November 13, 2016

MOVIES: "DON'T BREATHE"



DO NOT WATCH THE TRAILER! GIVES TOO MUCH AWAY!

"Don't Breathe" is a much ballyhooed suspense-thriller from 38-year-old Uruguayan horror-meister, Fede Alvarez, that I was very eager to see. I don't do straight-up horror/slasher films, but I could tell that "Don't Breathe" had more of the air of a thriller, and I wasn't wrong. It's certainly a great little film, but not anything new or game-changing. I was only disappointed because of all the hype. It's engaging but not riveting. Curiously, the film begins with a chilling and intriguing scene of an older man dragging the body of a young blonde woman down the middle of suburban street in broad daylight. Why is the movie giving all this away? How is it possible that the neighbors wouldn't notice? Just you wait.

DETROIT

Set in a depressed Detroit (a delicious setting that serves the film well and is almost a character itself), three young people have become experts at breaking and entering. They take only high-end goods, clothes and jewelry, never cash. What's their secret? The fresh-faced Alex (Dylan Minnette) has a Dad that works for a security company. Alex has access to keys, passwords and remotes that turn alarms off and on. He seems to be the most well-off and middle-class of the squad. So why is he living a life of crime? Could it be that he's sweet on "Rocky" (Jane Levy) the hard-luck blonde whose mother is a true bottom-feeding, white trash trainwreck (a fact that is brought out deftly in just one scene of Rocky's home life)? The ringleader is a manically grinning, streetwise "Money" (Daniel Zovatto) who is also Rocky's boyfriend. There are subtle layers of tension and circles of conflict. Alex is the one who knows the extent of the illegalities of each of their potential actions, and constantly reminds them in the moment. Alex is the film's kind of naive anti-conscience.

UNDERDOGS ALL

The trio plan their last heist. They target a blind veteran (Stephen Lang) who lives alone, but somewhere in his run-down house is cash from a large settlement he got when his young daughter was run over by a car. Rocky urges them to forego their "no cash" rule so that she can make good on her plan and promise to her little sister to flee their miserable life and go to California. So we have an underdog city, at least two underdog ruffians, and an underdog, disabled soldier (the thieves overcome their hesitation about robbing him by saying: "He's probably not a saint"). Marvelous storytelling stakes.

AMORAL, SORT OF

When I read the synopsis of "Don't Breathe" before watching the movie, it seemed it might be a bit of a revenge fantasy, a bit of a "teach 'em a lesson" morality play, but it's actually quite relativistic and amoral. Each character is their own judge and jury. They will decide what's right, where the boundaries are, what justifies what and who will be punished and how. (It made me thank God that God is mercy!) And yes--there's even some God talk. I won't do a spoiler, but a character is made to say a variation on Dostoevsky's famous:  “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted."

The blind veteran character was not a total bogeyman. He wasn't all-knowing and didn't have the house booby-trapped as I had suspected. He seemed somewhat vulnerable, even as his senses of hearing and smell and military training overrode his blindness, to the point that he could trap three young people in his house and hunt them down. He has a gun and knows how to kill with his bare hands. The playing field is further evened when the blind man douses the lights. The filmmakers then use a wonderful kind of grayscale lens or some other technology so that we can actually see the action (unlike so much "dark digital" TV and film where we are truly in the dark and can't see a darn thing). Our young anti-heroes even advance toward their hunter--as blind as he is.

MORE, PLEASE!

The tale is told with just a handful of characters; hint: more than four. That's all I'm going to say.
"Don't Breathe" is being called a horror film, but there's really very little horror or gore. There are, however, enough twists in what seems like a straightforward story, and a very unexpected ending. So many times the film seems to end, our burglars seem safe, they seem like they're going to escape--but of course, they don't. I was never utterly terrified or jumping in my seat, but we must, must, must know how this ends.


"Don't Breathe" is an 88-minute, solid thriller that left me wanting more. The uneasy, unresolved ending leaves room for a sequel. Because horror-suspense films shouldn't have happy endings now, should they?


November 8, 2016

5 MUST-HAVE BOOKS FOR "CATHOLICS & MEDIA"!


The media vision, strategy & spirituality
of Blessed Fr. James Alberione--the priest who loved our media world.

Prayers for the media, communications culture & new evangelization
written by Blessed Fr. James Alberione, "the first apostle of the new evangelization."--John Paul II

Put Media Literacy Education together with our Catholic Faith!
Teach kids critical thinking skills & media discernment skills!

Put Media Literacy Education together with our Catholic Faith!
Teach teens critical thinking skills & media discernment skills!

Porn is an addiction. We have all the brain science.
There is life after porn. It may be the toughest fight of your life, but you can & must do it.
For yourself. Porn must be tackled on the physical/chemical/addiction level,
the spiritual/sacramental level & the human/character/formation level. God will help you.



October 28, 2016

MOVIES: "HACKSAW RIDGE"



Mel Gibson has done it again. "Hacksaw Ridge" is the cinematic event of 2016-2017. "HR" is the true story of Private Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist from Virginia who enlists in World War II, but--as a conscientious objector--staunchly refuses to bear arms. Literally. He won't even touch a gun, let alone go through the required rifle training. His dream is to be a medic and save lives.

CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION

Desmond Doss is the only c.o. to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Why? He saved 50-75 lives of the wounded on the battlefield when the orders were to retreat. One of the taglines for the film is: "One man stayed behind." Andrew Garfield, who plays Doss, effortlessly inhabits this simple, guileless, fearless country boy (as evidenced by actual interview footage with Doss at the end of the film).

The movie begins with showing us exactly who this young man is, from childhood on. We enter deeply into his family dynamic (World War I veteran father who has turned to alcohol and domestic violence). Despite their dysfunction, God and religion are a living, breathing reality in the Doss family. As a man of faith himself, Gibson can depict this with non-ironic authenticity.

COWARDICE?

Act Two is the strange dilemma of a brave young man--thought to be a coward by his comrades and superiors--navigating the heart of the U.S. Army as a pacifist. Due to the uniqueness of his situation and a series of miscommunications, Doss faces spending the war in a military prison before he ever sees action. His salvation is the U.S. Constitution, at a time in U.S. history when it was actually honored and upheld (yes, that's cynicism you are noting in my tone).

Act Three is sheer, all-out war.

IT'S ALL PERSONAL

Although a grand-scale film, it never, ever loses the small, personal, human scale. In fact, it's all about that. So much so that it could be called a film that subscribes to a "personalist" philosophy. "HR" has it all: history, humor, romance, principles, honor, conflict, moral conundrums. The love story is sweet and surprising: a mini-primer by the gracious "greatest generation" on how it's done. Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) loves Desmond because he "isn't like the others." Smart women love men who know who they are, who can stand on their own two feet, who live by their convictions. Not just convictions: their convictions.

The casting is dead on. The actors embrace a 40's vibe in unison. The soundtrack/score is engulfing. The writing/dialogue is sterling. And on top of all these accolades, this is just good old-fashioned movie-making with the added arsenal of today's digital wizardry. However, it really looks and feels like it was shot on film. "HR" must be seen on the big screen. I repeat: must be seen on the big screen.

Drawbacks? Negatives? The first few minutes of the film begin with some shaky, hokey, on-the-nose exposition, but it quickly disperses. Vince Vaughn is hilarious as the nickname-slewing Sarge, but he also plays his role with a kind of John Wayne/Tom Hanks softness that unrealistically mitigates the utter desperation of the situation.

GLORIFICATION OF WAR?

My main question going into this film (as with all war films) was: Does it glorify war? My answer is no, but that will depend on the viewer, of course. "HR" is a gorefest (typical of Gibson, anyway)--but that's exactly what war is: especially this difficult, impossible arena of "Hacksaw Ridge." We are exposed to spurting arteries, heads blown off, living legless torsos, maggot and rat-ridden corpses, men-turned-grotesque-monsters shrieking  all the way to their hideous deaths. Why was "Hacksaw Ridge" so vital? It was the path to Okinawa.

For me, war was shown to be "sufficiently" horrific and hellish in "HR." But I don't know how someone who has endured war or played a steady stream of military videogames will see it. Are we all inured? "HR" will definitely draw parallels to "Saving Private Ryan." The insane din, the whizzing bullets, the never-ending nightmare of healthy young men instantly turned into bloody parcels of meat. The men we get to know so well being picked off one by one. However, the carnage is much more incessant and much more extreme in "HR"--not for the faint of heart.

GOD IS REAL. MIRACLES HAPPEN. DEAL WITH IT.

My second question going into the film was: Is our hero going to be some Bible-toting, Bible-quoting mystic who miraculously dodges bullets and grenades because he's praying and relying on the Word of God and Psalms of protection? The answer is no and yes. "Grace perfects nature and doesn't replace it." The grace of God builds on nature. God and us working together. ALL is gift, including Doss' natural "mountain goat" litheness and cool-headed courage. BUT. There is also such a thing as the miraculous. God intervening directly. We shouldn't let our eagerness to pander to "objective" rationality and "facts" make us deniers of a greater Reality. What Doss accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. And he tells us so: "I just kept asking God: Give me one more, Lord," as he went back again and again UNARMED AND UNDER FIRE to bring the injured to safety.

MUST-SEE FILM

Excellent justifications for use of force are presented--not only the promoting of nonviolent action. All the hard questions are dealt with. "Hacksaw Ridge" is a magnificent film that will take its rightful place in the annals of war movies. This is a very important film for young men to see (in life, men in particular find themselves faced with the question of when to use physical force and when not to). Men, young and old, need to know that there also exists ultimate bravery, heroism and daring--apart from violence, destruction and devastation. The valor of peace can exist even in the midst of war.

OTHER STUFF:

--Mel was born in the USA. When Mel was 12, his father moved him and his brothers to Australia to avoid them being drafted into the Vietnam War. It's interesting to see how many war movies Mel has been involved in, starting with the stellar and tragic "Gallipoli." Perhaps Mel is working out something very personal in these films.

--This is definitely a film about fathers and sons. But also about women and men.

--The "Coming Attraction" trailers in my theater included several "fun" and even "funny" violent action films. Followed by a PSA about PTSD and suicide in the lives of Wounded Warriors.

--Mom to Desmond about his father: "He doesn't hate us. He hates himself."

--I'm not particularly an Andrew Garfield fan, but he's good at playing Americans. (Also good in "99 Homes.")

--Desmond Doss was not standing in judgment of anyone but himself. The only person we can truly judge.

--The men don't have the faith of Doss. But they had faith in his faith because they saw it in action.

--Every time I see a WW2 film I repeat to myself: "These are men before Kinsey, men before porn." Two must-see films on this: "Out of the Darkness" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMueTE_mokQ  "The Kinsey Syndrome--How One Man Destroyed the Morality of America" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQyl4YR-aQw





October 13, 2016

MOVIES: "PRICELESS"



I'm debating whether or not to do a teensy little spoiler of the new Christian film "Priceless." The marketing for the film readily gives this juicy tidbit away, but on the other hand, it would be effective if those who come to the theater know nothing. But on the other hand, who goes to a movie not knowing the first thing about it? But on the other hand (wait--that's three hands), this is a review, and I must divulge the subject of the film: human trafficking. The title, of course, is apt. It's a line of dialogue as well as a prominent theme in the film. Human beings are priceless.

The human beings trafficked here are women: two sisters, one underage, who have been duped into believing they are being hired for legitimate jobs in the USA. Our main character, James, a trucker down on his luck (deceased wife, adored six-year-old daughter taken from him by Social Services), unknowingly transports human cargo, making "deliveries" of the locked trucks he shuttles. How could he not know? The women may have been told to be absolutely silent by their handler (whom they think is helping them), as they eat, sleep and presumably defecate in the roomy holding cell on wheels.

BASED ON "TRUE STORIES"

"Priceless" is based on a true story--how true these characters and their actions are is not specified, but we know that what we are seeing is, tragically, exactly what happens to countless individuals: duped, trapped and enslaved in various ways from various countries, including the USA itself. The two young women here are being forced into sexual slavery (prostitution). As the story unfolds, the truth of what he has been hauling and his complicity begins to haunt James and he wants to "make things right." Reversing the damage will not be so easy, and in the end will require him to put his life on the line. James was "once a good man," now in need of redemption himself. He teams up with Dale, an older man who won't say why the women's plight means so much to him (but we can guess right off the bat).

The exposition is gradual and creative, but the palpable danger could have been heightened exponentially in the hands of the right director. Actually, this could have been a tremendous film in the hands of the right director. All the components are there! As I have pointed out before in my reviews, movies like "Priceless" suffer from the same "Christian film" malaise: a hesitance to really go for it. To be a little more gritty. And to employ all the bells and whistles in today's filmmaking toolkit. Much of the acting was superb ("James" was just fair, and camera conscious, IMHO)--the two women and the pimp in particular were outstanding (with some outstanding "gritty" scenes), but the incredibly slow Southern pace and preaching bouts mar the story.

RAISING AWARENESS

What's great about this film is, first of all, tackling this subject matter to raise awareness. For those completely ignorant of how trafficking works, it paints a realistic portrait. Also, there is so much emphasis on human dignity, with some great accompanying dialogue, I would think that anyone who has been abused in any way, women who have let themselves be used (there's a scene with a prostitute who is doing this by "choice"), will be schooled in their worth, as well as see screen examples of good men who honor women. Men who have ever participated in or facilitated prostitution in any way will be given pause, as the character of these kind of men is on full display, and the question implied is: It's not the women that are "cheap"--are these men worth anything? "Priceless" is a love letter to women everywhere.

BREAKING DRAMATIC TENSION

Often in this kind of indie film (Christian or otherwise), there are good sequences and scenes and a coherent story, but it winds up feeling episodic  because the action doesn't flow due to a lack of attention to transitions, and thus the dramatic tension is broken over and over. "Priceless" also suffers from several on-the-nose voiceover and "reflection" scenes ("Now here's what's going on spiritually, folks!") which could have been worked into the action itself. I might add here that "Hotel Rwanda" suffered egregiously from this constant breaking of dramatic tension that left us not feeling apprehensive at all--like there was no slaughter going on right outside the walls. For a much better feature film on Rwanda, see  "Beyond These Gates." But I digress.

There is one huge "save-the-day" coincidence toward the end (coincidences are a no-no in film in general, and never allowed at the end).

GOING THERE

There is heroism on the part of Antonia, the older of the two sisters, and she is the one who introduces God into the picture. In spite of her suffering, she has faith while James does not. The Godtalk is cogent, strong and believable coming from the lips of a Mexican woman and a cowboy-hatted gent, but it doesn't feel like they're really talking to each other, but proselytizing us, the audience. Maybe that can't be helped in filmmaking today where we are so used to God being verboten. Movie Godtalk can make even us believers cynical (because He sticks out like a sore thumb when you're not used to Him being there)!

There are no easy solutions to the dilemma of rescuing both women. Don't look for neat endings and quick conversions! But ultimately, the film really does "go there" when we see what it takes to deal with the ruthless who have no respect for human life.

OTHER STUFF:

--This film is in the same vein, ilk and pace of the following "Christian films": "October Baby," "Mom's Night Out," "Old Fashioned" (the first and last of which I found a lot of good stuff in). I don't put the Kendrick Brothers' films here because they are a cut above.

--Am I being extra-harsh on "Christian" films? No. It's just that poor or uneven production values in a film are completely distracting from the "good bits" (as the British say). Movies need to entice you to suspend disbelief, to "just go with it" because we know we're in good hands and won't be continuously jarred and have to work incredibly hard to keep suspending disbelief, to give the film "another chance," to sit back, relax and be given a vicarious experience. Uneven quality filmmaking keeps "taking us out of the film": a mortal sin in my Screenwriting studies at UCLA.

--Thanks to the filmmakers for raising awareness of this egregious and pressing issue.




October 4, 2016

MOVIES: "DENIAL"



A new film aptly entitled "Denial"--about a famous Holocaust-denial court case--is a jewel. I hope it will be used in classrooms. I will be doing some SPOILERS in this review in order to pick apart the storyline, as well as the reality of dealing with Holocaust deniers.

Rachel Weisz plays professor, historian and author, Deborah E. Lipstadt, and carries the film with grace, warmth and humanity. Her character is a woman of pluck, intelligence, veracity and determination. Weisz, a Londoner, masters an endearing and flawless New York City accent.
This script could have been a tedious "talkie" with impassioned speeches and recountings of the horrors of the extermination camps, but although it refrained, "the suffering was heard." Good filmcraft.

DEBUNKING THE DEBUNKERS

Lipstadt is a professor who has dedicated herself to debunking those who try to debunk the Final Solution (the wholesale, systematic slaughter of Europe's Jews by Hitler and Nazi Germany during World War II). In one of her books, she cites Dr. David Irving (Timothy Spall), a vicious, megalomaniac historian who falsifies history in order to paint an alternate world where the Holocaust never happened. The karmic question (posed by Lipstadt to her students) at the beginning of the film is: "How do we know that the Holocaust happened? How do we know what really happened? Where is the proof? How strong is the proof?" Immediately, we see the consequences and importance of these queries: How do we know anything happened? How can we be sure of history? Who gets to be the keepers and framers of history?

GUILTY TILL PROVEN INNOCENT

Dr. Irving shows up (with his own videographer) at a talk given by Lipstadt. He begins heckling, challenging and pulling flamboyant stunts to discredit her. Dr. Irving is removed by security because Lipstadt's policy is to never debate those who deny history. She will debate those who have different opinions about why and how events took place, but not THAT they took place. She will not debate FACTS. But Irving (who is British) goes on the offensive and sues her (in the British court system) for libel. He alleges that she has tarnished his professional career and he is now treated like a pariah because of her accusations. And here's where it gets even more strangely intriguing. In the British system, if you are sued for libel, YOU must prove that you are innocent, not the other way around! 

STRATEGY, STRATEGY, STRATEGY

Lipstadt hires a crack team of British lawyers, but still has difficulty wrapping her head around this "guilty till proven innocent" reversal. The one thing she wants to do is get on the stand herself and testify. She wants to put Holocaust survivors on the stand to tell their stories. Her legal team forbids both. She is to sit there, tight-lipped, and let them handle it. It's the only way she's going to win. It's a strategy. Jesus Himself told us: "Be as clever as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). "Denial" may remind you of the English lawyer, St. Thomas More, in "Man for All Seasons," as he uses his knowledge of the law to protect himself.

Lipstadt's legal eagles know the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of British law. At times these high-powered barristers (and solicitors) appear to her to be cold and uncaring, but nothing could be further from the truth. Shrewdly, they don't want the Holocaust to be put on trial, only Dr. Irving. They don't want the survivors to be humiliated. They want to "starve" Irving so he can't put on his usual circus.

Lipstadt feels the weight of her duty to history, the Jewish community and the survivors themselves. She can't blow this. She can't lose. But victory needs come through some decidedly un-American and un-Deborah tactics.

THE BANALITY OF EVIL

There are lighter moments in the film that don't feel like perfunctory "comic relief" to offset an egregious topic. They are natural flourishes proceeding from the personalities and the contrasts of the conflict at hand. The camerawork is standard and gets out of the way for the most part. The film includes a visit to Auschwitz by Lipstadt and her legal crew. I've seen quite a bit of footage of Auschwitz through the years, but this is like an organic documentary-within-a-feature-film, focused on a few aspects of that hellish place, cinematically "breaking the fourth wall." Well done.

If you're afraid this is an "intelligent" film, um, it's definitely smart, but it's also witty and chuckle-worthy. I challenge you to step up your game. Educate your mind. A fellow New Englander--who, with me, deplores the ever-increasing anti-intellectualism of the USA--always quotes to me (borrowing from the UNCF): "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

FREE SPEECH

I went into the film wondering about free speech issues. How can we legislate about those who choose to wackily deny reality without taking away the right to free speech (although free speech always has its limits)? And now with social media--how could we ever control trolls? Do we even want to? How exactly do you classify "hate speech" when virtually any opinion is categorized thus today? The answer in the film is rather simple: "Free speech? Yes. But you will be held accountable for your lies" and your willfull denial and manipulation of facts. And then, astoundingly in the film (something my philosophy professor at a boss, orthodox Catholic college drilled into us): "Not all opinions are equal."

WHO'S IN CHARGE OF HISTORY?

I did NOT remember this 2000 trial in the news, so I wasn't sure of the outcome of the film. For those of you who don't remember it either, I won't do a spoiler here. Let me conclude this review with these two thoughts: Who's in charge of history? We all are. When will the Jews "stop talking about the Holocaust" (although it hasn't even been 100 years and survivors are still alive)? Never, I hope. Remembering the Shoah benefits the dignity of all humankind.

OTHER STUFF:

-- General Eisenhower ordered the liberated concentration camps to be filmed and photographed because he knew that people would have a hard time believing the depths of depravity and cruelty the Allied Forces were witnessing firsthand, and the enormous number of lives lost. So why would anyone deny the Holocaust happened? Why would someone taunt Holocaust survivors as frauds (as Irving did)? Anti-Semitism, certainly. Nazi sympathies, certainly. Sensationalism and outrageously making a name for oneself by doing the forbidden and profiting off the grief and pain of others, certainly. But theologically speaking? I've always maintained--and I'm not alone--that hatred of Jews (just because they're Jews) is hatred of God. The Jews are God's first incarnation in the world. As my Scripture prof used to say: "God needs a body in the world. His Chosen People were His first indwelling in the world." Or, as I reply to Jewish people I meet who think it's pompous to go around calling themselves the Chosen People: "If you're not chosen, neither are we" (since Christianity is a continuum of salvation history). As Jesus told the Samaritan woman: "Salvation is from the Jews."

--I didn't think Rachel Weisz was much of an actress toward the beginning of her career. She has really grown and is now a fine one.

--There are different kinds of speech. Deborah E. Lipstadt was good at "teaching" speech, "lecturing" speech, "writing" speech. But she was not good at British legal speech. It's OK to specialize.

--When one of Lipstadt's lawyers refuses to shake hands with Irving at the end, I believe he did so because to Irving, this was all a game. And it's not.

--Why is the British system like this (with regard to libel)? Perhaps a leftover from the governing notions of the "divine right of kings"?

--Like many true bigots, Irving was not limited to anti-Semitism. He had other virulent prejudices.

--Seeing the wild- and evil-eyed Irving portrayed by Spall, just reminded me that right now, there is immense BS and evil being planned for the world. Some people dedicate their whole lives to BS and evil. Better we beware and be aware. And dedicate our lives to the true, good and beautiful in earnest.



October 3, 2016

VOCATION DISCERNMENT RETREAT -- CANADA




Thanks for all your prayers! Please keep 'em coming!
(Often there's even more light AFTER the retreat!)



September 15, 2016

September 14, 2016

HIDDEN NETFLIX GEMS!


Looking for something truly entertaining and engaging on Netflix? Here are a few hidden and not-so-hidden gems. (I will continuing adding "finds" to the bottom of this post periodically.)


DOCTOR FOSTER -- This sobering BBC mini-series  has adultery as its main plot. Dr. Foster is the cheated on wife and MD. The maelstrom of emotions and reactions ring truer than true. The seriousness  of the marriage bond stands in stark contrast to cavalier excuses and "arrangements." Without God or religion ever being mentioned, the innate sacredness of marriage (as well as the utter expectation and demand of fidelity) speaks for itself.

LOCKED IN (2010) -- This little American indie film revolving around a car accident has a big twist ending. It's also about adultery, with the best argument for taking personal responsibility I may have ever witnessed in a film. A few portions of the film's execution are a bit under par, but when it's right on, it's right on--and the cumulative, overall effect is winning.

THE DRIVER -- (British mini-series) A taxi driver--whose marriage is faltering--takes on some extra work for extra money, but the men are gangsters and he finds himself in deep.

WISH YOU WERE HERE -- Once again, the theme in this Australian film is adultery, but the surrounding tragedy is just as big: a tragic death in a group of friends. Everyone is in pain, everyone is suffering, and rather than abandoning each other, they are trying to work it out. We need more films that show us possibilities of conflict resolution--without easy answers or deus ex machina solutions. The ever-excellent Joel Edgerton stars.

RECTIFY -- This series, set in the American "Christ-haunted" South, is about a young man convicted of murder who spends a good portion of his life in prison, and not just prison: solitary confinement. He is now middle-aged and has been released due to his sister's tireless efforts to exonerate him. But solitary confinement has broken him in different ways, and he knows it. His return to his extended family (we follow quite a few characters) is a mixed blessing for him and for them. The question still remains: Is he guilty? But the whodunnit suspense takes a backseat to the complicated family dynamics. "Rectify" is a study in human dignity. We are all connected. Each person--still deeply marked by the incident of so many years ago and its fallout--strives to  respect the dignity of the others, but sometimes, that's an almost impossible feat.

THE FROZEN  -- Not to be confused with the wretched, ubiquitous "FROZEN," this little pro-life horror movie takes place in the aftermath of a snowmobile accident in an isolated wilderness. The only two characters are a couple whose romantic relationship is in question. The days come and go with the same mounting terror of walking in circles in the snow and never leaving the camp. And what about those noises? And that shadowy figure? The writer-director of this film returned to his Catholic Faith and went on to direct "Full of Grace," the film on the last days of the Blessed Virgin Mary on earth.

GEORGE GENTLY -- (episodes) Have a penchant for good British detective  stories? George Gently is an old school boxer, old school cop and old school gentleman all rolled into one. He's paired with a cocky young mop-top officer who could pass for the sixth Beatle (it's the 1960's). Humanity and graciousness never go out of style.

STRANGER THINGS -- (series) Here's a series for (almost ) the whole family. Pre-teens could definitely handle it. Old fashioned, skin-tingling, mysterious fun, reminiscent of 1980's filmmaking. "Stranger Things" isn't perfect, but it's got a lot of good stuff. Four do-or-die friends (pre-teen boys) play a game of Dungeons and Dragons (uh-oh, problematic in itself) that comes to life, or rather coincides with a top-secret government experiment going on in their neighborhood. It's a bit of sci-fi meets supernatural thriller meets buddy movie meets John Hughes.

The series starts off with a lot of bad language, taking the name of the Lord in vain: "Jesus!"--especially awful when kids say it. You can teach your kids to respond aloud: "May He always be praised!" whenever they hear it), a teen sexual encounter (that goes awry), dysfunctional family dynamics (except for the fierce motherlove of Joyce, played by an Emmy-deserving Winona Ryder) including one useless and one abandoning father (but there are other good male role models).

So why am I recommending this? There are amazing portrayals of keeping promises, friendship, sacrifice, and in the end, all kinds of people stepping up the plate to love and do the right thing. The adults work together, the teens work together and the kids work together. Families are reunited. As always, discussions with your kids about the media they watch will be in order here.

PSYCH -- (series) Simply put, I would make my kids watch this show. Two childhood friends: Sean and "Gus" (one white, one black) now solve crimes together. One pretends to be psychic, but it's really his keen powers of observation working overtime (powers drilled into him by his cop father). The show always starts with the boys as kids, with Sean usually learning a lesson from his Dad that he then applies to a present-day crime. His relationship with his father can be antagonistic at times, but it's clear they really love each other deeply. Sean and Gus'  rapid-fire banter and escapades are consistently hilarious, and they've created their own in-show tropes. The conceit is that these two have never grown up (especially Sean) and will be friends for life through thick and thin. They have their own code of honor and chivalry. The show is sweet, charming, laugh-out-loud funny, wholesome and upbeat, and displays a genuine sense of humor that shines like the sun in a too often out-of-ideas, tired, negative, depraved Hollywood.

PORTLANDIA -- (series) The rubber-faced Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Carrie Brownstein, frontwoman from the girrrl band Sleater-Kinney, team up for sketch comedy set in Portland, Oregon, as a send up of that quirky city. There are always fresh new skits, but characters are constantly reprised and there are running themes and stories as well (e.g., the mayor of Portland and the side-splitting feminist bookstore). The deadpan humor is always self-deprecating and never vicious. Once in a great while there's something risque, but not terribly explicit. Fred and Carrie keep it classy. "Portlandia" could potentially be for pre-teens/teens also.

GONE -- Amanda Seyfried stars in this tense thriller about a young woman who was abducted and escaped her abducter, but no one believers her. Now her sister is missing and she's convinced her stalker has returned. 

THE GOOD SON -- Elijah Wood and Macauley Caulkin are cousins. But one of them is a "bad seed." Psychopathy can start young....

THE CODE -- (Australian) Two young adult brothers--one an investigative reporter trying to solve a case, one on the autism spectrum trying to live an independent life--go through thick and thin together. The beautiful, brotherly devotion is palpable.

FATHER BROWN -- (British, episodes) Based on G. K. Chesterton's written series, the worldy-wise, gentle and kind Fr. Brown has one goal: to save people. Ultimately save them. He always tells them at the critical point some variation of: "Confess!" "It's not too late!" "You can save yourself!" "There is hope and redemption for you!" "I only care about your soul!"

HAPPY VALLEY -- (British mini-series) A lady cop is one tough grandmother. She's raising her deceased daughter's son whose Dad is her archenemy (she blames him for her daughter's death) and definitely one bad cookie.

GLITCH -- (Australian mini-series) 6 people return from the dead--but they're not zombies, they're in perfect health. A fascinating look at life, death, mortality. Catholic overtones. But it's not what you think, not facile, not about a second chance or making things right. Or is it?

BLACK MIRROR -- This brilliant British set of self-contained episodes play out like Ray Bradbury short stories. They're set in a uber-wired-and-tech-connected-not-too-distant-future that doesn't really look like sci fi. It looks like us. Us on steroids. Some episodes are not for the faint-hearted and are pretty intense. And prescient.
NOSEDIVE--social status is strictly determined by how many "likes" everyone gets on social media. Every single encounter with another person in real life must be immediately rated. Your continually fluctuating rating will determine what kind of promotion you will get work, what kind of rental car you will get, etc. "Niceness" is highly sought.
PLAY TEST--A nice enough slacker-dude needs the cash being a video game tester will provide. But this is an augmented reality game. About your deepest fears. It involves a "mild, reversible" medical procedure.
SHUT UP AND DANCE--The most disturbing and yet realistic of the three episodes I've seen ("sextortion" is a real thing: you are recorded via your webcam--did you know your light need not go on for someone to record you?). Random people have been video-ed doing sexual acts or seeking unfaithful sexual encounters online. "They" now control each person's life through blackmail. The deep, deep shame (and other consequences) of having their contacts (this is the actually the worst) and cyberspace (strangers) see and know what they have done is too much to even bear thinking about. The blackmailed are slaves. [This is truly fascinating from a Theology of the Body POV. Would it be the end of the world to be exposed? Only one of the acts is not a sexual act but a racist one. But anyone watching this episode has to ask: Wow. What if my hidden acts were revealed? Would I bow to pressure to hide them? It made me think: Will the Last Judgment be like this? Or will we feel OK with "being known" because it is all in God's light and God is mercy?

"There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.…" Luke 12:2, Matthew 10: 26, Mark 4:22





August 28, 2016

MOVIES: "BEN-HUR" (2016 RE-MAKE)

(Don't watch the trailers. There are no good ones. Don't do the film justice.
But if you must, watch this one: Only Halfway Decent Ben-Hur Trailer)

The latest big screen "Ben-Hur" is a fresh take on the beloved 1880 historical fiction novel: "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" by Lew Wallace, that deftly and intricately weaves the story of Judah Ben-Hur into the Gospel account of Jesus. However, this re-make sadly limps in the faith department, which, of course, is the punchline of the whole shebang. With that, I am signaling that I assume you know the story and so shall be dropping SPOILERS in this review. 

ROME CANNOT BE TRUSTED

Judah is from a wealthy Jewish family living in Jerusalem along with his adopted brother, Messala Severus, a pagan Roman. At the beginning of the movie, they are best of friends and both avid horsemen (foreshadowing the famous chariot race between them at the end of the film). Messala leaves the family to join the Roman army. He wants to marry Judah's sister, but he feels he has lived off the charity of Judah's family long enough, and wants to build his own life and fortune first.
Enmity between the Jewish Zealots and the Roman legions is heating up. Judah, a friend of Rome, openly opposes the rabble-rousers and believes in "keeping the peace," even at cost of Jewish freedom. Judah truly lives what he believes, doesn't want to see harm come to either side, and takes active measures to calm animosities. But his flaw was in trusting Rome too much. When he and his family are mistakenly taken for Zealots and arrested, he loses everything and winds up a galley slave. In his absence, Esther, his wife, becomes a follower of Jesus.

CINEMATOGRAPHY ON POINT

The cinematography is impressive from the get-go. The film wastes no time in back story, but plunges us into the hoof and heart pounding antics of Judah and Messala. Familiar characters like Pontius Pilate and Dismas pop up here and there, reminding us of the destiny that Judah is poised and privileged to be a part of. Certain scenes could have been a little more gritty (although this version is much more gritty than the Charlton Heston version), particularly when Judah becomes a galley slave and then escapes and is afloat on the sea (he could've/should've been more beefy/burned). Morgan Freeman--who despite his overused narrator's voice, and in my opinion, tired old ways of almost non-acting, not trying any more--puts in a solid performance as Ilderim, the wealthy horse owner. Ilderim's role is rather major to the story's turning, and Freeman accomplishes the task with aplomb.

SOME FLAWS

A few shoddy oversights mar the film throughout: at times the everyday hair (especially the women's) and everyday garb is almost indistinguishable from twenty-first century styles (think Eileen Fisher). I also question whether Jewish women went about with their hair uncovered as a matter of course. It's darn distracting, as are the moments (quite a few) when the filmmakers evidently couldn't figure out how to have characters "find" each other again, serendipitously meet up, etc. What happens is a character will just emerge from "stage left": "Hi!" Also very distracting. Esther's role is extremely one-dimensional, and the actress plays it thus. If you're looking for the red-hot romance of Charlton Heston and Haya Harareet...forget it.

In general, the acting is good, but not great. However, in the hands of a director who milked some of the well set up scenes (and epic scenery) for every ounce of danger and tension, it could have been much better. However, I cannot say this of the final chariot race which is the centerpiece and masterpiece.

The best fleshed-out character? Rome itself. The character of the Romans is constantly bandied about and three-dimensionally depicted. I felt that the "worthy nemesis" (Rome) needed a "worthy protagonist" (Jesus, and Judah's eventual following of him) which the film did not deliver. There were some noble attempts, but it needed to be much stronger. Jesus' unexplained: "Love your enemies" in the face of the "might makes right" of Rome was screaming for so much more "showing" of how socially transformative Christian charity is--even at its birth. God's love needed teeth (ideally in the depiction of Judah's character arc)--teeth that were a match for Rome's violence. I don't think the film succeeded here. Judah's mother and sister were not even cured by the blood of Jesus from the Cross (as in the 1959 "Ben-Hur"), but by rain running off the Cross.

"ALMOST"

In some overall ways, this "Ben-Hur" is an "almost" film. It's "almost" a great re-make. Except for the chariot race which succeeds in every way. (And I'm all for remakes: Let's see what you can do. Give us your perspective. What are your new insights? Can you best  the original? Show us what you've got.)

After two hours of building a well-paced drama, the end is a mad dash to neatly wrap things up in a blatantly inconsistent way. The end needed to take its time. Even though in first century Palestine (and elsewhere for that matter) religion and belief in God/gods was assumed, we do not observe Judah nor Messala doing very much existential seeking. There is hardly any religion/Godtalk. Then, suddenly, at the end, Jesus' Crucifixion and forgiveness is understood and assimilated. Judah (and Esther) had brief and meaningful encounters with Jesus prior to Calvary, but for the message of Jesus to rather immediately coalesce with our characters' hearts and wipe out years of horrific betrayal, abuse, and bloodshed did not ring true to me in the least.

After her "conversion," Esther talks and acts a bit like a West Coast Jesus Freak from the 60's and 70's, and the Christianspeak sounds like 80's posters, T-shirts and mugs. The lines/scenes of faith at the end are executed with almost robotic, "let's get this over with"-ness. I remember the final scenes also wrapping up rather quickly in the Charlton Heston version of "Ben-Hur," but it was done much more organically, synergetically, artfully, believably, and movingly. The current "Ben-Hur" makes faith and charity almost seem a simplistic, fundamentalist, but at the same time tenuous anchor in a storm. The pivotal reconciliation scene between Judah and Messala was laughably lame, and it could have been so much better! This film was well done in most respects and then it dropped the ball when it came to crafting genuine and authentic human experiences of redemption.

This version of "Ben-Hur" is an exciting, even riveting at times, quasi-biblical adventure, but it falls flat when it matters most. I've just re-watched the movie-musical "Les Mis," and couldn't help comparing the two. One is a CGI tour-de-force with fine action sequences. The other goes to the depths of human pathos and convinces us that misery and death will not have the last word, as it shimmers with divine hope.

OLDIE BUT GOODIE

Should you watch the Charlton Heston "Ben-Hur" again or for the first time? Yes! The eleven Academy Award winner (including "Best Picture," 1959) has aged well. Particularly poignant is the love story between Judah and Esther. True chemistry and passion! The chariot race changed filmmaking forever, did not have the benefit of CGI, and stuntmen lost their lives for it. Prepare to be astounded. And for true film buffs, there's even a silent 1925 black and white version available on the 4-disc collector's edition.

Due to the gorey violence and many CGI horses getting realistically destroyed, "Ben-Hur" 2016 is not for the kiddos.

OTHER STUFF:

--The galley slave really made me think of the consequence/curse of Adam's Fall: toil will become exceedingly difficult for men (as will bearing life become exceedingly difficult for women).

-- "They will invite you to their games to watch others suffer so you'll forget what you have lost."

--"They want blood. They're all Romans now."

--"The compassion that Jesus offers them is more dangerous than all the Zealots combined."




August 27, 2016

NETFLIX: "STRANGER THINGS"



Looking for a fairly "acceptable" series for pre-teens/teens? Set in the early 80's, "Stranger Things" isn't perfect, but it's got a lot of good stuff. Four do-or-die friends (pre-teen boys) play a game of Dungeons and Dragons (uh-oh, problematic in itself) that comes to life. Or rather coincides with a top-secret government experiment going on in their neighborhood. It's a bit of sci-fi meets supernatural thriller meets buddy movie meets John Hughes.

The series starts off with a lot of bad language (taking the name of the Lord in vain: "Jesus!"--especially awful when kids say it. You can teach your kids to say: "May He always be praised!" when they hear it), a teen sexual encounter (that goes awry), dysfunctional family dynamics (except for the fierce motherlove of Joyce, played by an Emmy-deserving Winona Ryder) including one useless and one abandoning father (but there are other good male role models).

So why am I recommending this? There are amazing portrayals of keeping promises, friendship, sacrifice, and in the end, all kinds of people stepping up the plate to love and do the right thing. The adults work together, the teens work together and the kids work together. Families are reunited.

It's intense, but if your young people are already used to intense screen stories, this might be a good one to watch as a family--and, of course, always discuss. And I gotta say, I pretty thoroughly enjoyed ST. It is such a joy watching today's child actors, and the girl who plays "El" is a REVELATION. She's so good that she could make a Cate Blanchett look like an amateur.

A good review: http://www.pressreader.com/canada/toronto-star/20160827/282226600149024



August 13, 2016

MOVIES: THE LITTLE PRINCE



The beloved classic, "The Little Prince," was released simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix, and may or may not disappoint fans of the fable. Jeff Bridges' rich, warm, craggy American voice brings to life Saint-Exupéry, the author and aviator. Three different kinds of storytelling visuals are utilized: the now-familiar computer animation, sporting oversized heads and large, expressive eyes ("Inside Out," "Despicable Me," etc.); stop-action figures, and Saint-Exupéry's own line drawings brought to life.

This presentation of "The Little Prince" is couched within a contemporary story of a little girl and her mother, which fleshes it out and grounds the sometimes metaphorical etherealness of the story. There is even a counterbalance of cynicism and incredulity on the part of The Little Girl (no name!) who is being raised by an over scheduling, overly pragmatic, overachieving mother. All The Little Girl knows is science, facts, calculations and her "life board" (a plan of "what is essential" that her mother has concocted, which lays out every single hour, day and year of The Little Girl's life). The Little Girl's watch alarm sounds when it's time to move on to her next "project." She is hardly a child at all. Her surroundings are gray and drab.

LEARNING HOW TO BE A KID

When The Little Girl and her mother move to a new neighborhood, they wind up next to a tall, skinny, ramshackle Victorian house in disrepair (shades of "Up"). Like its ancient inhabitant (The Aviator/Saint-Exupéry), it's out of step (in a good way) with the austere, cube-like, cookie-cutter homes in what is obviously a new development. Since her mother is at work non-stop, The Little Girl (about nine years old) is left to her own devices for most of the day and night, or rather she is left to her "life board" which consists mainly of studying in order to secure a certain, successful future. (Hers, of course, is a terrible life, and is actually child endangerment.)

The Little Girl makes friends with The Aviator rather quickly (unbeknownst to supermom), begins spending lots of time with him and slacking on her studies. (Again, sending a terrible message. I don't believe we should automatically demonize men, young or old, as potential creepy-deepy predators--but a little girl [or boy], left alone day and night, hanging out with an old guy her mom doesn't even know?) On the up side (pun intended), The Aviator's home and yard is an unkempt playground of sorts. In contrast with The Little Girl's Soviet-esque home, Saint-Exupéry's environment is colorful, full of birds, flowers, music, whimsical widgets and his broken-down plane that he is forever trying to restart.

Saint-Exupéry lets The Little Girl be a kid. In fact, he teaches her how to be a child. How to take normal kid risks (like climbing a tree), to believe in herself, that she is capable of doing things, even if she hasn't studied them and they're not on the life board. Little by little, on paper and verbally, Saint-Exupéry tells her the story of The Little Prince. Skeptical at first, The Little Girl is eventually captivated by the tale. She rolls the characters and dialogue and lessons around in her head. She discovers artifacts that represent The Little Prince and his world, or shall we say "worlds," or shall we say asteroids! The rose, the fox, the serpent, the sands of the Sahara all come alive in her underused imagination. But The Little Girl never loses her practicality, and when she comes to the end of the story, she is furious. SPOILER ALERT: If you don't know the ending of "The Little Prince," I'm revealing it here. The Little Prince chooses death (by serpent bite--let's call it what it is: suicide) in order to go back to his asteroid--just exactly how this all works is never explained--to be with the rose that he ultimately loves but abandoned (because of her vain demands and because "they were too young to know how to love").

VALIDATING CHILDHOOD

This ending does not sit well with The Little Girl at all, and in anger, she cuts off her friendship with the pilot. Worse yet, shortly thereafter, the old man is rushed by ambulance to the hospital. He had been hinting to her all along that he was preparing to "leave." His health had been obviously failing, but in her child's mind, The Little Girl assumed he was talking about going in his plane on a trip from which he wouldn't return.

The Little Girl and her mom visit Saint-Exupéry in the hospital and amends are made. However, the old man is dying. But The Little Girl hatches a plan. She believes that no one less than The Little Prince himself can save her dear, elderly friend. And here's where it all gets fantastical and stretches the bounds of our most magical thinking. The Little Girl takes off in Saint-Exupéry's old plane in search of The Little Prince. She finds him, but he's all grown up. In a bad way. And here's the real message of The Little Prince, both the book and the movie: Growing up isn't the problem, it's forgetting what it's like to be a child that's the problem. Because to see the world as a child has great value.

"The Little Prince" validates kids being kids as such a very good thing. They are told that they need to take their childhood with them into adulthood. Bravo. In the big city, The Little Prince has been brainwashed to a different understanding of what is "essential": that which makes money. Working hard. Commerce. That which can be bought and sold. This is a clever and brilliant examination of how words and values can get so twisted that they can have opposite meanings, but not just subjectively--"happiness is different things to different people." We are made to understand that Saint-Exupéry is right about what is essential, not big business.

THEOLOGY OF THE BODY FAIL

The problematicness of The Little Prince (the original book and this movie) is its sidestepping of death with euphemisms. Why can't we teach kids about death? Because then we'd have to say something real about God. So what we're stuck with is Disney / Life of Pi / Kung Fu Panda "Just Believe!" nonsense. (Believe in WHAT?) The Little Girl rightly demands of the aviator to tell her exactly what happened to The Little Prince, and she gets a wussy "I choose to believe...." She gets: "He's always with me, I hear him laughing in the stars." There's nothing wrong with this kind of poetry that we all use when we've lost a loved one and something they loved in life reminds us of them. But to shovel only this weak drivel into little and big Christian* minds? Pshaw!

We know so much better. We have so much better. We get so much better. Our loved ones live on as they are, as persons, in God, with God. The redeemed will be reunited forever in a very real heaven. We, God, death, life, the afterlife are not just some nebulous ball of sentimental mush. It's all so very real. There will also be "a new heavens and a new earth" as the Bible tells us (so don't be surprised at very real roses and foxes in "heaven")!  And do not get me started on the resurrection of the body in The Little Prince. The body is stated in no uncertain terms to be a shell that we leave behind. Zut alors!

Unfortunately, one of the most prominent messages of "The Little Prince" is that the spiritual is what's most real, what matters most, what endures. The following favorite LP maxims are helpful and true, but only if understood in conjunction with the reality, the equal importance and continuing existence of the body in eternity: "Only with the heart can we see rightly." "What is essential is invisible to the eye."
____
*I'm saying "Christian" here because we already know better because God has revealed the nature of reality to us (and to all, of course).

OTHER STUFF:

--The sad "presence by absence" of supermom's husband and The Little Girl's father feels a bit like some kind of indictment against men/dads. I even thought The Little Girl was going to meet her Dad when she takes off for the big city (every holiday, her Dad sends her a different snowglobe of the city where he works), but nope.

--Perhaps, a Christian narrative might be read into LP? Adam, alone in the world, meets Eve, but it all goes wrong. The Prince (the new Adam) lays down his life for her. But it's the serpent who's employed for the deed? Christian Mingle Mistaken Mystified Mixup.

--The kids' voiceovers are terrific. The Little Prince sounds like Linus from "The Peanuts." The grown up Little Prince is also done tremendously by Paul Rudd.

--"Men grow thousands of roses and they do not find what they're looking for. What they're looking for could be found in a single rose."

--"If you want a friend, you have to tame me."

--My favorite Saint-Exupéry book is "Wind, Sand and Stars," about his life as a pilot--with lots of philosophizing, bien sûr.

--As a newly-minted Education M.A., there's a message here about "education-direct-to-workforce," "education as an arm of labor"....

--Big Cinema Music.

--Crushing stars for energy! Laudato Si!

--Like many kids' movies these days, the kids teach the parents the wisdom. As in "Brave," mom loosens up and learns  from her daughter.

--"The Little Prince" joins the movies "Maleficent," "Frozen," "Brave," "Spy," etc., where "the prince" is either useless, a buffoon or saved by the princess.

July 17, 2016

MOVIES: "THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS"



With a juicy, promising title and a screen populated with adorable, fuzzy furballs of varied shapes and sizes, the animated smash hit: "The Secret Life of Pets" is a fun Summer escapade for all ages.

Instantly relatable to pet owners (and kids who wish they were pet owners), the different personalities of species and dog breeds are, well, typecast. The goofy guinea pig, the self-involved cat, the excitable Pomeranian, the slaphappy bulldog, the stalwartly devoted Jack Russell terrier, the conniving alley cat, to name a few. The same simple dog logic of "Up" is employed here.

HEADBANGING POODLES

All is well in the uneventful lives of the New York City humans' lovable housemates (the biggest crises are the daily exoduses of owners going to work). The furry and feathered friends communicate with each other via fire escapes, air ducts, etc., and go about the mundane mischief that pets are wont to engage in in the absence of their humans: getting into the fridge, knocking things over, etc. (These pets are also a little more sophisticated, as they know how to turn on kitchen appliances, music systems and TVs.) If you saw the trailer, you must have howled (pun intended) at the elegantly trimmed, stately white poodle ("Leonard") who turns on heavy metal and begins headbanging as soon as his master his out the door.

LOST IN YONKERS

Max, the loyal terrier (voiced by Louis C. K.), is owned by Katie, whom he adores and quite literally lives and breathes for. Gidget, the white Pomeranian (who's addicted to telenovelas when her master isn't around), is madly in love with Max, who barely knows she's alive. When Katie brings home Duke, an overgrown, selfish and dopey sheepdog (looking like a monster from "Where the Wild Things Are") who moves in not only on Katie, but on Max's food and sleeping quarters, Max hatches a plan to get rid of him. While the neighborhood canines are outside being dogwalked en masse (the dogs' gossip-chatter is a hoot), Max and Duke break away and become separated from the group. And, of course, never far behind a vulnerable lost woofer in these tales are the dastardly dogged...(drumroll)...dogcatchers!

RABBITS GONE BAD

Max and Duke become entangled with the dangerous sewer gang of  "The Flushed Pets." Yes. Just like it sounds: those pets rejected by their owners (even though some species in the squad are definitely unflushable). Led by what has to be the world's most sinister bunny, Snowball: an impossibly cute, white, bucktoothed, dewy-eyed lagomorph (voiced by Kevin Hart) who is decidedly unhinged. The goal of the FP's is the destruction of humanity, viz., pet owners. Guilty by association are any pets LOVED by their owners, who meekly submit to domestication ("leash lovers"), so Max and Duke must prove their street cred.

The intensity and violence of the vengeful pets might be a bit extreme for wee humans in the audience, however, the danger had to be real for our protagonists. Needless to say, the pets from the block are determined to rescue Max and Duke, led by the smitten Gidget. (Now we not only have women saving women in films: Maleficent, Frozen, Spy--we have the princess saving the prince.) And of course, all of this is done in a day's work. The unsuspecting humans have no idea what their darling charges are up to.

MERRY MENAGERIE

The element of surprise is constant and the occasions for laughter are frequent. Not explosive, eruptive laughter, just a steady stream of unexpected giggle ripples. The gags are mostly visual, and because of the rapid chase-pace of the film, the eye is catching the hilarity before the brain rationally puts together what's actually going on.

At one point, there are three roving bands of pets on the streets--keeping the intrigue lively. Towards the end, a magnificent character is introduced: Pops, an old hound dog with wheels for his paralyzed hind legs. A few sequences could have had snappier dialogue, such as Gidget and the falcon. And Max and Duke in the sausage factory was very out of place, breaking the tension at one of the most climactic parts of the story. It felt like a strange "filler" (pun intended). (Also, vegetarians.) The voice acting is massively on point.

SWELL SOUNDS

There's some really great throwback swinging flute and Big Band in the soundtrack, reminiscent of some classy animation work of the 50's and 60's--also serving to remind us that all of this is taking place in the uber-cosmopolitan Big Apple, accompanied by the fact that the animals have New York accents.  The sights of NYC are not tiredly and routinely exploited: Times Square! Rockefeller Center! etc. Instead, we have a wonderful scene of all God's critters in a New York taxi, treks through construction sites and an organically integrated Brooklyn Bridge. That's how to use location in a film.

IT'S 10AM. DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR PET IS?

All in all, this is a strong little film that could even bear (pun intended) repeated viewings. I could also have seen "The Secret Life of Pets" work as a cartoon musical.

"The Secret Life of Pets" will get you wondering what your innocent little beasties are up to when you're not around. You may even want to hire a Pet Detective...oh wait...that's another movie....

OTHER STUFF:

--Leonard alone sold me on the whole movie.

--Here's a YouTube someone made, looping Leonard headbanging to System of a Down. You're welcome.

--The Minions' short film before "Pets" is a super fun adventure as well.


July 8, 2016

MOVIES: "LIBERATING A CONTINENT: JOHN PAUL II AND THE FALL OF COMMUNISM"



I'm going to call the latest documentary on John Paul II an "almost perfect documentary." Why is it almost perfect? Because it's Rolls Royce superclassy in every way, the production values are off the chain, the august interviewees always on point, and the analysis goes deep. The range of the historical material is vast, and yet the film manages to be meditative, fast-paced, sentimental and bracing all at one and the same time. The cinematography and beautifully restored footage are rich and intense, and the soundtrack is a non-stop, full-bodied symphony of meaning in itself.

THE SOCIO-RELIGIOUS GENIUS OF JOHN PAUL II

As the title indicates, there is nothing "small" about this documentary in its feel or scope. And the subject matter is done great justice. For JP2-aholics and documentary-aholics like myself, as well as for those who lived this history, "Liberating" adds yet more pieces to the puzzle and threads to the tapestry of the socio-religious genius of John Paul II. Did the Kremlin have a social plan? So did the Polish pope, who purposefully united himself to all Slavs of the persecuted Eastern European Church, and all citizens behind the Iron Curtain.

The film begins with a short retrospective of Communism, then on to Poland and World War II, in order to situate Karol Wojtyla's (John Paul II's) life into this reality. This is done through the technique of state-of-the-art  graphics, maps, dates, still photos, etc., that are visually effective and illuminating.

There is just so much film footage of the periods in question that we are swept back and inserted into the times and relive it all. (This footage includes film of Wojtyla's saintly, wise and courageous mentor, the great Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński.)

