Monday, February 29, 2016

Where to Invade Next [2015]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review  

Where to Invade Next [2015] (written and directed by Michael Moore) is a film that to many Americans and to many Readers here would seem like a fantasy:

In a voice over, Michael Moore tells us that he had a dream: The President and U.S. Joint Chief of Staffs invited him over to the White House Situation Room and confessed that they had botched every single war since "the big one" (WW II) and asked him for help.  Michael Moore then offered himself as a "one man army" that would invade lands mostly inhabited by Caucasians with names that he could generally pronounce and that he would take from them ideas that would help make our land great again.

So dressed in an army flak jacket and cap and literally draped in the American flag, Michael Moore sets out to invade ...

Italy (where people seem to always be happy - "like they all just had sex" - why/how?  well they have state mandated 4 weeks vacation which when one includes state holidays and yes "everything closes for August and Christmas" becomes closer to 8 weeks + 13 months pay for 12 months of work each year, sure ;-),

France (where kids seem to eat well, even at school),

Slovenia (where even college education is free, even for foreigners, even for Americans who occasionally find their way to this educational shangrila),

Finland (which banned homework and standardized tests and yet their kids score higher on said international standardized tests, when apparently they take them, than any other country),

Norway (where even maximum security prisons are geared toward rehabilitation, the maximum sentence for any crime is 20 years, and yet has one of the lowest crime rates in the world),

Germany (that has accepted responsibility for past-Genocidal wars / the Holocaust and thus has been able to rejoin the rest of the world and quite happily move on ...),

Portugal (which lowed both crime and drug use by ... decriminalizing drug use and focusing on drug treatment instead),

Tunisia (a nominally Muslim country that actually constitutionally guarantees women equal rights),

and finally Iceland (land of the Vikings, which nonetheless elected the first woman President ever and has found that women run corporations actually run more honestly / better than those run by men.  In the financial crisis of 2008, every major bank in Iceland collapsed except for one run entirely by women which operated under the very simple principle -- if you can't explain it in one or two sentences then don't buy it -- and thus saved their shareholders the disaster of buying into those unfathomable "Collateralized Debt Obligations " that ended up tanking the world's economy).

 A lot of this may upset various American Readers.  How can it be?  It can't be that easy.  And Michael Moore does freely admit that most of these countries have much higher tax rates than the United States.  But he also notes that many of the above services need to be provided and paid for anyway.  And we do ... we just don't call them taxes ... and a lot of people here do without.

Anyway, Michael Moore has long been a lightning rod.   But he does give viewers a lot to think about.    Why do things _have to be_ the way they are here, and _can_ we learn, at least a little, from others?   Especially since many of the ideas that seem to work elsewhere, actually had their origins (or early support) here -- unions, state sponsored education, consumer protection laws, equal rights for women ...

So good job Michael Moore, good job!

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Sunday, February 28, 2016

88th Academy Awards (2016) - Review: An Awards Night to Remember

IMDb listing
Previous/Other years

Well the 88th Academy Awards will certainly not be forgotten for a while:

As was the case last year, from the moment that this year's nominees were an-nounced they were de-nounced for being #OscarsSoWhite : not a single African American was nominated for any award.  Fortunately, the host of the show, Chris Rock, who already had been hired for the gig long before then is African American and many of the presenters of the Awards were African American as well. 

But if one focused ONLY on this controversy, one would miss THE OTHER memorable statement made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which was that it picked Spotlight [2015] as the Best Picture of the year.

I have to admit that I found that somewhat surprising, not because it wasn't a good or important film.  Indeed, until the nominations lists started coming out and the other awards started to be handed out, I was certain that the film had the scale and importance deserving of the Best Picture Award.  But then while the film received many nominations from various other industry groups, it _did not seem_ to win a lot of awards (except for Best Screenplay and/or Best Ensemble Cast).  HOWEVER, it seemed to consistently WIN Best Film awards with Film Critics Associations.  So the film's victory should not come as that big of a surprise.

And as I wrote in my own review of the film, if this has a deterrent effect -- NO ONE (quite literally) wants to be "In the Spotlight" (like this) -- then that would be good.

But I would like to ask the industry then:

Would you WANT the Church to focus now EVEN MORE ON ITSELF even more than it already has in these last 10-15 years to root-out even the "last bit of sin" within its ranks?  OR WOULD YOU PREFER that WE PLACE OURSELVES between the National Guard, or whoever is going to be called out to rip-out our Hispanic MOSTLY CATHOLIC brothers and sisters (kids, parents, grandparents...) out of their homes to send them back to Mexico (KNOWING FULL WELL HERE THAT A FAIR PART OF AMERICA'S WHITE CATHOLICS WOULD WANT our police / national guard TO START DOING EXACTLY THAT -- ripping our Hispanic brothers and sisters out of our pews to send them back over the border)? 

Yes, child molestation (whether performed by a priest, stranger or family member is life destroying).  So is ripping someone's abuelita WHO HASN'T HURT ANYBODY out of her / her family's home and interning her in some football stadium prior to throwing her over the border.   (In my day job, I'm mostly responsible for serving the Spanish speaking community of my parish ... There are A LOT of people scared about where our country is heading in this regard...).

