Movie Reviews:  The Big Sick and War for the Planet of the Apes

by Paulist Father James DiLuzio www.lukelive.com

THE BIG STICK is a film about individuation: what it takes to define the true self as it wrestles with expectations of family, culture, religion and their associated guilts. It boasts a semi-autobiographical script and stars its author Kumail Nanjiani, a prolific and talented stand-up comedian / actor / writer best known for the HBO series SILICON VALLEY.  Here, we meet Kumail as an almost-no-longer young adult thrust into discernment about life and love. He still treads lightly, however, vying to honor his role as the younger son of a Pakistani Muslim family. They moved to Chicago as he’s been told “for your sake” during his childhood.

THE BIG STICK also addresses critical illness and how the reality of death / possibility of impending death forces us to face ourselves and, hopefully, if we let it, make life-giving choices.  The movie is a welcomed change to the current film offerings and a bit retro, offering the familiar but with some novel twists and perspectives. Ultimately, THE BIG STICK is a serious comedy, offering chuckles and giggles, appropriately lacking in hilarity to pursue its important, universal themes.

The film is poignant, touching and entertainingly aggravating as we witness the foibles and comedic dynamics of family, friendship and romance. Nearly everything about the characters and their responses to their predicaments rings true. Each one, in his or her own way, tackles to claim personal TRUTH.[1] That’s a topic any priest would applaud, and, as scripted by Kumail and his wife Emily Gordon, the film succeeds on, oh, so many levels.  THE BIG STICK offers honesty and tenderness that is truly refreshing in our cynical age.

And what a wonderful roster of actors has assembled for this enterprise: Nanjiani may be a bit too dead-pan-to-a-fault in this role, but he has a fine screen presence and holds his own with veterans Holly Hunter (captivating), Ray Morano (strong and appealing), Zenobia Shroff (wonderful!) and the charming Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan). Kazan plays Kumail’s love interest and her character’s complexities offer a wide range of emotions that she delivers with aplomb.  I recommend THE BIG SICK to you when you find yourself in one of those wonderful “down-to-earth moods,” ready to eschew the need for thrills, grand violence, murder and mayhem, and enjoy being a member of the human race. .

Now, you may expect that WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES will offer you plenty of the thrills and chills.  Surprise!  There is war and violence at the onset, but, all the same, a better title might be: ACCESSION TO THE PLANET OF THE APES. There’s a great battle at the end, but our title characters do not participate. For the thrust of the plot echoes the Biblical Vision of Isaiah 2: “He shall judge between the nations, and set terms for many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” A most honorable and inspiring theme, an essential Hope for this age as for any other.  And, humbling, too, to see it accomplished by what we consider the lesser of the species. To those familiar with the franchise, these apes embody a deeper humanity than many who claim the classification of human, and, in what may be the final chapter of the series, they supersede us completely. But this fable has, from its inception in 1968 and into its re-boot that began in 2011 warned of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction, and has always focused on our need for humility –to learn from nature and all of nature’s creatures, insisting that we attend to our essential common bond. Here, humanity loses its power of speech as the apes learn to use language to cultivate HOPE — the reason it was bestowed upon humankind in the first place. Along with the gift of free will and the capacity to love fully, language is the third aspect that made us in the biblical “image of God.”

In addition to plot, character and theme, you’ll find the special effects most rewarding and the digital motion-captured acting of Andy Serkis memorable. He’s assisted by many others but the most notable: Karin Konoval as the wise orangutan Maurice, and Steve Zahn, as a sad-clown sidekick named Bad Ape who ushers in some welcomed comic relief in the second act and beyond.  Director Matt Reeves keeps the plot moving at an enjoyable pace and some of the visuals—especially the winter scenes can take your breath away along with the natural look and feel of each and very ape. NYTIMES film critic A.O Scott noted in his review “There is a scene toward the end of “War for the Planet of the Apes” that is as vivid and haunting as anything I’ve seen in a Hollywood blockbuster in ages, a moment of rousing and dreadful cinematic clarity that I don’t expect to shake off any time soon.”[2]  I urge families with kids 12 and older to venture forth to your local Cineplex for this one. Your experience will give you some wonderful conversations in many-a-family-meal to come!

