Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Like Never Before (orig. Jako Nikdy) [2013]

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

IMDb listing
CSFD listing*
FDB.cz listing*

Lidovky.cz (M. Kabát) review*
IndieFilm.cz (J. Jiřiště) review*
Novinky.cz (S. Dvořák) review*

Czech that Film [official site] [2014 line-up at GSFC in Chicago]


Like Never Before (orig. Jako Nikdy) [2013] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* (directed by Zdeněk Tyc [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*, screenplay by Markéta Bidlasová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) is a two Czech Lion (the Czech equivalent of the Oscars) winning and six Czech Lion nominated film that played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of 2014 Czech That Film Tour cosponsored by the Czech Diplomatic Mission to the United States.

The title of the film itself is interesting and open to several manners of interpretation / translation from Czech into English.   "Jako Nikdy" literally translates to "As If" "Never."  Since due to Slavic use of declensions, Czech word order is more flexible than English word order, the title could be translated as as something of a condemnation "Like Never Before" of the current (moral) state of things, or if understood as simply the beginning of a sentence "Jako Nikdy... " could be understood as "As if [he] never..." giving a possible understanding of the title as "Jako Nikdy [Neexistoval]" / "As if [he] Never [Existed]" (suggesting a theme of "Oblivion").    

I do believe that both interpretations of the title are interesting/valid because the film tells the story of the dying days of a (invented for the sake of the story) Czech painter named Vladimír (played by Jiří Schmitzer [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) an atheist, and in past better days, a hedonist.  And he was NOT dying a tranquil, "happy death."

Why?  Well, his personal life was a complete mess.  Caring for him were two women:

The first is Karla (played by Petra Špalková [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) also an artist, about 25 years his junior has lived with him for the last 20 or so years, but who's now realizing that (1) Vladimír's old and dying while she's still in her early 40s tops (with a LOT of Life left in her), and (2) since VLADIMIR NEVER MARRIED HER and had NO INTENTION of doing so now when he does she stands to inherit NOTHING of his (arguably THEIRS) and it's quite possible that after he's gone, she could end up on the street. 

The second woman, Jaruna (played by Taťjana Medvecká [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) in her late 50s/60s and though MARRIED to someone else, is more "age appropriate" for Vladimír.  Her claim to Vladimír's attentions now was simply that earlier on in life they had a very, very brief fling together while they were both teaching at the same secondary school, BUT NOW that Vladimir was dying and Karla was so self-evidently UNINTERESTED in taking care of him, she, AGAIN DESPITE BEING MARRIED TO SOMEONE ELSE, now hovers around Vladimír to take care of him in his dying days, perhaps because ONCE MORE, DESPITE BEING MARRIED TO SOMEONE ELSE, good ole Vladimir _had been_ the most exciting thing that had happened in her life.

For her part, Karla is AS HAPPY AS PIE when Jaruna comes around, because she can ditch the house and go "drinking" / "play darts" and "whatever..." with GUYS her own age (again married or not) by the local pub.

What does Vladimir think of all this?  HE DOESN'T CARE.  He's on morphine most of the time and when not in pain from the terminal cancer spreading all through his otherwise shrinking body, he's ANGRY.  Why?  BECAUSE HE'S DYING.  In one scene, he's shown tearing up the pictures that he's painted before.  Why?  BECAUSE HE'S DYING.  On one hand, he doesn't believe them good enough for his ideal.  On the other hand, HE DOESN'T WANT THEM TO BE SHARED (PROFITED WITH) AFTER HE'S GONE.   If HE can't go with them, then he doesn't want ANYONE to have them.

And so it is...

Does he have ANY FAMILY / RELATIVES?  Well, there's a son Tomáš (played by Marek Němec [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) ... who hates him.  Why?  Well, Vladimir dumped Tomáš' mother and him when Tomáš was a boy (long before Vladimir eventually shacked-up with Karla... Indeed, Tomáš' and Karla appear to be close to the same age...).  Tomáš had been out of Vladimir's life (by mutual consent) FOR DECADES.  Vlad had no particular interest in his offspring, PARTICULARLY if he felt them "untalented" ... and Tomáš apparently couldn't hold a paint-brush particularly well (when? when he was SIX???)  And Tomáš had long dismissed his father as an a-hole.

But Tomáš becomes necessary to Karla / Jaruna (and above all his dad) at one point because though Karla had lived with Vladimir for 20 odd years, SINCE SHE WAS NOT MARRIED TO HIM, she had no status.  One time when Jaruna was at Vladimir's home changing his diapers (while Karla was out drinking beers and playing darts "with the guys" ...) Vladimir got so sick that she had to call the ambulance.  "But Vladimir wants to die AT HOME," the still sobering-up Karla yells at Jaruna when she eventually staggers home after a night of partying.  But Karla, let alone Jaruna, HAD NO STATUS, to petition the hospital to allow Vladimir to go home (against the wishes of the doctor).  So they HAD TO FIND Tomáš to ask him to help them bring Vladimir home ...

Tomáš would just assume let him rot his last few days "v ustavu" (in an institution...) BUT he has a girl-friend who'd actually like to meet the father of her fiance' ... so ...

Wonderful, Vladimir comes home, and proceeds to be as "pleasant" to Tomáš fiancee' Šárka (played by Jana Pidrmanová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) as he's been to everybody else around him, making Tomáš fiancee' leave before he even has a chance to tell her "See ... I told you so."

So there's Vladimir, dying of cancer with his 25 years his junior lover Karla of 20 years who realizes that as soon as he dies she's screwed.  There's Jaruna who's hovering around for no particularly clear reason except that Vlad was probably (once) the best ever-so-brief fling that she ever had, and Tomáš his son, who hates his dad, but realizes that "Wait, actually when my dad croaks, this house and its contents could actually come to me."  Besides he comes look at the soon to be financially desperate Karla as perhaps even being "part of the package."

Yuck.

INTO THIS MESS, Jaruna actually comes to ask Vlad, if perhaps he'd like TO HAVE A PRIEST COME TO TALK TO HIM.  Why would she be asking that?  Well, she may have a horribly morally problematic "back-story" as well, but she's sincerely trying to be helpful and "nice" to the "best lover she ever had."  Vlad's not interested.  "Oh I know, the local priest here's an idiot, but there's a priest in a neighboring town that I've seen, besides he also has a PSYCHOLOGY DEGREE and HE helped me.  Maybe he can help you too."  Well, at least Vlad's not openly hostile now (perhaps the morphine's kicked in again ...).  So she calls the priest.

The priest (played by Štefan Capko [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) does come.  Here honestly the film does an excellent (if in its own way depressing job).  How does the au courrant priest-with-his-psychology-degree arrive?  ON BIKE as a cyclist in a nice BLACK spandex cyclist suit with a nice white stripe going down the middle of it.  He's a bit overweight, so looks a bit ridiculous.  But it's an interesting way of trying to "wear clerics" even if one's not (or perhaps even "trying to wear clerics" "in a different age" (So it may be sincere on his part, but it still looks odd). 

So he arrives to talk to Vlad (in Czech it'd actually be Vlád'a).  Vlad, of course, has no interest in talking to him.  So the priest soon leaves.  On his way out, Jaruna meets him at the door.  She apologizes for Vlad's wasting the priest's time.  The priest responds.  "No it's never a waste of time."  "But he wouldn't talk to you, so it didn't do him any good." "Yes, but it may have done you some good."  (And in any case, the priest got himself a little "workout" having cycled-in and now back home to/from a neighboring town ...).

