Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Black Souls (orig. Anime Nere) [2014]

MPAA (R) (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing listing*

Corriere della Sera (S. Ulivi) review*
Il Giornale (B. Silbe) review*
La Repubblica (N. Aspesi) review*
La Stampa (F. Caprara) review*
La Stampa (N. Zancan) review* (M. Triolo) review* (A. Griza, F. Ruzzier) review* (M. Quaglieri) review* (A.A. Pérez Gómez) review* (A. Tallón Castro) review* (J. Kermode) review (B. Tallerico) review

Black Souls (orig. Anime Nere) [2014] [IMDb] []* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Francesco Munzi [IMDb] []* along with Maurizio Braucci [IMDb] and Fabrizio Ruggirello [IMDb] based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Gioacchino Criaco [it.wikip]* [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a recent Italian mafia film that focuses on the 'Ndrangheta or the "Calabrese Mafia" of Calabria, Italy (Calabria being "the toe" of "the boot" of Italy).

The film played recently at the 2015 - 18th European Union Film Festival in Chicago and more recently at a weeklong run at Facets Multimedia.

The story focuses on three brothers from a small town, Africo [en.wikip] [it.wikip]*, in Calabria.  All of them grew-up involved in the 'Ndrangheta crime organization. The oldest, Luciano (played by Fabrizio Ferracane [IMDb] []*), decided long ago that he had enough and returned back to goat herding (though he still kept an arsenal of guns for the others in his barn...).  Middle brother Rocco (played by Peppino Mazzotta [IMDb] []*) was able to "hide/escape" from the "muscle" or otherwise "dirty part of the business" in a different way: He moved up North to Milan, put-on a suit and some glasses, arguably "married-up" to a "borghese" wife, Valeria (played by Barbora Bobulova [IMDb] []*) who perhaps didn't understand initially who she was marrying but was certainly smart enough _now_ to _not ask any questions_.  Finally, there was Luigi (played by Marco Leonardi [IMDb] []*) the youngest brother, who actually _liked_ the work, liked meeting with Latin American Drug Lords on their Bond Villain worthy yachts, liked the logistics of moving their cargo, keeping discipline within the ranks of smaller smugglers and dealers.  And his two older brothers didn't mind the money that he'd send their way for both safe keeping and out of loyalty to them.

Truth be told, it had all become a rather well oiled machine.  And all three brothers actually lived very content, DISCRETE or at least very _professional_ lives of their choice.  What could F- this up?

Well, Luciano had a 20-something year old son Leo (played by Giuseppe Fumo [IMDb] []*) who wasn't finding "goat herding" nearly as "fulfilling" an occupation as his dad, and "pined for" the life of his "cool uncle" Luigi.  But then Rocco and Luigi have spent 20-25 years studiously LEARNING how to be _smart_ and _discrete_ about their "work," work that Leo's dad had long figured-out that he was really _not_ cut out for.

So the three brothers have a "young" and not particularly bright "Turk" on their hands.  The rest of the movie follows ...

Now, the above description COULD have actually been the set-up for a comedy, but here it is certainly not.  The film makes for another reflection about how _choosing_ an evil path ultimately brings one (and a whole lot of others, many even more-or-less innocent) down.

It's a decent enough film, and the Calabrese scenery is often spectacularly beautiful.  Kinda makes one think that Luciano's decision to just go back to goat herding had actually been a pretty good one.

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

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Brotherly Love [2015]

MPAA (R)  AALBC (3/4 Stars) Examiner (5/5 Stars)  M Report (3/5 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

BET coverage

AALBC (K. Williams) review
Atlanta Voice (P. Dowels) review
Chicago Defender (S. Jobson) review
L.A. Sentinel (D. Cralle) review
N.Y. Examiner (B. Taylor) review
Philadephia Citypaper (M. Bevilacqua) review
SWGRus (T. Johnson) review
The M Report (M. Wallace) review

Brotherly Love [2015] (screenplay and directed by Jamal Hill) produced by Queen Latifah's [IMDb] Flavor Unit is an African American teen-oriented film that could be described as John Hughes [IMDb] meets Tyler Perry [IMDb] meeting the Boyz in the Hood [1992].  This makes for an _interesting_ if at times problematic (but ever _thought provoking_) combination.

The story largely plays-out at Overbrook High School in the largely African American Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia (the film's title is clearly in part a play on meaning of Philadelphia's name as "The City of Brotherly Love" ...).  The neighborhood turns out to be quite well-suited for this story because even though it is almost entirely African American it is divided into two sections, the quite wealthy "Hills" and the much poorer "Bottoms."  (As a matter of note, actor Will Smith [IMDb], as well as basketball star Wilt Chamberlain both attended Overbrook High School in their teens).  As such, the film is able to include a fairly large cross-section of African American teenagers.

