Friday, October 31, 2014

Fair Play [2014]

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

IMDb listing listing* listing*

CineEuropa (M. Kudláč) review

Červený (J. Kábrt) review* (M. Spáčilová) review* (K. Fila) review*

Variety (A. Simon) review (H. Petrželková) interview with director*

Fair Play [2014] [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Andrea Sedláčková [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]* along with Irena Hejdová [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]*) is a Czech, Slovak and GERMAN co-production that played recently at the 2014 (50th Annual) Chicago International Film Festival.

The film, a historical drama, is about a fictionalized 1980s (Communist Era) Czechoslovakian athlete, Anna (played by Judit Bárdos [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]*) who, along with her teammates is doped with a performance enhancing steroid-based cocktail, in Czech called "Stromba," at least _initially_ without her/their knowledge, to thus "render greater glory" to the then Communist System in the run-up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games (Some viewers/readers here would recall that the Communist bloc ended up boycotting those games, held in the U.S.A., ANYWAY.  So the whole exercise was futile ... But the "sports doctors" posing here more properly as "witch doctors" were being asked to get the athletes "ready" ANYWAY). 

Now how would Anna and her team-mates initially "not know" that they were being doped in this way?  Well (1) they were young (Anna would have been in her late teens, early 20s); (2) they were proud that they were already athletic enough to "make the grade" to be selected for the state-sponsored national athletic training program, and the said national athletic training program already had a scientific/professional almost science-fictiony / "space program" feel to it (besides coaches there were all sorts of trainers, sports doctors and other therapists always hovering about); and (3) they were already receiving regular "vitamin injections" as part of the nutritional regimen of their program.

So the "simple change" from one set of injections to another would not draw a great deal of initial notice by the athletes themselves -- except for (1) sensing a new level of defensiveness / evasiveness on the part of the coaches and sports doctors, when one or another of the athletes would ask questions that would seem otherwise quite reasonable:

Q: "What's the new concoction supposed to do?"
A: "It'll increase your muscle density, making you stronger and faster, and in a way that _nothing else in sports medicine_ can deliver."  Hmm...

Q: "Why am I being asked to sign special forms now that I didn't have to in the past"
A: "Well, you've been _selected_ to participate in something very special here, my dear.  YOU SHOULD BE PROUD OF HAVING RECEIVED THIS HONOR, and WE KNOW THAT you'll make OUR WHOLE COUNTRY proud."

Q: "What if I refuse to take the new injections?"
A: "Well, YOU'LL HAVE TO LEAVE THE TEAM, something that will certainly be a great disappointment to us AND TO THE WHOLE COUNTRY, as we and THE WHOLE COUNTRY have already _invested a great deal of money and resources_ into your training/preparation"

and (2) beginning to experience the multitude of steroid-based side-effects:  the sudden experience of various abdominal pains when one had no previous history of such things in the past; the predictable appearance chest and facial hair that would certainly terrify most young women; a noticeable spike in the number of tendon injuries among one's team-mates.


Well, folks, that's the rest of the film.  What do you do?  Czechoslovakia was NOT a free country in the 1980s.  And even Anna's own mother (played wonderfully by Aňa Geislerová [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]*) WHO HATED THE REGIME encouraged Anna to continue to take the "Stromba."  WHY??  "Just shut up, keep your head low, qualify and then you'll be able to get out of the country and YOU'LL FINALLY BE ABLE TO BE FREE."

Of course, though, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic along with the rest of the Communist Bloc ended up boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games ANYWAY ...

It all makes for a fascinating movie about how DEFENDERS / PROPONENTS of an INSECURE / PARANOID IDEOLOGY can come to MESS WITH THEIR MOST VULNERABLE (HERE ITS YOUNG) for the sake of "PROVING" that SAID IDEOLOGY is "better" than it really is.


An excellent English language recent documentary on the former East German athletic doping program is the PBS's Secrets of the Dead: Doping for Gold [2008] episode available for streaming free on the PBS's website.

Additionally, a recent there has been a critically acclaimed GERMAN documentary You Will Not Lose (orig. Einzelkämpfer) [2013] on the matter as well (Interview with former GDR athlete and director of the documentary Sandra Kaudelka).

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

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Kill the Messenger [2014]

MPAA (R)  ChicagoTribune/Variety (3 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune/Variety (A. Barker) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review  

Kill the Messenger [2014] (directed by Michael Cuesta, screenplay by Peter Landesman based on the books Dark Alliance by Gary Webb [IMDb] and Kill the Messenger by Nick Schou [IMDb]) tells the story of San Jose Mercury-News reporter Gary Webb [IMDb] (played in the film by Jeremy Renner) who reporting on some of the trials of various mid-level California drug traffickers walked into an investigative journalists' dream / conspiracy of a lifetime:

It turned out that some of the key government informants against some of these mid-level California drug traffickers worked for the CIA and had been involved _in protecting_ some of these same mid-level drug traffickers from prosecution in the 1980s because these drug-traffickers were moving "bargain priced" cocaine that was being converted to _crack cocaine_ which _due to its "bargain price"_ EXPLODED then onto the drug scene in AFRICAN-AMERICAN GHETTOS ALL ACROSS THE U.S., AND (yes, there's an and) THE PROFITS FROM THE SALES OF THIS DIRT-CHEAP CRACK COCAINE WERE BEING USED TO FINANCE THE CIA SUPPORTED CONTRAS (IN NICARAGUA).

I warned you, this was ONE HECK OF A CONSPIRACY, originally reported by Gary Webb in a three part series printed in the San Jose Mercury-News between August 18-20, 1996 and is available in full (on the Libertarian-leaning / anti-Drug War website "")

For those too young to remember the Contra War / Controversies of the 1980s, the then Reagan Administration was basing a good part of its strategy in fighting the expansion of Communism in Central America on supporting the "Contra" rebels fighting the pro-Soviet Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas having successfully overthrown the decades-old pro-U.S. Samosa family dictatorship there in 1979 under then U.S. President Jimmy Carter.  The then Democratic Party dominated U.S. Congress, however, refused to fund the Contras.  So the Reagan Administration / C.I.A. and affiliated right-wing groups looked for all sorts of "creative" ways to fund the  Contras without using U.S. taxpayer money to do it.  

The most (in)famous scandal of the time in this regard was the Iran-Contra Affair, in which the U.S. supplied Iran (at that time in the midst of a deadly war with neighboring Iraq) with U.S. weaponry IN PART in return for release of U.S. hostages held by Iran-supported Shia groups in Lebanon AND IN PART FOR MONEY which _technically not_ from U.S. taxpayers was then used to finance the Contras.   At subsequent Congressional hearings, U.S. Col. Oliver North working on President Reagan's National Security Council Staff, (in)famously called this scheme "a neat idea."

