Friday, August 28, 2015

War Room [2015]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)   Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CFDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review

War Room [2015] [IMDb] [CFDb] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Alex Kendrick [IMDb] [CFDb] along with Stephen Kendrick [IMDb] [CFDb]) is a Christian based family drama made by the same people who made Fireproof [2008] [IMDb] [CFDb] and Courageous [2011] [FrDatM] [IMDb] [CFDb].

To be honest, I found aspects of it quite disappointing.  I do understand a fair number of difficulties faced by contemporary Christian film makers, beginning with the reality that even today 83% of the population in the United States would self-identify themselves as Christians.  That would include a vast number of people (again, even in the United States alone) of a vast number of ages, races, ethnicities, backgrounds and experiences -- "After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands." (Rev 7:9) -- So to make _any_ Christian film that would work for all / most of them would be a challenge (though not an impossible one, witness the general acclaim given to the History Channel's recent The Bible [2013] series / Son of God [2014] film, and to very nice / clever recent Christian films like The Song [2014] and even the current film makers' Courageous [2011])
Still I do believe that some of the particular choices made by the film-makers here needlessly pose obstacles (Acts 15:22ff) to a fair number otherwise Christians today.

The film is ostensibly about an African American couple, Tony (played by T.C. Stallings [IMDb] [CFDb]) and Elizabeth Jordan (played by Priscilla C. Shirer [IMDb] [CFDb]) who along with their cute as a button 10 y.o. daughter Danielle (played by Alena Pitts [IMDb] [CFDb]) are (at least on the surface) "living the [American] dream."  They they have a big house in the suburbs with lots of stuff paid for by two high paying jobs -- his as a pharmaceutical salesman still paying 4x as much as hers as a real estate agent, but hers no longer insignificant either.  They have all the things that they could ever want, but at the beginning of the story find themselves tired, distant and unhappy.

Great entre ... what could go wrong with the story?  Well, the two, Tony and Elizabeth find themselves fighting a lot.  Thus Elizabeth confesses to a new friend / client, an older woman, Miss Clara (played by Karen Abercrombie [IMDb] [CFDb]), also African American, that: "It's hard to submit to a man like that" (cf. Eph 5:21ff)  Say what?

Now let's understand Miss Clara is presented as an old-time Christian grandmotherly figure.  Perhaps even here _some_ may complain that her portrayal strays too close-for-comfort to the "Aunt Jemima" African American stereotype.  However, I _don't_ have issue with her character because I'VE KNOWN a fair number of Miss Clara-like parishioners over the course of my life / ministry / work, as probably MANY Readers here.

However, I simply find Elizabeth's line using the word "submit" as NEEDLESSLY crossing a significant line from credibility to right-wing ideology that puts the credibility of the whole film in jeopardy.  More than a few GOOD CHRISTIAN WOMEN will hear that line and say: "Ah huh," and KNOW EXACTLY THE INTENT OF THOSE WORDS (as an attempt to _re-impose_ a particular view of Christian marriage -- the Man on top, the Woman as his servant -- that has been roundly rejected and CERTAINLY QUALIFIED by Christian theologians of pretty much all stripes, let alone ROUNDLY REJECTED IN PRACTICE) and STOP LISTENING TO THE FILM RIGHT THEN AND THERE.  And that _would be a shame_ because there are some very good points made in the story.  BUT that's the NEEDLESSLY TENDENTIOUS / STUPID RISK taken by the film makers here.

Then there's an (initially) _odd_ focus on the mother, Elizabeth's, feet (!?) through much of the story:  As a real estate agent, presumably standing on her feet a lot, in the Southern U.S., where presumably it's very hot, she (and her daughter) complain about her (Elizabeth's) feet, that they hurt and THEY SMELL.  I can't imagine ANY WHITE ACTRESS OF ANY CALIBER FINDING IT ACCEPTABLE TO HAVE SO MUCH REFERENCE _TO HER FEET_ (and then HER FEET SMELLING (!!!)) as the African American actress playing Elizabeth's role had to accept in playing it.

NOW THERE'S A PURPOSE TO THE REFERENCES TO ELIZABETH'S ACHING (and unfortunately "smelly") FEET:  Near the end of the movie, when Elizabeth's and Tony's relationship has improved, TONY has Elizabeth sit down on the couch one day after work, gives her an ice cream sundae that he prepared for her and then PROCEEDS TO WASH HER FEET / GIVE HER A FOOT MASSAGE.  That scene's actually _a lovely interpretation_ of Jesus washing of the feet of his disciples in John's Gospel (John 13:1ff) something that we Catholic's remember each year on Holy Thursday (on the Feast of the Last Supper), the First Night of the Easter Triduum, the night before we commemorate Christ's Passion and Death on Good Friday.   However was there REALLY NEED to focus on Elizabeth's feet "smelling" and, once again WOULD THERE BE A WHITE ACTRESS ANYWHERE WHO WOULD ACCEPT HER FEET BEING PRESENTED AS "SMELLING BAD"?  I simply _can not_ imagine that ...

Finally (with regards to the negatives to the story) the WHOLE film is premised with the view of considering Prayer to be "combat."  Miss Clara has converted a closet in her house into a prayer room, which she calls a "war room" and invites Elizabeth to do so as well.  MY OBJECTION IS NOT IN CREATING A PRAYER SPACE LIKE THIS.  Indeed, decades ago, Catherine De Hueck Doherty a contemporary of Dorothy Day had written a lovely spiritual book called Poustinia [Amzn] which proposed to readers to create a similar space called in Russian Orthodox tradition a "Poustinia" (or "Desert Room") which would be simple, free of distractions, where one could pray.  EVEN CONCEDING (though NOT WITHOUT RESERVATIONS) the metaphor of "Prayer as Spiritual Combat" (cf. Psalm 149, Eph 6:10ff) a metaphor that let's face it IS VERY CLOSE to Islam's Jihad..., MY OBJECTION IS, WHY DID THIS SPACE _NEED TO BE_ "MILITARIZED"?  If the RUSSIAN ORTHODOX can call _the same space_ a Desert Space (ALSO an apt metaphor for a prayer space, free of distractions [Mt 4:1ff]) why can't we...? Then the military introduction (imagery from Vietnam) "may not sell particularly well outside the U.S." as _some_ of the civilians being napalmed by U.S. forces at the time would have actually been Catholic (Vietnam and especially the South having been, next to the Philippines, the most Catholic / Christian country in Asia at the time ... and most of us would have to admit that it _wouldn't_ exactly be "better" to napalm Buddhist or Communist civilians either ...).