[1] John 8: 32: and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8%3A32&version=NABRE Also Psalm 15: “Who may dwell on your holy mountain? Whoever walks without blame, doing what is right, speaking truth from the heart;” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+15&version=NABRE/  And from the Islam quotes website I found this: ‘“Always Speak the Truth, even if there is fear in speaking the Truth. Remember there is Freedom in speaking the Truth” – Prophet Muhammad (saw) https://islamiquotes.wordpress.com/category/truth/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/12/movies/war-for-the-planet-of-the-apes-review.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fmovies&action=click&contentCollection=movies&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=8&pgtype=sectionfront

 

Compassion and Strength – The Wonder of Wonder Woman

I never watched the Wonder Woman TV series with Linda Carter (1975-79), but as a moviegoer, I found Warner Brothers’ WONDER WOMAN a Larger-than-Life Female protagonist worthy of our daughters, granddaughters, nieces (and their male counterparts’) attention without reservation.  This Wonder Woman is the kind of Princess / Hero combination that will not only confirm little girls as royal members of humanity, precious and important, it will affirm them as strong, smart, gifted and capable of contributing to the world—sometimes, perhaps (dare we hope?) surpassing that of mere mortal men (sic).

 

As a source of inspiration, this Wonder Woman is to girls what Superman is to boys.  Yes, she’s from another world.  Yes, she has attributes beyond mere mortals but –YES! –she is determined to utilize her talents for the greatest good: a love for humankind.  Good News Boys and Girls: Love for humankind is proper motivation for life beyond gender, culture and creed.

 

As scripted by Allen Heinberg from a story he created with Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0451279/?ref_=nv_sr_1 WONDER WOMAN is artfully directed with panache and vision by Patty Jenkins.  http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0420941/?ref_=nv_sr_1

If you are not familiar with this protagonist, Wonder Woman is a demigoddess–a creative composite from the pantheon of Roman, Greek Myths and the imaginations of DC Comic authors since 1941/42. Thus, she’s a little bit Diana (Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon and nature), the Greek Artemis (the daughter of Zeus and the mortal Leto), and the invention of Warner Brothers’ and DC Comics’ Screenwriters and Marketing departments. With so many chefs adding ingredients to ancient myths, it’s amazing that Wonder Woman (also named Diana) has turned out as appealing and outright inspiring as she is. The credit belongs to the creators, for sure, but equally to Gal Gadot, a captivating actress who incarnates Wonder Woman with a perfect balance of courage and compassion, sensitivity and strength.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2933757/?ref_=tt_cl_t1

And, depending on your point of view (and your expectations for an ideal feminine role model) Ms. Gadot offers us an additional bonus of being truly beautiful in the old Hollywood tradition of Beautiful Girls –think Vivian Leigh:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000046/mediaviewer/rm1343240704

think Paulette Goddard: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002104/mediaviewer/rm3071685376

Some feminists may object, but, hey, she is who she is!

There’s no need for me to reiterate the plot as it is rather typical of super hero origin stories. There are parallels galore throughout the DC and Marvel comics universe.  In that regard, if you are up for a ride in the realm of the familiar, you’ll have a grand time:  All things begin with our hero/heroine nurturing skills and talents, discovering some surprise attributes, and completing his/her formation for a battle of good versus evil.  As for the villains: their goals and objectives can be seen in many action movies these days– –if you saw Guardians of the Galaxy Part 2, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Exploring the full identities of the villains in WONDER WOMAN is an important mystery imbedded in the plot so I will not identify who plays what here. Just know that all the cast members are first-rate, even when the plot wears a bit thin.  You’ll enjoy watching Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nelson, Danny Huston, Said Taghmaoui, David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner incarnate their characters.

 

Happily, this presentation of a DC Comics character maintains some of the joy and comic touches of the original Superman movies: moments of charm, innocence and fun. The last several Superman / Batman movies were disappointingly dark and cynical with very little light in our heroes’ attempts at saving the world. True to formula, however, our new Wonder Woman movie does culminate in a great cosmic battle (overblown as it has been in movies of this kind for far too long), but, I guess, in the march for equality in movies, women must be given their due.  If men do it, woman must do it, too.  Seriously, though, must these heroes / heroines always save the world?  Is there no merit in saving one person at a time?  One organization at a time?  Wonder Woman does offer hope, however, on another scale.  Here, greater cooperation among the male and female members of our species is on full display.  In this version Diana/ Wonder Woman not only has several strong female mentors, she has, well, one (but a significant one) male mentor, too.  That character is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), ethically flawed but in the Great American Tradition, he reveals a heart of gold.   If you enjoy films based on comic book characters, written with broad, bold strokes, and exploring what a women protagonist can add to the national psyche, WONDER WOMAN is for you!

