Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Long and Happy Life (orig. Долгая счастливая жизнь) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13) (1/10) (8/10) (4/5)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing listing* listing* listing* (R. Kulanin) review* (S. Stepnova) review*

CineVue (P. Gamble) review
Variety (L. Felperin) review

A Long and Happy Life (orig. Долгая счастливая жизнь) [2013] [IMDb] []* []*[]*(directed and cowritten by Boris Khlebnikov [IMDb] []* []* []* along with Alexander Rodionov [IMDb] []* []*) is the kind of Soviet, err Russian, movie that tends to find its way to the United States / the West.

Indeed, the film dutifully played and won a "special mention" (an award with a rather "ambiguous" to "polyvalent" meaning to say the least ...) at the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival.  For my part, after reading the plot summary offered by organizers of said 2013 Chicago International Film Festival promising a "somber socialist realist" film, I dutifully MADE IT A POINT then OF AVOIDING THE FILM preferring to screen something (really almost anything ...) that promised to be less ideological / bombastic ... ;-).

But the film did play among happier / more interesting Russian films at the 2013 New York Russian Film Week whose films I've decided to try to find and review now.  So in the interest of providing here _an honest survey_ of contemporary Russian film, I decided to view and review this film now.  (I would note here that as of my writing of this review, the film got exactly ONE VOTE on the Russian youth oriented website and that ONE VOTE gave it a 1/10 ;-).  Thus to even young Russian viewers, this film "Guardians of the Galaxy" was not ;-).

To be fair, this was _not_ an _awful movie_.  Indeed, much of its thematics could be seen as similar to a classic 1940s-1950s era American Western: A lone young man, Alexander Sergeivich or Sasha (played quite well by Aleksandr Yatsenko [IMDb] []* []*) in a small "frontier town" (apparently several hundred miles East of St. Petersburg nestled on the banks of a lovely Siberian River amidst rolling hills covered by lovely leaves-gently-turning-yellow (it's early autumn...) birch and evergreen forest) decides (with encouragement from his workers at a local cooperative if no longer collective farm) to try to face-down a shadowy cabal of corrupt local public officials fronting for unnamed and even shadowier "Bysness" interests.  [In a typical American Western, a lone young man, often a cowboy, would stand-up to face-down a cabal of corrupt local officials / "law"men paid-off by / fronting for one-or-another powerful railroad, mining interest or rancher...].   

But since this was a Russian movie as opposed to an American one, things could not possibly go well.  Egged on to take this rather brave stand arguably against his own interests -- he didn't know what / who exactly he was up against, but could certainly sense that he was probably going to lose, AND said "bysness interests" were at least _initially_ happy to just "pay him off" so that he would just leave without making a fuss -- his worker friends ALL INITIALLY "standing behind him" PEAL-OFF one after another: One takes the farm's tractor as "compensation" for his "investment" in the "cooperative."  Another, the loudest, most militant of the bunch, "listens to his wife" whose brother finds him a nice/safe "lumber job up in Karelia."

SO IN THE END, it's basically him, with a not exactly "air tight" legal claim to the land that the "bysness interests" want to take away from him, against not just said "bysness interests" but also the full force of the "local authorities" (already presumably long paid-off by the "bysness interests").

So does one keep "standing tall" or is this "Russian Ruby Ridge" scenario just gonna end up like a "Russian Alamo" ... and would there be ANYONE who would care ...?

Sigh, this is a film in which Russian old-style Stalinists come-out looking like American "Stars and Bars" survivalists ...

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

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Big Eyes [2014]

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

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

Big Eyes [2014] (directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaczewski) is an "art film" (in more ways than one ;-) that I really expected to like far, far more than I did:

The film's about a quintessentially "middle American" couple (from 1950s largely SUBURBAN California to boot -- from "the edge of the city to the edge of the desert" was the range of their day-to-day experience) that embarrassed the Art [TM] world (again, in more than a few ways ;-).  And then the film's about the dutiful 1950s-era wife yet (DESPITE that role's otherwise CRUSHING LIMITATIONS in that era) the couple's TRUE artist (if in a kitsch sort of way ... her art featured one MOURNFUL BIG-EYED ORPHAN AFTER ANOTHER ;-) Margaret Keane (played with wonderful Oscar nomination-worthy _unsuredness_ by Amy Adams, you just want to give the woman a hug... ;-) finally standing-up to her appallingly artistically untalented (but one heck/Hell of a (self)-promoting) scoundrel of a husband Walter (played with magnificent / again bordering on kitsch delight by Christoph Waltz).  This would "American Gothic" (if it was painted by Andy Warhol ;-) who actually apparently delighted in Keane's work gleefully noting the obvious: "It can't be that bad IF SO MANY PEOPLE LIKE IT." ;-)

So why the heck did I not like the film so much?  Its utterly unnecessary pot-shot against the Catholic Church:

To explain (MILD SPOILER ALERT -- though this is already revealed in the film's trailer): Though having presented himself to Margaret as an artist himself (painting "street scenes of Paris" "from memory..."), at a critical point in the film, TO MAKE A SALE -- Walter's there, she's not -- he takes credit for one of Margaret's "orphan pictures."  He explains to her afterwards: "You signed it Keane.  I'm a Keane, you're a Keane, what's the difference?  We sold the picture."

There is a difference of course.  And Margaret immediately feels that something is stolen from her.  BUT then Walter adds: "Besides, nobody buys 'women art' ..."  Again, she's not really convinced, replying: "What about Georgia O'Keefe?" (and she's right).  HOWEVER, even though she gives the right answer, SHE STILL HAS BEEN FORMED (FROM CHILDHOOD) TO "LISTEN TO HER HUSBAND"  And so she does ... BUT there's STILL the INNER TURMOIL OF THE LIE.

So what to do?  SHE GOES TO CONFESSION about it.  And this is my problem with the film.  After explaining the situation to the Priest, that her husband is taking credit for her paintings and that she's had to reprimand her own daughter for failing to go along with the lie (something that she tells the priest she's not comfortable with) THE PRIEST RESPONDS TO HER: "The husband is the head of the household, I suggest that you go along with his judgement."

I find the CATHOLIC priest's response there VERY, VERY DOUBTFUL.  SURE, JUST LIKE IN MAINLINE PROTESTANTISM OF THE TIME (to say nothing of the "Bible Believing Baptists, etc" where there wouldn't have been a question at all), THE CATHOLIC CHURCH OF THE TIME WOULD HAVE BEEN CERTAINLY "Patriarchical."


