Friday, May 19, 2017

Alien: Covenant [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Alien: Covenant [2017] (directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper, story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green based on characters by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett) continues a continues the franchise's 40-or-so year quite fascinating, often monstrously "detached" and at times flagrantly subversive _critique_ of what would seem at least initially to be unassailable: Life, Reproduction, here in this film Creation (the act of creating) in general.

Okay, one could begin by stating that Life and its Growth / Expansion is by definition Good.  Well, from its very beginning, the Alien series proposes a counter-example:

What of a REALLY UGLY / VIRULENT (at some point, any/all sense of "beauty" becomes "inefficient") organism -- a giant, fanged, acidic-saliva dripping, beetle-like monster with a lizard/scorpion-like tail (used as both a weapon and as a means of propulsion) -- whose ONLY DRIVE appears to be to SURVIVE, THRIVE and REPLICATE (MAKE MORE OF) ITSELF (following all manner of stunningly hideous if ever efficient pathways -- from eggs to spores, from sexual to asexual, from carnivorous to parasitic).

Indeed, Ridley Scott's Alien monster is like a hideous "Swiss Army Knife" of Survival a living embodiment of the "Genesis Torpedo" that the Klingons were so afraid of in Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock [1984] (to mix alternative sci-fi universes).

The question that the current, eighth in the series, Alien movie seeks to address is: Who would create such a monstrous monster?  The answer given in this film is clever and as has been always the case in the Alien series, not _entirely_ subversive of traditional (Christian) religion.

As generally the case with the Alien series, a quite thought-provoking if also "jump-from-your-seats" Sci-Fi horror film.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword [2017]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (1 3/4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword [2017] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Guy Ritchie along with Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram, story by Joby Harold and David Dobkin) while perhaps "okay" as _simply_ ANOTHER "sword-and-sorcery adventure film" with poor King Arthur's "brand name" _pasted_  to it to "up sales," those of us who've spent a fair amount of time in our younger days actually researching (as teenagers / young adults do, or used to do...) the Arthurian Legends will find this current cinematic concoction anywhere from disappointing to outright offensive.

Yet, the opening scene of the film literally "throws down the gantlet" to Viewers (who've just paid $10-15 to see the film...): Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon [wikip] [IMDb] (played in this film by Eric Bana), is seen leading the defense of his LOTR-esque hillside citadel of Camelot [wikip] before an onslaught of GIANT / FEARSOME (200-300 foot tall) BATTLE ELEPHANTS (!!??) conjured up by the (in-this-film largely unseen but...) Evil Mage / Arthurian nemesis Mordred [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the film apparently by Rob Knighton).   

"GIANT / FEARSOME (200-300 foot tall) BATTLE ELEPHANTS (!!??) attacking CAMELOT (!!??), HOW'D THEY EVER GET (T)HERE?"  Well, ever fainting Aunt 'Pittipat' Hamilton (of Gone With the Wind [1939] fame...) the Carthaginian general Hannibal _did_ invade Roman-era Italy from Carthaginian Spain in the Second Punic War by famously crossing the Alps with actual BATTLE ELEPHANTS some centuries earlier.  So the image isn't completely anachronistically insane.  But it is a real ... stretch ;-).

Yet this both AWESOME and APPALLING opening scene (which twists / conflates all kinds of actual historical bits, stories, and legends together) is THE KEY TO THE FILM.  If the Viewer can get past this opening scene (and not walk-out...) one will probably stay for the rest.  It should be clear however, that this (re)telling of Arthur's story is a _sovereign entity_, its inventors clearly not caring to be bound by past tellings of the story or form.

And so we see young / future King Arthur being sent down (Moses style ...) by small cast-away boat from (legendary) Camelot to ... Londonium (London's actual name in Romano-British times) after his parents are murdered by Uther's Evil / duplicious (Loki-like) brother Vortigern (played by Jude Law), where he's raised in a brothel and makes friends with a TOTALLY ANACHRONISTIC (but kinda cool) CHINESE (!!??) dockworker / martial-arts bad-a named ... George (played by Tom Wu).

Eventually the late-20 / 30-something Arthur (played by Charlie Hunnam) comes to recognize his calling to reclaim his destiny as the rightful heir to the THRONE OF "ENGLAND" (!!??) -- whatever questions historians have had in their various attempts to search for the "Historical Arthur" in Legend, ALL ARE CERTAIN that "Arthur" would have been a Romano-British leader WHO ACTUALLY FOUGHT AGAINST THE ENCROACHMENTS OF INCOMING ANGLO-SAXONS (!!), hence why the oldest versions of the Arthurian legends come from the WELSH (of Western Britain) and the BRETON REFUGEES who settled after the establishment of Anglo-Saxon dominance over much of Britain in what is today (FRENCH) BRITTANY -- and much, much (sword / sorcery fighting) ensues ... 

Catholic / Christian viewers would also find it surprising (to appalling...) to see the COMPLETE EXPUNGING of Christianity from the current story. This is despite the simple reality that Roman Britain was very much Christian by the time of the "historical Arthur" with clearly the continued / still recent presence of Celtic Paganism personified in the presence of wizard / druid Merlin in the  Arthurian Legends ... Indeed, the Romano-British St. Patrick [wikip] (!!) who evangelized Ireland would have arguably lived before or been a contemporary of the "historical Arthur." And then Sir Thomas Mallory's [wikip] late 1400s Le Morte d'Arthur [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn], which I read as a bright-eyed enthusiastic 20 year-old, is practically a Catholic / future High Church Anglican devotional piece.

This simultaneously dumbed-down / anything-goes (dare-one-say "Trumpian"...) approach to the Arthurian Legends makes for a rather _silly_ story that still, on the whole remains reasonably entertaining (if one is willing to accept the knee-jerk expunging of Christianity from the story, this despite the inclusion of just about _everything else_ from GIANT 200 FOOT TALL CONJURED UP WAR ELEPHANTS to WILDLY ANACHRONISTIC CHINESE MARTIAL-ARTS EXPERTS).

