Sunday, July 31, 2016

Bad Moms [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review  

Bad Moms [2016] (cowritten and codirected by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) is an often crude film though not nearly as crude as say the Hangover [2009-] movies.  Still the film certainly deserves its R-rating and the target audience really are ... moms ... often overworked and often underappreciated.

The opening voice-over by Mila Kunis, who plays Amy the eventual ring-leader of the "Bad Moms club" at a random suburban school nominally located somewhere in the Chicago area, could make you cry:  A harried working mother of two, Dylan (played by Emjay Anthony) and Jane (played by Oona Laurence) both somewhere between 10 and 12, married to a quite clueless, entitled-feeling dolt of a  husband, Mike (played by David Walton) who's definitely _not_ pulling his weight, certainly not with domestic chores at home (and again, "doesn't have a clue"...), Amy confesses that "the only thing that I've become good at is ... being late" and "at least once a day, I become convinced that I've somehow become the worst mother in the world."  

Sigh ... I do believe that A LOT OF MOTHERS feel that way though I do hope that the clueless, entitled-feeling dolt of a husband is above all a device invented by the scriptwriters to give their heroine Amy permission to enter into a (let's face it, morally unjustifiable but "wouldn't it be nice") inappropriate relationship with the school's "hot widower" (As he walks by with his cute-as-a-button eight year old daughter, one of the ogling moms, distracted by his studliness, says: "I'm sooo happy that he _lost his wife_ ... he's sooo hot" ;-).  Yes, it's that kind of movie with things that are _just unbelievably inappropriate_ being said in rapid fire every couple of minutes or so ;-).    Another memorable line was that of Carla (played by Kathryn Hahn) another "charter member of the Bad Moms club" fondly recalling in almost "sharknado fashion" her twenties (after Amy confesses that part of her life's difficulties was that she married early - at 20 when she got pregnant by Mike) saying: "Yup, you missed out.  It was just raining d..ks, in my twenties, just a deluge, falling from the sky, left, right, everywhere, nothing, nothing, nothing but d..ks." 

So dear Readers, you get an idea of what this movie is like.  There's also some creepy "Hollywood messaging" in the film in which the good old "Bad Girl" of the Bad Moms club Carla apparently goes on a same-sex kissing binge of a whole bunch of previously "uptight PTA moms" at a party thrown by the Bad Moms.  Imagine if a guy went around randomly kissing those previously "uptight PTA moms."  It'd be denounced by many as sexist and creepy, making light of unwanted sexual advances.  Here same sex creepiness is portrayed as "hey, okay."  Anyway, it's a small point, but it's there.

So is this a "great movie?"  No.  But I do think a lot of moms today would get a kick out of it.  It does say things that are wildly inappropriate, but precisely because they shock the ears, they're often LOL funny.

In any case, moms please don't take your little kids to this and (obviously) don't make this film "your Bible."  But ... enjoy the laughs ;-)

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Friday, July 29, 2016

Jason Bourne [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review  

Call Jason Bourne [2016] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Paul Greengrass along with Christopher Rouse based on characters from the Bourne Novels by Robert Ludlum [wikip] [GR] [IMDb]) "The Bourne Replacement(s): The Rise of the Millennials" ;-).

Heck, even one of those pesky computer savvy Millennials, CIA Cyber-Ops head Heather Lee (played quite convincingly by Alicia Vikaner) shares with Jason Bourne (played again as from the film franchise's beginning by Matt Damon), right there behind his shoulder, some of the film's promotional posters ;-).  (The other significant Millennial in the story is a very well (even _bravely_) crafted character named Aaron Kalloor (played by Riz Ahmed) the founder / CEO of a 1.5 billion user-strong Facebook-like social media platform called Deep Dream). 

Poor previously brain-washed ("for the sake of the country") late baby-boomer / genX-er Jason Bourne is still trying to figure out who he really is / was.  He gets some help early-on in the story from his similarly-aged former handler Nicky Parsons (played by Julia Stiles) who with help of an Anonymous-like hackers' collective operating out of Reykjavik, Iceland hacks the CIA's files about the super-secret super-Assassin program Operation Treadstone (which "created" poor Jason) as well as its successor programs right up to its most recent incarnation called Iron Hand.  Nicky then seeks to meet him in Athens, Greece (which proves to be in the midst of Benghazi-like chaos), while "late greatest generation" /  "early baby-boomer" aged CIA director Robert Dewey (played by Tommy Lee Jones) on advice of young sprightly (millennial aged) CIA Cyber-Ops head Heather Lee sends another "Bourne aged" Agency "Asset" super-assassin (played by Vincent Cassell) to intercept them.  And so it's "game on" from there... with the story passing through Berlin, Washington and finally ending with chase sequence in Las Vegas that would be _very hard_ to "stay" in Las Vegas ;-)

As has been the case already in the previous Bourne films, the Viewer is starkly presented with at least THE POTENTIAL of the intelligence agencies of our time, from creating super-assassins like Jason Bourne or "the Asset" hunting him, to a surveillance state which allows the feeds from  EVERY random "traffic cam" / "surveillance cam" installed across the _entire_ "free world" to be called-up and viewed by CIA HQ at Langley at will.

But what really fascinated me in this film was the "multi-generational battle" that was taking place with the "Old Guard" represented by TLJ's aging CIA director Robert Dewey willing to use / dispose of Matt Damon's Jason Bourne and even the Bourne aged "Asset" that Dewey sends out to kill him, preferring to work-with / hand-over the reins of power to the Millennials represented by Vikaner's spritely CIA Cyber Ops head Heather Lee and Riz Ahmed's private sector tech-guru Aaron Kalloor.