The story centers around three siblings ("brothers" in the most general sense, hence another "play" present in the title): The oldest is June (played by Cory Hardrict) in his early 20s. Next was Sergio (played by Eric D. Hill, Jr) a Senior at Overbrook High and a rising basketball star.   Finally, there was the "baby", Jackie (played by Keke Palmer), who I'm guessing was a sophomore or junior at the high school and part of its cheerleader squad.  Interestingly enough, the story is told largely through the perspective of Jackie whose voice-over at the beginning of the film helps set the stage and occasional further voice-overs help to quickly introduce further information (again, from her perspective) to continue the story.  Together, with their mom (played by Macy Gray) they lived in a house in the "Bottoms," that is, poorer part of the neighborhood.

So far so good... We're told then by Jackie's voice-over that June was a gangster, that he dropped-out of school at 15-16 after their father, also a gangster, was shot and killed, to take care of the family.  Jackie informs us of this with both the matter-of-factness and arguably _the innocence_ of a 15-16 year old, telling us, "As June would say, 'sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do."  We learn later that June had some talent with the basketball as well..., but sacrificed _his future_ for the sake of the others.

The film then shows June and his two buddies making a good deal of money, carrying around and stowing away a good deal of money, shaking down local (illegal) gambling houses and businesses.  One would imagine that June's work would have been even seedier than that..., but a point was being made.  It was clear that June was NOT making money by his being "a nice guy."  He was making money by being A FEARED GUY.  And if anyone doubted who he was, or his rank / position in the neighborhood, he wore a rather impressively THICK (and hence noticeably HEAVY) gold chain _around his neck_, instantly indicating to anyone who _he's stop_ that he's someone to be reckoned with (again to be FEARED) ... even as he cared for ma' and his little brother and sister ... and as time goes on, that gold chain "around his neck" starts to be understood (by the film's Viewers) ALSO ... _as a noose_ ...

June appears to be something of a young 20-something African American "Vito Corleone" character (a la The Godfather [1972]), someone who "if circumstances were different, would also be different" and wished that circumstances would become different for his family.   But it's clear that even within June's family, there were people who didn't like / rejected the reasoning of the choices that he's made.  The kids have an uncle, Ron (played by Faizon Love), a barber, who pointedly reminded (a la Tyler Perry [IMDb]), his stars-in-his-eyes / hoop-dreaming nephew Sergio: "Look son, after a while you get to see that the people who really succeed in life, don't really succeed because of their talents.  They succeed because of their character."

And that then becomes the message of the film.

June is not necessarily an evil guy but he has chosen an evil path, and it's more or less clear that it can't end well for him.  Yes, thanks to June's sacrifice, Sergio and Jackie have more choices.  But then this is high school, BOTH "a time of innocence" AND "a time when one's choices begin to matter." How do they do?  The rest of the story follows ...

This film is a discussion inviting film.  I do think that the film's portrayal of June will be problematic to many viewers of all stripes.  But I do think that he was _intentionally_ drawn that way both to make the rest of the story more "real" (more visceral) and to remind viewers that even gangsters have their (back)stories as well as people who they care about.

Does the film glorify June's choices (and, look it's not much of a SPOILER to say that his story can't end well)?  That's certainly one aspect of the film that invites discussion.  But precisely because his life does not end well, and _clearly_ does not end well, IMHO, I don't think the film glorifies his path.  Better alternatives are offered in the film throughout.

But if nothing else, the film leaves plenty to talk about, especially among teens, when it ends.

So overall, good job Mr Hill, and Queen Latifah [IMDb], as well as the cast / crew!  Good job ;-)

FINALLY, there's a scene near the end of the film that probably would deserve a whole second article / review to explore.  In it, A WHITE POLICE OFFICER is shown saving an AFRICAN AMERICAN TEEN from a CAREER ENDING / LIFE ALTERING "bad choice."  Readers remember that this is an African American oriented film made from top-to-bottom by an African American director, cast, crew and an African American owned production company.   SO A STATEMENT WAS INTENTIONALLY BEING MADE HERE: Cops of all races/ethnicities are GENERALLY GOOD and THEY ARE APPRECIATED. 

I live in a city-worker parish at the south edge of a far rougher part of Chicago, home to, actually A LOT of Chicago Police Officers, about evenly split 1/2 and 1/2 between white and Hispanic.  I also REGULARLY CELEBRATE MASS in the Parishes north of us (the parishioners being mostly Hispanic or African American, with even some Haitians) and I know that THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE RESIDENTS APPRECIATE THE PRESENCE OF THE POLICE.  If anything, they wish there'd see more of them.