Or should someone like Fr. Plegher here in Chicago (on whom the John Cusack character in Spike Lee's, not nominated for anything, Chi-Raq [2015] was based) spend his time rooting out left-over child molesters within the Archdiocese of Chicago rather than consistently holding the city to account for the violence / lack of protection that's taking place in the poorer sections of our city.  Do #BlackLivesMatter or more generally #PoorPeopleMatter ?

I write this full well that we (The Catholic Church) deserved this film.  We failed.  But it should be clear that our Church does more than just sin.

And honestly if it won't be US ... the Catholics LED BY THE CLERGY to stand-up for our Hispanic brothers and sisters OR POOR PEOPLE IN GENERAL, WHO WILL?

Again, THIS WAS A VERY GOOD / THOUGHT PROVOKING and hopefully ACTION PRODUCING Awards Season this year.  And hopefully, it won't be forgotten soon.

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Friday, February 26, 2016

Gods of Egypt [2016]

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

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

Gods of Egypt [2016] (directed by Alex Proyas, screenplay by Matt Sazamaa and Burk Sharpless).  Sigh, where to start? ;-)

Lets begin by calling this film "Thor, er Horus, goes on Spring Break," for that is what it essentially is:  The film makers here tried to take the formula and even the aesthetics the recent Marvel Comics based mega-hit Thor [2011] and moving it to "ancient Egypt" produced ... a dizzying often painful mess to watch.

Now certainly Hollywood tries this trick all the time.  Movie-making always involves relatively big investment, even more so when special effects are involved.  So Hollywood generally tries to "minimize the risk."  When a studio strikes a "vein of gold" in the otherwise "dark mountain of the collective unconscious," sequels by said studio are sure to follow and then _all the big studios_ (the studio that made the original hit as well its rivals) quickly scramble to come-up with similar films which "tweak the formula just a little bit" until the newly discovered "vein of gold" is exhausted.  So the original Hunger Games [2012] hit produced not only Hunger Games [2013] [2014] [2015] sequels but also stories similar to the "Hunger Games"-like films like Divergent [2015] [2015] [2016], The Giver [2014], The Maze Runner [2014] [2015], The 5th Wave [2016] and so forth ...   

And so it is here: Thor [2011] featured a young, brash, good-looking yet still largely untested (Nordic) God named Thor (played in that film by Chris Hemsworth) whose father, the King of the Nordic Gods, Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins) was unsure if he was really ready to succeed him. Thus Thor needed prove himself worthy of the Role that awaited him.  How?  By proving himself humble, generous and just among "the little people," literally, "PEOPLE ... like us", represented in the film by "a team of Earthly scientists" (played by Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard).   In the midst of this, of course, a jealous / treacherous step-brother named Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) who wanted the throne as well.  So much had to ensue ...

In the case here, "set in ancient Egypt" a young brash, good-looking yet still largely untested (Egyptian) God Horus (played in this film by Danish born actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, an odd choice for an EGYPTIAN GOD, but he "looks a lot like Chris Hemsworth playing Thor ...") is about to be crowned King of the Egyptian Gods by his father Osiris (played by Australian born actor Bryan Brown) when Osiris' jealous / treacherous brother Set (played by Scotish born actor Gerard Butler) crashes the coronation, and ... without getting into a great deal of detail, essentially steals the crown for himself.  Horus must then prove himself worthy of the "Crown of his Father."  How?  By proving himself "nice, generous, just" to "little people" like us ... represented in this case by a wily young thief named Bek (played by Australian born Brenton Thailes) and his lovely "could have been a swimsuit model" girlfriend Zaya (played by Australian born Courtney Eaton).

What are all these Anglo-Nordic type doing playing lead roles in a movie that's supposed to be set in ancient Egypt?  Well, as I said, this film is essentially Thor, er Horus, Goes on Spring Break ;-).

And while, if I were African American, African period, or Egyptian for that matter, I'd be pissed, even the aesthetics of this film fit the "cold, ice / steel" aesthetics of proper to sharp-edged glacier-strewn conceptions of a Nordic mythic landscape.   Instead, this film was supposed to be set in necessarily rounder, earthier "reed-boat, flax and stone" okay also "bejeweled" world of Bronze Age Egypt.

One wonders "what could have been" if the film-makers sought to transpose the aesthetics / feel of Prince of Persia [2010] to this story rather than Thor [2011].  Admittedly, the principal stars of that film were Jake Gyllenhaal (of Dutch ancestry) and English born Gemma Atherton but at least Indian born Ben Kingsley played a prominent role as well as other actors/actresses of Latino / darker complected descent.  Further, the aesthetics in Prince of Persia [2010] were far more authentically Middle Eastern.

Instead, in the current film we have the Nordic Asgard of Thor largely transposed to the banks of the Nile.  And this then produces another problem.  At least in Thor [2011], his icy / steel, sharp edged Nordic "realm" was "on another world."  Here, in the current film, the Egyptian Gods "lived among us" (in the film, they are simply conceived as being _much_ taller than us, but otherwise, living alongside "regular people" (us) who simply serve them).  The result is that the natural and supernatural ("stone and steel") mix _so often together_ that the film _often_ very becomes difficult to follow.