 

Want More?  Here’s my Theological Reflection:

 

I am pleased to report that WONDER WOMAN ‘s screenplay imbues spiritual dynamics into its storytelling.  True to form, DC (and Marvel) Comics continually borrow themes and ideas from Greek, Roman, Native American Traditions and Eastern Religions but it’s important to recognize these inspirations have genuine Biblical counterparts.  The most important insight this script offers may be found in the words spoken by our heroine and her male mentor in one of the film’s penultimate scenes: “We do good not because people deserve it, but because of what we believe.”  I.e., our humanity is fallible, both faulty and foolish, but because we are capable of great good, too, it’s the goodness we hold onto. This makes our heroine reflect an essential element of our Judaic-Christian tradition: God as the ultimate ever-patient ONE, offering humanity millenniums of opportunities to learn from its mistakes. Ours is the God who abides our faults, forgives us while motivating us to better, wiser, kinder, compassionate.

 

Yes, there are biblical accounts in which God gets fed up with humanity (Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, Jesus’ many rebukes to the disciples, the Book of Revelation / Apocalypse and so much more!).   But note that many Jewish and Christian theologians now see these biblical passages as human projections on God—evidencing the ways the Bible’s writers vented their very human responses to sin and suffering. As they strove to move forward in formulating their impressions of God, they often took one step back in every two steps forward. In many ways, we still do! Taken in its entirety, however, the Bible ultimately offers a more complete, more honest picture of God as nothing short of Love and Mercy.  This is evidenced in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, taken together or within their respective individual canons.

 

For those who would like to spend some time meditating on this theme, here are some Biblical excerpts for you:

 

Psalm 8: 5: 5 [d]What is man that you are mindful of him,     and a son of man that you care for him?

 

Psalm 51:  3 “Our offenses truly you know them,

Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;     in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions. Thoroughly wash away my guilt;     and from my sin cleanse me. For I know my transgressions;     my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone have I sinned;     I have done what is evil in your eyes

 

Psalm 103: 10He has not dealt with us as our sins merit,     nor requited us as our wrongs deserve. . .

17 But the Lord’s mercy is from age to age,     toward those who fear him. His salvation is for the children’s children 18     of those who keep his covenant,     and remember to carry out his precepts.

 

Proverbs 10:  12

12 Hatred stirs up disputes,      but love covers all offenses.[h]

 

Isaiah 43:25  It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.

 

Isaiah 44:22 I have brushed away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like a mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.

 

Jeremiah 33:8 I will purify them of all the guilt they incurred by sinning against me; I will forgive all their offenses by which they sinned and rebelled against me.

 

 

Luke 6: (from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain)

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

 

Luke 23: The Crucifixion: 33When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. 34 [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”][e

 

Luke 24: The Resurrection Instruction: 46 And he (Jesus) said to them, “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day 47 and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

 

Matthew 12: 31 ff

31 Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit[v] will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

NOTE: The CHRISTIAN TRADITION interprets this passage to mean that “to speak against the holy Spirit” is to deny God’s Spirit, which is to deny God’s forgiveness.  I.e. to not believe in God’s forgiveness is not to accept it or participate in it. It also makes clear that one does not have to believe in Jesus as the “Son of Man” aka “Son of God” to receive God’s forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness is offered to all.