Yes, no doubt there are SOME "bad cops" as there'd be bad (and RACIST) people in all Professions ... INCLUDING in the Catholic Priesthood ... but here is AN AFRICAN AMERICAN FILM that's saying THANK YOU TO THE GOOD ONES.

And I know for certain that the good ones appreciate it.  ONCE AGAIN, GOOD JOB. 

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Maggie [2015]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune () (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune () review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review listing

Maggie [2015] (directed by Henry Hobson, screenplay by John Scott III) surprises.  This is an honestly well-acted and _heartrending_ story of a Midwestern farmer (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (! ;-) ) watching his beloved oldest, still teenage daughter Marguerite "Maggie" (played by Abigail Breslin) who had been bitten some weeks back by crazed zombies lurking in the shadows "behind a diner" somewhere, slowly, inexorably turn into a zombie herself.  What's A PARENT, and then ALL HER HIGH SCHOOL FRIENDS, to do??  ( A.A. Dowd of the AV Club (review above) suggested that the film could have been called "The Fault in our Scars" ;-) ;-)

The film, in limited release in theaters, is available On Demand and through various Mainstream Streaming Services for a reasonable price.

Some background (of course ;-):  In the story, in the preceding years, there had been a MASSIVE WORLD-WIDE OUTBREAK of a disease that turned those infected into flesh-craving zombies.  After much chaos / social breakdown, the medical authorities WITH HELP OF THE ARMED FORCES were finally "turning the corner" on this horrific plague.  But there were still infected people / zombies all over the place.  And yes, if you found yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could be bitten (thereby infected) OR WORSE (EATEN).  So needless to say, it was an awful time to be alive.

But Maggie and her dad, along with step-mother Caroline (played by Joely Richardson) and two "kid" half-sisters lived out on a farm in the gently rolling fields of the American Midwest, that really should have been (more or less) "safe."  (Apparently, Maggie's mother / her dad's first wife died when Maggie was really young, apparently "merely of cancer ...")

Yes, the effects of the social chaos of the Zombie "plague" could be felt -- electrical power has been off for years (apparently because there were not enough properly trained people alive anymore to keep the power generating station running).  But in terms of providing the basic necessities of life, IF A FARMER couldn't feed his/her family, who could?  SOOO ... until recently, they and most of the other families in this farming community felt more or less safe.

BUT zombies ... "have to eat" too.  And so they had made their way out even to the farm belt, and even as they ate some people, they infected others.  Fairly early in the story after bringing Maggie "home from the hospital" after being told, calmly, dispassionately by a "country doctor" (who still cared for the patients/victims of this terrible zombie disease) the awful news that there was not much that could be done (and that at some point he's going to have to call in the authorities to come to "quarantine" her or PUT HER DOWN himself) Maggie's dad finds that he has to "put down" (shoot) a neighbor and the neighbor's 6 year old daughter who've already become zombies and would otherwise be threatening (the rest of) his family.

Then there's Caroline, the step-mother who's tried "all these years" to treat Maggie "as her own."  And yet, Maggie's slowly TURNING INTO A ZOMBIE (decaying, and starting to "SMELL MEAT" (people as food) everywhere... ;-).  So she sends HER two kids (Maggie's half-sisters) "to grandma" to protect them from Maggie.  (They still talk on the phone ...).  And Caroline, trying to keep composure throughout, is becoming increasingly frightened of Maggie, who she fears will one day ... just come and eat her.

It's a great, if SUPER-heart-rendingly-exaggerated story.  AND THE ACTORS, ALL OF THEM, PLAY IT PERFECTLY STRAIGHT.

So, clearly, this story can't end well ... and someone like me, a Catholic priest after all, has to still raise the question "would there be NO ALTERNATIVES to the OBVIOUS ones proposed?" in dealing with poor Maggie and her zombie infection?  (The Catholic Church ran AIDS hospices all over the world during the worst of the AIDS epidemic ...).

Still, the film's a remarkably sensitive (and honestly interesting) portrayal of a loving father trying to deal with prospect that his beloved oldest daughter is slowly, inexorably turning ... into a flesh-craving zombie ;-)

Franz Kafka [GR] [WCat] [ebook] [Amzn] would be both proud and (perhaps) surprised ;-)

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Friday, May 8, 2015

Hot Pursuit [2015]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (0 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune (R. Moore) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review  

It gives me little pleasure to say that Hot Pursuit [2015] (directed by Anne Fletcher, screenplay by David Feeney and John Quaintance) is probably the worst movie that I've seen (and stayed all the way through...) since I began this blog four years ago.  There were worse movies that I left twenty minutes into them -- The Big Wedding [2013] (which I reviewed here anyway) and Hot Tub Time Machine 2 [2015] (which I didn't even bother) -- to still catch something more worthy of the time / expense playing elsewhere in the cineplex.  But this was one bafflingly terrible movie.

