in what looks like a very well-manicured suburb, but everything is grey (think here of Pleasantville [1998]).

Growing-up in this society are Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites) and his friends Fiona (played by Odeya Rush) and Asher (played by Cameron Monaghan) who are finishing their equivalent of their "high school years" and are about to be "sorted" (think here of the recent film Divergent [2014]).

The annual "sorting ceremony" of "graduates" both into and out of life is quite dramatic.  The somewhat "ancient looking" if also somewhat "wise-looking" _Matriarchical_ (think here interestingly of the recent children's animated film Mars Needs Moms [2011]) Chief Elder (played by Meryl Streep in a truly unforgettable whig) arrives _remotely_ to the ceremony in the form of a GIGANTIC HOLOGRAM (is she even alive??).  And at the ceremony, the young approaching maturity are "given their tasks" (and assigned specialized training ... think of both university and of "ants" again), the old arriving at retirement age are "released to elsewhere" (wherever "elsewhere" may be ...).  

At the ceremony, all are the young approaching maturity are given their tasks ... Fiona is assigned to essentially nursing school/child care training, Asher to military flight training (practical/functional fields...).  Only Jonas doesn't seem to be assigned initially to anything.

Oh dear, what does that mean? (shades of Divergent [2014] again).   Actually, in the society at hand, having not been selected for any of the more immediately practical/functional tasks is not necessarily a bad thing: Jason's been chosen for a far more _special task_.  Told that he's been determined to have the aptitude "to see beyond," he's assigned to specialized training to become a "receiver of memory" (societal memory) under the special tutelage of the current "Receiver of Memory" (played by Jeff Bridges) who then becomes "The Giver" of such Memory to Jonas. 

Make no mistake, in a totalitarian society (and that is what is being portrayed here), Jonas' is an appointment to an elite position.  As a "receiver of memory" in training, Jonas is introduced to memory of that which existed BEFORE the (totalitarian) society came into being.  Thus he is INTRODUCED by "The Giver" to such experiences as TASTE, COLOR, EMOTION including PAIN.  And here Jonas comes to the crossroads that the previous "Receiver of Memory" ("The Giver" training him) arrived at when he was being prepared for his position ... should a society perhaps "safe" and in a sense "perfect" be allowed to continue if the cost of its continued existence is SO HIGH.  Jason's mentor had clearly proven to frightened/weak to change things.  But Jason doesn't have to choose the same way as his mentor ("The Giver") did ...

The rest of the story follows ... it's honestly not a bad story, and offers viewers / readers much, much to think about.  To some extent, the current film has been adopted by the American Right but truth be told,  at least the current installment (it's based on part one of a quartet of books) is far more independent than that.  Good film!

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

If I Stay [2014]

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

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

As I watched, If I Stay [2014] (directed by R.J. Cutler, screenplay by Shauna Cross, based on the novel by Gayle Forman [Amzn] [IMDb]) my mind wandered in many directions, among them I thought of how both the publishing industry and the Catholic Church in the United States panders society with their uses of the apparently quite elastic term "young adults." 

When I was, IMHO _actually_ a young adult, that is, in my mid-20s, I thought that the Catholic Church had it right: Young Adulthood was a period when the schooling was basically done, when one was taking-up actual responsibilities (moving out on one's own, getting a real job, etc) and discerning one's true life direction (discerning who to marry or as in my case whether to enter into religious life).  In my day, it was actually rather "cool" to be a young adult, either in Los Angeles (where I was in went to grad school before I entered the Servites) or back in Chicago (where I was originally from).  Perhaps it was too cool, because since coming back to Chicago, I've found that a lot of formerly young adults of my generation continued meeting as "YOUNG ADULTS" even as it became increasingly difficult to justify the stretching of the definition to include "those under 35" and even "those under 40."  Don't get me wrong, I UNDERSTAND THE CAMARADERIE.  It was FUN being part of a Catholic Young Adult group when I was in my 20s.  IT REMAINS FUN BEING WITH THE SAME PEOPLE NOW THAT I'M 50.  Just please, let's be honest, we're NOT "young adults" any more and haven't been for a long long time.