 

 

Biblical Quotations Taken From: New American Bible Revised Edition from

https://www.biblegateway.com

 

 

 

Fences – Movie Review by Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

by August Wilson, Directed by Denzel Washington

When you go to see FENCES (and I urge you to go), don’t expect to see a movie.  Expect a play on the big screen.  Like those FATHOM EVENTS or the MET OPERA HD LIVE BROADCASTS in movie theaters.  August Wilson’s play is profound and when his writing is coupled with the actors’ close-ups, depths of character are on display. Still, it takes a bit getting used to.  The dialogue is poetic–musical and rhythmic with ideas and images that crackle and pop–but we’re just not accustomed to this much dialogue in movies these days. It’s a true “talkie.”  For all that, director / actor Denzel Washington wisely kept FENCES a play-on-film.  How else could he be true to the character he plays with such bravado: the extroverted, extremely chatty TROY?  Denzel insists we experience Troy as Wilson conceived him—larger-than-life, a grand stander who dances around his angst, hurt and despair to the tune of ATTENTION MUST BE PAID!  Yes, writer and director could have made this a more cinematic experience, and that would have been wonderful, too, but why deprive us of this language and the reality of characters who speak their way through life the way most of us do?

In more than a few ways, FENCES is an African American DEATH OF A SALESMAN although it’s not quite as tragic.  Its pathos is not as draining but it is deeply moving.  I think it’s because Troy is more likeable than Willy Loman (SALESMAN’S central character), and, as an African American in 1950’s and 1960’s USA, he is more complicated.  Troy has more phantoms, more layers of social oppression to navigate than Loman and August Wilson surrounds him with a set of less deflated, more earth-centered family and friends.   Troy’s devoted wife, Rose, has fire in her belly (Viola Davis –WOW!) and her decision to love (yes, friends, love is ultimately a “Decision”) brings rays of light into the proceedings.  Also: Troy’s son, Cory (played by Jovan Adepo, a natural) has more going for him than Willy Loman’s sons.  The primary reason for that is Loman and sons lived in a fantasy world of Willie’s own making–his version of “The American Dream;” his misguided definition of “success.” In contrast, Troy, the patriarch of Wilson’s drama, has taken a very hard look at America and all the prejudices and limitations it imposes on African American life.  It is his blessing and his curse, his wisdom and his folly.  His tragedy is that he transmits his pain, intentionally and unintentionally, on his wife and son without ever transcending it.  Is it because he cannot or will not aspire to reclaim a different, richer dignity? The answer is “YES: to both.  Which is why Rose reaches a nobility her husband can only covet.  And that is sad, indeed, for unlike so many fathers who abandon their wives, girlfriends and children in search of some other kind of manhood, Troy takes responsibility for his family, extended family and friends.  His tragedy is that he is not fully present to the life he leads. Instead he indulges an undercurrent of resentment, chasing phantoms of release rather than being at ease in the stillness of sacred silence.  But we cannot judge him. He had had a moment of being on the cusp of greatness- a major league baseball career, for if not for social bias toward race, age and its obsession with youth (yes, even THEN), he could have been a contender.  And he, and we, live in a culture that values little else. God help us.

The power of FENCES—its situation and ideas, the faces of its characters—lingers profoundly long after watching it.  I guarantee your appreciation for the film will grow in the days and weeks ahead just as it has in the world’s response to Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN and Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN with which this photographed film has a strong affinity.  The play is alive with exciting performances of flawed but fascinating people who convey many truths about the nature of marriage, parenting, family and friendship.  I hope you will treat yourself to experience some of the depth of drive and feeling FENCES evokes—feelings we too often sublimate or eschew.    Of this much you can be sure: as you gather for celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and a Brand-New-Year, your investment in FENCES will offer you and your loved ones a great deal to talk about.

Movie Review & Reflection: LA LA LAND

Movie Review & Reflection:  LA LA LAND

Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

Do you have to enjoy Hollywood musicals to enjoy LA LA LAND?  Yes and No.  YES, if you have ever had the urge to break into a song and dance in moment of comfort and joy.   YES, if you enjoy dancing and appreciate it as one of humanity’s greater pleasures.  YES, if you have a trace of nostalgia for that great AN AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet. (I956, MGM, Gene Keely, Leslie Caron; available on Blu Ray and Streaming.)  Director Damien Chazelle and Choreographer Mandy Moore’s (not the actress /singer) song and dance finale (almost finale) is a tribute to that ballet and it’s charming and magical.  But, oh, how I wish they had kept the company dancing in a flowing, ever-enlarging dance spectacle. So.  If you answered YES to all the above: GO!  If you answered “No” because you are the kind of person who interiorizes your moments of joy and/or never add a dance to your step or skip about for the fun of it, or find musicals silly, silly, silly, then stay home.  But before you settle in beside your Christmas / Hanukkah fire, be forewarned: there’s more to LA LA LAND than song and dance.