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST MOVIE that has suggested this dynamic with the "Greatest Generation / Early Babyboomer" generation preferring _their grandchildren_ (the Millennials) to their children (the late Babyboomers / GenXers).   The Noah Baumbach directed, Ben Stiller / Naomi Watts vs. Adam Driver / Amanda Seyfried starring dramedy While We're Still Young [2014] made a similar point.

Anyway, the "even _now_ trying to figure out who he actually is" Jason Bourne becomes an interesting symbol for that late-boomer / GenX generation (of which, I'm actually part ;-)

Good to great and certainly though-provoking job!

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Café Society [2016]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review  

Café Society [2016] (written and directed by Woody Allen [wikip] [IMDb]) is ... "this year's Woody Allen movie."  That said, one does wonder, he being 81 years of age, how many more he'll be able to make.

Indeed, on numerous levels there was a swansong quality to this film: 

First, this was a nostalgia / period piece set in both New York / Hollywood of yesteryear (more or less of the 1930s): A young Jewish kid named "Bobby" (played by Jesse Eisenberg) from The Bronx sets out to L.A. in hopes that his "made it there" rich "Hollywood producer" uncle Phil Stern (played by Steve Carell) could find him a job / some job "in the business." 

Well, wide eyed Bobby got an education in disappointment and not just in employment but above all in human frailty.  While there, he watches his uncle leave his wife of 25 years for a 25 year old.  And Bobby hears his uncle confess to him "My wife did nothing wrong.  She's a good woman and has been a good wife."  So why did he leave her?  He simply fell, completely fell for the other (much) younger woman.  On the flip side, Bobby learned (to his disappointment) that he really wasn't yet ready for the seemingly age appropriate woman that he had fallen for, Vonnie (played by Kristen Stewart).  There some things being said there that Allen would have experience with.

Bobby returns, disappointed, to New York and gets a job working at a club for another uncle of his, Ben Dorfman (played by Corey Stoll) who, having not exactly lived an honest life and staring death in the face, despite having been born and raised Jewish, has something of a last-gasp conversion to ... CATHOLICISM ;-).  Why?  The possibility of both forgiveness and an afterlife.  "I'd want something of me to go on after I die."  And even one of his sisters admits: "If we Jews believed in an afterlife, we'd probably have more followers."  On one hand, it all seems rather flippant.  On the other hand, even with a smile, Allen makes some of the most penetratingly serious movies around (witness last year's Irrational Man [2015]) and at 81 ... Allen today is facing (approaching) death as well.  Again, there's a lot being suggested in this rather surprising subplot.

Finally, Allen himself does the voice over / narration parts in this film and it is clear that he was struggling with his own lines, especially at the beginning.

So yes, as much as I've enjoyed so many of Woody Allen's movies over the years, it's pretty clear to me that there aren't going to be many more.  And if there's been a "Confessional" quality to a number of his most recent films, I'm neither surprised and actually somewhat relieved for him.  For I do belong to the Catholic Church, and I do believe therefore that we will meet our Maker at the end.  And what certainly coming to terms with what we've done in this life (both the Good and not so Good) certainly would make that encounter easier.

In any case, Allen leaves his viewers (again) with a quite a lot to think about.

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Paris, Love, Cut (orig. Arnaud fait son 2e film ) [2015]

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

IMDb listing listing* (A. Champilou) review* (A.  Hée) review*
Le Parisien (P. Vavasseur) review*

Paris, Love, Cut (orig. Arnaud fait son 2e film ) [2015] [IMDb] []* (written and directed by Arnaud Viard [IMDb] []* [fr.wikip]*) is a Seinfeld / Woody Allen-ish film about the late 40-something y.o. writer/directer, well, "making his second film" (which is the movie's French title). 

It's a simple, charming enough story, inspired by the writer / director's experiences, no doubt somewhat fictionalized, and it closed the opening night of the 2016 Chicago French Film Festival (organized annually by the French Diplomatic Mission to the United States and held each year at the Music Box Theater on Chicago's North Side).

In the film "Arnaud" (played by Arnaud Viard [IMDb] []*[fr.wikip]* himself) who had made a successful indie-like film some years back (in reality, the writter/directer had made exactly such a film Clara et Moi [2004] IMDb] []*) before making a somewhat successful career of being an actor on TV.

But in the film "Arnaud" was not _super successful_ as said "actor on TV" ... Yes people "on the street" do occasionally recognize him, but he's _not_ particularly rich.  Indeed, a good part of the film is about him trying to get financing for said "second film" as _small_ in scope as it was.   And, partly to give him something to do, as he's between gigs on TV and trying to get his film off the ground, and partly _to simply pay his bills_ he teaches at a Parisian drama school.

Then "Arnaud's" personal life is something of a mess.  In the film, he's not really with anyone.  He's trying to help is 40-something _ex-girlfriend_ Chloe (played by Irène Jacob [IMDb] []*) get pregnant (by IVF).  It's proving to be not particularly easy.  They had put this off (until actually after their break-up ...) and while not impossible, not easy either.  In his late 40s, "Arnaud" himself discovers that it's getting harder for him to get, well ... you know.

His drama class goes well.  Naturally, there's a love interest, Gabrielle (played by Louise Coldefy [IMDb] []*) to be found there as well (after all, Arnaud Viard [IMDb] []* himself wrote the film's script ;-).  However, he also discovers, somewhat painfully, that to most of his students, including Gabrielle... the best that he can hope for is to be "the cool OLD teacher" ;-) who may perhaps help his students with "a connection" in the business or two.