In the 1950s, the Catholic Church in the United States was, hands-down, a Church with BLUE COLLAR ROOTS.  Most Catholic priests at the time would have come from the same blue collar families as the parishioners AND WOULD NOT HAVE GIVEN A DAMN ABOUT PROTECTING "FAMILY REPUTATION" AND SO FORTH.  The priest would have heard FRAUD in Margaret's Confession (and for the motive of Margaret / Walter trying to live "in a more uppity manner" than the rest of "the people of God" ...) AND THUS WOULD HAVE, 9/10, told Margaret to END THE FRAUD.  He would not have cared about her sensitivities as a "snobby artiste" ... He would have cared that the two were trying to "live higher on the hog" than BOTH she and her husband had a right to.

So the film's an otherwise lovely and fascinating story about Art, Class, Kitsch, changing roles of husband and wife.  But it adds to the story a stupid / lazy pot-shot at the Catholic Church.  (Folks, there would be PLENTY OF THINGS TO CRITICIZE THE CATHOLIC CHURCH and even THE CATHOLIC CHURCH OF THAT TIME, BUT THIS WOULD NOT BE ONE OF THEM ...)

So ... 1 star (and it's a shame, because I otherwise LOVED this movie ;-)

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Me Too! (orig. я тоже хочу) [2012]

MPAA (UR would be R) (8.0/10) (8.5/10) (4.3/10) (3.8/5)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing listing* listing* listing* listing* (A. Sotnikova) review* (V. Lyaschenko) review* (L. Smolin) review* (S. Ternovski) review* (V. Kavalevich) review* (M. Chemodanov) review* (L. Pavlyuchik) review* (I. Gireiev) review*

Cine-Vue (J. Bleasdale) review
Eye For Film (M. Pattison) review (B. Behn) review*

Me Too! (orig. я тоже хочу) [2012] [IMDb] []* []*[]* (written, directed and costarring Aleksey Balabanov [IMDb] []* []* []*) is a rather "uncomplicated" Russian pop-cultural "apocalyptic story" (hence a mix of New Age and good-ole-fashioned Russian Orthodoxy) about a car load of "regular folk" Russians who set-off from St. Petersburg to the outlying countryside in search of the remains of a Russian Orthodox church whose bell-tower as a result of a "hushed up" mini-Chernobyl-like nuclear accident some years back is rumored to have become some sort of a conduit/portal to a "land of perpetual happiness."

The film played last year at the 2013 New York Russian Film Week.  I've chosen to look the film up, view it and review it here because I've grown tired (and even somewhat scared of the implications of) a very stilted one-dimensional portrayal of Russia / Russians today (a portrayal that ironically BOTH the current Putin government in Russia AND the West seem TO WANT TO PROPAGATE). 

So this film may both amuse and pleasantly surprise a fair number of Western readers here because the film's setup honestly is like the beginning of a send-up / joke: a Bandit (played by Aleksander Mosin [IMDb] []* []*), a Musician (played by Oleg Garkusha [IMDb] []* []*), an Alcoholic friend of the two (played by Yuriy Matveev [IMDb] []* []*), the Alcoholic''s Father (played by  [IMDb] []* []*),  and a Prostitute (played by Alisa Shitikova [IMDb] []* []*) get into a car and head-off to "a militarily cordoned-off area" somewhere "outside of town" (St. Petersburg) where it's rumored that there is the above mentioned bell-tower that many have come to believe MAY TRANSPORT SOME PEOPLE to a "Land of Perputual Happiness" ...  and much in the course of the 80 minute film ensues ;-)

Since it's a rather motley group of people in said Lada (a Russian "every man" sort of car), the film's certainly not particularly "PC."  The Bandit is, well, kinda an a-hole (though he doesn't necessarily think of himself as that way ... ;-) as is the Alcoholic.  The Musician is so artistically "avant-garde" that the "unschooled" would arguably say that he can't sing ;-).  The quite plain-looking Prostitute is of the "heart of gold" variety (she's doing it just because her mother's ill and the family needs the money).  And the elderly father doesn't say much at all.  And yet, when each of them hears of this rumored ruined bell tower that could transport them to "The Land of Perpetual Happiness" everyone of them naturally says: "Hey, me too! I wanna go too" (hence the title of the film).

Anyway, the film is honestly "a blast" ;-) ... and may actually surprise many Westerners who may honestly be convinced that Russians can't laugh or don't have a worthwhile sense of humor at all.

So this is a great little film folks that can help to quickly dissuade people of such opinions.

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

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Unbroken [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (K. Uhlich) review

Unbroken [2014] (directed by Angelina Jolie, screenplay by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, based on the biography by Laura Hillenbrand) tells the war-time story of Louis Zamperini born of Italian-immigrant parents, raised in Torrance, California grew up to be an Olympic athlete representing the United States as a middle distance runner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then served as an airman (bombardier) in the U.S.A.A.F. in the Pacific Theater before his plane, an early B-24, crashed due to mechanical failure in middle of the Pacific Ocean (apparently 800 miles south of Oahu).  And that's where Zamperini's story (and the film) really begins.

Zamperini (played as an adult by Jack O'Connell and in occasional flashbacks as a child by C.J. Valleroy) survived the plane's ditching in the Pacific along with two of his crew mates -- Cup (played by Jay Courtney) and Phil (played by Domnhall Gleeson).  Together, they drifted in an army-issue yellow inflatable life-raft for 45 days (Phil died after 30), eating raw fish, drinking occasional rain water, fighting off sharks with their paddles and jumping back into the sea occasionally to evade occasional strafing runs by Japanese aircraft.  Finally, they were picked-up ... by the Japanese and  tortured first "for information" (they had little) out on some Japanese held island somewhere in the Pacific and then "for fun" / "because they could be" after they were transported back to the Japanese home islands to spend the rest of the War there as POWs.

Zamperini's story thus was a very painful one throughout this several-years-long chapter of his life.  The film invites viewers to ask themselves what they would do:

His "celebrity" as a "former Olympic athlete" both helped and hurt him during his captivity.  A low ranking Japanese officer named Watanabe, nicknamed by the POWs as "The Bird" (played quite bravely by contemporary Japanese pop-star Takamasa Ishihara [en.wikip] [ja.wikip]* [IMDB]) a self-loathing, born-privileged "loser with a stick" took particular pleasure beating-up / otherwise humiliating Zamperini, who as a former Olympic athlete had already achieved a level of _Greatness_ that no matter how many blows "The Bird" could afflict on him during his captivity no one could take away.  On the hand, Zamperini was offered RELIEF FROM ALL OF THIS SUFFERING IF ONLY ... he consented to work for Radio Tokyo ON BEHALF OF THE JAPANESE.  The Temptation was REAL ... as were the Consequences to which-ever-way he decided to go.  He _chose_ to _continue to endure_ the awful and utterly random (utterly beyond his control) BEATINGS rather than BETRAY HIS COUNTRY ... Honestly that was one tough SELF-SACRIFICING decision).

