May 16, 2015

MOVIES: "FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD"



Fans of "Pride and Prejudice" will love the new adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel, "Far From the Madding Crowd." It's a romance of class divisions as well as gender divisions (in the sense that a fiercely independent and independently wealthy female sees no "need" for a husband). Miss Bathsheba Everdene* (the astute and expressive Carey Mulligan) is also a very proud woman by nature, which both serves her and trips her up.

A THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE?

"Madding" starts off with a bold proposal of marriage, but fans of the "Twilight" series will love the fact that Miss Everdene has her pick of not two, but three suitors: the farmer/shepherd (Gabriel Oak, played by the hunky, strong and silent Matthias Schoenaerts), the older, socially awkward, paternal squire (Mr. Boldwood, played with precision by Michael Sheen), and the playboy soldier (Sergeant Troy, played with rascality by Tom Sturridge). Which man will she choose, if any? These fully-developed characters are brought to life by a harmonious cast.

It's curious why Hardy would make an assertive, commitment-phobic (she really is) woman like this his protagonist, and not having read the book myself, I don't know if she was given any kind of modern upgrade for the screen. Perhaps Hardy was trying to explore the female heart, trying to understand women and women's motivations. Does he succeed? On some fronts, yes. On others, no. But I believe we always have to remember that when we're watching a film, a statement is not necessarily being made about all women, but this particular woman, this particular character. A statement is not necessarily being made about all men, but this particular man, this particular character.

MEN'S HEARTS, WOMEN'S HEARTS

What Hardy does seem to know very well is a man's heart, what it's like when a man truly loves a woman. Perhaps this is really a man's romantic story. Or maybe it's just both a man's and woman's romance, as movies used to be. All three men truly love a woman. Hardy seems also to know what it's like when a woman plays with a man's heart. Although Miss Everdene states that "it's not women who jilt men, it's men who jilt us," she is inexplicably fickle in her affections and desires. At times she seems completely disloyal, even to herself. She seems to have contracted our contemporary disease of wanting to endlessly sample, never settle down, never be sure, never make a firm decision, always have a "wandering eye." A clue to why she is so afraid of trusting, of making the wrong choice, or of being rejected might be captured in a song she sings at a dinner for her farming staff. (This same song is repeated during one of the trailers for the film and the credits at the end of the film, so the filmmakers must be trying to make a point.) The words of the song are addressed to a young woman: "Let no man steal your thyme," because when your time has passed, he'll get rid of you.

The men in "Madding" are incredibly loyal and fiercely protective of the women they love. Even though Miss Everdene can take care of herself in many ways, she does need these men for many reasons (as the men need her for many reasons). These are not utilitarian needs, but rather those of a truly human community and communion. Helpmates. (See 1 Corinthians 11:11.) "Madding" shows us glimpses of how the male/female collaboration can be a peaceful and beautiful synergy on many levels. Since the setting is pastoral, and Miss Everdene is an equestrian, there's a lot more than tea drinking and mincing about going on in the film.

A GRACIOUS AGE

Had "Madding" been shot on film, we'd enjoy beautiful landscapes and rich colors everywhere. But, alas, it was not, and one drawback to the film is the paltry, pedestrian color palette. The fine soundtrack, however, is blissfully rich and audibly "invisible."

These men and women of "Madding" were bred/taught how to relate properly and well with each other from their youngest years, no matter their state or status in life. Do we teach any kind of proper, becoming, humble, gracious behavior anymore? The question simply is: what kind of a society do we want to live in? In today's world of instant gratification, it's hard to imagine the protocols, manners and restraint displayed in "Madding," but the actors inhabit this 19th century milieu convincingly. Personally, I find all the refinement quite civilized, charming, refreshing, and massively appealing.
_________
*Yes, a most unfortunate name. "Miss Everdene" sounds far too much like "Katniss Everdeen."

OTHER STUFF:

--I always thought it was "maddening."

--"It is difficult for a woman to express her feelings in a language designed chiefly by men." --Miss Everdeen (But WAS language "designed by men" or was it co-designed?)

--At a certain point, Miss Everdene appears to be genuinely confused about whom to marry. When she asks what to do about it, she is told: "Do the right thing." It becomes apparent who is the "right" one for her, her strong match, or as we say in screenwriting "a worthy opponent." "A strong man of God is not afraid of a strong woman of God." --Pastor Rick Warren

--According to the novel's Wikipedia entry, several plot points have been left out of the film, but it works quite well without them.

--In spite of the deceptions, there is also a very plain and sincere way that people speak to each other in "Madding."

--A few strange camera moments.

--Another curiosity which seems to have been a custom of the day is that the proposal of marriage could be very abrupt, before the man and woman really knew each other, and it seems a response had to be immediate (a deferred answer seems to be unusual).

--Thank you, thank you, thank you to whomever got this film made. Period pieces show us that there are different ways to be human besides life according to YouTubers.

--I would say the moral here for women is: don't play with a good man's heart. I've known women who played this risky game and lost the love of their lives.

--The "meet cute" with the soldier was a bit unbelievable, but not her reasons for being attracted to him.

--Even the dog has a stage name. "Old George" was played by "Sparky."


April 24, 2015

MOVIES: "EX MACHINA"


If you saw the trailer for "Ex Machina," you were probably looking forward to this film. You will not be disappointed. Alex Garland's masterpiece is a 5-star film and a new science fiction classic, with all the bells and whistles of today's filmmaking, while managing to be a pared-down, personal human drama.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE 3.0

In brief, this is a story about Artificial Intelligence. A megalomaniac computer scientist (Nathan) has created a top-secret female robot (Ava) and invited a computer coder (Caleb) to apply the Turing Test to her (essentially how "human" she is) in his remote hideaway and research lab. This film consists of basically three actors: the incomparable Oscar Isaac as the scientist, Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan's son) as the computer guy, and Alicia Vikander as the life-like robot. That's it. Are there Academy Awards for casting directors? The international flavor of those behind the film (England, Guatemala/Cuba, Ireland and Sweden) make for a not-quite-Hollywood film (and in this case, that's a good thing).