So the reader here could appreciate my bemusement with the American Publishing industry's pandering its audience in the other direction.  LET'S BE HONEST, the American Publishing industry has redefined TEENS as "Young Adult Readers."  And let's also be honest about why this was done: Situations and subject matters that would seem _wildly inappropriate_ if clearly TARGETED TO TEENS (most of whom ARE MINORS!) become "possible" when the target audience is "redifined" as (wink, wink) "young adults."

Case and point with the story that plays-out in the current film based on a "Young Adult" novel.  The story is about a somewhat geeky, cello playing, teenage girl named Mia (played in the film by Chloë Grace Moretz) growing-up in Portland, Oregon, her parents being nice, salt of the earth, somewhat counter-culture-ish ex-hippy/punk/granola/grunge people (played by Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos).  She also had a younger brother, who didn't have a particularly large role in the story, except to round the family size to four.  The key shtick in the setup of the story was that Mia's parents were perhaps more open/liberal, certainly more extroverted than the shy, somewhat frightened, somewhat more conservative Mia herself.

Enter the one-year-older teenager from the same high school, Adam (played by Jamie Blackley), a guitarist in a small-time rock band who becomes Mia's love interest in the story. 

Now it would have been interesting actually to keep things honest.  Where would a seventeen year old rocker-to-be play?  The number of venues would have been limited to garages, perhaps a parish festival or two.  But that's kinda limiting to a story.  So his band is portrayed as more successful than would probably be expected.  And so his band is portrayed as playing in bars (again, at 17 ...).  Then, perhaps even more improbably, Mia's soon joining him (as Adam's girlfriend) in the bars as well.  IT'S ALL POSSIBLE but CERTAINLY FAR MORE COMPLICATED THAN PORTRAYED.

Then, honest portrayal of the romance between the rather shy, initially sophomore, later junior in high school Mia and her one year older boyfriend Adam would most likely be "rather boring."  So it too had to be ginned-up.  Thus we have a rather improbable scene in the film with Adam and Mia sharing presumably post-coital "sweet nothings" to each other, naked if covered, in Mia's bed in her home with presumably Mia's parents being somehow "cool with it."  Come on.  Imagine the dialogue: "Mom, Adam's here and we're going to go upstairs to do some math homework and then to make sweet love to each other before he goes home."  "Ok dears, have a nice time..." (WOULD ANYBODY IN THE U.S., EVEN TODAY, BELIEVE A SCENARIO LIKE THAT...?). 

Thus this is a young adult story that would work if the protagonists were college students or otherwise ACTUAL YOUNG ADULTS (in their 20s).  But as 15-17 year olds?  Come on.  And this then is the problem.

Okay, sure, there's plenty of other drama.  Mia's and her family have a terrible car accident and so forth.  But the fundamental setup of the story is simply not credible.

Finally, honestly parents, just because a book is labeled "Young Adult" does not mean that it is suitable FOR A TEEN.  The "Young Adult" label is a word-game ...

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

To understand Sin City: A Dame to Kill For [2014] (screenplay and codirected by Frank Miller [IMDb] along with Robert Rodriguez based on Frank Miller's [IMDb] "Sin City" graphic novels) one has to, strangely enough, link it with another unfortunately "overdone" sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire [2014] associated with Frank Miller's [IMDb] work:

Unquestionably technically superior to the graphic novel inspired Sin City [2005] original, the current film suffers from the same badly chosen over-the-top violent excesses of above-mentioned sequel to the 300 series' 2006 original.   And it's a shame, because the needlessly brutal and ultimately off-putting violence of the film obscures the technical triumphs of the film -- WATCHING THE FILM, ONE FEELS LIKE ONE IS TRANSPORTED INTO THE LARGELY BLACK-AND-WHITE WORLD (color present ONLY SPARINGLY and OBVIOUSLY to ENHANCE THE IMPACT OF THE STORY) of the comic book (er, graphic novel).  If only the similar wisdom was used in the employment of violence in the story as well!

As I've written several times in this blog, I myself do not mind the use of graphic imagery -- violent or sexual -- as long as such imagery does serve the story (For an example, see my review of The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]).