LA LA LAND focuses on the creative artistry, goals and objectives of two young lovers who, as they fall in love, exemplify the simple joys of love, music and art for their own sake.  These segments are the heart of the film and offer its greatest pleasures (the “almost-finale” notwithstanding). Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, the consummate jazz pianist seeking ART not popularity, and he plays the role well. As always, he’ a photogenic, attractive leading man and, in this film, he even has a dancer’s physique so when he glides aspiring actress Mia (the charming Emma Stone) into the gentle choreography of a starlit summer night, it all seems (almost) natural.  Now don’t expect Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers because Gosling and Stone are not polished professional dancers or singers. But that reality is precisely one of the points this movie makes:  Don’t leave everything to the professionals!    Sing a little, dance a little.  Walk on the “Sunny Side of the Street.”  (Or live in Los Angeles along with everyone else who wants to be Fred and Ginger who never get to sing or dance or act for pay and just keep basking in the sunshine year-round.)

The First Act of LA LA LAND could be tighter.   Gosling and Stone have chemistry, so we would have a lot more fun if the sparks of antagonism, approach/avoidance were ignited more fully at the onset.  (There’s a moment after the opening number where you think the sparks will fly but the script postpones the joy.)  Instead we get a good deal of the clichés of “the struggling artist.”  (The limited National Endowment for the Arts notwithstanding – will Americans ever truly support the ARTS in Education and local communities beyond buying high-priced concert tickets?)  But once Sebastian and Mia’s romance is in bloom, the film enchants and gives us a bit of punch, too, in some very well acted dramatic scenes.  Odd for a musical but it’s these dramatic scenes that help us care about the couple and give us reason to want to care more.  The songs they and others sing are better than serviceable but I found only a couple memorable.  I liked the ballads CITY OF STARS, the emotional and dramatic context of FOOLS WHO DREAM (engaging lyrics) and the rhythmic START A FIRE, the latter enhanced by the performance of John Legend, a most welcomed guest star. The jazz arrangements and orchestrations for all the numbers are excellent.  (Music by Justin Herwitz, Songs by Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul.)

LA LA LAND is a Hollywood Musical more about the ordinary than the glamorous, more about the reality than fantasy of show business. Meanwhile, it kind of insists that we keep romance and music in the picture.  As it is in this picture, may it be in YOUR picture, too.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Now most people would agree that “popular’ isn’t necessarily better (although it can be). BUT how can creative people earn their living when their work does not prove popular, remunerative or classifiable as genius?
  2. Is it a waste of time to attend to things you enjoy (especially singing, dancing, acting/ play-acting) if you are merely good but not spectacular at them?
  3. Can people follow their bliss, carve out a generative, joyful life without having to be on the big screen, the great white way or go viral streaming on the internet? Must there always be an audience for every act of creativity? (Can “ART” be its own reward?)
  4. Our competitive culture practically demands SUCCESS. How do you identify it?  Is it all relative? How important is it to you? Is it the same as recognition (an important human dynamic) or is it recognition-run-amuck?
  5. No one wants to be “left behind.” No one wants to be taken for granted yet society offers a living template of “winners” and “losers.”  Who “wins” and who “loses” in LA LA LAND?  Sebastian or Mia?  Director / Writer Damien Chazelle or YOU as a moviegoer?

 

 

 

Fr. DiLuzio’s Short Movie Reviews: FANTASTIC BEASTS and BIRTH OF A NATION

 

