Friday, May 30, 2014

A Million Ways to Die In the West [2014] / Malificient [2014]


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

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

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

This week, the films I chose not to see / review here are:

A Million Ways to Die in the West [2014] - MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (1/2 Star)  Chicago SunTimes (B-)  RE.com (1 Star)  AVClub (C-)

Maleficient [2014] - MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)


While I considered seeing A Million Ways to Die in the West [2014] in some solidarity with a fair number of parishioners that I know will probably go see the film (and I have seen / reviewed some fairly raunchy films here in the past, notably Bad Teacher [2011] (in solidarity with our school teachers), Seth McFarland's previous film Ted [2012] and Movie 43 [2013] a almost total gross-out fest) I honestly could not bring myself to shell out the money to see this one, especially since I'd give the money to the campaign.

But since I was going to forgo A Million Ways ..., I couldn't bring myself to see Maleficient [2014] either, as the film seemed to me to be something of a second-tier Disney venture of doubtful purpose.  Question: When, if ever, is the musical Wicked going to be made into a film?  In the past couple of years, Disney has produced not one but two Wizard of Oz [1939] [IMDb] based films (Oz the Great and Powerful [2013] and Dorothy's Return [2013] both reviewed here) and it would seem that the concept behind Maleficient [2014] is basically the concept behind the story of Wicked only that the back-story being told is that of the "wicked queen" from the Sleeping Beauty [1959] [IMDb] story instead of that of the "Wicked Witch of the West" of the "Oz" universe.

However, I'm pretty certain that a number of our younger school / CCD kids are going to see Maleficient [2014] this weekend.  So I'll be asking them what they thought of the film and depending on what they say, perhaps put up a few of their comments about it here ;-).

Anyway, these are the the two films that I'm forgoing this weekend in support of our parish's campaign ;-)


Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Short Film about Killing (orig. Krótki film o zabijaniu) [1987]

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

IMDb listing
Filmweb.pl listing*

Culture.pl article about film

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


A Short Film about Killing (orig. Krótki film o zabijaniu) [1987] [IMDb] [FW.pl]* (directed and cowritten by Krzysztof Kieślowski [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* along with Krzysztof Piesiewicz [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*) is a critically acclaimed / award winning film that played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema film series touring currently in various parts of the U.S. 

A small yet very well-acted / crafted film made late in the Communist Era (Mikhail Gorbachev was already heading the Soviet Union and Polish Solidarity Union leader Lech Walesa was already released from prison / active once more in opposing the Communist regime), the film offers IMHO an excellent example of the kind of film, even "issue oriented film," that's possible even under otherwise restrictive / oppressive circumstances.  (Another example such small but certainly poignant even powerful film-making would be The Bright Day (orig. Rooz-e Roshan) [2013] an excellent recent Iranian film that covers much of the same ground as this film and which also played a number of months back at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of its annual survey of contemporary Iranian Cinema).

The film here is very simple.  It has two central (both young) protagonists: Piotr Balicki (played by Krzysztof Globisz [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) a young lawyer who recently passed his (oral...) examination to Poland's (still Communist era) Bar, and Jacek Lazar (played by Mirosław Baka [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) an angry and confused barely 20-something youth.  Yes, "Lazar" would be Polish for Lazarus, invoking not so much Jesus' friend who Jesus raised from the dead (John 11) but "the poor man Lazarus" of Luke's parable (Lk 16:19-31).

Well one day angry and confused Jacek strangles and then bludgeons to death a random taxi driver (played by Jan Tesarz [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) to take his car in hopes of impressing a girl his age (played by Barbara Dziekan [IMDb] [FW.pl]*).  Most Cinemaphiles here would probably immediately appreciate why Martin Scorsese, whose breakthrough and similarly gut-wrenching film was Taxi Driver [1976] about a similarly aliened young man (played by a still very young Robert De Niro) trying to impress a young woman (played by a still very young Jodi Foster), would be impressed by this film that was almost certainly inspired at least in part by his.

So ... newbie lawyer Piotr is asked to defend Jacek  But Justice is generally quite swift in authoritarian regimes.  So there really wasn't much of a defense to be made: Sitting in the back seat of the taxi-driver's taxi, Jacek did direct the taxi-driver to take him out to a rather isolated area at the outskirts of Warsaw.  He did then try to strangle the taxi-driver with a clothesline and when that didn't work, he went to the trunk, got out the tire-iron, and bashed the taxi-driver with it.  Finally, he dragged the taxi-driver (tied up now with the above mentioned clothesline) to the (presumably) Vistula River and dumped him, still semi-conscious, into the River, where he presumably drowned.  Jacek _did_ commit a gruesome crime.  Found self-evidently guilty ... he was meted-out the Death Sentence for it.

But ... somehow a part of the Story appeared to not be told (or certainly the State / System was not interested in hearing) ... WHY would Jacek do such a terrible thing?

In the utter absence of telling / hearing of the story, the audience then is treated to a similarly gruesome portayal of Jacek's execution (by hanging).  Piotr does come to see Jacek prior to his execution.  Jacek does give Piotr (and thus the audience) a few tantalizing glimpses into his own story (that the Court had been utterly uninterested in) BUT THAT'S CUT SHORT.  After a time, the warden orders the guards to come in, who bind Jacek and then drag him (screaming and crying ... he is barely 20 years old ...) to the noose where they hang him.  A bowl had set neatly below the noose to collect any excrement that Jacek might let loose before expiring ...  

So the State / Society did to Jacek almost exactly what Jacek did that random taxi-driver.  And one's left asking, what was the point of disposing of Jacek in this way?  Yes, he was a murderer, but somewhere in there he had also been a human being too.

Since the film was studiously _non-political_ -- Jacek was portrayed as just a random, confused, angry young man, who committed a terribly and tragically stupid crime for a terribly tragic reason (to try to impress a girl) -- there was no reason for the State to ban (or cause trouble in the making of) this film.

But at the end of the film, one's left honestly with one's jaw dropped open asking/saying: "Wow."

Powerful film.


This film is actually available FOR FREE (with the option of having English captions) on the Studio Filmowe TOR's Youtube Channel.


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

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Eroica [1957]

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

IMDb listing
Filmweb.PL listing*

CSFD.cz listing*
Kinopoick.ru listing*

Culture.pl article
pl.wikipedia.org article*

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

Eroica [1957] [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* (directed by Andrzej Munk [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*, screenplay by Jerzy Stefan Stawiński [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*) which played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema film tour playing in various parts of the U.S., proved to be a frustrating film for me.