I do think that viewers see more of actress Eva Green (who plays Ava, the film's "Dame to Kill for") than they really need to.  However, I'D BE WILLING TO GIVE THIS A PASS, as we see what we see of her IN HIGHLY STYLIZED, HIGH-CONTRAST B&W AND _WITH THE POINT_ OF UNDERLINING WHO SHE PLAYS IN THE STORY: A REALLY, REALLY DANGEROUS SULTRY-AS-CAN-BE "FEMME FATALE" who commands by her sexuality ANY SITUATION that she finds herself in.  For a PG (and "far more clothed") version of the same Archetype, consider Milla Jovovich's portrayal of the Milady De Winter character in the most recent cinematic incarnation of The Three Musketeers [2011], a character who had her own mind / agenda and honestly NO ONE (or, more to the point, NO MAN) could trust ;-).  Then Cameron Diaz plays a similar character in The Counselor [2013] with utterly _perfectly manicured_ STAINLESS STEEL COLORED NAILS and a LONG, LONG "leopard spot" TATTOO beginning at her heck and meandering down, spot by spot, back-and-forth, across her back, all the way to her a...  I'd put Eva Green's portrayal of Ava in this film, and even of her portrayal of the fierce, "out for revenge" Greek "turn coat" leader of the Persian fleet Artemesia in 300: Rise of an Empire [2014] in the same league.  We're talking about Archetypes here and I do think that Ms Green plays the Archetype of the fiercely independent woman and thus utterly uncontrollable by men very, very well.  Call the Archetype a female patriot, a "Malcolm X" with a "V" ;-) : "by any means necessary."  And yes, like the Archetype personified by the historical Malcolm X such a female version would scare the daylights out of a lot of people.

That said, the portrayal of the rest of the women and then of the violence in the film is far less justified: Okay, Ava's character is perhaps "special" and perhaps the organizing principle around which the rest of the story was built.  BUT DOES EVERY WOMAN in the admittedly FALLEN CITY portrayed HAVE TO BE A VICTIM OR A PROSTITUTE (and sometimes both)?  Similarly, with the violence.  Okay, one of the characters in the first film, Manute (played by Dennis Haysbert), had a "glass eye."  Was it really necessary (SPOILER ALERT) to see in IN THIS FILM, IN ABSOLUTE GRAPHIC DETAIL, HOW HE CAME TO LOSE SAID EYE?

It's the stupid excess of the violence in this sequel that will make this film unwatchable to most readers of this blog (and most viewers in general).  Yes, I understand that "conventional wisdom" DICTATES that a sequel MUST INCREASE that which makes the first film memorable and PART of what made the first film memorable was its visceral portrayal of "life in a corrupt/fallen city."  But I wish that this sequel had kept to the level of violence of the first film and simply chose to highlight the new film's FAR IMPROVED VISUAL TECHNIQUE.

If not for the film's stupidly excessive over-the-top violence, this film could have been a contender for such technical awards as best editing, best cinematography, even (perhaps) best animated film.   The film could have been used as an example of a fascinating blurring in recent years of the boundary between animated and live-acted films.  Now such a discussion could be done only with a large number of the discussion's participants holding their noses.

So bottom-line, the current film offers film-makers much to consider in terms of visual / story-telling technique.  I just wish the film didn't sink into pointless, truly gratuitous violence.  A far more compelling product could have resulted here if only the film's makers had not chosen to dial up the violence "to eleven."

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Monday, August 11, 2014

What If [2013]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

While I would have rated the film R for content (the film really is for the college age to mid-twenties crowd, not for young teens) the lovely, well written and superbly acted Rom-Com What If [2013] (directed by Michael Dowse, screenplay by Elan Mastai, based on the stage play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi) offers a surprisingly good message regarding friendship, relationships and the value of marriage (yes, "even in our day" ...).

Why?  Well both of the film's central protagonists Wallace (played by former "Harry Potter" Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (played by one of my favorite young actresses Zoe Kazan, I loved her in Ruby Sparks [2012]) experienced during the course of the film the pitfalls of being "involved with someone" without getting married:

Wallace finds himself rather brutally dumped at the beginning of the film by a girlfriend, Nicole (played by Mackenzie Davis), who in her mind apparently thought herself to be "trading up."  Chantry, on the other hand, spends _most of the duration of the film_ living "together" (for 5 years apparently) with her boyfriend Ben (played by Rafe Spall) who it becomes increasingly obvious loves, above all, his job:

There's a scene in the film where the Chantry and Ben are together in a restaurant where he begins talking about how long they've been together and "grown together" ... and so on and so forth.  Yet, when he practically drops on his knees, it's NOT to propose, but to tell her that he got a _really good job offer for a 6 month assignment in _another part of the world_ (in Dublin, Ireland though they live and the film plays out mostly in Toronto, Canada).  She herself, an cartoon animator, had turned down a promotion if only she would be willing to relocate FOR THE SAKE OF THE RELATIONSHIP.  But Ben takes a different path ...