Anyway, I'd honestly like to see a "do-over" here, with the same film produced using _far more_ (not totally but _far more_) darkly complected actors/actresses and using then _far less_ "iron and steel."  There is NO REASON, for instance, why "Grandpa (Sun God) Ra's" (played in the film, once again English born actor Goeffrey Rush) boat could not have been _made of reeds_ like in the Ancient Egyptian conception, instead of something that, once again, looked like "left-over graphics" from Thor [2011].

If this were to be done, perhaps the film would easier to watch and actually serve the audience to teach it something of Egyptian mythology.

Instead, entire film felt like a "giant plastic Inca relic" that one'd "buy" at some street shop in Cancun, while on ...

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

My 2016 Oscar Picks

IMDb listing
Previous/Other years

Once again diversity questions have dominated press coverage of the Oscars this year.  As I've written before, I believe that these questions simply expose the limits of the Oscars.

Each year there are many, many good / great innovative films as well as many, many good / great performances turned-in by many, many talented individuals.

Therefore, I do believe that there is a valued place for organizations like the NAACP [website] [wikip], BET [website] [wikip] to make their own lists and give-out their own awards.  Otherwise, we're all held hostage to a single organization, here the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which inevitably will have its own dynamics, limitations and politics.

Indeed, since completing the first year of my blog, I have put-out a list of my own annual "Denny Awards" based on criteria that I find more compelling / inclusive than those of the Oscars ;-)

But let's go through the list of this year's Oscar Nominees anyway ...

    WILL WIN - Tom Hardy (The Revenant)
    SHOULD WIN - Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Tom Hardy (The Revenant), Christian Bale (The Big Short) or Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)
    DESERVED CONSIDERATION - John Cusack (Chi-Raq), Liev Schreiber (Spotlight)

    WILL WIN - Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)
    SHOULD WIN - Elizabeth Banks (Love & Mercy), Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), Rooney Mara (Carol)
    DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Elizabeth Banks (Love & Mercy), Diane Lane (Trumbo)

    WILL WIN - Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
    SHOULD WIN - Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Géza Röhrig (Son of Saul (orig. Saul Fia)), John Cusack (Love & Mercy), Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl)
    DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Géza Röhrig (Son of Saul (orig. Saul Fia)), John Cusack (Love & Mercy)

    WILL WIN - Brie Larsen (Room)
    SHOULD WIN - Brie Larsen (Room), Kate Blanchett (Carol), Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)
    DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Deepika Padukone (Bajirao Mastani)

    WILL WIN - Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer (Spotlight)
    SHOULD WIN - Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner (Love & Mercy), Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer (Spotlight),  Ethan and Joel Coen (Bridge of Spies)
    DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner (Love & Mercy), John Scott (Maggie), Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night)

    WILL WIN - Phyllis Nagy (Carol) or Emma Donoghue (Room)
    SHOULD WIN - Spike Lee (Chi-Raq), Phyllis Nagy (Carol) or Emma Donoghue (Room)

    WILL WIN - Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant)
    SHOULD WIN - Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk (Meru), Joe Passarelli (Anomalisa), Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul (orig. Saul Fia)), Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant), Sandy Powell (Carol), Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight)
    DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk (Meru), Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul (orig. Saul Fia)), Robert Yeoman (Love & Mercy),  Rob Hardy (Ex Machina), Joe Passarelli (Anomalisa)

    WILL WIN - Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant) or George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)
    SHOULD WIN - Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Bajirao Mastani), László Nemes (Son of Saul (orig. Saul Fia)), Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant), George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road), Lenny Abrahamson (Room)
    DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Bajirao Mastani), László Nemes (Son of Saul (orig. Saul Fia)), Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Spike Lee  (Chi-Raq),

    WILL WIN - Inside Out
    SHOULD WIN - Inside Out
    DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Khahil Gibran's The Prophet

    WILL WIN - Son of Saul (orig. Saul Fia)
    SHOULD WIN - Son of Saul (orig. Saul Fia), Mustang

    WILL WIN - The Revenant
    SHOULD WIN -The Revenant, The Big Short, Son of Saul (orig. Saul Fia)
    DESERVED CONSIDERATION - Son of Saul (orig. Saul Fia), Bajirao Mastani

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Deadpool [2016]

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

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

Deadpool [2016] (directed by Tim Miller, screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, characters by Fabian Nicieza [wikip] [MC] [GR] [Amzn] [IMDb] and Rob Liefeld [wikip] [MC] [GR] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a film that I was originally quite ambivalent about seeing.

On the one hand, I've generally liked (and generally quite favorably reviewed) most of Marvel Comics' films.  On the other hand, it was released on a rather "bad weekend" for me  -- Valentine's Day fell on the First Sunday of Lent this year and the youth group (which I'm responsible for at our parish) has an bake sale each year around Valentine's Day.  Then right after the weekend, my Servite Province had a Chapter of Elections to which we all had to head after the weekend ... So I had to "prioritize" :-)

And I guessed that a promised-to-be "quite violent" Marvel Comics based movie being released for Valentine's Day (??) "wasn't gonna do all that well at the box office anyway" ;-) ;-).  So with the time that I had, I chose to see Zoolander 2 [2016] instead ;-)

It turned out, of course, that Deadpool [2016] had the best weekend opening at the box office for an R-rated movie in Hollywood history ;-).