ALL THIS SAID ... wow, how could one recommend the movie after all that? ... I AM DOING EXACTLY THAT... RECOMMENDING THE MOVIE TO READERS HERE ANYWAY.  I do call the Baptist film makers to task on the film's sexism, racism and militarism (I honestly do believe they can do better next time -- because I do believe that they are sincere and that they too would understand/appreciate that the Gospel is _not_ about male superiority, white superiority or American superiority ... it is about JESUS, something that the character of "Miss Clara" already points to and simply recalling in one's mind the image of a nice smiling Haitian or Jamaican Christian woman can drive home completely).  HOWEVER THERE ARE SOME TRULY EXCELLENT POINTS portrayed in the film as well:

First, the FUNDAMENTAL ADVICE THAT MISS CLARA GIVES ELIZABETH IS GOOD.  Now Readers do understand that there was no violence involved in Tony and Elizabeth's household.  The two just didn't see each other a lot / argued a lot.  Clara tells Elizabeth to not bother arguing with Tony anymore but JUST PRAY FOR HIM.  (THAT'S NOT BAD ADVICE because generally arguments _don't_ resolve much).  Then creating the prayer space (EMPTYING a CLOSET ... PREVIOUSLY "FULL OF STUFF") is actually AGAIN a very interesting and POWERFUL _resetting_ of priorities: One's "inner room" becomes a space for Jesus, and NOT for stuff (which become our idols ...).

Then Elizabeth and Tony's 10-y.o. daughter Danielle and her BFF Jennifer (played by Jadin Harris [IMDb] [CFDb]), white, were joys.  One of the nastier things that Danielle's father, Tony, does in the film is to initially make fun of Danielle still wanting to be part of a "jump roping squad."  He tells her that she's getting "too old for that sort of thing" and that she should really take basketball (a real sport) more seriously.  BUT ... Danielle and Jennifer just loved "jumping rope" ;-).  And later in the movie, as Tony does progressively change, HE discovers that he, an athlete still capable of doing backflips, etc, "kinda likes it too" ;-).  THIS IS A GREAT COUNTER-ACTION to the PRESSURE that parents often put on kids to "perform" in "real sports." But what is sport FUNDAMENTALLY FOR?  To HAVE FUN.  ANYTHING MORE begins to become a kind of idolatry again.

SOOO ... despite the critical reservations I give above -- I consider them serious, I don't want to see them again -- I do think that there are some very nice things in this film that need to be underlined as well.  And I do think that many / most adult Christians in the U.S. will understand.

So basically good job folks.  Just lets keep the focus on JESUS and keep away from ideology that can pose needless obstacles to the sensibilities of our time.  If the Apostles could learn to not put "unnecessary burdens" on the Greek converts of their time (Acts 15:22ff), so can we in ours.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Digging for Fire [2015]

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

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

Digging for Fire [2015] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Joe Swanberg along with Jake Johnson) is an initially rather slow-moving (but ultimately quite thought provoking) summer indie about a 30-something couple "in a rut" a few years after having their (first) child together.  He, Tim (played by Jake Johnson) is a Los Angeles area public school teacher.  She, Lee (played by Rosemary DeWitt) is a yoga instructor and together they have a three year old boy named Jude (played by the director's 3 y/o son Jude Swanberg) who's now old enough to go to preschool.

That preschool becomes actually an occasion to disagree, even fight, and exposes a few other dynamics going on:  Even if Tim and Lee probably had grown up in roughly the same economic class (lower middle to middle middle), Lee's mother (played by Judith Light) after apparently divorcing Lee's father, re-married significantly up (Lee's mother's second husband played by Sam Elliott).  So Lee's mother and second husband want to put their 3 y/o grandson Jude into a $10,000/yr preschool -- "some studies now say that choice of PRESCHOOL is more important than choice of COLLEGE in determining future 'success' ..." -- something that Tim and Lee self-evidently CAN'T AFFORD (and Tim, a _public school teacher_ after all considers something of a betrayal). BUT "no matter" Lee's mother / second husband "have offered to pay" ...

As a yoga instructor in L.A., Lee also has opportunity to enter socioeconomic circles that Tim (did I mention he's a public school teacher?) generally does not.  SOOO... the film plays out LARGELY at the lovely "Laural Canyon" home (complete with a lovely pool) of a couple of Lee's yoga clients, who apparently trust her enough to let her and her family (husband Tim and 3 y/o Jude) "house-sit" for them while _they_ go on vacation. 

So Tim, Lee and 3 y/o Jude go up there, putz around for a while, ARGUE a bit, and Lee decides that she'd just prefer to leave Tim up there (in the swanky house that she's taken him) and go down with her 3 y/o to see her parents / friends for the weekend.  Tim is nominally left "to do their (presumably back) taxes."  Perhaps the taxes of Lee, as a presumably small studio operating and certainly partly freelancing yoga instructor, would be somewhat complicated, but MOST OF US would probably suspect that Tim's taxes could be quite simply knocked-off using a 1040-EZ form ...

So what does 30 something Tim do?  He calls a bunch of friends -- Phil, Ray and Billy T (played by Mike Birbiglia, Sam Rockwell and Chris Messina respectively).  One or another calls up a couple of girls, Max and Alicia (played by Brie Larsen and Anna Kendrick), and soon they're having a party.

Lee in contrast spends her first night down with her mother, where she's reminded of all the things that she never had (but now is supposed to appreciate/strive for, since her mother remarried rich) and is lectured again on "how important" it is to put her kid "in the best PRESCHOOL (!) possible" (which mom and stepdad would "happily bankroll" "if only she would let them...").

After a night of mom, she goes to see her sister and her husband (sister played by Melanie Lynskey) who're happy to have her over (for a couple of hours), but they too seem to be living "better off" than Lee / Tim and are also about to go off on vacation somewhere, so ... "It's great seeing you sis, but we've got to keep this short ..." "But I was hoping we, two, could perhaps even go out tonight." "I'd love to but we're packing / going ... and besides ... you can actually go on your own." 

So Lee, 30 something, married, with a kid (left at grandma's), finds herself going to a bar, Saturday night, on her own ...

So, of course, both Tim and Lee find themselves "with opportunity" to ... cheat.  The rest of the movie follows.