After the War, he had another decision to make (covered in the film only by a few panels of explanatory titles): Could he forgive this enemy that TORTURED HIM and KILLED SO MANY OF HIS FRIENDS / FELLOW POWs?  Born Italian-American, he was therefore born/raised Catholic.  However, the book has it that it was his wife and Evangelist Billy Graham who changed his heart in the post-war years to begin a completely new chapter in his life: HE WENT BACK TO JAPAN as a born-again Christian.  In 1950, he went to the Sugamo Prison in Tokyo which housed many of Japan's War Criminals and publicly FORGAVE everyone of the prisoners there who stepped forward to acknowledge that they knew him during _his captivity_ during the war.  (Subsequently, he even reached out to Watanabe, who had successfully evaded capture as a War Criminal after the war, but "The Bird" refused to meet him).

In any case, Louis Zamperini's is one heck of a story, and one that deserves praise here (even if his Catholicism in his post-WW II years could be something of a question mark): We are asked by God / Jesus to forgive.  How well are we all doing with that?

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

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (orig. Географ Глобус Пропил) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R) (4/5 Stars) (7.2/10) (7.6/10)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing listing* listing* listing* (B. Milovidov) review* (T. Fedotova) review* (А. Mazhaev) review* (A. Enseev) review* (A. Belokurova) review*

The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (orig. Географ Глобус Пропил) [2013] [IMDb] []* []*[]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Aleksandr Veledinskiy [IMDb] []* []*[]* [ru.wikip]* along with Rauf Kubayev [IMDb] []*[]* and Valeriy Todorovskiy [IMDb] []* []* based on the novel [GR]* [ru.wikip]* by Alexei V. Ivanov [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* [IMDb]) is an EXCELLENT RUSSIAN FILM which won five 2014 Nika Awards (Russia's equivalent of the Oscars) [IMDb] [en.wikip] including for best picture, best director, best actor and best actress and was nominated for three others.

The film played at the 2013 New York Russian Film Week.  Since contemporary Russian films rarely play in Chicago, and those that do IMHO often play into the propagandistic interests of BOTH Putin's current government AND that of the West (both seem to WANT Russia to appear re-enamored or even obsessed with bombastic, often highly allegorical Soviet Era even Stalinistic aesthetics), I have considered for a while now to look-up and review the films shown at that Festival in New York.  While reading Peter Pomerantsev's perhaps quite excellent and certainly quite damning book Nothing is Real and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014) (neither I nor most Americans honestly have an alternate frame of reference to be able to argue with him), I found this "perhaps one sunny day" project perhaps a bit more urgent.  (Pomerantsev was rather prominently featured in an interview on the PBS Newshour [1] [2] recently, so his book will probably carry a fair amount of weight among "the people who actually make decisions" in the U.S. and by extension in the West).  

My sense is that Pomerantsev is probably largely on target (my parents were Czechoslovakian immigrants, after all, who fled that country to the U.S. during the Communist Era...).  However, I do honestly believe that the cause of "better understanding between peoples/nations" and FRANKLY EVEN THE CAUSE OF WORLD PEACE would be greatly served if Americans (and Westerners in general) were to come to realize that Russians are people who ALSO deal with "day to day" problems AND _at least at times_ SMILE.  Since a number of the films shown at the 2013 New York Russian Film Week were COMEDIES or otherwise _little_ "average Joe dramas" I thought that giving publicity to some of these films COULD HELP CHANGE ATTITUDES and AGAIN FRANKLY HELP TO EITHER PREVENT ANOTHER COLD WAR OR AT LEAST MAKE IT LESS COLD.

So with this goal in mind, I set-off to first find and then review a representative portion of the films shown at that already admittedly small 2013 New York Russian Film Festival.  And the first film that I saw of the series was this one, the 5 Nika Award winning personalist drama called The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (orig. Географ Глобус Пропил) [2013] [IMDb] []* []*[]*.

The story is set in and around the industrial city of Perm [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* near the European side foothills of the Ural Mountains [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* on the banks of the picturesque Kama River [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* a major tributary of the Volga [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* (Perm's American "sister city" is quite interestingly/evocatively Louisville, Kentucky, itself located a little downriver from the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on the banks of Ohio River a major tributary to the Mississippi).  The film's about a "washed-up" late-30 something / early 40-something former university teacher named Viktor Slushkin (played award-worthily in often funny yet ever-understated fashion by Konstantin Khabenskiy [IMDb] []* []*: Readers think here of Liam Neeson playing Jeff Bridges' role in The Big Lebowski [1998] ;-).

Never having finished his PhD (in Biology), perhaps/probably because of drinking (though the drinking could have been both a cause and an effect of his downward slide), he's spent the better part of the last 10 years drifting through (and losing) increasingly pitiable jobs across much of the region, finally bringing him home to Perm [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* where he had grown-up.  There upon his return he ends-up landing a job as a "Geography teacher" at the local high school (secondary school).  "Biology, Geography, it's all the same," declares the _male_ 'director of the school' while the (probably far more competent than both of them) _female_ assistant director/principal clenches her teeth, roles her eyes and responds as calmly as she can: "Well, YOU are the Director (Principal) after all ..."

Having "landed a job" that he's _not_ completely embarrassed about, Victor (actually kind of an ironic name ... evoking "victory") can "complete the journey home" and return to his wife and kid (shades of The Odyssey or even James Joyce's Ulysses).  His wife Nadya (her name actually meaning "hope" played again with magnificent _disappointment_ by Elena Lyadova [IMDb] []* []*) a former (university) student of his, who he had "bagged" (and "knocked-up" ... they have said 8 to 10 year old girl together) when he was still "a catch" ... now, of course, hates him.  The three have a random apartment in a random 10-20 story tenement building (though at least it "has a nice view, facing the river...") somewhere in town and the first words of Nadya in the movie is that it's embarrassing that they still don't have a car.