This is "a flag" folks ...

So while Ben goes off to Dublin, Wallace and Chantry, who previously met at a party and despite obviously hitting it off very well, agree to remain "just friends."  Yet how long can the two be just friends when it is obvious that they are each other's true Significant Others?  One doesn't have an S.O. and the other's "S.O." is an ocean away "pursuing HIS thing ..."

Folks the one irritant that I do have in this film is the "faux fidelity" that's being defended here, for a while, until it collapses under its own weight.  Chantry and Ben WERE NOT MARRIED.  It was more or less obvious that Ben WASN'T INTERESTED IN GETTING MARRIED.  So ... honestly THERE WAS NO "FIDELITY" TO HONOR / DEFEND.  Living together is NOT "just like marriage."  It isn't.  By it's nature it is still temporary and largely consequence-LESS.  If one or the other decides to "pick-up sticks" and leave, THE OTHER HAS NO RECOURSE but to take it.

So women ... if you're living with a guy in HIS HOUSE, APARTMENT OR FLAT and HE DECIDES HE'S DONE WITH YOU, yes, YOU STAND TO BE OUT ON THE STREET and THERE'S NOTHING THAT YOU CAN REALLY DO ABOUT IT.  On the other hand, if you're serious enough to buy property together, for goodness sake, would it not be just easier to get married?  At minimum, YOU'D SAVE THE NEEDLESS / EXTRA LAWYER FEES...

There was actually an excellent recent Czech film (that probably no one in the States will now see, as it toured through here this summer and is now gone) called Like Never (orig. Jako Nikdy) [2013] that was largely about exactly this: A woman in her 40s who had been living for many years with a significantly OLDER artist but had never gotten married to him was now watching him die and realizing that when he dies, she's going end up on the street, because EVERYTHING SUBSTANTIAL (the house in particular) was IN HIS NAME and he had no intention of changing this EVEN AS HE WAS DYING.  (And legally, there was NOTHING that she could do about it).

The current movie offers a similar message giving YOUNG PEOPLE a great reminder that (1) relationships OUGHT TO BEGIN AS FRIENDSHIPS (or else what do you really have in common TO BUILD ON?) and (2) THERE IS SIMPLY NO (_EASY_) SUBSTITUTE TO MARRIAGE. Until one is married one's relationship with another is by definition precarious and based on good will.  And if it falls apart, one has no legal recourse but to suck it up, pack one's bags and move on.

In marriage one _does_ have legal rights that have to be respected EVEN IF THE MARRIAGE FALLS APART.  (And this is actually _exactly_ why homosexuals have been petitioning for the right to marry as well).  Outside of marriage there are no protections if one's partner decides FOR WHATEVER REASON to (in his/her mind) "get a better deal elsewhere."

Great and sobering film (even amidst the laughs)!

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The Hundred Foot Journey [2014]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Chicago Tribune (2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune/Variety (J. Chang) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

The Hundred Foot Journey [2014] (directed by Lasse Hallström, screenplay by Steven Knight, based on the novel by Richard C. Morais [IMDb]) is a lovely, feel-good movie about the blessings that come with ethnic / cultural diversity.  It is a film that cheerfully proclaims to all who would listen that we do "complete each other" (the writers of Jerry Maguire [1996] didn't invent that line.  That sentiment is expressed in pretty much all the universal religions and philosophies including Judeo-Christianity c.f. Gen 1:26-31, 1 Cor 12:12-26, Rom 5:3-8, Col 1:24, Rev 7:9-14, Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Non-Christian Religions "Nostra Aetate" [1965]).

Alas, the story begins, sadly enough, in the still largely sectarian/divided/fallen world of today (Yes, the world's religions and philosophies many proclaim a "Brotherhood of Man" but often enough THEIR (or our...) particular "Brotherhood..."): A good humored/innocuous Muslim family from Mumbai, India finds itself driven out of their home/business after these are burned down in a sectarian riot. 