Getting hundreds of thousands to millions of African-American youths addicted to crack cocaine and turning around and JAILING AS FELONS said hundreds of thousands to millions of African American youths for everything from competing drug-gang shoot-outs TO SIMPLE POSSESSION and SUBSEQUENTLY DENYING HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF THEM (AS "FELONS") THE RIGHT TO VOTE EVER AGAIN would have seemed like ONE HELL OF AN IDEA for SOUTHERN RIGHT-WING RACISTS still smarting from their loss of their past power to deny Blacks the right to vote throughout the South thanks to the passage of the Johnson Era 1965 Voting Rights Act.


Imagine what this country could have been like WITHOUT the G.W. Bush Presidency:


(2) NO 9/11 -- (!!) -- The Bush Adminstration was simply not concerned about terrorism until those planes crashed into the WTC and the Pentagon.  Instead, they were focused on missile defense against North Korea, and a still secret "energy task force" that could have very well plotted the division of oil spoils a "post-invasion" Iraq.  By contrast, the Clinton / Gore Administration did take their National Security advisors seriously with regard to terrorism and did break-up a fairly major plot on the homeland around the turn of the Millenium.

In any case, we'll never know what could have happened because hundreds of thousands of African Americans who could have voted in Florida (and would have certainly voted for Gore rather than G.W. Bush) were not allowed to vote because they were "Convicted Felons" even if their convictions were for possession of trivial amounts of (even _planted_) crack cocaine.  

Again, selling AFRICAN AMERICAN YOUTHS cut-rate "crack cocaine" and using the funds to finance the Contras was ONE HELL OF AN "NEAT" IDEA ...

And Gary Webb, who stumbled onto this story, was eventually destroyed for writing it, and even died, somewhat mysteriously, in 2004 -- of suicide WITH TWO BULLETS IN HIS HEAD (possible, but ...)

Anyway, enjoy look the film up and read.  Again, Webb's whole original expose is available here.


Excellent articles about how the Felony "loophole" has been used to deny millions of (mostly people of color) the right to vote in the U.S. and especially Florida can be found here:

Susan Greenbaum, Restore Voting Rights to Ex-Felons, Aljazeera America, Feb 14, 2014

Did Florida's Felon Disenfranchisement Laws Cause Al Gore from Losing the 2000 Election? (

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A Dream of Iron (orig. Cheol-ae-kum) [2013]

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

IMDb listing
AsianWiki listing

A Dream of Iron (orig. Cheol-ae-kum) [2013] [IMDb] [AW] (written and directed by Kelvin Kyung Kun Park [IMDb] [AW]) is a South Korean documentary reflection which played recently at the 2014 (50th Annual) Chicago International Film Festival.

The thesis of the often striking visual (documentary) reflection was that while cave drawings in South Korea dating back 30,000-40,000 years indicate that Korea's first inhabitants venerated whales (the largest beings around) as de facto "gods," they soon came to master (kill) them.  Today, we arguably venerate even more enormous beings (in the form of truly GIGANTIC ships and super-tankers, often built at South Korea's Hyundai shipbuilding works).  But by building them, we actually "Master" them as well.  So by "venerating" "our Gods" do we actually "consume" them and thus destroy their divinity?

It makes for a fascinating visual (and at times auditory) reflection.  One of the more striking comparisons made is, in fact, auditory -- as the whale songs _can sound_ like the traditional humming of Buddhist chants, which in turn _can sound_ like the noises made by GIANT hydraulic machines. 

In the end, the film arguably declares that we ourselves, at least as "Man," if not as "people" (who in comparison to both the whales and the giant ships that we build may look like ants), are the True Gods of our times.

I don't necessarily agree with the film's thesis (it's rather Idolatrous, with a Capital "I")  But the visuals are, in fact, striking and worthy of those found in the films of Ron Fricke and Mark Madigson who've previously brought us some truly Wondrous visual reflections on arguably religious themes such as Chronos [1985], Baraka [1992] and most recently Samsara [2012] (reviewed here).

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It Follows [2014]

MPAA (R)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing

It Follows [2014] (written and directed by David Robert Mitchell) is an American award-winning low budget "indie" horror film making the rounds in the festival circuit.  It played recently at the 2014 (50th Annual) Chicago International Film Festival and is scheduled to be released to the general public sometime in 2015

The film is about a random, and by appearances generally "nice," 19-year-old suburban girl named Jay (played by Maika Monroe) who "finally" has her first sexual experience with a similarly seemingly nice / good-looking guy named Hugh (played by Jake Weary).  HOWEVER, as she waxes softly and sweetly in the back seat of Hugh's car, parked somewhere secluded by a river-bank or something, about the "wonderfulness" of what they/she had just experienced, she's shocked to find Hugh go to the trunk of his car, and then come after her with a roll of duck/electrical tape to tie her up and take her to another, very different, "secluded" location.

He takes her to a large mostly empty parking garage somewhere, ties her with the above mentioned duct tape to a wheelchair, a piece of her clothing shoved in her mouth so that she wouldn't scream, rolls her out into the middle of said parking garage and ... waits.  For what?

Eventually, a lumbering half dressed, half decayed zombie appears and starts lumbering up the on-ramp toward their floor, and indeed, toward HER.

This is when Hugh, quite desperate and quite emotionally ... explains.  He apologizes to her (tied and gagged, strapped to a wheelchair...), but says that there was nothing he could do (and actually that he's _still_ being something of a "nice guy" here).  He tells Jay, rag still in her mouth, that he's infected her with a sexually transmitted curse that attracts ... zombies.  And that the ONLY way (apparently) to get rid of said curse is to "pass it on" to someone else.  BUT ... if that next person gets killed / eaten by a zombie, those zombies will go back and come after her again.  (This is why, Hugh didn't just leave Jay to her own devices and instead tied her up and had her encounter said zombies in a "controlled location" ... in the middle of a half-empty, out-of-the-way parking garage with him present to explain what is going on....

As soon as she sees said zombie lumbering toward them, toward HER, and Hugh gets his chance to explain what is going on, he sets her free, and ... dutifully drives her home (perhaps, sort of like a "perfect gentleman" again ...).  It's clear though that HE NEEDS HER to know what's going on so that SHE can live long enough to transmit "the curse" to someone else (and hopefully explain TO THAT PERSON what he must do) so that the curse won't go back down to him/them again.

So... here's previously more-or-less "nice" Jay, who's had her first sexual experience at 19, with who she thought was "the perfect guy" and now she's got a sexually transmitted curse, and "the ONLY WAY" to get rid of it is to have sex with someone else, but then with someone smart, perhaps "streetwise" enough to find a way to transfer it to yet another person who'd again be smart/streetwise enough to transfer it again upwards, so that the Curse "never comes back."

So ... poor previously sweet Jay ends up sleeping (all off more-or-less screen) with as many as 6 guys during the course of the film -- (1) with dreamboat Hugh, who gave her the curse, (2) with a neighbor of hers, Greg (played by Daniel Zovatto), who's had a crush on her / and she's had a crush on him, who SEEMS smart enough to know what to do to avoid having the curse come back to her, BUT HE GETS KILLED BY THE ZOMBIES, (3-5) with as many as THREE random guys in a boat who she meets walking along a lake (but only one of got the curse, and he proved too stupid to live much longer after that) and (6) finally with a quite nerdy admirer of hers, Paul (played by Keir Gilchrist), who keeps volunteering to help her, but she keeps looking past him, until ... she runs out of guys.  This nerdy guy, Paul, is not altogether bright and probably would never be able to transfer the curse upwards, BUT ... TOGETHER ... they PERHAPS have a chance of defeating the Zombies.