On the one hand, I can immediately see how someone in film school in the United States in the late-1960s (during the height of the Vietnam War and its attendant with anti-War protests) would find this film appealing along with the apparent general thrust of the "1950s Polish Film School" with its rather iconoclastic / deconstructive portrayals of "old school" patriotism / war-time heroism.  I can easily imagine Eroica [1957] presented at a symposium or festival alongside similarly iconoclastic American films like Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove [1964], Mike Nichols' Catch-22 [1970] and Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. [1970] (and it's entirely possible that any or all of these American films could have been even been influenced by Andrzej Munk's film).

However be that as it may, as someone who does come from a former Soviet-bloc ancestry (as readers of my blog would know, my family was mostly Czech, my parents having left Czechoslovakia during the Communist Era), it's clear-as-day to me that even if this film was made sincerely (and Poles suffered enormously during World War II, hence there could have been plenty of Poles who had seen many/most of their relatives killed and almost everything that they held dear destroyed in the war who would have had no great love for "wartime valor") that this film which largely lampoons pre-Soviet Era (STILL INDEPENDENT) Polish nationalism more-or-less OBVIOUSLY worked to further the aims of the PRO-SOVIET POLISH COMMUNIST REGIME THAT WAS IN POWER IN POLAND WHEN THIS FILM WAS MADE.

And let's face it, it would not have been easy to make MEANINGFUL FILMS in post-WW II Poland that would still defend / further the aims of the post-WW II Soviet imposed Polish Communist regime.

Why?  Well the Soviet Army SLAUGHTERED 5,000 POLISH OFFICER P.O.W.s in the forests of Katyń [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* [ru.wikip]* (while Stalin was still AN ALLY OF HITLER'S) and then STOOD BY AND WATCHED THE NAZIS SLAUGHTER 200,000 Poles mostly civilians in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* [ru.wikip]* (even though it had called on the Poles to rise against the Nazi oppressors).  So how does one go about trying to set-aside this ABSOLUTELY HORRENDOUS HISTORICAL FACT?  Well ... one tries to portray the Polish Home Army [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* [ru.wikip]* that led the revolt as hopelessly disorganized, led by self-serving even egotistical Polish officers, who did not want to cooperate with others (including presumably the Soviets who, well, given that kind of leadership ... "presumed not to help" ...).

This film, in two parts, lampoons (in Part 1) the disorganization of the Polish Home Army [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* [ru.wikip]* during the Warsaw Uprising [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* [ru.wikip]* and (in Part 2) the egotism and pettiness of Polish officer Prisoners of War (the officers who presumably led Poland's army as WW II began and the officers that the Soviet NKVD put bullets into the heads of out in the forests of Katyń [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* [ru.wikip]*).

Now honestly, in war, just about everything gets FUBAR.  That's true.  But note WHO IS NOT CRITICIZED AT ALL IN THIS FILM... the "Glorious Soviet Army."   And one would have to be an idiot to not see that as INTENTIONAL (after all, the Polish Communist security apparatus was looking over the shoulders of the Polish film makers making this film ... and the NKVD was looking over the shoulders of the Polish Communist security apparatus ... SUCH WAS POLAND IN 1957).

Then ... honestly, during the Vietnam War when all kinds of well-meaning, idealistic AMERICAN FILM STUDENTS WERE PISSED OFF AT THE U.S. GOVERNMENT / MILITARY FOR SCREWING THINGS UP IN VIETNAM ... A POLISH FILM LIKE THIS COULD HAVE BEEN REALLY APPEALING ("Hey those guys ... all the way in Poland .... understand").

But ... once more, honestly, what's missing in a presentation like this is a recognition that while films from the Polish Film School of the 1950s MAY HAVE INFLUENCED AMERICAN FILM MAKERS LIKE Stanley Kubrick [IMDb], Francis Ford Coppola [IMDb], and/or Martin Scorsese [IMDb] IN THE 1960s and 70s ... THE POLISH FILM SCHOOL APPARENTLY DIDN'T HAVE ANY MEANINGFUL IMPACT AT ALL ON SOVIET (or even TODAY'S RUSSIAN) FILM MAKERS.

Just about every country in the world seems to be capable of making films critical of its government / military EXCEPT THE RUSSIANS.

And as we applaud the ingenuity of the "Polish Film School" that had been struggling under the constraints of Soviet Domination, we should honestly ask why, a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia, which used to dominate Poland during the Soviet Era, while geographically "smaller," remains artistically as oppressive as it's always been.

When will a Russian "Eroica" or "M.A.S.H." be made??


One final question: How to get this film?  In the United States many of the films being shown as part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema can be rented through the mail-rental service offered by Facets Multimedia in Chicago.  Many of Andrzej Munk's films can be purchased (though often only in PAL / Region-1 format) via Amazon.com.

Additionally, excellent films / documentaries on the Warsaw Uprising [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* [ru.wikip]* and the Katyń Massacre [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* [ru.wikip]* include a joint BBC / Polish documentary directed by Wonda Koscia entitled Battle for Warsaw '44 [2005] (available presently, probably w/o permission, on YouTube) and Andrzej Wayda's Oscar-nominated Katyń [2007] available (presently FOR FREE) on IMDb via Hulu.com.


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

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Chef [2014]

MPAA (R but should be PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

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

Don't let the absurd R-rating fool you, Chef [2014] (written, directed and starring Jon Favreau) is a lovely family oriented / Hispanic oriented film celebrating food, family and getting one's priorities straight.

Carl Casper (played by Jon Favreau) begins the film as a divorced, career driven, head chef at a trendy L.A. restaurant whose owner (played by Dustin Hoffman) while making some allowances for Carl's talent, idiosyncrasies and yes ego, at the end of the day makes it clear who's boss in HIS restaurant.  As such, while certainly talented and just as certainly driven, Carl begins the story frustrated even as the costs of his (in Catholic parlance) "disordered passion" are obvious to all but to him: Not only did Carl drive wife Iñez (played magnificently here by Sofia Vergara) away, but he also stood to lose their 10 year old son Percy (played by Emjay Anthony) who Carl would only "fit into his schedule as he had the time."

Well this unstable situation, of course, could not stand.  So in hopes of impressing a random if irritating/blowhard food critic (played again magnificently by a young Roger Ebert-looking Oliver Platt) Carl has a public melt-down at work, causing him to get fired by his pushed-too-far boss.  And since this is the age of social media, his public meltdown in front of a restaurant full of customers was captured on cell-phone video and posted quickly on YouTube rendering him all but unemployable.