"Ex Machina," like 2014's "Calvary" (incidentally starring Brendan Gleeson), has an exceedingly short first Act and then boom. We're in the riveting and intriguing new world of Act Two. In "Ex Machina," the new world is not complex--it's actually rather simple--but full of tension, danger, suspicion, foreboding and unanswered questions from the get-go. Minimal electronic music sets the tone for face-to-face encounters between cast members (hardly ever more than two at a time). Who is honest? Who is not? Which motivations are real? The camera cuts back and forth frequently from the contrast of majestic mountains, greenery and waterfalls of Norway (where the film is shot) to the indoor ultra-modern, sleek lab/living quarters.

REAL MEN, FAKE WOMEN

Right away we see that Nathan is arrogant and rocking a god complex. Caleb (a bright-eyed innocent) is living on Nathan's turf, on Nathan's terms in his high-security lockdown world with rigidly casual rules, and that's scary enough. Ava (another bright-eyed innocent) can be said to have passed the Turing Test on Caleb's romantic feelings for her alone. It feels like something is subtly being said about men almost preferring the perfection, the fascination of a computer, a thing, to a real woman. Stepford Wives, anyone? The feminists will have a field day with this film, which seems to be partially on the side of oppressed women--human or not--and partially reinforcing inevitable male chauvinism and domination (even if just by depicting it and by the copious full frontal female nudity). The nudity doesn't appear to be terribly salacious (but I'm a woman)--and seems more "plastic." However, Nathan and Caleb are men. They're not blind and we know that they're not strictly platonic types. And why did Nathan make a female robot, anyway? (Man creates woman.)

AN INTELLECTUAL FILM?

Nathan's handiwork is impressive and he knows it. He and Caleb hash out things like the true nature of A.I., ethics, human feelings vs. human calculations, and what the future of man vs. machine might hold. This is a sci-fi film of the moment, employing the latest technologies of the day (with which we're all familiar) as a jumping off point. Sex and gender are philosophically discussed in a somewhat Theology of the Body way. Some might call this an "intellectual film," even though the rigorous exchanges are brief. I would call it a "not dumb" film, also because it's totally entertaining. It's not mind-bending like "Inception." It's everyday stuff that we could apply to all our interactions with "digita" in some respects. (I just made up that word for all things digital.)

DARK AND DISTURBING

"Ex Machina" is dark and disturbing. It will wrap its whirring, purring, cable-y arms around you as you leave the cinema (must be seen in a cinema--this film cries for the cinematic experience!) and accompany you for a while. It's a film that begs for serious conversation and commentary.
Definitely not for kids/teens. The slow gore and skin peeling (you'll see) is altogether called for, but nevertheless, it's pretty creepy. (And the nudity is frequent.)

QUESTIONS ABOUT HUMANITY

The film raises great questions. Among them:
Is it A.I. that is really "human" or is it we who "humanize" our own creations?
Do we really want to transfer the "battle of the sexes" into android-land?
Can A.I. be programmed with a "moral compass"? Will that moral compass be necessarily relativistic? Can A.I. be capable of or "responsible" for good or evil? (Evidently "Ultron" is that evil A.I.)
(I believe we already have the answers to these questions. A great tool is John Paul II's "adequate anthropology," of course.)

When God "programs" humans, it is for the Infinite.
When (often God-denying) non-eternal humans program their own likenesses,
they program for the finite.

OTHER STUFF:

--Was all the one-sided (female) nudity really necessary? The film might be making a statement about the utter vulnerability of nakedness when a thing is treated like a woman, or a woman is treated like a thing. Or not. It might also just be gratuitous pawn in a godlike director's chess game. And, in our pornified culture, we do not see the naked human body rightly. There is even a fleeting--but important--reference to porn in "Ex Machina."

--If we are at all asking the question if androids are human or if humans can become cyborgs, the only question that needs to be answered is: What is a human being? (We already know what a machine/thing is.)

--Without the God-dimension and God's dimensions to our lives, human beings can be "framed" any way we want to frame humans or certain humans. The Nazis did their own framing. Pol Pot did his. Stalin did his. John Paul II did his. Who's right?

--"Ex Machina" is one of those films like a hockey game that starts off so good that you keep whispering to yourself: "Stay good! Stay good! Don't blow the end!" (It stays good.)

--When computers can write "The Onion," I'll believe they've passed the Turing Test.

--There are no purely clinical experiments. There are no experiments on anything without the deep insertion of human beings into the experiment, willing and unwilling, at every step and every level of the endeavor.

--There's a nod to "A Space Odyssey: 2001."

--Although making full use of the art and science of film (including eye-boggling FX), "Ex Machina" could conceivably be a play. It could totally work.

--As in the movie "A.I.," will we be able to keep straight who's human, who's not?

--The actor who plays Nathan, Oscar Isaacs, was that marvelous St. Joseph in "The Nativity Story." You've seen him in several films, but you won't recognize him because he is such a consummate changeling actor.

--That code you saw on the screen? It means something:
http://www.reddit.com/r/movies/comments/365f9b/secret_code_in_ex_machina/ It's the ISBN of the book Embodiment and the inner life: Cognition and Consciousness in the Space of Possible Minds


April 23, 2015

MOVIES: "LITTLE BOY"



"Little Boy" is a new film by Alejandro Monteverde (who brought us "Bella"). I'm a big fan of "Bella," and was looking forward to Monteverde's second major film. Most unfortunately, I must report that this is a misconceived film. If it were not, I would not be doing a big spoiler here, but because the turning point of the film is what is ill-conceived--and simply unacceptable--I must.