This is obviously not the most morally uplifting film, of course.  But _somewhere_ in the film's "horrific" imagery is actually something of a moral message: Sex with "dreamboat Hugh" proved to be far more consequential/problematic than poor Jay ever imagined.  Then after going though a whole line of "cooler" guys who turned out to be "useless" anyway, she finally turns to the nerdy guy who's loved/worshiped her all along and TOGETHER (rather than "wham, bam ... good luck ...") they set out to deal with "the Zombies."  

In any case, it's probably the most original horror movie to come out in a while AND ... THERE'S NO (!) "lost footage" in this film.  Thankfully, we may be done with THAT horror-story telling device.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (4 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

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

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) [2014] (directed and screenplay co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu along with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo) is a "fargin' good" film about "Riggan Thompson," a Michael Keaton-like character (played by Michael Keaton ;-) who had made his mark/fortune, some 20 years back, playing a winged Superhero named "Birdman" in three blockbuster films. (While having been a very talented comedic actor prior to starring in the first two blockbuster Batman [1989, 1992] movies, those two "Superhero" films largely defined Michael Keaton's career as well ... until ... possibly ... now ;-).

So ... after living 20 years on "Birdman money," Riggan decides, for reasons not entirely clear, to dump much of the rest of his money into an über-serious / über-intimate stage adaptation of an über-serious / über-intimate short story by Raymond Carver entitled, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  Apparently having been previously dismissed by "serious critics" as "a Super-Hero acting lightweight," the consequently über-defensive Riggan himself _wrote_ the said über-weighty stage-adaptation of Raymond Carver's über-seriously titled _short story_ and ... was planning to direct it and star in it -- on Broadway no less -- to prove said critics WRONG!

That's if he can get the dang cast ... through rehearsals.  The cast's only four people - two women, another male and him.  How hard could THAT be?  There's them plus another couple of significant others hanging about the set -- an ex-wife who's actually, if mostly shaking her head, somewhat supportive, and a daughter (played by Emma Stone) just out of rehab who _hates him_ though, of course, not exactly sure WHY she hates him, 'cept that she DOES ;-)   

It _hasn't_ been easy ... two weeks before opening, A BIG METAL HOOK drops down "from above" and clunks Riggan's male costar in the head, knocking him out of commission (and threatening a subsequent lawsuit).

What to do?  Well, Lesley (played by Naomi Watts), one of the two female leads in the play, tells Riggan that she could have a replacement for him.  Who on such short notice?  Well, he's HER BOYFRIEND, Mike (played by Edward Norton), an über-talented (but also über-problematic) Broadway "Method" actor.  He's GOOD.  But then if he's so good, why would he "be free" to play the role on such short notice? Well, did I mention that he was ALSO "problematic?"

So Mike "I am MY ROLE" steps-in with TRULY APPALLING CONFIDENCE and is soon arguing with Riggan over the point of many of Riggan's crafted out of "I'll show them"/love/desperation but in any case WRITING-SCHOOL-(AMATEUR)-LEVEL lines/dialogues in the play ;-)  

Sigh ... "Just put this thing out of its misery," Riggan's "BIRDMAN" voice (in his head) taunts him:  "BE WHO YOU ARE!  SOAR!  BIRDMAN !"

But poor Riggan is going to PROVE that he CAN be a "REAL ACTOR" ... Much, often hilarious, ensues.

I just loved this film!  But then, I've loved Michael Keaton since his film Johnny Dangerously [1984] ("It's a fargin' good film, you iceholes!" ;-).  And the film's just a blast to watch.  Other reviewers have commented on the fantastically long shots made in this film, and it's clever stitched together editing.  It also shows that director Alejandro González Iñárritu can do more than just really, really weighty films like Amores Perros [2000], Babel [2006], Biutiful [2010] and, of course, Gravity [2013] ;-). Look for this film to receive all kinds of nominations come Awards / Oscar season!

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Ouija [2014]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune/Variety (J. Chang) review
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review

Ouija [2014] (directed and cowritten by Stiles White along with Juliet Snowden) is a film that I could not bring myself to see because (1) it is about divination, something that Catholic Church does have issues with (CCC 2115-17), and (2) it's basically a two hour advertisement for the Hasbro-trademarked version of a "divination board" which one could actually easily make for free -- my dad's generation "back in the 1940s" and "in the old country" (today's Czech Republic) would simply use a small mirror on a flat surface, on which they themselves wrote out the letters, to do the same thing as Hasbro's Ouija board does -- without needing to buy the game board from anybody.

Now what's wrong with "Divination?"  Well, my favorite cautionary tale about divination comes from a somewhat amusing story in the Bible ;-): The poor King Saul, facing an impending battle with the Philistines and afraid that the Prophet Samuel was right, that God had withdrawn his blessing from him (in favor of David), goes to "the Witch of Endor" to summon the deceased prophet Samuel "from the beyond."  Well, she succeeds in doing so.  What does the deceased Samuel tell Saul?  That, yes, Saul's going to lose the battle with the Philistines and that he and all his sons will all die in that battle (1 Sam 28). Now THAT was ONE HECK OF A "FORTUNE COOKIE" :-). 

Anyway, since having first heard story when I was, something like 10 years old, I've always loved that story: There ARE some things that one would just not want to know ;-) especially if there would be nothing that one could do to change one's destiny.  

Then the whole purpose of the Quija board exercise is to conjure up some entity "from the beyond."  Well, it should be rather clear that even if one could conjure something up like that, one would _not_ have the faintest idea of what that entity would be.  Hence, the exercise is either pointless or dangerous ... and it could even simply deliver one bad news. 

So then the film ... it presents a story about a bunch of teens who find their using of a Ouija board to be a rather harrowing experience ... Well, if proved "uneventful," it wouldn't make for much of a story, would it? 

So there it is ... and why I chose not to spend money to see it ;-)

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Kindergarten Teacher (orig. Haganenet) [2014]

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

IMDb listing

MUBI (D. Kasman) review

The Kindergarten Teacher (orig. Haganenet) [2014] (written and directed by Nadav Lapid) may begin as an unassuming, diminutive ("indie style") Israeli film.  But don't let that fool you.  By the end, the film certainly "packs a punch."  (The film played recently at the 2014 (50th Annual) Chicago International Film Festival).

The film's about ... a kindergarten teacher, Nira (played by Sarit Larry), 40 something, married to a kindly, unassuming engineer (played by Lior Raz).  Together they have two grown children, a daughter who's living with her boyfriend in the States and a son who's currently serving in the Israeli Army.  While both husband and wife would seem to be fundamentally gentle people, there's a sense that both are going through an "empty nest" adjustment: the kids are basically grown, what now?