So what to do now?  He finds himself having to depend on some of the people who he had previously pushed away, notably his ex, who's been telling him for years that he'd be happiest if he worked on his own -- if perhaps starting-out in a food truck.  Pulling some strings (notably with another ex of hers ... played by Robert Downey, Jr), she gets him that food truck -- back in her home town of Miami.  With his other bridges burned, Carl decides to "eat some crow" ... and flies out to Miami to get said truck.  The rest of the story proceeds from there:

The truck's of course a mess, but help of a Cuban-American friend named Martín (played again magnificently by John Leguizamo) who had previously told him that if he ever got his own place, EVEN IF IT WAS "JUST A FOOD TRUCK" (back then it was just a joke ... ;-), he'd drop everything to be his "sous chef."  So hearing that Carl got said food truck back in Miami, Martín does drop everything to fly out to help him.  And with his help, Carl is able to fix said truck and then with Martín and 10-year-old Percy goes on a wonderful cross-country "road trip of discovery" from Miami, through New Orleans and later Texas back to L.A. serving both "Cubanos" (cuban sandwiches) and whatever local cuisine they meet along the way.  The film will honestly make your mouth water, even as it's making mine water as I type now ... ;-)

Along the way, of course, Carl reconnects with his son and gives him memories that will last both of them a life time.  He also discovers that he really did have friends, in Martín, and even in his ex-wife Iñez.

I honestly don't understand the R-rating because the ending (as indeed the whole story) is about as "family oriented" and POSITIVE as it gets.  And yes, it all ends as happily as it possibly could.

It's just a lovely, lovely film about friends, family, and having patience with a loved one who first loses his/her way and then works his/her way back getting his/her priorities straight.  HONESTLY A GREAT (HISPANIC ORIENTED) FAMILY FILM!


ADDENDUM:

I would also add that one of the food places showcased in the film -- The Versailles Restaurant on 8th Street ("Calle 8") in Little Havana/Miami -- I know quite well.  I used to be stationed at a (then) parish of ours in the Orlando area and I'd occasionally have the opportunity to go down to Miami.  I thank my good fortune that the first time that I did so, with a couple of visiting Servites, that I had the sense to ask at a Catholic book store (also on "Calle 8") "Hey, BTW, what'd be a good Cuban Restaurant here in Miami?"  They immediately responded "Why the Versailles, of course."  It's a great place, open nearly 24 hours a day, with very, very reasonable prices and _by legend_ is the place where the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion was both planned ... and betrayed (the latter supposedly by a traitorous waiter ... ;-).  Anyway, the place is a well known landmark / treasure and certainly worth the stop if one ever has the good fortune of passing through Miami.


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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Lunchbox (orig. Dabba) [2013]

MPAA (PG)  BollyMovieRevs (4.38/5.00) TimesOfIndia (3 1/2 Stars)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

BollyMovieReviewz review list
Times of India (S.M. Das) review

HollywoodReporter (D. Young) review
NY Times (A.O. Scott) review
Slant Magazine (N. McCarthy) review
Spirituality&Practice (F & M.A. Brussatt) review
Variety (J. Weisberg) review

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

The Lunchbox [2013] (written and directed by Ritesh Batra) is a little Indian film, the director's debut, that nevertheless caused something of a sensation at last year's Cannes Film Festival and the subsequent festival circuit.  It played recently (again) at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago and articulates exactly one of the reasons why I love movies and why I created my blog.

Most of us living in the United States will never be able to go to India (it's almost exactly "halfway around the world" from us -- 12 time zones), even if many/most of us will get to know at least a few Indians or descendants of Indian immigrants during the course of our lives, perhaps in a professional capacity, perhaps at work, perhaps at school, perhaps as neighbors.  However, our interactions are still largely determined by our Western setting where our interaction would most likely take place.  (An excellent film that expresses this difficulty is The Namesake [2006] (which incidentally costars Irrfan Khan one of the stars of the current film) in which an Indian grad-student "making good" in the United States finds when his father dies back home in India that his American girlfriend, lovely and kind though she is, is utterly lost when they go back to India for the funeral).

I do believe that "little" but well made films like The Lunchbox [2013], not only set in India, but also written, directed and acted entirely by Indians, telling stories of the "joys and hopes", lives and struggles of a small set of "regular people" (in India) can help Westerners (and  non-Indians-in-general) appreciate both the fantastic richness of life there (so many people, so much seeming "chaos" to the outsider, yet to those living there entirely in the norm) and the obvious commonalities in human experiences and aspirations: We all want to be loved, we all sometimes feel lonely (even in a crowd) and we all struggle to built happy and meaningful lives out of "the cards" (circumstances) that we're given.

So then, to the film ... ;-).  The Lunchbox [2013] is built around a wondrously complex hot lunch delivery phenomenon existing in Mumbai, India involving specialized couriers called Dabbawalas who pick-up hot lunches generally made by wives at home and transport them (hundreds of thousands perhaps even millions of them) by bicycle, train, lorry (truck) and again individual courier into the hands the individual workers in the city to whom each of these individual lunches is destined.  Honestly, when one watches the journey made by just one of these lunch boxes -- carrying the hot lunch prepared by Ila (played by Nimrat Kaur) a young housewife with help of her Auntie (voiced by Bharati Achrekar who we never see but hear and who lives on the floor above her) for her husband Rajeev (played by Nakul Vaid) working somewhere in the city -- one wonders how this delivery service could possibly work (the individual lunchboxes, all different shapes / sizes, don't seem to be labeled in any way).  And yet it (mostly) does...

I say "mostly" because, one day the lunch box carrying Ila's lovingly-made lunch made for her husband (in hopes that he'd come to appreciate her more) ends up on the desk / office / office building of another, a Saajan Fernandez (played by Irrfan Khan) an irritable, older man, approaching retirement.  Since Saajan was a widower, he had no one to cook for him.  So he had ordered his lunches, delivered in the same way, from a local caterer.  Well, even if Rajeev did not seem to be particularly impressed with Ila's cooking, Saajan was.  Now, readers understand here that Saajan did not understand initially that the lunch box that arrived for him was not intended for him, but he did appreciate the food.  So when the lunch box returned back at Ila's home at the end of the day, she found that it was completely wiped clean ("as if he licked clean all the bowls" she happily recounts to her auntie living above).  And indeed, Saajan was so impressed with the meal that made it a point of stopping by the caterer who normally made his lunch to compliment the cook for a lunch well done.  "Please keep doing the same," to which he happily agrees.  However, when Ila's husband Rajeev came home that evening and she asked him about how he liked the meal that day, he didn't seem to react with much excitement at all.

Hmm, so what happened?  After a couple more days/meals Ila figures out that the lunch she is preparing for her husband is going to the wrong person.  So one day she encloses a note with the lunch telling the recipient that she suspects that he's not her husband, but -- like perhaps a lot of underappreciated spouses in any land -- she writes that she doesn't care anymore and appreciates that at least he, the recipient of her meals now, seemed to like them.  Saajan writes back, and a penpal relationship based on "culinary adultery" begins ... ;-).

