Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Higher Ground [2011]

MPAA (PG-13)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

Higher Ground (directed by and starring Vera Farmiga, screenplay co-written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe based on the book This Dark World: Story of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs) is a film that would probably irritate a good number of Catholics and Christians in the United States today.

To a believer like me, it _feels_ like a straw man, even though I do believe that it _does try_ not to be.  

At its base, Higher Ground a story a woman, Corine (played as a child by McKenzie Turner, as a teenager/young adult by Taissa Farmiga and as an adult by Vera Farmiga) who (1) grew-up in a traditional evangelical/fundamentalist tinged Christian household, (2) _chose_ as a young adult to become a devout  evangelical/fundamentalist Christian as a result of both an immediate crisis soon after she married her high school sweetheart Ethan (played as a teenager/young adult by Boyd Holbrooke and as an adult by Joshua Leonard) and a more generalized yearning for order in her and her husband's young lives, and (3) eventually found it impossible to continue in that faith.

Her departure from her church (and apparently from her faith) appeared to be at least as complex as her entry.

Sure it was _clear as day_ that _a good part_ of it was the result of a very rigidly-held patriarchical understanding of Church by the group that she and husband belonged to.  In the film, Corrine found herself reprimanded by both the Pastor Bud (played by Paul Irwin) and _especially by his wife_ for "coming very close to preaching" one evening during a discussion or faith-sharing session (preaching in this group being considered to be the province only of men).  This kind of rigidity, _when observed from a few steps distance_ (like on a movie screen) seems _simply incomprehensible_ in the modern world.

Still, both the film and presumably the book (I did not read the book and probably won't for lack of time) make the point that this did not compose the entirety of Corrine's departure from her faith.  Instead it was partly the result of the experience of tragedy with regards to a close personal friend, Annika (played by Dagmara Dominczyk) and a general sense of distance from God.  At one point, Corrine says (shown even in the trailer): "Oh God, I want to _feel_ your presence.  Instead, I just feel _nothing_."

Near the end of the movie, she and her husband go to a Christian counselor.  The counselor initially sounds like an absolute quack speaking in _very uncomfortably_ grandiose terms.  TO THE MOVIE'S CREDIT the film does not simply dismiss his appalling if _certainly sincere_ words: "Listen Corrine, we're fighting for your soul.  We want you inside with us in the Church, not outside with the dogs."  Neither she, nor the most of the audience (including myself honestly) understand initially what he's talking about.  Yet, by the end of the movie, it's clear that Corrine (and probably most of the audience) understands.  And yet the movie _ends_ with her _at the Church door_ presumably _about to step out_.  It's a VERY, VERY NICE ENDING.

Folks, I've said this for years at house blessings, where the Reading in the Catholic ritual for such blessings is "Build your house on Rock" (Matt 7:24-28) that _sure_ it's possible to go through this life _without_ believing in God.  The experience of those around us, childhood friends, relatives, etc, in the modern world tell us that this is so.  BUT it is _so much easier_ to _believe_.  The crises in life happen _anyway_ whether we believe in God or not.  I just find it so much easier to believe that God is at my side (and really _with everybody_, _even those I don't particularly like_ or am arguing with) as I go through them.  And yes, _with the perspective of time_ and much prayer and reflection, I do find that events and _even tragedies of the past_ do come to have at least _some redeeming value_.

But I do "get" Corrine too (at least in the movie, again I haven't read the book).  I do hope that she comes to find a peace with her Church and her Church finds _a place_ for her.  And I do hope that all the Corrines of the world and their Churches come to find a similar peace/understanding as well.  For from the time of Jesus in Gethsemene to Mother Theresa in our time, "Dark Nights" have proven redemptive.

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MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Roger Ebert (3 Stars)  Fr Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

Warrior (directed and screenplay/story cowritten by Gavin O'Conner along Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorman) proves to be a surprisingly good movie of this type.  I say surprising because as we talked about this movie in my local Servite community a number of days back, our general consensus was that a fair number of movies have traversed similar ground in recent years -- The Wrestler (2008) and The Fighter (2010).  So we, I believe, legitimately wondered what another movie of this kind could add.  And yet, as I say, I found the movie to be surprising...