Where do they go?  Widowed as a result of the anti-Muslim pogrom, Papa (played with magnificent comic timing by Om Puri) takes the family to England first.  But "the karma's" just not right ;-).  Explaining as they're at the border crossing at the famous Chunnel between England and France why they are leaving England for France, eldest son and culinary prodigy Hassan (played by Mashan Dayan) explains to a bemused (presumably) English border official that the vegetables in England "just don't have life."  His headscarf-wearing late-teenage sister Mahira (played again magnificently by Farzana Dua Elahe) explains to another (presumably) French border official that, no, she's not being taken across the border "against her will" for an "arranged marriage" explaining "Believe me, nothing in our family is particularly well arranged" ;-)

And so it is, this moderately sized Muslim family -- widowed Papa and his 5 children ranging in age from early 20s to 8-10 (with Mother guiding them from above) -- originally from Mumbai now all packed into a rickety European minivan, cross into France from England in search of a place to set down roots.  And they literally crash into a small provincial French town in the foothills of the Alps. 

There they find a place at the edge of town start a restaurant.  But alas, it's across the street from ANOTHER, and very well respected French restaurant run by (also a widow) Madame Mallory (played by Helen Mirren) with stately precision in honor of her late husband. 

Is a lovely / picturesque provincial French town with much history/beauty ready for "an invasion" of an, again, lovely Indian Muslim family, coming from a culture also with much history and color, as well as its own music, dress and spices?   That's, of course, the question of the film.  And if the story of the film sounds a lot like Chocolat [2000], it's probably not an accident as both films were made by the same director.  However, I would note that this current film is much, much, much gentler.

Now some of the critical opinion above laments some of the schmaltziness of the current film.  The film's set-up for multiple _family friendly_ romantic trajectories.  Besides the inevitable one involving the widowed Papa of the family and Madame Mallory, there's also a cheerful if also serious "sous chef" named Margerite (played masterfully by Charlotte Le Bon) working for Madame Mallory, who also happens to be Hassan's age.

But I honestly loved this film through and through, and readers of my blog would know that I have really big soft spot for "schmaltizness" ;-).  The film's producers included both Steven Spielberg [IMDb] and Oprah Winfrey [IMDb].  I understand why they wanted to get involved and I simply have to applaud the result.  This film shows us _what is possible_ if we open ourselves to the possibility of learning from others.

Again, all the great saints, mystics and philosophers across the ages have understood the message here.  I come from a Catholic / Christian tradition, so I wish to simply add here that in our best days we (Catholics) definitely agree.

"No one is so rich as to have nothing to learn from others, and no one is so poor as to have nothing to offer to others" -- St. Pope John Paul II

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight [2014]

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

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

Fans or at least followers of Woody Allen films will find in Magic in the Moonlight [2014] (written and directed by Allen) a typically well-crafted, well-acted film, musing about and perhaps cumulatively building upon typical concerns of his -- Is there a God?  Is there a Here-After?  And how to make-do in life if one finds oneself having great difficulty in believing in them.  A believer could choose to be OFFENDED (How dare W.A. and his moneyed/richer than God, swinging from the chandeliers, hedonistic Hollywood backers ask these questions?), DISMISSIVE (most of us know more about W.A.'s personal baggage than that of our friends and neighbors' ...) or perhaps INDULGE HIM, perhaps sigh/roll one's eyes, but let him tell his story and perhaps honestly take some notes, because we _all_ have amiable friends and relatives with similar problems / concerns when it comes to faith.

So W.A. begins his tale set in the 1920s Europe with Stanley (played by Colin Firth) a very British "The Sun Never Sets on Our Empire" magician (illusionist) who prefers to perform his "good fun" performances in "Asian face" (painted slanty eyes, pig-tail, pasted Confucius style goatee beard...) as "Wei Ling Soo" Why?  Perhaps in his very certain mind, no self-respecting post-Enlightenment Britisher would indulge in such things except, of course, "in jest"... (Honestly, Colin Firth plays Stanley, this film's Woody Allen-stand-in, to a magnificently pompous extreme .. I'd like to imagine Stanley as having a portrait of Bertrand Russell hanging over his bed ;-) 

