Sunday, November 30, 2014

Foxcatcher [2014]

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

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

Foxcatcher [2014] (directed by Bennett Miller, screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman) based on the actual 1996 murder [NYTimes] of former Olympic gold-medal winning wrestler turned wrestling coach David Schultz by John Eleuthère du Pont (yes, of the billionaire Du Pont family) tells one sad, sad triangle of a story (there's also Mark Schultz, also a gold-medal winning wrestler, but never quite as good, nor as charismatic as his older brother) about limitations:

 John Eleuthère du Pont (played in the film to IMHO Oscar nomination worthy heights by Steve Carrell) is SUPER-RICH but ... off, and off to an extent that no matter how much money he had, he was destined to have a difficult and disappointing / frustrating life, somehow serving as living, walking, breathing proof that MONEY ITSELF can't buy EITHER LOVE or HAPPINESS.

Mark Schultz (played in the film again to Oscar nomination worthy or at least consideration worthy levels by Channing Tatum) is AN OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST and yet, not particularly bright, and DAMNED to be THE YOUNGER BROTHER of a BOTH EVEN MORE SUCCESSFUL AND THEN FAR MORE CHARISMATIC OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST ... IN THE SAME SPORT.  Oh, TO BE a GOLD MEDALIST and STILL NOT BE ABLE TO ESCAPE FROM FEELING LIKE A LOSER.

And then David Schultz (played in the film, to ... eh, okay, BUT THAT'S ALL THAT WAS NECESSARY levels by Mark Ruffalo) who was the most "together" of trio, NOT RICH but MARRIED WITH KIDS, NOT FEELING THE NEED TO PROVE ANYTHING TO ANYONE ... BUT ... ENDING UP DEAD ... all the same.

Yes, what a (if the shoe fits) "Greek Tragedy" built around a sport invented by ... Greeks.

The film begins with a representative of said Billionaire John with "more money than God" but "with issues" searching out Mark Schultz to make him an offer that the poor post-Olympics sap, a Gold Medalist but in debt, couldn't possibly refuse: "My employer will fly you out on his helicopter to his (or more accurately his 80 year old mother's...) 800 acre horse farm, where you will have your own home, food / all other expenses paid, and you'll be able to do NOTHING but train for the next Games... three years hence."  Poor Mark, what's he supposed to do?  He was worried that his gas was going to be cut off in his appt.

What Mark does do, IS TALK TO HIS OLDER BROTHER DAVE, WHO TELLS HIM that a rep from the SAME "odd rich guy" CAME TO HIM with THE SAME OFFER a couple of weeks before AND HE TOLD HIM NO. ;-). 

Seeing Mark's crest falling before his eyes, Dave, "jumps back" and tells his younger, more struggling brother: "But, I think that this COULD BE a GREAT OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU."  Poor Mark, holding his heart in his hands after Dave had it going up and down and all over the place over the last 15 seconds, comes to the final conclusion that Dave's being a "good older brother" and, now, with his blessing, goes back to accept the eccentric weirdo's offer.

Thus begins a long, awkward, story that, yes, IMHO inevitably had to end badly.  Mark was just trying to get by in life.  Billionaire John was trying to grasp for that which his billions could not get him ... and certainly Mark was not what/who he wanted.  Indeed, John wanted Dave, but Mark was what/who he got.  So INEVITABLY Billionaire John starts "pining for" Dave even as Mark who's living on Billionaire John's (er Billionaire John's mother's) 800-acre horse farm, increasingly feels like fundamentally INADEQUATE ... again. 

Eventually (mild spoiler alert) finds a way to buy Dave after all.  BUT (1) how does that make Mark feel? and (2) does he _really_ succeed in "buying Dave."

If nothing else, the story leads to ... where the actual story came to ... with Billionaire John shooting Dave.

This is one heck of a sad, sad story, most filmed mostly in grey skied, slushy, Pennsylvania ... in winter.  But IMHO it's also, one heck of a film, reminding us once more that none of us is a God.

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I Can Quit Whenever I Want (orig. Smetto Quando Voglio) [2014]

MPAA (UR would be R) (6.5/10) (3 Stars) (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing listing* (A.M. Abate) review* (P. Feast) review* (D. Zonta) review*
I Can Quit Whenever I Want (orig. Smetto Quando Voglio) [2014]  [IMDb] []* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Sidney Sabilla [IMDb] []* along with Valerio Attanasio [IMDb] []* and Andrea Garello [IMDb] []*) is a fun Italian Ocean's 11 [2001] [IMDb]Breaking Bad [2008-2013] [IMDb] even Revenge of the Nerds [1984] [IMDb] / Horrible Bosses [2011]-like comedy that played recently as part of the 1st Chicago Italian Film Festival organized by the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago and held at the Music Box Theater here on the North Side.  The film won the 2014 Italian Golden Globe for Best Comedy and was nominated for twelve 2014 David di Donatello Awards (the closest Italian equivalent to the Oscars) [IMDb] [Official Site] [en.wikip] [it.wikip]*

And the film is about something that a lot of American young people of the current "occupy" (?) generation could understand: Just because one gets a college degree does not necessarily mean that one will get a good / high-paying job.

So this is a film about A LOT of quite talented, well-educated, late 20-something to mid-30-something Italians who despite said education and perhaps even some brilliance are not exactly "living the dream," and then the temptation to use that talent / education "to get" what one may feel one "deserves" through more nefarious means.

To those who may be (initially) "disoriented" by seeing the frustrations of SO MANY WELL EDUCATED ITALIANS being portrayed in this film, remember that Italy would not have possibly become the birthplace of the European Renaissance if it was inhabited exclusively (or even largely) by the "Luca Brasi" types of the Godfather [1972].   Instead, Italy has been (also) the land of Dante, DaVinci, Michelangelo, Verdi and Puccini, and in more recent times of everyone from Fermi to Marconi to Fellini to Versace and about as "cultured" a land as they come.  The "dangerous" and certainly _frustrating_ question that the film asks is: Why does it seem that "being educated" / "being cultured" or even "being _buona gente_ (good people)" is "not enough"?

And so ... this film has Pietro Zinni (played wonderfully by Edoardo Leo [IMDb] []*) a fictionalized, talented, even possibly "brilliant" and certainly well-liked neurobiology professor at a random (Catholic) university somewhere in Italy telling us "his story" of his slide into addiction / crime.  What went wrong?

Well, brilliant or not, well-liked by his students as a lecturer or not, he finds himself reduced to "1/2 time" due to budget cuts at his University.   His Department Head is heard mostly yelling over the phone at unseen penny pinching bureaucrats bent on apparently driving the University into the ground or at least selling its soul.  (Apparently, the draconian cuts resulting in Dr. Zinni's tenure being reduced to "half time" could have been avoided if the Department Head had consented to accepting a grant do some (unspecified) kind of research.   But we hear him yelling into the phone: "We are a Catholic University.  We have Values (!) and we are simply NOT going to do that kind of (unspecified) research."  Va bene ... call finished, and apparently feeling good about himself that he "saved" his department from being "prostituted" (in some unspecified way), he heads off to Pietro's office to tell him ... that he has to cut his (and the other Professors') time / salar(ies) in half.  Ah the joys of integrity and "sticking to one's guns ..." even in the face of monstrous costs (to be suffered BY OTHERS ;-) 

So ... it's left to Pietro to go home to tell his wife, Giulia (played by Valeria Solarino [IMDb] []*), who actually is the only one of the late-20-somethings / 30-somethings in this film with a job to be proud of (as a drug rehab counselor...), that what they've expected / feared for years was finally happening, that his job at the University, mind you as a researcher with a team of grad students, beloved as a teacher, was finally becoming not worth holding-onto.   "Great.  So what now?  And when are we _ever_ going to be secure enough to start a family?" is his wife's response.