Perhaps the best way to understand the film is to see it as doing to the Arthurian legends what the recent Robert Downey Jr starring Sherlock Holmes films did to the original Sherlock Holmes canon and the recent Chris Pine starring Star Trek films did to the Gene Roddenberry originals.

And Dear Readers, if you don't see the above characterization as much of a compliment, well, you get my point and ... have been ... warned ;-/

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Snatched [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Snatched [2017] (directed by Jonathan Levine, screenplay by Katie Dippold) is an appropriately R-rated (definitely not for little kids) MOTHER-DAUGHTER comedy about a really ill-conceived trip to a "Club-Med-ish" resort in Ecuador.  Why Ecuador?  It's not really explained, but presumably because the trip was relatively cheap and sounded "kinda (eco)-exotic" to should-be grown, but not really (not by a long shot) early 20-something daughter Emily (played actually quite well in her trademark self-effacing "Trainwreck [2015]" style by Amy Schumer).

Things inevitably go terribly wrong in "Act 2", but this allows Emily and her 40-something, long-divorced (and long depressed) ma' Linda (played by Goldie Hawn) to "really bond" for the first-time in years.  Even long dismissed (as a basket case) of a brother Jeffrey (played by Ike Barinholtz) _kinda_ "comes through" to _help_ save the two after Emily inevitably gets them in trouble (though the vast majority of the "saving" comes from Emily / Ma' themselves).

So it's not a terrible movie.  Indeed, often it's quite funny and it's often quite self-deprecating which gives movies like this some soul. 

Okay most of us are not going find ourselves kidnapped by a band of local drug / sex traffickers working-out of the jungle border/hinterlands of Ecuador / Colombia.  But the clueless arrogance of the two lead characters (especially Emily) are certainly relateable, perhaps even endearing.   Hence it's not an altogether terrible Mother Day movie, though certainly for mid-teens and above.  Indeed, it may produce a conversation or two and perhaps even a hug ;-).

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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion [2017]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing listing

Hindustan Times (D. Sinha) review
The Hindu (S.D. Dundoo) review
Indian Express (S. Gupta) review
Times of India (M. Iyer) review

The Guardian (M. McCahill) review (M. Javali) review

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion [2017] [IMDb] [FiBt] (screenplay and directed by S.S. Rajamouli [IMDb] [FiBt], story by Vijayendra Prasad, [IMDb], Malayalam dialogue by Mankombu Gopalakrishnan [IMDb], Tamil dialogue by Madhan Karky [IMDb], Telugu dialogue by C.H. Vijay Kumar [IMDb] and Hindi dialogue by Manoj Muntashir [IMDb]) was probably the most anticipated INDIAN BLOCKBUSTER RELEASE in HISTORY and at least in terms of Box Office figures, it certainly did not disappoint.  Two weeks since its release it already has become the most successful Indian film in history, and even in the U.S. it shocked many observers as the weekend that it opened it ranked #3 in American box office sales (beating the Tom Hanks / Emma Watson starring film The Circle [2017]) and even the second week out it still landed #7 in American box office sales.  Wow!

Yet, to be truthful, I found Part 1, Baahubali: The Beginning [2015], an almost "Indian Thor [2011]-like" film (with which I began my 2016 Indian Film Tour last June) to be far more interesting.  The current film, which features EXTENDED (going on and on and on...) if admittedly AWESOME medieval style battle scenes, best resembles the final installment of the three part Hobbit series The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies [2014], or perhaps the Spartan Era 300 [2006].

That said, I suspect that many Western viewers will watch much of the film with jaws dropped, wondering ... HOW THE HECK did such a culturally / technologically advanced country as Silk Road / Medieval era India ever fall under the boot of the British (or otherwise European) colonization?  (There's obviously a complicated history there involving the reality that India was not a single country but rather a civilization / cultural unit comprised of many competing states who the Brits / other European states played against each other).

So while perhaps not even the best of these epic Indian films -- I liked Bajirao Mastani [2015] (available on various mainstream streaming platforms at a reasonable price) to be the best of the current Indian films of this genre -- I really do believe that seeing a film like this could change one's life.  A non-Indian would never be able to look at India the same way again.  In that regard, a simply AWESOME film!  

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Monday, May 8, 2017

2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

Of the films that played recently at the 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, that played recently in various theaters across Los Angeles and Orange County, I was able to view and review the following:

Tokyo Idols [2017] [IMDb] (written and directed by Kyoko Miyake [IMDb]) is a fascinating if really quite disturbing documentary about a seamy and, yes, quite _creepy_ contemporary Japanese pop-culture phenomenon: groups of grown-men, from their twenties and into their fifties / sixties latching themselves to teenage to early twenty-something young women who these men follow and arguably "worship" as "idols."  To a certain extent, the phenomenon resembles "soccer worship" in Europe where groups of fanatical sports fans have devised complex pre-game, during-the-game and post-game rituals to express their "devotion" to their particular team, who then follow their teams _fanatically_ across their country / the world and yes, to most North Americans cross a line from simple fandom into disturbing (and in the case of soccer, violent) devotion.  
The focus of adoration followed in the documentary here, far more explicitly sexualized (though still kept arguably at a PG-13 level, which is in itself quite strange), is on individual teenage girls / to twenty-something young women who often do "self-promote" (the documentary spends much of its time focused on a 19-y.o. woman with a stage name Rio who lives at home and whose parents, father a masseur, mother a nice basically content homemaker are basically _fine_ with what she does).