I suppose to understand what makes a movie like this work is to understand that movies like this involve two metaphors -- "struggle," and then not just a private/anonymous struggle (which no one sees) but one which has been "elevated to a public stage."   The viewer of this kind of movie is invited to watch the central character of the movie _struggle_, often against _far more_ than just against _mere_ "opponents in the ring" but against various hardships in life (with which we can often identify) and then do so _publicly before all_.  Isn't this the essence of the Rocky (1976) movies and The Gladiator (2000) on which all movies of this story-line/genre are based?

Very good then, what could a "new movie" utilizing this story-line possibly add?  Here is where Warrior gets surprisingly interesting.  First and foremost, the two central characters in the Warrior, Brendan (played by Joel Edgarton) and Tommy (played by Tom Hardy) are two adult _brothers_, from a very dysfunctional, indeed broken family.  Their father, Paddy Conlon (played by Nick Nolte) a veteran of the service was both abusive and a drunk, so much so that his (since deceased) wife left him along with younger son Tommy, (while older son Brendon for reasons we find out in the movie stayed with his father).  Both brothers are deeply scared by their upbringing.  After his mother dies, Tommy joins the Marines and goes to war.  Brandon, grows up to be a physics teacher and marries his high school sweetheart Tess (played by Jennifer Morrison) and attempts to raise "a normal family."

The _one thing_ that both the boys have learned from their father was "how to fight."  Drunk and abusive as he was, Paddy did encourage both, particularly Tommy, in being star quality high school  wrestlers.  And both following high school had become good scrappy fighters in a relatively new (and tremendously brutal) arena sport called Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

The movie begins with a very angry Tommy showing-up in Pittsburgh at the doorstep of his father's house under somewhat mysterious circumstances (wasn't he supposed to be at war?)  He comes back only to berate his old dad (who tries to tell his son that he's been sober now for 3 years, nearly 1000 days).  No matter, Tommy has no time for that.  He shows up, yells at his dad and then leaves.  In the days following, Tommy finds his way to a local MMA gym, where he just beats the daylights out of supposedly one of the better fighters in the sport, and certainly the pride gym owner, Colt Boyt (played by Maximiliano Hernandez) who definitely takes notice.

In the meantime, in Pennsylvania's other major city, Philadelphia (the fictional home of course of Rocky Balboa of the Rocky movies) Brendan's been trying to put together and maintain a normal life with his wife Tess and their two daughters.  It hasn't been easy.  The couple had refinanced their mortgage a number of years back to help pay _for a heart operation_ for one of their little daughters and with the housing market collapse find themselves hopelessly underwater in their mortgage.  Besides working as a physics teacher at a local high school, Brendan bounces at a bar on the side.  Tess also works as a part-time waitress/barmaid as well.  But it's hopeless.  One Saturday night, on his way to his "bouncing" job, Brendan passes a local strip club offering a $500 prize for a MMA pickup fight in a make-shift rink on the strip-club's parking lot.  He stops, enters and wins.  However, when he comes back to school on Monday (his face still bearing the marks of his Saturday fight) thanks to YouTube even the high school kids know that he won those $500 and how.  His boss, Principal Zito (played by Kevin Dunn) is forced to suspend him _without pay_.  With even less options than before, Brendan tells his wife that if nothing else this MMA is relatively "easy money" (at the cost of being beaten up and possibly killed) and seeks out his former MMA buddy Frank Campana (played by Frank Grillo) who now runs a gym to help him train.

Finally while all this is taking place in the lives of the chief protagonists in the story, a super-rich "hedgefund manager" named Mark Bradford (played by Jake McLaughlin) announces to sports television network ESPN's _glee_ that he's going to sponsor a $5 Million "Winner Take All" MMA tournament that he calls "Sparta" 6 weeks hence in Atlantic City.  Mark Bradford does this simply because "he can" and because, he tells ESPN, "Just like a kid wants to know who's the toughest kid on the block, I want to find-out who's the toughest guy on the Planet."  There are slots for 16 fighters.  Since MMA is obscure enough of a sport,  both Tommy and Brendan get into the tournament.  Colt Boyt whose star, Pete "Mad-Dog" Grimes (played by Erik Apple), had been beaten-up by Tommy in the rink that one day, helps Tommy get into the tournament.  Brendan gets in because Frank Campana's star fighter gets hurt just before the tournament starts. 

