Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tomorrowland [2015]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars)  RogerEbert.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (C. Borrelli) review
RogerEbert.com (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review  

Tomorrowland [2015] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Brad Bird, along with Damon Lindelof story by the two along with Jeff Jensen) like Disney's previously surprisingly even WILDLY successful Pirates of the Caribbean [2003-] [IMDb] film franchise, is inspired by one of its theme park attractions -- here Tomorrowland.   So can "lightning strike twice?"   Can a theme park attraction be turned into another successful movie franchise?  Well that's for viewers to decide.

And though most of us (including myself initially) may begin by assuming "no," I do have to admit that Disney does do a surprisingly good job here.  Indeed, Disney does so by raising the stakes in this film and in a very interesting way.  For its film here isn't really about its Tomorrowland attraction.  Instead, it's about The Future itself.  Do we imagine a HOPEFUL Future?  Or do we prefer to see one of Decline, Catastrophe even Apocalypse and Despair?

Disney Corp's founder Walt Disney [IMDb] was fundamentally an optimist and the Tomorrowland of his theme parks reflected an OPTIMISM about the Future that certainly _he_ held, and THAT WAS PREVALENT IN _HIS_ TIME (from the 1920s through to the mid-1960s).  At that time, EVERYTHING still seemed possible.  One thinks of the can-do spirit of the American war effort during World War II: "The difficult we do today, the impossible will take just a little bit longer."

That kind of optimism does seem to be largely GONE in the United States, both in Film (one need only think of the recent REBOOT of the previously WILDLY SUCCESSFUL post-Apocalyptic "Mad Max" film franchise as well as countless "Zombie Apocalypse" film / tv scenarios) and in the larger Culture.  It's not as if the threats of Climate Change or Nuclear Terrorism are not real.  But the world of Walt Disney got through TWO World Wars and the Great Depression and seemed more optimistic about the future than we are today ...

The overwhelming theme of this very interesting DISNEY film is to remind its Viewers AND INDEED THE WHOLE CULTURE that HOPE / DESPAIR ARE CHOICES.  To use the analogy of the film the battle for a future of Promise or Despair is like that of "two wolves" WHICH WOLF DO WE PREFER TO FEED?  The one of Hope or the one of Despair?

The film then is about two individuals Frank Walker (played as a wide-eyed-still-optimistic child who came to the New York World's Fair with enormous enthusiasm by Thomas Robinson and then as much more skeptical/resigned recluse of an adult today by George Clooney) and Casey Newton (played by Britt Robertson) a still optimistic high schooler of today who, yes, accepts the reality of the problems that we face in the world today, but pointedly asks her teachers: "But what are we doing about it then?"

Great question.  And again THIS IS A QUESTION TO THE WHOLE CULTURE: What are we doing about these very big challenges that we face?


This hopeful future is symbolized in the film by a pin that both young Frank and Casey surreptitiously receive  from a young girl named Athena (played by Raffey Cassidy) who turns out to be a very convincingly anthropomorphic looking robot (compare that to The Terminator [1984] - and yes I began my writing about movies in the Seminary ANALYZING the first Terminator movie comparing Schwarzenegger's "Terminator" character to the Dragon in the Book of Revelation, a machine born of human arrogance, that is sin, designed to find and destroy the woman who will give to the future savior of the world, in that film, John Conner, initials J.C.) which is PROGRAMMED also, like the Terminator, AND SENT BACK FROM THE FUTURE to identify YOUNG PEOPLE WITH HOPE.  When the receivers of the pin touch it, they are INSTANTLY transported into ANOTHER DIMENSION where they see a marvelous CITY OF HOPE, TOMORROW-LAND, where all the world's problems have been resolved, and its citizenry lives in a world of unbounded possibility.  Arguably, they see ... (I'm a Catholic priest, I can say it) ... a kind of HEAVEN.

Again folks, this is a very interesting film.  And please compare the optimism of this film to the awfulness of the world of the recent Mad Max [2015] reboot (which in my review of that film, I did compare to the inner ring of the 7th Circle of Dante's Inferno, reserved for rapists and usurers, who sucked everything out of this life and thus were condemned to a hot desert waste in the next), the upcoming San Andreas [2015] disaster film and the like.

What world, what future would you prefer to see?

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Poltergeist [2015]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChiTrib/Variety (2 Stars)  RogerEbert.com (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune / Variety (A. Barker) review
RogerEbert.com (B. Talerico) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review  

Poltergeist [2015] (directed by Gil Kenan, screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire story by Steven Spielberg) is, all things considered, a pretty good updated reboot of the "scary movie / horror" Poltergeist franchise [1982-] that was popular in the 1980s. 

As has often been noted by those who've studied / written about "genre films" a good part of what makes such movies "work" is the film's subtext:

The subtext to the original Poltergeist [1982] movie was the renewed "can do" / "it's morning (again) in America" of the 1980s / Reagan Era in the United States.  So film as about Steve Freeling (played then by Craig T. Nelson) a successful "real estate broker" who moved his family into a "big new house" in a subdivision that was built by the firm he worked for and whose homes he was largely responsible in selling.  Yet unbeknownst to him (he hadn't been part of the firm initially), it turns out that his new home along with the neighboring ones was built upon a cemetery.  Needless to say, the ghosts of the dead in that cemetery proved rather unhappy about being disturbed / disrespected in this way ... and much "scary stuff" ensued ...

The subtext to the current Poltergeist [2015] is the much less confident / much poorer current state of affairs in "middle America."  So the film is about Sam and Amy Bowen (played by Sam Rockwell and Rosemary Dewitt respectively) who, because Sam's lost his manufacturing job at lawn mower / tractor manufacturer "John Deere," needed to scale down.  The house that they buy is in a clearly not exactly "perfect" indeed "sub-prime" residential district with giant high-voltage power lines running right through the middle of it.  Indeed, the only reason why they were able buy this house at all was because the previous owner lost the house (or "walked away" from the house ...) due to foreclosure.  Teenage daughter Kendra (played by Saxon Sharbino) immediately hated the place, in good part because those power lines, which she immediately believed would make them all sick, messed with reception on her treasured iPhone ;-).  Soon enough the parents learn that the house had also been built upon a cemetery, though at least initially they're assured that the "good builders" moved the cemetery "to a better location" nearby.  But their 8-10 year old, impressionable, already "scaredy cat," son Griffin (played by Kyle Catlett) digs-up a human bone in their garden ... And then youngest daughter, 3-5 yo, Maddy / Madison (played by Kennedi Clemens), who's already been known to have an "active imagination," starts talking to strange invisible people through the family's "flat screen" TV in the living room ... Needless to say, much ensues ... ;-)

There are many reviewers (above) who clearly preferred the original to the new one.  But I must say that I liked the new one better.  (1) The original is so obviously dated "to another time" long since gone -- the Reagan Era, (2) the characters are much better developed in the new version than in the old, in the old version the only character who really mattered was the father (and then of course his youngest daughter, who also starts talking to ghosts through their, then, much smaller family TV set) while in the newer version, _all the characters_ in the family added to the story, and (3) the special effects in the new version are certainly much better than in the old.  