He also has an aging mom (played by Nadine Alari [IMDb] []*) who is no longer well, indeed, slowly dying.

Out of these elements a nice, somewhat bitter-sweet -- often quite funny and at other times quite poignant -- again Seinfeld / Woody Allen-ish film plays out.

It's a nice film, and served well to help kick-off this year's French Film Festival in Chicago.

Good job! ;-)

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

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Lights Out [2016]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (1 Star)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (P. Sobczynski) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review  

Lights Out [2016] (directed by David F. Sandberg, screenplay by ) is based on the director's  3 minute "short" (by the same name) that caught a lot of people's attention a few years back.

The story's built around a monster that would only appear when the lights went out.  As soon as one turned the lights back on again, it would disappear (somehow).  But when you turned off the lights once more it would appear again... closer ;-).  It made for one heck of an interesting concept and so was then hired to "flesh the concept out" into a feature length screenplay.

Does he / do the film-makers "succeed"?   Partly ... almost ... until the end.  Then I agree with the Jack McAleer of the Catholic News Service that the film, at minimum enters into (needlessly shocking / violent) R-rated territory and becomes unjustifiable morally to all.

The story developed for the film around this rather strange if intriguing monster centers on a family with a troubled mother named Sophie (played by Maria Bello).  As a child she had been institutionalized for (manic) depression but later "as long as she stayed on her meds," she had proven functional enough to lead a quite normal life, even getting married, twice, and having two children -- Rebecca (played by Teresa Palmer) in her late teens by her first husband, and 8-10 y.o. Martin (played by Gabriel Bateman) by her second.  The problems, of course, arose when she went off said meds.

Sophie's first husband (Rebecca's dad) had apparently "just upped and left" one day after a(n extended?) period in which she was apparently off her meds.  And the current film began with Martin skyping his dad Paul (played by Billy Burke) at work, telling him that he was worried about ma' because she was acting strangely again (was off her vitamins ...), closing-up all the curtains in the house and talking again to her "invisible friend" Diana ...

Well, that couldn't be good ... and it wasn't...

Who exactly was this invisible friend?  Was she real?  Was she simply in Sophie, the mother's, head?   Somehow both?  Much, often quite scary (still in PG-13 territory) ensues, even if there are aspects of the life of the late-teen daughter Rebecca (already moved out of home, for reasons, well, guess ...) that are already morally problematic (even if she does apparently still keep her boyfriend Bret (played by Alexander DePersia) at "a distance."

It's just the ending that becomes A REAL PROBLEM.  Late teens and above who'd want to see the movie may want to STOP READING HERE but PARENTS, PLEASE, DO NOT ...


Near the end of the movie, as Sophie comes to realize / believe that she's somehow responsible for the chaos that's occurring in the family (as a result of this strange monster that only exists and attacks people, Sophie's family members, in the dark) DECIDES TO TAKE A GUN AND BLOW HER BRAINS OUT.

Like the CNS's reviewer Jack McAleer, I SIMPLY DON'T BELIEVE THAT SUCH A GRAPHIC DEPICTION OF A SUICIDE belongs in PG-13 movie territory !!

And even adults should be shaken by the suggestion of this movie.  Yes, troubled people can be problematic, but the solution is certainly _not_ suicide (or even worse ... doctor / state ordered murder / euthanasia). 

As such, this film at minimum should have been rated "R" to allow parents greater control over whether they wanted their kids to have access to the film.  But truthfully, it should have been written better to avoid thrusting onto the audience this unexpected moral problem. 

As troubled as ma', Sophie, may have been ... she _did not_ deserve to die.

"Lights Out" indeed ...

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Star Trek Beyond [2016]

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

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

Star Trek Beyond [2016] (directed by Justin Lin, screenplay by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, based on the Star Trek television series [wikip] [IMDb] by Gene Roddenberry [wikip] [IMDb]) is IMHO the film in this "Star Trek reboot" series that finally "catches its stride" ;-)

Amusingly, in the opening voice-over, Chris Pine's Capt. James T. Kirk complains three years (or three films) into his five year mission commanding the venerable Federation Starship Enterprise his life has become "episodic" ;-). However, for those of us watching, we're given a chance in this film to better appreciate the direction in which this rebooted series is heading and the changes from the original that it has made.

For the original Star Trek television series [1966-69] was famously IDEA DRIVEN and surprisingly LOW TECH.  The various episodes in the original (again, _television_...) series, supposedly playing-out largely on the surfaces of presumably quite exotic alien planets, would simply play-out _on a stage_ with a quite randomly hued background (red, blue, purple, black ...) serving as the planet's (exotically hued) "horizon" and perhaps "a palm tree or two" (or even more strangely "a Corinthian column") serving as props onstage in the foreground.  On such a stage er "planet," the characters would then wax eloquently (with almost Shakespearean gravitas) about the nature of freedom, humanity (or half-vulcan character Spock's "vulcanity") as the arriving largely human (if already largely multi-racial) crew of the Starship Enterprise inevitably encountered a culture that "saw things differently."  Over the course of the (television) seasons, relationships between at least some of the (first tier) crew members also developed (Kirk [wikip], Spock [wikip], McCoy [wikip] and Scotty [wikip]) while other characters (Uhura [wikip], Chekov [wikip] and Sulu [wikip]) were left largely undeveloped. 