So ... in part I'm "eating crow" here ;-), and on the other hand I always find these "box office surprises" fascinating invitations for analysis: WT... why did THIS (or THAT) movie prove to be so astonishingly successful?   And some of my most enjoyable reviews/blog entries (at least for me to write ;-) have involved trying to explain why films like Transformers 3: Dark of the World [2011], Underworld: Awakening [2012], Guardians of the Galaxy [2014] and Jurassic World [2015] proved to be such enormous box-office hits when on the surface their stories would have seemed, lets face it, "kinda weak" ;-) ...

-- Two 'races' of GIGANTIC alien shape-shifting robots come to Earth in order to ... smash things / each other while we (bystanders / Viewers / humanity) helplessly / with fascination (smiling, with popcorn in hand) watch -- Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon [2011]

-- A woman-turned-vampire dressed in a black rubberized suit and armed with two automatic machine-guns (one in each hand) and a truly unlimited amount of silver coated bullets, shoots-up legions upon legions of attacking ravenous werewolf-like "Lycans," in a battle that takes place, naturally mostly in darkness, down "in the sewers" of an otherwise "slumbering major city" -- Underworld: Awakening [2012]

-- A ten-year old kid who just lost his mother to cancer is ... abducted "by Aliens" ... and much, often quite nice, engaging and funny but certainly DIFFERENT than BEFORE ensues... -- Guardians of the Galaxy [2014]

-- The makers of Jurassic Park decide that what the world needs is ANOTHER Jurassic Park (-like story) ONLY WITH BIGGER NOW "GENETICALLY ENGINEERED" DINOSAURS (even the previous, "recreated" dinosaurs of the first generation were "no longer big enough").  What could possibly go wrong? -- Jurassic World [2015]

Everyone of these plot lines would seem, at first glance, to be ... "kinda stupid" ;-).  But I do think that most Readers here will immediately appreciate why these films proved astonishingly successful: They clearly "spoke to Viewers" on a deeper / more subconscious level.
So let's turn to the current film:

It's about a not-particularly sympathetic guy named Wade Wilson (played by Ryan Reynolds) former "special forces" now "getting by" / making a living as a "merc(enary)."  He hangs-out in a dive of a bar at the edge of some fallen town.  And on a board in the bar, people keep tabs / place odds on which of the thugs / other lowlifes / mercs who hang-out in said bar is probably gonna die next, hence the story's name: "Deadpool."

Well, Wade may not have been a particularly sympathetic guy, with few friends except, perhaps the bartender nicknamed Weasel (played by T.J. Miller), who with a nickname like "weasel" couldn't possibly be the most trustworthy of friends ;-), BUT ... in this existential hell-hole, Wade does find love ... in a stripper named Vanessa (played by Morena Baccarin).  And so things start "looking up" for him when ... he comes down with cancer.

Wade's not exactly the kind of guy who would have "taken care of himself" and as a "merc" he didn't exactly have the best of health plans.  And Vanessa as a stripper probably didn't have the greatest of health plans either.

What to do?  Well, not wanting to force his one true love, Vanessa, watch him suffer and die, he submits to "an experimental treatment" offered him by a quite shady looking character who promises that the treatment will not only "cure his cancer" but also "give him special abilities."  Wade could care less about promised "special abilities," he just wanted the cancer cured.

Well he's cured of the cancer, receives special abilities (his body's cells can now regenerate faster than his cancer could ever kill them ... and this regeneration ability renders him all but immortal now because his regenerating cells can now quickly heal any wound that could be afflicted on him) BUT ... HE'S HORRIBLY DISFIGURED in the process.

With awful scars, bubbling boils all over his body (perhaps the result of this constant cellular regeneration) he now LOOKS like "a pool of death" -- like a "Deadpool" hence his new nickname and the _second_ use of the name in the story.

Well, cured but "looking like a pool of death," doesn't exactly make him want to go back to Vanessa.  After all, he wanted to spare her the agony of watching him die.  Now he wanted to spare her the agony of watching him live on -- looking like a monster.

So what to do?  He wants revenge ... against the Evil "English Accented" Doctor nicknamed "Ajax" (played by Ed Skrein) who made him into the monster that he's become.  Much ensues ...

Now Marvel Comics fans will know that Wade/Deadpool [MC] becomes a Wolverine-like character in the X-Men [MC] [Films 2011 2014] Universe inhabited by other "mutants" with both spectacular abilities but also very difficult back stories.  But to be honest, how "Deadpool" fits in with the rest of the Marvel Universe is not particularly important here.



Well it is a love story ;-).  And yes, while neither Wade nor his girlfriend Vanessa were exactly "good people," they were "little/regular people with some (definite) issues" (LIKE MOST OF US...) and AT LEAST THEY HAD EACH OTHER.  Then ... CANCER came into the story ... and The Rest ensued.

Honestly, it's a "blue collar" 21st century "Beauty and the Beast" [wikip].   That story brought tears to people's eyes since the European Middle Ages.  Why couldn't this story do the same?  And it does.  One of the biggest surprises to me has been how many _young women_ (not male / "dateless" 20-something "fan boys" ;-) but young 20-something+ women) from my parish have seen this movie AND LIKED IT.