Depressed, Pietro puts on his goofy-looking red cyclist helmet and reflector jacket to take a ride on his bike.  He stops at a gas station where he talks to two of his former classmates, Mattia (played by Valerio Aprea [IMDb] []*) and Giorgio (played by Lorenzo Lavia [IMDb] []*), "Latinists" they once were (now pumping gas for a living) to share with them his news.  They're sympathetic and even a bit surprised.  They knew that their field was kinda hopeless when it comes to getting a job (to be a "Latinist" in Italy would seem to be like being a "PolySci major" in my time in the States), but EVEN NEUROBIOLOGY (!)

Well, while at the gas station, goofy red cyclist helmet on, bike leaned against his hip, talking to his long-out-of-luck former classmates, Pietro spots ONE OF HIS CURRENT STUDENTS Maurizio (played with magnificent happy cluelessness by Guglielmo Poggi [IMDb] []*), drive-up in a bright SHINY AND NEW S.U.V. ..

Wasn't Maurizio ON SCHOLARSHIP?  What the heck was he doing, all dressed-up in trendy threads driving a bright, shiny and new S.U.V.?  So ... after Maurizio fills-up (the GIANT S.U.V. that he was driving) and drives away, Pietro decides to follow him, goofy red helmet and reflector jacket on, with his bike.

Maurizio arrives at some trendy discotheque, Pietro, still with his goofy red helmet and reflector jacket on, enters to find him.  He does.  "Ciao Professore!" Maurizio calls out, "What are you doing here?"  "I could ask you the same?"  "I'm here with my people."  "How CAN they be 'your people'?  You're supposed to be an orphan, on scholarship."  "But I am, professore!"  "So how the heck can you afford to be here?"  And here the story really begins ...

Maurizio has found that he could pay his "non-scholarship" expenses (and have a WHOLE LOT MORE MONEY BESIDES) by ...selling ... "smart drugs."  That is, drugs that are _technically not illegal_ (not on a list of OFFICIALLY ILLEGAL DRUGS in Italy, but ever so similar, both in chemical structure, and, more to the point, in effect).  "But Professore, I'm NOT DOING ANYTHING ILLEGAL ..." Maurizio assures Pietro.

And that then gets Pietro thinking.  If this underachieving, always-sleeping-in-his-class (now he knows why) Maurizio can do this, why can't he and PERHAPS THE WHOLE GROUP OF HIS UNEMPLOYED / UNDEREMPLOYED 30-40-something FRIENDS do the same?  And mind you, he's NOT going to do this to do something "illegal" but to simply give him and his friends a chance to "finally" live the dignified life that he/they all "deserve."  (This is where the title of the film, "I can quit when I want..." first comes into play ;-)

So Pietro goes home, spends the night googling the legal ins-and-outs of making "smart drugs," and then uses the computer simulation equipment of his department (his own field after all) to design "a perfect smart drug molecule."  And then ... he sets out to pick-out among his vast legion of underemployed and certainly UNDER-UTILIZED but well educated friends to put together "A BANDA" (a "gang") to manufacture this smart molecule and put it on the market.  Specifically he recruits:

Alberto (played by Stefano Fresi [IMDb] []*) a organic chemist, synthetics wiz, who's taken a job as a chef at a local "Benihana" style restaurant where he spends most of his time arguing with his Asian sous chefs who don't speak a word of Italian.  He'll be the one to synthesize the drug.

Andrea (played by Pietro Sermonti [IMDb] []*) a brilliant PhD cultural anthropologist, speaking 30 languages, but helping out at his dad's junk yard unable to find a job in his field, would be responsible for "Marketing."

Bartolomeo (played magnificently by Libero De Rienzo [IMDb] []*) an unemployed mathematician, introduced to us arguing with a group of poker players in tent somewhere in the back of a carvival telling them "Look guys, I'm a statistician and I can tell you that the odds that you'd come up with this hand THREE times in a row is astronomically low, SO YOU MUST BE CHEATING..." (to which the card-dealer answers "AND ..." ;-) is signed-on by Pietro to be the group's "finance man."

Arturo (played by Paolo Calabresi [IMDb] []*) an archeologist with actually a job in his field (but that means that he goes around the city following a construction crew begging them to "please, please, please not BREAK anything valuable" that they might run-into during their excavations) is initially "hired" apparently because Pietro "feels sorry for him."  Later, however, he comes to the assistance of the group, when things start to "get hot."  He brings them a crate of NAPOLEONIC ERA MUSKETS AND SIDEARMS ;-) that he pilfered "from storage" at a local museum telling them: "Look guys, they may be old (ya think? ;-), BUT THEY ARE PERFECTLY FUNCTIONAL" :-) Besides where would a group, still-thinking-of-themselves as, "good" people going to QUICKLY get access to LEGALLY ACQUIRABLE FIREARMS in A PLACE LIKE ITALY (or Europe in general)? ;-)

Together, they form "A Gang" ... manufacture Pietro's "designer drug" and then going back to the club where Pietro found his student Maurizio, and start selling said drug, hand-over-fist.  It's a HUGE, HUGE SUCCESS.

Now INITIALLY THEY ALL SAY TO THEMSELVES, "We're JUST DOING THIS to: (1) pay off old debts, (2) finally buy the house/car/whatever that we've always wanted, (3) finally, stand with head high, knowing that we accomplished something ..." BUT ... as the TECHNICALLY NOT ILLEGALLY MADE MONEY KEEPS ROLLING IN ... how do you say no to "continuing on"?

BESIDES, they're meeting ALL KINDS OF "INTERESTING PEOPLE."  The "Latinists", soon living like CALIGULA-LIKE BOND VILLAINS with a VILLA ON A HILL with a POOL overlooking, is it Rome? is it Naples? is it Salerno? whatever ... find that their lifestyle is now attracting all kinds of BEAUTIFUL "ESCORTS" who TO THEIR SURPRISE SEEM TO _ALL_ BE FORMER "LIT. MAJORS" FROM RUSSIA, the UKRAINE and other former Eastern Bloc countries ;-).  They HONESTLY have some of the most "intellectually stimulating" ;-) discussions that they've ever had with these BEAUTIFUL BIKINI CLAD former PhDs ;-) ;-)

And Alberto, who was frustrated previously with working with a bunch of Asian chefs that he didn't understand, now has a drop-dead gorgeous former humanities major from Russia as a girlfriend, who he doesn't understand either, but now does not seem to mind ...

YET ... as "business" gets ever BETTER and BETTER problems set in: Pietro's wife Giulia (remember the drug counselor) starts getting people at her clinic talking about this "wonder drug" that "makes you so happy that you just want to sit, smiling, forever, not wanting to do anything anymore." And more to the point, "The Mob" gets "interested."

The coup de grace comes when Pietro, forced to deal with a notorious drug trafficker going by the name Er Murena (played by Neri Marcorè [IMDb] []*), finds to his horror that Er Murena had "his story" too, and indeed considered Pietro to be a "kindred spirit."

And so ... how does a film like this end?  Guess ;-)

Still, I have to say that this is a very fun, yet intelligent story that does a number of things very very well: (1) It presents WITH A SMILE a real problem, that there are all kinds of bright, well educated people out there who are not able to use their educations in a useful / dignified way, (2) it also shows, AGAIN WITH A SMILE, the "danger of falling into cynicism/despair" ... It shows very clearly that even drug dealers and high-priced prostitutes could justify their choices with "good hard luck stories" ... Yet, no matter how "bad" things are, that still doesn't justify "turning to the Dark Side."

Anyway, this film was a blast ... and yet I do think that nobody who sees the film all the way through would say "this is the way to go."  Good job!