The Star Trek Next Generation [1987-1994] series (which took place largely aboard a more sophisticated looking Starship Enterprise) developed more (and more diverse) characters beginning with making the captain of the Enterprise a Frenchman named Jean-Luc Picard [wikip].  Women - Counselor Troi [wikip] and Science Officer Dr. Beverly Crusher [wikip] - played much more significant roles.  A (once) physically handicapped Lt. Cmdr Geordi LaForge [wikip] who had been blind functioned now as a pilot of the ship without any hindrance to his performance thanks to a high tech visor that allowed to him to see once more.  Even children/teenagers Wesley [wikip], Dr. Crusher's son were shown present on board.  And a "Klingon," Lt. Worf [wikip], (the Klingons were the Federation's enemies in the Original Series) was now a valued member of the crew, as was an all-but/more than human android named Data [wikip]).  Star Fleet of the Next Generation was thus truly "for everybody."

Subsequent feature-length films featuring the casts of both series consistently improved upon the special effects of the TV series from which they were spawned, and yet focused mostly on the relationships between the characters.

THE REBOOT took the special effects to a new and (initially much criticized) frenetic level.  Whereas the original series was IDEA DRIVEN, the REBOOT felt overwhelmingly ACTION and SPECIAL EFFECTS DRIVEN.

While (1) attention was again given to some of the relationships, notably the friendship between Kirk [wikip] (now played by Chris Pine) and Spock [wikip] (now played by Zachery Quinto), (2) there were some fairly interesting even inspired casting choices, notably of casting Zoe Saldana as the new Uhura [wikip]) and even Simon Pegg as the new Scotty [wikip]) and (3) some of the previously underdeveloped characters were given livelier roles (like Anton Yelchin's Chekov [wikip] who, wow ;-), now steals almost every scene that he's in ;-) and/or back stories (like John Cho's Sulu [wikip] who in a nod to George Takei [IMDb] [wikip] who played Sulu [wikip] in the original series, is now portrayed as being quite calmly / matter-of-factly ... gay, BOTH OF THE of the REBOOT series felt like GIANT SCALE "SMASH-EM-UP" MARVEL-COMICS-LIKE "SUPER-HERO MOVIES."

The current film, though retaining the GIANT SCALE (much of the film plays out around a GIANT new Federation colony/outpost called "the Yorktown" at the edge of a nebula) as well as an OFTEN FRENETIC PACE (the Enterprise gets attacked veritable bee-like "swarm" of alien ships coming from said nebula) ... AT LEAST THE BATTLE (and its after-effects) proceed(s) with BOTH _intelligence_ and surprise: Yes, "the aliens" come at the Enterprise in an unexpected manner and to eventually defeat them _requires_ a lot of (often quite fast) nimble-thinking / improvisation on the part of the Enterprise crew.

As a result, this third (sorry new Kirk ;-) "episode" of the REBOOT feels the most authentic (of the three) thusfar and even advances STAR TREK's story telling in an arguably positive way -- sometimes we all have to "think quickly" and respond to "new challenges" using the tools, gadgets (and "apps") around us in fairly novel / unexpected ways ;-)

So thumbs up here.  And the addition of some _new_ alien characters, notably that of Jaylah (played by Sofia Boutella) a previously marooned and yet quite resourceful alien stuck originally also in that nebula was good / fun as well!  Good / great job!  Finally, this REBOOTED series is "going somewhere" again ;-)

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Postman's White Nights (orig. Белые ночи почтальона Алексея Тряпицына / Belye nochi pochtalona Alekseya Tryapitsyna) [2014]

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

IMDb listing listing* listing* listing* (V. Surikov) review* (A. Plakhov) review* (G. DiMaris) review* (K. Ignatushchenko) review* (D. Bykov) review* (B. Nelepo) review* (I. Denisova) review* (T. Antonova) review*

The Postman's White Nights (orig. Белые ночи почтальона Алексея Тряпицына / Belye nochi pochtalona Alekseya Tryapitsyna) [2014] [IMDb] []*[]*[]* (directed and cowritten by Andrey Konchalovskiy [IMDb] []*[]* along with Elena Kiseleva [IMDb] []*) is a lovely / simple / informative Russian feature film (which in the United States would have almost certainly been a classic "small indie project") that went on to win the director two awards at the 2014 Venice International Film Festival.  And it concludes my 2016 Russian Film Tour.

Filmed almost in documentary style and set in the villages along the shores of Lake Konozero in the far northern Russia in the Arkhangelsk Oblast, it follows the day-to-day life of actual postman Alexey Tryapitsyn, who would deliver mail to the various villages along the lake by means of his motorboat during the "white nights" of summer (Presumably in the winter when the lake would be frozen, he'd be delivering the mail differently, probably by some sort of snowmobile).

Indeed, all but two of the people shown in the film -- actress Irina Yermolova [IMDb] []*[]* (who plays something of a love interest to Alexey in the story) and child actor Timor Bondarenko [IMDb] []*[]* (who plays her 10 year old son) -- all the people in the film were natives of the villages of the region. 

So what was life then in these remote Russian villages of the North?

Contradictory ;-)

Even out there in the northern reaches of Russia, where the main means of transport could still be boat, 10 year old Timor tells Alexey that his days as a mail carrier are numbered: "With cell phones and the internet, who writes letters anymore?" ;-)  On the other hand, Alexey can still authentically scare little Timor by taking him to a remote corner of the lake where he tells him he saw a Kikimora (a monster that liked drowning inattentive little kids) when _he_ was Timor's age.

Then Alexey could be woken-up at night by either the crackle of his clock-radio or by the staring of an odd gray cat (who since neither he nor any of his neighbors had owned such a cat, he starts to wonder what the heck was it doing there? ;-)

An older villager, struck-down during the course of the filming of movie by a heart attack before she could be taken (by boat...) to a hospital was buried under the sign of the Russian Orthodox Church and eulogized in a manner recalling her "socialist fervor" in her younger days ;-).