The best of FANTASTIC BEASTS and WHERE TO FIND THEM occurs in ACT THREE—the last 1/3 of the movie. It’s engaging, exciting and a fine example of the kind of storytelling one would expect from author J.K. Rowling and team.  Unfortunately, the first two acts don’t build the appropriate suspense primarily because the characters and elements that should contribute to the climatic conflict have not been presented well.  They are ambiguous and hint at possibilities rather than clearly foreshadow them.  For my part, one important clue was particularly obscure.  Too bad because the characters are interesting and they are wonderfully portrayed by a fine cast and the movie embraces important themes.  And, yes, there is one more problem:  the supporting characters are more intriguing than the leading character, Newt, played coyly and with charm by Eddie Redmayne but poorly written.  And some of the “Fantastic Beasts” he tries to preserve and protect take a bit getting used to.  Too many look like they stepped out of STAR WARS CANTINA BAND.  I found them off-putting even though they embody an essential moral: we must not judge by appearances.  Furthermore, we spend a lot of time in Act One with one of the cuter critters named Greedy who does provide humor and exasperation but who doesn’t factor much into the balance of the script.  In the end, I enjoyed the film. But, oh, it could have been so much better.

 

THE BIRTH OF A NATION lost a lot of momentum since its debut in theaters and you may be hard pressed to find it – although it may get a re-release if OSCAR dubs it worthy.  I DO dub it worth your time and consideration.  It’s a well-made in the very best old-fashioned sense of movie-making as it tells the story of Nat Turner, the infamous anti-hero who staged a revolt against the horrors of slavery.  The movie takes a romanticized view of his heroics very much akin to BRAVEHEART.  Because we see slavery’s cruelty first hand, one feels compelled to root for Nat and companions with all the emotional empathy of an unquestioning adolescent:  YES!  Kill all those cruel slave owners AND THEIR wives and children. The music swells triumphantly and “Why Not?”  American and European characters who dealt similarly with their adversaries have been hailed and honored for centuries.  GET those Indians!  Wipe out the evil doers!  Who cares about collateral damage? AND MAN, can my “INNER CHILD” HATE all those people who still have the audacity to want to raise the Confederate Flag!  (How easy it is watching movies like this to indulge my emotions and put my priestly identity aside!)  At the film’s conclusion, there is genuine catharsis and sadness.  For no matter the situation, violence breeds violence and more violence and prefigures more violence to come.  WHY MUST THE WORLD BE THIS WAY?  Is violence the only way to address injustice, cruelty, racism, sadism? The fact that BIRTH OF A NATION leaves you with that question makes it a valuable piece of film-making, wondering what kind of true nobility Nat Turner could have nurtured if he were born into a different era, a different economy (and YES, our current economy still embraces forms of slavery), a different United States?

Disney’s Moana: Know Your Story Movie Review and Theological Reflection by Rev. James M. DiLuzio C.S.P.

Water. The Disney Animation Studio has mastered the look and feel of the ocean—a most difficult animation art.  It’s keep-your-mouth-closed-before-your-jaw-drops brilliant.  And that is fitting, indeed, for water is the source of life and without it, there can no life and no stories. In this mash-up of Ancient Hawaiian Mythology’s Creation Tales, the earth and its fruits are dying.  Centuries ago, the demigod Maui stole the heart of Mother Earth and offered humanity its power.  Interestingly, the consequences of this subjugation have only begun to surface in the here and now—in the time frame of our story.  What happened?

Apparently, humanity abused its power and even the tribe that kept itself apart from “the others,” i.e. “the abusers,” have come to face what the rest of the world faces: reckoning day. Thankfully, for the children in the movie theaters, there are only small signs of nature’s imbalance at the film’s onset (contemporary allusions notwithstanding).  These Hawaiian folks, however, are intuitive enough to know that small signs are indications of larger event to come.  Who will find Maui and convince him to return the heart of the earth to Mother Nature?  What will happen when he or she does?  That is the crux of the drama and it’s a good one.  I don’t know how many people will read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si (“Praise Be (to the Lord) for Creation) with its challenges for us to care for our earthly home and all who live within it, but I imagine far more will see this movie. I hope MOANA keeps the conversation going and inspires more civil action to care for the earth and everything in it.

Fittingly, the Ocean—the original conduit of life in all its forms at earth’s beginning–is a character all its own.  Its animated spirit inspires a young girl Moana (pronounced MWAH-nah) to go where her island people have feared to go.  Although she is heir to the island’s throne, Moana refuses to be “a princess” until she first becomes “a person” — a person concerned about other persons and the world beyond her.   She knows this because she has learned her peoples’ story and that of her family as well—stories that equip her to respond to the call of the waters—a call initiated in her toddlerhood, several years before Moana grew in consciousness, talent and will power.  (Thoughts of Baptism, Mikveh, Confirmation, Bar / Bat Mitzvah, Dedication anyone?)  Moana will journey to Maui and beyond, moving forward on a quest that the adults are unwilling to attempt. Children manifesting a wisdom eschewed by adults is an oft-encountered theme in Disney and innumerable other sources.  I’m sure you can think of a few.