Well, do they?  I'm not going to tell you.  But it's not necessarily a bad movie for couples BOTH BEFORE and AFTER GETTING MARRIED who may not be "the richest people they know."  It's a conversation worth having: "How are we going to approach things when we find that mom, dad, friends, may have significantly more money / stuff than we have?"

It's NOT, NOT, NOT (did I say, NOT?) the "end of the world," and there will ALWAYS be SOMEONE with more fun, stuff, experiences than we have.  But in a competitive / consumerist world, it makes for a thought provoking film nonetheless.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Mistress America [2015]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

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

Mistress America [2015] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Noah Baumbach along with Greta Gerwig) is a coming of age story that hits some of the same notes as the Matthew Broderick starring The Freshman [1990] of a generation ago:

Small town, Iowa-born, Tracy (played by Lola Kirke) finds herself a bit lost, a "fish out of water," at the beginning of her first semester, freshman year, out at Columbia University in New York City.  She's a pretty bright / quite talented English major who's entered a school that she discovers is _filled_ with other quite intelligent / talented and _competitive_ students.  One gets the sense that she can (or certainly feels) that she can "hold her own" academically / talent-wise with her classmates, but perhaps coming from "small town Iowa," she's surprised at the competitive backstabbing:  Sharing a short story that she's written and quite proud of doesn't get her praise or esteem among her class / dorm-mates, but rather surprising (and disappointing) silence and (at least some degree of) marginalization.  There appears to be a problem in revealing oneself to be "too good too fast."  What to do?

Well her mother, back in Iowa, suggests that she look-up Brooke (played by Greta Gerwig) the "also left Iowa for NYC" (some ten years ago) daughter of the man that Tracy's mother was recently engaged to marry (one starts to understand a little why "sweet and a perhaps little naive Midwestern Tracy" was had decided to go quite far away to college...).  "But ma, she's like 30 years old."  "Yeah, but from what I hear, I think she can help you."  Though not particularly enthusiastic at first, after Tracy's sort-of dumped (or pre-dumped, they weren't ever really going out) by a classmate named Tony (played by Matthew Shear) precisely because Tracy's smarter / more talented than Tony's comfortable with, Tracy decides to give Brooke a call, and ...

... Brooke arrives into Tracy's life like a Revelation.  Yes, she's almost 30 but she's "bubbly and wise" (in as much as someone "bubbly" could be "wise") and as obviously a transplant to NY as well, she's been "where" Tracy now finds herself as well: IN A NEW AND ENORMOUS CITY with _all kinds_ of almost magical possibilities but not really knowing how to "break the code to enter."  In this regard, Brooke comes across to Tracy as almost a Super-Hero.

And indeed as the two talk the first night that they meet, Brooke even tells her (after Tracy's told her that she wants to become a writer) that she's even invented a Super-Hero character -- "Mistress America" -- but ... (and this becomes important) ... she's never really done much more with her (other than come-up with her name).

Tracy kinda laughs, "That's a strange name for a Super-Hero.  It kinda sounds like 'America's Girlfriend on the Side.'"

And this is where the movie really starts:  As Tracy gets to know Brooke better, she realizes that Brooke is actually a lot like the Super-Hero character that she herself invented -- bubbling, even a volcano, full of all kinds of ideas / unrealized potential, BUT (for any number of reasons) ...

It all makes for a fun / interesting character study and Greta Gerwig plays the somewhat "tragically comic" character very, very well ;-).  The goal is, of course, _not_ to be rendered anyone's "Girlfriend on the side ..."  And yet, there's bubbly almost 30 y/o Brooke, who's never quite been #1 to anybody or in anything.

Anyway it makes for a very interesting "off to college" / "coming of age" story for our (perhaps quite competitive) time ;-)

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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Southpaw [2015]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McCarthy) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Southpaw [2015] (directed by Antoine Fuqua, screenplay by Kurt Sutter) is a boxing movie that went into wide release to mixed reviews (above) some weeks ago.  Due to said mixed reviews, I did not see it then, somewhat to my regret now.

This is because boxing movies are generally about "more than boxing" (they are about struggle in general) and often the "critical class" (reviewers) is/are not the one(s) to which these films are primarily directed or the one(s) who best understand(s) them.  To make the point, I wish to note here that I was asked several times during the past several weeks by parishioners if I've seen this movie, and with increasing embarrassment, I've had to respond "not yet."

Boxing movies are generally genre movies.  As such they are often enough (unsurprisingly) heavily cliched.  And yet that they are cliched, does not necessarily render them unsatisfying much less without value.  Perhaps the best way to understand Southpaw [2015] is to appreciate that despite being largely about "anger management" (controlling rage despite hard knocks / tragedy) its purpose (redemptive) and approach (fictional) are far closer to Silvester Stalone's Rocky [1976] than to Martin Scorsese's / Robert DeNiro's Raging Bull [1980]:  The goal of the film is not to watch Jake Gyllanhaal's boxer named "Billy Hope" (!) self destruct, but rather to watch him, despite having experienced some very very hard knocks, (re)build himself (back) into "being somebody."  The vast majority of viewers could probably count the number of times they've picked-up a set of boxing gloves on one hand (or perhaps even less...) but would nevertheless _completely understand_ the story being told.

In Billy Hope's Job-like "Descent into Hell" from previous boxing super-stardom, he tragically loses his wife (played by Rachel McAdams) (and, of course, _partly_ because of his own previous arrogance/stupidity).  Then / as a result he "loses his focus" (hence his next Fight), then his house and even for a time his 8-10 year-old daughter Leila (wonderfully played in the film by Oona Lawrence).

Perhaps the most redeeming / instructive part of the film is watching Billy Hope, who the audience knows has ALL KINDS OF REASONS TO BE ANGRY AT THE WORLD, having to deal with a NO-NONSENSE "by the book" social worker (played wonderfully by played by Naomi Harris) who _repeatedly_ reminds him that his (perhaps even legitimate) "issues" aside, _she's_ present at the supervised meetings between him and his daughter NOT for _his sake_ but for _his daughter's_ SAFETY.  Those scenes involving Billy Hope, his daughter (who after all has lost her mother too) and the social worker MAKE THE MOVIE FOR ME and can serve as an INSTRUCTIVE and even POSITIVE example for all kinds of adults ANGRY AT LIFE (often even partly legitimately) in situations similar to his.  (And in "my day job" I do come across plenty):

Yes, one may have legitimate right to be angry, disappointed, etc.  But it's never "all about us" and "The System" is there, above all, to protect the innocent -- "Hope's" _daughter_.  Wow ;-)

Anyway, this is a Hollywood film (and even a classic "Descent into Hell" Western Civ. story), so it has to end well.  And ... (mild spoiler alert) it does.