Indeed a lovely (new or restored?) wooden Russian Orthodox church in one of the villages was prominently shown (if from the outside) several times during the course of the film, while one of Alexej's regular stops on his mail runs was the home of a _Russian_ 'Nam Vet ;-), who'd apparently share (again and again) with Alexey the same stories of his adventures in the 1960s out there "unloading rice" for the North Vietnamese during the height of that war ;-).

Finally, while one would think that Alexey lived "at the edge of the world," near the end of the film, Alexey's "regular mail delivering day" is somewhat interrupted as a giant Soyuz-like rocket suddenly appears (LAUNCHED) OUT OF SEEMINGLY NOWHERE (from behind Alexey's shoulder), actually out of the nearby Plesetsk Cosmodrome (!) and one's left wondering WT .. ;-) 

And that then seems to be the film's point: That THE PRESENT is _present_ even in the furthest reaches of the world, while the basic needs and problems of the world REMAIN -- Alexey is at least in part lonely out there (and probably freely admit that he's not necessarily the most exciting of guys) and YES, somebody out there STOLE the engine from his boat (something that while not an insurmountable problem certainly proved to be an unexpected and unwelcome hassle for him). 

Anyway, it all makes for an interesting and for most of us viewers and informative movie.  I learned a fair amount about day-to-day life in the hinterlands of northern Russia that I never would have known before.

Good / great job! ;-)

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

** To load Websites from South, East and Eurasia in a timely fashion, installation of ad-blocking software is often required.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Under the Sun (orig. V paprscích slunce) [2015]

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

IMDb listing
CSFD listing* listing* (A.Bocharova) review* (M. Spačilová) review* (Alze) review*
The Guardian (C. Gray) review
The Hollywood Report (S. Dalton) review 

Under the Sun (orig. V paprscích slunce / Im Strahl der Sonne / В лучах солнца) [2015] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[]*(directed by Vitaliy Manskiy [IMDb] [CSFD]*[]*[]*) is a remarkable CZECH, RUSSIAN, GERMAN and LATVIAN collaboration that sent the Russian filmmaker and his film crew to NORTH KOREA to shoot a documentary about life in that reclusive and almost impossible to gain access to country.  The film played recently at Facets Multimedia in Chicago and serves as the seventh stop on my 2016 Russian Film Tour.

Despite hurdles -- Viewers are informed by a caption at the beginning of the film that when the film-makers arrived, their North Korean government hosts "graciously gave them a hand-picked North Korean family to film, as well as a complete and detailed screenplay for the proposed documentary, as well as 24 hours a day accompaniment for the duration of their stay" (I'm not kidding :-) -- the report produced is remarkable, in good part because the film-makers were able to edit the product after they left the country.

So we get to see a North Korean government appointed "assistant director" / minder accompanying the film-crew coaching the "typical North Korean family" residing in Pyongyang (the capital) -- Parents in their 30s, the mother a garment worker, the father an "engineer" at the same garment factory (in reality, he apparently was a journalist) with their 8-9 year old daughter about to quite solemnly enter into the North Korean Youth League (the DPRK's equivalent of the Pioneer movement) -- how to get through their "typical conversation" at their "typical meal" in their "typical apartment" (nice freshly painted / white walled,  if quite spartan-ly furnished).

The "typical conversation" between the "typical father" and the "typical nine year old daughter" (probably authentically proud of getting her new "sash" at the "pioneer induction ceremony" earlier in the day) included articulating (for viewers) the caloric and vitamin content of kimchi ;-) as well as its health benefits -- seemingly able to ward-off everything from the common cold to cancer ;-) which would be _a good thing to know_ (or at least _believe_) in a country that doesn't exactly have a lot of resources to spend -- with said segment in said "typical conversation" ending "with a good hardy laugh" -- "Let's practice the laugh, ha-ha-ha" suggests the kindly if (why is he there at all?) North Korean government appointed "assistant director" ;-)

We're then taken to the "typical school" of the "typical nine year old girl" where all the nice nine year old girls all dressed in quite immaculately laundered / pressed government-issue school uniforms get to practice memorizing (age-appropriate) aspects of the biography of Great Founder Generalisimo Kim Il-Sung, including that he would apparently shoot rocks at the Japanese and Rich Land-owning Oppressors of the People (back in the day).  They also got to listen to a lecture given by a kindly but honestly quite senile North Korean war veteran (in a quite medal laden uniform) who _tried_ but honestly didn't quite understand the North Koren government appointed "assistant" director's directions.   As such, the CUTE AS A BUTTON 9-year old girls in their well-pressed / well laundered uniforms, if ALWAYS WELL BEHAVED, just started to ... dose off ... ;-).

This then becomes, honestly, a SPECTACULAR DOCUMENTARY ... where the post-Communist Russian director and his film crew PLAY IT COMPLETELY STRAIGHT (while they were there in North Korea) and LET their NORTH KOREAN HOSTS / MINDERS stage _absolutely everything_ and yet PRODUCE a documentary that honestly shocks most WESTERN VIEWERS.

The viewer is really asked: How could one live like that?  Arguably EVEN THE "TYPICAL FAMILY" was _made up_.  The film crew caught the father in a lie (he was introduced apparently to them as a North Korean journalist and then when they came to do the scenes "at the garment factory" suddenly he was playing an engineer).  And the film crew also noted that the "typical nine year old girl" was THE ONLY GIRL GOING HOME FROM SCHOOL EACH DAY (during their shooting).  THE REST OF THE GIRLS APPARENTLY REMAINED APPARENTLY AT SOME BARRACKS AT THE SCHOOL (and MAY HAVE EVEN BEEN POSSIBLE that she WASN'T EVEN THE DAUGHTER of the "typical parents" that she was "coming home" to).