The rest becomes a fascinating story.  It becomes clear that Saajan didn't even realize how lonely he was since his wife had died (or how awful a person he had become to those who still surrouneded him, and could have been part of his life if he gave them a chance).  There's a lovely side story that takes place during the course of the film involving an underling named Shaikh (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) to whom Saajan pays absolutely no mind ... until he himself becomes happier.  For her part, Ila comes to the realization that she really needs more out of her marriage than a relatively comfortable roof over her head provided by a husband who otherwise also didn't seem to pay her no mind. 

Now for a conservative society like that of India, formal onscreen adultery, is all but impossible ... and it actually does become clear to Saajan that he's much, much older than Ila (and his own sense of moral propriety makes it impossible for him to take the relationship in that direction). But this film makes it absolutely clear that everyone from Ila to her Auntie to Saajan to his coworker/underline Shaikj, fundamentally need to feel loved / respected.

Thus this film, even if it takes place "half a world away" from the United States and in cultural circumstances that also seem quite different from those of the United States, still articulates fundamental needs that all of us can understand and in a way that honestly helps one to learn a little bit about life and the customs of contemporary India as well.  No wonder this film was such a hit!  Great job!


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Blended [2014]

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

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

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

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

This week, the film I chose not to see / review here is the Adam Sandler vehicle Blended [2014].  Readers of my blog will know that I've actually been kinder to Adam Sandler's films (That's My Boy [2011]) than many / most reviewers.  IMHO his films often have a rather positive message even if that message is often lost in a swamp of rather juvenile jokes and crudity.  It would seem that this film is somewhat different as even reviewer for the CNS/USCCB (the U.S. Catholic Bishops media office) give the film an A-II (appropriate for adults and adolescents) rating that the "L" (limited adult audience) or "O" (offensive) ratings that have graced recent Sandler films.  More mainstream critics still give the film somewhat predictably low marks.  Casablanca [1942] or African Queen [1951] this film apparently is not ... ;-)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
ChicagoTribune (C. Borrelli) review
RE.com (S. Abrams) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

X-Men: Days of Future Past [2014] (directed by Brian Singer, screenplay by Simon Kinberg, story also by Simon Kinberg along with Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaugn inspired by Marvel Comics X-men [MCU] [wikip]) is a rather complex superhero movie will probably require at least some background reading and/or background viewing for newbies to understand (followers/fans of the x-men film series will certainly have no trouble understanding this one, though knowledge of the original comics underlying the X-men [MCU] [wikip] story-line certainly will help / enrich one's appreciation of the film as well).

At minimum, readers here should understand that the current film, X-Men: Days of Future Past [2014], is actually the seventh X-men inspired Hollywood major motion picture to be made since 2000 (five devoted to the X-men in general, two devoted to the character Wolverine in particular, the last two films X-Men: First Class [2011] and Wolverine [2013] having been reviewed on my blog, which I began in the Fall of 2010).  Newbies would be served to have seen at least X-Men [2000] [IMDb], X-Men 3: Last Stand [2006] [IMDb], X-Men: First Class [2011] [IMDb] [FrDatM] as well as X-men Origins: Wolverine [2009] [IMDb] prior to having seen this one.

At its heart, the entire X-men [MCU] [wikip] story-line (the first X-Men Comic being published in 1963) is about responding to one's own "Otherness" (or more positively one's own "Uniqueness") in relation to the larger Society.  Readers and viewers are invited to identify with a cluster of radically unique / exceptional people (indeed, one of the ways to understand the "X" in the X-Men title would be that the "X" is short for "exceptional").  The reason given for their radical uniqueness / exceptionality is "genetic mutation."   So while positively these characters were considered (at times) "exceptional," negatively they are also derided by various "regular people" as "mutants."

Some words about setting:  While many of the key original X-men characters were already portrayed as living at the time of World War II -- notably (1) Eric Lehnsherr / the future Magneto who was born Jewish in Europe and discovered his super-power to bend anything metal (in anger) when he was forcibly separated from his parents in a Nazi Concentration Camp; (2) Logan / Wolverine, who was born on the Canadian frontier in the late 1800s, whose mutation allowed his body to repair itself from almost any kind of damage thus making him all but immortal (e's shown in Wolverine [2013] as a Canadian POW serving in a camp at the outskirts of Nagasaki easily recovering from even the nuclear blast there); (3) Charles Xavier who was an American boy growing up in a Franklin D. Roosevelt style "Hyde Park" / "Old Money" mansion outside of New York (another meaning for "X-Men" becomes those characters allied to him) whose mutation allowed him to "read minds," and (4) Raven / Mystique whose mutation allowed her to shape-shift into appearing like any person / character that she desired -- the series plays on developments that came out of the post-World War II era.  These developments included (1) Fear of Radiation (resulting in all kinds of often dangerous/disfiguring mutations), and (2) the Red Scare and the rise and increasing success of the African American Civil Rights Movement.  The early 1950s Red Scare and the mid-late-1950s increasing success of the African American Civil Rights Movement stoked a fear of "Otherness" in the larger American Society even as all kinds of previously marginalized groups -- people of color, women, gays, even Catholics and Jews -- were awakening to the realization that their "Otherness" from "the Norm" (white, heterosexual, male, preferably of Anglo-Saxon and Protestant background) had been keeping them down (and more to the point, that this marginalization need not remain a permanent condition).

So while the characters in the X-Men series were generally wildly drawn "mutants," with all sorts of crazy super-powers, A LOT OF READERS and MORE RECENTLY A LOT OF VIEWERS could relate to them: They're "different from the Norm" (just like we are).  

Okay, in this story line about this community of "highly exceptional people" / "mutants" of the X-men series there has always existed a fundamental conflict with regards to how best to relate to the non-mutant "regular" people (people of the Norm).

Heading one camp has been (Professor) Charles Xavier [IMDb] (played in the films as an older man by Patrick Stewart and as a younger man by James McAvoy) who though also a "mutant" (again, he can "read minds") coming out of a privileged upbringing of Rooseveltian wealth, he has maintained that the mutants' best chance would be to seek to live in peace with the non-mutant majority.

Heading the other camp has been the traumatized, Jewish-born, Holocaust surviving Eric Lehnsherr / Magneto [IMDb] (played as an older man by Ian McKellen and when he was younger by Michael Fassbender) who SIMPLY DOES NOT BELIEVE that the "regular" non-mutant majority WILL EVER ACCEPT PEOPLE WHO DON'T "FIT THE NORM."  Hence, his loyalty has been exclusively "other mutants."  He remembered the "regular" non-mutant majority seeking to exterminate him and his family (for being Jewish) during the Holocaust and being experimented upon (by Nazi scientists) when they discovered that he had "special properties" that they found useful.  HE FOUND NO USE FOR SUCH "REGULAR" (AND FEARFUL / EVIL) PEOPLE AND THOUGHT THE BEST WAY TO DEAL WITH THEM WOULD BE TO FIGHT (and DEFEAT) THEM.