ADDENDA (how to find / play this film in the U.S.A.):

This film albeit in European PAL format is available with English subtitles for a reasonable price through

Further, DVD players capable of playing DVDs from various regions (North America, Europe, etc) are no longer particularly expensive (costing perhaps $10 more than a one region DVD player).

Finally, a simple program called DVDFab Passkey Lite (downloadable FOR FREE from allows one to play DVDs from all regions on one's computer's DVD-Rom drive. 

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

<< NOTE - Do you like what you've been reading here?  If you do then consider giving a small donation to this Blog (sugg. $6 _non-recurring_) _every so often_ to continue/further its operation.  To donate just CLICK HERE.  Thank you! :-) >>

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Referee (orig. L'Arbitro) [2013]

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

IMDb listing listing*

 L' (R. Escobar) review* (A. Pascale) review*

The Referee (orig. L'Arbitro) [2013] [IMDb] []* (directed and cowritten by Paolo Zucca [IMDb] []* along with Barbara Alberti [IMDb] []*) is a comedy about the only sport, indeed "for many," the only thing that really matters in Italy -- calcio (soccer ;-).  The film played recently as part of the 1st Chicago Italian Film Festival organized by the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago and held at the Music Box Theater here on the North Side.

As the film is about "the only thing that really matters" in Italy, though thoroughly contemporary, made only a year ago, the film was made in solemn / crisp "black and white" -- the "colors of truth" ;-).

The film actually tells two stories:

The first of a young, fit, indeed "cut like a God" Italian "Premier League" Referee (L'Arbitro) named Cruciani (played with magnificent bordering on beatific sublimity by Stafano Accursi  [IMDb] []*).  When we meet him in the opening sequence of the film, pregame, in the locker room ROSARY IN HAND, gracefully tying his shoelaces and then along with the other refs, solemnly combing every last hair on his head into perfect place, before trotting out, together, with dispassionate yet determined focus onto the field before AN ARENA FILLED WITH _SUPREMELY_ PASSIONATE FANS, one immediately knows THAT HE KNOWS that the Destinies of teams, the destinies of cities and, DARE ONE DREAM ... the destinies of ENTIRE NATIONS NATIONS, HANG IN THE BALANCE of HIS AND HIS COLLEAGUES' EVERY CALL ;-)

THE OTHER STORY is, then, about the small town of Parabile somewhere in the hinterlands of SARDINIA ... with a horrible curse: IT has a TERRIBLE soccer team.  It's been TERRIBLE for years, bringing shame and ridicule upon its residents, especially at the hands of the arrogant a-holes from the town of Montecrastu up the road.

'Course it doesn't help that the coach (played magnificently in his hopelessness by Benito Urgu [IMDb] []*) IS BLIND.  But he's been Coach for years, and besides, ... HE'S BLIND ... So how can one POSSIBLY BE SO CRUEL AS TO TAKE THAT ROLE AWAY FROM HIM? ;-).  So the town feels CONDEMNED BY CRUEL, CRUEL FATE to suffer the indignity of having the worst team in the region (mind you, the worst team in the Sardinian "THIRD" League), perhaps the worst team on the Island ... UNTIL ...

...One morning a YOUNG, LONG FRIZZY HAIRED, STYLISHLY BEARDED (in a "confident" even mildly "Bad Boy" sort of way) MAN, perhaps 25 or so years in age ... walks into town.  Yes, the film does feel like a Western at times ;-) ...

Who is he?  Nicknamed Matzutzi (played by Jacopo Cullin [IMDb] []*) apparently a former "son of this (God-forsaken) town," his family, dirt poor, had emigrated to Argentina fifteen years earlier in hopes of finding a better life.

Why was he back?  To look for "his girl" who he left in Parabile as a ten year old (!) ;-).  Does he find her?  Yes!  She's Miranda, the still single, somewhat frustrated, Miranda (played by Geppi Cucciari [IMDb] []*) DAUGHTER OF THE BLIND COACH, working as a cashier of the grocery store that her parents own (and since her father's blind, she probably runs...).  Does she recognize him or even remember him?  Of course not!  He tries to jog her memory.  He tells her his family's story, how they were dirt poor when they left Sardinia, that they emigrated to Argentina and how he had vowed to his 10 year old ragazina (little girl friend) that he'd come back for her.  (How can she NOT remember? ;-)

"Well did you make it?  Did you come back with a "sacco di soldi" (lit. a sack full of money)?" she asks, kinda hoping.  Of course not ... ;-)  BUT ... as the news spreads of his return to this small town, and the various townspeople scratch their heads trying to remember his family, and what precise word among something like 10-15 specific regional words for "loser" that they used to call his dad ... ONE THING BECOMES CLEAR: Matzutzi may have left Sardinia dirt poor and may have come back to Sardinia ... still dirt poor... BUT ... he was one damned good soccer player ;-) ;-)

And so Parabile's Atletico's fortunes begin to improve:  In a series of matches against various other tiny and ancient towns in the area, played on pitches that honestly COULD HAVE BEEN "fields of battle" WAY WAY "BACK IN THE DAY" ... during Neolithic / Bronze Age times ;-) ... Parabile bests one team after another to the point that arch-rival, a-holes up the road, Montecrustu becomes worried.  Much, much ensues ...

... Among that which ensues, of course, is the tying-in of the two stories.  After all, they seem SOOO FAR APART.  And yet, L'ARTITRO Cruciani, introduced to us as "A little less than a God" has to somehow make an Icarus-like plunge to fall-back the level of Sardinian campagna.  And ... of course, he does.  How exactly?  I'm not gonna tell you ;-)  But it's very, very current ...

... especially since I have Mexican parishioners here at my parish in Chicago who are still angry (and mostly sad) over how at this year's World Cup, Mexico WAS AHEAD OF The Netherlands 1:0 in a crucial elimination game, when time had unofficially run-out.  Then during the extra 3-4 minutes that ONLY THE REFEREES KEEP TRACK OF, the Netherlands SCORED A GOAL and 15 SECONDS LATER a VERY QUESTIONABLE "PENALTY" was called _against Mexico_ giving the Netherlands A PENALTY KICK that they used to SCORE AGAIN TO "WIN" THE GAME 2:1. 

Now poor Cruciani didn't necessarily do something _that_ stupid / flagrant ... After all, he's introduced to us as a decent and serious guy.  BUT ... does it necessarily matter? ;-)

A great film!  About, again, "the only thing that (often) really matters" in Italy ;-)

ADDENDA (how to find / play this film in the U.S.A.):

This film albeit in European PAL format is available with English subtitles for a reasonable price through

Further, DVD players capable of playing DVDs from various regions (North America, Europe, etc) are no longer particularly expensive (costing perhaps $10 more than a one region DVD player).

Finally, a simple program called DVDFab Passkey Lite (downloadable FOR FREE from allows one to play DVDs from all regions on one's computer's DVD-Rom drive. 

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

<< NOTE - Do you like what you've been reading here?  If you do then consider giving a small donation to this Blog (sugg. $6 _non-recurring_) _every so often_ to continue/further its operation.  To donate just CLICK HERE.  Thank you! :-) >>

Friday, November 28, 2014

Penguins of Madagascar [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (G. Cheshire) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review  

Penguins of Madagascar [2014] (directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith, screenplay by John Aboud, Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer, characters by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath) gives the scene stealing penguins of the DreamWorks Animations' Madagascar franchise a goofy, dare one say "Looney" feature film of their own, And ... well, if you grew-up loving Warner Bros' old Looney Tunes cartoons (Bugs Bunny / Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Cayote / Roadrunner, etc) in this film, IMHO you'll have something to share with your little ones (kids, grandkids or beyond).

The film offers basically the "origin story" for the Madagascar franchise's penguins, who we come to discover are both (hopefully a bit) "smarter than the average penguin" and at least as "cursed" by their "cuteness" as they are blessed. 