Again played COMPLETELY STRAIGHT AS IT WAS, this documentary becomes a stunning indictment of the North Korean regime with it _hanging itself_ BY ITS OWN ACTIONS.

HERE, I must note that the talented (and his editing of this film self-evidently quite _funny_) Russian director, Vitaliy Manskiy [IMDb] [CSFD]*[]*[]*, after completing his filming of the documentary DID NOT RETURN TO RUSSIA (!) to complete the project but RATHER WENT TO NEIGHBORING LATVIA to do so and HAS STAYED THERE EVER SINCE.

This becomes significant in itself and it _says something_ IMPORTANT about the status of Russian film making in (Putin's) Russia today.  Apparently, Vitaliy Manskiy [IMDb] [CSFD]*[]*[]* felt he had to leave his own country to finish this project (about another country ... but with common, if past, Communist history).

For many, that will be "ALL that one needs to know about the status of Russian film-making today" -- that its film-makers don't necessarily feel safe in their own country.

And yet that appears to be where we are today.

Russia's government / its people have a choice: They can let their ever talented and often avant-garde artistic community the freedom to do their craft which they can _self-evidently_ DO VERY WELL ... OR ... they can _choose_ to retreat back to a time when 10-20-30 years from now some RUSSIAN government appointed "assistant director" will be "helping" some "typical Moscow family" "eat / talk about the nutritional qualities / health benefits of eating borscht" (!) before a bewildered Western film crew wondering how this omnipresent government controlled nightmare became possible in Russia (again).

Sigh -- the world does not need a Russia that frightens the daylights out of people (and entire peoples) again.  But the whole world will stand to lose if the talents of its people are repressed once again.

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

** To load Websites from South, East and Eurasia in a timely fashion, installation of ad-blocking software is often required.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

The Edge (orig. Край / Kray) [2010]

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

IMDb listing listing* listing* listing*

Russia Beyond the Headlines (S. Norris) article on the Gulag as portrayed in post-Communist Russian film / TV (A. Strelkov) review* (A. Yushchenko) review* (D. Goryacheva) review* (N. Tsyrkun) review* (R. Korneev) review* (A. Izayev) review* (E. Vizgalova) review* (S. Menzonov) review* (N, Romodanovskaya) review* (S. Stepnova) review*

The Edge (orig. Край / Kray) [2010] [IMDb] []*[]*[]*(directed by Alexey Uchitel [IMDb] []*[]*[]*, story and screenplay by Aleksandr Gonorovskiy [IMDb] []*[]*[]*),  serving as the sixth stop in my  2016 Russian Film Tour, is considered probably the closest thing to a truly Russian-made GULAG film made to date.

The film served as Russia's 2010 submission for the Best Foreign Language Film to the Oscars (where it may or may not have made the short list [1] [2] but ultimately was not nominated, though it was nominated by the foreign press corp for a Golden Globe that year but lost ultimately to the Danish film In a Better World [2010] (which also won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film that year).

Did it succeed?  Pretty much by all accounts (even Russian ones) _not really_ and for multiple (some actually quite interesting / sincere) reasons.

Readers here should note that there have been several outstanding recent films about _aspects_ of the GULAG story that were _co-produced_ by Russia (though driven by the initiative of countries that had been _victimized_ by the former Soviet Regime).  Several of these films I have reviewed here including:

Siberian Exile (orig. Syberiada Polska) [2013] a largely Polish though at least part Russian co-production, that was filmed in Siberia, using, in part, Russian actors, and which even premiered in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia to an audience made-up largely of the _descendants_ of the Poles who were deported to Siberia after the Soviet Union invaded and absorbed of the Eastern half of Poland at the beginning of World War II in 1939.  (At the end of that first screening apparently a fair number of the audience stood-up and sang the Polish national anthem ;-). 

The Excursionist (orig. Ekskursantė) [2013] a Lithuanian-Russian co-production that again was filmed largely in Russia, utilized several fairly prominent Russian actors and even shared the Nika Award (the Russian closest equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Picture from the CIS / Baltics Countries in 2014 (an award that would arouse certain ambivalence in Lithuania today because the award honors films from the nations of the former Soviet Union whereas Lithuania never wished to be part of the Soviet Union and in the decades since its break-up has become a member of both NATO and European Union). 
Readers should _also_ note here that there have _also_ been excellent Russian-made television series on _other aspects_ of the GULAG including the remarkable ten part The First Circle (orig. В круге первом / V Kryge Pervom - TV Miniseries) [2006] [IMDb] []*[]*(directed and screenplay cowritten by Gleb Panfilov [IMDb] []*[]* along with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]*[GR] [WCat] [IMDb] himself, a dramatization of Solzhenitsyn's celebrated novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn]) which is available in its entirety (albeit in Russian) on the Telekanal Russia-1's website.  (English subtitles for the series in its entirety are also available online, if elsewhere, as well).

I generally avoid reviewing television series (due to their length ...).  But I have made exceptions before -- The Borgias [2011], Through the Wormhole [2010-] and The Bible [2013].  Yet, given that this series had apparently the imprimatur of Solzhenitsyn himself, it would seem somewhat unnecessary for me to review it here (clearly it's good).