Spotting Victor smoking a cigarette on his balcony (while his wife's putting out the laundry to dry ...)  contemplating the river or simply just enjoying a brief moment of peace, his best friend Butkin (played with cheerful cluelessness/innocence by Aleksandr Robak [IMDb] []* []*) calls him up on his cell phone.  Victor answering, Butkin cheerfully tells him "Look toward your left!" Victor of course looks the wrong way, "No your other left!"  Turning the right way, Victor sees a little roundish figure of a man standing on a balcony a few floors _lower_ of another apartment of another random tenement building happily waving toward him calling out, loudly, both over the phone and across the snow covered green: "Victor, it's good to see you back!  When'd you come home?"

And soon, Butkin's over at Victor's with a flower for the wife/family and a bottle of who-knows-what to share with Victor, et al, and Nadya, just rolls her eyes wondering "Will the newly returned joys never cease ..." ;-).


Okay, Victor knows as much about "geography" as he can remember from WHEN HE WAS A BORED, UNMOTIVATED (or more positively "CARE-FREE") HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT ... AND ... WHAT SUBSEQUENT LIFE EXPERIENCE HAS TAUGHT HIM.  So he's SIMULTANEOUSLY a TERRIBLE (GEOGRAPHY) TEACHER ... and actually ... a pretty good one.

Of his largely unmotivated class, two students become key: Ovechkin (Ilya Ilinyh [IMDb] []* []*... there's actually a famous NHL playing Russian hockey player now named Ovechkin ;-) who could have been Viktor (Slushkin) when he was 16 years old and more problematically Masha (played again wonderfully with wide-eyed teenage hormone-driven sincerity by Anfisa Chernykh [IMDb] []* []*) who "falls in love with him" and who if he would have still been 16 years old, he probably would have loved to have fallen-in-love with as well.  But alas, Viktor (Slushkin)'s some 40 years old, with a wife who he's failed and kid who he loves and doesn't want to fail as well.

So how to _NAVIGATE_ this lovely, sad, very human mess of a life? 

After his wife tells him to "find a mistress" because she honestly doesn't feel anything for him any more, it is HE actually who lets her enter into a fling (and all concerned hope something more ...) with his best friend Butkin (His ever-cheerfulness does eventually melt Nadya's scowl into a smile).  For his part, Viktor does initially pursue a "hot German teacher" Kira (played by Evgenia Brik [IMDb] []* []*).  But when he does arrive at a point where he really could succeed, he starts to have second thoughts.  "So you're going to become a monk?" Kira asks him.  "No, not all the saints were monks," never particularly or certainly explicitly religious he responds.  He's just honestly apparently come to the realization that this wasn't right (even though he was actually happy to see his wife finally _somewhat happy_, if not with him, then at least with his happier-go-lucky best friend).

And with his under-motivated students he finally makes a deal:  He would take those who "ace" their final exam on a several day rafting trip down the Kama River (upstream from town) to prove to them that "geography can be fun."  That sets up a very nice and very scenically drop-dead beautiful last 45 minutes of the film.

What of the 16 year old, wide-eyed, not knowing what she's doing, but "in love" (with him) Masha?  Well, PERHAPS MILD SPOILER ALERT, Viktor manages to bring her down to reality.  When ON THE RAFTING TRIP she professes her love to him: "I can't live without you," as a 40 year old (who's actually gone down this path before, albeit with a college student, his wife, who he's subsequently profoundly failed / disappointed) he responds: "OH PLEASE, I'm NOT with DYING FOR.  And you're NOT worth GOING TO JAIL for."  And yes, she's "crest fallen" but ... of course, "she gets over it" ;-)


I began calling the film a "personalist" film.  It's a term that may seem strange to many American ears.  But I chose it purposefully here.  This is because PERSONALISM was very much what this film was about -- the capacity of an individual PERSON to make (good and bad) moral decisions.  Personalism was very much at the center of Pope John Paul II's (now St. John Paul II's) theology (his first book was called "The Acting Person") and this philosophy / theology was certainly informed by the philosophical / theological currents of his part of the world and HIS philosophy/theology in turn has influenced said philosophical / theological currents of his part the world as well.  (While Poles and Russians may not much like each other, they DO read and watch each other's stuff ;-).  So I DON'T THINK the "personalism" in the John Paul II-ian sense was that much of an accident here.   Even if the Russian writer of the book or Russian director of the movie never actually read any of John Paul II's writings, the philosophy / theology of his writings would be very much "in the religious / philosophical environment" of the entire region. 

In any case, this was really an excellent (and perhaps to Westerners initially surprising) Russian film that is WORTHY of "looking up."  Great job folks, honestly great job!

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

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Into the Woods [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review

Into the Woods [2014] (directed by Rob Marshall, screenplay by James Lapine [IMDb], based on the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim [IMDb] and James Lapine [IMDb] which combines a number of Grimm's Fairytales into generally pleasing "soup") makes for a rather safe family-oriented movie to go see this "Holiday season."  I write "Holiday" rather than "Christmas Season" because the film is certainly (and certainly intentionally) a "religion-free zone."  On the other hand, this is a film that will certainly offend almost no one.  Hence, it's SAFE but also ... FUN.

Certainly Meryl Streep must have had a blast playing the story's Witch, who, since she was cursed (for reason(s) unclear) by her mother to "lifelong ugliness" turned around and cursed her neighbors' home inhabited by a lovely, mild-mannered "Baker" couple played by James Corden and Emily Blunt rendering the couple childless.  Mind you, the "Witch" had nothing in particular against the "Baker couple."  It was just that _her life_ was "cursed," so why shouldn't theirs be as well ;-/. 

So ... near the beginning of the film, Witch cheerfully tells them (again, she doesn't have any particular resentment against them ...) what THEY need to do TO HELP HER remove the curse that was PLACED ON HER, and ... in return she'd then cheerfully remove the curse AGAINST THEM.  (In truth, the story's kinda about "cheerful" "Fairytale blackmail" or even "Fairytale terrorism" ... The Witch was unhappy and so long as she was unhappy the lovely / innocent people next door were rendered unhappy as well...)

What did they have to do?  They had to bring to the Witch four items: A cape "as red as blood," a cow "as white as milk," hair "as yellow as corn," and a shoe "as pure as gold."  Since their village was "small" they had to leave their little village "INTO THE WOODS" to search / find these items. 