As the tournament begins, the ESPN sportscasters are skeptical of both Tommy and Brendan.  A video of Tommy beating the daylights out of "Mad Dog" Grimes had circulating around YouTube (but was that a fluke?) and even less was known of Brendan.  Other legitimate (and fearsome) stars, including a Russian fighter named Koba (played by Kurt Angle) had entered the contest.  But that video of Tommy beating-up "Mad Dog" Grimes had made it all the way to Iraq, where a number of Marines identified Tommy as someone who had literally "ripped the door off of a sinking and burning tank" saving all its crew-members but had (mysteriously) not stopped to be thanked never-mind honored with any medal.  What's with that?  (There's a reason, that becomes clear in the film).  In any case, Tommy comes to the tournament with a large and grateful Marine fan-base.  Brendan too has his high schoolers, even the Principal, cheering for him, but nobody takes him seriously.  But he's fighting literally for his home ...

So _both_ Tommy and Brendan, brothers, have compelling stories and yes, we want both of them to win.  The _awful tragedy_ is in this story is that _only one can win_.

And that is _exactly_ what I believe this movie _adds_ to the "fighter" story-line.  Here we want _both_ of these bruised brothers to be able to win (and yes, to _reconcile_ rather than keep "fighting" even with their deeply flawed but also with the haze of the alcohol finally gone _deeply repentant_ dad).  But the circumstances are _staged_ so that _only one can win_.  And who is this scenario _staged_ by?  A "hedgefund manager" _a modern day God_ who like a Greek God of old, may not be evil, but considers humanity something to be played with _for his own amusement_.  Wow.

So on the surface, Warrior may seem "just like any other fighter/gladiator-like movie," but _just like_ most other fighter/gladiator-like movies, there's a lot more going on than meets the eye, and Warrior actually becomes one of the better ones in this regard, for Warrior as _staged_ as it is, becomes a surprisingly _multi-leveled_ parable about life.

Finally for those who may wish a _direct connection_ with the Bible/Christianity/our Faith, as I've mentioned in other reviews on this Blog, the metaphor of "struggle" also appears famously in the Bible with Jacob finding himself wrestling with an unknown opponent in the Desert one night _in a key moment in his life_,  where at the end of the night Jacob is given by his opponent a new name, Isra-el. which we are told means, "one who wrestles with God." (Genesis 32:23-34).

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Saturday, September 10, 2011


MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

Contagion (directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns) is a major Hollywood production (Warner Brothers) about a fictional world-wide outbreak of a particularly virulent swine-flu-type virus that suddenly appears in Hong Kong and comes to kill millions of people across the United States and, indeed, world-wide before a vaccine is developed to bring the epidemic under control.  The movie was produced with the cooperation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which has dedicated a "current feature" section on their website to the film.

In the film, Beth Enhoff (played by Gwenyth Paltrow) flies back to Minneapolis (via Chicago) after a business trip to Hong Kong looking like she's come down with "some kind of a bug," probably the flu.  It's November, just before Thanksgiving.  She's flown across all kinds of time zones.  Hong Kong is much warmer that time of year than either Chicago or Minneapolis.  Would one be that surprised if she "came down with something" as a result of all that traveling all that distance and finding oneself in all kinds of different climates and environments in a short amount a time?  Probably not.  However, the next day after she "pats her son on the head" as he heads off to school, her husband Mitch (played by Matt Damon) is horrified to see her collapse in their kitchen and go into convulsions.  He calls 911.  The paramedics come take her to the hospital.  She goes into convulsions again in the emergency room and dies.  Mitch is left stunned to the core when the emergency room doctor and attendants tell him that his wife is dead.  At the time, they tell him that it was probably meningitis or encephalitis (probably the latter) and that an autopsy _could_ be done but would probably not reveal anything useful.  Shell-shocked, Mitch leaves the body of his wife at the hospital to begin plans for a funeral.