FATHER AND SON

"Little Boy" is set in California during World War II. "Little Boy" is the moniker for, well, a little boy whose growth seems to be stunted. His doctor (an uncharacteristically slimy Kevin James) doesn't know what's wrong with him. Little Boy is constantly teased and bullied because of his height, or, rather, lack of it. Little Boy lives with his Mom (a lackluster Emily Watson, unless she was supposed to be completely aloof towards all her family members), his teen brother and his Dad, who is his "only friend," and "partner." Little Boy's relationship with his father is precious. The two of them have daring, imaginative, make-believe adventures together, and their motto is: "Do you believe you can do it?!"

Imaginative adventures are a charming feature of this film. Whenever someone is describing something or relating a story, Little Boy puts himself in the story, and suddenly, we, too, are there. The set designs are consistently elaborate and vivid, with an air of hyperreality. It brought to mind "Big Fish." This alone sets the movie apart from a Hallmark film, even though the tone of "Little Boy" is of that heart-warming genre.

"BELIEVE"

The "believe!" theme is akin to Disney's favorite cri de coeur. But the question always is: "What the heck are we believing in here?" (In Dreamworks' "Kung Fu Panda," the answer is "nothingness," since the film is Buddhist in philosophy.) God is definitely a character in "Little Boy," but the "believe" isn't clearly a God thing at first. When Little Boy's father goes off to war, Little Boy's whole focus becomes finding a way to bring his father home.

Enter two wisdom figures: an elderly Japanese man, Mr. Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and the town priest, Fr. Oliver (Tom Wilkinson--who also played an excellent priest in "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"). The former (persecuted by the townspeople for being "the enemy") is a non-believer and the latter a believer, of course. These two are also friends who like to talk theology and play chess together. Of all the religious elements in the film, this odd couple's conversations ring truest. Hashimoto tells Fr. Oliver that God is his "imaginary friend in the sky" and challenges what getting Little Boy's hopes up (that his father will return) will do to his mind and self-confidence (let alone his faith in God).

"Little Boy" would have been a great film for kids (if not for what I am about to reveal which is simply the ruination of a movie that needed to be thought out differently) because of its Gospel-applying, character-building, youth-affirming exploits. The child actor who plays Little Boy (Jakob Salvati) represents a new generation of child actors (who--along with the generation ahead of his--have been unbelievably talented). Never a false note, never out of character in close-up after close-up.

A MAGICAL LIST

Fr. Oliver challenges Little Boy to become a "powerful" person (capable of bringing his father home) by accomplishing a magical list (the corporal works of mercy). Fr. Oliver serves as a mentor to Little Boy in tackling the list. The tasks are not simple nor simplistic. They involve befriending the prickly Mr. Hashimoto (easier said than done)! There is also an element of the truly "magical" (a magician comes to town and convinces Little Boy that he has magical powers). It's a rich story here and it works well. But there are problems with raising a little boy's hopes and spelling out too rigidly how faith and the will of God play out. Dealing with these subtle, highly personal spiritual matters is always difficult in film, but Fr. Oliver and Mr. Hashimoto do it well, and perhaps the point is that there are levels to belief. Little Boy desperately needs to just believe in himself.

THE FILM UNRAVELS

Now here's where all goes awry. SECOND SPOILER ALERT! Do you remember the nickname of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan? The townspeople show Little Boy the headlines. They believe he is responsible (because of a certain "miracle" Little Boy performed in their midst--a coincidence, no doubt). "Little Boy": the boy and the bomb save the day! Yay, bombs! It's total jubilation, and Little Boy is also convinced that he was responsible for the bomb. So, let's give the benefit of the doubt here. The war had been dragging on with tremendous loss of life (including soldiers from Little Boy's town). This bomb seemed to be drawing the war to a close. Little Boy believed that the dropping of the bomb would bring his father home. Did anyone really immediately understand what the atom bomb was and the havoc it wreaked? So far, so passable. But then Little Boy sees the news reel in the cinema and hears of a whole city wiped out. Then his mother tells him that the bomb may have been the worst thing for his father (now a P.O.W. in Japan). This is where the film falls apart entirely.

Can you imagine the guilt this little boy would feel? Why did the filmmakers put this unbearable burden on Little Boy? This is completely out of keeping with the lighter tone of the film. The story's fabric is ripped to shreds. The horror of the A-bomb is trivialized. How does the film deal with it? What reaction do we see from Little Boy? The film deals with it by not dealing with it. There is no reaction from Little Boy. The film just traipses on its merry way.

There is a dream sequence where Little Boy imagines that the bomb killed his father being held in Japan. (More guilt! But even that seems to slide off Little Boy.) Little Boy (who could be excused since he's just a kid) only wants his father home. That's all he cares about. But in the process, massive civilian casualties are a cause for celebration.

TOXIC PLOT DEVICES

It seems to me that someone built up this whole film around a major "plot device": the play on words of "Little Boy" and "Little Boy." But this was an exceedingly poor choice. Something else could have served in its stead to deliver a very similar film.

Truth be told, I was a little disappointed when I heard that Monteverde was doing a period piece. I was hoping he would be doing more gritty, contemporary films like "Bella," which are so needed today. I'm praying that his next film will be just that.





March 29, 2015

TV: "KILLING JESUS"



"Killing Jesus," the roughly two hour mini-series airing on NatGeo, has none other than Ridley Scott at the helm (fresh from his epic "Exodus"). Scott is the executive producer and his Scott Free Production company is behind this life of Christ. "Killing Jesus" is based on the book of the same name by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, with emphasis on the Passion and Death (the last thirty minutes of the story).

"KILLING JESUS" VS. OTHER BIBLE FILMS

How does "Killing Jesus" compare to all the other Bible films and Jesus films? In some ways it is very similar: the set productions, costumes, oratorical style of speech and Middle Eastern soundtrack we have become so accustomed to. In other ways it is different. It follows the recent trend of more realistic ethnic casts with thick accents (instead of all white American or British actors). Jesus Himself is the most "ethnic" of all: a very dark and swarthy Haaz Sleiman from Lebanon who speaks and preaches with great emotion. Jesus' hair is a bit distracting. It falls and swings forward like a pageboy just above his shoulders , and many of the other characters' hair looks extremely wiry and brittle like horsehair--almost as if everyone was given wigs/extensions treated with the same chemicals and dyes. Only the women have natural looking hair.