Watching the film, I thought of the innumerable ways the great myths of so many societies overlap in points of intersection that reveal essential truths, no matter the peoples, the culture or setting.  Hopefully, in reading this article, Biblical references like the following already are flowing through your mind:

Genesis 1:28   God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Isaiah 3:14   The Lord enters judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.

Jeremiah 12:10  Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trampled down my portion, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.

 Jeremiah 31:5  Again, you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. 

Isaiah 11:6  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. [1]

In the Hawaiian Myth, Moana is the child who will lead. And lead she can, because as among the best of Biblical, Religious, Myth and Folk Tale heroes, Moana is not, “a self-made hero.”[2]   Her ancestors’ history and stories told to her by her grandmother play an essential role in her evolving self-understanding and mission. Because she is initiated into these deeper realities, Moana is ready to live her life, find her purpose and embark on her adventure.  (Do we only go to the movies for “adventure?”  Don’t our spirits long for worthwhile quests and accomplishments in our daily lives?  Don’t we depend on others–past, present and future–to find our way?)

The movies’ emphasis on knowledge of the past compelled me to ask “How many of us who follow Biblical Religions, who have a wealth of stories from Bible and history, the knowledge of our family trees and ancestors at our fingertips, utilize these gifts?  Well, don’t fret.  Most of Moana’s family and friends don’t know or understand their history either.  But Moana does.  Heroes do.  Prompted by her grandmother Moana sets out to fix, to heal, to restore—a universal challenge for each new generation.  You next?

MOANA’s screenplay is credited to Jared Bush (Zootopia) and he’s done a fine job.  But let us be sure to recognize that he was inspired by a small village of collaborators. The movie’s story evolved through the minds of its four directors Ron Clements (Little Mermaid; Aladdin), Don Hall (Big Hero 6) John Musker (Hercules; Princess and the Frog), Chris Williams (Bolt) PLUS three others: Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell.  Who’s the “self-made” man here?  Together they have created an engaging and thought-provoking entertainment in which each major character evidences light and shadow in addressing the complexity in the choices before them.  The songs they sing also identify these inner struggles.  One song lyric states “You can find happiness right where you are” while another emphasizes the drive to go beyond the comfortable: “How Far I’ll Go.”  These drives are not in opposition but part of an essential balance.  We need to appreciate our life as it is AND go beyond what we have and know to grow into mature adults. Hopefully, we never stop growing. There’s a Buddhist saying: “We’re perfect as we are AND all life is change.”

Regarding the film’s music, the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda are exactly what we could expect from the composer/ creator of HAMILTON, THE MUSICAL: rhythmic and joyful with playful lyrics.  Not coincidentally one of the questions MOANA asks its audience is the same question that HAMILTON does “Do you know your story?” http://www.linmanuel.com

And for cultural authenticity and local color, the film offers songs by Opetaia Foa’I (of the band Te Vaka, specialists in indie /South Pacific music).  Beautiful!   http://disneyexaminer.com/2016/11/04/moanas-music-will-highlight-the-culture-of-the-south-pacific-an-interview-with-composer-opetaia-foai-of-te-vaka/

The score by Mark Mancina is refined, well-tuned and effective.  His work conveys excitement and intimate sentiments equally well.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Mancina

As for the rest: the voice talent fits the characters felicitously and the host of animators have collaborated for a feast for the eyes. In brief, MOANA is well worth your family’s time and treasure spent in a trip to your local theater.