Well, besides her continuing work with little kids as said kindergarten teacher, Nira's joined a poetry writer's club, filled with people both her age (and younger...) who basically give each other mutual support in their writing efforts (but don't become too good, 'cause then one or another in the group will become jealous and try to bring you back down a peg or two ;-).  (Seriously, I enjoyed "writers' club" scenes in this film very, very much, reminding me very much of similar scenes in the much higher budget (and IMHO excellent) Hollywood film Wonder Boys [2000] which was also about "emerging" and otherwise "struggling writers.")

Now Nira has no particular ambitions of "making it" as a poet.  It's just something that has come to interest her, something that she explains to another had been lacking in her far more spartan upbringing (Israel of the 1950s-60s was something of a modern day Sparta...), and well, probably something that "got her out of the house" so that she wouldn't have to deal as much with her husband, who, now that the kids were largely gone, she'd have to probably talk to more than she'd want to, in this new and uncertain point in their lives ...

Okay, enter A FIVE YEAR OLD, Yoav Pollak (played by Avi Schnaidman) a child, whose behavior FROM A DETACHED DISTANCE could suggest that he was at least mildly Autistic (he'd kinda go into a trance every so often, beginning to walk back-and-forth or somewhat rapidly in a circle), and, AGAIN while ONLY FIVE, was becoming a child of divorce (his mother had left his workaholic restauranteur father for, again, "an American").  And Nira becomes fixated on him, FIVE YEAR OLD, Yoav.

True, when Yoav would go into the above described trance, he'd, quite amazingly, come to articulate what appeared to be _remarkably good_ "free form poetry" ... BUT ... HE'S FIVE YEARS OLD.  Honestly, it doesn't appear that he understands what he's doing (AND AT FIVE ... I'm sorry, from a distance, it seems so obvious ... HOW COULD HE?)

But poor Nira, who as introduced above, is also having some "empty nest" issues, becomes convinced that he's some sort of a Mozart-like genius and progressively becomes MORE AND MORE INVOLVED IN THIS POOR KID'S LIFE ... to the point that (without MUCH OF A SPOILER) it can't possibly end well.

In any case, the film becomes a fascinating, and actually quite gentle / compassion-seeking presentation of HOW A TEACHER (WHO OBVIOUSLY SHOULD KNOW BETTER) could get (YUCK...) "involved" with a minor in a way that's OBVIOUSLY INAPPROPRIATE / HARMFUL TO THE CHILD ... but, well, she was going through some "unresolved" (yet comprehensible, IF CAUGHT IN TIME) issues of her own.

In anycase, it all made for another quite brave and certainly thought / (perhaps) discussion provoking film.  Good job CIFF, Good job!

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My Old Lady [2014]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune/Variety (A. Barker) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review

My Old Lady [2014] (written and directed by Israel Horovitz based on his own stage play of the same name) tells a scathing if at times funny story (as is often the case in life, the alternative is to cry...) of multi-layered family dysfunction.  The layers get revealed as the story plays-out, so it's a challenge to write about this film without revealing (spoiling) too much.

The film begins with 50-something New Yorker Matthias Gold (played by Kevin Kline) somewhat happily strolling down the streets of Paris eventually ending at a building in a quite nice residential section of town.  He knocks.  No one answers.  So he chooses to enter (with some force) anyway.  That seems strange, but we soon find-out why he was behaving this way.  Apparently, he inherited the building.

However, inside the building, he finds to _his_ surprise a tenant, Mathilde Girard (played by Maggie Smith), 92 years-old, who by having sold the building to Matthias' father _at a discount_ decades ago by a truly odd but fascinating convention of French real estate law called a viager, must be allowed to live-out her days in the home until she dies.  Indeed, as part of the viager deal, she was entitled to a monthly stipend paid by the owner to boot. 

Seeing Mathilde there in the building and hearing, from her, what her presence meant to him (and to his plans), leaves Matthias quite crest-fallen / crushed.  Why?  He had been something of a loser most of his life, a failed writer with three failed marriages "one for each unpublished book" that he had written.  He told Mathilde that all he inherited from his quite wealthy but aloof father was "a couple of French language books" and _this building_, that the rest of his father's fortune went to some obscure "French charity."  So he told Mathilde that he had hoped to sell the building, quite fast, converting its value into cash, and leave.  Now her presence put a wrench in what had been a rather simple plan.

Mathilde doesn't help matters for either of them (though she knows that she can't be thrown out, and indeed, as long as Matthias "owns" the place, HE actually will have to pay her as she continues to live there) by telling Matthias, that she's known "of him" from his father (the previous owner), and that she's frankly surprised to find "someone who's accomplished _so little_ in life _by his age_ (as he)."  

At that, Matthias, who's hated his father for his self-centeredness and philandering for most of his life (Matthias' father had left him and his mother in an awful state when he was young), decides that he's going to find a way to sell the home, even if at a necessary (again viager) discount to just get rid of it and get on with his life.

But things get even more complicated when Matthias discovers that Mathilde has a daughter, Chloé Girard (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) about Matthias' age living with her as well.  Now Matthias would owe nothing to Chloé as the viager contract was made between Mathilde and the owner of the building.  However, Chloé who ALSO hasn't amounted to much in life knew well that she'd be out on the street WITH NOTHING as soon as Mathilde died.  Her presence made Matthias' plan to just sell the place and get out seem even uglier.

Now why would Matthias' father bequeath to Matthias (who after all hated him) _this house_ with so many complications with it (and then, so little else...)?   Well that's of course the rest of the story, and it's a pretty good one. 

And the film does make for a great discussion piece for "Adult families" where there's been _a lot_ of intergenerational resentment and pain.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fury [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (P. Sobczynski) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky ) review

Perhaps the most important thing for the Viewer to appreciate coming into a WW II "war movie" like Fury [2014] (written and directed by David Ayer) is to understand that "war movies" are often _not_ intended to be documentaries or even "sweeping historical dramas" in the sense of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869) or Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1936).  Instead, they are often intended to be "morality tales" (and or "lack of morality tales") and/or allegories with much more in common with Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick (1851) than either of the two above mentioned "historical epics."

 So it is with the current film, in which Ayer borrows heavily conceptually from his previous police drama Training Day [2001].  That film too, though very much acclaimed (earning actor Denzel Washington an Oscar and his costar Ethan Hawke an Oscar nomination) and set in a very concrete time and place -- the Los Angeles Police Department of the current day -- DID NOT SEEK (AT ALL) to be tied to any particular reported-upon event in history.  Instead, Training Day [2001], again, like Melvile's Moby Dick (1851) was above all an allegory / morality tale.  And so it is then with the current film, Fury [2014], about a American tank crew, set nominally "in Germany during the closing stages of World War II" ...     

The story of Fury [2014] like that of Training Day [2001] is most fundamentally the story of a mentor/master, the tank's commander Don 'Wardaddy' Collier (played by Brad Pitt) seeking to quickly teach "green as can be" Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman) how to fight (and not get the rest of them killed.