Fascinating ;-)

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Race [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review (K. Fields) interview w. Stephan James on playing Jesse Owens
Atlanta Daily World (T. Shropshire) article on film's red carpet premiere in Atlanta, GA

Race [2016] (directed by Stephen Hopkins, screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) plays as a SOLID children's oriented (school / family friendly) film about 1930s era African American track-star Jesse Owens [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the film by Stephan James).

Adults might come away a little disappointed, as various aspects of the story from (perhaps) parts his personal life to the racism of the time (both in the U.S. and Nazi Germany) were softened for the children's audience.  Nevertheless, the broad points of his story are there:

Hitler's Regime wished to make Germany's holding of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin a showcase of Nazi / Aryan supremacy.  Yet an unlikely African American athlete, Jesse Owens, who grew-up in an environment of otherwise obvious Jim Crow Era racial prejudice against him at home, ended-up showing-up this Nazi-style White Supremacist arrogance in such spectacular fashion -- winning 4 gold medals and even the friendship / admiration of some of the GERMAN athletes, notably German long jumper Carl "Lutz" Long (played in the film by David Cross) with whom he made a lifelong friendship -- that pretty much THE ONLY THING THAT PEOPLE REMEMBER TODAY OF THE 1936 OLYMPICS is Jesse Owens winning all those medals ;-)

And the film does point out various other, less known aspects of the story:

(1) The U.S. came _very close_ (within 2 votes of the U.S. Olympic Committee) to boycotting the Berlin Olympics completely, and then U.S.O.C. chairman Jeremiah Mahoney (played in the film William Hurt) actually resigned in protest after the boycott vote failed.

(2) Jesse Owens' 4th gold medal, in the 4x 100 m relay came at the expense of two JEWISH AMERICAN athletes -- Marty Glickman [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the film by Jeremy Ferdman) and Sam Stoller [wikip] (played in the film by Giacomo Giancotti) -- set to run for the American team in the race, who were scratched by the head official of the U.S. Olympic team, Avery Brundage (played in the film by Jeremy Irons) at the behest of Nazi officials for not exactly "salutary reasons" that play themselves out in the film.  One feels sorry for those two Jewish-American athletes, Glickman and Stoller, who were simply told that they won't run (and one HONESTLY WONDERS "what could have been" if they did). And yet (AT THAT TIME...) what could the two have honestly done?  So they simply tell Jesse Owens and the others: YOU BETTER WIN.  That's honestly the _saddest_ moment in the film.

(3) We're reminded of the controversial Nazi era film-maker Leni Riefenstahl [wikip] [IMDb-dir] [IMDb-ch] (played in the film by Carice Van Hauten).  I had always thought that she was a bigger Nazi sympathizer than apparently she was (after WW II, she won upwards of 50 libel cases against people with regards to the question of her ties with Hitler and the Nazi party).  In to the story here, she's shown as having broad (arguably exclusive) rights to the filming of the Berlin Olympics, but it's certainly noted that she quarreled with the Nazis, notably with Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebels [wikip] [IMDb] (played by Barbary Metschurat) over various aspects of her filming of said Games.  More to point / more poignantly, we're reminded that regardless of whatever else we may have previously thought of Leni Riefenstahl, she pointedly insisted on filming _the whole Olympics_ (including Jesse Owens' victories) and that she may have even invited Jesse Owens to make some extra long jumps for her so that she could better capture them for her film.  And we're reminded today that whatever footage we have of Jesse Owens' performance at the Berlin Olympics, we have largely thanks to her.  It makes for an interesting point, and one that supports her insistence after the War that she never was a Nazi, just a very conscientious / very precision driven film-maker, who, yes, due to her thoroughness and the high quality of her work, many German government officials (who at the time were Nazis) liked.  Again, something to, perhaps, think about, when thinking about her legacy.

(4) We're reminded at the end of the film, that even though Jesse Owens was / is celebrated as "the One who showed-up Hitler at the Games", when he returned to the United States, he still largely walked-back into the same Jim Crow era United States that he had left.  Pointedly, we're reminded that while Hitler refused to congratulate him / shake his hand at the Games, FDR _didn't_ publicly congratulate him / invite him to the White House / "shake his hand" EITHER when he came home. 

Sigh ... that's how it was ... Yet, certainly NO ONE will doubt today that Jesse Owens' success at the Berlin Olympics helped _to begin_ to "change hearts / minds" in the United States making all sorts of motions toward eventual equality between Whites and Blacks in the States possible: Even the celebrated (still necessarily ALL African American squadron) of Tuskegee Airmen [2012 film] and future baseball hall of famer Jackie Robinson [2013 film] owed a lot to Owens' legacy.

So then, this is a very nice, again children / family / school friendly film, reminding us both of "where we were" and where we are (hopefully in a better place) today.

Good job!

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Monday, February 22, 2016

Risen [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (Sr. R. Pacatte) review (K. Schiffer) review (M. Foust) review

ChicagoTribune (K. Walsh) review (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review  

While many Catholic / Christian reviewers (above) have dutifully even surprisingly gushed over the recent film Risen [2016] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Kevin Reynolds along with Paul Aielo on whose story the film is based) I left decidedly unimpressed. 