So I can't "hate" the new version here.  And I do believe that once the newer version becomes a rental most families will prefer the new version to the old one because the new version really does speak to current realities much better than the older version. 

So sometimes the "new" version really is better than the old ...

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd [2015]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars)  RogerEbert.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

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

EyeForFilm.co.uk (A.W. Murray) review
Sight&Sound (T. Wakefield) review
The Guardian (P. Bradshaw) review

Far from the Madding Crowd [2015] (directed by Thomas Vinterberg, screenplay by David Nichols based on the classic novel [Wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb] by Thomas Hardy [wikip] [GR] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is IMHO an excellent if still at times uneven adaptation of Hardy's work.  I do believe that both the film's strengths as well as its weaknesses result from film-makers' attempt to make the film both relateable and a pleasant viewing experience to today's younger viewers.

The story's relatability to contemporary concerns proves actually to be not much of a problem.  For this is a story of a young Victorian woman, Bathsheba Everdene (played by Carey Mulligan) who, while she did not dislike men, found that she also prized her independence.  I do believe that quite a few young women today could immediately appreciate Bathsheba's "dilemma" / "good fortune." 

Now how could a young woman of her time have the luxury of being so free?  Well, though like so many of Thomas Hardy's characters Bathsheba experienced fair number of rather radical reversals of fortune during her lifetime, she is introduced to the Reader/Viewer as having been born to a relatively well-to-do family (before being orphaned), hence having had the opportunity to become relatively educated early in life.  That early education stayed with her even after the death of her parents and her having been shunted-off to a poor spinster aunt in the countryside as a result.  Then early in the story, by sheer luck, Bathsheba inherited a large farm from a rich uncle who had no other heirs (American Viewers/Readers would recognize the "large farm" as more of a "plantation" complete with many dozens of "field hands").  So Bathsheba found herself both relatively educated and (so long as she could manage the farm reasonably well ... her basic education came in handy) with a secure means of income.  So _unlike_ most women of her time, she found that she didn't really _need_ a man to support her. 

Today, of course, a lot more women are finding themselves with a similar degree of freedom as Bathsheba enjoyed in this tale, hence WHY I believe this story works so well for our time.

Now during the course of Hardy's tale, there are three men of different ages, stations and circumstances -- the born poorer but hardworking / enterprising small-time farmer/field hand Gabriel Oak [IMDb] (played here by Matthias Schoenaerts), the wealthier but significantly older and socially insecure William Baldwood [IMDb] (played in this adaptation by Michael Sheen) and the confident to cocky, but with issues Sergeant Francis Troy [IMDb] (played by here Tom Sturridge) -- who enter into the life of Bathsheba.  All three, at least initially, don't understand WHY Bathsheba would not be romantically, that is, matrimonially interested in them.  The Viewer, of course, immediately understands, but THEY don't ;-).  And again how many times THE SAME STORY plays out in contemporary times with young, even quite successful, men not understanding WHY a young woman of their desire would not necessarily find them as romantically / commitment / matrimonially worthy.

So it makes for a great story.

Now the greatest shortcoming of this film adaptation stems from another contemporary concern: Fear that an audience today (and particularly a young one) would not be able to stay focused long enough to tell the story right.  So the film length stays just under two hours at the cost of keeping the level of character development of a number of the key persons in this story to an almost "cartoon" level.  This is particularly unfortunate as the cinematography in this film is often so stunning -- think of the beautiful cinematography of the recent period piece Mr. Turner [2014] about the British master artist J.M.W. Turner without having to deal with Turner's rather annoying / cankerous personality --  that many / most Viewers probably would not mind lingering in the "world" painted this story for a far longer time.  I do believe that this film could have gone easily for another half hour without encountering any "attention span" problems at all and could have gone to three hours (like the 1967 version) without much difficulty.  Each of the LOTR movies went for three or more hours.  Why not have let this movie go longer, especially since cutting it to two hour significantly diminished the story's character development?

As such, while the film, such as it was, was quite good to excellent, it still could have been much better.  Perhaps a "director's cut" will come-out with the DVD / Blu-Ray ...

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2 [2015]

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

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

Pitch Perfect 2 [2015] (directed by Elizabeth Banks, screenplay by Kay Cannon characters by Mickey Rapkin) brings back much of the cast and flavor of the "Glee" TV-series [2009-2015] inspired Pitch Perfect [2012] (reviewed here previously).

As with the original Pitch Perfect, the film's cruder at times than it needed to be.  I do hope that some day, "Soon and Very Soon..." this somewhat pointless fad will come to an end. (Yes, I and the whole world get it, "women can be just as crude as men," but then WHY? ... especially when the added crudity doesn't have much of a point to it, doesn't really further the plot, etc).

However, there are, IMHO, more positive developments as well.  Yes, the film's overall tone remains rather snarky in its often LOL humor.  However, the central acapella group in the film, The Bellas of Barden U., proves to be a remarkably diverse group of young women.  The group includes not simply "cute sorority girl" types but weight challenged "Fat Amy" (played by Rebel Wilson) and a rather intimidating looking African American lesbian Cynthia Rose (played by Ester Dean) as well as "Guatemalan refugee" Flo (played by Chrissee Fit) with her own often LOL hilarious (in their "welcome to my world ... if you dare" starkness) concerns, and the even more inscrutable Asian student Lilly (played by Hana Mae Lee).  If there is a Pitch Perfect 3, I do hope that as much is done with Lilly's character as is done with Flo's in this film.  But I certainly got the point.  EVERYBODY comes to college (or otherwise enters our lives) with their own story.  And if this isn't yet clear when one considers simply the "white women" in this film -- again there's Rebel Wilson's weight challenged character Amy, but there's also Anna Kendrick's very professional (20 going on 35) character Beca and even newcomer Hailee Steinfeld's (I am a legacy, my mother just loved being a Bella) character Emily, none of which fit the stereotypical and frankly demeaning "Coed" label for young college women -- it becomes patently clear as one considers the non-white characters Cynthia Rose, Lily and Flo. 