Attempts are made at being more faithful to the little traditions of first century Judaism (e.g., the cry of jubilation that sounds very similar to the African ululation). The drama strives to be slightly more "naturalistic," and not stilted, formalistic or bombastic à la de Mille's "Ten Commandments."
The film is exceedingly "dark," not just in its being slightly more violently graphic than your average Bible film, but also because of the visually "dark digital" age we live in. Many of the scenes are indoors with only candles and torches illuminating the action. Annoyingly hard to see. Even the outdoor scenes have a decidedly sepia wash to them.

"CREATIVE FIDELITY"

In general, what is the "creative fidelity" to Scripture--since this is not a literal, page by page following of any one Gospel, or even a harmony of the Gospels, and since films should take some poetic license? It appears to be faithful, even with the displacement and unique juxtapositions of the words of Jesus, as well as extra-biblical, invented dialogue. The characters around Jesus (e.g., Herod, Pilate) have rich imaginative conversations and reasonings placed on their lips. We are made to grasp the varying worldviews and religions of paganism, the sects of Judaism, and Jesus' mandates and way of life, not just the historical, political and power intrigues. Excellent performances are given by Herod Antipas, Pilate, their wives, and Caiphas.

There are several outright (often non-crucial, seemingly arbitrary) Biblical inaccuracies, but my greatest complaint is that Mary and Joseph do not seem to understand there is anything special about their child at his birth, and Mary persists in this incomprehension as she accompanies Jesus in his adult life. Mary is a warm, lovely presence (always seated next to Jesus), but she appears rather clueless about his true identity. Jesus himself seemed a bit clueless at the beginning of his adult life as well, until his baptism by John in the Jordan, where he then firmly and clearly knows and feels his mission and closeness to God the Father, and begins performing miracles, preaching and healing with confidence. Awareness of his divinity seems solid from this point onward. In fact, the entire film gets better and better in every way as it goes along, including dialogue and scene construction.

Although it is doubtful no film will ever outdo the Passion as depicted in "The Passion of the Christ," there is a unique emphasis on Jesus giving "proof of his gentleness" and living out his teachings to the end, as he witnesses to one mocker in particular during the rather rushed Via Crucis and Crucifixion.

STRENGTHS OF THE FILM

I believe that the strength of this film is in Jesus being a man of prayer, a man of God, a man who defers everything to God his Father. (He even looks up a lot.) His preaching is also well done for the most part and is presented as something new, focusing on God as love, God asking us to do the hard things like loving our enemy, and why this is not weakness but strength. The sense of conversion is well conveyed: Mary of Magdala, Matthew the tax collector, even those who wanted to stone the adulteress.

Another strength of the film is Jesus' warmth even when questioning others' mistaken convictions (including his own apostles')--which, we have to admit, are often our convictions, too.

"Killing Jesus" avoids portraying Jesus as the "surfer-hippie Jesus," or the wide-eyed radical who's bucking the system for the sake of bucking the system. But am I "attracted" to this Jesus (if I didn't already know about him)? Would this film alone draw me to Jesus? Is He appealing? Not really. He seems like a dangerous man to be around, provoking everyone with his fearless going against the grain, although his way of life is beautiful and transformative. Perhaps he makes sense, and his wholistic religious program (which is automatically a social program) about touching lepers and associating with sinners and prophecies that must be fulfilled and a kingdom to come are somehow not convincing enough in this film that I would leave all and follow Him. Something is lacking to make me go all in. Something doesn't resonate.

The ending is rather abrupt and we do not see the resurrected Jesus, only intimations of his presence followed by an epilogue of the various deaths of the Apostles. Every "Jesus" film has its own charms and illustrative points of view. "Killing Jesus" will take its rightful place alongside them.

OTHER STUFF:

--Funny line: "I am menaced by a family of lunatics." --Herod Antipas, when he finds out Jesus is John the Baptist's cousin

--Epic line: "The Child will give us a sign." --one of the Magi

--"What I am doing is not contrary to the Word of God." --Jesus when his own followers think he's rocking the boat

--No long speeches.

--I wonder if these filmmakers or even we think it's OK for Jesus' followers to speak out against "politics" and corruption and governments today? Sometimes it seems our attitude is that it was only OK for Jesus to do so.

March 16, 2015

February 23, 2015

MOVIES: "BIRDMAN"




"Birdman," Oscar winner for Best Picture, is a trippy play within a play, an ode to actors, acting and everything dramatic. Michael Keaton plays an actor past his prime who nailed the lucrative super-hero(?) "Birdman" franchise in his younger years. (The "Birdman"--ostensibly a man in a crow costume--continues to haunt and taunt his thoughts, even to the point of delusions of grandeur and hallucinations.) He is now trying to direct a Raymond Carver play and it's going very bumpily. Failure is always just around the corner. There are so many inside actor's jokes that we feel honored that we audience peons are assumed to be catching them.

At first, we're not sure what's the film, what's the play within the film, when the actors are acting and when they are talking about acting. It's great fun if you go with it. Actors are portrayed as incredibly fickle creatures who will do anything to get the part, to be seen. I was taught at UCLA that as writers we must "protect our star," that is, make sure they are seen, that they are in every scene, that they shine. In case we writers were not also thespian-types (I am not), we were told: "Acting is all about one thing: Look at me, look at me, look at me." Many want to be seen, but few can or want to act.

Actually, "Birdman" is more like a play than a film. There are several speeches crafted to be pivotal to the story, and feel like they were even crafted to be that "Oscar moment." The acting is quite energetic all around, and its vulgar moments are only humanly vulgar, not perverse. The music is a minimalistic, morose, mechanical grating underneath everything, and it totally works. The palate is dull, industrial colors as well. This is actually a "small" film that barely changes location from a single theater and its immediate environs. The camera itself wanders around after the actors like one of the cast.

