Fargo

 

(I have been getting several emails about FARGO (1996) because it was just on TV … I wrote this short essay for the City of Angels Film Festival in 2001 and I thought I would post it here. It’s on the AFI top 100 films list.)

_____________________________________________

That was Mrs. Lundergaard on the floor in there

and I guess your accomplice in the wood chipper….

And three people dead in Brainerd.

And for what?

For a little bit of money.                                                                       

There’s more to life than a little money, you know.                                

Don’t you know that?

And here you are and it’s a beautiful day.

Well, I just don’t understand it. 

                                    – Sheriff Marge Gunderson

 

_____________________________________________

 

One day, the medieval “noble” poet Dante, guided by Virgil, the muse of human reason, set off on an allegorical journey to recognize sin, to renounce it and to reach the light of God by visiting hell, purgatory, and heaven. When they finally arrived at the pit of hell, Dante described it as a huge frozen lake, a bitterly cold, ice-covered place, guarded by giants.

 

So, too, do the Coen Brothers in their 1996 ironic icy road study of greed, lies, and murder. The evil deeds of FARGO parallel the sins of Dante’s Inferno with visceral accuracy.

 

The hellish Northern hemisphere of Dante’s spiritual world matches the snowscape between the Twin Cities and Fargo. In between lies Brainerd, home to Paul Bunyon, the mythic giant who stands guard over the grotesque spiral of blood sins perpetrated by Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and his team of hired thugs, Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare.) Babe the Blue Ox, the beast, watches as back and again we drive across the dark, frozen tundra of highways, parking garages, car lots, fallow fields, bedrooms, dining rooms and hearts, trying to make sense out of a very, very bad situation.

 

“And for what? For a little bit of money.”

 

If we travel with Dante or Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances MacDormand) along the frozen brink of hell as the snowball of evil grows and gains the momentum of its consequences, we discover the reality of what goes on beneath the cover of snow and ice. Jerry’s attempt to commit a crime under the guise of normalcy and virtue is fraudulent and malicious. Worse yet, it is so utterly stupid.

 

According to Dante and the Coen Brothers, there are matching circles and ditches in hell for all likes of evildoers, especially dumb ones.

 

It’s too bad nobody told Jerry.

 
 

Best and Worst Films of 2006

Best and Worst Films of 2006 (of the 98 I saw…)

 

As usual, a flurry of promising films is being released before the end of the year so they can be considered for the Golden Globes Awards (January 15, 2007, NBC) and the Academy Awards (February 25, 2007): Miss Potter, The Good German, Dreamgirls, Children of Men, Perfume, Notes on a Scandal, the Painted Veil, Letters from Iwo Jima, etc. Volver, with Penelope Cruz, is getting a lot of buzz, but it’s not in wide release. Alas, I have not had the opportunity to see these films yet so I cannot include them on by best and worst film list of 2006. (I will add to this list as I see the films).

 

My basic criteria for judging films (as stated in my column in St. Anthony Messenger, 2006) are:

 

• The degree to which the filmmaker tells the story through the creative use of image and sound;

• How well the main character grows as a person and member of the human family;

• The promotion of the gospel values of human dignity, family and community, justice, peace and fair representation of cultures, races, genders, ages, religious faiths and spiritualities;

• The ability to entertain

 

Over 750 films were released commercially in 2006; I saw 98. (According to http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/index2006.php, 770 films will have been released by December 31.)

 

My Best Films List for 2007

(All of these deserve award consideration)

 

Babel (Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress Rinko Kikuchi)

 

Blood Diamond (Best Screenplay; Best Actor Leonardo di Caprio; Djimon Hounsou for Best Supporting Actor)

 

Catch a Fire (Best Actor Derek Luke)

 

The Departed (Best Director!! Martin Scorsese; Best Actor Leonardo di Caprio)

 

Dreamgirls (Saw it yesterday; it’s moving, musical, and magic. Jennifer Hudson is remarkable; Eddie Murphy – who knew?)