The story begins out in Antarctica where a human film crew is shown enthusiastically filming a seemingly endless -- horizon-to-horizon -- procession of unbelievably cute, single-file arrayed, waddling penguins (documentary film-maker Werner Herzog providing the solemn March of the Penguins [2005]-like human voice-over) waddling to ... where exactly?  Not even the penguins know.

And that BOTHERS at least a group of three penguins -- Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), Rico (voiced by Conrad Vernon) and Kowalski (voiced by Chris Miller) -- who'd prefer to think of themselves as being "far cooler" (and somewhat "smarter") than the others.

So when they see a penguin egg rolling down a slope past them (and none of the other penguins seem to be particularly concerned about the probable impending death of a baby penguin, because they were all "busy" waddling to ... "Somewhere" ...), the three use the rolling egg down the hill as an excuse to "break ranks" and set themselves free from this tyranny of mindless if perhaps impossibly cute conformity.

They find and save the egg, it hatches, and Private (voiced by Christopher Knights), the "D'Artagnan" of this "Three-Musketeer-ing" group (of Penguins...) is born.   Fancying themselves as a "Band of Brothers [2001]-ish" / "Trio-plus-One" of "ninja super spies" much then ensues.

And much of what ensues is GLEEFULLY "looney" ... In an early exploit, the four break into Fort Knox, NOT to steal gold (what would gold be to a Penguin?) but instead to gain access to a "rare vending machine" that still sells really unhealthy (but to a Penguin, apparently irresistible, gold colored) "cheese puffs" ;-)

But the story really begins when the four come across villainous shape-shifting Octopus, his zoo-name being "Dave" (voiced by John Malkovich), who had a real grudge against Penguins.  Why?  At zoo after zoo, aquarium after aquarium Penguins' simple, even stupid "cuteness" ALWAYS trumped the INTELLIGENCE and ACROBATICS of "his kind" (honestly Octopi are very intelligent creatures, and actually often quite cute as well ... just NOT as cute as Penguins ;-).   Well, "Dave" a very intelligent Octupus with a "chip on his shoulder" (do octopi have have shoulders?) comes up with a plan to spray all the Penguins that he can get his tentacles on with a serum that would render them into ugly mutant-like "zombie penguins"... And it's up to these three-plus-one "super-spy" / "ninja" penguins to stop him!

And it would actually go easier, if not for the not-exactly asked-for intervention of an "elite squad" of "far smarter / stronger" animals (than the "cute but not particularly bright" Penguins) getting in the way.  The squad, calling itself "The North Wind" is led by a solemn British-accented Wolf (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) who's sooo undercover that he goes by the name "Classified" ;-) and it includes a Baby Seal (if not a NAVY SEAL) nicknamed "Short Fuse" (voiced by Ken Jeong), a Russian accented White Owl called Eva (voiced by Annet Mahendru) and a brawnish Polar Bear nicknamed Corporal (voiced by Peter Stormare).  They, of course, dismiss the Penguins as "amateurs" (which they are ... ;-).   But who will "save the day" ...?

Guess ;-)

Folks, this is a very goofy movie.  But if you liked the antics of the Looney Tunes Characters of old (Elmer Fudd's "Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit...") then honestly you'll probably love this.  Just about every one of the characters in this story is funny, and just about everyone of them could have a story built around them.  And that, of course, bodes very, very well for a "franchise" ;-)

<< NOTE - Do you like what you've been reading here?  If you do then consider giving a small donation to this Blog (sugg. $6 _non-recurring_) _every so often_ to continue/further its operation.  To donate just CLICK HERE.  Thank you! :-) >>

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Rosewater [2014]

MPAA (R)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review  

Rosewater [2014] (screenplay and directed by Jon Stewart [IMDb] based on the book "And then They Came For Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity and Survival" by Maziar Bahari [IMDb] and Aimee Molloy [IMDb]) tells the story of Iranian-born, London residing journalist Maziar Bahari [IMDb] (played in the film by Gael García Bernal). 

Bahari was back home in Tehran in 2009 to cover Iran's presidential election in which the state supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is widely believed to have won re-election only by resorting to fraud.  There were widespread street protests following the disputed election, Bahari covered some of those protests.  Eventually, the Iranian authorities came "knocking at the door" of his mother's apartment's where he was staying.  And he was taken away "for questioning" for any number of possible charges ranging from "pornography" to "espionage." 

In the authorities' "defense", he did apparently have an FHM magazine in his possession with a scantily clad and quite "acrobatically posed" Megan Fox on the cover ;-), and he did "publicly admit" on this film's director Jon Stewart's Daily Show segment that aired in the run-up to the election that he was in Iran AS A SPY working for any number of (take your pick ... CIA, Mossad, MI6) Western intelligence services ... ;-)

Bahari also came from a "family of troublemakers."  Both his father and sister had been "taken away" (his father by the Shah of Iran's government in the 1950s, his sister by Ayatollah Khomenei's Islamic Government in the late 1970s-80s) for similar "questioning" (and torture ...) for being "Communists."  Both were apparently "eventually released."  By family lore, they came out of their imprisonment (and torture...) perhaps physically damaged, but "with their integrity intact": THEY TOLD THEM NOTHING!

So midway through the film, there's Bahari, in a solitary confinement cell and, the ghost of his dad (played by Haluk Bilginer) comes visiting, telling him to "Tell them nothing (!)"  And Bahari has a pretty good question to ask his dad: "Dad, you and [sister] were jailed and tortured, one by the Shah the other by the Islamic Regime, because you were Communists.  Does it bother you that both regimes and even the one that's torturing me now learned how to do those things from the Gulags?  You were not all that different from what they are."  

Later, when his quite methodical and convinced of the fundamental rightness of his cause interrogator (played by Kim Bodnia), who Bahari comes to think of as "Rosewater" for the cologne that he seemed to use, keeps hammering away at Bahari trying to get him to admit that he was a spy, Bahari asks him: "What kind of 'a spy' would go ON A COMEDY SHOW and PROCLAIM TO THE WHOLE WORLD THAT HE'S A SPY?"  But "Rosewater" doesn't flinch: "You may think we're paranoid, but the Western Intelligence Services have infiltrated all kinds of news organizations.  And so a journalist, a spy (and even a comedian) could be the same thing."

And so Bahari, shaking his head (he was no spy), realizes that good ole, somewhat simplistic, and often brutal "Rosewater" may actually have a point, or AT LEAST "A POINT" THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO DISPROVE ...

What then to do, when faced with an interrogator (and at times torturer) who's convinced that you're "guilty" and your explanations / alibis just "prove" that you're "really good" at what he believes that you're guilty of?

That then is the rest of the film.  And there will certainly be people who will not like Bahari's solution. 

For myself, being a son of political refugees (who fled then Communist Czechoslovakia) as well, and now as a priest (a "functionary"...) in the Catholic Church KNOWING A THING OR TWO about subtle (and at times not particularly subtle coercion) to embrace one or another "Party line" (even if that "Party Line" is that of one or another Pastor... ;-) ... I've come to believe that Andy Warhol may provide a solution: If the "Powers that Be" insist that you put up a picture of "Chairman Mao" in your office ... then put up FOUR, one in each of the primary colors ... and be done with it.

It's not a perfect solution, but it does kinda fit Jesus' saying: "Render onto Caesar what is Caesar's and then to God what is God's" (Mark 12:17).  Telling "THEM" "NOTHING" ... ESPECIALLY IF THERE'S NOTHING TO TELL ... can be, IMHO, a waste of time.

In any case, an interesting and thought provoking film!