Why would this phenomenon (this arguably "half-chaste" _perversion_) exist?   It is just weird and the documentary actually does _not_ endorse it.  Indeed, it features primarily a Japanese feminist commentator who repeatedly points-out that this phenomenon is based on (Japanese) socially accepted male privilege and promotes "male laziness." Exasperated, the commentator notes at one point: "Look, these men don't even try to get a wife or girlfriend anymore.  They just follow one or another of these idols."  And even some of the male "devotees" note (with some sheepish embarrassment) that this phenomenon is contributing now to Japan's ridiculously low birthrate.   

Why note this film here?  Well, the film could actually be a very interesting avenue into opening discussion into the distorting effect of the more world-wide phenomenon of internet pornography.  For the commentator's condemnation of Japanese modern-day "idol worship" could _easily_ be applied to the more world-wide phenomenon of internet porn:  Again, why bother to even try to make oneself attractive enough to attract a real significant other when one can just sit back and bury oneself in hours upon hours of internet porn?  A fascinating if disturbing documentary - 3 1/2 Stars.

King of Peking [2016] (written and directed by Sam Vautas [IMDb]) is a lovely "Nuovo Cinema Paradiso [1988]"-like film about a 40-something father, Big Wong (played by Jun Zhao) and his 10 y.o. son, Little Wong (played by Wang Naixun) -- "Wong" meaning "King" in Mandarin Chinese -- two random Beijing-of- the-early-1990s hucksters (only a few years actually after Tienanmen...) who helped through their initiative (basically they learned how to pirate and copy movies...) bring "world cinema" (Hollywood films) "to the masses" ;-).  It's an endearing film.  Big Wong was basically nothing more than a common laborer who ... loved movies ;-), knew that others, if only they had the chance to see them, would love movies too ... and he and his quite imaginative / innovative son (as only a 10 year-old with some freedom to play / dream could be) "found a way to do so."  The director, a Westerner, but who grew-up in Beijing of the time, present at the screening, told the audience that the film was basically a love letter to the "Big and Little Wongs" of China of the time, who in all sorts of little / creative ways made China into what it has become today.  Great film! -- 4 Stars.

She's the Boss (orig. Ban Gai Toi La Sep) [2017] (directed by Ham Tran [IMDb]) is a very cute, contemporary Vietnamese Rom-Com.  Inspired by a Thai hit of some years back, ATM: Er Rak Error [2012] and set in rapidly re-modernizing Saigon of today, it's about a nominally forbidden office romance between two workers -- Oanh (played by Miu Le [IMDb]) and Cuong (played by Do An [IMDb]) -- in the accounting department of a large Saigon-based bank, who are sent out "into the provinces" to "fix" a problem after a random ATM machine out there is accidentally mis-programmed to give-out 4x more cash than asked.  Needless to say, that ATM became a "big hit" in that random provincial town, but the two are tasked with finding a way to recover the cash that was accidentally given away.  Oanh is the more straight-laced boss, Cuong her boyfriend seems at least initially more clever, but both prove rather devious in their methods as they try to put this "genie back in the bottle."  Much ensues.  Certainly an endearing film throughout, the most fascinating aspect to the film for the American / Westerner would be how thoroughly modern Vietnam of today is portrayed.  One would think that one was in Singapore of today rather than "'Nam."  Fascinating and very light-hearted / fun! -- 4 Stars


Lipstick Under My Burkha [2016] [IMDb] [FiBt] (story, directed and screenplay cowritten by Alankrita Shrivastava [IMDb] [FiBt] along with Suhani Kanwar [IMDb], dialogue by Gazal Dhaliwal [IMDb]) BANNED in India (for reasons problematic yet perhaps "understandable" when one sees the film OPENED last month's Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and PLAYED again as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (where I was able to see it).  Why would the film be BANNED in its home country?  EXCELLENT though it is --  a drama about the struggles of four contemporary Indian women, two Hindu, two Muslim, living basically "on the same block" in contemporary Bhopal (provincial), India -- one could EASILY IMAGINE how a film like this IN GENERAL RELEASE could cause riots in a large and precarious country like India today:  

 The youngest of the women, Rehana (played by Plabita Borthakur [IMDb]) is a Muslim college student who leaves her quite traditional home in a burka, and, of course, by the time she gets to campus, she's dressed like everybody else ... in jeans and a t-shirt.  Indeed, she's found the burka "useful" at times ... to shoplift ... among other things, said lipstick, in the film's title.  

Among Rehana's neighbors is a still relatively young Muslim mother / wife Shirin (played by Konkona Sen Sharma [IMDb] [FiBt]) with three little boys (and also having had already three other abortions) who, since the family has been struggling (her husband's often "away" on jobs "in Saudi Arabia") has found a way to "make ends meet" ... by finding a job (without her husband knowing it) a job that she's actually quite good at.  However, since her husband doesn't know that she has a job, accepting "matter-of-course promotions" (for a job well done) becomes a real challenge... (all the more so, when one considers that her husband is struggling _at his job_).   

Yet, lest one think that the film is merely "highlighting the plight of Muslim women" (and thus somehow "picking on Muslims") another twenty-something neighbor, Leela (played by Aahana Kumra [IMDb]) finds herself in another drama.  She is in love (and quite sexually active) with a young-but-poor photographer but engaged through an arranged-marriage-to-be to another.  It's not that her fiance' is a bad guy.  He's not, but the marriage is arranged, she does not love him.  And yes, compared to photog, he's really quite boring.  So why doesn't she just run-off with the photog?  Well, it's not that easy.  Her mother, perhaps widowed, perhaps divorced, but certainly no longer marriageable and single, is depending on her only daughter to "marry well." 

Finally, there's Leela's 50 or even 60-something "auntie" named Usha (played by Ratna Pathak [IMDb] [FiBt]) long widowed, long considered in the society to be "way past her marriageable, let alone sexual, expiration date" ... who finds herself nonetheless reading / liking "romance novels" because ... well ... she's NOT DEAD YET ;-).
And so the film is about these four women, all "living on the same block" though not necessarily particularly close (at least initially).  Why not particularly close?  Well, they may have been "living on the same block" but they're also living quite quietly "in their own particular hells."   Yet, of course, circumstances do make their stories intertwine.