All five of the X-men movies involve a conflict between these two "exceptional men", Professor X [IMDb] on one side and Magneto [IMDb] on the other.

In the current film, the mutants (and the rest of "regular" humanity) find themselves in 2023 in a hellish world, largely destroyed on account of a vicious, apocalyptic war between humanity and the mutants with humanity actually on the verge of "winning." (But "winning" what?  The world was largely destroyed in any case ...).

The reason why humanity was on the verge of winning was NOT because they were physically or intellectually "exceptional" like the mutants.  Instead, interestingly/tellingly, humanity "adapted" in a different way -- it created robotic weapons called "Sentinels."  These weapons had become all but indestructible even when facing the genetically superior mutants.  Why?  Again tellingly, after the shape-shifting Raven/Mystique [IMDb] (played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence) managed to assassinate the Sentinels' initial designer Dr. Bolivar Trask [IMDb] (played by Peter Dinklage), she herself was killed and HUMAN SCIENTISTS THEN ADDED HER "SHAPESHIFTING" ABILITY TO THE DESIGN OF THE "SENTINELS" making them all but indestructible.   Thus human thinking/defenses proved to be able to "evolve" without needing "genetic mutation."

Thus fighting a war between humanity and the "genetically superior mutants" was proving pointless.  As such, in a desperate gambit, Professor X and Magneto of 2023 decide to utilize the super-power of one of the remaining mutants among them Kitty Pride / Shadowcat [IMDb] (played by Ellen Page), who can send the consciousness someone back in time, to send the consciousness of Logan / Wolverine (the most indestructible of the mutants among them) back to 1973 to stop Raven/Mystique from assassinating Dr. Bolivar Trask and instead work to make a peace between the mutants and humanity.

To do so (to find Raven/Mystique she was a shape-shifter afterall), Logan's told to find Professor X and Magneto of 1973 first.  But neither was in a particularly good state in 1973:

Professor X, depressed after loosing his control of his legs at the end of X-Men: First Class [2011] provef willing to take a medicine that gave him back the use of his legs (at the expense of losing his "mind reading" superpower ... and yet they needed that superpower to find Raven/Mystique).

Magneto, on the other hand, found himself locked-up in an ALL CONCRETE PRISON (no metal... ;-) 100 stories below the Pentagon "for his role in the 1963 Kennedy Assassination."  But what could possibly have been Magneto's role in the Kennedy Assassination?  Well ... JFK was killed by a "magic" (metal) bullet that appeared to have "changed direction" mid-flight ;-).  (When Magneto inevitably was freed from this seemingly impregnable prison, again 100 stories below the Pentagon, he protested his innocence in the Kennedy Assassination to his fellow mutants saying that he was there in Dallas on the day of the Assassination but to protect JFK"  Why?  Because Kennedy was "one of us" (if not a mutant, then one who had been previously marginalized).  How?  Well with the exception of current President Barack Obama (1/2 African-American), JFK (Catholic) remains the only American President who was not a WASP -- "White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant" ;-).

Anyway,  Logan / Wolverine and Professor X along with the help of two other mutants Hank / Beast [IMDb] (played by Nicholas Hoult) and especially lightning fast Quicksilver [IMDb] (played by Evan Peters) help break Magneto out of his prison.  They do then find Raven/Mystique and do try to stop her from assassinating Dr. Bolivar Trask.  During the course of all this, the younger 1973 Magneto increasingly realizes that his whole confrontational approach toward humanity was being challenged and it's never really clear if he's on board, even if he's being told by Logan / Wolverine that he's come back from the future to try to change it for the better and that even the older 2023 Magneto was in favor of it.

Anyway, much of course plays out ... while I'm not going to tell you how, Logan / Wolverine does succeed in altering events in 1973 and thus alter the reality of 2023.

So where do then Professor X and Magneto find themselves (as well as the other mutants) in 2023?  I'm not going to say.  But the film does invite viewers to reflect perhaps even more deeply on the philosophies of these two main characters in the X-men story line and which of the two approaches would probably produce the better outcome for those/all involved.

All in all, like many other Marvel Comics based movies of late, it makes for a very interesting and thought provoking film, if also a rather destructive one.  The violence is kept at a PG-13 "glass shattering but not blood" level ... but like a lot of films of this type, there's a lot of it.  

Still, in the end, the film certainly gives viewers a lot to think about with regard to finding a way in which we could all "live in peace together."  Good job.


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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Ida [2013]


MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Filmweb.pl listing*
Stopklatka.pl listing*

CJG.gazeta.pl (P.T. Felis) review*
Onet.pl review*
Film.org.pl (E. Świeca) review*
Wnas.pl (L. Adamski) review*

CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
HollywoodReporter (T. McCarthy) review
SlantMagazine (C. Cabin) review
Variety (P. DeBruge) review

Ida [2013] [IMDb] [FW.pl]* [SK.pl]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Paweł Pawlikowski [en.wikip] [Culture.pl] [IMDb] [FW.pl]* [SK.pl]* along with Rebecca Lenkiewicz [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) is a Polish language / English subtitled film critically well received in both Poland and Outside (see links above) about a young late-teens/early-20s woman named Anna (played very well by Agata Trzebuchowska [IMDb] [FW.pl]* [SK.pl]*) who after growing-up in a Catholic orphanage/convent in Communist Era Poland (the film's set in Poland of the early 1960s) and had decided to become a nun in the Community of Sisters who had taken care of her, is told by her Mother Superior prior to accepting her vows, that she actually has a living relative, an aunt, who hasn't necessarily been easy to contact, but who the Sisters felt she should meet prior to making her vows. 

Very well, Anna is given her aunt's address and dispensation to leave the Convent to meet her.  When she does, she discovers that her aunt, Wanda (played magnificently by Agata Kulesza [IMDb] [FW.pl]* [SK.pl]*) is a rather hardened by life (for reasons soon become obvious / heart breaking) and consequently rather hard-drinking COMMUNIST JUDGE (she was known in the region as "Red Wanda" for having put all kinds of "Enemies of the People" behind bars and often to death).

So then, why was Wanda so "hardened" and consequently so hard-drinking/etc?  Well SHE (AND ANNA, whose birth name prior to being left at the Convent as a baby was IDA) WERE JEWISH.  Anna/Ida had never known this ...

The rest of the story un-spools from there.  There are, of course, a lot of questions that the audience (and Anna/Ida) would have:

Why did Wanda and Anna/Ida survive the Nazi occupation while the rest of their family did not?  Why did Wanda become a Communist while Anna/Ida ended-up at a Convent's doorstep and grew-up as a Catholic?   Why didn't the Sisters tell Anna/Ida earlier?  Why didn't Wanda pick-up her niece earlier?  And of course ... what now?  The rest of the film unspools from here...