Call it a rather poor mash-up of Ben Hur [1959] and CSI [2000-2015] that expects its audience to be not particularly bright:   The story follows an invented Roman Legionary named Clavius (played by Joseph Fiennes) who is tasked by Pontius Pilate (played by Peter Firth) to investigate "the Rumors" that the Galilean preacher Yeshua (Jesus, played by Cliff Curtis), who was brought to him by the Sanhedrin (the Jewish temple authorities) in the midst of the already quite chaotic Jewish festivities of Passover and who he had crucified, had now somehow "risen from the dead."

Okay, the premise itself does not sound bad.  Wouldn't Pilate have made such an investigation?  Perhaps or ... PERHAPS NOT.

Pilate is presented _in all four of the Gospels_ as NOT HAVING EVEN KNOWN who Jesus was (esp. John 18:33ff) prior to him being presented to him by the Sanhedrin for quick trial / crucifixion.  Yes, Pilate did order a plaque be put over Jesus' head on the Cross declaring him "The King of the Jews" but the conventional interpretation of the gesture was that it was sarcastic: "Yes, this is 'YOUR KING', nailed to OUR CROSS.  This will happen TO ANYONE who defies OUR AUTHORITY."

So Pilate could well have been "done" with the affair as soon as Jesus was dead / put in the grave.  Yes, the Gospels report that Jewish Authorities came to him and asked for a guard be placed by the tomb and that he obliged.  BUT THE GOSPELS DO NOT REPORT THAT PILATE CONCERNED HIMSELF ONE WAY OR ANOTHER after the tomb was empty.  Besides by the day of Jesus' Resurrection the "annual Roman nightmare" that was the Jewish Passover was over.  It was time to just pack-up go home (to Ceasarea Philippi). As the Pilate imagined in (1970s-era) Jesus Christ Superstar declared: "You Jews (back in Jesus' time) pick your Messiahs (anointed ones) by the sackful ..." 

Where the story here collapses however, is in its imagining of how EASY such a ROMAN investigation would have been, almost like in the NY based Law and Order [1990-2010] series.

Why would it be hard?  Well (1) The Romans and the Jews didn't speak each others' language, (2) The Romans were OCCUPIERS and THE JEWS HATED THEM, (3) Beyond the "normal" hatred that would have existed between the Roman occupiers and the Jewish occupied populace, the Jews of the time took it even a step further, where they wouldn't normally even talk (even if they could) with the Roman occupiers (hence why Pilate didn't even know who Jesus was prior to him being brought to him by the Jewish authorities).

So a ROMAN investigation into Jesus' rumored Resurrection wouldn't have been a simple calling of Mary, mother of Jesus (played by Frida Cauchi) / Mary Magdalene (played by Maria Botto) "over to the Constabulary" "for a chat": "Before we get started, would you want some coffee or perhaps a donut?"  It would be more like our troops investigating "the whereabouts of some random Islamic mystic / perhaps two-bit terrorist" after some incident at some Shiite holy day celebrated in (the Shiite holy city of ) Karbala during the years of our recent occupation of Iraq -- Who'd honestly "talk to us"?  We'd have to go out and capture them.  Would "our people" even be able to understand what they had to say even if "they" did talk to us (first in terms of language, then of custom)?  And could we trust anything that "they" told us even if we did (sort of) understand?

So this film is horrendously, even arrogantly naive -- all the characters in the film, of course, speak English (the Romans, English accented of course).   And Clavius, of course, is largely "converted" by the experience after being _welcomed_ into THE INNERMOST CIRCLE of Jesus' disciples (the Apostles), this even before Pentecost, heck even before Jesus' Ascension.

Anyone who doesn't see a problem with this, PLEASE READ THE BOOK OF ACTS  to appreciate "the journey of conversion" that it was FOR THE EARLY CHURCH to begin accepting non Jews into the Christian faith:  Long after Pentecost (Acts 2), St. Peter (played in the film by Stewart Scudamore) had difficulty EVEN ENTERING A ROMAN LEGIONARY'S HOUSE (Acts 10), and even afterwards, after the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15, Gal 2) where the Early Church formally accepted non-Jewish Christians (mostly Greeks) into the Church, St. Paul wrote to the Galatians that he had to reprimand him for his inconsistency of not eating with Greek Christians when Jewish Christians were around (Gal 2:11ff).

So it's just a sloppy film that assumes that its audience is too either dumb or simply too Anglocentric to appreciate the complexities -- ethnic/linguistic, religious, political -- of Jesus' time.

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Sunday, February 14, 2016

2015 Denny Awards - Pt 2 - Most Compelling Performances (Male)

Part 2/3 of my Annual "Denny Awards" ;-)
(Other Years' Awards)

Part I - Best Films of 2015

Part II - Most Compelling Performances / Character Roles (Male)
Part III - Most Compelling Performances / Character Roles (Female)

CHILD (male)

    Most Compelling:
            Amir and Amiri O'Neill twin brothers who play Michael, an African American boy in the Deep South of the 1950s, who just wanted taste the "white people's water" in White Water [2015]
     Honorable Mentions: 
             Steele Stebbins as Kevin, the "evil little brother" / younger son in the remake of Vacation [2015]     
             Petr Šimčák and Jan Maršál as Tomáš and Haris, 11 year old BFFs video-chronicling their 6th grade year, growing up in the Czech midsized South Bohemian town / regional capital of Česke Budejovice in To See the Sea (orig. Pojedeme k Moři) [2014] 
            Noah Wiseman as Samuel, a 7 year-old Australian boy "with some issues" being raised by a harried widowed mother in Babadook [2014]           
            Bill Melendez voicing Charlie Brown,  Alexander Garfin voicing Linus in The Peanuts Movie [2015]