Is there a resolution to any of these four women's difficulties?  No, not really.  However, the film does point out quite well, quite starkly, the problems and societal injustices that these four "everywomen" face.

Without a doubt, THIS IS AN EXCELLENT FILM.  It reminds one of the recent French-Turkish Oscar nominee Mustang [2015], and perhaps even of the American feminist classic Thelma & Louise [1991].  Again, it does not resolve ANYTHING but ... IT CERTAINLY IDENTIFIES / NAMES a FAIR NUMBER OF THE PROBLEMS facing women in INDIA, throughout much of South Asia and, if one is honest, throughout much of the world as a whole as well.  

Yes, I could imagine a film like this "causing riots" in a place like India today.  Yet, what a discussion piece! -- 4+ Stars

 Gook [2017] (written and directed by Justin Chon) is a brave / sincere if perhaps _still incendiary_ film about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots from a then 20-something Korean young adult's perspective.  Justin Chon plays Eli, said 20-something Korean-American young adult, who along with his similarly aged brother Daniel (played by David So) run a never entirely "above board" discount shoe store at the then far north eastern edge of L.A.'s Koreatown at the time of the 1992 L.A. Riots.  (Note Dear Readers that I would actually know somewhat the neighborhood, as I lived -- as a 20-something Caucasian American -- in and around Koreatown and its neighboring neighborhoods when I was a grad-student at U.S.C. at the very same time).

The two were running the shoe store largely in memory of their dad, who had founded the store, but had been murdered (along with an African American cashier) in a hold-up some years earlier.  Kamila (played by Simone Baker), the cute-as-a button 8-10 year old daughter of the fallen cashier, remains a daily visitor to said store (indeed, she often ditches school to hang out there), largely because the small shack of a store (overlooking presumably the 101 or perhaps 5 Freeway, just north of Downtown) is the strongest connection to the mother she never really knew (Kamila's being raised by her older brother and sister) who still live in the neighborhood.

Well, it's April 29, 1992 and the verdict of the four police officers accused of beating Rodney King comes in -- all four declared largely innocent of the charges against them -- and the city soon explodes, eventually, inevitably reaching said store.

Dear Readers, this is an honest, nuanced and complicated film.  Where it does perhaps come _too close to home_, however, is when something inevitably happens to Kamila, the cute as a button African-American 8 year old.  The problem here is that PART OF THE REASON that L.A. Riots played out the way that they did -- as, among other things, a virtual pogrom against the Korean American shopkeeper community in L.A. -- was that THERE WAS A TRIAL PREVIOUS TO THE ONE REGARDING THE COPS WHO BEAT RODNEY KING.  In that other trial, of Soon Ja Du a Korean American woman shopkeeper who shot dead Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African American girl, in a tragically confused confrontation, though convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the Soon Ja Du did not receive any jail time, which _nearly_ produced rioting then, if not for the intervention of many African American leaders in L.A. including _many clergy_ who pleaded for calm.   Since the city was already primed for an explosion from that trial, the not-guilty verdicts from the trial of the four cops who beat Rodney King, set the city on fire.  Anyway, the tragedy that visits cute-as-a-button Kamila in this story, COMES REALLY CLOSE to the tragic death of Latasha Harlins and though ever sensitively done, _may_ just be too much for many African American viewers, even today to bear.

Anyway, one thing I have to say about the 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is that, oh my, this Festival did not flinch from all kinds of explosive topics (many already recalled above).  I would ask that Readers here take this into account in forming their opinions of this film, and (with some trepidation) I WOULD LIKE TO APPLAUD THE COURAGE of this Festival's organizers.  Film Festivals are _often_ forums for the screening of some very brave films.  I just want to say here that this year's 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival was truly exemplary in this regard. -- 4 Stars (for both the current Film and the Festival itself).  Great job!

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Friday, May 5, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 [2017] (screenplay and directed by James Gunn, inspired by the Marvel Comics comic book series [MarvU] [wikip 1969 2008] of the same name) which OPENED to ENTHUSIASTIC crowds worldwide, CONTINUED the whimsical tale of abducted-as-a-child earthling Peter Quill a.k.a. "Star Lord" (played by Chris Pratt) and his band of misfits who became by the end of the first installment "The Guardians of the Galaxy" AND ... beh ... I throw-up my hands and sigh.

It's a cute, even at times _adorable_, movie (witness purportedly Vin Diesel's tree-like "Baby Groot" though the character is animated and "Groot" really HAS NO LINES, so what exactly does Vin Diesel "do" in "playing" him ;-).  But get past the "adorable schmuckishness" of the film, what's left?

IMHO not much, 'cept perhaps if you ... hate your family.  Zoe Saldana's "abused since even before her birth" (she had been genetically engineered to be a heartless warrior) Gamora (not exactly the most Judeo-Christian friendliest of names ...) turns out to have a sister Nebulah (played by Karen Gillan) who really, really hates her (in good part for what their father did to both of them).  And then Peter Quill's, yes "GOD-like" Father (literally named Ego) (played by Kurt Russell) turns out to be a real D...

So ... "Joyful, Joyful we adore Thee ..."

Yes, this is a cute movie, but it's also "really kinda evil..." I suppose a lot of Hollywood stars come from really messed-up families (indeed, it may serve as the underlying reason for their drive to "get known"), but more than pretty much any other Marvel Comics story to date, there's a real "your family are your friends" / "your real family will mess you up" message in this story that may surprise a lot of Viewers who thought they were coming to a movie that was just gonna entertain them. 

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Circle [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (R. Abele) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review

The Circle [2017] (directed and screenplay cowritten by James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb] based the latter's novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn]) is an IMHO pretty thought provoking teen / young adult oriented cautionary tale about a Google-like internet company that's piercing / shedding ALL boundaries.