Norman was sent to Don (and the rest of his crew) as their replacement "assistant tank driver" after the previous one was killed in the previous day's / night's action.  Don had been proud that he's kept his crew -- Boyd 'Bible' Swan (played by Shia LaBeauf), Trini 'Gordo' Garcia (played by Michael Peña) and Grady 'Coon-Ass' Travis (played by Jon Bernthal) -- alive until this point.  The obvious "greenness" of Norman scared them all. 

The understandable need to _quickly_ bring the "I was trained to be in the typing pool" Norman up-to-speed drives the film ... and drives much of the (IMHO legitimate) criticism of the film: 

There's an unforgettably searing scene in which Don -- who's just watched Norman NOT shoot at a German soldier carrying a panzerfraust (a rocket propelled anti-tank weapon) resulting in the deaths of four Americans in the tank in front of them -- pulling out a German prisoner of war from those captured at the end of that exchange AND ORDERING NORMAN TO SHOOT HIM RIGHT THEN AND THERE with his side arm.  (To prove to him and his crew that he's capable of killing Germans ...). 

Would THAT be a War Crime?  (Yes).  A historically accurate situation?  (Honestly, who knows?  But it's one which IMMEDIATELY OFFENDS the sensibilities of perhaps MILLIONS of viewers WHO KNOW THAT THE GERMAN SS ROUTINELY SHOT HUNDREDS, EVEN THOUSANDS CIVILIANS ALL ACROSS EUROPE (France, Italy, Poland, Greece, the Czech Republic, the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union) IN REPRISAL FOR PARTISAN ATTACKS and here this scene arguably draws a "moral equivalence" to those Mass Slaughters by the SS).  BUT AT THE BUDDY-MORALITY-TALE LEVEL OF THE FILM, can one understand?  (Probably yes as well).

There's a later scene in which the Americans take a German town, and Wardaddy Don takes Norman up into an apartment where they find two young women (played with appropriate levels of terror and apprehension by Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg) and offers the younger one to the "virginal/newbie" Norman.  Was this AGAIN an awful scene?  (Yes).  Was it again a War Crime?  (Today, certainly yes).  Does it offend?  (Again, yes, especially when one realizes while this almost certainly happened on the Western front as well, THE SOVIET ARMY SYSTEMATICALLY RAPED MILLIONS OF GERMAN WOMEN THAT THEY ENCOUNTERED IN THE CLOSING STAGES OF THE WAR AND IN ITS IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH).   But was it realistic and even "instructive" in the story?  (Again, probably grudgingly yes).

So what then to make a film like this, which is nominally "historical" but is certainly above all SITUATIONAL?  I suppose it is a film that presents a situation to the viewer and asks: What would you do?

But I would submit that a fair question could be asked: Could the film-maker have chosen a "better" historical situation in which to set the film that would not produce the immediate reaction of "wait a minute, the SS shot all kinds of prisoners ALL THE TIME and here you're depicting an American doing so under very contrived, plot-driven circumstances?" or "WAIT A MINUTE, the SOVIET ARMY SYSTEMATICALLY THE GERMAN WOMEN THEY MET and here you're portraying American soldiers doing so again under very contrived, plot-driven circumstances?"  Would it not have served the story better if the film had been set during the Korean or Vietnam Conflicts or even "in the Pacific" during WW II?  In those conflicts / theaters, the actions depicted by American soldiers would have arguably (and unfortunately) would have depicted reality far more closely than here.

It's something to think about.  And in any case, I found this to be a very difficult film to watch.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

St. Vincent [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (B. Talerico) review
AVClub (J. Hessenger) review

St. Vincent [2014] (written and directed by Theodore Melfi) is a film that I honestly wish I could like more, but I don't.  Okay, the characters, a bit exaggerated, are certainly well drawn.  As a Catholic priest who's spent years telling folks that the only ones who could do justice to life at a Rectory would be the folks who wrote for the sitcom Barney Miller [1974-82] [IMDb], I think I can say that I've encountered every single character portrayed in the film.  And yes, that _would_ include Naomi Watts' pregnant Russian hooker Daka, "not often" mind you, but at vibrant parish, one runs into everyone.

I'll go further.  My favorite character in the film is certainly Chris Dowd's Brother Geraghty, a beleaguered 5th-6th grade religion teacher at St. Patrick's Catholic School (somewhere in Brooklyn) trying desperately hard to be relevant to a diverse class where even most of the Catholics (only about 1/2 of the students) are not practicing.  He jokes that "I don't know" appears to be "the fastest growing religion of our time" ;-).   He's the one who gives his students the assignment to write about "a saint of our times," which inspires a sweet 10 year old named Oliver (played by Jaeden Lieberher) to write an essay about his grouchy neighbor Vincent (played otherwise to an Oscar nomination worthy level by Bill Murray) who's the only person his divorcing mother Maggie (played again magnificently _and mostly straight_ by Melissa McArthry) could rapidly find to serve as his after-school babysitter.

So if I liked the characters and I liked both the writing and acting in general (I do believe that pretty much EVERYBODY came with their A-game to this film), why didn't I much like the final product?  Basically, I can't help but think that the film really "dumbs down" the concept of a Saint, making it essentially meaningless, and yes, I do have a problem with that.

And yes, I'd freely admit that a fair number of the Saints on the Church's calendar could be called "Company Men" who're on the list because they defended to various degrees of sacrifice "the Institution."  And I'd appreciate that some people may have a problem with this.  (Yet what group or institution would not want to celebrate its heroes?)  I'd also admit that some of those on the Church's calendar "had their issues," often with various prejudices.  Interestingly enough St. John Chrysostom (aka over the centuries as "The Golden Tongue...") was _also_ something of a world-class grouch (besides being a very important bishop), and has been accused in modern times of being anti-Semitic (the Church's defense of him has been basically "Well, you don't understand, look at his Sermons, he was like that with basically everybody ... again they didn't call him "The Golden Tongue" for nothing ...)  But pretty much ALL of the people who are on the Church's calendar are there because they encouraged others to be(come) better people of faith and better (yes, kinder more loving) people in general.

I just don't see that in Bill Murray's Vincent, and I'd honestly think that his Vincent would agree with me.  He was a grouch.  He did do some admirable things, including (largely hidden from view of others) taking care of his Alzheimer's stricken wife.  But he'd almost certainly be among the first to understand that he wasn't exactly an example to follow.  And if not for a 10 year-old kid bestowing Sainthood on him at a lovely school assembly, he'd probably consider the whole thing "a crock..." ;-) ... though Vincent did have the kindness / sense to accept the compliment / honor from his sincere and well meaning 10 year old neighbor. 

But are we so "self-esteem starved" (or far worse, so _narcisistic_ today) that we need to pluck people down from heaven and pull ourselves up to their level to make ourselves feel "better" about ourselves?
Don't get me wrong, I've buried plenty of lovely people over the years, as well as people who were "complex", by no means "completely evil," but also not folks to exactly "write home about."