So, even if we've seen variations of this story in the past, it still makes a very good film that even "moves the ball" (with regard to those court supervised "parent-child" meetings).  So good job folks!  Very good job!

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Friday, August 21, 2015

American Ultra [2015]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars) (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

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

American Ultra [2015] (directed by Nima Nourizadeh, screenplay Max Landis) can perhaps be described as Jason Bourne of The Bourne Identity [2002] meets the Pineapple Express [2008] meets the original Rambo of First Blood [1982]:

The film begins with Mike (played by Jesse Eisenberg) a mild mannered stoner introducing himself to us though an extended voice-over.  We see that he lives in essentially a shack at the edge of a small town in West Virginia with a similarly "stoner" but also clearly "more together" girlfriend named Phoebe (played by Kristen Stewart) to whom he is enormously grateful because she seems to have enormous patience in putting-up with him. 

Now how can they both be "stoners" and yet one be "clearly more together" than the other?  Well, it becomes pretty clear rather quickly that Mike is keeping himself "baked" on marijuana because of some serious phobia issues.  In contrast, Phoebe, while "partaking" as well, isn't doing so for the same reasons or nearly in the same quantities: She's smoking-up with Mike to continue to be with him and, yes, to help keep him at ease.  Oh dear, "an enabler" ... YES (!), perhaps, but she does seem to know that he has issues.  And again, Mike is enormously grateful for her kindness.  Odd, but possible ...

Things would continue indefinitely in this rather mess-ed up stasis if not for a petty bureaucratic fight taking place several hundred miles away -- at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA (!)  What the ...?

There, a young / rising mid-level CIA official named Adrian Yates (played by Topher Grace), who's directed a rather "successful" covert program that turns criminally insane inmates into special ops-assassins has decided to "terminate" a previous, less successful, rival program headed by another (since demoted) middle-aged mid-level CIA official named Victoria Lassater (played by Connie Britton) which simply sought to convert "volunteers" from among petty criminals in U.S. prisons into special ops-assassins -- "terminate" meaning KILLING the remaining "volunteers" from Lassater's previously less successful (largely failed) project.  Why would Yates bother?  Well, because he feels he "can" and because he's a bureaucratic a-ahole.

Mike, turns out to be one of those "volunteers" from Agent Lassater's previous, less successful program.  To "decommission him" at the end of the (failed) program, the she had his memories largely erased, leaving him a basket case with all kinds of phobias (the origins of he didn't understand) and unable to function in the world without some help (Phoebe).   Lassater is aghast, however, to find-out that her young rival at the Agency was now going to send his (previously criminally insane) "assets" to KILL her one surviving "asset" who she had been at least able to so "decommission," albeit with horrible side-effects, back to somewhat "normal" civilian life.

What to do?  Lassater decides to "go rogue" to try to save Mike.  She shows-up at the "Cash and Carry" dollar store where Mike works, telling him a very specific obviously coded message.  That coded message activates repressed memories inside Mike, allowing him to "defend himself" against the coming onslaught previously criminally insane now highly trained CIA super-assasins sent to "off" him.

Much of course ensues, and for a good part of the movie, Mike has no idea why ...

The film becomes a fairly interesting paranoid thriller.  My biggest problem with it is the film's often senseless brutality.  The same story could have been told without resorting to the level violence portrayed in the film.  As such, the R-rating is certainly deserved.  Still the story itself is rather compelling.  As such, the 20-something crowd could leave the film with a fair amount to talk about.

Still I thought the graphic violence was way, way too much than necessary to tell the story.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

In the Morning [2014]

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

IMDb listing

Shadow & Act (N. Mumin) review

In the Morning [2014] (written and directed by Nefertite Nguvu) is a thoughtful African American romantic drama about nine educated late-20-something through 30-something African American New Yorkers, most living in Brooklyn, coming together "one morning" (or at least during that day) to bid farewell to a friend about to leave New York to begin a new chapter in her life in Brazil (presumably in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador or São Paulo).   The conversation leads to relationships, goals and expectations in life.

The film played recently at the 2015 (21st annual) Black Harvest Film Festival held here in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center

Though all the characters / actors in the film were African American, virtually all urban, educated Americans / Westerners would understand the characters' interests / concerns:

Harper (played by Kim Hill) the one leaving for Brazil is willing to go to the ends of the earth to find fulfillment / happiness (On the flip side, she's unwilling to "just sit there" and wait for life to unfold around her).  She's had a nice but ultimately disappointing relationship with Ravi (played by Hoji Fortuna) who's actually there at the brunch (so they parted on more-or-less good terms).

Among the others at the brunch is Amara (played by JoNell Kennedy) at whose home the "Harper's farewell" will come to an end later in the evening.  Amara plays the other book-end in the spectrum of attitudes expressed with regards to personal fulfillment / relationships: She's married.  Yes, she knows that her husband Malik (played by Jacky Ido) has been cheating on her.  She even knows with whom, Cadence (played by Emayatzy Corinealdi), not present at the brunch, but who is even shown meeting (unrelated to this gathering) with Malik, Amara's husband, to break-up with him.  But despite Malik's infidelity and indeed rather hard-core unrepentant infidelity (if Cadence wasn't breaking-up with him, he appeared to be quite happy to continue with his two relationships, and one gets the sense that he'll probably find another girlfriend-on-the-side soon to replace Cadence), Amara's decided to stay in her marriage, something that Harper (and many in the audience), of course, does not / would not understand at all.

Two others, invited to the gathering, late 20 / early 30-something Zuri (played by De'Adre Aziza) and her adjunct professor at some local college also 30-something boyfriend Leal (played by C.J. Lindsey), are not attending because they have a situation at home: Zuri's found that she's pregnant and yet she also knows that Leal has not been faithful to her.  What to do?

So these are the various stories that play-out in the course of this "day in the life" of these characters in the film.  And it certainly would make for some good young adult discussion.

As I wrote above, despite Amara's husband's cheating, Amara's made the decision that she wasn't going to leave her marriage, and it appears that she's doing so not merely "for the sake of her marriage" but "for the sake of Marriage [TM], period."  Perhaps by naming her character "Amara" (which suggests "bitter" or "bitterness") the filmmaker herself is underlining her inability to understand completely why Amara would be doing so (except perhaps out of a spirit of martyrdom).  But Amara's in the story, there, along with Harper who at the other side of the relationship-fulfillment spectrum is willing to sacrifice all, including her friends / relationships, for personal happiness / fulfillment.