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Foreign Body (Obce ciało) [2014]

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

IMDb listing listing* (L. Pellegrini) interview w. director* (A. Sterna) review* (P. Jalowski) review* (A. Majewski) review*

HollywoodReporter (T. McCarthy) review
Variety (D. Harvey) review

Foreign Body (Obce ciało) [2014] [IMDb] []*(written and directed by Krzysztof Zanussi [IMDb] []* [] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*) played at both the 50th Annual (2014) Chicago International Film Festival and more recently the 26th Annual (2014) Polish Film Festival in America held here in Chicago. 

And this is appropriate as this renowned half-Polish, half-Italian film-maker, began his career in his native Poland under the influence of the Polish Film School [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*(itself heavily influenced by Italian Neo-Realism [en.wikip] [it.wikip]*).  Later, during the Papacy of John Paul II / the Solidarity Era, he spent much of the 1980s in the West.  Even under Communism, the themes of his films had often religious / philosophical themes.  Several of his films were featured in Martin Scorsese's series: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema: [MSP Website] [].  When the series played here in Chicago, I reviewed his film The Constant Factor [1980] here on my blog.  As such, while certainly Polish, Zanussi's career has been marked by a transcendence of his roots to a truly world stage.  And yet, he does bring both Poland and his Catholicism with him in a way that those among the world's intelligencia today "who would have eyes and ears" would find both interesting and challenging.

Such then is the case of this thoroughly "international" or at least "European" film being reviewed here:

The story is about two mid-to-late 20-somethings, both still young, educated and attractive, he Italian, named Angelo (played by Riccardo Leonelli [IMDb] []*), she Polish, named Kasia (played by Agata Buzek [IMDb] []*).   They apparently met at an international gathering of one or another Catholic young-adult oriented movements (one thinks of Opus Dei, Focolare, Sant'Edidio or perhaps even the French-based Taize) quite popular among young people in Europe today. 

Though becoming friends and certainly attracted to one other, she decides to return back to Poland and explore the possibility of entering the Convent.  He, though certainly in love with her, as _a good Catholic_ respects her decision to explore this.

To most of the other characters in the story (as perhaps to many readers here) THESE DECISIONS (she to explore the possibility of entering the Convent, he letting her explore it) SEEM INCOMPREHENSIBLE.

Kasia's well educated (and quite well connected) Polish father (played by Sławomir Orzechowski [IMDb] []*), in fact, looks up Angelo and even finds him a job (with some multinational energy firm) up in Poland in hopes that Angelo would talk Casia out of her decision.  Though honestly hoping that Casia will leave the Convent (she enters the Convent as part of a year of postulancy/discernment), Angelo refuses to do this.

IN THE MEAN TIME, several very attractive / well educated women at his work at the "Energy Company" in Poland, notably Kris (played by Agnieszka Grochowska [IMDb] []*), his boss, and Mira (played by Weronika Rosati [IMDb] []*) his colleague and Kris' best friend at the office, SIMPLY DON'T UNDERSTAND WHY the very intelligent, very good-looking, very eligible Angelo would be "waiting" for Casia to make-up her mind, and, more to the point "not indulging in the other fish in the sea."  Eventually Kris simply tells Angelo: "I know that you're not gay, but ... you're apparently very Catholic, which is almost as unfortunate as being gay." 

Kris and Mira spend much of the rest of the story making Angelo's life "a living Hell" even as Angelo hopes that Casia will decide to leave the Convent but _only_ if Casia decides that this is God's will.


In my review of Ida [2014], I lamented actually that its portrayals of both Ida herself and life in her Convent remained quite cliched (the young "naive nun-to-be" who didn't even know where she came from is sent-out into the world to "find-out who she really is..."). 

In stark contrast, Casia is presented in this film as a thoroughly intelligent young woman who is, very consciously, eyes open, discerning whether to commit her life IN THIS WAY to God.  AND HER MOTHER SUPERIOR IS PRESENTED AGAIN AS A WISE AND QUITE SECURE / SERENE MENTOR FIGURE TO HER: When Casia asks to leave the Convent for a period of time, "No problem."  When Casia "assures" the Mother Superior that she'll be back, the Mother Superior responds serenely, "Don't worry my Child, the world will not come to an end if you don't."  In this way, Casia was being reminded that her decision whether to stay, go or return was to be free.  (And she would do NO ONE any favors, if she made her decision to stay, go or return without such freedom).

Does Casia stay to become a nun? (Mild spoiler alert) ... YES.  It's a decision that many, many people in this world would not understand.  But she does, and freely.

So then, did Angelo waste a year "waiting" (and often suffering ridicule) in out there in Poland?  The film has an interesting and perhaps surprising answer to that as well.

All in all, an excellent and UNAPOLOGETICALLY CONTEMPORARY CATHOLIC FILM that for those "would have eyes and ears" would be worth-the-while to look-up when it becomes available on DVD or services like Amazon Instant Video to see. 

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

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Beyond the Lights [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars) (4 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (R. Moore) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (K. Ulrich) review  

BET coverage
Ebony coverage coverage articles

Like many films of its type, the teen (teen) / "young adult" (early/mid 20-something) oriented film Beyond the Lights [2014] (screenplay written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood) tries really hard to be "hip", even to the point of resorting to the hyper-sexualized imagery that the film actually seeks to criticize.  In any case, it is absolutely clear that the _intention_ of the filmmaker is to invite the audience to SEE "Beyond the Lights" even as those lights are, well, quite DISTRACTING and OFTEN VERY, VERY BRIGHT.  Still, if one can get "beyond" the "Bright Lights" then there are actually a surprising number of themes in this film that young people could certainly relate to.

The story is about mixed-race, part African-descended singer named Noni (played briefly as a girl by India Jean-Jacques and then, for most of the film, as a 20-something-young-adult by Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  And she has a perhaps loving but certainly insecure "helicopter mother" named Macy Jean (played by Minnie Driver). 

The film begins with 10 year old Noni winning second place in some neighborhood talent contest in some random city somewhere in England, with mom Macy Jean telling her afterwards to throw away her second place trophy asking her: "Do you want to be a runner-up all your life or do you want to become a winner?"  That's kind of a tough lesson to teach a 10 year old who's probably holding the first trophy that she's won in her life ...

Well, Noni grows-up to be "a winner" !!  Does she ever!   She becomes a hyper-commercialized HIP-HOP SENSATION.  Strategically positioned suspenders or, even more tellingly, GOLD SHACKLES AND CHAINS often serve as her "top."  HER RACE becomes all but UNKNOWABLE, her skin being "kinda tan," her hair a straight, purple-died weave, her voice remaining somewhat "british-y" in accent.  She also has a made-to-order white head-to-toe tattoo-covered bad-boy rap-star (keep 'em talkin' about you...) celebrity "boyfriend."

Well how much "makeup" can one possibly bear?  So ... after _winning_ some random music award at some random glitzy Los Angeles music awards show, Noni takes a few swigs of some kind of champagne, she comes back to her hotel room, asks the guard, an off-duty LAPD cop named Kaz (played by Nate Parker) to "let no one pass" and ... (actually) if not for her pushy mom, not letting officer/security guard Kaz "keep her out of her daughter's room" ... nearly throws herself-off the balcony ... A "cry for help"??   Ya think?

In truth, while ma' forced Kaz to let her in to her daughter's room, allowing both her and Officer Kaz to see Noni there on the balcony, it was actually Kaz who was able to save her.  (Ma' just froze).