 

The Good Shepherd (Best Film; Matt Damon for Best Actor)

 

An Inconvenient Truth (Best Documentary)

 

The Last King of Scotland (Forest Whittaker, Best Actor, and James McAvoy for Best Supporting Actor)

 

Little Miss Sunshine (Best Independent Film!)

 

Miss Potter *** (Best Cinematography, Screenplay, Actress)

 

The Nativity Story (Mike Rich for Best Screenplay  and Oscar Isaac as Best Actor)

 

Notes on a Scandal -The UK provides a triple threat this year with this film, the Queen, and Miss Potter. All films about women and all excel

 

The Queen (Helen Mirren for Best Actress and Stephen Frears for Direction)

 

Stranger than Fiction (Best Screenplay and Maggie Gyllenhaal for Best Supporting Actress)

 

Water (Best Foreign Film)

 

Honorable Mention

 

Yes, there are a lot of films on this list… and I am glad I got to see each one; the ones tagged with an ** deserve award consideration, whether Golden Globe, People’s Choice, a Gabriel, or an Oscar). I reviewed most of these films in St. Anthony Messenger (www.AmericanCatholic.org) this year, but was not able to keep up with my blog for a few months….

 

Akeelah and the Bee **

 

The Ant Bully**

 

The Beauty Academy of Kabul

 

Cars **

 

Catch a Fire **

 

Cautiva

 

Charlotte’s Web

 

Conversations with God – I want to comment on this film because of it goes to the heart of spirituality: one’s image of God. It’s non-denominational and tells the story of a man who made a journey from despair, hopelessness, and homelessness to a new life by struggling with his negative image of God. As he came to know God better and gained faith, he began to pray and to see life and eternity in a new light. It’s low budget and does drag on a bit, but it’s worth the watch.

 

Deliver Us from Evil **

 

The Devil’s Miner (very limited theatrical release and then on PBS)

 

The Devil Wears Prada ** (Media literacy people take note! this is a great lesson in the image industry)

 

End of the Spear/Beyond the Gates of Splendor

 

Flags of Our Fathers **

 

Glory Road

 

Guadalupe

 

Hollywoodland

 

The Illusionist **(an Oscar for Paul Giamatti, please. He excelled in “Lady in the Water”, too… He’s brilliant)

 

Invincible

 

Pursuit of Happiness **

 

The Road to Guantanamo **

 

Rocky Balboa

 

The Saint of 9/11 **

 

Superman Returns

 

Take the Lead

 

Thank You for Smoking **

 

Wordplay ** (Maybe not the best film of 2006, but so enjoyable for the pleasure of words and its … innocence.)

 

World Trade Center

 

 

 

The Worst Films of 2007

 

The Architect – A film with so much potential and then … it just fizzled.

 

Barnyard – for its faulty zoology, lack of humor and … laziness (e.g. the same old story about an orphan male yada yada yada that needs a witch to create …what?  and so the we get the compulsory negative portrayal of the human female character, the farmer’s wife).

 

Borat: CulturalLearnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – Mostly the yuck factor and so much more

 

The Celestine Prophecy – A weird Catholic-flavored New Age thingy

 

The Da Vinci Code – Even considering its terrible theology, it was a film without a hero and the false New Age-y ending – not in the book but consistent, I guess, with the gnostic ethos of the film – was so … odd.

 

Freedomland – For passionate performances in a story without a plot

 

One Night with a King – For its troubling ideological subtext  (e.g. juxtaposition of the swastika and Star of David and speeches about democracy during the reign of King Xerxes – 485-465 BC – of Persia, i.e. current Iran)

 

Scoop – Disappointing lack of character development

 

You, Me, and Dupree – Such scuzz

The Good Shepherd Movie

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is recruited for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services; precursor to the CIA) while at Yale University. He had witnessed his father’s suicide, a U.S. senator, as a child and kept hidden the suicide note, without reading it, for years. He seems born to secrecy. As a student he was tapped for membership in the secret Skull and Bones Society at Yale (George H.W. Bush and John Kerry are said to be members), a group to which generations of family members belong(ed.)