So it makes for quite an interesting reflection / discussion piece.

Here I would add, from my perspective, as a Catholic priest after all ... ;-) ... that the Bible is full of people who "meet God" at almost laughably late / odd stages in life:  Abraham was 75 when "God called him" [Gen 12:1-4], Moses (by tradition 80!) when he saw the burning bush [Ex 3:1ff].  It seems to be a very odd question to ask: Were either of these two men, or Abraham's wife Sarah (or Moses' wife Ziporrah [Ex 2:21]), "fulfilled" when they were in their twenties! ;-)

And yet, it is an interesting question! ;-)

Fulfillment is certainly important in life (and if we don't feel at least part "fulfilled" then arguably we're not following what God would hope for us [Matt 19:29]) but _just_ looking for "self-fulfillment" does seem, to me, to be rather selfish and against the Spirit of the Christian life.

That said, what an interesting / thought-provoking film!  Good job!

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Best of Enemies [2015]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (N. Murray) review  

Best of Enemies [2015] (cowritten and codirected by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville) is a documentary about the commentary / debating segments that ABC News had contracted from Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr to spruce-up / liven-up its otherwise certain destined to be 3rd place (among then three competing television networks) and forgotten television coverage of the 1968 Republican and Democratic Party Conventions.   The network chose well ...

Though both Patrician, both were articulate and often quite witty spokesmen for (and indeed epitomized the intellectual foundations of) their respective opposite ends of the American political spectrum at that time:

Gore Vidal knew both Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy personally.  The former actually campaigned for him when he, briefly, took a stab at running for the U.S. Congress (for a seat in upstate New York) in 1960.  The latter, he knew as Jacqueline Bouvoir BEFORE she became J.F.K.'s fiancée / wife.  Vidal who was gay, became famous in the 1950s-60s in the Eastern American intellectual establishment for his increasingly provocative novels [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn]  about sexuality, homosexuality, transsexuality (culminating perhaps with his 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn]).  And yet that's NOT ALL that he wrote.  He called himself "America's biographer" and certainly he would have had a right to at least "throw his name in that ring," as he wrote a series of quite weighty tomes (lightened by his characteristic irreverent tone) on Lincoln [GR] [WCat] [Amzn], America's Founding Fathers [GR] [WCat] [Amzn], as well as America's increasingly imperialist tendencies in the modern era [GR] [WCat] [Amzn].  Much of "Liberal" / "Blue State" America today could trace its roots back to him.

On the flip side, William F. Buckley, Jr was a heavy weight himself.  He knew and was friends of both Barry Goldwater and especially Ronald Reagan.  His weekly National Review became sort of the "Federalist Papers" of the modern American Conservative movement.  Neither was he a "mindless Conservative" / "Reactionary."  Catholic, he took on Pope John XXIII's 1961 social encyclical Mater et Magistra, with a famous essay "Mater Si, Magistra No" which was both serious (putting the silliness of the current gas-bag Limbaugh-dine conservatives' complaints about current Pope Francis' environmental encyclical Laudato Si to shame) and also laced with his own brand of wit. 

Not that Buckley was right, IMHO. I do think that he and many of his head-shorter contemporaries today fundamentally misunderstood / misunderstand the Popes' role / teaching.  The Popes DON'T advocate for "Communism" (!?) BUT THEY DO remind the world of fundamental moral principles: We have responsibility for our brothers' / sisters' welfare (we are "our brothers'/sisters' keepers" [Gn 4:9]) as well as for "our common home" (which was given to us by God [Gn 1:28] originally AS A PARADISE [Gn 2:8]).  

What was clear to anyone, however, was that Buckley like Vidal HAD A BRAIN, and arguably much if not all of what is reasonable in contemporary Conservative "Red State" American thought could be traced back to him and The National Review that he founded.

So ABC chose its two commentators well.  How'd it go?

Here, contrary to most critics (and reviewers of the current film) I would suggest that the "Debates" between Buckley like Vidal, in as much as they were "debates" at all, ended _badly_.  Basically, what is most remembered of them (and certainly underlined _over and over_ in the current documentary about them) was that in the last "debate" Gore Vidal called Buckley a "crypto Nazi" and Buckley in turn called Vidal a "queer" and that SOMEHOW Gore Vidal "won the debate" as a result.  Why?  Presumably because it's okay to call someone "a  crypto Nazi" BUT NOT "a queer."

And there we have it.   I would suggest that BOTH MEN FAILED.  And I would agree that their childish if certainly mesmerizing presence on the television screen back in 1968 (but the alternative would have been watching even more of police officers hitting protesters with clubs ...) INFLUENCED (though in my mind BADLY) political "debate" on television ever since.  Basically, these two "Giants" gave us the first "CNN Crossfire" show, when, sigh ..., they could have done so much better.

So in the end, I left the theater disappointed, though perhaps understanding a little better why we are in the country we are today: Nearly 50 years ago, two of the truly best and most articulate minds of the time were invited to debate the great questions of their time, and instead ... they chose to call each other names.  Sigh ...

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

White Water [2015]

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

IMDb listing 

EUR (L. Buford) review (J. Walsten) review
The Art of the Monteque (V. Nickerson) review (A. D'Alessandro) interview w. the child actors

White Water [2015] (directed by Rusty Cundieff, screenplay by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein) is a family drama set in 1963 rural Alabama near the end of the Jim Crow Era.   The film played recently at the 2015 (21st annual) Black Harvest Film Festival held here in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The film tells the very human story of a 7 y/o African American boy named Michael (played by brothers Amir and Amiri O'Neill) who becomes fascinated / obsessed with the _probable_ taste of the water coming-out of the "white's only" water fountain in town.  Since he saw a white boy his age, Tommy (played by Brody Rose), drink and drink and drink from that fountain, Michael is convinced that it must be _much better_ than the water coming out of the "colored folks" water fountain.  Michael knows the taste of the water from that one and he's never been impressed.  Indeed since the water was rusty in taste, he rarely drank from it, only when he was really, really thirsty.

So there it is.  A seven year old African American boy wants to taste "the water of the white folks," and, well ... it's ILLEGAL.  And his ma', Annie (played spectacularly by Sharon Leal) and grandpa (played by Leon Lamar) become convinced that Michael's inevitably going to do something really stupid (like drink from the "white folks' water fountain") that's going to get him into _a lot of trouble_ just like his no-good saxophone playing father (played by Larenz Tate) would get into.