In conclusion, I am thankful that the creators of MOANA are engaging us in the big issues of personhood, climate change, manhood / womanhood among other concepts.  As you leave the multiplex, you may wish to entertain some of these questions the MOANA experience poses should you like to move beyond its entertainment value alone:

  • How well do you know your stories—Biblical, national, familial and personal? Are you willing engage them, learn from them, be humbled by them, gain wisdom through them?  Do you tend to focus more on current trends and fashions and neglect the insights of history?
  • Are you actively engaged in life’s adventures or content to be a consumer?  Have you negotiated a “proper balance?”  Typically, our leisure comprises watching movies (I love movies!) and TV (there are some great TV shows these days) — but how much, how many and to what end?  How may we utilize the gift of entertainment toward the realm of action for a greater good?
  • How may we better honor our seniors, gain from the insights of their experiences?
  • Are we willing to take the risk of blessing other peoples and their faiths, myths and stories and find and cultivate the points of commonality and so experience harmony in diversity?

For more information on MOANA:   http://movies.disney.com/moana

http://disneyexaminer.com/2016/11/04/moanas-music-will-highlight-the-culture-of-the-south-pacific-an-interview-with-composer-opetaia-foai-of-te-vaka/

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3521164/?ref_=nm_knf_i1

[1] All citations from the New Revised Standard Version of THE BIBLE (NRSV)

[2] God is always at work. And heroes are cultivated by others who hand on a belief system, ethics and a culture. For all our “American Independence” there is no such thing as a truly “self-made man” or “self-made woman.”  We are more “inter-dependent” than we like to admit.

Film Review: Florence Foster Jenkins Rev. James M. DiLuzio C.S.P.

The film Florence Jenkins is not a comedy, although it has comedic elements.  It’s the story of a woman filled with romantic ideals and the finances to indulge them.  A passionate philanthropist showering the 1940’s Manhattan classical music scene with gifts and grants, Florence wants to belong, to participate in ways far beyond her means.  Not her monetary means. Her treasuries are overflowing.  No, she longs to belong as a member of the artists’ circle, to be known, to be loved not for her money but as a celebrated operatic soprano.  At last, in her waning years, she hopes to command the attention and praise she never received as a child nor as wife in her first marriage to a philandering yet fortuitously wealthy-now- deceased husband.  Poor, wealthy Ms. Jenkins.  She aspires to become one of the great sopranos in the exacting and starry heights of the opera world without a trace of talent or a wisp of capacity for self-scrutiny.  She is a wealthy version of Mama Rose from the musical fable GYPSY (by the way, was Madame Rose’s talent real or imaginary?)  and, even more so, DON QUIXOTE all rolled into one. And, like, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mom and Cervantes whose presence is everywhere felt throughout his early 17th century novel, Mrs. Foster Jenkins is a real, historical person.  Quite a centerpiece for any movie; quite a role for any actress.  And in this version, the actress is Meryl Streep offering a formidable incarnation of the complex and contradictory nature of dreamers and the tragedy of anyone who loses touch with reality.  Ms. Streep gives an honest, exquisite performance.

 

The relationship to GYPSY notwithstanding, director Stephen Frears has chosen to emphasize the DON QUIXOTE aspects of the story, focusing on its “illusion version reality” dynamic. He gives the film a sense of balance by attending equally to the two men who support Florence Jenkins as he does to the woman herself.   In that, the screenwriter Nicholas Martin brought his heroine to light in the same way Cervantes conveyed insights into his “knight of the woeful countenance” through the characters that interact with him.  In FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, one of these persons is purposefully overindulgent, the other reluctant but ultimately resigned.  And, as in Don Quixote, others in the fine supporting cast are simply cruel.

 

Hugh Grant plays Mrs. Jenkins boyfriends and platonic lover St. Clair Bayfield as the willing Sancho Panza with heartbreaking panache and Simon Helberg embodies the pianist / accompanist Cosmé McMoon with a kooky but nuanced performance that truly engages us as he transcends his disgust over Mrs. Jenkins performances and learns to love the woman despite her desperate games of make-believe.  Streep, Grant and Helberg are all excellent.  The sum total of the performances, period design and costumes (wonderful Production Design by Alan MacDonald and Costumes by Consolata Boyle), and overall direction makes this film well worthwhile even though, to be honest, the plot sags in energy from time to time.

 

In essence, the movie FLORENE FOSTER JENKINS is a love story with edge.  It poses a question that certainly will benefit all who are willing to address it: What is the best relationship between Truth, Beauty and Love?  There is, of course, no one-size-fits all balanced response to such a query, but this movie brings to mind Saint Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians: “So, faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”