Director Alejandro Innaritu (who also won an Oscar for Best Director for "Birdman") revealed that "Birdman" is all about "ego" in his acceptance speech. But without ego, what actor would ever attempt acting? This film is FOR actors (and writers) and those who love them. I'm OK with "Birdman" winning Best Picture (although a film like "Boyhood" would have been a worthy win also--except for its unravelled ending). Hollywood deserves a self-indulgent, self-referential film once in a while. The beauty of "Birdman" is that it's Hollywood NOT taking itself seriously. At all. If we love films, we need to at least care about the process, the inner guts and the human beings who bring us the show.

"All the world's a stage." When Ed Norton's character (one of the actors who's drinking too much as usual) breaks the fourth wall and starts ranting at the audience, they cheer, because we go to stories in order to feel something, something real. Ed Norton's character states that he can only be truthful on stage.

The Birdman's dialogues with Keaton were truly annoying and on the nose. Too bad they weren't more subtle. Even Emma Stone's speech to Keaton and Keaton's speech to his theater critic nemesis felt like something a non-writer could have written. Nothing artful there. Nothing "slant" (Emily Dickinson).

The supposedly unclear ending (it was clear to me) was going to be something totally different. Something awful. Something that Innaritu was even embarrassed about. Thank God it didn't go that way.

OTHER STUFF:

--The Raymond Carver play is: "What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love"--a revolutionary short story that is said to have changed the world of writing.

--Who knew actors were so full of self-doubt? (I'm serious.)

--"Birdman" just confirms why I would never want to be an actor: stress, tension, living on the edge, turmoil, DRAMA, stage fright, intoxicating substances, risking it all, humiliation, etc.

--Actors can just...ACT at the drop of a hat. (My actors friends do this as did Michael Keaton's character--even fooling a fellow actor.) IT'S WHAT THEY DO.

Very quotable film:
--"You confuse love with admiration."
--"Why don't I have any self-respect?" "Because you're an actress, honey."


MOVIES: "IDA"




"Ida"--winner of Oscar for Best Foreign Picture--is shot in black and white to reflect 1960's Poland in which the film is set. The first thing you notice about the film is that it not only looks like a black and white still come to life, the movement and action and actors themselves are very "still." When director Pawlikowski accepted the Academy Award he acknowledged this fact about the film by saying: "My film is very contemplative and silent and here we are in Hollywood, the center of noise and being seen!" The cinematographer is also a photographer specializing in black and white.

"Ida" is a novice in a Roman Catholic convent. She was an orphan, raised at the same convent. Her only living relative is her aunt who has sent for her before she makes her vows. Ida doesn't want to go visit her, but the Mother Superior tells her she must. Ida discovers that she is Jewish, and the story evolves from there, and, as you can imagine, becomes a Holocaust film. (It would be well to see this film in conjunction with "The Jewish Cardinal," which deals at length with the controversy of a Carmelite convent opening at Auschwitz in the 1980's.)

For those who are unaware, Poland was/is one of the very anti-Semitic Catholic/Christian countries of Eastern Europe. Many Poles willingly cooperated with the extermination of their Jewish neighbors. Although the work of the Nazis, many of the concentration camps where the Jewry of Europe met their deaths were located in Poland. The film "Ida" points to all of this with bald contrasts, no doubt to stir accountability. Non-Jewish Poles were also disproportionately decimated by both the Nazis and Communists--there seemed to be some kind of particular hatred of Poland, "doormat of Europe," by these evil regimes.

Despite Poland's proverbial anti-Semitism, many non-Jewish Poles were heroic in saving their Jewish neighbors, to the point where Poland outpaces other countries in "Righteous Among the Nations." http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cosmostheinlost/2015/02/23/1-thing-nobody-noticed-about-oscar-best-foreign-film-winner-ida/ Poles were also the first to report on the existence of concentration camps to the West (which fell on deaf ears).

The dialogue is sparse but not stingy. Ida is the most reticent of all. Is she happy? Is she sad? Does she really want to make her vows? If so, why or why not? Who is she, even? What does this austere convent life mean to her? But we DO know, without a full psychological profile. Just listen to her talking to the Sacred Heart.

Ida's final decision is not so much unexpected as an exposition of the very real reason many of us are/are not in religious life. If I am reading the film right, only someone from the Catholic country of Poland could have made this film.

OTHER STUFF:



February 13, 2015

MOVIES: "OLD FASHIONED" (THE ANTI-50 SHADES MOVIE)





On Valentine's Day, two polar-opposite movies were released: The first installment of the "50 Shades of Grey" juggernaut (my review of "50 Shades"), and a homey little film entitled "Old Fashioned," specifically targeted at correcting the twisted logic and lies of "50 Shades." "50 Shades" says "abuse is love" (abuse of women, that is). "Old Fashioned" says "true love is possible, and it doesn't look or feel like abuse."

True love, real love, is only "old fashioned" because--for sad and hairbrained reasons--very few people seem to know what it is and how to do it anymore! Rather than delve into the recent historical roots of what some are calling our "post-romance" hook-up era, let's just take a look at this sweet new film.

"Old Fashioned" starts off like a Hallmark film, plodding and saccharine. It also starts off like a "Christian" film (which always seem to have a southern/heartland feel to them), as though the only place one can truly be a Christian is, well, in the South or the heartland. Clay, a thirtysomething with meticulously messed hair and a cute corner-of-his -mouth smile is a reticent, conservative carpenter, while thirtysomething Amber is a bubbly, free-spirited drifter. Amber buzzes into town and winds up renting a room from Clay above his carpenter shop. Chemistry? Yes. But.

Clay has a problem. He's a young curmudgeon. Amber has a problem. She's a rolling stone. Little by little we learn about their checkered pasts, especially Clay's, which comes as quite a shocker. He's criticized for his extreme "theories" about love, but then we find out that he knows of what he speaks. Both Clay and Amber are hurting, but the paths of healing they've chosen aren't really paths of growth but stagnation. OK, there. I've said enough.