Eventually, of course, Vlad dies.  He didn't want a funeral and no one, 'cept possibly Yaruna would have attended anyway.  So they call the hearse.  The undertakers arrive to take the body away.  Presumably he'd be cremated, and his ashes, if no one picked them up, eventually dumped ... somewhere by somebody, presumably the State.

The last scene has Tomáš hitting-on Karla as they walk by a nearby pond.  It's "as if [Vlad] never [existed] ..."

What then to make of a film like this?  Well, the Czech Republic, which by various accounts has the highest percentage of professed atheists in Europe, knows a bit about the depressing nature of atheism as a lived reality.  I've long found it fascinating that THE ARTISTIC COMMUNITY in the Czech Republic has REPEATEDLY taken-on the role of the "moral voice" in the Czech nation. 

As depressing as this film was, IT WAS INTENTIONALLY SO.  The obvious point of this movie was to ask viewers: DO YOU REALLY WANT LIFE (YOUR LIFE) TO BE LIKE THIS?

This is a society that MAY NOT BELIEVE, BUT WOULD HONESTLY WANT TO.  There are historic reasons for the Czechs' atheism and even more specific problems with the Catholic Church. The more ancient historical crime was the Church's burning of the turn-of-the 15th century (!) Czech theologian John Hus [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* as a heretic, a betrayal from which the Czech nation has never really recovered (in part because the Catholic Church, in a doctrinal box regarding infallibility, has never been able to truly apologize). 

More recent problems have involved passionate arguments over restoration of Catholic Church property that was confiscated (STOLEN) from the Church by the Communists during the Communist era.  YES, _that_ was also a crime.  But the Communists were also smart.  They converted a lot of stolen Convents into various nursing homes and so forth.  As a result, the Church arguing for the return (at least of the deeds) to such properties comes across as "wanting to take away the security of old (often also FORMER COMMUNIST) folks."   YES IT WAS A CRIME TO STEAL THESE PROPERTIES FROM THE CHURCH, but's ALSO a PUBLIC RELATIONS "NO WIN" SITUATION and IT DISTRACTS from proclaiming a Message of Hope to a people that DOES REALIZE THAT WITHOUT _SOME RELIGION_ (GOD / THE GOSPEL) THERE IS NO HOPE.

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

So this film makes for an interesting conversation piece back in the CR and _can offer_ the publics outside the Czech Republic an opportunity to reflect on the abyss that awaits them too when a society has largely lost Hope.


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

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Stand Clear of the Closing Doors [2013]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune / Variety (R. Scheib) review
RE.com (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (D. Ehrlich) review

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors [2013] (directed by Sam Fleischner, story by and screenplay cowritten by Rose Lichter Marck along with Micah Bloomberg) is a well-crafted, personalist drama about a Hispanic family living in New York City (Rockaway Beach) with a 13-year-old son with autism spectrum disorder.  The film played recently in Chicago at Facets Multimedia.

Mom, Mariana (played by Andrea Suarez Paz), works as a housekeeper.  Dad, Ricardo, Sr (played by Tenoch Huerta), generally works upstate in construction.  It appears that one or both are undocumented.  Together, they have a 15 year old daughter Carla (played by Azul Zorrilla) and Ricky, Jr (played by Jesus Sanchez-Velez) who has autism.

Since dad is rarely at home, working somewhere "upstate" (which in New York's conception could mean anywhere from "just north of the City in Westchester County" up the entire Hudson / Mohawk River valleys to the shores of Lakes Eire / Ontario and to the Canadian border), and mom works pretty much from sunrise-to-sunset if closer then still "away," 15-year-old Carla is generally left to look after (keep track of) 13-year-old (why's your brother so weird?) Ricky to inevitable (and understandable) teenage friction.  After all, she has friends, dreams of "having a life" and yet she's largely responsible for her 13 year old brother who's just borderline to not require a completely special school, but still causes chronic irritating frustrations at both home and at school.

So perhaps inevitably, one afternoon, Carla just rolls-eyes and says "whatever..." when Ricky (once again ...) doesn't seem to want to follow directions (from his sister ...) and walk home with her and her friends after school ... and the rest of the movie follows ...

Ricky, of course, doesn't come home.   Where did he go?  Well, he's 13, "in his own world," but it's not a completely unfunctioning world.  He gets distracted, or more to the point, fixated on things.  Some guy walked by with a random but perhaps somewhat striking emblem on the back of his jacket and Ricky, fixating on the emblem, decides to follow him.  The guy goes to the subway station and Ricky follows him there.  When the guy enters to pay his fare to get past the turn-styles and head then to the trains, Ricky REACHES INTO A POCKET IN HIS OWN BACKPACK, gets out the required change, pays his own fare and follows him down to the platform.

Then, in the midst of all the people, of course, he loses the guy.  BUT now he's in a subway station WITH ALL KINDS OF PEOPLE and ALL KINDS OF RANDOM THINGS TO TURN ONE'S ATTENTION TO.  AND so Ricky gets on a random subway train, heading off in a random direction, following something new that attracted him, until he forgot about it again, and found something else to focus on ...  AND ALL THE WHILE, TO ANYONE TRAVELING THE SUBWAY BESIDE HIM, he's just another random, perhaps after a while, somewhat tired, 13-year-old traveling _somewhere_ on the train.

So Ricky doesn't come home.  What to do?  Mom goes searching for him, first in the neighborhood.  She goes to the beach.  He used to like the beach, the waves, the sounds, the occasional seagull, etc.  He wasn't there.  She walks down the street, checking various stores in the neighborhood, stores that he'd previously like (there's a corner shoe-store that he had previously liked for all the random colored sneakers ...).  He's not there.  She spends the night looking for him, can't find him.

The next day, she realizes that she has to call the police.  She doesn't particularly want to, presumably because either she or her husband were illegal.  It doesn't matter really because the police tell her that they won't do anything for the FIRST SEVENTY TWO HOURS because the kid could just be going to his father or perhaps to some other relative.  They usually turn up, after SEVENTY TWO HOURS (three days (!)) they'd truly be missing.

Seventy two hours pass ... then Hurricane Sandy starts to roll in ... What happened?

Excellent story and one that could happen TO ANY FAMILY with a special needs child in a big city.


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As it is in Heaven [2014]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13 / R)  ChicagoSunTimes (3 Stars)  RE.com (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoSunTimes (B. Stamets) review
RE.com (S. Abrams) review


As it is in Heaven [2014] (directed by Joshua Oberbay screenplay by Virginia Oberbay) is a reasonably well crafted if somewhat tendentious low-budget indie film / cautionary tale about a small Christian-messianic sect/cult/community.  It played recently at Chicago's Facets multimedia.   

It all begins innocuously at the (sect/cult/community) leader's farm somewhere in rural Kentucky.  Though already "a bit off the beaten track," one would imagine that even if one were to happen upon it, one would not necessarily see anything "strange" about it.  There's a farm house, there's some pasture, some of which is cultivated into a field or two, some woods, a small stream running by.  Only if one spent some time observing could one have discerned that there seemed to be more than one family living in said farm-house.  HOWEVER even then, the sect/cult/community was NOT that large -- perhaps 10 maybe 15 people, no more.  And the deed to the land, if one were to have the interest to look it up, would have probably list the sect/cult/community leader as its owner as it probably was in his family perhaps for generations.