Yet excellent or not, for the current discussion here it could be said that the reason why _that book_ by Solzhenitsyn was dramatized into a ten-part miniseries (and _not_ another book about the GULAG, be it by Solzhenitsyn or someone else) was that, making reference to Dante's Inferno, Solzhenitsyn himself characterized the conditions described in The First Circle [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] (those of scientists incarcerated by Stalin so that his men could keep an eye on them as they were impressed to work on secret weapons projects for the Soviet Government) as merely those of the "First Circle of the Hell that was the GULAG."  Other, "less valuable" inmates (like the Poles and Lithuanians above) suffered far, far worse.

So EVEN that remarkable ten part dramatization The First Circle (orig. В круге первом / V Kryge Pervom - TV Miniseries) [2006] [IMDb] []*[]* could be said to be describing "GULAG - Lite"

Keeping ALL THIS in mind then, to the current film at hand ...

Readers / potential Viewers of the current film here need to realize that in the case of this film, The Edge (orig. Край / Kray) [2010] [IMDb] []*[]*[]*, the GULAG actually serves as simply a BACKDROP to A DIFFERENT STORY, _easier_ perhaps for a Russian to tell, about RECONCILIATION / FORGIVENESS:

Set in the late summer of 1945 (hence JUST AFTER the end of World War II) a Siberian community of Exiles at the "Edge of the Taiga" (all there for reasons of various and often quite random "anti-state" activities) is forced to confront (and forgive) a young German girl (played in the film by Anjorka Strechel [IMDb] []*[]*) who they find quite unexpectedly living-out in the woods outside their camp.  What was she doing there?  Well ... she came out there in 1940 (hence before the war) with her father, again German, an engineer, who was tasked to build a bridge over a nearby Siberian River.  When the bridge partly collapsed, her father was summarily executed for his failure ("failure" not exactly tolerated by the NKVD of the time).  And so, she ran for her life into the woods, where she stayed, _alone_ FOR FOUR YEARS, until being discovered by Russian (again, somewhat condemned) railroad engineer (played by Vladimir Mashkov [IMDb] []*[]*)

Anyway, this village of Exiles (again, all there, having been condemned, for quite random and often quite trivial "anti-state" activities) had to decide if they could live with this "Fascist" German girl who didn't even know that she was a Fascist.  That is essentially the film.

The harshness of life in this Siberian community (something of a cross between a village and a labor  camp) is, I suppose portrayed.  (One interesting aspect portrayed is also seen in the Polish and Lithuanian productions cited above as well -- in Siberia, most exiles were not really "fenced-in" in a traditional "concentration camp" sense as there wasn't really a need: There was _nowhere to run_ even if one wanted to ...).  Yet, arguably, the people in this Siberian community "at the edge" of the Taiga were portrayed as being at least _in part_ deserving of being there.  And except by the conditions themselves they were not portrayed as being particularly punished -- again basically "GULAG -- Lite."

So is this then really a serious portrayal of the life in the Soviet GULAG?  Even the Russian commentators above ask this.  And yet, it would seem according to many of the above critics / commentators that even the Russian populace itself is rather ambivalent about digging deeply into the horror that the GULAG was.

Should that really be surprising?

I don't think I've ever seen a film that really did portray the horror that must have been felt by a debtor or petty criminal as he/she was put onto a ship in England of the 19th century and then deported (on a several months journey) to Australia.  I'm sure that films about this exist, but I honestly can't think of one (there's reference to these deportations in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations [wikip] [GR] [IMDb] but again, if I remember correctly, only reference rather than actual description).

Then yes, Papillon [1973] [IMDb] [wikip] [GR] describes in vivid detail the horror of being condemned to prison / exile by France to Devil's Island.    One would think / HOPE that Russia today would be capable of making a "Papillon-like" film about the GULAG.

But I do also return to American reaction (especially on the Right) to movies about Slavery.  Every time a movie comes out about the horrors of Slavery, someone on Fox-News comes out saying: "How many more movies must we make about Slavery?  Hasn't everything that could be said about Slavery already been said?"

So I think I understand the reluctance of common Russians and even the Putin government to be(come) honest about the horror of what the GULAG was.  Nobody likes to look at the ugly parts of one's country's history.  And films that would explore such dark topics are not going to do well in the box office.  They don't do well here in the United States either.  American Sniper [2014] was far-and-away the most popular American movie about the Iraq war ever made.  How did the American films which were more critical of the war do?  Need one even ask?

Still those anti-Iraq War film _were_ made here.  A country where true freedom exists makes such self-critical films.

Russia's film community is certainly capable of doing better than The Edge (orig. Край / Kray) [2010] [IMDb] []*[]*[]* ...

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

** To load Websites from South, East and Eurasia in a timely fashion, installation of ad-blocking software is often required.

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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ghostbusters [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChiTrib/AP (J. Coyle) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review  

Ghostbusters [2016] (directed and cowritten by Paul Feig along with Katie Dippold based on the film Ghostbusters [1984] directed by Ivan Reitman and cowritten by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) is A FUN, I suppose, "somewhat Feminist" remake of the beloved original.