Yes, 20-something "every Millennial" Mae (played by Emma Watson) along with most Viewers found it cool to have, thanks to well-connected friend Annie (played by Karen Gillan), scored a job with said Google-like Silicon Valley giant named "The Circle" led by an Apple-founder Steve Jobs' like "charismatic visionary" named Bailey (played with magnificent high-tech witchery by Tom Hanks).  Indeed, with a MS-suffering dad (played by Bill Patxon) and a company that "cares" it could have seemed to May and her family like a lifesaver.  'Cept and there's ALWAYS a 'Cept ... what a creepy outfit "The Circle" turned out to be ...

A few weeks into working at said Circle a couple of nice / polite HR people come by Mae's cubicle to say: "We couldn't help but notice that you were off campus for 46 hours this past weekend.  We were just wondering ... why?"

"BECAUSE I HAVE A LIFE / A FAMILY / LOVED ONES ..." could have / should have been her answer.  And to some extent, that's the answer she gives, but ... she also gives in: The Circle's campus, Readers should note is ... pretty Cool.  It has pretty much EVERYTHING that a twenty-something could want, 'cept (that word again ...) PAST FAMILY / FRIENDS.

In other words, "The Circle" is a Totalitarian Cult and an expanding / pretty Evangelical one at that.

The rest of the film becomes a near constant interrogation of Viewers: What would YOU do?  When would YOU finally say ENOUGH?  (But even if you said ENOUGH ... WHERE would you "run to"?)

As such, The Circle presents that "Titanium Gulag" of the future, where one comes to have difficulty in distinguishing "The Shining City on a Hill" with a REALLY BRIGHTLY LIT ... PRISON.

Yes, Mae _kinda_ gets back at her (perhaps) "oppressors" but "kinda" is the operative word.  It isn't convincing.

With everybody's identities / privacy so thoroughly compromised in this near-future Dystopia by such "Circle innovations" as "SEEchange" (tiny disposable web-connected battery operated webcams that ANY USER could DROP ANYWHERE so that ANYONE, ANYWHERE, COULD SEE EVERYTHING GOING ON ANYWHERE) and "TruSELF" (a "secure" onestop "identity profile" that the Circle would provide, WITH THE PROVISO that ... well, one could be FOLLOWED online by ANYBODY, ANYTIME for ANY REASON), who cares ultimately that Mae is (perhaps) able to put her Bosses under the same scrutiny as she (and all the other "little people") are?

A lot of the younger reviewers (above) sigh "so what?"

Yes, perhaps here I am happy that I'm middle aged.  This is simply NOT the way we should be heading.  We should have a right to be able _to hide_ (to breathe...) occasionally.  Let our Confessions be to God (or to a Priest in a Confessional), not to ANYBODY, ANYWHERE, WATCHING US FOR ANY REASON ...


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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

15th Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles [2017]

 Of the films that played recently at the 15th Annual Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, held at the Regal L.A. Live Cinema in Downtown Los Angeles, I was able to view and review the following:

Chronicles of Hari (orig. Harikatha Prasanga) [2016] [IMDb] [FiBt] (directed and cowritten by Ananya Kasaravalli [IMDb] [FiBt] along with Girish Kasaravalli [IMDb] [FiBt] and Gopalakrishna Pai [IMDb]) offered a quite fascinating, traditional Indian contribution to the TRANSGENDER QUESTION raging through society across the world today.  The story here, based in part on truth, is about an actor (played by Shrunga Vasudevan) who apparently _committed suicide_ after many years of playing the role of Hari an Indian Goddess as part of a traditional, ALL MALE, Hindu acting troupe. HE DIDN'T PARTICULARLY LIKE PLAYING THIS ROLE, but the troupe's director essentially forced him to do so, telling him that somebody had to play the role, it made no sense to train multiple actors to play it especially since he was actually quite good at it.  Indeed, a lot of the traditional Hindu women going to the troupe's presentations were quite impressed in his playing of Hari.  But soon his playing of this role got in the way of his personal life: He found it all-but impossible to get married, because even though traditional marriages in Hindu culture tend to be arranged, neither the families, nor the potential brides wanted [their daughters] to get married to someone who made his living playing a woman.  Rejected in this way, and unable to "switch roles" within the troupe, he did then fall into a certain amount of "gender confusion": He started to wonder if he was actually "[meant to be] gay."  But then to be gay in rural India is not necessarily the easiest thing in the world to be either and this caused him all sorts of other problems -- rejection now by his own family, rejection in pretty much every town / village that he tried to set-up home in.  So, driven eventually to despair, he ... The film calls quite stark attention to a fair number of contradictory messages sent by [in this case traditional Indian] society:  Here the society _wanted_ young men to play women's roles in traditional Hindu plays, but then had _no place for these actors_ afterwards -- they were rendered both "unmarriageable" [with traditional Hindu women] and not allowed to be openly gay.   So what options would these actors have?  A simply fascinating / thought provoking film -- 3 1/2 Stars 