And .... in those "woods" (strange, outside of their normal day-to-day experience) ... they run into ... hmmm ... Little Red Riding Hood (played amusingly by Lila Crawford), a little boy named Jack (played by Daniel Huttlestone) taking his mother's cow to market, long/blonde haired Rapunzel (played by Mackenzie Mauzy) locked-up in a lonely tower, and a not particularly "decisive" Cinderella (played by Anna Kendrick) who has a hard time deciding if she really wants to become Prince Charming's (played by Chris Pine) wife (It turns out later that her intuitive cautiousness was quite justified ... ;-)

So ... "the ingredients" are all there, but nothing is that easy:   It turns out Little Red Riding Hood's kinda a brat ;-), Jack wants to be paid, Repunzel has need for that hair, and Cinderella, poor Cinderella, has the above mentioned affliction of not being able to make-up her mind.  So ... much has to ensue ... and it does.  And even after everything would seem to be resolved, well ... there's at least one more act to go ;-).

So ... this is a pleasant and often quite funny revisiting of some of the Grimm's Fairytales that many/most of us would remember from our younger days.  Probably the show-stopper tune in the film is "Agony" sung by Cinderella's Prince Charming and Rapunzel's beau (played by Billy Magnusen) complaining how "difficult" it is to be a "privileged prince" ;-).  Then Meryl Streep's unhappy but quite powerful witch has fun "unhelpfully" appearing and disappearing again throughout the story, "helping" to make the other characters in the story "unhappy" because, well, she's unhappy.  Many of us have friends, neighbors and/or relatives like that ;-). 

So ... while this movie could have been released pretty much any time during the year, it's NOT A BAD ONE to go to now if the relatives are over (especially with little ones) and you don't know quite what to do with them anymore ;-).

I'd also add that part of the film's charm is that though it is a movie, set often outdoors, it's quite "stagey" (and IMHO _intentionally_ so).  So I'm sure that plenty of high school drama coaches will be scratching their heads as they watch the film, saying to themselves "Hey, WE could do this.  And wouldn't this musical be a blast to put on stage at our school in a year or two...."

So all in all, one can't really go wrong with this film.  Good job folks, good job ;-)

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Annie [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review

BET coverage
Ebony (R. Mays) interview w. Jamie Foxx (T. Lewis) cover article interviews [1] [2]

I honestly didn't expect to like Annie [2014] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Will Gluck along with Arlene Brosh McKenna based on the stage play by Thomas Meehan [IMDb] based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray).  When I was a kid growing-up, I didn't much like or even have interest in the original stage musical.  Even at 10 or 12 I had a remarkably similar view of the musical as I later had of the musical Les Miserables [2013] -- I basically found it to be poverty porn: "Oh look at how much the characters suffered (and AT A TIME SO FAR, FAR AWAY), but the Actors SANG SO WELL (or NOT SO WELL or WHATEVER ...)."

So I went to see the remade / updated  Annie [2014] (the lovely, precocious African American 10 year old Quvenzhané Wallis playing the precocious starring role previously played by lovely preccocious white/redheaded vaguely Irish looking girls) in a matinee, going to see it only _because I felt I had to_ for the sake of the credibility of my movie review blog... :-)

I left already liking the new film, and liked it EVEN MORE when I got home and rented the canonical 1982 film version (the one which starred, among others Carol Burnett as the evil, self-serving/scheming orphanage running Miss Hannigan).

Why the change?  Well, I found the updating of the story both BRILLIANT and WORTHY of the story -- the new version setting Annie's story, not during the Great Depression (FAR FAR AWAY...) but IN THE PRESENT DAY.  And then, if one is going to move "Little Orphan Annie" to the present day (while STILL SETTING IT IN NEW YORK), IT MAKES A LOT OF SENSE to change her from a precocious curly red-haired vaguely Irish-looking girl living in a Depression Era orphanage to a precocious, yet still big / curly-haired African-American girl living in a CONTEMPORARY "FOSTER CARE" situation. 

Then the rest of the characters in the original story translate VERY WELL into the new.  Cameron Diaz' drunk, sulking, scheming "I could have been a star" Hannigan making a few extra bucks by taking-in kids as a "Foster Mom" is a brilliantly dead-on updated version of Carol Burnett's character in the canonical 1982 film version).  Jamie Foxx' telecom billionaire Will Stacks (running in the current version for NYC mayor) is a similarly brilliantly updated version of the Depression Era Oliver ("Daddy") Warbucks tycoon played by Albert Finney in the 1982 film, though much of Daddy Warbucks' privileged / "evil" default tendencies get shifted to Stacks' "I get paid to do the things that you can't" campaign manager credited in the new film as simply "Guy" (played by Bobby Cannavale).  Then Rose Byrne does a wonderful job in the current version of playing Grace, Stacks' personal assistant, whose role is an updated version of Daddy Warbuck's assistant Grace Farrell played (and danced ...) in the 1982 version by Ann Reinking.   Stack's driver Nash (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) played a pretty good updated version of "Punjab", Daddy Warbucks' driver (played by Geoffrey Holder in the 1982 version).

Then some of the scenes in the updated version, which more-or-less follows the trajectory of the original, are again brilliantly inspired.  In both the current and the 1982 versions, there's an episode in which Annie wants to go to the movies.  In the 1982 version, Daddy Warbucks makes a call and RENTS OUT THE ENTIRE RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL so that HE, Annie and Grace could go to see a movie (which turns out to be some appropriately sappy 1930s melodrama).  IN THE CURRENT VERSION, Annie convinces Stacks to take HER, her other foster home friends and Grace to see a sappy Twilight-like film apparently starring Mila Kunis in a Bella-like role,  Ashton Kutcher as the Twilight-like Edward (or perhaps Jason)-like "lizard-man hunk" (with Rihanna and Scarlett Benchley playing assorted, "moon and fish goddesses").  It's simply PRICELESS to watch Billionaire Stacks, there, popcorn-in-lap, TOTALLY DISORIENTED in a theater FILLED WITH SIGHING 10-12 year old girls (and Grace) holding-onto EVERY WORD and EVERY GLANCE in this very contemporary "sappy melodrama" involving an "impossible romance" between the Twilight's Bella-like character (played by Mila Kunis) and her "lizard man" beau ;-).  [Actually, to my Czech ears, the plot of this Twilight-like "water saga" seems VAGUELY like the libretto of Antonin Dvorak's opera about the "water nymph" Rusalka [wikip] [YouTube] ;-)]

So folks, what I would suggest to skeptics here is to go see BOTH the current updated version of Annie and then come home and RENT the 1982 version.  I think that most would honestly appreciate what was done here.  The updated version honestly came across to me as FAR MORE REAL than the DEPRESSION ERA version (set again, at a time SAFELY "far, far away...")