TEEN (male)

    Most Compelling:
            Atli Oskar Fjalarsso as Ari a 15-year-old child of divorce in the Icelandic film Sparrows [2015] who comes to better appreciate his quite simple fisherman-by-trade of a father (played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) after his mother basically abandons him to him for a "far more interesting" Danish man who "works for some NGO" somewhere in Africa.  
    Honorable Mentions:
             Nat Wolff as the somewhat nerdy high-schooler named Quentin in Paper Towns [2015] who falls in love with (in his view) a far cooler young girl, but as the story goes on, he learns far more than he had expected.
             Dylan O'Brien as Thomas who in The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials [2015] learns that a society that would put quite random teenagers (or any teenagers) into a maze is going to be pretty desperate / messed up.  Why would it do that?  Well, why?
              Pedro Maia as Ciao a high-schooler in Salvador Brazil in the mid-1980s in After the Rain (orig. Depois da Chuva) [2013] a "John Hughes"-like film but set in the context of Brazilian reality: as Brazil was transitioning from nearly two decades of military rule to democracy once again and concurrently Ciao's own school was electing a student government for the first time in a similarly long time.
            Thales Cavalcanti as Jean a previously quite "pampered rich kid" in Casa Grande [2015] in his last year prior to going to college.  The role plays-out as a straighter / more serious version Tom Cruise's in Risky Business [1983].  Basically Jean has to grow-up and to some extent "on his own."  
             Skyler Gisondo as the annoying / übersensitive older brother James in the remake of Vacation [2015] 
YOUNG ADULT (male)            
     Most Compelling:

              Ravi Patel as a somewhat fictionalized version of himself in Meet the Patels [2015] who despite being born already in the States or having arrived here when he was very young, tries very, very hard to fulfill his immigrant parents' dream of "marrying another Patel."  An unforgettable, often funny and heartfelt performance that gives viewers a lovely view into his / his parents' world.
     Honorable Mentions:
               Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson who's grown-up knowing he was the illegitimate son of the boxer Apollo Creed (of  Rocky saga fame), who's had a lot of confusion about this and good deal of anger issues as well to deal with as he tries to decide what he wants to be / do with his life in Creed [2015]
               Sam Riley as Grieder, a "stranger" from America who rides in, on horseback, to a high Alpine village in Austria of the late 1800s in The Dark Valley (orig. Das Finstere Tal) [2014]What's he doing there?  He says his mother was from there.  What's he doing there now?  He's says he's there "to set things right." 
              Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann a young junior Prosecutor in Frankfurt, West Germany in the early 1960s, who decided in good part out of boredom to follow-up on a seemingly small case that opened-up into the 1960s-era Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials in which hundreds of former Nazis were tried (finally) in German courts for their Nazi Era Crimes, in Labyrinth of Lies (orig. Im Labyrinth des Schweigens) [2014] 
              Daniel de Oliveira as Arminto Cordovi a prodigal son of a rich shipbuilder from Belem, Brazil along the banks of the Amazon in Orphans of Eldorado (orig. Órfãos do Eldorado) [2015].  He returns home, not exactly repentant, at the behest of his father's housekeeper, who knows the father is dying.  Yet instead of reconciliation with dad, he falls in love with a random if attractive lounge-singer he meets at a random river-side bar and spends the next 10 years chasing after her up and down the river in what becomes almost a Brazilian (though sexier) Apocalypse Now [1979]
               Rodrigo De la Serna as Sebastian a random if generally nice / underemployed 20-something Argentinian who's given by an elderly man, who turns out to be an Argentinian Muslim a surprising / challenging assignment in Road to La Paz (orig. Camino a La Paz) [2015]
              Odilion Esteves as simply "Any Man" in the Brazilian sci-fi film Blue Desert (orig. Deserto Azul) [2014] where everyone seemed content, the basic needs of all seemed met, but everyone, communicating almost entirely by computer / smartphone like devices also seemed lonely.
                Alejandro Aguilar as Luis, a gregarious construction worker / part-time referee who in this Colombian film Wasting Time (orig. Tiempo Perdido) [2014] composed of ever so slightly interconnected Crash [2004] / Babel [2006]-like vignettes has put much of his dreams on hold care to take care of his mother who's come down with Alzheimers Disease.

ADULT (male)
    Most Compelling:
                 David Wilmot in the Irish film Gold [2014], Tomasz Kot in the Polish film Life Must Go On (orig. Żyć nie umierać) [2015] and Konstantin Khabenskiy in the Russian film The Geographer Drank His Globe (World) Away (orig. Географ Глобус Пропил) [2013] all playing essentially the same role, that of men in their late 30s-40s who've realized that they've made some very big mistakes in life, disappointing a large number of loved ones, and seeking, with varied degrees of success to "make amends" or at least "make peace" with their situation.
    Honorable Mentions:
                Géza Röhrig as Saul Ausländer in Son of Saul (orig. Saul Fia) [2015] as an inmate in Auschwitz during WW II trying desperately to keep at least a tiny shred of agency / dignity in an otherwise utterly inhuman / Hellish situation.