This is a painful and at times ugly story.  In writing this review, I struggled with the question of how fairly Anna/Ida's character was drawn.  Was she just a device or caricature?  I do wish that SOMEDAY a film could portray the community life of nuns as well as the community life of male religious was portrayed in the French film Of Gods and Men (orig. Des Hommes et des Dieux) [2010].  (AND ACTUALLY FILM MAKERS -- I COULD DIRECT YOU TO PEOPLE / CATHOLIC RELIGIOUS SISTERS OF ALL KINDS, BOTH IN THE UNITED STATES AND ABROAD, WHO COULD HELP YOU TO DO THIS WELL / BETTER).  However, I came to the conclusion that I'd be asking for a different kind of movie here than the one that the film makers were trying to make.

I would note again to readers here the overwhelmingly positive critical reaction IN POLAND to this film and also would note that I'm not surprised.  This is a very well done film, ever somber, ever in black-white-and-grey, often in rain and snow, about a time and an aftermath of a time that was also cold, painful, and broke many, many, indeed, millions of people, both Pole and Jew.  And what is clear as day to me today -- Poles, at least in Poland, at least the young -- DO WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT and are able to do so with somberness and respect (unsurprisingly, for a nation with as sad/somber a history as Poland has had and consequently with composers like Chopin ... to express this well)  Honestly folks, a very good if sad/somber job!


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

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Palo Alto [2013]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Olsen) review
RE.com (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) revie

Palo Alto [2013] (screenplay and directed by Gia Coppola (yes she's the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia Coppola's niece) based on a collection of short stories by James Franco [IMDb]) doesn't paint a pretty picture of upper-middle class suburban life in Silicon Valley's Palo Alto.

Palo Alto may be the site of Stanford University, the birthplace of Apple, Inc, the current headquarters to Hewlett Packard and apparently Skype, and such legendary high tech firms as Sun Microsystems, Logitech, Google, Paypal and Facebook, all have called it "home" at some point.  Yet, believe it or not (and on reflection ... and transporting myself back to a mindset of a middle/upper-middle class American teenager ... I _do_ believe it) this is all "grown-up history."  To the "eyes rolling" teenage children of, perhaps, Silicon Valley geniuses (or at least of those who keep Silicon Valley humming with one new gadget or "app" after another) Palo Alto is apparently just another "pretty boring" and perhaps even _soulless_ place.

And really, again, _on reflection_ why should one be surprised?  The "genius parents" are either at work or otherwise "not present" (as they try to come-up with and then bring-into being that "new indispensable gadget or app" that none of us, or even the parents' competitors, had ever even thought up yet) while their kids deal with the anxieties and day-to-day "mundanities" of teenage high school life, even as they face, at least on some level, the Über-Anxiety that they will probably never, ever, ever be as gifted, successful (or even as lucky) as their parents.  Indeed, gets the sense that director Gia Coppola, a third generation Copolla in the movie-making business, as well as any number of the other "pedigreed" members of the cast -- Emma Roberts, the niece of Julia Roberts, as well as Jack Kilmer, the son of Val Kilmer, play lead / key roles -- would know EXACTLY what the characters in the film were going through.

So this is perhaps the brilliant if rather depressing insight of the film and James Franco's short stories that inspired: While to the outside world Palo Alto may be "the cutting edge" (the avant garde of the world) and that perhaps the parents of the kids in this film / these stories live at this "cutting edge" and are the avant garde of the world, THEIR OWN KIDS are floundering in soulless, "petty bourgeoisie" existences that the avant garde Left has always ridiculed.  That is to say, to be Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg would probably be really really cool, but to be their teenage kids (and as far as I know, NONE OF THEM HAVE HAD ANY KIDS ... that they have admitted to ...) would still probably really, really suck.

And so the teenage kids of the Palo Alto of these tales flounder about, in one striking, gut-wrenching scene after another, mostly stoned, engaging in rather empty sexual activity and occasional acts of blind stupid vandalism and nihilism. 

In one scene at a party, a random high school girl/classmate takes Teddy (the character played by Jack Kilmer) upstairs to a bedroom to service him (not shown).  Mind you, neither of the two particularly like (or dislike) each other (He's definitely stoned, and she's rather drunk and apparently kinda known for giving the occasional < > when she "finds herself that way").  Teddy, in as much as he's reflective at all, seemed to like April (the character played by Emma Roberts).  But no matter, the random girl was present, and ... in the next scene, the random girl is shown gulping down some mouthwash she found in the bathroom next door, presumably to "wash away the taste from her mouth..."  Mission accomplished (for both) and in the meantime Teddy finds himself down the stairs to rejoin the party where, somewhat surprised, finds April somewhat irritated with him for having gone upstairs with the random girl in the first place.  Why?  What was the problem?  Even April can not seem to explain ...

But April has her own problems.  Her perpetually stoned but presumably genius "working from home" step-father "Stewart" (played by Val Kilmer) keeps "correcting" her homework to such a degree that she (and her teachers...) find it incomprehensible (and she gets accused of plagiarism later in the film...).  Meanwhile, her creepy / loser (proving perhaps more clearly in high tech Palo Alto, city of geniuses, than perhaps elsewhere the adage that "those who can't , teach") soccer coach "Mr. B" (played by James Franco), divorced, with a 8-10 year old son, starts "grooming her" in order to eventually sleep with her.  "I'd really prefer to go out with people my own age," she tries telling him as he becomes more and more obvious. "Why?  You're so much better than that," he answers.  Yuck.  But her own step-father's a different kind of a-hole / creep.  And her ma' "just wants to be her friend" ... sigh.

So folks, this is no Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet [1952-1966] or The Brady Bunch [1969-74].  I can't see myself recommending this film to teens, but rather TO PARENTS OF TEENS.  We adults HAVE BEEN TEENS.  We know (or can be reminded by a film like this) what it was like to be a teen.  PERHAPS by watching a film like this we can be challenged to be BETTER ADULTS / ROLE MODELS / PARENTS to the teens around us.  Because otherwise, this is one very, very depressing and hopeless film ...


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Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla [2014] / Million Dollar Arm [2014]


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

I'm hoping to be strategic about this, picking movies that would "hurt somewhat" to miss, but movies that are neither "so bad" that I wouldn't see them anyway nor movies that I really should see/review or else my reviewing effort would cease to be worthwhile.