 

Although in love with a deaf girl, Laura (Tammy Lanchard), he has a trist with Clover Russell (Angelina Jolie), the sister of a fellow Bonesman. She becomes pregnant and they marry just as World War II breaks out and Edward is asked to go to England. He stays away for several years and returns home when his son (Eddie Redmayne) is six years old. By this time, President Truman, sensing the Red threat, has asked General Bill Sullivan (based on the actual character, “Wild Bill” Donovan) to begin the CIA; one of his first recruits is Edward Wilson.

 

 

For as much as Jeffrey Lyons, the movie critic for the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, hates this movie, I was fascinated by it. For the first time in months I did not look at my watch during a (2:40 minute) movie. And I thought 2006 was a bad year for movies.

 

Matt Damon’s character seems to hardly change from beginning to end. For those of us trained by James Bond movies, Edward Wilson’s white-bread American life as a spy seems humdrum. But under his eye lids flicker his emotions, his thought processes, and his decisions.

 

Angelina Jolie is nothing less than brilliant in her role as the New England socialite who seems to want to love Edward, but is ultimately crushed when he shouts, in an unusual show of feeling, that the only reason he married her was because she was pregnant. She deserves awards consideration, as do Damon and Di Nero. In this role Jolie shows has the acting chops to be right up there with actresses like my mother’s favorite actress, Bette Davis. Billy Crudup is excellent as the Kim Philby-like character (one of the British Cambridge Five double agents) as are William Hurt as head of the CIA and John Turturro as Edward’s right hand man during WWII and after.

 

 

Robert Di Nero, who directs and plays Bill Sullivan, is really good on both counts. The film was probably shot in as non-linear a way as the narrative plays out, beginning with the U.S. failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 and ending when the reason for the failure, and ultimately Wilson’s failure as a husband, father, human being – but not as an American – is revealed. Eric Roth, who also wrote Forrest Gump and Munich, has created a compelling screenplay that once again visits the topic of patriotism  – this time as religion and family.

 

There are several meaningful quotes in the film (other than the ones now listed at www.imdb.org); here they are as I recall them (feel free to correct them):

 

At the annual meeting of the Skull and Bones Society, Margaret (who used to be called Clover) says when the minister is introduced to lead the prayer: Bonesman first, God second.

 

Cannot recall who said this: Did you ever notice why “the” never precedes CIA? Does “the” precede God?

 

When Wilson visits mobster Joseph Palmi (Joe Pesci) about the Bay of Pigs invasion and threatens deportation unless Palmi helps the CIA, Palmi asks him: We have Italy and family, the Irish have their homeland, but you, what do you have? Wilson answers: We have America; the rest of you are just along for the ride.

 

The Good Shepherd is the best spy movie I have ever seen, and one of the best films of the year. Thoughtful viewers will find want to know more, and think again about what makes us members of the human family, the ethics of espionage.

 

Espionage (and consequences) has been around for a long time. Do the ends justify the means? is a question The Good Shepherd asks without ever voicing it. Is the United States of America more important than family? Margaret Wilson doesn’t think so.  Can the CIA make mistakes and use torture? The film says so. Does a spy have a heart? Can he? You decide.

 

Why is this film called The Good Shepherd? After all, Wilson’s code name with his Soviet counterparts was “Mother”. Without knowing the official reason, I think it’s because of Wilson’s God-complex, his conviction of American superiority, leads him to be willing to sacrifice the happiness of his only son, and to lay down his own life or his country should it be necessary. He knew his sheep, they knew parts of him, and he was willing todie more for his sheep, at least the Skull and Bones kind and what they represent(ed).

 

Much food for thought….

 

 

… check out the Bible: Joshua, 1-6 and here’s Numbers 13-14:

 

 God told Moses to send men to spy out the land of Canaan. He told him to send a man from each tribe. Twelve men were sent. They were to find out about the land and the people in the land. Moses said to find out if the people were strong or weak. Did they live in cities or in camps? He wanted to know what the fruit of the land was like, and if they had forests or not. He asked them to bring back some of the fruit that was ripe.

 

The men went into the land and found that it really was a good land. The grapes were so big that it took two men to carry a cluster of them on a pole between them. But the people there were very big and tall, and the spies were afraid of them. They were gone for 40 days.