Now it turns out, of course, that this film is coming out in the United States at exactly around the time of All Saints' (Nov 1) / All Souls' (Nov 2) Days.  For non-Catholics, that's where Halloween (All Hallows' Eve - Oct 31) comes from.

Over the years, I've come to appreciate the value of All Souls' Day when we remember our faithful departed.  It's not a bad tradition to remember those loved ones who went before us, who again, were certainly not "completely evil" but also, if we're honest about it, were not exactly perfect.  In the Catholic Church, those who die "in a state of grace" but still with imperfections go a place called Purgatory where those imperfections are slowly erased and they are able then to join those in Heaven.  Why this Doctrine about a "middle place" between Heaven and Hell?  When out of both Honesty and Mercy.  Most of us truly _do not_ achieve perfection in this world.  And yet it would seem cruel, even to us, to send "the imperfect" but certainly not "hopeless" to Hell.  And if we ourselves can not bring ourselves to send the merely imperfect to Hell, why would God?  Thus Purgatory ... where we're given basically "however long it takes ..." (if perhaps "under some pressure" ...) to iron out those imperfections prior to entering truly perfect into heaven.  (It's honestly a very sensible doctrine ;-)

In any case, Bill Murray's Vincent as portrayed was certainly _not_ a Saint (yet).  But like so many of us, he still had potential.  So happy All Saints / All Souls Days folks!

But also please let's also not lazily "dumb down" the concepts of Perfection, Sainthood and Heaven.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

August Winds (orig. Ventos de Agosto) [2014]

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

IMDb listing listing*

August Winds (orig. Ventos de Agosto) [2014] [IMDb] []* (directed and cowritten by Gabriel Mascaro [IMDb] []* along with Rachel Ellis [IMDb] []*) is a evocative / thought-provoking "snapshot of life" / more "fatalistic" than either "existentialist" or "personalist" film about a young Afro-Brazilian couple, Shirley (played by Dandara de Morais [IMDb] []*) and Jeison (played by Geová Manoel dos Santos [IMDb] []*), living in a small hamlet along the Atlantic Coast somewhere in North Eastern Brazil [en.wikip] [pt.wikip].* The film played recently at the 2014 (50th Annual) Chicago International Film Festival.

Shirley had returned to the village from "the city" (presumably either São Paulo [en.wikip] [pt.wikip]* or more probably Salvador [en.wikip] [pt.wikip]*) to take care of her grandmother.  As such, she does have at least _some_ (a little) "stuff" -- an iPod-like music player which she does enjoy using as she sunbathes or otherwise rests during the heat of the day.

Jeison presumably has never really left the village.  As such, he's adept at the skill-set needed to live-out, more or less happily, one's life in this hamlet where the ONLY force that really changes ANYTHING is Nature -- those annual "August Winds" that bring in a storm or two which do produce some temporary chaos ("change") and move around the coastal sand-bars a bit.  Otherwise EVERY DAY is basically the same and actually NOT ALTOGETHER BAD as IT'S SUNNY MOST OF THE TIME ;-).

Life for Jeison involves working at a local coconut plantation (climbing palm trees to harvest said coconuts and later processing them using simple tools that really haven't changed since PERHAPS the Portuguese first arrived bringing with them the cast-iron needed to make a good machete), fishing, and _snorkling_ to explore a bit (the snorkle and fins are Jeison's ONLY arguably "superfluous" possessions) and perhaps pick-up an occasional octopus from the ocean floor to vary the diet a bit to "impress" Shirley, his girlfriend.  The two make love on the bed of a coconut truck (a cinematically evocative image certainly, but I can't imagine it's all that comfortable ... ;-), on the beach and amidst the palm trees.  Arguably there hasn't been a place this nice this side of Eden.

But then ... life is, in fact, a lived as if "inside a freeze frame" and it requires Jeison pulling-out of the water a human skull (kinda like in Shakespeare's Hamlet) for both Jeison and Shirley to "wake up" for a while and begin to reflect a bit.  After taking the skull to a older man in the village, wondering if he could identify who it once belonged to (the skull had two gold teeth, which the two thought could identify him), the old man (1) does, in fact, identify the man as someone who had lived in the village and died some 50-60 years ago, and (2) he waxes eloquent about life in the village telling the two: "We who live in a village like this aren't destined for either Heaven or Hell.  Instead, like this man, we're destined to be claimed by the sea."

Indeed, he does have a point.  Those August storms do, in their own time, change the coastlines.  And the village cemetery, presumably once "built in a safe place," now finds itself precariously on the beach from where sometime in the future those buried there, will, like the man who died 50-60 years before (and perhaps was even buried there), be swept back into the sea.

So Change DOES take place in the village, RELENTLESSLY, if VERY, VERY SLOWLY, and this comes to MILDLY disturb Jeison (if not Shirley, who does at times find life in the village to be "boring").  The rest of the gentle if also reflective film "meanders" from there...

I just found the film a remarkable capture of a way of life that is fascinatingly peaceful / timeless.  And it corresponds well to _some_ of the insights of our Servite Friars living and working out in Acre in the Amazon region of Brazil

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

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The Book of Life [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (R. Moore) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review

The Book of Life [2014] (produced by Guillermo del Toro, directed and cowritten by Jorge Gutiérrez along with Douglas Langsdale) is a lovely, authentic, and hence _brilliantly colored_ children-oriented film celebrating the Mexican annual commemoration of "The Day of the Dead" [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* (Nov. 2nd, All Souls Day in the Catholic Church).

Non-Hispanics, and even non-Mexican Hispanics, not familiar with the Mexican celebration of this day may be absolutely stunned at the exuberance and richness of the art surrounding the celebration of this day, certainly conflating indigenous pre-Colombian traditions with those that arrived with Catholic Spain to Mexico.  Still, before getting on too high of a horse, non-Hispanic "Anglo" Americans ought to remember that traditions surrounding the Anglo-American celebration of All-Hallows-Eve (Halloween, Oct 31, the evening before the Church celebration of the All Saints Day) also involve conflations of Christian and pre-Christian elements arriving from previous Celtic and Germanic mythologies and world views (those ghouls and goblins of Halloween do come from somewhere ...).

The Book of Life [2014] also reminds viewers that traditions like the Mexican take on "The Day of the Dead" [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* can enliven the lives of otherwise "bored" / "alienated" young people who with "earbuds" on, listening to music on their iPods may be convinced that they've seen / experienced "all there is" even as they forget all connections to their past.

So it is, the film begins with a group of typically bored, "gum chewing," "eyes rolling" school kids on a field trip get dropped-off at the end of the day at a "museum."  Indeed, when they arrive, a crotchety security guard tries to get them to get back on the bus, because "it's late."  However, a young vivacious tour guide comes out to meet them and tells them to come along.  Eyes roll, but the kids follow.  And soon the kids find themselves in a brilliantly colored room that's part of the museum's "Day of the Dead" exhibit.  The kids look around, and _are_ surprised, both by the color _and_ by all the statuettes resembling regular "townspeople" (including some dressed as Catholic priests and nuns) doing "regular townspeople-like" things but all being, well, skeletons.  "What is with all that?"  asks one of the bored, gum-chewing students.