The locals would probably know the group's leader, Edward was his name (played by John Lina), as a preacher.  The group did apparently have something of a church or "mission" at a strip-mall at the outskirts of town.  The locals would probably know that "some from the congregation" apparently have taken-up residence on his farm, but they probably would not have made anything of it.  He was "preachin' the word," his group was "helpin' the homeless" "baptizin' the previously lost" and doing so in a way that would be UTTERLY INDISTINGUISHABLE from ANY NUMBER OF "LITTLE STORE FRONT CHURCHES" both in the hinterlands (and in the inner cities) across the U.S.A. today.

Let me add one more bit of information, Edward himself was probably NOT EVIL.  He had devoted his life to Jesus.  He had opened his doors to the poor.  He had given a little community that sprang up around him hope and some joy.  They WERE living in their little corner of our Earth "As it is in Heaven" (Matt 6:9-15).

So what went wrong?

Well, for whatever reason and _not unlike_ a lot of fundamentalist preachers (at least at some point in their lives) Edward became convinced (and quite suddenly) that the world was, indeed, going to end and ... end quite shortly.  We hear him telling his group, at a nice, matter-of-fact "community meeting" or perhaps "Bible study" that "Who would have guessed that Jesus was going to return in just 30 days?"

Now if nothing else happened, 30 days would have passed and ... nothing would have happened ;-) ... and Edward and his little community would have happily gone on, writing off those "30 days of End Times" as a "misjudgement" on the part of their leader.  And if he insisted on pushing the matter further, then the group would have probably broken up.
 
But that didn't happen here.  Why?  Well, some hours after announcing quite calmly to the group that the world was going to end in 30 days, he himself has heart-attack... BUT ... he does not die right away.

Instead, he lives long enough (hours more) to "anoint" a member of the group, David (played by Chris Nelson), as his successor.  More troublingly, he _burdens_ David with the responsibility of "getting the group ready" for Christ's coming in 30 days.  Remember, Edward found himself _suddenly_ on his death bed.  He didn't have a lot of time to give David instruction.  He just tells him, "YOU HAVE TO GET THEM READY.  I DIDN'T HAVE THE TIME.  NOW IT'S GOING TO BE UP TO YOU. ... IF THEY ARE NOT READY, CHRIST WON'T COME FOR THEM."   And these turned out to be Edward's last words to ANYBODY.  A few moments afterwards, Edward slips into unconsciousness and dies shortly thereafter.

Now David was a relative neophyte.  In the opening sequence in the film, we saw him being baptized and entering the group only one year earlier.  Now became clear that Edward saw in him qualities that he didn't see in HIS OWN SON named Eamon (played by Luke Beavers) who was also David's (mid/late-twenties) age.  Now Edward left David in charge.

But ... there are some rather obvious problems here:  (1) How prepared is David, still something of a wide-eyed 20-something neophyte, TO LEAD the group?  and (2) Because David is a relative neophyte, will the rest of the group, including Edward's own family (especially Edward's oldest son, but presumably also Edward's widow, the mother of Edward's oldest son) going to accept David as Edward's anointed successor?  Remember, this is not a large group, 10-15 people of which Edward's family (his widow, his children, even Eamon's presumed wife or girlfriend, with a baby) still makes up a substantial part.  And remember the whole group is even still living on Edward's (family's) presumed farm.

BUT ...Edward's last instructions to them were, first (to the group) that Jesus was coming in 30 days, and second (to David) that David needed to "get them ready."  SO ... if the clock weren't "ticking," perhaps some of the groups problems would have naturally resolved themselves.  Now, since there were only 30 days left anyway, arguing over actually who "owns the farm" on which the group lived probably seemed rather "beside the point."

SO ... the group seemed to largely give David (as Edward's successor) the benefit of the doubt.  What's 30 days, right?

BUT ... How exactly does one PREPARE for Christ's coming in a way that would be substantially different from how the group had already lived?  (Remember that Edward told David that the group _wasn't_ ready and that DAVID had to MAKE THEM READY in those 30 days).

Seems like "drastic actions" were called for ... So wide-eyed, in over-his-head but sincere 20-something David ... calls for a 30 day Fast.  That would get the group ready and heck "Fasts" were even Biblical.  Right?

Well, but there's also a baby in their midst ..., there _is_ under-the-immediate-surface division in the group and, finally, Edward was venerated by the group as not merely a Prophet but ALSO "a nice guy" ... HE never called a fast ... but then HE told David that David needed to get them ready ...

The rest of the film ensues ...

I found the film fascinating, and yes, it can serve as a cautionary tale about "messianism" and "apocalyptic" thinking.

But I also think that there were a number of circumstances written into the story here that drove its outcome.   If Edward had not died in the circumstances that he did, then the rest of the story would have played out very differently.  It the group did not have to simultaneously deal with both Edward's somewhat surprising choice of successor AND "prepare for the imminent end of the world," then the story would have played out very differently.  

The film's main message becomes "bad things happen when decisions are made in a pressure cooker,"  which is absolutely true.  The way out of making "bad decisions in a pressure cooker" is to look for ways to "slow things down" so as to _deescalate_ the situation.  And that would have worked for this little Christian community living in the rolling hinterlands of Kentucky, just as it did work out for the whole world during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis ... 


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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hercules [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

As derivative as Hercules [2014] (directed by Brett Ratner, screenplay by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on the Radical Comic [wikip] "Hercules: The Thracian Wars" by Steve Moore [IMDb]) may seem -- the film's basically the Schwarzenegger starring Conan the Barbarian [1982] crossed with 300 [2006], with homages to The Gladiator [1986], the Liam Neeson costarring Clash of the Titans [2010] remake and the "band of brothers in arms" of the recent Marvel Comics' inspired Thor [2011] thrown into the mix -- I found it to be a fun speculative (and certainly revisionist...) inquiry into the origins of the Hercules legend ;-).

For the film plays with / hangs on a great question: How would the story of a hero like Hercules begin?  There would have to have been SOME fighter/hero that would first catch a storyteller's (and more importantly AN AUDIENCE'S) interest.  Now what if the Hero began life (or the storyteller made him) "an orphan"?  How much greater the Hero's accomplishments would seem if he began life "on the mean streets of ancient Athens" ;-) -- a sort of Homerean Rocky Balboa ;-).  Then, well, if he's an orphan, it's not really a big jump (in the ancient world anyway) to posit that his father was "a God" (Indeed, this would help explain the Hero's surprising abilities).  Then, in Greek Mythology, the Awesome "King of the Gods" Zeus had a very jealous wife, the Goddess Hera (the to this day remembered as the Greek Goddess of HEARTH and Home ...).  So even though this child, who grew-up to be Great was the son of a God, there's EVEN a ready explanation of why his beginnings were so terrible: he was being punished by Zeus' wife Hera ;-).  Why once one starts along this path, the story practically writes itself ;-)

Now what if, as a story teller begins to build Hercules' LEGEND, he decides to CONFLATE the various heroic stories of other local heroes.  What's the sense of having 10,000 stories of various local heroes when you can have ONE SUPER-HERO.