I will still try to provide links to usual line-up of reviewers that I also consider.  I just won't provide my own.  With all that in mind, this week the two movies that I'm foregoing seeing are:

Godzilla [2014] -- MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (3 1/2 stars)  AVClub (B+)

Million Dollar Arm [2014] -- MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars)  RE.com (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)


Those who follow my blog will recognize some pain in my selections as if not for the start of this campaign I would have CERTAINLY seen and reviewed Godzilla [2014] as I try to make it a point of seeing / reviewing films that I know a lot of the young people in my parish are going to see (in addition to reviewing more obscure movies that a lot of people would probably _not_ see but would seem in some way interesting).  Previously, I've reviewed and generally liked Transformers 3 [2011] and Pacific Rim [2013].  But I "wanted to make a splash" ;-) with this ... So Godzilla [2014] it is.  And by forgoing Godzilla [2014] this week, I'll be happily seeing Marvel's X-Men: Days of Future Past [2014] which comes out next weekend ;-)

As for Million Dollar Arm [2014], while as one who takes seriously the Catholic Church as a universal church and therefore I make it a point of trying to review both from and about people and places from  all over the world and I actually don't have that many films reviewed in my blog which are from/about India, after deciding not to see Godzilla [2014] this week, I couldn't bring myself to see Million Dollar Arm [2014] either ;-/.

So I'm going to try to forgo seeing one or two movies of some quality (but not 4 star quality) a week as my visible contribution to our parish campaign.  Hopefully this will both directly support it and help inspire others to make similar sacrifices that will "hurt" somewhat as well.

Ashes and Diamonds (orig. Popioł i Diament) [1958]

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

IMDb listing
Filmweb.pl listing*
Culture.pl listing

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

Ashes and Diamonds (orig. Popioł i Diament) [1958] [IMDb] [FW.pl]* [Culture.pl] (directed and screenplay by Andrzej Wajda [IMDb] [FW.pl]* [Culture.pl] [en.wikip]] [pl.wikip]* based on the novel (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) by Jerzi Andrzejewski [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*) opened recently a remarkable film series entitled "Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema" currently touring the United States and organized the famed American director Martin Scorsese [IMDb].  (In Chicago, the series is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in downtown).

The film definitely deserves its billing as certainly one of the greatest films of Polish Cinema and as Martin Scorsese [IMDb] himself claims "one of the greatest films of all time."

Why would it deserve such praise?  American viewers would recognize the film as "A Polish Casablanca [1942]" (much of the film takes place at a hotel in a random provincial town somewhere in Poland in the closing days of World War II with much, much intrigue, indeed the fate of post-war Poland -- the West-leaning Polish Home Army (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) vs Soviet backed Polish Communist forces (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) -- playing out) with the young lead character Maciej played by an ever smiling, ever sun-glass wearing Zbigniew Cybulski [IMDb] [FW.pl]* [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* who (thanks to performances like his in this film) came to known as "The Polish James Dean [IMDb] [en.wikip]" ;-).

This characterization of the film -- A Polish Casablanca starring a Polish James Dean -- itself would have made the film remarkable.  BUT THEN ADD TO THIS THE TIME / PLACE IT PORTRAYS (Poland at exactly the end of World War II) AT THE TIME / PLACE IN WHICH IT WAS FILMED (Communist Poland in 1957 - one year after the unrest in Poland had finally put a somewhat more moderate Communist (by the standards of the time) Gomułka (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) in power in Poland, and one year after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary).  This, like director Wajda [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*'s film of the year before Kanal [1957] [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* about the 1944 Polish Home Army-led Warsaw Uprising (en.wikip / pl.wikip*), the first Polish film of its kind following the War, MADE MORE THAN A DECADE AFTER THAT WAR, was a film that needed to be made BUT COULD ONLY BE MADE AFTER 1956 AND THEN STILL WITH MORE OR LESS OBVIOUS (OUT OF HAND) CONCESSIONS TO THE DEMANDS COMMUNIST IDEOLOGY (AND CENSORS...) OF THE TIME (otherwise neither film would have been made). 

Then finally, even after taking into account the political dance that Wajda, et al, had to go through to make a movie like this in Poland at the time (the Polish Home Army had to portrayed as "bad" while the Communists supported by the Soviet Army as "heroic / good"...), PUTTING ASIDE THIS HEAVY HANDED POLITICAL BURDEN IMPOSED "FROM ABOVE" (AND THEN "FROM THE EAST"), the very HUMAN STORY and ITS VERY HUMAN MESSAGE is ALL THE MORE REMARKABLE:

Young (late teen / early 20s) sunglassed / smiling Maciej (though he lost all his family in the war) comes to town (along with two others) with the "dark/nefarious" mission assigned to them by the (in Communist eyes of the time) "evil" Polish Home Army to assassinate a newly arrived "brave/heroic" Polish Communist official (played by Wacław Zastrzeżyński [IMDb] [FW.pl]*), finds when he arrives at the hotel in the random Polish town where all this intrigue was about to play out, that he'd really just like to chat-up the bar-maid Krystyna (played magnificently in the film by Ewa Krzyżewska [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) ;-).  AND WHY NOT?  POOR MACIEJ, perhaps he was a true Polish A Rebel Without a Cause [1955] but both OBJECTIVELY AND MORE HUMANLY he was a "Rebel without a Family" WHO _NEVER HAD A CHILDHOOD_ and up to that point PROBABLY HADN'T HAD MUCH OF A YOUNG ADULTHOOD (much less one that would inspire much confidence IN A FUTURE).  Why shouldn't he WISH FOR SOMETHING MORE than "just another mission?"

So there they were Maciej and Krystyna, WHO DO (mild spoiler alert HOOK UP) and then walk down the street at night -- as SOVIET T-34 TANKS roll down the street in one direction or another, as do troops in formation, generally wearing Soviet styled uniforms (though some of the soldiers are Polish and others are Russian) with an occasional "white and red" ribbon-wearing presumably former (Home Army?) partisan seen as well -- ENDING UP IN A BOMBED-OUT CHURCH with Christ still hanging on the Cross, but, with arms blown off, head and torso now truly hanging, drooped, LIFELESSLY upside-down (YES, IT'S A SPECTACULAR SHOT) where THERE'S NO ONE LEFT TO CONFESS TO (except perhaps to each other) OR TO MARRY THEM, BUT AT LEAST THEY CAN TELL EACH OTHER THE TRUTH.    And the question is asked: CAN THESE "ASHES" (ALL AROUND THEM) be turned one day INTO "DIAMONDS"?   And one just wants to cry ...

Do they end up together?  What do you think?  He's "Home Army" in the eyes of the Regime (coming into being at the time of the story being played-out, and IN POWER / WATCHING WHEN THE FILM WAS MADE TWELVE YEARS LATER) an "assassin" (terrorist), objectively with "blood on his hands."  BUT ... at least we (the viewers) are allowed "to understand."  And yes, if circumstances were different (at minimum, NO PREVIOUS WAR ... and, though necessarily left unspoken,  _no new intrigue_ of "Communist" and "non") THEY COULD HAVE "LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER."