The tour guide then explains that this is the Museum's "The Day of the Dead" [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* exhibit and that the "The Day of the Dead" [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* is a Mexican tradition of remembering our dearly beloved relatives who've gone before us.  Indeed, she explains that there are "two worlds" in which Dead can enter when they die, the HAPPY, COLORFUL "Land of the Remembered" and the SAD, GLOOMY "Land of the Forgotten."  By remembering their dearly beloved relatives on All Souls Day / The Day of the Dead, Mexicans keep these relatives in the HAPPY, COLORFUL "Land of the Remembered." ...

The rest of the movie then unspools from there ... including the introduction by the tour guide to the previously bored but now intrigued students (as well as Viewers) to such characters Mexican stories / folklore as Santa Muerte (voiced in the film by Kate de Castillo) who the tour guide explains is the "Ruler" of the "Land of the Remembered" and Xibalba (voiced in the film by Ron Perlman) who rules over the gloomy "Land of the Forgotten."

The Cosmology of the story, of course, is not entirely Christian.  But it presented, above all, as a story and teaches the very salutary lesson of Remembering _nicely_ (and indeed Praying For) those who've gone before us, and that NO ONE is really Dead, so long as his/her memory remains in someone's Heart.

The whole practice of praying for the Dead in the Catholic (and Orthodox) Church, especially on All Souls Day (as well as on the anniversary of the loved one's death) has a similar purpose of maintaining connection with those who've gone before us with the promise that if we honor those who've gone before us, then there will be others who'll honor us after we ourselves are gone.  Hence Death need be as Scary as perhaps it otherwise would be.  It's ... part of Life.

Again, this is quite a lovely film and after so many recent American children's oriented films [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] that have made "people of color" or "with funny accents" the "bad guys," it's nice to see a film that celebrates the diversity present in our various neighbors rather than teach kids to fear it.

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

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Black Coal, Thin Ice (orig. Bai ri yan huo) [2014]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (1 Star)

IMDb listing
AsianWiki listing

CameraObscura (T. Grégoire) review* (F. Schmidke) review* (J. Kurz) review*
Variety (S. Foundas) review

Black Coal, Thin Ice (orig. Bai ri yan huo) [2014] [IMDb] [AW] (written and directed by Diao Yinan [IMDb] [AW]) is a Chinese "Noir" film that has been making the rounds (and winning awards) in the Festival Circuit and played recently here at the 2014 (50th Annual) Chicago International Film Festival.

The story involves a hard-nosed police detective Zhang Zili (played by Liao Fan [IMDb] [AW]) from an industrial town somewhere in northern China.  One day, in nominally 1999, workers at various plants across the Province are shocked to find human body parts amidst the coal being delivered to them on that day.  Officials soon find that the body parts all belong to a single person, identified by means of an ID found in the pocket of a piece of clothing still clinging to one of the body parts found.  It's of a random worker, again working in one of the factories, in the Province. 

The worker's wife, Wu Zhizhen (played by Gwei Lun-Mei [IMDb] [AW]), a lowly worker in a laundry in one of the Provincial towns is informed of her husband's gruesome death.  But who could have done it?  Police, including Zhang Zili, assume that the murder was the result of some sort of an extortion attempt on the part of the local mob.  But when they the police try to arrest "the usual suspects," a shootout ensues resulting in not only the "suspects" being killed but also a number of police officers attempting the arrest, including one of Zhang's best friends.

Fast forward to 2006.  Blaming himself for the deaths of his colleagues and best friend, Zhang's long since left the police department and become a notorious drunk in town.  However, he comes to hear from a former colleague from the force that there have been two other murders over the past several years, including a recent one, which strangely enough, seem to have been romantically linked to lowly laundress Wu Zhizhen.  What's going on?  Is she some sort of a "black widow" / "femme fatale"?  Of course it's complicated.  Much ensues ...

I generally liked the film, though I do have to say that I DID NOT LIKE the film's principal protagonist Zhang Zili.  I realize that the film was trying to portray him as a "tough guy."  And I do realize that Humphrey Bogart's "Sam Spade" was not exactly "PC" (I remember a film in which Humphrey Bogart's character did not call Lauren Bacall's character BY HER NAME throughout the entire film ... instead calling her "Honey" and "Peaches" and so forth).   However in the current film, Zhang appears to sexually assault at least two women, including the lowly if perhaps morally conflicted Wu Zhizhen.  I just couldn't get past that. 

I always enjoy the application of the "Film Noir" formula to different contexts, but I certainly do believe that the "tough guy detective" need not sexually assault the women in the story to prove his "toughness" no matter what cultural context the film comes from.

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

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Ablations [2014]

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

IMDb listing listing*

LeMonde (j.F. Rouger) review*
aVoir-aLire (P. Longlais) review*
AbusdeCine (C. Brangé) review*

Ablations [2014] [IMDb] []* (directed by Arnold de Parscau [IMDb] []*, screenplay by Benoît Delépine [IMDb] []*) is a somewhat surreal "David Lynch" [IMDb]-like Belgian-French "comedy" / perhaps even "morality tale" that played recently at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.

The story begins with the film's central protagonist, a middle-aged man named Pastor (played by Denis Ménochet [IMDb] []*), waking-up one morning in a small field along a river bank, groggy, perhaps "hungover" and ... MISSING A KIDNEY.  Where the kidney once was, he finds ... stitches.

What the heck happened?  Well that's the rest of the movie...

Now how does one "lose a kidney" or "have a kidney stolen" from him/her.  Not easily.  So again, what exactly happened?  And how does one go about finding out what happened?

Well, there are complications.  Even in the most uncomplicated case, going to the police to report that "someone's stolen my kidney" would be rather embarrassing.  However Pastor, who turns out to be some sort of a pharmaceutical salesman (hence middle to upper-middle class) with a wife lovely wife named Léa (played by Virginie Ledoyen [IMDb] []*) and 8-10 year old kid, also has a mistress, a nurse by trade, named Anna (played by Florence Thomassin [IMDb] []*) ... Presumably the last significant place that he was before losing consciousness and ... well, HIS KIDNEY ... was when he was at Anna's.

In any case, he decides that he can't tell his wife that he lost his kidney, because, well ... he'd have to admit that he was somewhere where he should not have been.  Now how do you hide FROM YOUR WIFE THE FACT THAT YOU'RE NOW MISSING ONE OF YOUR KIDNEYS ... After all the stitches are there, where the kidney once was.  Again, not easily.

Anna, however, seems quite happy to "help" her lover, Pastor, go about searching for whoever would have wanted / been able to steal said kidney ... even as the story progresses, Pastor, finds himself more and more estranged from his wife and kid ...

Anyway, much ensues, and, SLOWLY, OH SO SLOWLY, Pastor finds himself realizing that he's going to have to come clean with his wife.  But how long can he string things out ...?