THE NEXT DAY, Mitch is called by the school nurse that his son is ill with a fever and to come to take him home.  Within hours, the son's dead as well.  In the meantime, a sweating man collapses in Tokyo on a commuter bus and goes into convulsions.  Someone videotapes him convulsing and posts this on YouTube.  Additionally, we see a bicycle courier in Hong Kong again sweating, stopping to catch a breath.  He leans against a wall to rest and soon collapses/dies...

With two members of Mitch's family dying in 48 hours of acute flu like illness, Mitch himself is initially quarantined by Minnesota public health authorities.  When he does not come down with symptoms within a couple of days, he is released.  But in the meantime, the Minnesota public health authorities inform the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.  Both the Minnesota public health authorities and the CDC are in contact with the World Health Organization and are informed of the deaths of the man in Tokyo and several similar deaths in Hong Kong.  Dr. Ellis Cheever (played by Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC sends an assistant Dr. Erin Mears (played by Kate Winslet) up to Minneapolis to liaison with the Minnesota public health authorities.  The WHO sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (played by Marion Cotillard) from its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland to Hong Kong to liaison with public health authorities there.  It is soon established that the man who collapsed and died in Tokyo had been on business in Hong Kong as well.  However, soon a man in Chicago, who hadn't been to Hong Kong is reported to have come down with the same illness (and died).  While interviewing Mitch, Dr. Mears asks if his deceased wife had recently visited anybody in Chicago.  Mitch tells her that the only one that he would think of that his wife would know in Chicago was an ex-boyfriend of hers.  When he mentions his name, it turns out the man who died in Chicago of the same symptoms...

In the meantime, other kids from Mitch's son's school _as well as the school nurse_ come down with the same symptoms and die within a few days of their appearance.  And people in Tokyo, Chicago and Hong Kong are coming down with symptoms and dying rapidly as well.  An autopsy is now conducted on Mitch's wife's brain and tissue samples are rapidly sent to the CDC, other viral specialists including one in San Francisco and to the WHO.  The virus that's isolated is 2/3 from a pig 1/3 from a bat and had somehow made the leap from bat/pig to human somewhere in or around Hong Kong.

All this is discovered within 2 weeks of the first death, Mitch's wife, due to this illness.  However, by this time, thousands of people across the world are coming down with the virus and it is killing 1/3-1/2 of them.   It is clear therefore that the incubation period is very short (2-3 days) and transmission apparently taking place by touch and/or cough.  Dr. Erin Mears begins coordinating with FEMA in Minneapolis to temporarily convert a local national guard armory into a centralized quarantine/treatment center for those effected by the virus, when she herself succumbs to the virus as well...

To quarantine large numbers of people (and to bury them) requires the calling out of the national guard and panic/chaos begin to set-in.  Grocery stores start to get looted.  The governor of Wisconsin panics and orders his national guard to seal the borders between Wisconsin and Minnesota (and presumably Illinois).

With the virus having been isolated if extremely dangerous, a world wide effort (but only in appropriately sealed level-4 isolation facilities) begins to develop a vaccine.  But the process is slow requiring months before a vaccine could be both developed and then grown en masse for use by the general public.  This feeds all kinds of conspiracy rumors, spread now in real-time on the internet/blogosphere as well as all kinds of quack advice for "cures." Jude Law plays a particularly opportunistic (when not paranoid) blogger named Alan Krumwiede.  In China, desperate villagers from a town particularly hit by the virus abduct the WHO's official (Dr Lorena Orantes, mentioned above) who had been sent down there to work with local authorities to contain the virus outbreak.  The villagers (along with the local public health authorities) demand that they be among the "first in line" for the vaccine when it comes on line ...

The scenario is hair-raising and, of course, does "end well" ... though only after the deaths of millions around the globe.  I'll leave it to viewers to decide if they consider the scenario fully credible.