The second half of the film (just like "October Baby," "The Song") gets way more real. The action comes to a boiling point. Whatever masks and cloaks and shams the characters are wearing come off because there's just too much at stake.

If we believe true love is impossible because of bad experiences and doing things the wrong way, then we are saying that we are helpless victims who do not have the power to create true love. Because we live in a literal, non-transcendent age, we only believe and trust our own experiences. By "doing things wrong," then, we become our own worst witnesses. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. We don't believe in true love because we have "proved" the opposite to ourselves, often by our own bad choices. We absolutize our own experiences as if they are the only way. And if we have played games and turned love into a game? Ah. We have poisoned love before it can begin. But there's always a way out. We can always change it up. Begin again. Because it's our choice. We have the power. The world doesn't agree? Well, what has "the world" ever done for you? When has the world ever been right? Isn't it the world that led you to where you are now? The world may not agree with your new path, but it's just jealous. The universe agrees. God agrees. Free your mind. Break the chains. True love exists when you create it with "the one" who will create it with you.

Since people are waiting longer and longer to get married these days, and often have immense relationship baggage by the time they say "I do," films like "Old Fashioned" are needed (although this film is applicable to young love also). We are going to need a whole lotta love and MERCY and healing in the future because of the deep family woundedness and brokenness that's been imposed on us and that we have imposed on ourselves by following slick and easy, sick and limping substitutes for love.

A love story either works or it doesn't. "Old Fashioned" works.

OTHER STUFF:

--VERY quotable film.

"It's not about looking like the right person, it's about becoming the right person."

"We don't have to go around using and hurting each other, that's all."

"The world has enough greatness and not enough goodness."

"Play time is over. Be a man."

--I meet good guys all the time. But you know what? They're kind of quiet about their goodness AND what they know is right. And that's a shame. "Let your light so shine before men that they might see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." Matthew 5:16

--"Old Fashioned" clearly shows that men need to "initiate the gift," lead, or it ain't gonna work.

--Rik Swartzwelder (Clay) also wrote and directed this film. As one of my Hollywood friends says: "No one's that good." But actually: It's not BAD! I was shocked when I saw his name come up three times.

--At times the writing is a bit twee, on the nose, lots of awkward Scripture-quoting. Bad blocking. Music is used to illustrate exactly what we're seeing, but secular films do this, too. Sr. Helena feels that word-obnoxious songs should be used like musicals: to move the story forward. At the end of the song, we're not in the same place as at the beginning of the song.

--Heavy use of overprocessed Country and Christian music (but secular films go heavy on ballads, too).

--I loved Clay's jerk radio host friend who voices all the fallacies of the day: "Women hate boring men!" "There are no knights in shining armor!" The rest of the film also addresses other myriad contemporary lies and bromides.

--Wouldn't Clay have lost all his "cool" friends by now?

--The original trailer for "Old Fashioned" was hideous. A friend rightly said that it made Clay look "unbearable." He is rather unsufferable at first, but we need to know why, and we need to wait and see if he's going to do anything about it.

--Liked the black and white silent movie titles/frames interspersed.

--It's supposed to be Ohio, but there's significant drawling and pitchers of sweet tea, and calling women "Miss So-and-So." I have been to southern Ohio frequently, and it's not like that. I think maybe one of the reasons I like the movie "Bella" is because it was set in New York City. True love in the big tough city. Rural, small-town, John Mellencamp setting not a requirement.

--Please don't think I'm anti-Southern in any way! I love the Kendrick Brothers (Georgia) and their films! And more power to the South for making these good films! But it's expected of the "Christ-haunted" South. Could not some of these films be disguised as Pacific Northwest films? East Coast films? Collaborated on with denizens of said coasts? Check out the edgy Christian film by edgy artist/songwriter/producer Steve Taylor: filmed in Oregon: Blue Like Jazz


February 12, 2015

MOVIES: "FIFTY SHADES OF GREY"


Me holding forth on the Drew Mariani Show: www.RelevantRadio.com (I start at 36:10)






#1--I will not read the book or see the film because it's porn. (This is the third film I am reviewing without seeing--normally a big no-no--because of the mainstreaming of porn. The other two are "Magic Mike" and "Don Jon" because I feel these films are important because of their particular take on these topics and their influence as films.) However, I have probably done more in-depth reading about and discussions with people who HAVE read the book or seen "50 Shades" than the average reader/viewer or even fan.

#2--I will not do spoilers in my review because I respect the sacred human trust of the confidentiality of "the story"--even when it comes to tripe.

I wish I could simply greet this movie with scornful laughter, but the film is just too sad and harmful for that. Many are making the point that most women like Ana wind up in women's shelters. Check out the super-creepy "The Fall" (a British TV series) which stars Jamie Dornan (who plays Christian Grey) as a SERIAL KILLER who is also into bondage and has a "type" of woman (brunette). "The Fall," at least, is more realistic about the profile of these obsessed, predatory abusers.

Now. Let's dig in.

Although "50 Shades of Grey" and its great popularity is a real tragedy, I'm GLAD that it is also being used as an opportunity to talk about sexual abuse, domestic abuse and THEOLOGY OF THE BODY (which heals and informs and leads to true fulfillment of desires)! God can bring good out of anything!

TRUE LOVE and TRUE SEX are actually very simple. But very challenging. But very worth it. There is no other way. So many novels and films today are about an endless search for love. But here it is.



























BUT if we look at what's really going on in the story, I think a lot of us are missing the point of the whole story. I missed it for quite a while, too, but I've changed my whole tack now because it's really quite simple.

"50 Shades" is not about love or relationships or even sex. It's not even about control. It's about power, and Christian and Ana getting what they want from each other, out of each other. They are USING each other.

"50 Shades" is about two people USING the most intimate of gifts and relationships and contact and connection to get what they want. There is no "we."

And actually, there's not even an "I." Once we treat others like things, we treat ourselves like things. We treat our bodies like things. We can even treat our babies and our children like things.