Now -- and this is the jump / genius of the current story -- what if we "misunderstood" the Hercules legend to think that there was ONE Hercules (sort of like a ONE SUPER GENIUS Thomas Edison or a ONE/ULTRA-UNIQUE Steve Jobs).  What if a better conception of thinking of Hercules would be that of thinking of him as Hercules, INC -- A TEAM OF FOLKS doing all kinds of SPECTACULAR THINGS under THE BANNER of "HERCULES" (and not minding that perhaps Hercules got a little more credit -- like Thomas Edison getting "credit" for inventing 10,000 things when he actually "invented" the modern engineering workshop (where he hired teams of scientists/engineers to do the "realization work" for him), or Steve Jobs getting "credit" for everything from the Apple 2 computer to iTunes to the iPhone/iPad, when again there was _an entire corporation_ built around his ideas to bring them to reality.  Now, why would "the underlings" not mind?  BECAUSE THEY GOT PAID, THEY DID THEIR WORK AS A JOB).  So what if "Hercules" was like that?  Perhaps he was "the guiding inspiration' to the Legend, BUT ... his various "labors" were actually DONE BY A TEAM (a Hercules, INC as it were) and if one pushed things even further, even his "12 great labors" were a perhaps little spruced up by his PR folks (in the film, PR person) to make them seem a little more "awesome" than they actually were ... what's a little "stretching the truth" to "make a sale" ;-)

Isn't this fun? ;-)

And so it is ... in this film, we follow a smiling, "showman" Hercules (played spot-on for this task by ex-pro-wrestler (!) Dwayne Johnson) donning his lion skin (from "his" famous "labor" of killing of the Neomean Lion) and sporting his trademark CLUB, while his work is done, yes, PARTLY by him, but ALSO by a pretty good _team_ behind him, including:

His childhood BFF Autoclutus (played by Refus Sewell), who like Hercules was ALSO "AN ORPHAN" who knew Hercules from "mean streets of Athens days" (and in Greek Mythology, was ALSO to have had a divine father, in his case Hermes).  Being "awesome fighters" they were sent by the King of Athens on all sorts of Ancient Greek "special ops" missions (some of which came to be remembers as part of the above mentioned "labors of Hercules/  And eventually, they ditched the Athenian army and came to found an Ancient Greek "Blackwater-like" group that that they decided to call Hercules (since by then he had "gotten a name").

Along the way they also took on:

Amphiaraus (played by Ian McShane) in greek legend remembered as a seer / prophet, who in the group, played a sort of "older wisdom figure role" who kept the "young bloods in line," kept them focused "on the bigger picture" and so forth,

Atalanta (played by Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) portrayed here Amazonian huntress who they met on one of their "labors" / "special ops,"

Tydeus (played by Eksel Hennie) portayed in the film as a somewhat feral fighter, one who Herc and Autoclutus found as "the sole survivor" or a village that had been destoryed by some ancient Greek monster in some way,

and finally, Iolaus (played by Reece Ritchie) both in the film and in Greek mythology remembered as Hercules' nephew (and companion on various of his labors).  In the film, he plays the group's principal "PR man" spinning the fame of Hercules in a way to get the group more work.

And so it is that in the film they do find a new "gig" ... to help the King of Thrace (played by John Hurt) rout a rebellion led by a certain Rhesus (played by Tobias Santelmann).  Much "sand and sandal" combat and intrigue ensues ...

All in all, while the violence of the film would probably not make the film suitable for little children, the PG-13 rating is probably appropriate.  And I found the movie a refreshing blast.

I liked the story, I liked the characters.  They brought Greek Mythology to life in a way that I have to say was, after all is said and done, _surprisingly_ original!  Honestly, good job!


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Friday, July 25, 2014

Lucy [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review


Lucy [2014] (written and directed by Luc Bessen) is an appropriately R-rated (for violence / drugs) film about limits and transcendence and the limits to our (human) ability to transcend, well, our limitations.  Yes, I wrote that sentence in that way on purpose ;-).  So while the film definitely ought to give parents pause as they discerned whether or not they really wanted their teenager to go to see it, it could be very good fodder for college aged young adults as they pondered the questions of limits and transcendence of them.

Transcendence is, of course, an age old religious theme.  In Christian anthropology, we're told that we have a mortal body and a transcendent, that is, eternal soul (our body dies but a part of us does remain).  The quest to transcend the limits of our human nature -- again, in Christian anthropology we're told that we were made "in the image of God" (Gen 1:27) but that, obviously, we are _not_ Gods -- is again an age old quest.  Yet it often leads to bad, that is, sinful decisions (The story of the Fall from the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3, is in fact, a story of seeking to transcend the limits of our human nature, that is, a story of _transgressing_ divinely imposed limits to our human nature to in a quest to "become like Gods.")

But as times change, new situations and new temptations arise.  Okay, our bodies will eventually fall apart (we'll die).  But what if we could "upload our minds" onto a computer / the internet?  Could we attain a certain physical immortality that way?   That's the idea behind the recent Johnny Depp / Morgan Freeman vehicle Transcendence [2014]

Or putting aside rather ultimate quest for immortality, could we set-aside the limits of our mind by consuming some mind enhancing drug?   Athletes have been tempted to inject and ingest various performance enhancing drugs.  Could a similar enhancement of the mind be accomplished through the injecting/ingesting of a "mind enhancing drug" as well?  That's then the idea behind the recent Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless [2011] and the film considered here.

So then the current film, Lucy [2014], the name taken from the one given to the 3.2 million year old  Australopithecus skeleton excavated in Ethiopia in the 1970s and is posited to be the oldest skeleton of a human ancestor to be found to date, is about a similarly "random"/yet representative human woman of today named Lucy (and played quite marvelously in wide-eyed/often terrified "method acting" fashion by Scarlett Johansson) who by circumstance (really as a result of some fairly bad, yet seemingly random/banal choices ... she could have been ANY _largely "unthinking"_ contemporary American "party girl") finds herself at a rather AWESOME crossroads in human history.

What did she do? Or perhaps more appropriately, what did she find herself getting herself into?  Well through a really, really "bad choice" of a random hook-up presumably at some party somewhere, she finds that her new beau was a random two-bit courier for a Taiwanese drug-dealer and ... one thing leading to another, she finds herself, after being knocked-out/pistol-whipped by one of said Taiwanese drug-dealers, waking-up having had a bag of a bluish crystalline "wunder-drug" sown into her abdomen, which she was being "asked" (mafia style...) to help smuggle (as a "drug mule") into Europe where the drug gang was expecting to make a killing selling said "wunder drug" to "looking for the next high" Euro-youth.  When one of her drug-gang/captors tries to make a pass at her the night before she was going to be put on a flight to Europe, she resists, and he kicks her abdomen ... presumably making the bag inside her "begin to leak" ...

After this rather horrifying decent into a quite imaginable terrestrial Hell, the story really begins.  Perhaps to no one's surprise, the drug leaking inside of her "messes with her mind" (after all, that was its whole point and why the drug gang was expecting to make money off of it).  However, what becomes surprising is HOW the drug "messes with her mind" ... it appears to "unlock" the mind's potential. 

For parallel to the story of random American party girl Lucy's descent into lots and lots of trouble out in Taiwan, we hear another American, a neuroscientist (played by Morgan Freeman), giving a lecture to American college students about the "evolutionary limits of the human mind."  He notes that humans only use about 10% of their brain's potential, that this is more than the average animal's brain use  (though apparently dolphins use 20% of their brain's potential, allowing them the added sensory ability of "echo-location").  He asks the question, "What could happen if we came to use 20, 40, 80 or even 100% of our brain's potential?"  adding "When will we move-up 'the dial' of evolutionary change and enter into the realm of revolutionary change?"  Little does he know that even as he is speaking, there's a previously random/average American party girl out in Taipei, Taiwan who's injested a drug that's done exactly what he's been talking about ... broken down whatever limits preventing the human mind from using all 100% of its potential.