Add then Michael's maybe one-year-older cousin Red (played by Zhane Hall) who eggs Michael on, telling him he's "drunk from white folks' drinking fountains many-a-times" and then Rev. Stokes (again wonderfully played by Barry Shabaka Henley) who's JUST TRYING to keep his little, often quite oppressed / humiliated flock from doing any of a wide number of very stupid things (both politically and personally) that would "lead them on the certain Road to Perdition" ... and one gets ONE HECK OF A (somewhat tempered by years) SEGREGATION ERA STORY that TRULY EVERYONE, BLACK OR WHITE, COULD UNDERSTAND.

Honestly school teachers, if you're looking for a GREAT CHILD FRIENDLY FILM THAT EXPLAINS _ALL THAT ONE REALLY NEEDS TO KNOW_ about THE HUMILIATING (and at times DEADLY SERIOUS) EVIL that was SEGREGATION in the SOUTH during the Jim Crow Era this is A GREAT ONE TO CHOOSE.

Great job folks, great, great job!

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Monday, August 17, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl [2015]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (4 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (1 1/2 Stars)

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

The Diary of a Teenage Girl [2015] (directed and screenplay by Marielle Heller based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Phoebe Gloeckner [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a definitely _appropriately_ R-rated film about a 15 year old whose first sexual experience (and second, third, ...) was with her mid-late 30-something mother's boyfriend (also 30-something though perhaps a couple of years younger than said mother).  Say what??

Obviously, this is _not_ a "light" film.  And let's be clear, there are adults, both men and women (among them, of course, some past Catholic priests), WHO ARE IN PRISON / AND ON LIFELONG SEX OFFENDER LISTS for having had sex / entered into sexual relationships with minors.  So what possible value could there be to making such a film?

To be honest, this is a film IN THE FIRST PLACE FOR PARENTS / OTHERWISE ADULTS and then perhaps for SOME TEENS (with HOPEFULLY some parental involvement).

Why Parents?  Well this film is as good a reminder as any to divorced / unmarried / recently married parents with kids that their new "one" could have dangerous issues with regards to the kids (from hitting them to hitting-on / SLEEPING with them...).  Yes, can be pretty awful and/or lonely to be divorced / unmarried with kids at home, but one simply has to be very careful about who one's bringing (new) into the house because one's not just putting oneself at risk, but also one's kids.  Honestly, it's just the reality.

Then why adults in general?   If a fifteen year old (a minor) starts thinking that you want to have sex with them, it's time to run.  There's NO WAY that such a relationship could play-out well and in the U.S. today (and, indeed, in most of the western world) 9-out-of-10, 95-out-of-a-100, the adult's gonna end-up in jail / on a sex offender list, etc.  So the film presents an opportunity to internalize how stupid / creepy the guy was in the film and then to redouble one's efforts manage one's life in a manner that would avoid getting sucked into a situation like the one portrayed in the film.

So then what the heck happened in the film to produce such an intro to a review of it?

The very first line of the film (set in San Francisco in 1976) has the film's 15-year-old protagonist Minnie (played by 20-something actress Bel Powley) proclaim in a voice-over to viewers: "Today, I had sex for the very first time."

The next fifteen-or-so minutes involves her progressively revealing to viewers the exact circumstances of the loss of her virginity, and it becomes clear that the circumstances were quite fumbled and yucky and let's face it, the guy (played by Alexander Skarsgård), was her twice divorced 30-something mother (played by Kristen Wiig)'s 30-something boyfriend.

How did it come to that?  Well, Minnie explained:  Some days (or a couple of weeks) before, she and her younger half-sister Gretel (played by Abby Wait) along with their mom and mom's largely-live-in boyfriend were all watching TV.  Eventually Gretel and mom pealed off to go to bed, leaving Minnie and her mom's boyfriend alone.  Having all been snuggling together (as "family") before, Minnie and mom's boyfriend were left in that position after the other two left.  Then whether by accident -- he _could have been_ tired, he _could have been_ drunk -- or intentionally, said mom's boyfriend plopped his hand on Minnie's breast and _appeared to fall asleep_.   Was it a come-on?

I could imagine a lot of people who see that movie debating that point.  However, it's beside the point:  that accidental and/or very creepy gesture left Minnie, a not particularly confident in her own skin 15 year old, wondering: "What did he mean?"  But she kinda liked it (it was the first time anyone had touched her like that).  And so sometime later (a few days later or a few weeks later) SHE TELLS HIM that SHE wants to have sex with him.

Said boyfriend of Minnie's mom had exactly one opportunity to end this well.  HE COULD HAVE SAID: "But Minnie I love your mom."  BUT HE DIDN'T (SAY THAT) BECAUSE HE DIDN'T (REALLY LOVE MINNIE'S MOM).  He was JUST SLEEPING WITH MINNIE'S MOM because she was available and HE (PROBABLY) HAD "NOTHING BETTER GOING ON."  Not exactly a romance that would "launch a 1000 ships ..."

He could have also said: "Minnie you're 15 years old and I don't want to go to jail" and since he didn't particularly love Minnie's mom anyway, could have made a relatively easy exit over the next several days.

Instead because he probably was something of a creep, he had sex with her.

The rest of the movie follows.  Again, this is not a pretty picture.  In fact, IMHO it is quite an ugly one.  Is it "realistic"?  I think that most viewers would probably hope not.  But it can give parents, adults and possibly some older teens some things to think about.

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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet [2014]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune (R. Moore) review (P. Sobczynski) review
AVClub () review  

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet [2014] (directed by Roger Allers, et al, screenplay by Roger Allers along with Hanna Weg and Douglas Wood based on the acclaimed spiritual book [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by turn of the 20th century Lebanese author Kahlil Gibran [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) offers a gentle introduction to the immensely popular text.

As in the book, so too in the current animated film (Al)Mustafa (voiced in the film by Liam Neeson), a spiritual leader, who has spent 12 years on an island outside of a fictionalized town called Orphalese, is about to go home.  A ship has come to take him to his homeland (or "homeland").

Now why was (Al)Mustafa on "the island" to begin with?  The book is (deliberately) unclear.  The film is much more specific (but certainly offers a credible explanation for both that time-in-history, and perhaps even ours.  After all, the story plays out near the Eastern Mediterranean / Western Middle East, hence in "the land of I.S.I.S." and all kinds of extremist militias).