Now what the heck to do?  Kaz (looking from the outside) immediately understands Noni to be one troubled young woman.  Ma' who's been super-involved in Noni's life (to the point that she was her "manager") honestly doesn't see.  Perhaps she's just "too close," perhaps like the manager husband of the (falling) "Country superstar" in Country Strong [2010] she's just too invested in her loved one's "success" to see clearly, perhaps she just doesn't have a clue.  In any case, a few hours after Officer Kaz literally pulled Noni, dangling, off the balcony, a preemptive "press conference" is called (in case "anybody saw" what actually happened) where Noni "confesses" to the incident, blames it on "a few too many celebratory drinks," thanks Kaz for pulling her to safety ... and ... well, did you know that we're coming new, super hot album, that'll be in stores in a couple of weeks ... (business as usual)."

But business is, of course, not as usual.

In the midst of a life of so much glitz and nobody, nobody, nobody being honest ... Kaz, becomes the first "normal" person that entered (okay, randomly...) into Noni's life in a long time.  And Noni, virtual demi-Goddess that she is, decides that she's going to look him up and bring him into her life.  That's probably the smartest (early) thing that Noni does in the story.  But, in truth, she's actually pretty lucky.  It turns out that Kaz is available to come into Noni's life (this could have become a far more tragic story if Kaz had been quite married with two kids living "in the valley").

Even so,Kaz has his own story/issues.  It turns out that he has a "helicopter parent" of his own.  His dad, LAPD as well (played by Danny Glover) had some ambitions for his son as well.  He wanted him to eventually become a politician.  As such, Kaz' life has been quite scripted as well -- science degree apparently in college, then instead of going into industry, "deciding" to "go into service" as a police officer "on the beat in LA," then after some years of that "gig" find some political office to run for.  Dad sees "strung out Hip-hop star with issues" Noni as not exactly "First Lady potential..." AND CERTAINLY NOT THE KIND OF GIRLFRIEND THAT WOULD ENGENDER CONFIDENCE FROM THE AFRICAN AMERICAN PASTORS whose support Kaz was going need if he'd ever really enter Politics.  (But does Kaz really want to be a politician? ... Or is this just dad's dream ...?)

What to do?  Well ... eventually THE TWO RUN AWAY (TOGETHER).

This (not altogether surprising) "plot twist" becomes (more or less correctly) the primary criticism of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' office's review of the film: Why show (once again...) a young couple (more or less obviously) sleeping together first before getting married?  This a not-at-all-surprising (and again more-or-less clearly correct) criticism of the film by a major and quite authorative voice of the Faith community.

I would suggest the following, however: Yes, probably the two probably would have slept together, BUT GIVEN their emotional states at the time PROBABLY NOT ALL THAT MUCH.  Noni, in particular, was a total mess.  Is there anything particularly revelatory or beautiful about sex (1) when one's a total mess, or (2) one's having sex with someone who's a total mess?  In the first instance, sex comes akin to desperately getting bombed on alcohol or stoned on some other drug.  In the second, it's akin to knocking-out and date-raping somebody.  In either case, there's not much particularly "beautiful" about it.  Perhaps there's another option, (3) "celebratory sex" after "drying out."  But that's then akin to "going to the tavern to celebrate two weeks of 'sobriety.'" 

So regardless of what the film implies, I just don't believe that there'd actually be a whole lot of sex going on between the two when they run off to Mexico.  Nani simply had too many issues to sort through, and even Kaz had to make some decisions and sort through some issues as well (including how involved would he have wanted to become with a young woman who really did need some time to figure things out). 

So I'm not surprised that they would have run off together.  But I don't think that there'd really be all that much (sexually) going-on until they did "sober up" and when they did ... then the real questions would begin: Do I even like you?  Do I want to have children, spend the rest of my life with you?  The answers could be yes.  But ... it'd be slower than perhaps the film'd imply.

So the film does tell an interesting and current story.  But the Bishops' office here is right.  The imagery is perhaps needlessly sexualized and that makes it hard, even for the viewer, to get "Beyond the Lights."

Still as a 20-something discussion piece, at a distance, the film might not be bad.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1 [2014]

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

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

The Hunger Games Mockingjay -- Part 1 [2014] (directed by Francis Lawrence, screenplay by Peter Craig and Danny Strong based on the novel by Suzanne Collins [IMDb]) is the third cinematic installment of Collins' Hunger Games [wikip] [Amzn] trilogy.  The first two installments The Hunger Games [2012], and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire [2013] were reviewed on this blog earlier.  As with the previous cinematic adaptations of the Harry Potter and Twilight book series, the film-makers here have decided to split the final book in the series into two parts, making the cinematic adaptation of Collins' original trilogy comprise ... four films. 

Yes, one's tempted to "roll one's eyes" and inevitably images of money / Hollywood enter one's mind ... But truth be told, as I wrote in my review of the first of the recent Hobbit movies (all based on and reasonably faithfully following Tolkien's relatively tiny 100 page book that Hollywood's stretched-out into a series of three two-hour-plus movies) if one finds the worlds created in these stories to be compelling, then one probably won't mind spending a little more time in them as a result of an extra film (or two...).

And so it is then with the world, or the post-Apocalyptic North America called "Panem" of the Hunger Games.   By this third installment, one is pretty much "accustomed" to the place and to the conflict playing out  (Panem being dominated by a radically imperialistic/exploitative central Capitol extracting resources from and holding sway over thirteen outlying/subordinate Districts).

To the story ...

This third installment begins with the story's teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen (played with ever increasing familiarity and ease by Jennifer Lawrence) arriving a bunker carved deep into a mountain somewhere in previously thought to be disastrously "unlucky" District 13.  (At the end of the second installment, she was "rescued" / "taken away" by a seemingly ad hoc group of rebels seeking to finally organize a (new) Rebellion against the oppressive power of Panem's central Capital).   Previously, even Katniss believed that District 13 had been obliterated by the reigning Capitol's forces at the end of the last Rebellion against it.  Indeed, the annual "The Hunger Games" in which Katniss participated (twice) were organized by "The Capitol" each year to "celebrate" that "final victory" of the Central "Capitol" over its previously rebellious Provinces.

So it was indeed something of a shock for Katniss, who certainly had no love for the Capitol, to arrive at said bunker in District 13 and to discover that not only was it _not_ dead, but instead was a "beehive of life/activity." Yes, perhaps it was "burrowed deep underground" but it was ready now, indeed itching now, to start a new fight against the Capitol's forces to gain its dignity and independence.

And indeed (almost) everybody seemed to believe that Katniss (!) as a result of her defiance at those two Hunger Games would be the perfect "Poster Child" ("Face") for the New Rebellion.  But was she?  And if so, HOW, would she be(come) "The Face" of the New Rebellion of the Districts against the Capitol? 

These questions become the fodder for this third installment of the story.  And IMHO, this installment becomes the most interesting (and most current) of the installments to the story thus far.  I believe this because the central question being asked is "What makes for a Rebellion?" or even more simply "What makes for a Campaign of any sort?"     

District 13's no-nonsense President Alma Coin (played by Julianne Moore) has been organizing her residents in a very Spartan-like martial manner, waiting for a moment when they could finally "leave the hive" to strike at the Capitol.  She honestly doesn't understand the non-District 13's rebel commanders, including various defectors from the Capitol's, fascination with Katniss.  How can a "pretty" or even pretty DETERMINED "face" CARRY a Revolution??  She seems to ask. 

But the previously Capitol-spin-guru now defector-to-the-Rebel-side Plutarch Heavensbee (played by Phillip Seymour Hofmann) along with a cadre of idealistic "film school people" (again defectors from The Capitol) seems convinced that a Cause (ANY CAUSE) NEEDS a "Face" indeed a multipronged "media campaign" complete with slogans, and symbols, and songs, and finally even short-pithy-30 second "propaganda-info-mercials." 