I say bafflingly terrible because Reese Witherspoon who stars in this film has more than proven herself as a serious actress (she won an Academy Award for playing June Carter Cash in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line [2005] and was just nominated for her stellar role as a previously "troubled young woman" who decided to "walk herself into becoming the woman that [her] mother always thought she could be" in Wild [2014]).  She's also played some excellent comedic roles, receiving well deserved Golden Globe nominations for her roles in Legally Blonde [2001] and Election [1999].

Similarly director Anne Fletcher, is no novice either.  A number of years ago, she directed a Seth Rogan / Barbara Straisand comedy named The Guilt Trip [2012] "that worked," indeed "worked" very, very well. 

So what happened here?

In large part, I have to blame the screenplay that (one senses) was almost certainly atrocious.  So many of the situations are simply (and incompetently) unbelievable.  Seriously, some of the "escape scenes" in the 30s-40s era "Three Stooges" movies were more believable and certainly better conceived, directed and acted.  (Again, it's difficult to securely assign blame ... but I do believe that the fundamental problem would probably be found in the very conception of some of the situations in the film.  Then the director / actors _perhaps_ tried their best (to varying degrees of success) to salvage them). 
In the film, the eager, if hapless, "by-the-book" second generation San Antonio, Texas cop known to us, throughout, by her last name as "Cooper" (played by Reese Witherspoon), "low in stature" (in more ways than one -- yes, she's "short" but she's _also_ "a woman" in a profession that women still have to "prove themselves" more than men) finds herself tasked with transporting a whiny, ever stiletto-heeled, "high-maintenance," heavily accented Colombian woman named Daniella Riva, "rhymes with 'Diva'" (played by Sofia Vergara who's made _a lot of money_ over the years playing, repeatedly, some of the most dismissive white stereotypes of Hispanic women) from her / her drug-dealing husband's mansion, somewhere outside of San Antonio, to Dallas where she's to testify against her husband's king-pin boss. 

As Cooper's trying to get her _soon to be in a witness protection program_ charge "packed," not one but TWO groups of masked thugs storm the mansion and shoot both Cooper's partner and Daniella's husband.  Yet, amidst the shooting, Daniella SOMEHOW magically gets down from her second floor bedroom, with one 80-pound "bag" (of gold / diamond encrusted, again stiletto-heeled, shoes ...) to a convertible to hide there, along with her fashionable "bag o' shoes" until Cooper happens to pass-by, and ... keys happening to be in the ignition, they are able to tear away to escape (neither of the gangs storming the house apparently bothered to keep someone, ANYONE, standing outside to prevent or at least impede escape ...).  The rest of the movie follows ...

It turns out, somehow, that Cooper actually gets blamed for Daniella's husbands death and Daniella's subsequent disappearance.  So for a good part of the movie, the media is shown _repeatedly_ reporting that police are looking for an _increasingly short_ "rogue police officer" (Cooper) and an _increasingly old_ former diva of a wife of a notorious drug-trafficker (Daniella).  Ha, ha ...  Yet, at every step of the way, people don't seem to recognize them (until they get away) and the police ALWAYS COME LATE, NEVER SEND FOR ANY BACK-UP, and NEVER SEEM TO GIVE CHASE when it's patently obvious how the two are getting away.  After all, how many cars leave, SPEEDING, A COUNTRY GAS STATION IN THE TEXAS PRAIRIE (no trees anywhere ...) in a given day?  ESPECIALLY WITH COPS (NOMINALLY) AROUND ...

Then (mild Spoiler alert I suppose ...) the Evil Drug King-pin "Vicente Cortez" (played by Joaquín Cosio) gets taken down at an obligatory, über-swanky and SHOCKINGLY PUBLIC, Quinceañera party for his spoiled "valley-girl-accented" (in Texas...) daughter.  Honestly, if he'd be THAT STUPID to throw THAT KIND OF A PARTY at THAT TIME ... he deserved to DIE.  And how could ANYBODY THAT STUPID EVER RISE TO THE LEVEL OF BEING A LEADER OF A DRUG CARTEL?

All in all, the film seems to have been a shockingly awful script and the director / actors (PERHAPS...) tried to do the best that they could with it ... awful, just awful.

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Tangerines (orig. Mandariinid) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing listing* listing* listing* listing* listing* listing*

ChicagoTribune (R. Moore) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (A. Nayman) review (L. Boyce) review (J. Zelman) review (R. Puust) review* (L. Järjehoidja) review* review* (U. Mehdi) review*
Filmske Recenzije (S. Stajić) review* (M. Gürgen) review (D. Akçadoğan) review*

Estonia - - viewer reviews*
Georgia - viewer comments*
Russia - viewer comments*
Russia - viewer comments*
Russia - viewer reviews*
Russia - viewer comments*
Czech Rep - viewer reviews*
Poland - viewer reviews*
USA - viewer reviews

Tangerines (orig. Mandariinid) [2013] [IMDb] [CEu] [EFIS]*[]*[]*, "small" film though it is, is probably the most thoughtful reflection on the the tragedy / futility and stupidity of war to come out in a generation.  A joint Estonian/Georgian project, written and directed by Georgian director Zaza Urushadze [IMDb] [CEu] [EFIS]*[]*[]*, it was submitted by Estonia as its entry to the Best Foreign Language Film competition at the 2015 Oscars and became Estonia's first film ever to make the final list of five nominees.

The film tells the story of the beginnings of the 1992-93 Abkhazian-Georgian Conflict in The Caucasus from the perspective of two older ethnic Estonians -- Ivo (played by Lembit Ulfsak [IMDb] [CEu] [EFIS]*[]*[]*) and Margus (played by Elmo Nüganen [IMDb] [EFIS]*[]*[]*) -- who had the misfortune of living in the disputed region. 

Now what were two "older ethnic Estonians" doing living in The Caucasus some 1000 miles from their ethnic homeland?  That's left unexplained but the assumption is that they along with the rest of the Estonian residents of the village where they lived were deported there after Stalin retook Estonia (which had enjoyed a two decade long period of independence between WW I and WW II) as part of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [en.wikip] [et.wikip]*[pl.wikip]*, which divided-up Eastern Europe between Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence and allowed Hitler to invade Poland without fear of Soviet response (indeed, the Soviet Union invaded Poland as well, arguably as Hitler's ally, taking the Eastern half to two-thirds of the country, before invading Finland as well as the the Baltic states in the succeeding months.  Yes, Stalin was a B ...)

Excellent recent movies (all reviewed on this blog) about the Stalin-era deportations of Poles as well as the residents of the Baltic states are the Polish film Siberian Exile (orig. Syberiada Polska) [2013], the Lithuanian/Russian co-production The Deportee (orig. Ekskursantė) [2013] and the Estonian film In the Crosswind (orig. Risttuules) [2014].

In the current film, most of Estonian residents of the (artificial...) Estonian village "nestled in The Caucasus," _apparently_ left for Estonia as soon as (1) Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and (2) the conflict began between Georgia which ALSO regained its independence at the same time and the ethnically distinct Abkhazian region of that country (Abkhazia's amalgamation to Georgia was arguably a relic of the Soviet Era as well, either that or a relic of past Georgian imperialism ...).

So why did these two "older ethnic Estonians" _remain there_ in this artificial Estonian village in The Caucasus?  Margus just wanted to harvest the tangerine crop on his _apparently_ newly acquired land (back in Soviet days, his orchard would have almost certainly been part of a Collective ...) and Ivo, a carpenter, stayed with him, making the crates for the tangerines.  That Margus apparently acquired the land (or it simply "fell to him..." after the other residents left for Estonia) suggests that he would have made a go of staying there in The Caucasus if not for the conflict that was beginning around them.  As it is, he at least wanted to harvest that year's crop so that it would not have been a total loss.

But alas, the War does come ... first in the form of two Chechen mercenaries, Ahmed (played by Giorgi Nakhashidze [IMDb] []*[EFIS]*[]*) and his "brother-from-the-village (in Chechnya)" Ibrahim, who at the beginning of the film come by Ivo's workshop to shake him down for some food/supplies.  Ivo keeps his composure throughout, even as he certainly knows that he could be shot-dead at anytime by the two Kalashnikov-wielding fighters.  At the end of the encounter, Ahmed thanks Ivo for the food and tells him to "keep on a lookout" because "others" who may pass through "may not be as kind" as they were ... yeah, right.

A "close call" seems to have been averted, 'cept ... a few hours later, there's an explosion, then number of spurts of automatic gun fire.  After it subsides, Ivo goes to check what happened.  Some ways down the road from his house/village there was an altercation between Ahmed / Ibrahim in their jeep and a five Georgian soldiers in a van.  One or the other car had hit a mine.  Ibrahim as well as the five Georgians were dead, Ahmed lay wounded in the leg.

Ivo helps Ahmed limp back to his home, then seeks-out Margus to help him bury Ibrahim and the five Georgian soldiers.  As they are about to bury them all, Margus notices that one of the Georgians, a soldier named Nika (played by Misha Meskhi [IMDb] []*[EFIS]*[]*), while unconscious, was still actually breathing.  So they carry him back to Ivo's house as well ...

So, in Ivo's house are now both the Chechen fighter Ahmed and the Georgian soldier Nika.  Ahmed was swearing vengeance against the killer of his "childhood friend/brother" Ibrahim.  But at least initially he could not really walk, and Nika, since he was initially unconscious, could not really talk.  So Ivo placed Ahmed in one room and then put Nika surreptitiously in another.  But how long could that last?   The rest of the movie follows ... ;-)

This really is a great story ... and (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) it OBVIOUSLY doesn't play-out in the simplest way:

Ahmed does not just kill Nika as soon as he finds out that he's in the house.  In fact, Ahmed promises Ivo that he WON'T DO THAT because IVO was providing HIM (Ahmed) HOSPITALITY and HOSPITALITY was SACRED "to his people" (the Chechens).  Nika, the Georgian, eventually awakens as well ...

So there are two distinct "conflicts" that are playing out / negotiated in this film.  The first is simply in Ivo's house.  He's got both a Chechen mercenary and a Georgian soldier (both wounded, both in some need of his help) in his house.  And then there's the conflict "outside."

This is a wonderful, thought provoking film!  And IMHO probably the best reflection on the tragedy of War since at least MASH.

Consider simply that in that house, of Ivo's, are two Estonians, a Chechen and a Georgian, all arguably victims of Russian imperialism and yet ... THE ONLY WAY that they can communicate / MAKE PEACE with each other is ... in Russian.  Wow!  Brilliant, sad, profound.

And certainly, one heck of a story!

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

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Wrecking Crew [2008]

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

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (K. Turan) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (J. Heller) review  

The Wrecking Crew [2008] (directed by Danny Tedesco) is a lovely pop/rock documentary that like 20 feet from Stardom [2013] (reviewed on this blog) and Standing in the Shadows of Motown [2002] (which came-out before I started this blog) seeks to finally "sing the praises" of many of the "unsung heroes" ;-) of American pop-music of late 50s to the early-70s.  That is, the documentary seeks to recognize the talents / contributions of the singers / musicians who "backed-up" (generally ANONYMOUSLY) the signature bands of that era.  Director Danny Tedesco seems perfectly positioned to make this documentary, as he was the son of Tommy Tedesco [IMDb], one of the legendary musicians that made up the amorphous clique of studio musicians out in Los Angeles that came to be known by the Hollywood's "old time" studio musicians as "the wrecking crew."

The documentary is currently playing the "art house" circuit in the United States but it is also available for streaming for a reasonable price on Amazon Instant Video.

It should also be noted that this documentary has taken a long time to find the light of day.  Danny Tedesco began filming the interviews for the documentary in the late 1990s a year or two before his father had debilitating stroke.  The film then aired on the festival circuit in 2008, but required the intervening years, as well as a "kickstarter" campaign to collect the money required to pay for the licensing fees for all the songs featured in the documentary. 

Also, to be honest, my guess is that a lot record companies were not necessarily excited about this documentary being released, because it was about some of the manipulations (arguably making better, even signature products) that took place behind the scenes in the record industry at the time. 

But I believe that most viewers will probably be simply awed (and supremely appreciative) of the talents of the background people featured in this film.

And the list of pop-bands of the late 1950s to early 1970s that depended on this ad hoc group of "studio musicians" to make their hits is really stunning:

For instance, with the exception of Brian Wilson [IMDb] who wrote / arranged the music, most of the later work of the Beach Boys was actually recorded using these studio musicians from "the wrecking crew." 

Similarly the studio version of The Byrds' version of Tambourine Man [YouTube] [Amzn] actually featured ONLY "one Byrd" (Roger McGuinn ;-) which actually p-ed off a fair number of the remaining Byrds.  Yet, the song BECAME their break-through hit ;-).  So does one complain OR just "be grateful?" ;-) ;-).  And then in concert, they played the song there.

There's even the suggestion in the documentary that "the wrecking crew" all but INVENTED "The Mamas and the Papas." The story was that the four were singing backup in Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" studio, and somebody said, "Hey those four can really sing!"  John and Michelle Phillips had their song California Dreamin' [YouTube] [Amzn], the studio musicians took the song, played it, played with it and ... liked it ;-).  Then they put a couple of mikes in front of the two Philips' along with the other two, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty, and "the rest is history ..." ;-)

Then among the _many joys_ of this movie are extensive interviews with two women who were part of this "wrecking crew" milieu:

The first was CHER [IMDb] who became one of the most accomplished performers (both in the realm of pop music and even acting) of her time.  Yet, it turns out that SHE STARTED as a backup singer in Phil Spector's studio for The Ronettes including in their hit song Be My Baby [YouTube] [Amzn].  And I FOUND IT AN ABSOLUTE JOY watching her talk about those early days and the OBVIOUS even STARRY EYED RESPECT that she had TO THIS DAY for those studio musicians that filled Spector's studio at the time. 

The other women extensively featured was bass guitarist, Carol Kaye [IMDb], who pretty much EVERYONE of the reviewers above (and I CERTAINLY AGREE) argued deserves a book / documentary or movie of her own.  She was pretty much the only woman among the musicians of the "wrecking crew." Yet it was clear as day in the interviews both, solo and with others from the group, that she was a respected "one of the boys." Further, in one of the clips she effortlessly showed the camera crew how she would "improve on" the baselines given to her by the various song-writers. 

Viewers also get to see director Danny Tedesco's father, Tommy Tedesco [IMDb] (before his stroke) gleefully play the opening bars of the theme from the TV show Bonanza (which were his creation).  He was also involved in the creation of many other television theme songs.  We also get to watch saxophonist Plas Johnson [IMDb] play the opening bars of the iconic theme song for The Pink Panther, again recorded using the musicians of the "wrecking crew."

There were also interviews with wrecking crew regular then alumni GLEN CAMPBELL [IMDb] as well as Hal Blaine [IMDb]Nancy Sinatra [IMDb] talked about the wrecking-crew's role in her big hit These Boots are Made for Walking [YouTube] [Amzn]

Dick Clark [IMDb] of the iconic TV show of the time American Bandstand [IMDb] and interviewed for the documentary while he too was still healthy, provided insight into the time, and how it was possible that so many of the hits of that period were actually recorded by largely anonymous studio musicians.  He explained that it was "just the time," that the "singer, songwriter model" only became dominant in the 1970s.  Hence, Glen Campbell [IMDb] eventually went off on his own to a career in country music and even as a television personality, while Hal Blaine's [IMDb] (and the others') studio gigs first changed and then slowly yet steadily dried-up. 

All in all, this is music documentary that pretty much all pop-music lovers of the Baby-boom generation would probably appreciate.  The film's a stroll down memory lane, it helps us to appreciate just how the songs that we grew up with were made, and gives due recognition to those studio musicians who did, in fact, make the music that we remember to this day.

So good job folks!  Good job!

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Friday, May 1, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron [2015]

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

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

REVIEWS FROM AROUND THE WORLD (E. Bartlová) review* (B. Lloyd) review (M. Valdemar) review* (J. Popielecki) review* (B. Pradhan) review (Andrew) review* (C. Diekhaus) review*

Brazil ( viewer comments*
Czech Rep. - ( viewer comments*
France ( viewer comments*
Germany ( editorial comments*
Italy ( viewer comments*
Japan ( viewer comments*
Russia ( viewer comments*
U.S.A. ( viewer comments

The Avengers: Age of Ultron [2015] (screenplay and directed by Josh Whedon based on the Marvel Comics Avengers comic books by Stan Lee [IMDb] and Jack Kirby [IMDb]) continues this wildly successful sci-fi, super-hero franchise.

Most of the characters from the previous Avengers [2012] movie return for this installment, and of course there have been several installments that have focused on individual Avengers / members of the Marvel Universe in the meantime, notably Iron Man 3 [2013], Thor: The Dark World [2013] and Captain America: The Winter Soldier [2014] even Guardians of the Galaxy [2014].  So developments from these films inform the storyline here, which, in truth, IMHO is not particularly complicated.

What I found impressive, however, has been Marvel's truly REMARKABLE attempt at inclusivity in its story-telling.  Hence my attempt above to allow Readers here to follow what's being said about THIS FILM / FRANCHISE worldwide.  (Part of the original mission of my own blog here has been to promote dialogue and mutual understanding between people through the common experience of watching/experiencing films).

The film begins with the team of Avengers from the previous film -- Tony Stark/Iron Man [MarvU] [IMDb] (played by Robert Downey Jr), James Rhodes/War Machine [MarvU] [IMDb] (played by Don Cheadle), Steve Rogers/Captain America [MarvU] [IMDb] (played by Chris Evans), Natasha Romanova/The Black Widow [MarvU] [IMDb] (played by Scarlet Johannson), Thor [MarvU] [IMDb] (played by Chris Hemsworth), (Dr.) Bruce Banner / The Hulk [MarvU] [IMDb] (played by Mark Ruffalo) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye [MarvU] [IMDb] (played by Jeremy Renner) -- on a mission to storm the Balkan (think Eastern Europe, former Yugoslavia, Transylvania) citadel of an evil scientist named Dr Wolfgang von Strucker [MarvU] [IMDb] (played by Thomas Kretschmann).

Strucker had apparently gotten a hold of the scepter wielded by Thor's evil step-brother Loki [MarvU] [IMDb] (from the first Avenger [2012] movie) and was using the crystal powering it for all sorts of nefarious purposes.  Specifically, Strucker was using the the crystal to power genetic alterations in "local people" converting them into "super soldiers with super powers" (a la a similar WW II-era "procedure" that converted the ever "good hearted" but physically weak Steve Rogers into the super-strong Captain America).

We soon encounter two of his genetically altered recruits, the orphan twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen respectively) who became Quicksilver [MarvU] [IMDb] (endowed with lighting speed) and the Scarlett Witch [MarvU] [IMDb] (endowed with the gift of mind control over matter, including therefore mind control).  We ALSO learn soon enough WHY they came to Strucker, willing to become genetically altered fighting machines: In keeping with Marvel Comic's IMHO _remarkably sensitive / inclusive_ philosophy of insisting that NONE of its characters be completely Good and almost none of them completely Evil, we learn that Pietro and Wanda had good reason to hold a murderous grudge against Tony Stark / Stark Industries (Readers remember simply that in the late 1990s, the U.S. / NATO had finally bombed the Balkan nation of Serbia into submission, ending ten years of ethnic conflict in the region, and in the Marvel Universe Stark Industries is basically "a super-sophisticated American defense contractor on steroids").  So we're told that poor Pietro and Wanda Maximoff did not have exactly "the best" introduction to American / "Stark" technology ... something that (in the film) even the ever "good guy" / righteous 1940s-era Captain America was able to quickly understand.

But as conflicted / interesting and even sympathetic that the Maximoff twins were, they were only a part of the story here:

After recovering Loki's Scepter and the stone powering it, Tony Stark [MarvU] [IMDb] simply can not help _but try to exploit this "sorcerer's stone" himself.  As Stark Industries' head FEELING "RESPONSIBLE" for providing the United States and even the world the best in defense technology, and FEARING that they (the Avengers) / the world "were lucky" to have defeated attempted "invasion from outer space" by Loki and his minions in the the first Avengers [2012] movie, Tony Stark [MarvU] [IMDb] decides to use the stone from Loki's Scepter plus some of Dr. Strucker's [MarvU] [IMDb] captured computer code to improve upon an artificially intelligent defense shield that he (Tony Stark [MarvU] [IMDb]) had been working on.  That program was called ... Ultron [MarvU] [IMDb] (voiced in the film by James Spader)

Well ... after uploading the evil Dr. Strucker's programming, connecting the the stone from Loki's scepter and even interfacing it with his benign/non-militarised/artificially intelligent "administrative assistant J.A.R.V.I.S. [MarvU] [IMDb] (voiced by Paul Bettany) to his horror, Tony Stark [MarvU] [IMDb] discovers good old Ultron, artificially intelligent as he is, has quickly determined that the world would be "best protected" by ELIMINATING the Avengers and MOST OF HUMANITY along with them ;-) ... that WE OURSELVES are the cause of most of the world's problems (that's actually not a particularly original insight, but IMHO amusing nonetheless ;-)

And so the rest of the movie involves the Avengers spending a good part of their time trying to first find and then fight this Ultron [MarvU] [IMDb] program, which has both hidden itself across the internet and assembled for itself an Iron Man-like robotic physical form.

Indeed, perhaps Ultron's most evil gambit was to try to utilize a Korean scientist, Dr. Helen Cho's (played by Claudia Kim), "tissue 3D printing technology" to create a human-like body for himself.  Instead, (minor Spoiler Alert) the previously mild-mannered J.A.R.V.I.S. [MarvU] [IMDb] program comes back to block Ultron in this gambit and uses the same technology to create an human-like body for himself (Note that in the ORIGINAL Marvel Comic book conception Jarvis was a Tony Stark's mild-mannered human butler Edwin Jarwis [MarvU] ;-)

Thus, frustrated in his attempt to incarnate in a fully human form, Ultron [MarvU] [IMDb] then decides to go with "Plan B" -- basically try to destroy humanity (again in order to protect the world ;-).  And here the Avengers have to go out and defeat Ultron before he can succeed.  Much, ever quite AWESOME still ensues ...

Anyway ... I find remarkable about this film, indeed about the whole current Marvel project, is the attempt to transform essentially an American comic book series into something that the whole world could embrace.

WILL it succeed?  SHOULD it succeed?  WHAT WOULD IT TAKE for this Marvel project to succeed?  This is why I included all those review links from all over the world at the beginning of my review here.  It's clear that the Marvel Comics movies are popular across the globe.  The question is how popular?  And to what extent, will the rest of the world (be allowed to) participate in the future direction of the series.

In any case, I find the project fascinating and potentially BENEFICIAL in making a better world: Young people / comic book geeks of the world unite ;-)

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

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