Yes, Flo like the other characters is exaggerated, BUT I FOUND HER CHARACTER TO BE A JOY.  This is because I've known "Flos" both at University of Southern California while I was in grad school back in the late 1980s as well as here in Chicago during my past 10 years at Annunciata Parish where I've been stationed.  Again, her character is exaggerated but I can personally attest that young Hispanic women come to college or otherwise enter into our lives with concerns that are often much starker than most "gringos" (like myself) would at first imagine.   For instance, how many first generation Americans of European immigrants (like myself actually) would seriously worry that returning back to the old country to visit relatives could result in them being _abducted_ and then held for ransom?  (This is a concern that Flo matter-of-factly brings up in the course of the film). Yet in these years of high violence in Mexico, this has been _more than_ "just an idle concern" for many Mexican American families contemplating "visiting the folks" back in Zacatecas, Guerrero, etc.  True and THANKS BE TO GOD, I have not heard of any of our parishioners being abducted while going back, but I do know that it is a concern.  And when I proposed a number of years back a Mission trip to visit our Mexican Servites at their mission in the mountains of Guerrero, a number of my parishioners from Mexico responded smiling: "Padre, we love you and we love the Servites, but do you know where you're going?" and continuing "When we go back to our country, we go back to basically the parts that we know (basically to our family and back)."  The proposed trip would have been led by the Mexican Servites, who know what they are doing, BUT I UNDERSTOOD THE CONCERN.  Mexico today is not exactly a safe place to travel to IF ONE DOESN'T KNOW WHAT ONE IS DOING or where one is going.

Lilly's Asian character is less developed in this film than Flo's but hers is also a reminder that Asian students that one runs into at college (or otherwise in one's life) will once again have their own stories and concerns that will not be of "Leave it to Beaver" "White Toast" America.  And again, I had experiences with this while I was in grad-school down at USC in Los Angeles.

So, wonderful, the film presents us with a fairly diverse group of young women, all belonging to the acapella group "The Bellas" from Barden U.  But what actually happens then in the film? 

Well, as I noted in reviewing the first film, Pitch Perfect [2012], plot in a film like this is really beside the point.  In as much as there is a plot, it exists to give The Bellas and other (nominally competing) acapella groups presented in the film excuses to perform / sing.  And so ...

... After embarrassing themselves before the President of the United States at the Kennedy Center, The Bellas, seek to "redeem themselves" competing in a World Acapella Championship set in the film in Copenhagen, Denmark.  This gives the film-makers an excuse to take the film to Denmark as well as (perhaps) to give a salute to the annual EuroVision Song Contest that has been a phenomenon in Europe now for many years.  The Bellas' chief competitor was a German group calling itself Das Sound Machine led by Die Kommisar(in) (played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) and Peter Krämer (played by Flula Borg) that could have quite easily been in the EuroVision competition. 

There's also a subplot involving Anna Kendrick's quite professional character Beca getting an internship at a local recording studio under a wildly off-the-wall yet perfectionistic boss (played by Keegan-Michael Key) as well as another one involving Hailee Steinfeld's character Emily whose mother had been "a Bella" back when she was in college -- a reminder here of the value of extra-curricular groups like The Bellas in fostering life-long friendships and even inter-generational ones as a result of participating in them. 

All this makes for a generally good ride.  Again, the crudity, while not awful, awful, is still needlessly detracting / distracting.  Still it's still a nice fun movie about the college years of a nice and quite diverse group of young women.  So over all, a pretty good job!

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road [2015]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars)  RogerEbert.com (4 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars, perhaps, for "technical merit", 1/2 Star for vision / content)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (C. Phillips) review
RogerEbert.com (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review  

aVoir-aLire.com (A Jordan) review*
CervenyKoberec.cz (Suri) review*
Critic.de (D. Gronmaier) review*
EyeForfilm.co.uk (S. Crawford) review
Slant Magazine (E. Henderson) review

Brazil (adorocinema.com) viewer comments*
Czech Rep (CSFD.cz) viewer comments*
France (allocine.fr) viewer comments*
Italy (FilmTV.it) viewer comments*
Japan (Coco.to) viewer comments*
Russia (KinoNews.ru) viewer comments*
USA (AVClub.com) viewer comments*
USA (RottenTomatoes.com) viewer comments*

Mad Max: Fury Road [2015] (directed and screenplay cowritten by George Miller [en.wikip] [IMDb] along with Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathuris) will, unsurprisingly, be problematic for a lot of people reading my Blog.

Readers here need to remember the basic premise of the Mad Max series of films [1979, 1981, 1985, 2015]: Playing-out in the "Outback" desert wilds of Australia, this series is set in a post-Apocalyptic world after all social order as we would know / remember it has collapsed.  And it needs to be underlined that writer director George Miller [en.wikip] [IMDb] has always taken this basic premise very seriously.

As such, viewing this film NUMEROUS comparisons to various post-Apocalyptic, indeed INFERNAL visions come to mind:

(1) One could honestly imagine the world portrayed as playing out in the Inner Ring of the Seventh Circle of Dante's Inferno (Canto 14 and following, for the Violent, and specifically for the Violent against God and Nature [EP] [ELF]).  Why?  Because that ring is described as being for Rapists, Sodomites and Usurers (for those who raped others and raped the land).  Further, in Dante's vision, these souls were condemned to live IN A SCORCHING DESERT (they extracted _all that there is_ out of life while they lived, hence there was nothing left for them in the afterlife) WITH A FIREY RAIN FAILING UPON THEM FOR ALL ETERNITY.    Consider the aesthetics of the Mad Max series ... PLAYING OUT in the SCORCHING DESERT of AUSTRALIA in the midst of CONSTANT MAYHEM / BATTLES between COMPETING BANDS OF VIOLENT THUGS / CRIMINALS. 

(2) One could imagine this series to be "The Left Behind" series [2014-film] told truly from the perspective of the Thugs / Condemned.  For most of us, it would honestly be better to be dead, to have "moved on" to the next life, rather than live in that INFERNAL "post-Apocalyptic" world of violence.

(3) Fascinatingly, an African Academy Award Winning Congolese film, Viva Riva! [2010], took the post-apocalyptic premise of the Mad Max films and applied it to CONTEMPORARY KINSHASA, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).  The film's hero, Riva, arrives in chaotic / endemically resource starved Kinshasa with a single stolen tank-truck of gasoline and becomes the toast of the town ...

IMHO, a valid question could be asked about the redeeming value of the Mad Max films.

Indeed, the chief protagonists of the current film -- the once "back in the day" (before the cataclysm that effectively destroyed the world) run-of-the-mill/average police officer, now tormented because he couldn't "save" his family, Max Rockatansky (played by Tom Hardy) and "hardened" [TM] though arguably "born after the Apocalypse" truck-diver Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) -- BOTH appear to seek "redemption."

Yet, what does "redemption" in a purely secular sense mean?  My sense is that in this film it meant "to give one's life MEANING once more."

But how does life have meaning "after the Apocalypse" even, again, after a SECULAR "Apocalypse", where all previous social institutions were thoroughly destroyed and all that remains is CHAOS in a HOT ARID WASTELAND?

To me, the vision of this film is a vision of a SECULAR post-Apocalyptic HELL, again, the Inner Ring of the Seventh Circle of Dante's Inferno.  One could perhaps "go on fighting" but honestly WHY?

The situation portrayed is SO UTTERLY AWFUL.  The current film focuses on a depraved self-styled "Cult Leader" / "God King" named Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne) himself horribly disfigured apparently by radiation, wildly trying to reproduce offspring of himself that were not similarly mutated / disfigured as he.  Since he had some "power" -- he found an underground reservoir of water in the midst of the post-Apocalyptic Australian desert -- he was "free" to try (and actually his "women breeders" were, well, remarkably beautiful).  YET TO NO AVAIL.  No matter how healthy / physically beautiful the pampered women of his harem were ... THEY STILL PRODUCED MUTANTS as his offspring.

But then, what did the sign at the Gate to Dante's Inferno say? "Abandon all Hope, Those Who Enter Here."

Abandon all hope indeed ... Again, the Mad Max series is basically the "Left Behind" series without the hope of God. 

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Black Souls (orig. Anime Nere) [2014]

MPAA (R)  RogerEbert.com (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
FilmTV.it listing*

Corriere della Sera (S. Ulivi) review*
Il Giornale (B. Silbe) review*
La Repubblica (N. Aspesi) review*
La Stampa (F. Caprara) review*
La Stampa (N. Zancan) review*

Film.it (M. Triolo) review*
StoriaDeiFilm.it (A. Griza, F. Ruzzier) review*

aVoir-aLire.com (M. Quaglieri) review*
CineParaLeer.com (A.A. Pérez Gómez) review*
ElAntepenultimoMohicano.com (A. Tallón Castro) review*
EyeForFilm.co.uk (J. Kermode) review
RogerEbert.com (B. Tallerico) review

Black Souls (orig. Anime Nere) [2014] [IMDb] [FT.it]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Francesco Munzi [IMDb] [FT.it]* along with Maurizio Braucci [IMDb] and Fabrizio Ruggirello [IMDb] based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Gioacchino Criaco [it.wikip]* [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a recent Italian mafia film that focuses on the 'Ndrangheta or the "Calabrese Mafia" of Calabria, Italy (Calabria being "the toe" of "the boot" of Italy).

The film played recently at the 2015 - 18th European Union Film Festival in Chicago and more recently at a weeklong run at Facets Multimedia.

The story focuses on three brothers from a small town, Africo [en.wikip] [it.wikip]*, in Calabria.  All of them grew-up involved in the 'Ndrangheta crime organization. The oldest, Luciano (played by Fabrizio Ferracane [IMDb] [FT.it]*), decided long ago that he had enough and returned back to goat herding (though he still kept an arsenal of guns for the others in his barn...).  Middle brother Rocco (played by Peppino Mazzotta [IMDb] [FT.it]*) was able to "hide/escape" from the "muscle" or otherwise "dirty part of the business" in a different way: He moved up North to Milan, put-on a suit and some glasses, arguably "married-up" to a "borghese" wife, Valeria (played by Barbora Bobulova [IMDb] [FT.it]*) who perhaps didn't understand initially who she was marrying but was certainly smart enough _now_ to _not ask any questions_.  Finally, there was Luigi (played by Marco Leonardi [IMDb] [FT.it]*) the youngest brother, who actually _liked_ the work, liked meeting with Latin American Drug Lords on their Bond Villain worthy yachts, liked the logistics of moving their cargo, keeping discipline within the ranks of smaller smugglers and dealers.  And his two older brothers didn't mind the money that he'd send their way for both safe keeping and out of loyalty to them.

Truth be told, it had all become a rather well oiled machine.  And all three brothers actually lived very content, DISCRETE or at least very _professional_ lives of their choice.  What could F- this up?

Well, Luciano had a 20-something year old son Leo (played by Giuseppe Fumo [IMDb] [FT.it]*) who wasn't finding "goat herding" nearly as "fulfilling" an occupation as his dad, and "pined for" the life of his "cool uncle" Luigi.  But then Rocco and Luigi have spent 20-25 years studiously LEARNING how to be _smart_ and _discrete_ about their "work," work that Leo's dad had long figured-out that he was really _not_ cut out for.

So the three brothers have a "young" and not particularly bright "Turk" on their hands.  The rest of the movie follows ...

Now, the above description COULD have actually been the set-up for a comedy, but here it is certainly not.  The film makes for another reflection about how _choosing_ an evil path ultimately brings one (and a whole lot of others, many even more-or-less innocent) down.

It's a decent enough film, and the Calabrese scenery is often spectacularly beautiful.  Kinda makes one think that Luciano's decision to just go back to goat herding had actually been a pretty good one.

 * Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.  

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Brotherly Love [2015]

MPAA (R)  AALBC (3/4 Stars) Examiner (5/5 Stars)  M Report (3/5 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

BET coverage

AALBC (K. Williams) review
Atlanta Voice (P. Dowels) review
Chicago Defender (S. Jobson) review
L.A. Sentinel (D. Cralle) review
N.Y. Examiner (B. Taylor) review
Philadephia Citypaper (M. Bevilacqua) review
SWGRus (T. Johnson) review
The M Report (M. Wallace) review

Brotherly Love [2015] (screenplay and directed by Jamal Hill) produced by Queen Latifah's [IMDb] Flavor Unit is an African American teen-oriented film that could be described as John Hughes [IMDb] meets Tyler Perry [IMDb] meeting the Boyz in the Hood [1992].  This makes for an _interesting_ if at times problematic (but ever _thought provoking_) combination.

The story largely plays-out at Overbrook High School in the largely African American Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia (the film's title is clearly in part a play on meaning of Philadelphia's name as "The City of Brotherly Love" ...).  The neighborhood turns out to be quite well-suited for this story because even though it is almost entirely African American it is divided into two sections, the quite wealthy "Hills" and the much poorer "Bottoms."  (As a matter of note, actor Will Smith [IMDb], as well as basketball star Wilt Chamberlain both attended Overbrook High School in their teens).  As such, the film is able to include a fairly large cross-section of African American teenagers.

The story centers around three siblings ("brothers" in the most general sense, hence another "play" present in the title): The oldest is June (played by Cory Hardrict) in his early 20s. Next was Sergio (played by Eric D. Hill, Jr) a Senior at Overbrook High and a rising basketball star.   Finally, there was the "baby", Jackie (played by Keke Palmer), who I'm guessing was a sophomore or junior at the high school and part of its cheerleader squad.  Interestingly enough, the story is told largely through the perspective of Jackie whose voice-over at the beginning of the film helps set the stage and occasional further voice-overs help to quickly introduce further information (again, from her perspective) to continue the story.  Together, with their mom (played by Macy Gray) they lived in a house in the "Bottoms," that is, poorer part of the neighborhood.

So far so good... We're told then by Jackie's voice-over that June was a gangster, that he dropped-out of school at 15-16 after their father, also a gangster, was shot and killed, to take care of the family.  Jackie informs us of this with both the matter-of-factness and arguably _the innocence_ of a 15-16 year old, telling us, "As June would say, 'sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do."  We learn later that June had some talent with the basketball as well..., but sacrificed _his future_ for the sake of the others.

The film then shows June and his two buddies making a good deal of money, carrying around and stowing away a good deal of money, shaking down local (illegal) gambling houses and businesses.  One would imagine that June's work would have been even seedier than that..., but a point was being made.  It was clear that June was NOT making money by his being "a nice guy."  He was making money by being A FEARED GUY.  And if anyone doubted who he was, or his rank / position in the neighborhood, he wore a rather impressively THICK (and hence noticeably HEAVY) gold chain _around his neck_, instantly indicating to anyone who _he's stop_ that he's someone to be reckoned with (again to be FEARED) ... even as he cared for ma' and his little brother and sister ... and as time goes on, that gold chain "around his neck" starts to be understood (by the film's Viewers) ALSO ... _as a noose_ ...

June appears to be something of a young 20-something African American "Vito Corleone" character (a la The Godfather [1972]), someone who "if circumstances were different, would also be different" and wished that circumstances would become different for his family.   But it's clear that even within June's family, there were people who didn't like / rejected the reasoning of the choices that he's made.  The kids have an uncle, Ron (played by Faizon Love), a barber, who pointedly reminded (a la Tyler Perry [IMDb]), his stars-in-his-eyes / hoop-dreaming nephew Sergio: "Look son, after a while you get to see that the people who really succeed in life, don't really succeed because of their talents.  They succeed because of their character."

And that then becomes the message of the film.

June is not necessarily an evil guy but he has chosen an evil path, and it's more or less clear that it can't end well for him.  Yes, thanks to June's sacrifice, Sergio and Jackie have more choices.  But then this is high school, BOTH "a time of innocence" AND "a time when one's choices begin to matter." How do they do?  The rest of the story follows ...

This film is a discussion inviting film.  I do think that the film's portrayal of June will be problematic to many viewers of all stripes.  But I do think that he was _intentionally_ drawn that way both to make the rest of the story more "real" (more visceral) and to remind viewers that even gangsters have their (back)stories as well as people who they care about.

Does the film glorify June's choices (and, look it's not much of a SPOILER to say that his story can't end well)?  That's certainly one aspect of the film that invites discussion.  But precisely because his life does not end well, and _clearly_ does not end well, IMHO, I don't think the film glorifies his path.  Better alternatives are offered in the film throughout.

But if nothing else, the film leaves plenty to talk about, especially among teens, when it ends.

So overall, good job Mr Hill, and Queen Latifah [IMDb], as well as the cast / crew!  Good job ;-)

FINALLY, there's a scene near the end of the film that probably would deserve a whole second article / review to explore.  In it, A WHITE POLICE OFFICER is shown saving an AFRICAN AMERICAN TEEN from a CAREER ENDING / LIFE ALTERING "bad choice."  Readers remember that this is an African American oriented film made from top-to-bottom by an African American director, cast, crew and an African American owned production company.   SO A STATEMENT WAS INTENTIONALLY BEING MADE HERE: Cops of all races/ethnicities are GENERALLY GOOD and THEY ARE APPRECIATED. 

I live in a city-worker parish at the south edge of a far rougher part of Chicago, home to, actually A LOT of Chicago Police Officers, about evenly split 1/2 and 1/2 between white and Hispanic.  I also REGULARLY CELEBRATE MASS in the Parishes north of us (the parishioners being mostly Hispanic or African American, with even some Haitians) and I know that THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE RESIDENTS APPRECIATE THE PRESENCE OF THE POLICE.  If anything, they wish there'd see more of them.

Yes, no doubt there are SOME "bad cops" as there'd be bad (and RACIST) people in all Professions ... INCLUDING in the Catholic Priesthood ... but here is AN AFRICAN AMERICAN FILM that's saying THANK YOU TO THE GOOD ONES.

And I know for certain that the good ones appreciate it.  ONCE AGAIN, GOOD JOB. 

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Maggie [2015]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune ()  RogerEbert.com (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune () review
RogerEbert.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Gowatchit.com listing

Maggie [2015] (directed by Henry Hobson, screenplay by John Scott III) surprises.  This is an honestly well-acted and _heartrending_ story of a Midwestern farmer (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (! ;-) ) watching his beloved oldest, still teenage daughter Marguerite "Maggie" (played by Abigail Breslin) who had been bitten some weeks back by crazed zombies lurking in the shadows "behind a diner" somewhere, slowly, inexorably turn into a zombie herself.  What's A PARENT, and then ALL HER HIGH SCHOOL FRIENDS, to do??  ( A.A. Dowd of the AV Club (review above) suggested that the film could have been called "The Fault in our Scars" ;-) ;-)

The film, in limited release in theaters, is available On Demand and through various Mainstream Streaming Services for a reasonable price.

Some background (of course ;-):  In the story, in the preceding years, there had been a MASSIVE WORLD-WIDE OUTBREAK of a disease that turned those infected into flesh-craving zombies.  After much chaos / social breakdown, the medical authorities WITH HELP OF THE ARMED FORCES were finally "turning the corner" on this horrific plague.  But there were still infected people / zombies all over the place.  And yes, if you found yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could be bitten (thereby infected) OR WORSE (EATEN).  So needless to say, it was an awful time to be alive.

But Maggie and her dad, along with step-mother Caroline (played by Joely Richardson) and two "kid" half-sisters lived out on a farm in the gently rolling fields of the American Midwest, that really should have been (more or less) "safe."  (Apparently, Maggie's mother / her dad's first wife died when Maggie was really young, apparently "merely of cancer ...")

Yes, the effects of the social chaos of the Zombie "plague" could be felt -- electrical power has been off for years (apparently because there were not enough properly trained people alive anymore to keep the power generating station running).  But in terms of providing the basic necessities of life, IF A FARMER couldn't feed his/her family, who could?  SOOO ... until recently, they and most of the other families in this farming community felt more or less safe.

BUT zombies ... "have to eat" too.  And so they had made their way out even to the farm belt, and even as they ate some people, they infected others.  Fairly early in the story after bringing Maggie "home from the hospital" after being told, calmly, dispassionately by a "country doctor" (who still cared for the patients/victims of this terrible zombie disease) the awful news that there was not much that could be done (and that at some point he's going to have to call in the authorities to come to "quarantine" her or PUT HER DOWN himself) Maggie's dad finds that he has to "put down" (shoot) a neighbor and the neighbor's 6 year old daughter who've already become zombies and would otherwise be threatening (the rest of) his family.

Then there's Caroline, the step-mother who's tried "all these years" to treat Maggie "as her own."  And yet, Maggie's slowly TURNING INTO A ZOMBIE (decaying, and starting to "SMELL MEAT" (people as food) everywhere... ;-).  So she sends HER two kids (Maggie's half-sisters) "to grandma" to protect them from Maggie.  (They still talk on the phone ...).  And Caroline, trying to keep composure throughout, is becoming increasingly frightened of Maggie, who she fears will one day ... just come and eat her.

It's a great, if SUPER-heart-rendingly-exaggerated story.  AND THE ACTORS, ALL OF THEM, PLAY IT PERFECTLY STRAIGHT.

So, clearly, this story can't end well ... and someone like me, a Catholic priest after all, has to still raise the question "would there be NO ALTERNATIVES to the OBVIOUS ones proposed?" in dealing with poor Maggie and her zombie infection?  (The Catholic Church ran AIDS hospices all over the world during the worst of the AIDS epidemic ...).

Still, the film's a remarkably sensitive (and honestly interesting) portrayal of a loving father trying to deal with prospect that his beloved oldest daughter is slowly, inexorably turning ... into a flesh-craving zombie ;-)

Franz Kafka [GR] [WCat] [ebook] [Amzn] would be both proud and (perhaps) surprised ;-)

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Friday, May 8, 2015

Hot Pursuit [2015]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars)  RogerEbert.com (2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (0 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune (R. Moore) review
RogerEbert.com (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review  

It gives me little pleasure to say that Hot Pursuit [2015] (directed by Anne Fletcher, screenplay by David Feeney and John Quaintance) is probably the worst movie that I've seen (and stayed all the way through...) since I began this blog four years ago.  There were worse movies that I left twenty minutes into them -- The Big Wedding [2013] (which I reviewed here anyway) and Hot Tub Time Machine 2 [2015] (which I didn't even bother) -- to still catch something more worthy of the time / expense playing elsewhere in the cineplex.  But this was one bafflingly terrible movie.

I say bafflingly terrible because Reese Witherspoon who stars in this film has more than proven herself as a serious actress (she won an Academy Award for playing June Carter Cash in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line [2005] and was just nominated for her stellar role as a previously "troubled young woman" who decided to "walk herself into becoming the woman that [her] mother always thought she could be" in Wild [2014]).  She's also played some excellent comedic roles, receiving well deserved Golden Globe nominations for her roles in Legally Blonde [2001] and Election [1999].

Similarly director Anne Fletcher, is no novice either.  A number of years ago, she directed a Seth Rogan / Barbara Straisand comedy named The Guilt Trip [2012] "that worked," indeed "worked" very, very well. 

So what happened here?

In large part, I have to blame the screenplay that (one senses) was almost certainly atrocious.  So many of the situations are simply (and incompetently) unbelievable.  Seriously, some of the "escape scenes" in the 30s-40s era "Three Stooges" movies were more believable and certainly better conceived, directed and acted.  (Again, it's difficult to securely assign blame ... but I do believe that the fundamental problem would probably be found in the very conception of some of the situations in the film.  Then the director / actors _perhaps_ tried their best (to varying degrees of success) to salvage them). 
In the film, the eager, if hapless, "by-the-book" second generation San Antonio, Texas cop known to us, throughout, by her last name as "Cooper" (played by Reese Witherspoon), "low in stature" (in more ways than one -- yes, she's "short" but she's _also_ "a woman" in a profession that women still have to "prove themselves" more than men) finds herself tasked with transporting a whiny, ever stiletto-heeled, "high-maintenance," heavily accented Colombian woman named Daniella Riva, "rhymes with 'Diva'" (played by Sofia Vergara who's made _a lot of money_ over the years playing, repeatedly, some of the most dismissive white stereotypes of Hispanic women) from her / her drug-dealing husband's mansion, somewhere outside of San Antonio, to Dallas where she's to testify against her husband's king-pin boss. 

As Cooper's trying to get her _soon to be in a witness protection program_ charge "packed," not one but TWO groups of masked thugs storm the mansion and shoot both Cooper's partner and Daniella's husband.  Yet, amidst the shooting, Daniella SOMEHOW magically gets down from her second floor bedroom, with one 80-pound "bag" (of gold / diamond encrusted, again stiletto-heeled, shoes ...) to a convertible to hide there, along with her fashionable "bag o' shoes" until Cooper happens to pass-by, and ... keys happening to be in the ignition, they are able to tear away to escape (neither of the gangs storming the house apparently bothered to keep someone, ANYONE, standing outside to prevent or at least impede escape ...).  The rest of the movie follows ...

It turns out, somehow, that Cooper actually gets blamed for Daniella's husbands death and Daniella's subsequent disappearance.  So for a good part of the movie, the media is shown _repeatedly_ reporting that police are looking for an _increasingly short_ "rogue police officer" (Cooper) and an _increasingly old_ former diva of a wife of a notorious drug-trafficker (Daniella).  Ha, ha ...  Yet, at every step of the way, people don't seem to recognize them (until they get away) and the police ALWAYS COME LATE, NEVER SEND FOR ANY BACK-UP, and NEVER SEEM TO GIVE CHASE when it's patently obvious how the two are getting away.  After all, how many cars leave, SPEEDING, A COUNTRY GAS STATION IN THE TEXAS PRAIRIE (no trees anywhere ...) in a given day?  ESPECIALLY WITH COPS (NOMINALLY) AROUND ...

Then (mild Spoiler alert I suppose ...) the Evil Drug King-pin "Vicente Cortez" (played by Joaquín Cosio) gets taken down at an obligatory, über-swanky and SHOCKINGLY PUBLIC, Quinceañera party for his spoiled "valley-girl-accented" (in Texas...) daughter.  Honestly, if he'd be THAT STUPID to throw THAT KIND OF A PARTY at THAT TIME ... he deserved to DIE.  And how could ANYBODY THAT STUPID EVER RISE TO THE LEVEL OF BEING A LEADER OF A DRUG CARTEL?

All in all, the film seems to have been a shockingly awful script and the director / actors (PERHAPS...) tried to do the best that they could with it ... awful, just awful.

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Tangerines (orig. Mandariinid) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars)  RogerEbert.com (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Cineuropa.org listing
EFIS.ee listing*
iMovies.ge listing*
CSFD.cz listing*
Filmweb.pl listing*
Kinopoisk.ru listing*
Kino-Teatr.ru listing*

ChicagoTribune (R. Moore) review
RogerEbert.com (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (A. Nayman) review

Cineuropa.org (L. Boyce) review
EEFB.org (J. Zelman) review 
FilmiArvustus.eu (R. Puust) review*
Postimees.ee (L. Järjehoidja) review*
GolubChitav.ru review*
KinoArt.ru (U. Mehdi) review*
Filmske Recenzije (S. Stajić) review*
FilmHafizasi.com (M. Gürgen) review
Sinemahzen.com (D. Akçadoğan) review*

Estonia - Arvustus.com - viewer reviews*
Georgia - iMovies.ge viewer comments*
Russia - kino-teatr.ru viewer comments*
Russia - kino-news.ru viewer comments*
Russia - otzovik.com viewer reviews*
Russia - rottenaparts.ru viewer comments*
Czech Rep - CSFD.cz viewer reviews*
Poland - FilmWeb.pl viewer reviews*
USA - IMDb.com viewer reviews

Tangerines (orig. Mandariinid) [2013] [IMDb] [CEu] [EFIS]*[iM.ge]*[KT.ru]*, "small" film though it is, is probably the most thoughtful reflection on the the tragedy / futility and stupidity of war to come out in a generation.  A joint Estonian/Georgian project, written and directed by Georgian director Zaza Urushadze [IMDb] [CEu] [EFIS]*[iM.ge]*[KT.ru]*, it was submitted by Estonia as its entry to the Best Foreign Language Film competition at the 2015 Oscars and became Estonia's first film ever to make the final list of five nominees.

The film tells the story of the beginnings of the 1992-93 Abkhazian-Georgian Conflict in The Caucasus from the perspective of two older ethnic Estonians -- Ivo (played by Lembit Ulfsak [IMDb] [CEu] [EFIS]*[iM.ge]*[KT.ru]*) and Margus (played by Elmo Nüganen [IMDb] [EFIS]*[iM.ge]*[KT.ru]*) -- who had the misfortune of living in the disputed region. 

Now what were two "older ethnic Estonians" doing living in The Caucasus some 1000 miles from their ethnic homeland?  That's left unexplained but the assumption is that they along with the rest of the Estonian residents of the village where they lived were deported there after Stalin retook Estonia (which had enjoyed a two decade long period of independence between WW I and WW II) as part of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [en.wikip] [et.wikip]*[pl.wikip]*, which divided-up Eastern Europe between Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence and allowed Hitler to invade Poland without fear of Soviet response (indeed, the Soviet Union invaded Poland as well, arguably as Hitler's ally, taking the Eastern half to two-thirds of the country, before invading Finland as well as the the Baltic states in the succeeding months.  Yes, Stalin was a B ...)

Excellent recent movies (all reviewed on this blog) about the Stalin-era deportations of Poles as well as the residents of the Baltic states are the Polish film Siberian Exile (orig. Syberiada Polska) [2013], the Lithuanian/Russian co-production The Deportee (orig. Ekskursantė) [2013] and the Estonian film In the Crosswind (orig. Risttuules) [2014].

In the current film, most of Estonian residents of the (artificial...) Estonian village "nestled in The Caucasus," _apparently_ left for Estonia as soon as (1) Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and (2) the conflict began between Georgia which ALSO regained its independence at the same time and the ethnically distinct Abkhazian region of that country (Abkhazia's amalgamation to Georgia was arguably a relic of the Soviet Era as well, either that or a relic of past Georgian imperialism ...).

So why did these two "older ethnic Estonians" _remain there_ in this artificial Estonian village in The Caucasus?  Margus just wanted to harvest the tangerine crop on his _apparently_ newly acquired land (back in Soviet days, his orchard would have almost certainly been part of a Collective ...) and Ivo, a carpenter, stayed with him, making the crates for the tangerines.  That Margus apparently acquired the land (or it simply "fell to him..." after the other residents left for Estonia) suggests that he would have made a go of staying there in The Caucasus if not for the conflict that was beginning around them.  As it is, he at least wanted to harvest that year's crop so that it would not have been a total loss.

But alas, the War does come ... first in the form of two Chechen mercenaries, Ahmed (played by Giorgi Nakhashidze [IMDb] [iM.ge]*[EFIS]*[KT.ru]*) and his "brother-from-the-village (in Chechnya)" Ibrahim, who at the beginning of the film come by Ivo's workshop to shake him down for some food/supplies.  Ivo keeps his composure throughout, even as he certainly knows that he could be shot-dead at anytime by the two Kalashnikov-wielding fighters.  At the end of the encounter, Ahmed thanks Ivo for the food and tells him to "keep on a lookout" because "others" who may pass through "may not be as kind" as they were ... yeah, right.

A "close call" seems to have been averted, 'cept ... a few hours later, there's an explosion, then number of spurts of automatic gun fire.  After it subsides, Ivo goes to check what happened.  Some ways down the road from his house/village there was an altercation between Ahmed / Ibrahim in their jeep and a five Georgian soldiers in a van.  One or the other car had hit a mine.  Ibrahim as well as the five Georgians were dead, Ahmed lay wounded in the leg.

Ivo helps Ahmed limp back to his home, then seeks-out Margus to help him bury Ibrahim and the five Georgian soldiers.  As they are about to bury them all, Margus notices that one of the Georgians, a soldier named Nika (played by Misha Meskhi [IMDb] [iM.ge]*[EFIS]*[KT.ru]*), while unconscious, was still actually breathing.  So they carry him back to Ivo's house as well ...