Like the no-nonsense, healthy-and-fit President Coin of District 13, the down-to-earth (and often drunk...) Haymitch Abernathy (played again, wonderfully, by Woody Harrelson) of Katniss' own (blue-collar / Appalachia-like) District 8 is unconvinced by the Capitol-defectors' insistence on "media glitz," counseling instead that "What makes Catniss, Catniss is her AUTHENTICITY."  Yes, he believes that Catniss could "RALLY the Revolution" but only because she is "one of the people" / "one of the oppressed."  Put too much make-up on her, make her "talking points" too stilted ... and SHE'D LOSE _THE PEOPLE_, he tells the well-meaning, mic and camera toting, makeup carrying, Capitol-defector "media" people.

Add to that a cyber/technology wiz or two, personified here by another defector from the Capitol, named Beetee (played by Jeffrey Wright)... and this third installment of The Hunger Games series BECOMES A GREAT "POLY-SCI" DISCUSSION PIECE for high schoolers and college kids: How would you organize a campaign for something that you would believe in?

In truth, perhaps there are TOO MANY key players in the story who come "from the Capitol" ("from the Elite") to my liking.  But this installment certainly does offer much to think about as one tries to figure out how one would plan a rebellion against a force as oppressive (and as initially dominant) as the Capitol in the Hunger Game series.

So then, having set-up the story ... much ensues ... ;-) ... and I now eagerly await the fourth and final installment!   Good job folks, good job!

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Immigrant [2013]

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

IMDb listing (D. Callahan) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review  

The Immigrant [2013] (directed and screenplay cowritten by James Gray along with Ric Menello) is a visually striking, critically acclaimed / award winning "New York in the 1920s" immigrant "period piece" / "Melodrama" [TM] that made the festival rounds last year (including the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival).  Since it's main protagonist was a recently arrived 20-something Polish immigrant woman named Ewa Cybulska (played magnificently throughout by Marion Cotillard), the film played again recently at the 2014 Polish Film Festival in America held here in Chicago.

The film begins with Ewa and her sister Magda (played by Angela Sarafyan), tired but smiling, just having arrived on Americn shores, standing in the "inspection line" at Ellis Island.  Very quickly it goes bad.  Magda, looking more tired and sweaty than Ewa, coughs a few times.  Unfortunately, that's _exactly_ what the inspectors are looking for.  So she is quite rapidly removed from the line to be quarantined in case she has tuberculosis (which, let's face it, she probably has ...). 

That leaves Ewa, and it quickly goes downhill for her as well.  Above all, with Magda having been taken away, she's arriving now to the States "unaccompanied" (with nobody).  She has an address of an uncle and aunt in New York.  But the custom's official, without looking particularly hard at the paper with their address, declares the address invalid.  How would he know that so quickly?  Perhaps he was jaded (anybody could come with simply a paper saying anything), perhaps he didn't care, perhaps he didn't particularly like immigrants (after all, they were coming from some "new/strange part of Europe again," and American residents have never particularly liked "newcomers" anyway), perhaps, he even could have been bribed to give Ewa, a young woman arriving INCREASINGLY DESPERATE and ALONE, a hard time.  In any case, he tells her "The United States does not accept 'unaccompanied women' to our shores."  He further questions her moral character based on some random "report" of something that (could have) happened on the ship on which she and her sister were arriving.  So he summarily puts her into a line AWAITING DEPORTATION.

While waiting in this line ... IT JUST HAPPENS that a "nice man" (or perhaps/almost certainly not a particularly "nice man") named Bruno Weiss (played again remarkably well in superbly "complex" / "conflicted" fashion by Joaquin Phoenix) comes by the line of young women awaiting deportation and ... since Ewa is young, fairly attractive and actually speaks some English ... "helps her."  In any case, he gets her "off the island."  How?  Guess ...

Now obviously this "nice" or "not particularly nice" or frankly "quite evil" if perhaps "conflicted about it" man named Bruno ... has an agenda.  And perhaps not particularly surprisingly, Ewa is soon groomed into prostituting herself to both "pay for his care (of her)" and with the vague hope that HE might actually help her sister (afflicted with tuberculosis ... or not...) eventually get off of Ellis Island as well.

Sigh ... so what does Ewa do?  Well the rest of the story, more-or-less obviously quite melodramatic, but certainly WELL PLAYED, plays out.  Yes, she does find herself in a kind of sexual slavery (Seriously though playing out in the early 1920s, this film touches on SO MANY ISSUES of today).  But she is not without her inner resources -- both her pride AND HER FAITH -- and she's soon not without friends, including a 1920s era "Magician" (played again WONDERFULLY, attuned to the time of the story, by Jeremy Renner) who to varying degrees are able to "kinda help."

Does she find her way out of this horrible mess?  Well, find the film when it eventually comes out on DVD to find out ;-).  Honestly, this is a very well made film that though quite melodramatic has some very well drawn, and often quite nuanced characters (including the troubled, conflicted, Bruno).  In any case, the film reminds us that EVERYBODY has a story.

So good job folks, good job!

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Monday, November 17, 2014

The Theory of Everything [2014]

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

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

The Theory of Everything [2014] (directed by James Marsh, screenplay by Anthony McCarten based on the memoirs of Jane Wilde-Hawking) is by most critical accounts (see above) a rather sanitized portrayal, IMHO honestly probably appropriately even necessarily, of the 25 year marriage of world famous theoretical physicist Steven Hawking (played in the film by Eddie Redmayne), debilitated for most of that time with advanced ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease), and his first wife Jane Wilde-Hawking (played in the movie Felicity Jones).

I write that the portrayal was "appropriately even necessarily sanitized" because there are plenty of hints in the film to those who have eyes, ears and brains (to say nothing of hearts) suggesting that the Hawkings' situation was NOT an easy one.  And yet, most, including emphatically myself (!), would probably agree that the story (and even specifically OF THEIR MARRIAGE) deserved to be told.

Why?  Well, let's begin by noting that Steven Hawking is probably the single most famous / historically significant disabled/physically challenged person in our time or perhaps in all time.  79-80 years ago, eugenicists across the "civilized world" (including certainly at Hawking's own Cambridge University) would have advocated EUTHANIZING severely challenged people like him.  And the Nazis GASSED the severely disabled.  Yet there are few doubts in anybody's minds THAT THE WORLD IS A BETTER MORE ENLIGHTENED PLACE FOR HAVING STEVEN HAWKING LIVING AMONG US DESPITE HIS ENORMOUS PHYSICAL SUFFERING AND LIMITATIONS.

Then despite his great intellectual gifts as well as his great physical suffering, Hawking is _also_ portrayed in the film, at times, as being somewhat of an ingrate / jerk.

For one, interestingly, throughout the film, he's portrayed as a rather aggressive atheist.  In his case, to be honest, I could actually go either way on this: On one hand, one could definitely feel angry (at God) for having one found oneself suffering from such an awful disease.  On the other hand, in my own work/ministry (as a Catholic Priest) I do have to say that EVERYONE WHO I'VE EVER KNOWN (there have been several) who's come down with ALS really did die in the 2-3-4 year window that was given Hawking when he was first diagnosed BACK IN 1963 (OVER FIFTY YEARS AGO).  That would seem to be something to be grateful for... to have _so spectacularly_ beaten the odds.  HOWEVER, back to the first hand, it's been one heck of a difficult life FOR THOSE FIFTY YEARS as well... So faith can be something of "a wash" in these situations even if I still do think that it's be EASIER to live with such difficulties believing that God is still somehow present to us / at our sides through it all.  (Interestingly also, Jane, first his girlfriend and then his wife is portrayed as being both an intellectual herself (she also got a PhD, in Romance languages) AND a believing and except for a couple of years in the middle there, A PRACTICING ANGLICAN).  Anyway, despite his suffering, I do honestly think that on balance Hawking did come across as something of an ingrate toward God because UNLIKE so many other people who have come down with AND DIED RATHER QUICKLY OF HIS ILLNESS, he's been able to live for 50 years further AND EVEN HAVE THREE KIDS WITH JANE.  Really, it's remarkable ... and yet ... also ... so painful.