To be honest, I found it surprising that despite portrayals of apparent disruptions in food distribution in the U.S. (looting of shops, etc), both gasoline and electrical power continued to flow apparently without problems.  Another recent program called After Armageddon (2010) produced by the History Channel suggested that the distribution systems for both gasoline/diesel and electrical power would become vulnerable as key people either fell ill, became frightened or otherwise became impeded from going to work due to lack of fuel, roadblocks, stalled traffic, quarantines, etc.
On the other hand, the characteristics of the virus in Contagion (very short incubation time on the order of 2-3 days, and very easy method of transmission - by touch or cough) may have made the scenario presented in this movie a "very rare" or "worst case" scenario in its own right.

In any case, though the movie is _not_ for the squeamish (not much is shown but the topic itself might frighten many people), it does give one much to think about, and then to _really appreciate_ the work of "first responders," in this case, in the medical field.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness [2011]

MPAA (unrated) Roger Ebert (3 stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (written and directed by Joseph Dorman) is a documentary about the Russian/Ukrainian-born Jewish Yiddish-language writer born Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich who took the pen name Sholem Aleichem.  He is most famous for writing the stories of Tevye the Milkman which became the basis for the musical / film Fiddler on the Roof.

Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich was born in 1859 in the Shtetl, that is, in one of many predominantly Jewish villages that existed in the Polish/Ukranian/Byelorussian countryside at that time.  The documentary followed his rather itinerant life from the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Ukrainian countryside to Kiev, Ukraine's capital to New York City back then to Czarist Russia in Odessa and finally back to New York City again, where he died in 1916).

The 19th century was the period of the Romantic Movement and Romantic Nationalism marked by prodigious production of art and literature throughout Europe and the rise of nationalist consciousnesses again throughout Europe coalescing around the ethnic traditions being collected and studied at the time (ie the Brothers Grimm, et al) often for the first time in their own language and then celebrated in a big way.   The Yiddish Renaissance of which Sholem Aleichem was very much part (as he edited a Yiddish language literary journal out of Kiev at the time) was very much _in the spirit of the age_.  Similar movements throughout Europe ranging from Norway and Finland in the North to Italy in the South helped produce a plethora of new nation states resulting from both the unification of Germany and Italy to the eventual breakup of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, all taking place during a period from the late 19th century through to the end of World War I.

However, the picture was _not at all_ "completely rosy," as the same movements that gave voices to countless theretofore marginalized/anonymous and largely discounted people (and peoples) throughout Europe _also_ resulted in violent clashes when parallel and competing nationalist movements came into contact and clashed.  In Czarist Russia for instance, the same Romantic Movement that produced such Russian literary giants as Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov, whose literary legacies this documentary argued _helped inspire_ Sholem Aleichem and other figures of the Yiddish Renaissance, _also_ resulted in the pogroms of the late 19th century that drove Czarist Russia's Jews by the hundreds of thousands/millions into exile and eventually into the United States.  And the same Romantic Nationalism that inspired the Yiddish Renaissance _also_ inspired within the Jewish community the Zionist movement that eventually rejected the Yiddish language as "a language of bondage" in favor of Modern Hebrew which became the primary language of the modern state of Israel

This then would be the socio-cultural background of this documentary, and which covered it quite well though the documentary focused on where this background directly touched Sholem Aleichem's life in Russia, in the Jewish diaspora community in the United States (New York), and in Zionist circles at the time and Israel since.

The richness and dynamicism of that period of time (from the late 1800s through the early 1900s) in Europe has generally _not_ been captured well in American film.  Perhaps the recent Sherlock Holmes remake and the upcoming sequel could give one a taste, as well as Woody Allen's recent movie Midnight in Paris.  However, those portrayals are of London and Paris which touch on the western edge of Europe and don't necessarily capture the spirit of that time that was playing-out actually _primarily_ in Central Europe.  Here perhaps Czech (and other Central European) portrayals _could be useful_ especially the "life and times" of the fictional Czech character Jara Cimrman (invented by Czech writers in the 1970s during the height of the Cold War in good part to remind even the Czechs what Central Europe used to be like before it was devastated first by the Nazis and then by the Communists).  For this was both the part of the world and the time that also produced both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein and is perhaps culturally most similar to that of Sholem Aleichem portrayed in the documentary here.  Knowing more of the region and the time could help one better appreciate both the Yiddish Rennaisane and then even better grasp the full horror of the Nazi Holocaust which all but wiped out the Jewish community that had remained in this region.  For in doing so, the Holocaust wiped-out from 10 percent to, in some parts, one-third of the people that gave the region its life.