And finally to those who would find some of the messaging in the current version to be uncomfortably "Liberal" ... remember that THE ORIGINAL was UNABASHEDLY LIBERAL / pro-FDR.  Indeed FDR and Eleanor WERE EVEN CHARACTERS in the play (played in the 1982 version by Edward Herrman and Lois de Banzie respectively). 

So I found this film far, far, far more engaging than I ever thought possible prior to seeing it, and as I did in the case of the "crazy" (DaVincian airship filled) updating / re-imagining of The Three Musketeers [2011] some years back I APPLAUD THE COURAGE AND CREATIVITY OF THE SCREENWRITERS and FILM MAKERS HERE.  Awesome job here, simply awesome.  And again, I didn't even really want to go see this film!

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb [2014]

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

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

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb [2014] (directed by Shawn Levy, screenplay and story by David Guion and Michael Handelman along with Mark Friedman, characters by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) continues and perhaps concludes this very nice / family friendly series of films about lowly New York Museum of Natural History night security guard Larry Daley (played by Ben Stiller), who in the first film, Night at the Museum [2006], discovered that thanks to a magically endowed ancient Egyptian tablet, all the statues / wax figures in the museum "come alive" at night. 

Among the "people" that Larry met in the first film were: (1) Teddy Roosevelt (played by Robin Williams); (2) an eyes rolling Sacajaweja (played by Mizou Peck) (Lewis and Clark NEVER asked her for directions ;-); (3) a strangely sad Attila the Hun (played by Patrick Gallagher) (who pillaged because he never had a good father-figure in his life ;-); (4) two miniature figurines, one of an American "Wild West" era prospector named Jedediah (played by Owen Wilson) and another of Roman Centurion Octaius (played by Steve Coogan) from neighboring (and it turns out competing) "dioramas" (Jedediah and his miner friends would try to "miniature dynamite" their way into the neighboring Roman empire themed "diorama" while the Romans would try to blow their way into the "Wild West" themed "diorama" with a battering ram... ;-); and (5) finally "young" Egyptian pharoah Akhmenrah (played by Rami Malek) to whom the magical tablet "belonged."  All these figures, who previously just caused havoc in the Museum after dark come to like the lowly and previously largely down-on-his-luck / friendless, night-watchman Larry and later rally to save his job when HE gets blamed for the mess that they cause each night.  And thus, an ensemble for many, many playfully "historically based" adventures was born ...

The second movie, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian [2009], moved the story to, well, Washington D.C., where at the Smithsonian Institute Larry and his "band of anachronistic merrymen/women" met the energetic and brave Amelia Earhart (played there by Amy Adams), the hapless Indian-War loser General Custer (played there by Bill Hader) as well as a true "gang" of History's "bad guys" including a cursed Egyptian pharoah named Khanumrah (played there by Hank Azaria), Ivan the Terrible (played there by Christopher Guest), Napoleon Bonaparte (played there by Alain Chabat) and Al Capone (played there by Jon Bernthal).  The "gang of baddies" had nefarious plans of "world domination" if only they could get their hands of the magical tablet ... ;-).  Much ensued...

The current movie, moves the story to the British Museum, where N.Y.C. Museum of Natural History's "young" pharoah Akhmenrah's father Merenkhare (played by Ben Kingsley) "lives."  The magical tablet was starting to wear-out and the characters from the N.Y.C. museum had to figure out why.  So ... Larry as well as a number of the other characters ... find their way to London's British Museum, and ... much again ensues ;-). 

Among that which ensues is that they meet "Sir Lancelot" (played by Dan Stevens) who, when brought to life by the magical tablet has an interesting problem that differs from the experiences of the other figures under its spell: Lancelot never actually existed, but NOW there he is ;-).  It's an interesting take on the question of "What to do IF YOU "DISCOVER" THAT _YOUR WHOLE LIFE_ HAS BEEN 'A LIE.'" ;-). 
Another priceless bit that perhaps is a MINOR "SPOILER" here but is simply worth sharing is the dialogue between the Ben Kingsley's Pharoah Merenkhare and Ben Stiller's Larry the Security Guard when Pharoah hears that Larry's "half Irish and half Jewish."  Pharoah says delightfully: "Oh I always LOVED Jews, I used to own 40,000 of them ;-).  Always, happy people, loved to sing..."  To which Larry responds: "Oh, believe me, the feeling wasn't mutual.  They spent 40 years in the desert running away from you.  WE STILL GET TOGETHER _EVERY YEAR_ to talk about it ;-)"

Additionally, the film had its (since its making) poignant moments.  Two actors from the film, Mickey Rooney (who plays a bit part as a retired museum security guard) and Robin Williams have died since the making of the film, Robin Williams, of course, of suicide.  Seeing Williams' ever "saddish" smile is quite sad to watch.

In any case, a very good film capping a very nice three part, ever family friendly series.  Good job folks!  Good job!

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies [2014]

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

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

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies [2014] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Peter Jackson along with Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro) is the final part of a three part series of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's [IMDb] novel The Hobbit [Amazon] released over the past several years.

The near universal critical opinion of this project has been that the source material, a single 300 page or so book (shorter than any of the three part Lord of the Rings Trilogy [Amazon]), was simply too thin to justify a three part film.  Yet, as I wrote in my review of the first part of this trilogy of films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [2012], those viewers who were "at all enamored by (or perhaps more fittingly here, enchanted by ;-) the LOTR series, [will probably] just bask in the opportunity of spending a few extra hours in the 'Middle Earth' of these films because the New Zealand location, the CGI and the cinematography in general are once again simply AWESOME."

Some nine hours (!) of three Hobbit movie(s) later, my own patience has admittedly worn thin as even MOST TEENAGERS could probably READ THE BOOK in shorter time than that need to watch the three movies ;-).  Still, I suspect that many fantasy role-playing gamers (and I would count myself as a lesser one among them) will probably find the extended (and I mean extended, perhaps 2/3 of the current movie) battle scenes between the promised five armies -- dwarves, elves, orcs, humans (Laketown refugees) and (once sleeping cousin) dwarves and/or orcs again (I lost count / got confused after a while ;-) -- quite AWESOME again ;-). [Note here that the book posits the Battle of Five Armies to be between dwarves, elves and humans (said Laketown refugees) on one side and "goblins and wild wolves" on the other (pg 281 of 305 in my Kindle edition).  While goblins do certainly make a brief and identified appearance -- "Look, there!  (A rather small detachment of) Goblins!" --- the primary enemy in the film would appear to be orcs].