As in the book, so in the movie, BEFORE (Al)Mustafa departs (or "departs" ... in both the book and the film the actual and certainly ultimate manner of his "departure" also remains vague) HE'S ASKED A NUMBER OF SPIRITUAL QUESTIONS by the people coming together to bid him farewell, which provides him opportunity to give sage advice about love, work, marriage, time, etc.

His answers, generally given in in the book 1-2 page poetic vignettes, make up the bulk of the small 60-or-so-page text.  The film expounds in generally lovely / gentle / colorful animated fashion on four or five of his answers.

Since the bulk of the 60-or-so-page book is in effect (Al)Mustafa preaching to the people, before "departing", the film does take _some_ imaginative liberties with the book to tell the story.

Notably, it dramatizes (Al)Mustafa's leaving of his "little house outside of town" and his walk to the town and its harbor.  (Al) Mustafa is portrayed as having a (widowed) house keeper, named Kamila (voiced by Salma Hayek) who, in turn, has a little 6-7 year-old daughter Almitra (voiced by Quvenzhané Wallis).  Note that that Almitra is imagined/portrayed quite differently in the original book than she in the film.  Together with a guard named Halim (voiced by John Krasinski), Kamila and Almitra help (Al) Mustafa travel down from his "little house outside of town" into town.

It all makes for a lovely story and for a nice, but certainly not only, perhaps even _intentionally_ limiting (concretizing) interpretation of the book.

So while not necessary to understand the story presented in the film, getting-hold-of and reading the 60-or-so page book both beforehand and perhaps especially _afterwards_ will help one appreciate the specific artistry and choices made in the film.

IMHO the book [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] is far more general in scope than the film.  However, as I've already suggested, the choices made by the film-makers make for an interesting, even compelling (and perhaps unfortunately still all too timely) interpretation of the book.

Good job folks!  Very good job!

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. [2015]

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

IMDb listing listing*
CSFD listing* listing* listing* listing* listing*

CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (J.Hassenger) review (V. Limberk) review* (J. Zabaluev) review* (Press Spiegel) reviews*
Rossiyskaya Gazeta (D. Sochovskiy) review*

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. [2015] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Guy Richie along with Lionel Wigram, story by Guy Richie, Jeff Kleeman, Lional Wigram and David C. Wilson based on the television series [1965-68] [IMDb] by Sam Rolfe) is the less "controversial" film coming-out in wide release this weekend, the other, edgier film being Straight Outta Compton [2015].  And I have to say that I enjoyed (indeed LOVED, read on...) this "lighter" / "safer" even if surely "more vanilla" film as well.

Though certainly more serious than the Get Smart [1965-70] [IMDb] television series, the current "U.N.C.L.E." film as well as the series that inspired it takes its lead with (and is partly a send-up of) the James Bond movies that were already so popular in the 1960s.

Like the Get Smart [1965-70] [IMDb] series, the U.N.C.L.E. [1965-68] [IMDb] series involved a battle between two great coalitions representing "Good" and "Evil."  In Get Smart, the Coalition for Good was called "Control" and the coalition for Evil was called "KAOS."  In U.N.C.L.E. the "Coaltion for Good" was indeed called U.N.C.L.E. (standing for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) and its opponent was a neo-Nazi ODESSA-like Coalition called T.H.R.U.S.H. (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity).

That the opponent of U.N.C.L.E. was a neo-Nazi ODESSA-like organization allowed both American / Western agents in general to work with Soviet (Russian) agents to work together _both_ in the original series and in the current film today.  This cooperation between East and West is a key distinguishing characteristic of the U.N.C.L.E series from pretty much all the others (in the West) of this genre: Ian Fleming's James Bond, Mel Brook's / Buck Hardy's Get Smart, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan and so forth.  Given renewed East-West tensions today, I do find the decision to try to reboot this _hopeful_ 60s-era series to be an unexpected joy and a reminder that just as Russia (then the Soviet Union) and the West cooperated in defeating Nazi Germany (and no-doubt frustrated any subsequent attempts at revival of race-based neo-Nazi empire building, no in this case, no one's 'crying' Argentina ...), Russia and the West have common interests even today, notably in fighting Islamic extremism / terrorism.  So there is undoubtedly contemporary value to the revival of this (then) hope-against-hope 1960s era spy-series.

Another _great joy_ in the revival of this 1960s era spy-series can be found in the drawing of the key characters (re)introduced in the film -- the super-competent / stylish yet slippery American CIA Agent "Napoleon Solo" (played with exquisite brashness by Henry Cavill), his huge, perhaps coming across initially as somewhat clumsy, but also arguably more straight-forward / honest KGB counterpart Illya Kuryakin (played again spot-on by Armie Hammer), an OMG she _steals_ the movie (!) mild-mannered East German "auto-mechanic" (agent) named Gaby (played wonderfully by Alicia Vikander) WHO'S PLAYING EVERYBODY (but SHE HAS TO ... SHE'S GERMAN in the middle of the Cold War ;-) and the ever smiling (but which way is he really going?) head of British Intelligence, Alexander Waverly (played again wonderfully/spot-on by, again, ever jovial / ever-smiling Hugh Grant).

Together they must break into a secretive neo-Nazi/Fascist ring led by an Italian Versaci-dressed bombshell named Victoria Vinciguerra (played again perfectly as a Bond-worthy villian by Elizabeth Debicki) and, it turns out, some of Gaby's old (past-Nazi) relatives "Uncle Rudi" (played with appropriate "I'm a member of the Aryan super-race and if you are not you don't deserve anything from me" Evil swarminess by Sylvester Groth) and as well as _her dad_, a scientist who just seemed to get mixed-up _way over his head_ (again...) into something increasingly/unbelievably Evil).  Much then had to ensue ... and it does ;-)

I'd also add that the COSTUMING (and even SET DESIGN) in this film are about as good as they get.  While this is a very "light" film, I DO HOPE that come Oscar Season, this film gets remembered with regards to COSTUME DESIGN in particular:  For every time that Gaby came-up on the screen, I kept thinking of my (Chicago Art Institute diploma-ed / accredited) dress-designing mom who was in her 20s-30s in the 1960s and pretty much made / wore _exactly_ (!) the kind of light dresses that Gaby wore throughout the film.  (Honestly, I found this aspect of the film AN ABSOLUTE JOY).

So what then to say about this film?  Perhaps it's more optimistic than reality (certainly then, but also now) would warrant/deserve.  But this is a lovely / LIGHT film that offers the possibility of looking for the best in each other's characters (or at least of most characters) rather than looking for the worst.