But even all-knowing / utterly-ever-certain Stanley appears to understand the sad awfulness of his situation: Having eliminated the possibility of any truth (let alone God or a Here-After) existing outside of the bounds of a (his...) strictly rationalist system, he's consigned himself to a prison of meaninglessness and a rather fleeting one at that. (A GREAT visual reflection on the central Buddhist concept of "impermanence" of all things is the recent film Samsara [2012])

But no matter, at least one's smarter (while one's faculties hold-up) than others ... So as a "side interest" though indulged by him in his true, very "English face" and in his true name, STANLEY (one really can't get much more "British Colonial" than embracing the moniker of (Lord) Stanley...), he devotes his life to "debunking frauds" in his own words "from the Vatican to spiritualists." ;-)

Enter then an old friend, fellow Enlightened/sporting/bored illusionist Howard Burkan (played by Simon McBurney) who comes to Stanley with a problem/challenge: There appeared to be a young Kalamazoo, Michigan ("nowhere's-ville") born spiritualist named "Sophie" (played  with wide-eyed, small town huckster magnificence by Emma Stone) who's been making the rounds among moneyed English Expats summering on the French Riviera and though "she had to be a fraud," good ole Howard found himself "stumped."  So good ole Howard arrived at Stanley's London brownstone doorstep with the request to go down to Southern France with him to debunk her once and for all.

So Stanley does ... go down to Southern France to do just that, and ... it all "gets complicated" ;-).  And it's not necessarily that Stanley comes to a conclusion that he could be wrong about his very rationalist conception of the world / reality.  It just becomes patently obvious, even to him, that there's a cruelness to insisting on being Right all the time.  Stanley's Aunt Vanessa (played by Eileen Atkins) who knew Stanley in his childhood BEFORE he became "such a tired bore..," helps him out in this regard.

IMHO this is a very fun, well-filmed period piece.  The cars, the houses, the clothes, and the views of the sea (the French don't call the Riviera the Côte d'Azur - "the Coast of Blue" for nothing ;-) are all very beautiful.  And the film does have a very nice point: There is a deflating and dehumanizing cost to killing the Life / Hope of others and insisting on being Right all the time (indeed, insisting on being "one's own God").

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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy [2014] / And So it Goes [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 ...

Guardians of the Galaxy [2014] - MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (3 stars)  AVClub (B)

And So it Goes [2014] - MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)

Both films have had modestly good reviews.  And So it Goes [2014], starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton aims to be something of a romantic comedy for "viewers of a certain age," while Guardians of the Galaxy [2014] starring Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana has proven to be a surprising delight for many/most reviewers as it's both something of a send-up of the "Space Opera" / Superhero genre and yet as a Marvel Comics product offering the possibility that some of the Guardians may end up appearing in other (can one say "more serious"? ;-) projects in the future.

But I have to draw the line somewhere and so I chose to sacrifice these two films, figuring that if they proved important later on (as in taking some of the characters/performances into account in my end-of-year Denny Awards) I can check them out on video.

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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Get On Up [2014]

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

IMDb listing

Ebony (M. Allen) review
RollingStone (P. Travers) review

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review (S. Ellingburg) review

BET coverage
Ebony articles articles
TheSource articles

Get On Up [2014] (directed by Tate Taylor, screenplay by Jez / John Henry Butterworth story by Steven Baigelman and Jez / John Henry Butterworth), which seeks to tell the story of Legendary, One-of-a-Kind, Trail-Blazing, Seemingly Ever-Smiling (even if EVERYONE knew that he had a temper) Mad,Mad,Mad GENIUS African American singer/entertainer/businessman James Brown, who by acclamation carried the moniker "The Hardest Working Man in Show-Business" for an entire generation (and honestly, who could challenge that?), is a certainly a tall order.

Does the film measure up?  I do believe that the two communities that would have the most credible say in the matter would be the African American community and the Pop Music community and the reviewers for both Ebony and Rolling Stone magazines try hard to not be scathing... both recognizing the challenge to ANY director / team of screenwriters to do justice to such a complex man, but ...