But I do believe that the message, certainly for young Poles of that time (and perhaps for young people in ANY TIME / CIRCUMSTANCE), was MORE THAN JUST THAT: Maciej, was perhaps a tragic figure, doomed perhaps by fate for being born in the wrong place and at the wrong time.  Yet Wajda's film IMHO seemed to be giving the young people of Poland of 1957 PERMISSION TO LIVE ... to forget (in as much as possible) about either "Home Army" or "Communist" AND TO JUST GO FOR THE GIRL.

Yes, ideally one does _not_ have to "forget about history" ... but one has a right to have a childhood, to have a young adulthood and, yes, to be happy.  Maciej and Krystyna lost much of that in the War.  But the possibility seemed to be offered to the young people of 1957 that PERHAPS one could find happiness IN THEIR PRESENT.


This concern (about finding some happiness) EVEN IN NON-IDEAL (OPPRESSIVE) TIMES was _not_ an idle question TO MY OWN FAMILY that comes mostly from the Czech Republic and had to find answers to similar questions regarding during its experience of Communism as well.  About 1/2 my family stayed in Czechoslovakia during the Communist Era, about 1/2 left. Those who stayed, stayed for various reasons.  And those who left, left for various reasons. 

Among those who stayed were one or two early Communist members (who became Communists during the War or even before it).  Others found that they could adapt, found some things in the imposed system that were positive (universal access to higher education that was arguably more merit based than perhaps before - though Party members could famously "cut in line...") and found the rest (the intrusive and arguably paranoid ideology) at least bearable.  There were still others who were "born into the system" and chose to be(come) proud of it - Americans also choose to be proud of a system that also has its flaws (Ask simply someone of color ... or someone who's had a family member with a "pre-existing condition" or even a birth defect about what it was like getting health insurance, or fearing its loss, before Obama Care...).  Finally, there were others like my uncle after whom I am named (my name in Czech is Zdeněk) who even after he being jailed as a student in the 1950s by the Communists for a number of years refused to leave, despite having good prospects in the West if he did (he was talented, educated and multilingual).  I remember in the 1980s, a number of us, nephews of his (who were largely born and grew up in the West) asking him: "Why don't you just leave?"  And he answered: "Why should I abandon my country to THEM? (the Communists).  Someone has to stay or else they'll truly win."

Then among those in my family who left, there were some who everyone in the family agreed, simply could not find happiness unless they felt free.  I'd count my dad (who left in the 1950s, through Berlin before the Wall) as well as a cousin of mine (who left in the early-1980s, after staying-on in the West, ditching her tour group after a state-sponsored trip to some where in Western Europe) in this group.  It's simply true that some people simply cannot feel happy unless they also feel free.  Finally there were cases like that of my mom's family and specifically my mom's father (my grandfather) who was ethnic Russian and had already fled Soviet Russia once.  Like other ethnic Russians who had already fled the Soviet Union once, as the Soviet Army approached Prague at the end of the War, he realized that he faced three possibilities when they did: (1) a bullet in the head, (2) "expedited suicide" at the hands of accomodating Soviet NKVD agents who'd happily come to kick down the door and throw him out the window one early morning, and (3) and this would have been "the best option," a one way ticket to Siberia for an extended "re-education."  So my mother's family _had to_ flee.  I had other relatives on my dad's side, who also faced similar prospects after the Communists took-over Czechoslovakia in 1948 and brooked no further opposition or independent organizations.  (I remember meeting a Czech immigrant when I was a kid who had spent some 15 years of hard labor in a uranium mine -- Jáchymov (en.wikip / cz.wikip*) for having been a junior officer in the pre-Communist Czechslovakian Boy Scout movement). 


Now Wajda [IMDb] [FW.pl]* himself (as did plenty of Czech and Slovak film-makers of the time as well) made a journey in his films over the decades: Most who see this film, will quite quickly recognize the ideological constraints in which he was operating: The Communists were to be portrayed as "Good," the pro-Western Polish Home Army as "Bad," but individual Home Army members could be portrayed as "tragic figures," misguided and naive (and that was actually a "better" / "more open" climate than that which existed prior to 1956...).  But Wajda [IMDb] [FW.pl]* filmography shows that as opportunities arose, he seemed always at the edge of what was permissible.  So in 1980, he found himself this time in the right place and the right time to make the film Man of Iron [1981] [IMDb] [FW.pl]*(also to be shown in Scorsese's Film Series: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema) that ended up documenting the birth of the Solidarity Movement (en.wikip / pl.wikip*).  And since the Iron Curtain collapsed, Wajda [IMDb] [FW.pl]*'s been able to make films like the Oscar nominated Katyń [2007] [IMDb] [FW.pl]* about the Katyń massacre (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) where the Soviet NKVD murdered thousands of Polish army officers captured after the Soviet Union had invaded Poland ON THE SIDE OF NAZI GERMANY and took more than 1/2 the country (Wayda's own father was murdered in the massacre at Katyń).  And last year, Wajda [IMDb] [FW.pl]* made a film about Solidarity founder Lech Wałesa (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) entitled Walesa: Man of Hope (orig. Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei) [2013] a film that portrayed Wałesa (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) as having a very similarly hewn skill-set of knowing more-or-less exactly how far he could push the limits of what was possible under the Communist regime. 

Asked why he made films like this one (or Kanal [1957] [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*) in the 1950s, which on one hand were very brave (especially Kanal [1957] [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) and on the other hand clearly had to toe an ideological line, Wajda [IMDb] [FW.pl]* [Culture.pl] [en.wikip]] [pl.wikip]* has answered quite forcefully: "Would it have been better to have spent my life doing nothing at all?  And indeed, these people, who did nothing, have a ready excuse.  But what did we want? We only wanted to expand a little the limits of freedom, the limits of censorship, so that films such as "Popiol i diament" could be made. We never hoped to live to see the fall of the Soviet Union, to see Poland as a free country. We thought that all we could do was to expand this limit, so that the party wouldn't rule by itself but would have to admit the voice of the society it was ruling. If you want to participate in a reality created by an alien power, enforced by a historical situation, then you always risk taking part in some ambiguous game...

So this film is really a masterwork and leaves one with much, much, much to think about and discuss.

One final question, no doubt on the minds of many readers: How to get this film?  In the United States many of the films being shown as part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema can be rented through the mail-rental service offered by Facets Multimedia in Chicago.  (There are perhaps other services, but that's the one that I know). I've also found this film, Ashes and Diamonds (orig. Popioł i Diament) [1958], available on DVD IN NORTH-AMERICAN FORMAT through Amazon.com.


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

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