The battle scenes are filmed then made "close-up" to show various individual hand-to-hand battles, as well as well "from a distance" to give a "bird's eye view" (which actually proves important because as in the book, the battle finally comes to an end with the arrival of Eagles ... ;-) who swoop down to take care of the remaining goblins (or orcs).

Now why was there fighting at all?  This is where IMHO things get interesting from my perspective (writing this blog) as well as that of Tolkien fans who've ALWAYS understood his works to be more than "just fantasy" but rather fundamentally allegorical in nature: Arguably The Hobbit is an allegorical presentation of World War I: 

The Dwarves (little people) whose mountain kingdom was stolen from them by the Dragon Smaug "centuries before" perhaps represent the "little kingdoms of the Slavs" and/or various other "little kingdoms" of Eastern and Southern Europe which had been swallowed-up by some of the larger countries in the region.  The Elves (living mostly "in the woods," and who _didn't particularly like the Dwarves_...) could have been the various Germanic peoples (with their own little / magical kingdoms).  The Hobbits, "living quietly in the Shire" would have almost certainly been "common English folk."   At the beginning of the story, the Hobbit Bilbo (played throughout by Martin Freeman) gets recruited by the Merlin-the-magician-like wizard Gandalf (played by Ian McEllen) perhaps representing British "high aristocracy" (or "all that is/was good and true in ancient / modern Britain / Britannia") to join the fight _of the dwarves_ TO REGAIN _THEIR_ (mountainous) HOMELAND (Note that with the exception of Poland, itself bordered to the south by mountains, the whole of Central and Eastern Europe is one mountain or mountain range after another).  Bilbo's initially quite skeptical but does ultimately join The Cause.

But as soon as Bilbo and the small party of Dwarves drive the Dragon out of the Dwarves' Mountain (their ancestral homeland) ALL SORTS OF PROBLEMS BOTH ANCIENT and NEW APPEAR.  Among the ANCIENT PROBLEMS that (RE)APPEAR are those pesky Orcs/Goblins who had seemed buried (or at least out of mind) before.  Among the NEW PROBLEMS that APPEARED was the destruction of the previously PEACEFUL TOWN OF "LAKE TOWN" (Flanders??) whose residents were now Refugees as a result of its (unwanted) battle with (and ultimate defeat of) the Dragon Smaug.

Then finally, the Dwarves, PITIED AT THE BEGINNING OF THE STORY (for having lost their homeland centuries before as a result of the BEASTLY DRAGON SMAUG) TURN OUT TO NOT BE ALL THAT "GOOD" AS SOON AS THEY REGAIN THEIR MOUNTAIN KINGDOM.  Their "king" Thorin (played throughout by Richard Armitage) turns out to be quite greedy / self-interested as soon as "he gets his gold back."  Thus, he proves NOT willing to help the Laketown refugees, who after all, were the ones who ACTUALLY DEFEATED THE DRAGON (the dwarfs just chased him out of their mountain ...) and then he didn't even want to pay Bilbo his promised share for having joined their expedition to begin with.

It's fascinating, but a lot of Englishmen _could have felt similarly_ like Bilbo or the Laketown people after World War I (then The Great War).  Millions of Englishmen died in The Great War, for what?  Okay, the Central Powers of Europe (Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) were defeated / destroyed.  BUT the resulting tiny countries that reappeared all quarreled with each other and many/most probably didn't even appreciate how many Englishmen died in that War that didn't really give England all that much as a result, except PERHAPS the sense of "having done the right thing."

The story today could remind us that even "just causes" have unexpected consequences and even the leaders of various just causes, when in power, could end-up "like the Dwarf King Thorin," that is, "problematic."

Still, Bilbo (and Gandalf) "did the right thing" and certainly Bilbo got an Adventure that he could talk about "in the Shire" (where "nothing ever happened") for the rest of his life.

Hence the book (or the THREE movies) gives one much to think about ... the value / pitfalls of setting out on a "Grand Adventure" even when "the Cause" is Just.  (Yes, it's still worth it, but ... not without its Disappointments).

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Monday, December 15, 2014

The Imitation Game [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  Chicago Tribune (3 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (1 1/2 Stars w. Expl.)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review  

The Imitation Game [2014] (directed by Morton Tydlum, screenplay by Graham Moore based on the book by Andrew Hodges [IMDb]) tells the story (in very rough outline it turns out) of smart, socially-challenged oddball (and gay) Alan Turing who improving on similar machines already designed and constructed by Polish intelligence services in the 1930s, designed and supervised the construction of the proto-computer (that he nicknamed "Christopher") that definitively broke Nazi Germany's all-but unbreakable Enigma code during WW II that helped the Allies win the war.  

Turing's story plays out in this film in three stages of his life: in the 1920s when he when he was a teenager at a British all-boys boarding school, during the war years 1940-1945 when he was first part of and then allowed (very, very reluctantly by his bosses much less bright than he and his colleagues ever were) to lead the U.K.'s Bletchley Park Enigma code-breaking unit (code-named ULTRA) and then in the early 1950s after he was arrested for a (homosexual) morals charge.  As a teenager, he is played by Alex Lawther, as an adult, engagingly and magnificently throughout by Benedict Cumberpatch (Cumberpatch is almost certainly going to get an academy Award Nomination for his performance in this film and despite some other excellent performances by other actors in other films this year, I'd hand him the Oscar now). 

As could be imagined from the hints already given above, this is a fairly challenging story to put on screen.  First of all, Turing was an interesting character -- brilliant but perhaps almost necessarily odd.  Second, while his role in breaking the Enigma code was certainly significant, the film really plays the Polish contributions the code's breaking with almost categorical racist (WASP in the worst possible way) disrespect.  And yet, after the war, BECAUSE HOMOSEXUALITY WAS STILL A CRIME IN BRITAIN, Turing, without a doubt A LEGITIMATE WAR HERO (if only the public and EVEN CIVIL AUTHORITIES of the time would have / could have known) was DESTROYED for not fitting the heterosexual norm: Given a choice of PRISON or "hormonal therapy" (for A BLOW JOB ...) he chose the latter so that he could continue his work in the then still infant science of computer engineering.  In 1954, he died as a result of (probably) committing suicide...