                Kevin James as the honest if perhaps somewhat "boring" "regular guy" Paul Blart in Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 [2015].  Yes, no one aspires to grow-up to be a "mall cop," but he's come to embrace his super-mundane job with awe inspiring sincerity.
                John Cusack as a model Fr. Pfleger-like activist priest in Chi-Raq [2015]
                Arnold Schwarzenegger as an good / honest Midwestern Farmer trying to do the right thing even after his beloved oldest daughter had been attacked and bitten by Zombies and was now slowly, irreversibly turning into a Zombie herself in Maggie [2015]
                Tom Hanks as  James B. Donovan a New York insurance lawyer / former Nuremberg Trial lawyer and quiet Patriot who is recruited by the U.S. government to quietly / competently negotiate an early Cod War Ear prisoner swap Russian spy Rudolf Abel for U.S. U-2 pilot Gary Powers) in Bridge of Spies [2015]
                 Kevin Costner as Jim White, a previously problematic high school teacher / football coach in McFarland, USA [2015] finally lands a job way out at a high school in the San Joaquin Valley where the kids don't really have time to play football.  But what they do is ... run.  So he becomes the coach of a truly remarkable all-Hispanic California cross country team.
                Ed Helms as the now adult Rusty Griswald of American family comedic classic Vacation [1983] fame, who's basically "grown-up to be his dad" in Vacation [2015] the sequel 30 years later, putting "family first" to such an extent that though an airline pilot he spends more time getting out of the parking-lot to come home from work than in the air.  On the other hand, he really cares about his family.
                Édgar Ramírez as Tony, Joy Mongano's ex-husband in Joy [2015] who remains nice and a worthwhile confidante to Joy even after their divorce, reminding us that it is possible divorce / separate amicably.
                Ben Stiller as Josh in While We're Still Young [2015] who for reasons not entirely clear (certainly it's partly his fault, but it's also partly not) has never reached his potential, becoming an increasing disappointment to his wife (played by Naomi Watts) and especially to his former mentor father-in-law (paleyd by Charles Grodin)

ELDER (male)
    Most Compelling:
                 José Carlos Ruiz, Eduardo Manzano, Luis Bayardo) playing three octogenarian friends in One for the Road (orig. En el Último Trago) [2014] who decide to fulfill the dying wish of a fourth life-long buddy (played by Pedro Weber 'Chatanuga') and go on a road trip to carry an autographed napkin given to the fourth friend by a famous mariachi singer with the lyrics of that singer's most famous song back to the museum dedicated to that singer's memory in that singer's home town.  Much, often heartfelt, hilarious, and often _very, very slow_ ensued ;-)
    Honorable Mentions:
                Ernesto Suárez as Khalil in the Argentinian film - Road to La Paz (orig. Camino a La Paz) [2015] an elderly Muslim immigrant to Argentina who near the end of his life decides that he wants to complete the Hajj (the once in a lifetime pilgrimage that Muslims are asked to undertake to Mecca).  To help him along on the first let of his journey, from Buenos Aires to La Paz,  Khalil invites a nice if random 20-something Argentinian driver to take him there.
                Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes [2015] as an aging Sherlock Holmes, trying to solve one last case whose resolution eluded him up-onto-this point.  But he's ALSO really "starting to forget"
                Robert DeNiro as Ben a retired widower who after 5 years of retirement decides that he'd still like to do some more with his life in The Intern [2015]
                Silvester Stallone as a now older Rocky Balboa serving as a mentor figure to Adonis Johnson a son of his friend / fellow boxer Apollo Creed in Creed [2015]

    Most Compelling:   
                   Michael Shannon as Florida "Real Estate Broker" turned Mephistopheles in 99 Homes [1999] who, "a survivor" that he was had made the 2008 Financial Crisis / Housing Collapse "work" ... for him.
    Honorable Mentions:
                  Sam Riley as Grieder, a "stranger" from America who rides in, on horseback, to a high Alpine village in Austria of the late 1800s in The Dark Valley (orig. Das Finstere Tal) [2014] to "set things right."
                  Dylan O'Brien as Thomas in The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials [2015] who even after escaping "the Maze" at the end of the first episode of this story, spend much of this the second, trying to figure "What the heck is going on?" (Why was I / we in The Maze to begin with?)
                  Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson who's grown-up knowing he was the illegitimate son of the boxer Apollo Creed (of  Rocky saga fame), who's had a lot of confusion about this and good deal of anger issues as well to deal with as he tries to decide what he wants to be / do with his life in Creed [2015]
                 Matt Damon as Astronaut Mark Watney who after being left behind on Mars during sand storm, doesn't lose his head but slowly, methodically works out a means of reestablishing contact with Earth and then surviving long enough to be rescued in The Martian [2015]
                 Daniel de Oliveira as Arminto Cordovi a something of an a-hole (not exactly repentant) prodigal son of a rich man who comes home to his dying father in Orphans of Eldorado (orig. Órfãos do Eldorado) [2015] only to run off again chasing after some random if attractive lounge singer he heard in some random riverside side.  
                 Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Midwestern Farmer trying to do what is right even in the midst of a Zombie Apocalypse and after his beloved oldest daughter had been attacked and bitten by Zombies and was now slowly, irreversibly turning into one herself in Maggie [2015]

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