 

When they returned to their own camp, they showed Moses the good fruit they had found in the land. Ten of the men began to tell about the giants and how fearful they were. They told of large cities with high walls around them. “We cannot go into this land,” they said. “We were just like grasshoppers in our own sight, and also in the sight of the people there.”

 

Two men; Caleb and Joshua said, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are able to overcome it.”

 

The Israelites didn’t want to go and take Canaan as God had wanted. God punished them by making them wander in the desert for 40 years. They had to wander around one year for every day the spies had been gone.

 

Of the twelve men, only Joshua and Caleb got to go into Canaan.

 

Night at the Museum

Larry Daly (Ben Stiller) is a divorced dad living in New York City struggling to make a living from his various get-rich schemes. His former wife Erica (Kim Raver) doesn’t want to continue letting their son, Nick (Jake Cherry) visit him until he shows more stability.

 

Larry takes a job as the night watchman at the museum. The three retiring watchmen played by Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs, show Larry the ropes, and on their way out leave him a set of instructions while Cobb copies the key to the museum.

 

On Larry’s first night the whole place comes to life and he wants to quit. The next night things get better. He makes friends with the T-Rex skeleton and Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams). Of course, the three old watchmen are up to something, and the way it is resolved makes Nick believe in his dad once again.

 

 

Based on the book by Milan Trenc, it took two screenwriters (Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) to interpret it (rehash?) and get it into a screenplay. I was prepped to like the film by a colleague in London who had been to two pre-release screenings, but … as much as I wanted to like it, I thought it dragged on – and just wasn’t funny enough. The whole T-Rex sequence was straight out of a McDonald’s Super Bowl commercial from a few years ago and I liked it much better. The father-son plot was predictable, too. I always like Dick Van Dyke, but Mickey Rooney’s clichéd name-spewing failed to be cute after the first one. Even the scene with the monkey and Stiller slapping one another – it was funnier in the previews.

 

Night at the Museum, directed by Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen), is just OK (but the special visual effects are pretty awesome.)

Babel

Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are on vacation in Morocco to heal the wounds of the death of a child. Two young brothers, trying to hit a target at 3km with the rifle their father bought to kill jackels, shoot at the tour bus and a bullet hits Susan. One of the guides directs the bus to his village where Richard scrambles for help. He calls his home in San Diego to make sure his two older children, under the care of the housekeeper and nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), are all right but they are about to go on their own journey to Mexico. The Moroccan police seek out the shooter by trying to trace the bullet. Richard is sure the U.S. embassy will help but there are difficulties and delays. The police in Tokyo visit the condo of a wealthy businessman and ask his teenaged daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf-mute, to speak with him. Her mother committed suicide and she and her father do not communicate. It turns out that the high-powered rifle can be traced to him.

 

Babel is a complex puzzle and the events it portrays by its non-linear timeline, seem to take place almost simultaneously, not unlike director Alejando Gonzalez Iñárritu’s 21 Grams (2003). He also directed Amores Perros (2001) – a film I have not yet seen (but I have the DVD and it is on my list).

 

The title “Babel”, of course, refers to the Genesis 11 when people tried to build a tower to the heavens, a sign of hubris that God countered by confusing their languages so the builders could not communicate.

 

 

 

There are so many threads to talk about in this fascinating film: the butterfly effect, family, life and death, guilt, guns, and empathy for starters, but I think communication, as it relates to the film’s title, is the ultimate theme of the movie. What begins as an act of generosity sets off a sequence of events with sad, tragic, and unintentional human consequences. There are breakdowns in communication, and breakthroughs.

 

The acting is superb as each character plays against another in an intentional pairing and cross-pairings of diverse relationships. Blanchett and Pitt’s intense and intimate marital bond is shown to us in intense close-ups when he cares for her while awaiting help. We expect superb acting from Blanchett, but on the other side of the world, Rinko Kikuchi’s performance as the grieving and isolated daughter, living inside her head, breaks our hearts.

 

 

Babel is a gritty film that appeals to the intellect, engages the heart, and makes us reflect and perhaps take some kind of action about the centrality of communication (over guns); indeed the film makes us thirst for it for the characters as we experience the film and ponder the future of the human family beyond and within our own borders.