So honestly, great job folks!  Honestly, great and _positive_ job!

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

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Straight Outta Compton [2015]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars) (4 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

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

BET coverage
Ebony coverage coverage articles

Straight Outta Compton [2015] (directed by F. Gary Gray, screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff) is a biopic about the late-1980s early-1990s Los Angeles-based "gangsta rap" group N.V.A.

Perhaps the most important thing that I can say about both their story and the film is that despite a very long list of (legitimate) complaints about the content of their songs and then their often violent / often misogynist off-stage behavior, the group did OFTEN tell the truth, certainly the truth as viewed from their perspective.

And I think I can say that because I LIVED IN LOS ANGELES during those same years, studying for a PhD (in Chemistry) at the University of Southern California, at the northern edge of South Central L.A.  I knew very well the buzzing of police helicopters over my head at night, pretty much _every night_.  And I watched a black man being spread-eagled / arrested at night in front of my student room for rent where I was living.

Later, after I finished my PhD, I still lived in the area during the L.A. Riots following the trial of the LAPD officers in the Rodney King arrest.  I will never forget the smell of the city burning on the first night of the rioting.  And I spent the second night at a priest friend's out in the suburbs near where I was working because I could not get home to the apartment where I still lived at the time (on the east side of Hollywood) because the area was still cordoned off by police who were trying to restore order.  I spent that evening with my priest friend and his Hispanic gang-intervention group standing on a street corner by a shopping center a few suburbs away, chanting to very agitated passerbys essentially "Give Peace a Chance" and I've never forgotten my impression of that angry night as: "So this is how the Apocalypse would look like" as it seemed like there was a near total (if thankfully temporary) unraveling of social order.

While I did not know Compton as well as I knew South Central L.A., I would have to say that comparisons to the notorious Soweto Township in South Africa would _not_ be entirely off-base.  As such, I totally get the sharp, spare-me-the-B.S.(!) language / anger of N.V.A.'s songs and the current film.

Now a fair number of non-blacks who've never lived in an area like Compton / South Central L.A. will simply not understand or _not get past_ the anger expressed in the N.V.A.'s songs and videos (Hence a fair question could be asked: 'Okay, you're absolutely right, but ... if you turn a lot of people off who's going to really listen to you?' But a fair response would probably be: 'Well a lot of those people who don't like us weren't going to listen to us anyway...").  A fair number of observers will also discount / dismiss N.V.A. (and other rappers like them) for their attitude / descriptions AND OFTEN ENOUGH (DOCUMENTED) BEHAVIOR toward WOMEN.  I also _completely_ understand the AFRICAN AMERICAN PARENTS precisely living in places like Compton / South Central L.A. who would be saying: "WE GET IT.  WE SEE IT.  BUT WE _DON'T_ WANT OUR KIDS LIVING LIKE YOU -- with guns, drugs and whores (or living as drug dealers / whores)."

So this is a film that is edgy about a rap group whose music was and remains _very disturbing_.   Parents, this film certainly deserves its R-rating.  But it's NOT a film / story to dismiss.

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez [2015]

MPAA (PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez [2015] (codirected by Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon) is a documentary about the prolific 80 year old African American writer / poet / educator Sonia Sanchez [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn]  co-foundress of the Black Arts/Studies Movement in California in the 1960s.

The documentary played recently as part of the 2015 (21st annual) Black Harvest Film Festival held here in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Her story could be inspiration to a lot of young educated men and women of color in the United States today because she had to navigate pretty much _every_ professional obstacle that could be placed in front of a woman or person of color to marginalize him/her:

Yes, she was a co-founder of the Black Studies Movement movement in the 1960s and hence had to FIRST DEFEND the very legitimacy of "Black Studies" as field worthy of academic endeavor and THEN had to fight clueless (generally white) university administrators who wanted the works of towering African American figures like Booker T. Washington (an African American leader of the post-Reconstruction Era who built an entire movement around African American self-reliance) and W.E.B. DuBois (the founder of the N.A.A.C.P. !) to be kept _outside_ of emerging Black Studies curricula (LOL ... probably "Uncle Tom's Cabin" would have been "okay" ...)

Then, she became an initially reluctant but as time went on _scathing_ African American opponent to the Black Panther movement also emerging in California in the 1960s for its horrendous marginalization / mistreatment of African American women.

For a time, she was part of the Nation of Islam movement RUNNING SCHOOLS FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSLIM WOMEN within the movement, until she came to realize with hard experience that this Muslim affiliated movement was, after all, (if _not_ explicitly hostile) not particularly oriented toward promoting higher / scholarly education of women.

And she did all this WHILE RAISING THREE CHILDREN -- two sons and a daughter -- in the course of two marriages (both eventually failed) and finally on her own.

What she did have, always, was her writing and her poetry and eventually a rock solid conviction that _violence_ of any kind, was NEVER the solution.

By then, living and teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia she publicly challenged then Philadelphia's African American mayor's 1985 decision to _bomb_ the somewhat odd, to many misguided, black separatist movement "MOVE's" compound in Philadelphia, an action that killed 11 MOVE members including 5 children.  Later, to oppose the 2003 Iraq War along with several other "grannies" (both black and white), she participated in a sit-in at at U.S. army recruitment office after the recruiters wouldn't take _their_ applications to enter the Army "rather than the young ones."

Those who know something about poetry will find her philosophy there fascinating: Sonia Sanchez [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] is famous for her free verse BUT she's also written _entire books_ on and in the style of Haiku and she would insist that her students become masters in form poetry _like but not inclusive_ of Haiku BEFORE going into free verse.  Also in the film, Ms Sanchez insisted that when she speaks, there's always a "sound track" (perhaps only in her imagination) behind it.  And indeed, most of the times when the film showed her reciting poetry, there was a jazz ensemble of one-sort-or-another playing "background."

All in all, I found this documentary about Ms. Sanchez to be a joy.  I found her person to be _very interesting_ and inspirational.  And I appreciate festivals such as this, the annual Black Harvest Festival held here in Chicago, as an opportunity to be introduced to people like her and to other artists, indeed often enough film makers, that I otherwise would probably never have learned about, but can enrich my / other's lives.

Great job!


While this documentary film was _wonderful_, one need not find / see it to learn about Sonia Sanchez [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn].  There's plenty to find about her across the internet, in book stores and in libraries.  Just follow the links I've placed along side her name ;-)

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