So back to Lucy ... Finding herself suddenly WAY SMARTER (and more capable, in surprising new ways...) than her captors, she quickly finds her escape from the drug dealers.  She also realizes that she's ingested an UNCONTROLLED (and probably WAY-OVER-ANY-LIMIT) amount of this mind altering drug.  So she realizes that she's living on borrowed time.   Frantically (and yet, thanks to the drug, also quite capably...) she looks up the above mentioned neuroscientist and ... asks for his help.  The rest of the movie, at a frenetic pace, follows...

Again, this film is clearly not one "for kids" or even "for teens" (who might be tempted to play with drugs in various stupid manners ...). 

However, the movie does actually ask a very interesting question: If you found yourself in the situation of Lucy (no matter HOW she/you got there) and you knew that you've been given some very special abilities EVEN AS "THE CLOCK WAS TICKING" and YOU'D PROBABLY DIE AS A RESULT ANYWAY, what would you use those special GRACED moments / abilities for?  And what would you like to leave behind?

Again, this film is about limits and transcendence and the limits to our ability to transcend our limits ;-)

Great stuff to think and argue about for a bunch of 20 year olds ;-)


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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago [2013]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (S. Merry) review
Spirituality & Practice (F & M.A. Brussat) review

Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago [2013] (directed by Lydia Smith) is the second film, this time a documentary, about the experience of walking the traditional 500 mile pilgrimage route The Camino (Way) of St. James from the French side of the Pyrenees across much of picturesque northern Spain (Galicia) to the Cathedral Shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostela, the other film was The Way [2010] starring Martin Sheen and written / directed by his son Emilio Estevez (reviewed on this blog when it came-out as well). 

The countryside is lovely, the Camino is full of history.  The question that can fairly be asked is "How 'Catholic' does 'Walking the Camino' remain?"

And it could be said that "Walking the Camino" today would fall in the realm of "Religion Light."  Of the six people that the film follows, only one (a young clearly devoted French mother with a Rosary ever either in her hand or around her neck, who embarks and completes the entire Camino with her three year old (often in a stroller) in tow), maybe 1 1/2 (there's an older Episcopalian priest who's followed in the film as well as he and a friend walk it on behalf of his wife who passed away a few years back) seem(s) to begin the journey for any explicitly religious purpose. 

Yet, having said this, I do agree with the smiling Spanish Bishop (one of three spiritual consultants to the film, all Catholic) interviewed quite extensively in the film who assessed: "One may start the Camino as a tourist, but just about everyone ends it as a Pilgrim."  Why?  It's just too hard to do this trek otherwise.  It's just too much of an investment in terms of time (6-8 weeks), sweat/blisters, and (if one really wanted to do this entirely secularly) money to not become grateful for the generosity / hospitality of the MANY, MANY Catholic convents / hostels that open their doors to the pilgrims along the way.

Now don't get me wrong.  I know there are would-be ingrates out there (and I've personally known ingrates out there).   But there are a lot more easier ways to HATE THE CHURCH than to walk 500 miles constantly running-into tired but smiling people, who DON'T hate as much, to do so ;-).

And there are some lovely life-lessons that one learns along the Way: (1) No one ends this trip "alone."  Even though several of the people followed in this film BEGAN their journey expecting (even hoping for) Solitude ... it just becomes so much easier to complete it with friends found along the way.  (2) Even today, with all our advances in technology, the 500 mile journey bests the best of footwear.  Part of the journey for EVERYONE appears to be putting-up with / accepting "blisters" along the way.  (3) We really DON'T NEED a "lot of stuff."  Almost EVERYONE finds that they've "over packed."  And as people INEVITABLY _come to share_ what they've packed with those they meet along the way EVERYONE seems to find that they can get by with MUCH LESS than they started out with.  (4) The Camino made here in 2-3 months, is really symbolic of (a metaphor for) the Camino that EVERYONE does over the course of one's life (That last insight comes from one of the _initially_ most secular minded people followed in the film).

As such, I did find the movie inspiring.  In younger days, and with more time, I'd be tempted to do this kind of a journey as well.  BUT I don't have to do everything ;-) ... Still I would encourage those who are young(er) and with some time ... to take a look!  It looks like a great way to spend a summer, and I do believe it would be an experience that would change / stay with one for the rest of one's life!  Good job!


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Monday, July 21, 2014

Boyhood [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (4 Stars)  RE.com (4 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Boyhood [2014] (written and directed by Richard Linklater) is a remarkable 12-year wonder that in a Best Picture field of potentially as many as ten films will _certainly_ deserve at least a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars for this year with possible director and original screenplay nominations as well (and the four core acting performances weren't bad either ;-).  So what the heck did Linklater do to deserve such praise? ;-).

Well this GREAT storyteller (or at least a storyteller with a GREAT IDEA) decided to assemble a core cast to play members of a family -- the mother, Olivia (played by Patricia Arquette), the father Mason, Sr (played by Ethan Hawke) and their two children Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater the director's own daughter) and Mason, Jr (played by Ellar Coltrane) and THEN BRING THIS CAST TOGETHER FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS EVERY YEAR FOR TWELVE YEARS TO TELL THE THEIR STORY OVER TIME.  Film's primary focus is Mason, Jr, hence the film's title "Boyhood."  However, it's obvious as this story plays out that ALL THE CHARACTERS ARE growing / changing as well.  Indeed, part of the film's multifaceted reflection on "growing-up" would be that NO ONE "grows up" in isolation, Instead, we all grow-up / change together.

Yet the story told, is NO "Sentimental Journey."  When we meet the characters, mom and dad in their mid to late 20s (Sam and Mason, Jr  are seven and six respectively) are fighting.  Like many a parents, they "married early." We (viewers) immediately suspect that they chose to do so far more by the circumstances that they found themselves in than by choice (We get more info, ever age appropriate, about the circumstances of the parents' meeting / marriage as the kids grow older ;-).  And indeed, by the end of that first years' segment, Olivia's had enough of her still immature / directionless husband.  So she packs her kids in the car and moves back to her mother's (Olivia's mom played by Libby Villary) in Houston.

The story recommences a couple of years later with Olivia, Sam and Mason, Jr still living somewhere in the Houston area.  Olivia's found them all an apartment, has been holding down a job and going to community college.  Sam and Mason, Jr have settled in at their new school.  And dad's come back for the first time in 1 1/2 years, having spent the time in between "up in Alaska."

What was he doing "up in Alaska?"  Well, he tells Sam (when she asks) that he spent much of it working on a boat possibly as part of a commercial fishing enterprise, along the lines of the life portrayed on The Deadliest Catch [2005-]).  Now what would a Texan be doing on a commercial fishing vessel?  It probably wouldn't be his first choice.  However, Texas is an "oil rich state" as is Alaska.  So one would suspect that a fair amount of young men without particularly large skill sets to travel between the two states looking for work in one or the other state's oil fields.  Then when "up in Alaska" if working on a commercial fishing vessel proved to to pay better, well ... However, dad also tells Sam "to tell mom" that he's on his "second actuarial exam" (looking to get a job in insurance, now that he's back in Texas again).

If there was any hope on the part of Mason, Sr (and the kids) that he and mom (Olivia) could patch things up, that's unsurprisingly quickly dashed.  Mom's got other plans.  She's studying psychology (in good part, no doubt, trying to figure herself out).  And as she starts to feel better about herself, she starts looking for a "more responsible man."

Over the years that follow, we find her in two relationships.  The first was with a Psychology Professor (named Bill Wellbrook, played by Marco Parella) who was also divorced, also with two children of Sam's and Mason, Jr's age.  She even marries Professor Bill for a while before she runs into his own demons.  Later after she herself finishes grad-school and becomes a Psychology Prof, she enters into a relationship with a returning Afghan war vet named Ted (played by Stephen Prince).  Both of these men were perhaps "more responsible" than her original husband, but end up having multiple issues of their own.

In the meantime Mason, Sr, "grows up" as well.  Though not much of a dad, except perhaps "fun to be around" when Sam and Mason, Jr were kids, he starts to make more sense (and even gain some wisdom) by the time they enter high school.  During those years, he also marry again (probably by knocking-up his girlfriend again...).  However this time, he seems to be more capable of being a responsible husband than in his first marriage.  (His second wife's parents are a gas.  Again, they're all Texans. So for Mason, Jr's 16th birthday, step-grandma buys him a Bible "with his name engraved on on the frunt" and step-grand-dad gives him the gun he received from his grandpa when he was young.).

At a point, during this part of the story, Sam asks in playful, eye rolling fashion "Dad, you're not going to become one of those 'God people' now?"  He smiles / shrugs, AND his new wife RESPONDS WITH EQUAL PLAYFULNESS from a distance, "Hey guys, you know I can hear you two!"

I know that a number of readers here might be taken aback by this incident and perhaps even be offended THAT I WAS NOT OFFENDED BY IT (see the CNS/USCCB's review of the film, though in fairness what else could the reviewer write about that incident in the film?).  However, I found this episode amusing, REAL and KIND.  (I could add that it's obvious that Mason, Sr.'s new wife was NOT CATHOLIC but of a more fundamentalist Protestant bent).  However, I saw GROWTH in the dad's (Mason, Sr's) reaction to it all.  In earlier times he was far more opinionated / judgmental.  (Interestingly, though a Texan, he was shown earlier in the story as hating Bush/Cheney and was shown later campaigning (though never-altogether seriously) for Obama / Biden).  Here, some years later, he was accepting the religious convictions of his new wife and her family and was willing to be open to the possibility that he _could learn something from them_.  IMHO, that's a BIG STEP, from the arrogant certainty of ignorance to the coming to the realization that one could learn from others.

The last part of the film, involves Mason, Jr's teenage years.  Various potential "male role models" vie his attention -- there's his mother's Afghan war vet, now corrections' officer, boyfriend (yup, he's badge-carrying "responsible"), there's his photography teacher who wants him to "bear down and do his assignments: rather than "simply follow his bliss" (Mason's Jr's becoming a fairly good photographer), and there's his boss at a random fast food place where he's got a job who's trying to teach him discipline as well.  Finally, of course, there's his own dad, who, (at least in this film) appears to prove that biology does have some sense to things after all.  Indeed, dad's "grown-up" / "matured" / "changed" along side his kids over the twelve years and IMHO proves to be Mason, Jr's best "wisdom figure" as Jr approaches adulthood, whatever his previous shortcomings may have been.

Honestly, folks, it all makes for a remarkable story and A GREAT PIECE FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION AFTERWARDS.  What does it mean to "grow up"?  What are the trade-offs to the decisions we make?  And are we willing to accept that those around us are "growing up" and "changing" as well?  Great stuff!


ADDENDUM: I do have _one problem_ with the film.  In a movie that's mostly white, fairly late in the story a young Hispanic (person of color) is added marginally to the mix.  However, the character is treated so paternalistically that I wish he had been edited out.  He doesn't play a major role in the story in any case.  Yet, the story's treatment of him is such that it may actually offend many Hispanics (and other people of color) who otherwise might have liked the film without him.  This is why I'm giving the film 3 1/2 Stars rather than 4.  (With other films, I've been punishing in regard to their treatment of race than I'm here.  But I do think that there are so many good aspects to this film that I don't want to sink it on this account here.  Still, I do fully expect that a fair number of Hispanics will find the paternalistic treatment of the ONLY Hispanic (or person of color) in the film surprisingly tin-eared / offensive).


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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Sex Tape [2014] / The Purge: Anarchy [2014] / Planes: Fire & Rescue [2014] / Wish I Was Here [2014]

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

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

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

This week I chose to not see:

Sex Tape [2014] - MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (D+)

The Purge: Anarchy [2014] - MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)

Planes: Fire & Rescue [2014] - MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars)  RE.com (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C-)

Wish I Was Here [2014] - MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (C)


Some of these are fairly obvious choices (Sex Tape [2014] , The Purge: Anarchy [2014]) though I have reviewed and liked Cameron Diaz' Bad Teacher [2011] and saw (cautionary) value in last year's Spring Breakers [2013] as well the original The Purge [2013].  But I have to admit I found myself embarrassed getting a single ticket to Spring Breakers last year and expected a similar expecting a similar experience purchasing a ticket to see Sex Tape (and for what end?  Spring Breakers did have a point).  Then with regard to the sequel to The Purge, I honestly don't see what message could be added in the sequel above that already present in the original that would justify it's creation.

I decided to forgo seeing Planes: Fire & Rescue [2014] also as a protest but for a different reason.  While I somewhat grudgingly had to admit that Toy Story 3 [2010] was certainly "moving" at times, as a rule, I don't like the consumerist message under the whole Toy Story, Cars and now Planes franchises: "Kids things are 'people too.'"  No they are not and they are not even like "a pet" or "gold fish."  A computer, a robot, okay ... I can start to "play" with that idea (Even though as I wrote about the (appropriately R-rated) Her [2013] even in the case of a computer (or operating system) there are fundamental differences between human and human-made intelligences... most notably that a human-made artificial intelligence would almost certainly be "bundled with adware." ;-).  So I don't like films that try to make KIDS think that THINGS are "People Too."  THEY ARE NOT.

Finally, Wish I Was Here [2014] may actually not be a bad film about parenting (and parents' involvement in their kids lives).  I just don't feel an enormous desire to see the film that I suspect could be too "out there" for my own sensitibility.  And I'd prefer to "conserve my powder" for IMHO more compelling films.

Anyway, this week, I'm choosing forgo seeing a whole bunch of films and mostly for reasons of "lameness."  Hopefully, in the coming weeks there will be a better selection of new films to see.


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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Marketa Lazarová [1967]

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

IMDb listing
CSFD listing*
FDB.cz listing*

Czech that Film [official site] [2014 line-up at GSFC in Chicago]


Marketa Lazarová [1967] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by František Vláčil [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* along with František Pavlíček  [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*, based on the novel by the same name [cz.wikip]* by Vladislav Vančura [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [CSFD]*[FDB]*) played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of 2014 Czech That Film Tour cosponsored by the Czech Diplomatic Mission to the United States.

In 1998 as part of marking the Centenary of Czech language cinema, the film was voted by over 100 Czech film critics as the greatest Czech language film ever made.  In 2011, a digitally restored version, premiered at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival (the Czech Republic's premier international film festival).    It was this version with English subtitles that played here at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

That the film received the distinction of being "the greatest Czech Language film ever made" is not without its controversies and caveats:

First, the film is rather unique (for Czech / Czechoslovak cinema) in style.  Released in 1967 almost exactly at the midpoint of Czechoslovakia's Communist Era (1948-1989) and just as a new generation of Czechoslovak film-makers (those of the far more Western-European influenced Czechoslovak "New Wave" [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*) were beginning to come to their own, it would be immediately obvious to viewers/critics that František Vláčil's [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* influences came "from the East," that is, from the epic works of Sergei Eisenstein [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* (Alexander Nevsky [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]*, Ivan the Terrible [1944, 1958] [IMDb - Pts 1 - 2] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]*) and Vláčil's Russian/Soviet contemporary Andrej Tarkovsky [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* who released Andrej Rublev [1966] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* at about the same time as Vláčil released his film.

Then epic cinema costs money and resources.  Marketa Lazarová [1967] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* was by far the most expensive Czechoslovak film made up to that time and (adjusted to today's currency values) possibly ever.  To make such an investment in a film -- it was filmed over two years with multiple sets with, by legend, the actors even asked to live during the two years as their characters (in frontier-like medieval conditions) -- generally requires that the project have the "appropriate pedigree."  And it did: Vančura [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* on whose book the film was based was a Czech Communist martyr of the Resistance to Nazi Occupation, and Vláčil [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* cut his teeth making films in the 1950s for the Czechoslovak (Communist-era) army.  As such, it would not be entirely inappropriate to put the film (at least initially) in a similar category as the infamous (and also necessarily "state sponsored") late-Nazi era monstrosity Kolberg [1944] [IMDb] [en.wikip].

However, all this admitted, Marketa Lazarová [1967] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* remains a remarkable and arguably great film.

First, making epic period or even sci-fi drama _inevitably_ costs money.  Just ask James Cameron [IMDb] (Titanic [1997], Avatar [2008]), Steven Spielberg [IMDb] (Saving Private Ryan [1998], Lincoln [2012]) or Peter Jackson [IMDb] (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy [2001, 2002, 2003]).  Would _anyone_ seriously question the artistic validity/value of these films (as well as those of the Russian Soviet-era film-makers mentioned above)?

Further, American viewers will certainly appreciate director Vláčil's [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* "method-acting-like" insistence that the actors in his film "get into the mindset" of the characters that they were playing to the point of his wanting his actors to _live like the characters that they were playing_ for some time both _before and as they filmed_.  (The Method was based on Russian born Constantin Stanislavki's system of "emotional memory recall" that influenced both Hollywood and Soviet-era film-making preparation).  Since the story of Marketa Lazarová (Vančura's book [cz.wikip]* / Vláčil's film [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*) took place in the still largely lawless/pagan Czech hinter/borderlands at the time that  these lands first entered into recorded history (around the 1300s), IT WAS IMPORTANT TO THE DIRECTOR THAT THE ACTORS COME TO UNDERSTAND WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO LIVE IN THAT STILL WILD, STILL LAWLESS TERRITORY AT THAT STILL RATHER SAVAGE (MEDIEVAL) TIME.  Hence the need for actors' quite radically imposing preparation.

The story had a further resonance to the Czechs of the time in which it was written (in the decade just before WW II) and later when it was filmed (still only two decades after that War) because the lands in question WERE EXACTLY THOSE WHICH CAME TO CALLED THE GERMAN/CZECH CONTESTED "SUDETENLAND" (and the story actually helps explain WHY the lands came to be settled in the way that they were -- by Germans at behest of the Czech king TO HELP BRING ORDER TO THAT VACANT / LAWLESS TERRITORY).

All this is then to help setup the actual story being told in the film:

It is the story of a (legendary) Marketa Lazarová (played in the film by Magda Vášáryová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) a daughter of a Czech nobleman named Lazar (played by Michal Kožuch [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) who had settled his family in this lawless, borderland region (presumably at the Prague-seated Czech king's behest).  And the region _was_ wild.  In the opening scene, two Czech-robber knights attack a German bishop and his entourage passing through from Prague back to his See in (German) Saxony.

For her part, teenage Marketa is seen growing-up, somewhat naively, in lovely, lush, pond-laden countryside, still somewhat "pagan." (Early in the film, she comes upon an ancient (oak? / linden?) tree still adorned with various pagan fetishes.  Later, she skinny dips in a nearby pond ...).  But she's also very much impressed by the serenity/beauty of a then still "recently constructed" (only "a generation or two in the past") nearby hill-top Convent of nuns.  Indeed, there is a scene in which Lazar is negotiating on behalf of Marketa the dowry price for her eventual entry into the Convent, which she very much wished to do.

HOWEVER ...  then she gets abducted and raped by one of the thieving Czech robber-knights named Mikolaš (played by František Velecký [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*).  And to make the point, that he's both a villain and "in charge," he _nails_ Marketa's father to the door of his citadel in crucified form.

Eventually this (and other crimes) are avenged.  The stage is set for the eventual resolution of the lawless situation existing in these lands (As mentioned above, historically, the actual Czech King Vaclav I came to INVITE ethnic German settlers to settle in these frontier-lands to bring order to them).  Finally, Marketa escapes to briefly fulfill her dream of entering into the Convent.  BUT ... (1) she comes to find the life of the nuns "too wordy" (boring ;-), and (2) by then she's pregnant with her rapist's,  Mikolaš', child.  So she leaves ...

What then to think of this "epic drama" of her "simple life"?  Well, the film notes that "stories like Marketa's were often left unknown" outside of the immediate vicinity in which they happened and only "retold at the hearths of local women going about their chores," needed to be searched-out in a "manner not unlike a dowser looks for water beneath the earth with a dowsing rod."

The story is certainly part Communist era propaganda ("We COMMUNISTS aim to make grand Epic Tales of stories of common people that nobody else would...").  Indeed, Marketa first comes on screen in the film as a veritable cinematographic incarnation of the French proletarian/peasant girl in Jules Breton's painting "Song of the Lark."

HOWEVER, like the works of the Czech director's Russian Soviet-era influences, this film is also _obviously more_ than "just propaganda."

Consider simply that this story (told in both book and film, written and directed by Czechs) was about arguably THE ORIGINS of the Sudeten Crisis, which so traumatized the Czechs / Sudeten Germans in the years around World War II.  YET THE STORY DOES NOT PORTRAY MOST OF THE CZECHS PARTICULARLY WELL (There are Marketa Lazarová, her father and the nuns who are portrayed well, but the rest, including her rapist ... Mikuláš, are often portrayed quite badly).  On the other hand, the Germans (the German bishop as well as several others) are portrayed as being QUITE HONEST.  THEN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH is ALSO PORTRAYED QUITE POSITIVELY.  Okay, Marketa eventually leaves the Convent, which had been portrayed as her childhood, if perhaps "naive" goal.  But the Convent was portrayed throughout the story as quite literally as "a shining beacon on a hill."

So as expensive as the film was, made during the height of the Czechoslovak Communist era, with both the director and the writer of the book on which it was based carrying "impeccable" Communist era pedigrees, the film was also truly a work of art.

Hence, the film probably deserves the title, "Greatest Czech language film (thusfar) ever made."  But as all else in the story (of both Marketa Lazarová and then of the film itself), IMHO it's all "more complicated" than it would seem ;-).  But then THAT TOO need not be bad!

Good / great film!