 

It would be very interesting to see Babel and the 2002 Chinese film Hero that looked at communication and the sword in an intensely beautiful and truthful way. The theme of the rifle in Babel may seem sub-textual, but as pivotal as the rock in the old “Rock Soup” tale, it has the subtle power to make us reflect about arms and what happens when they fall into the hands of even the innocent.

We Are Marshall

As a plane filled with members of the Marshall University football team, boosters, family members, coaches, staff, and airline crew, was about to land at the airport serving Huntington, West Virginia on November 14, 1970, it crashed during a storm. 75 people lost their lives. The small town was devastated.

 

Dean Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) and some of the university’s board members want to close down the football program to honor those who died. But one student and team member, Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), rallies the students to keep it going.

 

Dedmon contacts all previous Marshall players who became coaches and offers them the job of coaching the new team. They all turn him down. Then Dedmon gets a letter from a coach in Ohio, Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey). He tells Dedmon that he cannot imagine what the university and town must be going through and offers to help. Lengyel then prods Dedmon to get permission for freshmen to play so that Marshall can have a lineup when the new season begins.

 

 

We Are Marshall seems at first to be another football movie (!) but it is more a journey through grief and for the few remaining players and an assistant coach (played by Matthew Fox; Lost), an experience of their struggle to overcome survivor’s guilt.  We are Marshall is the story of a team and a community that together got up and kept going, rising from the ashes, as does the mythical phoenix.

 

None of the actors (and you will recognize many) stand out in the film; it’s as if they became a team to tell this heartbreaking story of hope. If you remember the 70’s you will recall the plaid polyester fashions but McConaughey’s too long hair may not make you too nostalgic. Yet hip director McG (The OC; Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), who was only about 2-years old when the events in the film took place, does a credible job of taking us back and making us feel what it must have been like that fateful night of November 14, 1970 and the months that followed. The film shows the power of empathy, is full of heart — and there are lots of man-tears.

 

The film has a BK rating (bring Kleenex).

The Nativity Story Movie as seen from the Philippines

This review was posted on the www.signis.net (SIGNIS is the Vatican-approved international Catholic organization for communication) website today (December 21). “Stampita” = holy cards. The writer goes to the heart of this Christmas film. I love the familiar style the writer uses for her readers. R

“The Nativity Story” Seen from the Philippines

Manilla, November 25, 2006 (OCDS/Teresa R. Tunay) – The creative and realistic depiction of Mary and Joseph in The Nativity Story can teach the Church a thing or two about ‘packaging’ our Saints for public consumption in this day and age.

(JPEG)

“By the creative and realistic depiction of Mary and Joseph, “The Nativity Story” offers inspiring models for us”.

“Sana naman kumuha sila ng maganda-gandang Mary! Ang pangit naman ng bibig nito!” (They should have picked a more beautiful Mary! This one has such ugly lips!). “At saka hindi ba medyo me idad na si St. Joseph? Bakit ito, bata?” (And isn’t St. Joseph supposed to be old? Why is this one young?). That was overheard as the guests at the premier showing of The Nativity Story flowed out of the Greenbelt 3 cinema last November 24. Making the comments were two well-heeled elderly ladies.

Two weeks later, at a popular mall during the same movie’s regular run, a 30-something woman said to another as they emerged from the theater: “Okay ‘yung anghel na ‘yun ah-me balbas pero walang pakpak!” (That angel is cool-he has a beard but has no wings!).

This pretty much sums up the big difference in audience perception as far as images of supposedly holy ones go. The Nativity Story should also teach the Church a thing or two about “packaging” our Saints for public consumption in this day and age.

The movie blasts stereotypes – a fact that threatens the characters’ credibility among old school believers – but because the actors play their roles with such depth of characterization, they come across as more human, more real, more reachable. That means more “copyable”, and therefore more appealing to younger Catholics unwittingly searching for more down-to-earth role models.