How does one tell the story of someone who was a perfectionist and a wife-beater, who spent time in jail for stupid drug and weapons charges, even as he was a truly PULLED-HIMSELF-UP-BY-THE-BOOTSTRAPS SELF-MADE MULTIMILLIONAIRE (with a 6th grade education) PATRIOT who HELPED KEPT THE PEACE IN BOSTON (while MUCH OF THE REST OF THE COUNTRY _BURNED_) AFTER THE ASSASSINATION OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR by KEEPING TO HIS SCHEDULE and HOLDING HIS SCHEDULED CONCERT IN BOSTON GARDEN THE NIGHT AFTER MLK's ASSASSINATION and having THE ENTIRE CROWD SING TOGETHER "Say it LOUD, I'm BLACK AND I'M PROUD."   (This is a REMARKABLE STORY and is immortalized in several documentaries including The Night James Brown Saved Boston [2008] [IMDb] [Amazon Instant Video] and the concert itself James Brown Live at Boston Garden [1968] IMDb] []). 
Who can honestly forget his showmanship (and by all accounts _sincerity_) in singing the rambunctious "Living in America" in the Silvester Stallone film Rocky IV [1985].  (Yes, I know that there are 10,000 other examples I could give but I choose this one because James Brown born dirt poor in the heart of the Jim Crow South and abandoned as a child by both his parents could have been a veritable poster-child for Revolution (in Malcolm X's famous words "by any means necessary") but instead Brown chose to be a Patriot, flying out to Vietnam to play for the troops in the summer of 1968 and he supported both Nixon and Reagan in his time).  A very, very complex man.

So how the heck to you put that complexity on screen?  The film-makers _chose_ to make the film's chronology disjointed.  The film flies backwards and forwards in time.  At times, the film-makers have James Brown (played in the film by Chadwick Boseman) pull himself out of the scene and "break the fourth wall" to talk directly to viewers about one point or another. 

The use of these devices can make for a jarring experience for viewers, but I think they were chosen intentionally to express the complexity and even contradiction in the man.  To tell his story, one would perhaps have to go backwards and forwards in time and perhaps need him to explain himself directly to the audience to make sense of it all.

There's also a suggestion in the use of these techniques that the film-makers thought James Brown to be, at least in part, crazy.  Yet, well ... the line between genius and madness can be thin.  Still it's doubtful if he couldn't have achieved all that he achieved (he wasn't _just_ a singer / entertainer, he was also a businessman) if he was "simply nuts."  And yet precisely his manic activity in so many directions caused him troubles (those stupid drug and weapons convictions and though he was never actually charged with tax evasion, he did have the IRS's attention...).  But then he grew-up dirt poor in a situation where virtually absolutely nothing in his life was stable (again, both his parents abandoned him, and in the film he was largely raised by an aunt "Honey" who ran a brothel) so "he learned to survive..."  (In the film mom is played by Viola Davis, dad by Lennie James, and auntie by Octavia Spencer).

But then, HOW does one survive growing out of such an environment and even become famous / thrive? 

Well, the film clearly shows that James Brown did have the fortune of coming to have some very good friends including life-long band mate Bobby Byrd (played by Nelsan Ellis), manager Ben Bart (played magnificently if also certainly with some comic flair by Dan Aykroyd) and his (second) wife DeeDee Brown (played by Jill Scott).  But the film also suggested these friendships were often one-sided -- These people (and others) did care for James Brown.  But did / could James Brown really care for them?  This question then becomes the heart of the movie.  Yes, Brown became a success, but would the wounds from his childhood (above all THE TRUST ISSUES) eventually conspire to bring him down?  Well, what would you think?

This is not a perfect movie, but it does try (in as much as one can in two hours) to present the life of a very complex, gifted and challenged man.  Does it succeed?  In my opinion, if you like music, and do have a heart, it's worth the price of admission.

Finally, though the film is rated PG-13, I find that rating absurd.  Granted, the film is not necessarily a hard R.  The language is generally clean, and the drug use / sexual situations are kept more or less off screen.  But we do see him, from the back, having very, very _consensual_ sex as a young man "with a preacher's daughter...") AND THE GUY GREW UP IN "AUNTIE'S BROTHEL..."  So I honestly don't understand the PG-13 rating.   From a personal life standpoint, he certainly was no role model.  

But he was (like most of us) more than just the sum of his failings and sins.  When he sang, NO ONE could deny that he sounded "good, so good" and he "got us all" to feel good as well. ;-)

Despite his various (and perhaps multitude) of sins and failings, I always liked James Brown.

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