"We must move from a thing-based society to a person-based society."--Martin Luther King, Jr.

And as we know, the opposite of love is USE. By using someone (sexually or otherwise) as a means to an end, we are taking away their humanity and reducing them to a thing. As soon as we begin to USE someone, we are also USING ourselves and reducing ourselves to a thing. We rob ourselves of our own humanity and dignity at the same time.

John Paul II calls this: "the culture of death."
Benedict XVI calls this: "the dictatorship or moral relativism."
Francis calls this: "the throwaway culture."
(credit goes to @MattSwain for juxtaposing these descriptions)

But we should never use another person because we love persons and use things, not use persons and love things.

The human person is not a means to an end, but IS an end in himself/herself. The human person is the only creature created for himself/herself.

The only appropriate response to a human person is LOVE.

























Why has "50 Shades" struck a chord today? Why this record-breaking popularity?

1. Is it because our world is sex-starved? No.
2. Is it because there has never been BDSM erotic literature like this before? No.
3. Is it "the tipping point": enough "influencers" got behind this e-book (its original form) and spread it word-of-mouth? Perhaps.
4. Is there something, anything new and unique about this story? Not being an expert on erotica, I tenuously say: perhaps.
5. Many women aren't experiencing true love and true sex in their marriages (because, for starters, our world--women and men--doesn't know what true love/true sex is)? Bingo. (Women who don't feel a lack in their marriages don't seem to "need" to read/see "50 Shades.")
6. Different people are reading it for different reasons: a) those who read erotica regularly b) those who never read erotica but gave themselves permission since "50 Shades" is now mainstream c) curiosity, to be "in the know" d) feminists (of whatever ilk) doing a read of it--and either hailing it or demonizing it e) the proverbial bored housewives ("mommy porn"--what a sad phrase!) seeking to "spice up" their marriages f) many other reasons

What might be "new" about "50 Shades"?

What might be new is this phenomenally warped idea that as long as women CONSENT to participate in their own degradation, it's EMPOWERING. Sorry, honey. It doesn't work that way. Degradation is degradation, and we must always afford ourselves and others our human dignity even if we/they don't want it. But this idea is not totally new. Lena Dunham of "Girls" (HBO) and other feminists of the hour think, live and create their media this way also. AND just about every young woman who engages in drunken, anonymous sex every weekend on college campuses (to a lesser degree). The layers and entanglements of LIES here is staggering.

The lie about men: men want to abuse women, and it's good for men.

The lie about women: women want to be abused, and it's good for them.

And don't even get me started on "rape culture"--which I firmly believe we ARE living in. http://hellburns.blogspot.ca/2013/04/teen-rape-culture-is-blowing-up-now.html#.VN07KPnF-So

"My girlfriends and I are all in sexually degrading relationships with men. But we consider ourselves feminists." --Lena Dunham (who, I believe sees the inconsistency, but can't quite comprehend it, doesn't quite know what to do about it--because she doesn't know Theology of the Body!)

A deep, thoughtful article in "Entertainment Weekly" does a certain kind of feminist read on "50 Shades": http://www.ew.com/microsites/longform/fiftyshades/. But it ends in the same inconclusive, disillusioned, insular haze of today's non-Theology-of-the-Body culture. Leslie Bennetts, the author, bemoans that because women continue to be abused and sexually harassed (even in daily life, walking down the street, on the job), we are hopelessly conditioned and will never know what our true sexual desires are (and "transgressive" is good). What's wrong with this picture? Like an article on the present state of feminism that I read in "America" magazine not too long ago, it was just women. By themselves. Talking to themselves. About themselves. Writing men off as never being able to be a part of the solution. Not working things out together in the complementarity of the sexes.



WHY would women think abuse and pain is sexy or liberating?

Ah. The trillion dollar question. The first thing I'd like to say is: "WHERE ARE THE FEMINISTS OF THE 70'S?" They would have seen through this smokescreen so fast! The problem with feminism today is that it has morphed into: "Anybody should be able to do anything, even if its self-destructive, and we can't say anything to anybody about anything, we can only fight for your right to destroy yourself and others." So they can't say that Ana's hurting herself and they can't say that Christian is abusing women.

Take the 2014 Grammys. President Obama did a PSA against domestic abuse, and a survivor, Brooke Axtell, gave a moving, impassioned speech. And then...cut to an ad for "50 Shades of Grey"! Oh, the irony!

Now, the deeper question is why do women fall for this book/concept in the first place?

Christopher West says: one answer might be that it's like "cutting." Where people are in such deep emotional pain that they need to express that externally, in their bodies. They get relief by transferring the interior pain to the exterior (which also gets their attention ofF the spiritual pain that they're in).

Some of my close friends, one who engaged in cutting and another who actually lived the S/m lifestyle for many years say that they think it could be: if someone is abused (especially as children), they try to gain control of the abuse later by re-living the trauma with some degree of "control." My friends said that for some, it's a relief of the guilt and shame if they feel they are somehow punished.

Some psychologists have suggested that since women and men are supposed to be exactly the same today, and that much of the feminist movement has virtually turned women into men even when it comes to the sexual act, and women are trying to differentiate themselves in the sexual act by way-overcompensating in a kind of sick, twisted "surrender."

Some Christians have said that since women ignore the Bible where it says: "Wives be submissive to your husbands," women are feeling this need to submit somehow. But I disagree with this because if you look at the WHOLE passage of Ephesians 5 (what comes before and after this passage), it is all about MUTUAL submission (and actually, the man's role is to DIE! To lay down HIS life for his bride, not lay HER life down for himself!).

Pope John Paul II is ADAMANT about this MUTUALITY in his Theology of the Body and ADAMANT about men being attentive to women's sexual desires in marriage, not just their own. Yeah. No wonder he called himself "the feminist pope"! NOW. Is this how Christian is treating Ana? Laying down his life for her? No! Just the opposite. Oh, and guess what? He's not her husband! We've gotten so used to all kinds of sexual sin and sex outside marriage that we're not even looking at the fornication going on here--which, of course, is eclipsed by the sexual abuse.