So, in Ivo's house are now both the Chechen fighter Ahmed and the Georgian soldier Nika.  Ahmed was swearing vengeance against the killer of his "childhood friend/brother" Ibrahim.  But at least initially he could not really walk, and Nika, since he was initially unconscious, could not really talk.  So Ivo placed Ahmed in one room and then put Nika surreptitiously in another.  But how long could that last?   The rest of the movie follows ... ;-)

This really is a great story ... and (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) it OBVIOUSLY doesn't play-out in the simplest way:

Ahmed does not just kill Nika as soon as he finds out that he's in the house.  In fact, Ahmed promises Ivo that he WON'T DO THAT because IVO was providing HIM (Ahmed) HOSPITALITY and HOSPITALITY was SACRED "to his people" (the Chechens).  Nika, the Georgian, eventually awakens as well ...

So there are two distinct "conflicts" that are playing out / negotiated in this film.  The first is simply in Ivo's house.  He's got both a Chechen mercenary and a Georgian soldier (both wounded, both in some need of his help) in his house.  And then there's the conflict "outside."

This is a wonderful, thought provoking film!  And IMHO probably the best reflection on the tragedy of War since at least MASH.

Consider simply that in that house, of Ivo's, are two Estonians, a Chechen and a Georgian, all arguably victims of Russian imperialism and yet ... THE ONLY WAY that they can communicate / MAKE PEACE with each other is ... in Russian.  Wow!  Brilliant, sad, profound.

And certainly, one heck of a story!

 * Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.  

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Wrecking Crew [2008]

MPAA (PG)  ChicagoTribune (4 Stars)  RogerEbert.com (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (K. Turan) review
RogerEbert.com (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (J. Heller) review  

The Wrecking Crew [2008] (directed by Danny Tedesco) is a lovely pop/rock documentary that like 20 feet from Stardom [2013] (reviewed on this blog) and Standing in the Shadows of Motown [2002] (which came-out before I started this blog) seeks to finally "sing the praises" of many of the "unsung heroes" ;-) of American pop-music of late 50s to the early-70s.  That is, the documentary seeks to recognize the talents / contributions of the singers / musicians who "backed-up" (generally ANONYMOUSLY) the signature bands of that era.  Director Danny Tedesco seems perfectly positioned to make this documentary, as he was the son of Tommy Tedesco [IMDb], one of the legendary musicians that made up the amorphous clique of studio musicians out in Los Angeles that came to be known by the Hollywood's "old time" studio musicians as "the wrecking crew."

The documentary is currently playing the "art house" circuit in the United States but it is also available for streaming for a reasonable price on Amazon Instant Video.

It should also be noted that this documentary has taken a long time to find the light of day.  Danny Tedesco began filming the interviews for the documentary in the late 1990s a year or two before his father had debilitating stroke.  The film then aired on the festival circuit in 2008, but required the intervening years, as well as a "kickstarter" campaign to collect the money required to pay for the licensing fees for all the songs featured in the documentary. 

Also, to be honest, my guess is that a lot record companies were not necessarily excited about this documentary being released, because it was about some of the manipulations (arguably making better, even signature products) that took place behind the scenes in the record industry at the time. 

But I believe that most viewers will probably be simply awed (and supremely appreciative) of the talents of the background people featured in this film.

And the list of pop-bands of the late 1950s to early 1970s that depended on this ad hoc group of "studio musicians" to make their hits is really stunning:

For instance, with the exception of Brian Wilson [IMDb] who wrote / arranged the music, most of the later work of the Beach Boys was actually recorded using these studio musicians from "the wrecking crew." 

Similarly the studio version of The Byrds' version of Tambourine Man [YouTube] [Amzn] actually featured ONLY "one Byrd" (Roger McGuinn ;-) which actually p-ed off a fair number of the remaining Byrds.  Yet, the song BECAME their break-through hit ;-).  So does one complain OR just "be grateful?" ;-) ;-).  And then in concert, they played the song there.

There's even the suggestion in the documentary that "the wrecking crew" all but INVENTED "The Mamas and the Papas." The story was that the four were singing backup in Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" studio, and somebody said, "Hey those four can really sing!"  John and Michelle Phillips had their song California Dreamin' [YouTube] [Amzn], the studio musicians took the song, played it, played with it and ... liked it ;-).  Then they put a couple of mikes in front of the two Philips' along with the other two, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty, and "the rest is history ..." ;-)

Then among the _many joys_ of this movie are extensive interviews with two women who were part of this "wrecking crew" milieu:

The first was CHER [IMDb] who became one of the most accomplished performers (both in the realm of pop music and even acting) of her time.  Yet, it turns out that SHE STARTED as a backup singer in Phil Spector's studio for The Ronettes including in their hit song Be My Baby [YouTube] [Amzn].  And I FOUND IT AN ABSOLUTE JOY watching her talk about those early days and the OBVIOUS even STARRY EYED RESPECT that she had TO THIS DAY for those studio musicians that filled Spector's studio at the time. 

The other women extensively featured was bass guitarist, Carol Kaye [IMDb], who pretty much EVERYONE of the reviewers above (and I CERTAINLY AGREE) argued deserves a book / documentary or movie of her own.  She was pretty much the only woman among the musicians of the "wrecking crew." Yet it was clear as day in the interviews both, solo and with others from the group, that she was a respected "one of the boys." Further, in one of the clips she effortlessly showed the camera crew how she would "improve on" the baselines given to her by the various song-writers. 

Viewers also get to see director Danny Tedesco's father, Tommy Tedesco [IMDb] (before his stroke) gleefully play the opening bars of the theme from the TV show Bonanza (which were his creation).  He was also involved in the creation of many other television theme songs.  We also get to watch saxophonist Plas Johnson [IMDb] play the opening bars of the iconic theme song for The Pink Panther, again recorded using the musicians of the "wrecking crew."

There were also interviews with wrecking crew regular then alumni GLEN CAMPBELL [IMDb] as well as Hal Blaine [IMDb]Nancy Sinatra [IMDb] talked about the wrecking-crew's role in her big hit These Boots are Made for Walking [YouTube] [Amzn]

Dick Clark [IMDb] of the iconic TV show of the time American Bandstand [IMDb] and interviewed for the documentary while he too was still healthy, provided insight into the time, and how it was possible that so many of the hits of that period were actually recorded by largely anonymous studio musicians.  He explained that it was "just the time," that the "singer, songwriter model" only became dominant in the 1970s.  Hence, Glen Campbell [IMDb] eventually went off on his own to a career in country music and even as a television personality, while Hal Blaine's [IMDb] (and the others') studio gigs first changed and then slowly yet steadily dried-up. 

All in all, this is music documentary that pretty much all pop-music lovers of the Baby-boom generation would probably appreciate.  The film's a stroll down memory lane, it helps us to appreciate just how the songs that we grew up with were made, and gives due recognition to those studio musicians who did, in fact, make the music that we remember to this day.

So good job folks!  Good job!

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