Sexy Durga [2017] [IMDb] [FiBt] (written and directed by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan [IMDb] [FiBt]) was a simply _excellent_ minimalist contemporary Indian _horror movie_.  The story is SET IN SOUTH INDIA in and around a small town in the midst of an annual festival in honor of the Hindu Goddess Durga.  And it is about A YOUNG COUPLE -- Kabeer, A MUSLIM presumably from said town, and Durga, HINDI, BUT FROM NORTH INDIA (played by Rajshri Deshpande [IMDb] [FiBt]) and hence one who didn't speak the local language -- trying to hitch a ride to the train station to "get out of town."  Why?  Presumably because neither of the two "fit in."  They get picked-up by a couple of young SOUTH INDIAN MEN in a van, who ... and THAT'S THE POINT OF THE FILM ... one honestly doesn't know their motivations: On one hand they're kinda helpful, on the other hand, they REPEATEDLY (inadvertently?) SCARE THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF said couple, especially out of said woman who has the same name as the Goddess in honor of whom this enormous and ecstatic festival was taking place (Honestly, the footage from the festival itself is both fascinating and at times disconcerting, though the Christian viewer should note that there are Christian faithful in various parts of the world who do some fairly disturbing things as well as part of their devotion -- including literally handling poisonous snakes up in Appalachia and having themselves literally crucified in some places in the Philippines).   Were the young men trying to be helpful to this already "on edge" couple?  AGAIN ONE SIMPLY DOES NOT KNOW and the film plays out JUST LIKE A NIGHTMARE: Just as one thinks that things are FINALLY being resolved (in one way -- good, or horribly bad -- or another) THERE'S  NEW TWIST ... and THE FILM'S TENSION resumes again.  It all plays like a SIMPLY OUTSTANDING HORROR / PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER -- 4 Stars.

Hotel Salvation (orig. Mukti Bhawan) [2016] [IMDb] [FiBt] (directed and screenplay by Shubhashish Bhutiani [IMDb] [FiBt], dialogues by Asad Hussain [IMDb] [FiBt]) CLOSED this year's Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and proved to be a simply outstanding film about a naturally complicated relationship between aging father Daya (played by Lalit Behl [IMDb] [FiBt]) and grown/middle aged son Rajiv (played by Adil Hussain [IMDb] [FiBt]) with his own family, indeed marriageable 20-something daughter.  Basically, the film is about the father Daya, aged 77, who comes to the conclusion that "it's his time to die." As a good Hindu, with moderately reasonable means - not super-rich, not poor - this meant making _a final pilgrimage_ to the Hindu Holy City of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges River ... where he would achieve moksha (the Hindu term for spiritual liberation/salvation) ... die.  And there are hotels along the river there in Varanasi run by Hindu priests which offer accompaniment to the Hindu devout who come to the city, to the mighty Ganges, to die.  Now was Daya particularly sick?  No not really.  He just had a clearly sincere / profound feeling that "his time has come."  Interestingly enough, when he and his son arrive at the hotel, the Hindu priest running the hotel, taking a look at Daya, does in fact believe him that he's probably going to die there.  But he _also_ tells him and his son that they can only stay at the hotel for two weeks and afterwards if Daya does not die, they must go back home.  How can one "schedule death"?   As a non-Hindu looking at this story play out, I did leave with something of a naturalistic theory BUT ... I do think there's a sincerity present that does go beyond simply the naturalistic.  Plus, it is clear that while most of the devotees who come to the town to die, do (somewhat surprisingly) do so, there are others (including one woman who becomes a fairly important character in the story) who don't.  Plus the Hindu priest who gave the incoming Daya "two weeks to die" (or else leave) proves to be a bit more flexible with the devotees coming to the hotel than it would initially seem (he does let some clearly stay longer).  ANYWAY, THIS IS A FASCINATING FILM and honestly WORTH THE VIEW for ANYONE INTERESTED IN INTER-FAITH DIALOGUE / COMPARATIVE RELIGION -- 4+ Stars.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

2017 Newport Beach Film Festival

 Of the films that played recently at the 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival, I was able to view and review the following:

North of Known [2017] (directed by Bryan Smith) is a visually spectacular extreme sport documentary about Gavin McClurg [wikip] and Dave Turner traversing (over 37 days) the whole of the remote 480 mile Alaska Range (which includes Mt Denali the tallest mountain in North America) largely be means of paraglider.  Beautiful, simply beautiful.  I honestly never would have thought of the idea of doing this, but, oh my, what a remarkable Odyssey.  Who knows, one day astronauts on mars may travel that planet in this way as well.

In preparation for the trip, the two had dropped off by helicopter several caches of food, spacing them along the route at regular intervals (basically at where they expected to find themselves at the beginning of each week of travel).  They did this so that they wouldn't have to carry all their supplies for the whole month with them.  Then, of course, a film crew would helicopter-in to film them, though some of the footage included that taken by helmet cams and cameras otherwise mounted to their (paraglider) gear.

I left the film absolutely exhilarated.  Honestly, what's possible these days, and what a beautiful world we (still) have! -- 3 1/2 Stars

Good after Bad [2016] (written and directed by Anne Marie Hess) is a small indie film about a somewhat bullied/put-upon high schooler named Shelley (played quite excellently by Maddie Hadson) with _lots of issues at home_ who gets helped-out by a somewhat "dropped out of the sky" random wealthy man named Wes (played again quite excellently by Billy Burke) who was a relative of one of Shelley's "sort of" (but not particularly good...) high school friends.  Yes, a film like this today raises eyebrows.  Yet, the film is quite unapologetic.  Shelley's quite realistically portrayed teenage life was often (not always) veering precariously to the edge and her single mom had a great deal of difficulty dealing with her own difficulties.  So Wes became something of a godsend.  Are all rich older men good?  No, certainly not.  But are they _all_ (somehow) self-absorbed / bad?  Certainly _not_ as well.  In my six months here at my new assignment in Southern California, I've met a truly large number of richer middle-aged+ people (people my age plus), both men and women, who are by any standard good, concerned and generous people.  What Wes did for this teenager-at-risk is certainly quite interesting and discussion producing.  Yes, this film probably would have been easier-to-watch if some other character took interest and helped this girl.  But, what if (as is often the case...) there is simply no one else around to do so?   Do we let people drop-off the edge / fall through the cracks (just) to be PC? -- 3 1/2 Stars

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Gifted [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub () review

Gifted [2017] (directed by Marc Webb, screenplay by Tom Flynn) while generally well and compassionately acted, treads (except when the film-makers _chose_ to be stupid...) where it's safe. 

The story was to center on a seven-year-old girl Mary Adler (played quite convincingly by McKenna Grace) the daughter of at least one gifted mathematician (and quite possibly two) who had been raised up to this point by her uncle Frank (played by ... Luke Evans).  Why?  Why would her uncle Frank, her mother's brother be raising her and not either her mother or father?  Well her mother was a very gifted mathematician, from a family of gifted mathematicians, but ... giftedness has its price.  Mary's mother was awkward socially, got herself pregnant by a man who also proved incapable of making a commitment to the child produced by their encounter, and so ... Mary's mother _committed suicide_ (!) at some point, in Frank's apartment, leaving Frank with her.

Now Frank, in the story no slouch on the brainy side -- he apparently was an Associate Professor (in Boston ...) at the time -- took his sister's suicide as something of a sign (or final straw) to give up that lifestyle and ... took his infant niece to Florida where he chose to live in a trailer park and "fix boats" for a living.  Again, why?  One's guess is that he was _tired_ of being "special" and preferred to seek to have a more normal way of life.  And that is then what he wanted his niece to have as well.

Well, all went well, until Mary made it to first grade, and ... it became clear that she was ... gifted as well.  What to do?  Frank seemed adamant with almost Evangelical zeal that she _remain_ "in a normal school" (even if she was bored there ...).  The school teacher and then principal google the family's name and find that Mary comes from a family of mathematicians.  Since the principal becomes "fuzzy" about the validity of Frank's guardianship of Mary, she makes contact with Mary's grandmother (and Frank's mother...) Evelyn (played by Lyndsay Duncan), and Evelyn comes down to Florida to try to take away Mary from her wayward son to put her into a proper (genius) school ...

And soon, the battle for Mary's future / upbringing is on ...

The story isn't bad, just predictable except in perhaps the most banally stupid of ways: Frank and Mary's school teacher Bonnie (played quite well by Jenny Slate) following stupid / seamy "Hollywood protocol" find their way to bed, which could have cost Teacher Bonnie her job ... and certainly makes Frank into a "big dumb jerk" ... and makes a film that OTHERWISE would have made for _a very nice family film_ into one that really wouldn't be suitable for actual kids of Mary's age.

Stupid, but I guess why waste big hunk of "man flesh" like Luke Evans on a sympathetic regular guy role.  All that was missing, I guess was a speedo scene ... And then, perhaps the film-makers thought "Jenny Slate should have felt so lucky" to do a topless covered by a pillow scene with an "A-list hunk" like Luke Evans.

#Sigh. #Sad.

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The Lost City of Z [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

The Lost City of Z [2016] (screenplay and directed by James Gray based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by David Grann [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) while based on a true story is certainly no Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981]

Instead, call it "Downton Abbey [2010-2015] goes to the Jungle" (and perhaps with this film along with the "Dunkirk drama" Their Finest [2017] this sub-genre about _really boring_ "lower born turn of the century British aristocrats" will have finally "jumped the shark"). 

Set in the early 20th Century, the current film is about thoroughly once undistinguished British officer (hence with perhaps "something to prove") turned quite by accident into Amazonian explorer Percival Harrison Fawcett [wikip] (played in the film Charlie Humman): Sent after many years in the career doldrums on a random yet quite dangerous surveying mission (arguably because better connected British officers from more distinguished families didn't want to go ...) to the then uncharted but rubber-rich (and hence disputed) frontier region between Brazil and Bolivia called Acre, he returned with pottery evidence that out there in the jungle had once existed an ancient civilization.  He then becomes obsessed with finding said civilization even though he has difficulty being taken seriously by the quite crusty if very prestigious (they were British you know...) Royal Geographic Society.

Much Downton Abbeyesque only "with flynets" ensued ... Those who like period pieces about the British Empire in the interwar period will probably not find it terrible.  But it is _slow_ ...

ADDENDUM - We Servites (my religious order) actually know something about this region as our Order's probably most famous Mission is located on the Brazilian side of the border in Acre.  And I was actually helped translate a book commissioned by the Brazilian Servites on Amazonia of that region.

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Monday, April 17, 2017

The Case for Christ [2017]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Christianity Today (K. McLenithan) review (J.W. Kennedy) review

The Case for Christ [2017] (directed by Jon Gunn, screenplay by Brian Bird based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Lee Strobel [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]), I have to admit, I came to with some ... fear.

While I'm at a parish where I may now actually use Strobel's book for a still in the works "Rocket Scientists Faith Discussion Group" (yes, I've literally buried _three_ different elderly rocket scientists - aerospace engineers (veterans of the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs - since coming out to Orange County, CA to my new assignment ;-), the _vast majority_ of the thousands of parishioners who I've worked with over the last 20 years _don't_ need any proof of the Resurrection.  It's a living reality to them day to day: How else can one get the strength to put aside alcohol, to stop yelling (or even beating) one's spouse or kids (and _start_ to put family / loved ones first again ... rather than "chasing trophies" of any manner of kinds) or get over Losses (again of a plethora of kinds)?

Rising from the Put/Hammered-down / Dismissed as Dead, is a surprisingly common experience for most of us.  That Jesus would to do it FOR REAL is a Testament that God truly understands what life in this still quite Fallen world is like and his desire to assure us that NOTHING / NO ONE of this world will have the final word over any of us, that that final word truly belongs to God who made and loves us all (incidentally a beautiful reflection on God's love for each and everyone of us is given in another Christian based movie The Shack [2017] that came out at the beginning of Lent this year, with the current film coming out to close it out). 

But then is all this just a nice "pipe dream"?  This is what former Chicago Tribune investigative reporter and (as a result of his conversion in the process) later Chicago-area Willow Creek Megachurch Pastor Lee Strobel (played in the film by Mike Vogel) sought to do -- prove one-way-or-another whether all this a bunch of nonsense.   And it's clear that when he began this project he was firmly hoping to prove to his wife (played in the film by Erika Christensen) that _her_ new found faith (as a result of a near family tragedy) was silly, distracting and even threatening their marriage.