Still what Sholem Aleichem gave to the Jewish community and to the world were his stories of a time and place (amply recounted in the documentary) that remains part of the heritage of tens of millions to hundreds of millions of people in the region around the world as well as a wisdom present in those stories that can be useful to us all.  Because most of us both "like a good story" and can certainly appreciate the precariousness of life that _can feel_ at times like being a "Fiddler on a Roof."  And the documentary did a great, great job at telling the story of one of the greatest storytellers of his time (and any time).

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Life, Above All

MPAA (PG-13)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert’s review -

Life, Above All (directed by Oliver Schmitz, screenplay by Dennis Foon based on the novel Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton) was South Africa’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Oscars where it made to the short list of candidates but not to the final list of nominees.

It’s about a 12 year old girl named Chanda (played by Khomotso Manyaka) taking care of her mother Lillian (played by Lerato Mvelase) and her younger half-brother and sister living in a small village outside of Johannesburg.  As the movie begins, Chanda’s infant sister Sara had just died.  Her mother is seemingly paralyzed by grief.  So it’s left to Chanda to skip school to go to the funeral parlor to make arrangements for the funeral (and make excuses for her mother as she does so).  Thanked by her neighbor (grandmother?) Mrs Tafa (played by Harriet Manamela), Chanda is reminded “your baby sister died of the flu, just like my son was killed when they tried to break into our house.”  Why was she reminded of that? “Remember this Chanda, because people talk....”

What’s the big secret?  Well, as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Chanda’s mother probably has AIDS.  Chanda’s father (her mother’s first husband) who died some time earlier probably had AIDS as well.  Chanda’s step-father, Jonah (played by Aubrey Poolo) reduced to being a drunk, is sickly as well (even as Chanda’s much younger brother and sister revere him, because he is their dad). 

Finally, Chanda’s mother’s family isn’t helping.  Why?  Because they’re still angry at Chanda’s mother for having left with/married Chanda’s father rather than the man that they had arranged for her to marry.  As far as Chanda’s mother’s family understands it, Chanda’s mother had all this coming to her.

What a sad, sad story this is!  I suspect that part of the reason why it didn’t make it all the way through the Oscars nomination process (or received more notoriety than it has) is because the story could be perceived as “a downer” perpetuating an image of Africans/the poor as simply victims to be pitied and perhaps “helped.” 

Yet I do believe the movie is more than that.  First, the movie portrays a remarkably strong 12-year old, who despite her age, calmly and kindly takes care of the people who need her from her mother, to her half-brother/sister to even her (orphaned and at times wayward...) best friend Esther (played by Keaobaka Makanyane), all of whom would have been utterly lost without her. 

And I would submit that many/most of us would not have to dig all that far to find similar stories in our families’ pasts.  My own grandmother (back in Czechoslovakia) had been taken out of school when she was 10 ostensibly to take care of her mother when her mother fell ill (Her mother lived for another 35 years afterwards).  A number of years ago, I buried an 87 year old man who came to Chicago from Mexico _alone_  when he was 13, found a job and brought a good part of his family here.  Last year, I buried another elderly woman this time from Poland, who came to Chicago as a 17 year old during World War II by way of Eastern Poland, the Soviet Union, Iran, India and (via a Polish-American relief organization) Mexico before coming here.  After finding a job here, she was able to bring her younger brother and sister to Chicago (from a refugee camp in India) by the same route (They never saw either of their parents again, though their mother made it back to Poland after the war).  The stories of a lot of our immigrant parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are filled with suffering _and overcoming suffering_ not unlike the story of Chanda.