This is a goofy film, but it does remind us, in an absurd sort of a way that "when we go off the reservation" ... ALL KINDS OF THINGS CAN HAPPEN (heck, one could even lose a kidney...) that become very hard to explain to those we have been lying to.

It's all kinda sophomoric, but kinda fun watching the poor guy try to get himself out of a truly crazy situation that he found/put himself in: "Oh what tangled webs we weave, when we first set out to deceive"

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

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The German Doctor (orig. Wakolda) [2013]

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

IMDb listing listing*

Cine para Leer (M. Alcalá) review* (P.O. Scholtz) review* (J. Porta Fouz) review* (S. C. Reiger) review*
NeueZü (J. Krebs) review*
Bü (V. Frick) book review*

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

The German Doctor (orig. Wakolda) [2013] [IMDb] []* (screenplay and directed by Argentinian writer/director Lucía Puenzo [IMDb] []* based on her novel [Amzn] [GR] by the same name) tells the story, somewhat fictionalized, of Nazi War criminal Joseph Mengele's time in the Argentinian Patagonian town of San Carlos de Baroliche [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* located at the eastern edge of the Andes Mountains about midway down the length of the country.

The town of San Carlos de Baroliche [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* certainly has an evocative and arguably notorious history.  Already, largely settled by German and Austrian immigrants since the late 1800s, it apparently became a haven for Nazis fleeing Germany at the end of World War II.  Indeed, apparently the town's "German School" was head-mastered for years after the war by another Nazi War criminal, former SS police captain Erich Priebke who had been responsible for the massacre of some 335 Italian civilians among them 75 of Jewish ancestry outside of Rome in 1944 in reprisal to a partisan raid.  Interestingly enough, the town, admittedly located by a large lake, _also_ became a center of Argentina's post-WW II / Peron Era nuclear research program... Finally, some have even claimed that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun actually lived at a villa outside of the town after the War.  (Both the German School and a destroyed bunker on the grounds of supposedly Hitler's post-WW II residence outside of town appear in the film ...).  With such an evocative / notorious history, San Carlos de Baroliche [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* becomes something like Argentina's Roswell, NM (the notorious site of a supposed post- WW II, 1947 U.F.O. crash)

With this kind of a history, I suppose it becomes almost inevitable that books and films would come to be made about the town, and I honestly wish to thank the Argentine writer/director Lucía Puenzo [IMDb] []* for letting the rest of the world know a little bit about this place.  It's been common knowledge that many Nazis fleeing Germany after the War ended-up in Argentina.  However, it would seem that it would require a native, an Argentinian, to be really able to tell the story well.  So honestly thank you Ms. Puenzo for telling us this story!

So then what is the trajectory of this tale?  Well the story begins in 1960, in the months just before Israel's Mossad's famous capture of Nazi War criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires (bringing him back to trial in Israel).

A quite ordinary Argentinian family is heading to San Carlos de Baroliche [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* to takeover a lakeside hotel left to the mother, Eva (played by Natalia Oreiro [IMDb] []*) by her German descended parents.  Eva had, in fact, grown-up in the town and had attended the town's "German School" noted above in the 1940s.  Her Argentinian husband, Enzo (played by Diego Peretti [IMDb] []*) something of a craftsman (a doll maker) is more-or-less obviously "put-off" by the German (and perhaps even "suspected haven to War Criminals") vibes that the town and the townspeople give off.  BUT ... HER WIFE JUST INHERITED A BEAUTIFUL, WELL MAINTAINED, LAKESIDE HOTEL ... So IF YOU were IN HIS PLACE, would you not want to at least see what his wife had just inherited and perhaps seek "to find a way" to "make this work" for you and your family?  So at the beginning of the film, Eva, pregnant, with twins soon find out, Enzo and their "short for her age" 12 year old daughter Lilith (played by Florencia Bado [IMDb] []*) are shown driving to this out-of-the-way Patagonian town at the Eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains to claim the hotel left to them by Eva's parents.

On the drive to San Carlos de Baroliche [en.wikip] [es.wikip]*, they come across a somewhat standoffish German Doctor (played by Álex Brendemühl [IMDb] []*) who is ALSO heading to the same town but isn't quite sure how to get there.  Being friendly and NOT suspecting anything particularly out-of-order, after all Eva herself is of German descent, the family tells him to just follow them.  And so it is that this "German Doctor" makes it to San Carlos de Baroliche [en.wikip] [es.wikip]*.

Now the town is portrayed as being quite dominated, culturally anyway, by Germans -- again this is 1960 -- to the obvious discomfort of Argentinian husband/father Enzo who feels "like a stranger in his own country."  But Eva does feel "at home."  After all, she grew-up there.  Yes, her school pictures from "back in the day" shows the entire school assembly in Hitler Jugend-like uniforms "Sieg Heil-ing" with the Nazi salute.  But that was the childhood that she knew.

Soon, Eva and Enzo have their 12-year-old Lileth enrolled in the German school.  It's a "little less Nazi" than it was in the 1940s (after-all it's 15 years after the war).  Still there are two problems: (1) Lileth knows little German.  No matter, the school is prepared to teach her and other Argentinian students of German descent like her the language so that she can fully catch-up with the rest of the students in due time.  But (2) she _is_ also "short for her age."  So the school lets her enter, but the kids, versed in race/genetics-based "ideals" quickly make fun of her, calling her a "midget" / "dwarf."

Re-enter the quiet, standoffish German Doctor.  Noting also Lileth's "shortness" for her age, he suggests to the parents a "hormone therapy" that he claims go get her height corrected in due time.  He ALSO becomes intrigued when he finds that Eva's expecting twins ...

Now good and utterly non-German/Nazi Enzo finds the German Doctor a creep and doesn't want him anywhere near his family, much less treating his daughter or wife.  Eva on the other hand wants her daughter to be happy at school.  So Eva does have Lileth treated by this German Doctor "quietly" (on the side) without her husband knowing.

Of course, it's not too much of a surprise to the Viewer (or Reader here) who "The German Doctor" really is.  And indeed, during the film, there are numerous references of a paranoia settling into the German community of San Carlos de Baroliche [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* with rumors of "Israeli spies" infiltrating the community, looking for former Nazis.  And when news of Eichmann's capture in Buenos Aires reaches town, well ... guess who has to flee (again) ...

It's all a fascinating story and the author claims that it's largely true ... the family portrayed is fictionalized, but Joseph Mengele's presence in the town of San Carlos de Baroliche [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* at that time, was not.

This is not a fast-moving action film.  Indeed, its power comes actually from its rather slow-moving ordinariness.  And I have to say that after four years of writing my blog, this is the kind of film that I've come to most appreciate -- a historically based film made by people (in this case Argentinians) who were closest to the story.  Great job Ms. Puenzo [IMDb] []* great job!

ADDENDUM: This film, which passed through briefly in Chicago in August 2014, is available now on DVD or streaming on services like Amazon Instant Video.

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

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