Obviously, he came to a different conclusion.  He did so in a quite sober manner that should give the educated person at least some pause.  He noted that the ancient attestations, yes, in the New Testament are numerous (more than 5000 ancient copies of the NT are existent -- for context that's more than 4x as many as the Iliad, the next most numerously available text from the ancient mid-East -- and the oldest fragments of the NT go back to only a few decades from the event).  He noted fairly significant details in these ancient attestations -- notably that ALL the NT accounts of Christ's Resurrection have WOMEN encountering the Risen Christ first (if the story was invented, this detail would not serve the inventor's interest, as women's testimony was almost universally considered "unreliable" in the ancient mideast (and really up to only recent times).  Finally, he noted that Jesus would have almost certainly have died on the Cross (a possible explanation of a "fake Resurrection" would have been that he had not have actually died).  But even an Journal of the AMA article on the matter argued that assuming that Jesus was crucified, he would have had to have died -- from asphyxiation (following the other injuries of his ordeal, notably his flogging).  So ...

... if nothing else, it should make people think.

Again, I'm not necessarily sure that this is the best way to argue for Christianity, BUT IT DOES NOT HURT that there are serious people like Strobel seeking to argue the case.

Excellent film.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Going in Style [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Going in Style [2017] (directed by Zach Braff, screenplay by Theodore Melfi, story by Edward Cannon) is not a complicated movie and there have been similar ones made recently as well, notably: the Ben Stiller / Alan Alda / Eddie Murphy, et al starring light dramedy Tower Heist [2011], the essentially "Igor / Frankenstein" but _real_ Andrew Garfield / Michael Shannon starring horror story 99 Homes [2014] (about the culture of "vulture capitalism" in the real estate market in-and-around Orlando, Florida after the 2008 Financial Crisis), the docudrama The Big Short [2015] (about six financial odd-balls who actually _made billions_ by _betting_ on the 2008 Crash) and finally the George Clooney / Julia Roberts starring vehicle Money Monster [2016] (about a guy who storms into a CFN-style "investment talk show" wanting to just start _shooting people_ who caused him to stupidly lose his life savings).  All these films brim with (and at some point _begin_ to exploit...) obvious resentment born of the view that the rich / connected people of Wall Street have essentially looted the futures of the poor and middle class of this country for their financial benefit ... and have largely gotten away with it.

In the current scenario, three retired "specialty steel workers" (played by Michael Kaine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin) facing the loss of their entire pensions due to a corporate financial deal that "moved operations completely offshore" decide to rob the bank that made that financial deal possible -- "Rat Pack" (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr) style.  Much ensues ...

Again, this is not a complicated story.  People of faith _should be_ at least _a little_ concerned about a story that, after all, GLORIFIES THEFT, even if perhaps "righteous theft."

Still, this film (and others like it) would probably never have been made if there wasn't a more or less obvious sense in society that justice has simply not been done (or even been close to having been done) with regards to the 2008 Financial Crisis that really did hurt / destroy the financial futures of tens of millions of people.

So my sense is that these kind of films will continue to be made (and continue to be quite popular) until the frustration these films have been fed by has been dealt with or otherwise dissipates.  The effects of crimes that go unpunished ... linger.

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Zookeeper's Wife [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (E. Zuckerman) review

Zookeeper's Wife [2017] (directed by Niki Caro, screenplay by Angela Workman based on the book [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Diane Ackerman [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) tells the story of Antonina Żabiński and her husband Jan [wikip] (played by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh respectively) a Polish married couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s and used the premises to successfully hide some 300 Jews (some for days, others for years) during the time of Nazi Occupation (only two of the 300 Jews hidden by them were subsequently captured and killed, the rest survived the War).  For their efforts, the Żabińskis are among the 6,706 Poles (more than any other country) honored among "The Righteous Among the Nations" at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial [wikip] [website] in Jerusalem. 

To my knowledge, this may be the first Hollywood feature film to honor a Polish family that helped save Jews during the Holocaust even though, as mentioned above, the number of Poles honored at Yad Vashem exceeds all other nations, and as Poles would remind anybody who'd only listen to them, they themselves were suffered tremendously during the Nazi Occupation, and by Nazi ideology were themselves (along with the rest of the Slavic peoples) consigned do be "a slave race" for the Nazis to use as utterly expendable manual labor in the most dangerous of tasks.  As such, I can not but applaud this film that recognizes the some of the sufferings and contributions of the Poles during the brutal era of their country's occupation.

The film, like the book on which it is based, combines the story of the Żabińskis (among the source material used by Diane Ackerman in writing her book was Antonina Żabiński's own diary from the time) with other actual events of the time.  Notably, the film features an interplay (perhaps partly true, though also certainly embellished) between the Żabińskis and Lutz Heck [en.wikip] [de.wikip]*(played in the film by Daniel Brühl) who had been the head of Berlin's Zoo during the Nazi Era and was most famous for a rather bizarre Nazi-era "breeding program" for recreating an extinct species of "Ur-ox."  Of course he did not succeed, but the resulting large and _rather aggressive_ cattle have been subsequently labeled Heck cattle (or more amusingly / derisively "Nazi Cows"). 

In the film, Lutz is shown performing some of these bizarre breeding experiments on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo (largely empty of its original animals as most were killed and others were pillaged by the Nazi occupiers / taken to zoos back in the Reich) while the Żabińskis the former caretakers of the Zoo, still living in the villa on its grounds, used the zoo's various empty pens, tunnels and other facilities to hide Jews, literally under the noses of Lutz and the other Nazi occupiers.  

It makes for an interesting (and largely family friendly) story about how the resourcefulness of a Polish family helped hide and save literally hundreds of Jewish lives in the midst of literally one of the most dangerous places to be during the Holocaust.

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