The story of Chanda is also one of _choosing loyalty to those who needed her_ rather abandoning them to neighborhood gossips who preferred to talk about theor sufferings rather than helping them.  One of my favorite quotations from the writings of Pope John Paul II is “Justice will never be fully attained unless people see in the poor person, who is asking for help in order to survive, not an annoyance or a burden, but an opportunity for showing kindness...” (Encyclical Letter Centisimus Annus, #58). 

As such, Life, Above All is more than simply a movie about misery.  Instead, in the tradition of great compassionate “realist” movies of the past, ranging from Italy’s Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri Di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) to Brazil’s Walter Salles’ Central do Brasil (Central Station) to indeed, South Africa’s Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi, Life, Above All is an invitation to enter into Chanda’s world and to hopefully _see ourselves_ in her.


I would be remiss to add that my own (USA) Province of the Servite Order has been responsible for the Servite Order’s mission in the KwaZulu-Natal State of South Africa and that in recent years one of the primary ministries of that mission has become its uNkulunkulu uNathi AIDS Project.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Debt

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

The Debt (directed by John Madden, screenplay cowritten by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan based on the 2007 Israeli Film Ha Hov by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum) is a post-Holocaust / Mossad espionage thriller with a surprisingly universal theme that transcends both WW II/recent history and even the spy-thriller genre.

In the story, a team of agents from the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad composed of Stephan Gold (played by Marton Csokas), Rachel Singer (played by Jessica Chastain) and David Peretz (played by Sam Worthington) are sent to East Berlin in 1964 (after the building of the Berlin Wall) to abduct and bring back to Israel for trial an infamous Nazi war criminal named Dieter Vogel (played by Jesper Christensen).   Dieter Vogel, was said to have managed to change his identity and find work as a gynecologists at an utterly non-distinct clinic in East Berlin under the name of Dr. Bernhardt had been wanted as “the Surgeon of Birkenau” for a sadistic series of medical experiments that he was to have conducted on Jewish prisoners at the Auschwitz-Bierkenau concentration camp.  The scenario in this thriller was a conflation of the actual abduction and bringing back to Israel for trial of Adolf Eichmann and the search for Dr. Joseph Mengele who, in fact, had conducted horrific medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, with the addition of a complex Cold War twist.  After abducting Dr. Bernhardt/Dieter Vogel, the team had to smuggle him from Communist East Berlin past the Berlin Wall to West Berlin (under Western Allied control) and then back to Israel. The story also resonates well with another true Israeli operation dramatized in the movie Munich (directed by Steven Spielberg) about an Israeli hit squad was sent out to assassinate the Palestinians responsible for the abduction and killing of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

The mission in the fictional scenario of The Debt doesn’t succeed as planned.  But rather than face possible sanction by Mossad and admit failure to both country and their families, prior to returning to Israel the three decide to spin the mission into a success – after successfully abducting him, they were unable to get Dieter Vogel over the East Berlin border _but at least he was dead_.  (Was he dead?  They weren’t sure. But they were sure that neither Vogel nor the East German government would want to admit that he was still alive).  So they come back to Israel and become heroes.  The abduction plan didn’t come out as planned but at a time when Israel desperately needed heroes -- a few years before the impending 1967 Six Day War that _changed everything_ in the Middle East -- Israel and the Jewish people were given heroes in these three's apparent success and appeared once again to have been successful in avenging past Nazi-era crimes.

Flash forward 30 years to 1994  Rachel (now played by Helen Mirren) and Stephan (now played by Tom Wilkinson)’s daughter had just launched a doting book about her parents’ glorious exploits, and David (Ciarán Hinds), who never was comfortable with the lie and (perhaps above all) with the adulation that the three had received on account of the lie, returns into the other two’s lives (after many years away) with news that a Ukrainian journalist claims have interviewed an elderly man in a nursing home outside of Kiev who claimed to be “The Surgeon of Birkenau.”  What to do now? 

The rest of the movie about resolving that question...

I found the movie to be surprisingly universal in scope.  Sure most of us (or our parents) never were Mossad agents trying to bring former Nazi War Criminals to justice.  However, our lives (and our pasts) are generally more complicated than how our children (or the outside world) would understand them and our parents’ lives were generally more complicated than how we understood them certainly as children.

[Another great literary/cinematic expression of the actual complexity of a person’s life vs the way the outside world may see it could be found in Michael Ondaatje's book (and the movie based on it) The English Patient.  In that movie, on one level all that the audience saw of “the English Patient” was a man almost completely covered (head-to-toe) in bandages.  But the person _under those bandages_ had once lived a _full and even scandalous life_, this story making-up much of the rest of that film.  Milan Kundera also played with the theme of the difference between the actual history of our lives and the way others remember them already _somewhat_ in his book Unbearable Lightness of Being but _especially_ in his subsequent book Immortality].

So a good part of the drama in The Debt becomes how to shield one’s daughter from the reality that her parents weren’t as great as she thought they were (or how to somehow break this to her).  It becomes a great story, that most of us already “of a certain age” could certainly appreciate ;-)

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

One Lucky Elephant [2010]

MPAA (unrated)  Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert’s review

One Lucky Elephant (directed by Lisa Leeman and written by Cristina Colissimo) is a documentary ten years in the making about circus producer David Balding’s 10 year quest to find a permanent home for Flora, an african elephant who he had adopted when she was an infant.  He had made her the star attraction of his circus, and who at 18 years of age was beginning to show signs (by occasional acting-out/aggressiveness) that she was done with being in the circus.  And so he began to look for place for her to stay, preferably among other elephants, and preferably with a lot of space available.  After trying several zoos and other sanctuaries, he settled on an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee at a cost of eventually being banned from visiting Flora after leaving her there.

The movie raises all kinds of questions about human-animal relationships, and how to understand the relationship between David and Flora.  Was it fundamentally affectionate or was it fundamentally abusive? 

If not for David, Flora could have been dead, left as an orphan to die, or could have been “adopted” by a far more abusive owner.  On the other hand, she could have perhaps been placed immediately into an elephant sanctuary around other elephants (either in Africa or in the United States or another Western country). 

Then to train Flora for the circus, she had to be “broken” at a relatively young age.  This was done in a way that one “breaks” a young horse, and few people would see the “breaking” of a young horse to be fundamentally evil.  All kinds of horse-owners love their horses and are convinced that their horses fundamentally like them.  Even dogs are “trained” when young in order to serve as better pets and most mature to be happy as pie.  Further, Asian countries have used (trained) elephants for labor and even warfare for millennia.  So while the documentary this “breaking” of Flora as a young elephant to perhaps have been fundamentally abusive, I honestly don’t know.

Finally, it is clear that elephants are intelligent.  Would it not be worth it for the sake of better understanding animals (and life forms of all kinds) to find ways to communicate with them? 

Any number of methods could be employed I suppose, from observing plant/animal behavior in the wild, to placing electrodes on test subjects and measuring physiological response to various stimuli (from benign to harmful), to (as has been done in primate studies) teaching the animals a sign language so that we could communicate with them and they with us.   

Non-invasiveness, and seeking to minimize pain/harm to the test subject (be it a plant, dog, chimp or an elephant) would seem to be a key criterion in ethically studying them. With regard to higher animals, since young primates have been taught sign-language, perhaps a sign language of sorts could be taught to elephants as well.  (One thinks of the horse, Mr Ed, who would could pound his hooves to count out numbers...). 

But since ‘breaking” of young horses has been something that has been done for millennia without any clear indication that this was fundamentally harmful to the horse (and has presumably been done with elephants in several Asian countries for millennia as well), I would not dwell on this being necessarily or irredeemably evil.  Even (human) children are “raised’ (disciplined at times to be civilized) so that they can function effectively in society.  HOW an animal is “broken” could be a fair issue, but that it is “broken” in order to become open to study and communication with us ought not to be necessarily seen as wrong.

Anyway, this movie certainly invites one to ask a lot of questions about our relationships with the other plants and animals which we share this world, and how to honestly label our relationships with them.

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