The film's thematics, IMHO are excellent: Can we accept diversity AS A GIFT?  It did take someone who was "odd" (and not just that he was gay, even today, he'd probably be considered "socially challenged" / "odd") to do something next to unimaginable.  Yet, I do wish this was done in a manner that did give DUE CREDIT to the Poles (who are AS WHITE AS CAN BE and yet _still_ considered by more "Anglo" / "Aryan" whites to be SOMEHOW NECESSARILY "LESS" than they ...).

Sigh ... _excellent film_ otherwise, but 1 1/2 to 2 Stars ... (and I do think I'm being kind here on account of its _otherwise excellent message_).

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings [2014]

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

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

Nat'l Catholic Register (S.D. Graydamus) reflection , interview w. director / stars of film

The first thing to say about Exodus: Gods and Kings [2014] (directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian) is that it is an intelligent, thought-provoking, discussion-provoking film.  It is not simply a retelling of the story of Moses of the Book of Exodus.   What good would that do, after both having received the Canonical text in the Bible, and even perhaps a "canonical" presentation of it in Cecil B. DeMille's presentation of it in The Ten Commandments [1956]?

Instead, the current film, is a kind of Midrash or Reflection, as it tries to "get into the heads" of the Exodus story's main characters -- Moses (played by Christian Bale), Ramses (played by Joel Edgerton) who was according to the second chapter of Exodus for the first 40 years of Moses' life "like a brother to him", and yes, even God, or at least a messenger of God or Moses' visualization of God, credited in the film as Malek (played by Isaac Andrews).  [Note that Malek translates from Hebrew to English as "Angel" or "Messenger"].

For instance, the film explores the question of what would have it been like / WHAT COULD HAVE IT BEEN LIKE for Moses who grew-up AS AN EGYPTIAN to encounter the THE HEBREW GOD at the Burning Bush?   The film-makers' portrayal of God here is fascinating:  They portray Moses "seeing" the Hebrew God as a VERY POWERFUL (indeed DIVINELY POWERFUL) ... CHILD. 

Now why would Moses "see" / "experience" the Hebrew God "as a child"?  Well, Moses would have grown-up in the Royal Court of the most powerful, most sophisticated country of that time.  Egypt had an elaborate and complex / ELABORATED Pantheon of its own, perhaps even TOO ELABORATED for his liking (Near the beginning of the film, we see him more or less "roll his eyes" as a very solemn-looking Egyptian Priestess goes through the very solemn-looking motions of performing an oracle for the Pharoah's court).

As someone educated in Egypt's court, the Hebrew God VERY WELL COULD HAVE BEEN EXPERIENCED by Moses, as somewhat "childish" / "primitive", indeed at times PETULANT and YET, PERHAPS, ...  ALSO _FRESH_.

The Divine Name that the Hebrew God gives for Himself, "I am what I am," when Moses asks Him for it at the " Burning Bush" (Exodus 3) , IS kinda ALL OF THESE THINGS: "childish", "petulant" and FRESH ... God tells Moses (and US, the readers) that HE (God) can be WHOEVER / WHATEVER HE WISHES TO BE.  Indeed, isn't that a pretty good fundamental definition of a God?  A GOD [TM] would be someone WHO CAN DO WHATEVER ONE WANTS.

And yes, someone truly "Godlike" (able to do whatever he/she likes) WOULD RUN THE RISK being experienced (at least initially) as "kinda childish," "kinda despotic", "kinda petulant" UNTIL ... one got to know him better.  ;-)

And yet, such a partly "childish" God would be ALMOST THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF A LARGE IMPOSING STONE STATUE REPRESENTING ONE OR ANOTHER EGYPTIAN "GOD" about whom very long and (seeking to be) manipulative incantations would have been written (and often dryly recited...) which could have been the experience of someone like Moses who had grown-up in a "sophisticated court" like Pharoah's.

The Hebrew God may have seemed "childish", at times even "petulant" but ALSO SOMEHOW FAR MORE ALIVE than the "stone Gods" of Egypt.

So ... having made his "initial acquaintance" with "the God of his forebears" ... Moses then struggles with his Call.  Why him?

Good question, why?  By this point in the story, Moses was NO LONGER OF PHAROAH'S COURT but LIVING AS A SHEPHERD IN FAR OFF EXILE.  In the film, the "boy" representing "God" tells Moses: "I don't need a (lowly) shepherd.  I need a General."

Again, why?  The film has Moses coming back to Egypt initially to try to train some sort of a Hebrew resistance army.  But, if this seems apocryphal (and it certainly is), the film then makes clear that NO this was NOT the reason why "God needed a General."  AS IN THE BOOK OF EXODUS, SO TOO IN THE MOVIE, NEITHER MOSES NOR THE HEBREWS DO ANY REAL FIGHTING.  IT'S GOD WHO DOES THE FIGHTING FOR THEM THROUGH THE VARIOUS PLAGUES ... and yes, while SOME OF THE PLAGUES WOULD SEEM TO INITIALLY BE ATTRIBUTABLE TO "NATURAL CAUSES" (and plausibly would have even experienced by the Egyptians at the time as such ...) AS THEIR INTENSITY INCREASED, IT BECAME INCREASINGLY DIFFICULT TO "EXPLAIN THEM AWAY" IN THAT WAY ... (As such, the film actually does _powerfully affirm_ God's action in the tale).  [So why did God "need a General" if not for fighting?   MILD SPOILER ALERT: The film makers remind us that a General does more than just fight.  A General is, above all, a logistician, one who can organize and _lead_ a great deal of people].

So this IS an INTERESTING TAKE ON THE EXODUS STORY one that is CERTAINLY NOT "Literalistic" but tries to play, indeed _wrestle_ with the points / implications of the Exodus story:

Would God [TM] "not care" what happened to all those Egyptians killed by the Plagues sent down on them?  Well the "childish" but quite self-righteous God portrayed in the film gives a quite "certain" answer to this question: "Did the Egyptians 'care' about what they have been doing to their Hebrew slaves over the last 400 years?"

I'm fascinated by this kind of newly audacious inquiry into / wrestling with the Scriptures and I'm VERY HAPPY that a director like Ridley Scott did TAKE THE RISK of making a film such as this.  Martin Scorsese was certainly "burned" for making The Last Temptation of Christ [1988] and the result has been to scare-away serious directors from making Biblically themed movies for almost a generation.

I'm very happy to see that since Terrance Malick's Tree of Life [2011] the drought may have finally come to an end.

Good job Ridley Scott!  Good job!

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