We’ve been raised on stampita images of Mary: always in demure poses, head bowed down, hands clasped in prayer. We are accustomed to remembering Mary mostly as European artists portray her, in fine, gold-trimmed clothing, with tapering fingers and rosebud lips, gentle eyes untouched by sin, sometimes blonde, other times brunette, but never a hair out of place.

Enter 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, The Nativity Story ’s Mary: olive-skinned, with zits on her face, she unwraps her dark damp hair and wipes her sweat as she slumps beside a tree. She moves as any 14-year old Jewish girl from Nazareth does, pitting olives with her stubby fingers, going about her kitchen chores, even sitting on the earth with knees apart and a bowl of food between her thighs-so unladylike? Indeed, this Mary is rough clay, an earthen water jug, while the stampita virgin so dear to our imagination is a Lladro figurine-flawless, shiny, pastel-colored, dust-proof.

And the stampita Joseph? Of course, he matches the stampita Mary: meek and mild, soul of gentleness, chaste spouse, hands never soiled even when holding a carpenter’s tools. The movie’s Joseph, played by Oscar Isaac, is in the prime of youth, doesn’t hide his admiration of Mary from his friends, tends to throw down things when angered, bursting with so much energy you’d think twice before letting your 14-year old go out with him.

The angel Gabriel is the antithesis of angelic as we also know it from stampitas, classical art, cinema, assorted media, plus chi-chi gift shops in our malls. Wingless, semi Afro-hairstyled, bearded and bemoustached, his appearance in the sky is heralded by the wind rustling through the leaves. He descends on earth and hails Mary, but without his white gossamer robe, even the most open-minded movie goer would wonder, “Who’s this character”? Actor Anthony Siddig is the farthest thing you could ever imagine being cast as a messenger of God. Givehim an Uzi and he’ll look like a terrorist. Stick a cigarette in his mouth and he’ll pass for a durogista. And even if he were a real angel, he’d be more credibly cast as a fallen angel. Anyway, he looks like some character you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a bus.

And yet Mary believed this angel. That’s the whole point! The Nativity Story is all about faith!

We all know by heart the story of Jesus’ birth, but The Nativity Story takes us from the Christmas card prettiness we’re familiar with to the next level-faith, a belief in God that does not hinge on the externals. Mary looks every inch like an ordinary village girl who doesn’t deserve a second glance, but she shows extraordinary strength of character in accepting God’s will conveyed, literally, from out of the blue. Mary’s discerning ability and effective faith enables her to stand upright and immovable before the neighbors’ malicious eyes, and because of it, God comes down to live among men.

Any village boy would have killed to spare himself from becoming the greatest cuckold in history, but not Joseph. Upon Mary’s return from visiting Elizabeth, he gets the shock of his life seeing her bulging stomach. Never having touched Mary at all, the groom elect is troubled, and in his deepest darkest moments may have led the mob in stoning her to death, but he doesn’t. Instead, he shows remarkable self-control and righteousness in deciding to keep her. His goodness is justified when the same hirsute angel appears in his dream to substantiate Mary’s claim. Hence, he becomes Mary’s partner in welcoming the Immanuel into this world.

See-it wasn’t only Mary who said “yes” to God; Joseph did, too. By the creative and realistic depiction of Mary and Joseph, The Nativity Story has offered inspiring models for us, especially the young. Mary and Joseph were nameless faces like most of us, two nobodies in Nazareth from where it was believed nothing good could come, and yet, by their enduring witness to the Divine’s presence in their lives, they became virtual co-creators of God.

Might we not wish to be visited by angels who would sweep us off our doubts so our hearts would be God’s alone? In our prayers and novenas, after telling God of our needs and desires, can we stay a little longer to listen to Him speak of His desires forus?

Our Church – and indeed the world – needs more Marys and Josephs, persons with simple hearts who would put aside personal discomfort in order to follow the dictates of the Divine in their lives. Mary and Joseph obeyed God in spite of their neighbors’ judgment; thus, in time, Jesus became one of us.

We all want a better world, but are we willing to put God as Number One in our life for it? Are we willing to obey God at all cost? Our obedience is a small thank-you gift to offer to The One who has given us life. And that’s the truth.