SOLIDARITY

Featured front and center in the workers' struggle is the Polish labor union SOLIDARITY.  The Communists' minimalistic vision of the human person was: a cog in the machine of the State which is supreme. Man exists to serve the State and for no other reason. Freedom, creativity, initiative and entrepreneurship were non-existent. Labor unions were not allowed. Workers had no rights and working conditions were often harsh, unbearable and unjust. The movie affirms: without John Paul II, no SOLIDARITY. Without SOLIDARITY, no liberation of Poland, without the liberation of Poland, no chain effect toppling of "the evil empire."

Rounding out the documentary are brief accounts of other nations (basically all of the former U.S.S.R.) following suit after Poland and shaking free of Moscow.

TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT IN CHRIST

The triumph of the human spirit shines mightily in "Liberating." A human spirit informed by and inseparable from Jesus Christ. Would Communism have "fallen" without John Paul II? Most likely eventually, but perhaps in a very different, even violent way that might have ushered in something equally as malignant. "Liberating" is intent on unmasking the fact that the resistance to Communism was primarily spiritual. The military might of the Russian Soviets could not be fought on a battlefield with physical force. John Paul II, the statesman of faith and prayer and towering moral authority, is seen as almost single-handedly inspiring the defeat of the iron grip of tyranny in his homeland.

"ALMOST" PERFECT?

Why is it "almost" perfect? Two reasons. Although the content is thorough, informative and edge-of-your-seat engaging, a few introductory sentences here and there seemed to be called for. The documentary is never exactly oblique, but it does take a bit for granted. That, for example, you understand the basic tenets of Communism. That you know who Stalin was, etc. In other words, the documentary assumes that you have a basic knowledge of 20th century world history, which, very sadly is not the case with the average person under 40. And film has become a crucially important means by which younger generations learn history! The film is only missing some rudimentary details that would have set the stage better for what it wants to tell you--but otherwise, audiences will still get the gist. The film contains many valuable history lessons. Each of them just needed a slightly clearer introduction.

But make no mistake: this is a GLORIOUS film.

PROBLEMS & BAD -ISMS

My second criticism is that, although this documentary is meant to cover a healthy slice of recent history, its relevance to today could have been majorly ramped-up at the end. There were a few mild, weak references to the fact that if you let go of your "moral and cultural roots," "freedom" will become unhinged. I would have been much more explicit. For starters, I would have defined what true "freedom" is. I would have discussed the fact that there are always ideologies and visionaries and aggressors and social engineers and absolutist/totalitarian worldviews in every age, vying for ascendancy at least and world domination at most. (Nature and history both abhor a vaccum.) I would have named the ideologies that immediately replaced Communism, while often mimicking and borrowing from it: hedonism, materialism, utilitarianism, unbridled capitalism, consumerism, individualism, atheism, agnosticism, relativism, nihilism, postmodernism, skepticism, determinism, fatalism, propaganda, scientism, culture of death, social conformism, etc.

HOW DOES A POST-CHRISTIAN AUDIENCE READ THIS FILM?

The seismic shift in understanding the very concepts of "morality" and "culture" and "roots" today (at least in the West) is not acknowledged at the end of the film. The fact that a solidly post-Christian mentality has taken hold today is not acknowledged. The meta-narrative that has replaced any kind of Christian culture is: "God and truth are not knowable. Christianity has been debunked. Religion is dangerous. Individual's desires, thoughts and feelings are true and absolute. Personal license is absolute. There are no extrinsic reference points.  Everything is subjective. Change is the method and goal. All change is progress. Progress is good. There is no meaning in the world. Each one assigns meaning to each one. Meaning is fluid. It can and should keep changing. Change is the only good."

SOLUTIONS & GOOD -ISMS

I would have laid out (briefly) the challenges before us today. I would have identified the exact meaning of human dignity and current-day threats to it. I would have explicated what it means to be human. True, the words of John Paul II captured in the film are answers for today, also--albeit in today's context--but the dots could have been connected. In a fragmented, postmodern world, nothing is supposedly connected, nothing is obvious. I would have highlighted today's need for: critical thinking, media literacy, logic, ethics, metaphysics, apologetics, phenomenology, personalism, the common good, rationality, existentialism, Thomism, philosophy, theology, catechesis, objective and subjective truth-seeking in unison, Catholicism, striving for nobility, the Church's social teaching, altruism, asceticism, family life, the true/good/beautiful, culture of life, virtues, sacrificial love, God, etc.

COMMUNISM DOESN'T WORK

The failed economic system that is Communism--so familiar to those of us who were "children of the Cold War"--is painted in stark relief: the scarcity of basic amenities like phone service, indoor heating/plumbing; cramped and ugly government housing; long and separate working shifts meant to break down the family; constant food and medicine shortages; the omnipresence of secret police/spies/infiltrators/snitching neighbors. But of all the Soviet tactics of oppression, it was the indoctrination of children apart from their parents that was, perhaps, the most insidious.

THE WHOLE TRUTH ABOUT MAN

The film is a consistent and coherent whole. I'm sure it accomplished its goal. I'm just looking it at it with the eye of a missed opportunity to educate even more strongly, and draw younger generations in to benefit from its wisdom, and see the possibility of a continuum with John Paul II's social vision. As Jesus said: "The truth will set you free." And as John Paul II said: "Only Christ reveals the whole truth about man." I would have attempted to explain: Why is it that Christ is the key?

Perhaps all that "Liberating" needs is a follow-up study guide that will ask these contemporary questions. :)

Interviewee George Weigel says: "Culture is the most dynamic force in history." If that's true, we have a lot of work to do. My answer? THEOLOGY OF THE BODY. Start there. It's what everyone cares about, where everyone lives.

OTHER STUFF:

--"Europe after the French Revolution went the way of separating morality from the public sphere, from the economy. But JP2 said that's not the only way. It's possible to take a different route where we integrate the Ten Commandments and morality with public life, with the State we want to have, with the economy we want to have, the law we want to have. That's what JP2 encouraged."

--Here's a memorable sermon during a subsequent trip of John Paul II to Poland in 1991 (he made a total of 9 trips to Poland) where he showed some righteous anger at the way his countrymen were abusing their newfound freedom--specifically regarding abortion: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/04/world/pope-delivers-angry-sermon-on-abortion-to-poles.html

--"Life is a pilgrimage toward a goal." --Karol Wojtyla's Dad

--And.....it's not over:
Trudeau pledges troops, armoured vehicles as Russia standoff intensifies (Latvia, Baltics, Poland)
#cdnpoli http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/07/08/trudeau-pledges-troops-frigate-and-jets-as-nato-faces-off-against-russia_n_10879878.html via @HuffPostCanada

--An incredible account of brutal Cuban Communist oppression: the book "Against All Hope" by Armando Valladares

"No to selfishness
No to injustice
No to pleasure without morality
No to despair
No to hatred and violence
No to ways without God
No to irresponsibility and mediocrity
Yes to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Church
Yes to the effort to elevate people and lead them to God
Yes to justice, to love and to peace
Yes to solidarity with everyone, especially the most needy
Yes to home
Yes to your duty to build a better society." 
 ---JP2

FURTHER FILM/DOCUMENTARY VIEWING:

--NINE DAYS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (JP2's historic 9-day trip to Poland in 1979)
--POPE JOHN PAUL II (feature film, JP2 played by Jon Voigt, father of Angelina Jolie)
--MESSENGER OF THE TRUTH (documentary on Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko)
--POPIELUSZKO: FREEDOM IS WITHIN US (feature film on Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko--WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY FIRST!)
--KATYN (An examination of the Soviet slaughter of thousands of Polish officers and citizens in the Katyn forest in 1940)
--THE INNOCENTS (Polish nuns during WWII)
--THE ORIGINAL IMAGE OF DIVINE MERCY (deals with the suffering of the Church in Lithuania under Soviet oppression)
--WINTER ON FIRE (Ukraine's continuing and current struggle against oppression)