I write "somewhat Feminist" remake because there's a "turn about" in the casting.  All the "Ghost Bust-ing" paranormal investigators in this cast are women:

Kristen Wiig as Dr. Erin Gilbert, PhD, assoc. prof. at New York's Colombia University still trying initially to "play it straight" with her work (in particle physics) as she was "up for tenure" there,

Melissa McCarthy as Abby Yates, Erin's former BFF from High School, who (somewhat predictably but McCarthy always plays these characters well ;-) was far less interested in "respectability" as Erin ever was, and so gleefully worked for some fly-by-night arguably "Trumpish" University doing her "para normal" research there,

Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzman, Abby's "super self-actualized" (super-competent, super free ;-), lab partner, WHO IMHO STEALS THE SHOW ;-).  Honestly, Jillian comes across as someone who was so completely "actualized," so completely "who she was meant to be" that if someone told me that "she could fly" I'd believe it ;-).  Her character, her confidence, is just spectacular, and spectacularly funny.  Jillian so _shines_ in her world that she almost blinds ;-), and

Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan, as a "NYC history buff" and "walk-on" to the Ghost Busters team after she sees _one too many_ "strange things" at her job with NYC's MTA (subway service)

and to make the "turn about point" the four hire a really "dumb blond looker" named Kevin  (played wonderfully by Chris Hemsworth) as their secretary ;-).

AND IT WORKS ... ;-)

In a city as large as New York, "there's always something happening somewhere" and so good old Patty comes to the emerging Ghost Buster team with a story that something (far more than normally...) "strange" was "happening in the subway."  And the story takes off from there...

I'd say more, but (1) I don't want to ;-), and (2) if I said more, it'd only serve as spoiler fodder.  I will also encourage viewers to count how many of the cast members from the original film make cameos in this one.  It's impressive.

Anyway, I loved this film.  The only reason why I don't give it four stars is that needlessly "keeping true" to the "crudity" that catapulted McCarthy (and perhaps Wiig) to stardom, there are _a few_ IMHO out-of-place crude jokes / comments in this film that really didn't add anything to it, except remove a half-a-star from my rating. 

Other than that, folks, "enjoy the happy paranormal ride" ;-)  

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Gamers / In the Game (orig. На игре / Na Igre) [2009]

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

IMDb listing listing* listing* listing* (A. Eksler) review* (S. Kvasha) review* review* (M. Zhuravlev) review* (M. Milnan) review* (R. Korneev) review* (D. Zhigalov) review* (I. Golocova) review*

Gamers / In the Game (orig. На игре / Na Igre) [2009] [IMDb] []*[]*[]*(directed and screenplay cowritten by Pavel Sanaev [IMDb] []*[]* along with Aleksandr Chubaryan [ru.wikip]*[GR]*[IMDb] []*[]* based on Chubrayan's novel Games in Life (orig. Игры в жизнь / Igry v Zhizn) [2003] [GR]*[Amzn]* is considered the first Russian movie dedicated to "cyberpunk."  The film has since spawned (in Russia) two sequels as well as a television series.  It serves as the fifth stop in my 2016 Russian Film Tour.  (Note that I had actually hope to include this film in my first, 2015 RFT but simply ran out of time and never fully wrote it up then.  So I include here now).

In the opening (and quite adrenaline driven) opening sequence of the film (think honestly of our Fast & Furious [2009] films only in this case set at a über-hyped / über-slick (modern-day Russian) gaming convention), a team of college students from Nizhny Novgorod win a multi-discipline computer gaming competition (from car race to medieval combat to first person shooter) and as a prize each receive a cd-rom with an "experimental game" that promises to "take them to a new level."

When each of them try to install the game on their computers, it fries their disc drives.  However the game's installation does more than that.  By means of some kind of intense electromagnetic energy burst, the CDROM "installs" a multipurpose "gaming package" (from martial arts, to driving, to shooting) into their brains.  SO ... these previously quite average seeming college students (except for them having been really tough (bad-a..) "video-gamers") now become really tough (bad-a...) fighters in real life.

And it is kinda amusing how they discover this:  One of the group, nicknamed "Komar" (meaning "Mosquito") (played by Evgeniy Kharlanov [IMDb] []*[]*) who manages to finally convince a girl Lena (played by Agnia Ditkovskite [IMDb] []*[]*) to go out with him, takes her to a nice Middle Eastern (to the Russians Central Asian) restaurant, only to have his date being harassed by some of the waiters.  Well, the game package installed "into his brain" "triggers" something in the former "little mosquito" and ... one can guess what happens to the folks who made the mistake of harassing his date ;-)

Later a number of the gamers in this team, by random accident "happen upon" a group of about 80 mercenaries assembled in a warehouse somewhere (What were those mercenaries doing there?  Who knows... but this is _contemporary Russia_ with a lot of "private armies" / "organized crime")  When a couple of said mercenaries draw their weapons, the "newly installed" "threat trigger" inside them goes off, and ... when the dust clears there are 80 formerly _really tough mercenaries_ lying about the warehouse, wasted (killed) by this small band of college student gamers.

That of course "catches the attention" of the Oligarch (played actually quite wonderfully by Viktor Verzhbitskiy [IMDb] []*[]*) to whom those mercenaries belonged.  Said "richer than God" (and arguably "almost as power as God")  Oligarch flies about Russia in a GIANT _WHITE_ TITANIUM / CLOTH ZEPPELIN-LIKE AIRSHIP ;-) ... Honestly, if you're gonna be Evil / wanna "make an impression" this is "a mode of transportation" to "look into" ;-).  HIS "tasteful" yet ENORMOUS "air ship" was "CASTING ITS SHADOW" _down_ on EVERYBODY ;-) ;-).   

Well said, Oligarch was not necessarily "angry" at the five gamers who wasted his company of (he would have thought) armed to the teach / highly trained mercenaries.  Instead, he'd kinda like to recruit them ... 

The rest of the film "plays out" ;-) from there ... It really made for a FUN / COMPELLING and IMHO unsurprisingly _successful_ film / story and one that honestly _a lot_ of Westerners (especially younger people) really ought to know about.

Good / great job!

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

** To load Websites from South, East and Eurasia in a timely fashion, installation of ad-blocking software is often required.

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