Note: This film is available through the rent-by-mail service offered by Facets Multimedia in Chicago, as well as for purchase and streaming at a reasonable price 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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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Colette [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Novinky.cz (6/10)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CSFD listing*
FDB.cz listing*

iDnes.cz (M. Spáčilová) review*
Lidovky.cz (A. Prokopová) review*
Novinky.cz (V. Míšková) review*

Czech that Film [official site] [2014 line-up at GSFC in Chicago]

About writer Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [NYT Obituary] [Amazon.com] [IMDb]

Colette [2013] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Milan Cieslar [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* along with Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* the author of the novel Colette: Dívka z Antverp (Colette: A Girl from Antwerp) on which the film is based, and Ladislava Chateau [FDB]*) is a Holocaust themed film that played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of 2014 Czech That Film Tour cosponsored by the Czech Diplomatic Mission to the United States.

Perhaps uneven (see even the Czech reviews above) and arguably experimental in various aspects (for instance, the version of the film that was presented at the GSFC was _dubbed_ by European actors in English), the value of the film to American/Western audiences would be two-fold: (1) The film introduces in a new way the contributions of Czech Jewish writer, and Holocaust survivor, Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[NYT Obit] to American/Western audiences, and  (2) the film offers a "small country" perspective (and perhaps a peculiarly Czech one) to the experience of the Holocaust, one which Western and perhaps particularly American audiences would find unfamiliar and perhaps even somewhat unnerving: 

For very early in the story at a 1973 New York "first meeting of the parents" dinner of two young first generation Jewish American lovebirds, both children of Holocaust survivors, the father of the future groom _encouraged by his future daughter-in-law_ asks her mother: "So being that I've been where you've been (I'm also a Holocaust survivor) can I ask you ... how did you make it?  How did you survive?"  Taken aback by the question (the reason why the father of the groom was asked by his future daughter-in-law to broach the question was that her mother _never talked about it_), she answers, "Well, like all of us survived ... by a series of 'little miracles.'"  She went on to explain how one time an SS-officer had tried to take her to the side and rape her, and she "pushed him so hard that he fell into the mud."  and that seeing what was happening "even the other guards stepped to her defense."

It's immediately clear that the father-of-the-groom was unconvinced but he didn't push the matter further.  After dinner though, as he and his son walk home, he tells his son that her story was a lie, perhaps even a noble one, but a lie nonetheless.  Why?   Because "if she had really defended her honor in that way against that SS officer, she would have almost certainly been shot right then and there."

The father then says goodbye to his son, goes back to his flat, and ... as a writer, spends the rest of the night, inspired to write ... The rest of the story follows:

What follows is the story of two _young_ but in every other aspect, utterly ordinary European Jews, one Czech, from Prague, named Vili, short for Vilhelm (played by Jiří Mádl [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) and the other Belgian, Colette (played by Clémence Thioly [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) from Antwerp.  And the two met in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Now, How??? did they even meet?   The vast majority of Jews arriving at Auschwitz were immediately "processed," that is, stripped of their remaining possessions (including of their hair and the clothes on their backs) and then led into the showers where they were gassed-to-death and later cremated.  Well, by sheer luck, Vili _was recognized_ ON THE RAILROAD PLATFORM, THERE, IN AUSCHWITZ as he disembarked from the train (from the cattle car that he was in) by a Czech-Jewish friend who he had known from Teresienstadt (another Nazi concentration camp though that one located on Czech soil).  THAT FRIEND was able to pull Vili aside from the rest of the arrivals and have him put subsequently on a "work detail" (rather than be sent to be gassed in short order like the vast majority of the other arrivals).

Some months (?) later, when Colette arrived at Auschwitz being "young," she was initially separated from the rest of her family for work (to death...) in a quarry (rather than for immediate gassing), and later, by chance, she caught the eye of a young SS Officer (played by Eric Bouwer [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) who simply desired her as a mistress (today, post-1990s-era-Bosnian-conflict, we wouldn'd call her a mistress anymore but rather a sex-slave).

Both Vili and Colette eventually come to be placed in a "sub-Camp" named "Kanada" where their jobs were to "process" the belongings left-over by the Jews (the vast, vast majority) who were simply stripped of everything that they had left when they arrived (including, even the hair on their heads and the clothes on their backs) before being gassed.  It is in this little "Niche in Hell" that Vili and Colette (and a small group of other Jews around them) survived.

How?  Well ... by being forced to methodically purloin the belongings of those who had already been gassed, they (by luck) came into possession of "currency" (stuff) that they could secret and exchange to extend their lives.  For while EVERYONE OF THEM was ALWAYS under the gaze (and quite literally "under the gun") of utterly drunk-with-power SS-guards (and their collaborators) and could be summarily shot AT ANYTIME, BY ANYONE OF THEM if anyone-of-them suspected that they might be "stealing," THESE GUARDS THEMSELVES BENEFITED FROM THE PETTY THEFTS OF THEIR PRISONERS.  Why??  Because all the possessions that Vili and Colette and the others "processing" the belongings of the arriving Jews discovered and immediately turned-over to their Nazi overseers "went to the Reich."  HOWEVER, if Vili found a tin-of-meat (or even an apple or orange) stashed in a bottom of a suitcase, or, more significantly, Colette found _a piece of jewelry_ THAT HAD BEEN SOWN INTO THE HEM of a piece of clothing by its previous owner AND THEY DECIDED TO QUICKLY HIDE THE DISCOVERED ITEM FROM THE IMMEDIATE VIEW OF THE GUARDS, THEN THIS ITEM (be it a tin of meat, a flask of schnaps or vodka ... or a jewel) BECAME SOMETHING THAT ONE COULD USE TO TRADE WITH OTHERS (with other prisoners AND WITH THE GUARDS) FOR ... FAVORS.  Since the guards, stood "at the top of the food chain" in the Camp, they did not mind this kind of petty corruption taking place, BECAUSE THEY COULD TAKE THIS UNDECLARED STUFF HOME WITH THEM (out of the Camp).  Everything that was "officially found" WENT "TO THE REICH."  The items that were _initially secreted-away/stolen by the prisoners_ eventually "floated up" to the Guards, who then were able to take the stuff out of the Camp FOR THEIR OWN (STILL PETTY ... but it probably ADDED UP... ) ENRICHMENT.

This then became the world / "economy" in which Vili and Colette found themselves in (and even "fell in love" in).  And they do find that EVEN IN HELL, JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING, even tantalizingly, the _possibility_ of eventual freedom (if one was just able to figure out who to bribe, with how much, at what time...) WAS "FOR SALE."

Honestly folks, I get this.  I'm not necessarily proud of it, but I do.  It's a "small country" approach to survival.  I know that "Big countries" -- the Russians, the Americans, heck even the Germans / Brits prefer "sweeping epics" with "cowboys" (or "cossacks"), or even "Lawrence of Arabia" on horses, fighting off Evildoers as "partisans" (like the Bielski brothers of Beolorussia, whose actual, though rare, exploits have been made into the Hollywood film Defiance [2008]) and so forth.  But those are stories of the Powerful.

Presented here, quite sincerely, is a "small country solution" for survival: "What do I have to sell?  What can I get a hold of to sell?  Where can I hide?  How I can be(come) 'valuable' in some way until the storm blows over?"

As such, unnerving as this story may be, I do believe that it does contribute to the memory of the Holocaust, and it is a story written by someone, Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [NYT Obituary], who really was there.


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

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