Second, putting aside God, arguably what broke-up his and Jane's marriage was the entrance of his nurse Elaine Mason (played by Maxine Peake) into the picture.  She became his day-to-day caregiver after many years of illness (after he already even lost his normal speech).  Yet, this was ALSO after he had become a world famous physicist (for his contribution to the theory of the Big Bang).  One does wonder if Hawking would have been "a catch" if he was simply a random ALS sufferer with no fame to his name. AND YET ... Diana DID TAKE CARE OF HIM, and DID HAVE MORE ENERGY WITH REGARDS TO THIS THAN JANE (worn down by 2 1/2 DECADES of taking care of him...).  Still, the film made it quite clear that it was Steven who "walked out" of the marriage and not Jane (even if there was "an Anglican choir director/widower" (played by Charlie Cox) and Jane's future second husband ALSO hovering in the background).

So this is the story about a "mess", about a _very challenging marriage_, yes somewhat sanitized here, and yet still honest enough (no need to get into "Jerry Springer" territory...).

Yes, after 25 years, their marriage did collapse.  They both remarried, she, obviously, in the (Anglican) Church once more.  But honestly, what a story!  And it does appear that this story, written up in Jane's second memoir _was a collaboration with Steve_.

So good job folks, good job!  And honestly, as Pope Francis has already said famously in another context, in this most difficult case here, "Who can judge?" except ... perhaps God ;-) ... who'd of course love them both, _as us all_ ;-).

So IMHO in the final analysis, this is an excellent and _very human_ / thought provoking film about someone who can teach us more (and perhaps even through some of his own mistakes) than just about the stars.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Stones for the Rampart (orig. Kamienie na szaniec) [2014]

MPAA (UR would be R) (8/10)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing* (M. Steciak) review* (A. Łysakowska) review* (M. Wachnicki) review* (J. Dudkiewicz) review* (T. Sobolewski) review*

Stones for the Rampart (orig. Kamienie na szaniec) [2014] [IMDb] []* (directed by Robert Gliński [IMDb] []*, screenplay by Dominik W. Rettinger [IMDb] []* and Wojciech Pałys [IMDb] []* based on the Polish war-time novel [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* [WCat-Eng ed.] [GR-Pol. Ed] [WCat-Pol Ed.] by Polish scout leader [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* and during WW II Polish resistance leader Aleksander Kamiński [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*) is a very tough and, at times, honestly (though INTENTIONALLY) painful-to-watch film about a group of Polish boy scouts, hence TEENAGERS, who participated in the "Szare Szeregi" (lit. Grey Ranks) [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* "youth arm" of the Polish Home Army (partisan) resistance [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* to Nazi occupation.

The film played recently at the 26th Annual (2014) Polish Film Festival in America held here in Chicago.

The bravery of these Polish teens (and their families) is undeniable and puts to shame various Hollywood highly fictionalized "Y/A" depictions of "youth defending their homeland" (one thinks not only of the, in comparison, utterly ridiculous Red Dawn [1984] [2012] films, but even the better but still necessarily invented Hunger Games [2012] [2013] [2014] [2015] series of current popularity).  

Still, Gliński's [IMDb] []* film did cause something of a stir in Poland, because unlike Kamiński's [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* original novel, which written and published UNDERGROUND during the War was INTENDED TO BE PATRIOTIC AND ENCOURAGE POLES, YOUNG AND OLD, TO KEEP-UP THE RESISTANCE TO THE HATED / VICIOUS NAZI OCCUPIERS, the current film CAN NOT BUT RAISE QUESTIONS, among them, the most key: WAS IT WORTH IT?  (Honestly, it is worth here to read through some of the POLISH reviews of this film LISTED ABOVE -- If one reads these reviews using the Chrome browser, one can get a pretty good English translation of them by simply clicking the appropriate button).

I write this because THE CAUSE WAS UNDOUBTEDLY JUST, and these YOUNG SCOUTS (and their families) were UNDOUBTABLY BRAVE ... BUT THE COST ... WAS SO, SO HIGH.

To the film ...

After setting-up the story, introducing the group of scouts in a random Polish city during the Nazi occupation, the film centers on a particular action that this scout unit undergoes:  One of the unit's leaders, Rudy (played by Tomasz Ziętek [IMDb] []*) is captured by the Nazi authorities and held, and more to the point TORTURED, at the local Gestapo headquarters.  What to do?

The Scouts, led by Rudy's BEST FRIEND Tadeusz nicknamed "Zośka" (played magnificently by Marcel Sabat [IMDb] []*) WANT TO RESCUE HIM.  Insane?  NOT REALLY.  No they weren't planning to simply storm the police station BUT they had the place staked out.  They even had people, neighbors, WORKING in that police station -- Who was typing out all the police reports coming out of that place?  CERTAINLY NOT GERMANS ... but rather POLISH SECRETARIES (where did they live?  IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.  Hence they'd be FRIENDS / NEIGHBORS of the Scouts and even of Rudy's own family).  So the plan was to AMBUSH the truck that would EVENTUALLY take Rudy off to some Concentration Camp.

BUT ... TO DO SO would require "Home Army" permission.  After all, these young Scouts are constantly reminded by "the higher ups" that they "can't just do whatever they wanted."  They are supposed to be PART OF AN ARMY.

AND THERE WERE SELF-EVIDENT RISKS.  SO they HAD TO WAIT.  But "DAMN IT, HOW LONG?"  Until (local Underground, deep-cover hidden) Major Jan Kiwerski (played by Andrzej Chyra [IMDb] []*) gets permission from even "Higher Up."  WHY?  Well, ANY SUCH OPERATION WAS INEVITABLY GOING TO RESULT IN NAZI COUNTER-ACTIONS and EVEN REPRISALS.  A unit sets out to "save one person" and the Nazis go berserk and the Home Army ends up LOSING the ENTIRE ORGANIZATION in that part of Poland.  SO ... the "higher ups" really needed to think this thing through.  PLUS, the "mission" was being "planned by mere kids" here ...

ON THE OTHER HAND, this film portrayed REMARKABLY WELL, the "UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL" NATURE of a partisan resistance: 

While "waiting for the go-ahead," Zośka has to deal with Rudy's family.  They live a few houses "down the street."  Then there's Rudy's girlfriend Hala (played magnificently by Sandra Staniszewska [IMDb] []*).  At one point, she comes to Zośka's family's apartment WITH A REVOLVER threatening to go down to the Gestapo HQ herself, and shoot her way in.  "Sure I'll almost certainly be killed, but AT LEAST I WILL HAVE DONE SOMETHING.  HOW CAN YOU LIVE WITH YOURSELF, WITH YOUR BEST FRIEND OVER THERE, BEING TORTURED AND ALL YOU'RE DOING STANDING AROUND WAITING HERE?  WAITING FOR WHAT?  UNTIL HE DIES?"  (Honestly, PERHAPS that was EXACTLY what the Home Army higher ups were waiting for ... because this situation COULDN'T POSSIBLY END WELL ...).

Anyway, word does come that Rudy is going to be moved.  The Scout detachment gets the go-ahead to launch the ambush from "the higher ups."  ... Do they succeed in freeing him?  (MILD SPOILER ALERT) They do.  

But does it matter?  Of course not.  Why?  (I'm not going to tell you ... but think of the time, think of the nature of the Nazi occupation of the Slavic lands, and come to your own conclusion).  


This is often simultaneously a ghastly and a great film, IMHO near perfectly capturing the central dilemma of the Polish Resistance of the time.  What the heck to do when no matter what one did, the consequences would be all but unbearable.

Sigh ... what a film and what a story.

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

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