Instructions for Christian Households -- Ephesians 5
(ALL CAPS emphasis mine. Duties of wives, for once, removed. :)  )

"21 Submit to ONE ANOTHER out of reverence for Christ.25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and GAVE HIMSELF UP FOR HER 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[c] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must LOVE HIS WIFE AS HE LOVES HIMSELF."

We have all the stats on how sexual abuse works (even if it's a "consenting" adult). The victims are conditioned, they have low self-esteem, they are very, very confused about what love is, what dignity is, many of them were abused as children and then they either become abusers or abused or both as adults. Why are we pretending that we don't have this information?

What about the argument that if it's consensual it's OK?

First of all: are you married? No? BUZZER SOUND. Then, no. Sex outside marriage is never OK. Why not? Because the language of the body, the language of sex is: FUNDAMENTAL, FREE, FULL, FAITHFUL AND FRUITFUL. Sex says: "You alone forever." Sex is a total gift of self, body and soul. Every time we have sex with someone, our bodies are saying: I just married you, I just married you.... And now we know that the body releases powerful bonding chemicals during sex that are meant to bind us to our spouse forever: physically, emotionally, psychologically, emotionally, etc. OR as Cameron Diaz said in "Vanilla Sky": "When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not."

Now, what if we are married? Does that mean we can do whatever we want sexually or otherwise with and to each other as long as it's consensual? No. True love and human dignity still applies, and in marriage there can easily be coercion (usually of the woman)--OR the woman might agree to something she doesn't really want just to "please her husband" without him even knowing that she doesn't really want to do something. Or maybe he does know and doesn't care. Or he refuses to communicate about it. And if PLEASURE becomes the highest good and goal in the marital embrace, then lust and addictions can take over where there's supposed to be a loving, mutually-deferring relationship. PLEASURE is awesome and good and holy and God-invented, but it's only one of the aspects of the marital embrace which have to be kept together in a big, messy jumble. Start extracting and focusing on JUST maximum pleasure? The holistic unity/integrity of sex falls apart.

I cannot tell you how many Catholic wives I have met (while presenting Theology of the Body) who are doing all kinds of things they don't want to do in the bedroom because "he" wants it, and they feel obliged or want to please him or keep him or they think they aren't allowed to say no and they've tried talking to him about it but he doesn't want to talk about it. How SAD is this? I hope "50 Shades" won't ingrain this false "duty" into these women, but actually be an occasion for them to get healing in their marriage as they hear many women coming forward about their various experiences and degrees of abuse.



This gentleman says "anything goes in marriage" according to the Catholic Church, as long as its open to life, culminates in a certain way, and is consensual: (commenter "paulpriest") http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2015/02/12/is-a-pink-bus-really-more-offensive-than-50-shades-of-grey/#.VNzK8VLsYxk.twitter


True love always wants and does what's good for the other.

Want the big principles and nitty-gritty details about what's "OK" sexually in a marriage? "Good News About Sex and Marriage" by Christopher West.

Do some women actually enjoy BDSM (in marriage)?

Probably. And so, Ana might be that kind of woman. We might not be able to say that Christian "corrupted" her because she may have really, truly wanted him to do whatever he did to her. But of course, again, they weren't married.... Soooo...how is it that Anastasia is NOT a courtesan?

What can people DO about this phenomenon?

1. Don't read the books or see the film because you're curious or think you have to be part of the conversation. This is not just because you don't want to give your financial support, but because of this: Tell me how you're going to read/watch without sinning? Willing your own sexual arousal through words, images, etc., unrelated to the marital act with your spouse, is sinful. Yes, Sister said "sin." :)

2. Learn, live and love Theology of the Body. Theology of the Body is the ultimate life hack. It's about what you CAN have, not what you can't. Be a living, JOYFUL witness to true love and true sex whether you're single, married or priest/religious. Introductions to Theology of the Body: www.tinyurl.com/TOBresources

3. Talk to your friends about it, calmly. Use soundbites. Send them to websites.

4. Teach your kids and teens Theology of the Body in age-appropriate ways. Our ignorance, embarrassment and silence is killing them. God, the Church and their parents have nothing to say about the most important area of our lives? Where we give and receive love and life? While they're swimming in a sex-saturated, sex-addicted culture? Really? Give them a context! Kids who learn Theology of the Body FIRST know when something is off in the way the human body is portrayed, treated. You're giving them God's beautiful, glorious, positive vision of beauty, sex, love and relationships--goals and something noble to strive for. www.FamilyHonor.org   www.LittleDouglings.com

5. Watch "Old Fashioned"--also opening Valentine's Day, 2015! (My review here)

A good film (starts off all Hallmark: just get through it). It goes through all the fallacies and slogans of the day that mess people up with regard to love, sex, relationships.
"Old Fashioned" tagline is: "Chivalry makes a comeback," but it's more about two wounded souls who need to trust that true love is possible. He's a young curmudgeon (but you have to see why)! She's a rolling stone, afraid of getting burned again....




HELPFUL LINKS:

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: http://50shadesisabuse.weebly.com/
A NUN REVIEWS "MAGIC MIKE" AND "50 SHADES" TRILOGY: http://hellburns.blogspot.ca/2012/07/movies-magic-mike.html#.VN093PnF-So
A NUN REVIEWS "DON JON": http://hellburns.blogspot.ca/2013/10/movies-don-jon.html#.VN0-c_nF-So
SOME REAL ROMANTIC FILMS FOR VALENTINE'S DAY: http://lifeteen.com/show-me-real-love-romantic-movies-worth-watching/
WHAT WOMEN REALLY WANT (AUDIO): http://hellburns.blogspot.ca/2013/01/what-do-women-want.html#.VN0-qfnF-So


HOW 50 SHADES WILL ENTER THE POPULAR MENTALITY: