Novitiate


Melissa Leo looks ready to rap someone on the knuckles with a ruler.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Melissa Leo, Denis O’Hare, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Chris Zylka, Ashley Bell, Rebecca Dayan, Chelsea Lopez, Marco St. John, Joseph Wilson, Jordan Price, Kamryn Boyd, Lucie Carroll, Lucy Hartselle, Carlee James, Adele Marie Pomerenke, Lisa Stewart. Directed by Maggie Betts

 

“Get thee to a nunnery” doesn’t have quite the same punch it once did. These days, Catholic nuns are women who feel a calling to serve God but minus the brutal discipline and somewhat arcane rules that once governed convents around the globe. One of the turning points in this evolution was the ecumenical council known as Vatican II which in its day revolutionized the Catholic church virtually overnight. Not everyone welcomed the changes that it brought, however.

Cathleen (Qualley) is a young woman who has been raised by her mother Nora (Nicholson) after her booze addled dad (Zylka) left which, in the 1950s and early 1960s was a much more unusual situation than it is now. She is not Catholic but when free schooling at a private Catholic school is offered, Nora – who is not religious in the least – takes it, hoping that it will give Cathleen a better education.

However, Cathleen finds the Catholic religion intriguing and feels that joining the novitiate is where her future lies – to become a bride of Christ. She joins the Sisters of the Blessed Rose, the convent headed up by a conservative old school Mother Superior (Leo) who takes her vows very seriously and expects her charges to do the same. All of their devotion is to be channeled towards God and Cathleen and her fellow postulates – the first stage of becoming a nun – are only too glad to comply.

The 18 fresh-faced dewy-eyed charges who are preparing to be symbolically married to Christ are trained by the flinty Mother Superior and the softer Sister Mary Grace (Agron) to be perfect wives to their husband-to-be because Christ deserves no less than perfection. This leads to terrifying sessions where the Mother Superior gathers the novitiates – who have graduated from the postulate rank to the second stage of becoming a full-fledged Sister – in a circle and orders them to confess their flaws that keep them from being perfect, reducing most of the girls to sobbing wrecks. Mary Grace is troubled by the brutal tactics of her Mother Superior and the two clash on a regular basis.

However, despite her mother’s disapproval Cathleen is determined to be the perfect bride of Christ and while that wins her the admiration of the Mother Superior, the discipline and self-starvation that Cathleen puts herself through begins to worry her fellow novitiates as she becomes dangerously thin.

To the film’s credit, it dispenses of the usual nun stereotypes that Hollywood generally utilizes; the Sister Mary Discipline knuckle rapping (although the Mother Superior at times comes close) or the singing nuns of The Sound of Music and The Singing Nun. Betts is cognizant that these postulates (and later, novitiates) are mostly teenage girls with all that implies; the girls are emotional ranging from ecstasy (celebrating like giddy brides after the ceremony that elevates them to novitiate status) to agony (falling apart when the stern Mother Superior gets in their face about minor rule infractions). These scenes tend to be the most memorable in the movie.

Much of the praise has to go to Leo, an Oscar winner who has a good shot at another nomination here for Best Supporting Actress; certainly this is one of the finest performances in a career chock full of them. When she reads the changes affecting her order wrought by Vatican II – including one that essentially demotes nuns to the same status as regular parishioners, giving them no standing within the church which, as the film notes at the end, would lead to more than 90,000 nuns renouncing their vows. Qualley, who most will know from her HBO series The Leftovers is also very strong and shows some confident screen presence. Agron from Glee also is impressive in a smaller role, but this even though the movie is about Sister Cathleen it is very much Leo’s performance that drives it.

The movie, a scoosh over two hours long, does drag in places, particularly during the middle. There is also a scene where Cathleen, desperate for intimacy and human contact, demands comfort from a fellow novitiate which leads to what feels like a prurient and unnecessary make-out session which felt like it didn’t need to be there.

The Catholic Legion of Decency has condemned the movie and I can understand why; the Roman Catholic church is portrayed as almost cult-like in places and devout Catholics may be uneasy watching this, although it should be kept in mind that the film takes place more than 50 years ago and things were a lot different in the Church and in her convents then than they are now.

Nonetheless this is a strong feature film debut for Betts and even though there are a couple of missteps and could have benefited from a little more trimming, she shows herself to be an exciting new voice in filmmaking at a time when Hollywood can use more powerful female directors – well, it always can but now more than ever.

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances here, particularly from Leo who takes it to the next level. Some of the scenes are extremely powerful. The filmmakers generally refrain from using stereotypes of nuns.
REASONS TO STAY: Some Catholics may have some issues with the film. The film runs a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, discussions of sexuality as well as brief nudity and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Doubt
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

The Priests


There's never any telling what lurks at the end of an alleyway.

There’s never any telling what lurks at the end of an alleyway.

(2015) Horror (CJ Entertainment) Dong-won Kang, Byeong-ok Kim, Eui-sung Kim, Ho-jae Lee, So-dam Park, Soo-Hyang Jo. Directed by Jae-hyun Jang

NYAFF

There are those who will tell you that the things that go bump in the night are real. There are also those who will tell you that there are things that will possess a human body, things that can only be driven out with the help of an exorcist.

Exorcism does exist, although it is no longer the exclusive province of the Catholic Church, movies on the subject notwithstanding. However, we most associate the rituals of exorcism with Catholicism, and it has to be said much of that goes back to a certain 1973 movie that turned out to have some roots in fact. This one, apparently, only has roots in that movie.

Fr. Kim (B.O. Kim) is the go-to guy for exorcisms in South Korea, mainly by virtue that he was the deacon for the go-to guy for exorcisms, who is now too old and too feeble to perform them himself. He is in the midst of performing one now, a grueling affair that has gone on for six months. The victim is Young-shin (Park), a 14-year-old parishioner of his. He is a curmudgeonly man who has gone through Deacons at a terrifying rate – twelve of them thus far. Of course, some of the things they’ve seen during the rituals would be enough to send any sane man flying for the exit.

His latest Deacon is Choi (Wang), who has been coasting his way through the seminary. Not taking his theology terribly seriously, he has made it through life on the back of his delightful grin and his not inconsiderable charm. Now, however, he has been given a new assignment and he reluctantly takes it on, but in fact he’s kind of intrigued. After all, he’s seen the movie too. He just doesn’t really believe in it. It’s just a movie, right?

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, things are going badly for the girl. She’s been compelled to commit suicide by the demon inside her but survives somehow in a coma. The demon is looking for a good man (what woman isn’t?) to take over; apparently men are much better possessions. Kim knows that the spirit of the demon must be moved into the body of a pig which should then be drowned in a river in order to make sure the evil entity doesn’t return to the girl. And the family has sued to turn off the life support so that their daughter can finally be at rest – they believe Fr. Kim has been molesting her, which prompted the suicide attempt. And everything is pointing to this night to be the best possible time to get rid of the possession – and the good father with his reluctant assistant – who has demons of his own to conquer – will move heaven and earth to save this innocent little girl.

Certainly the film takes most of its cues from the classic William Friedkin film The Exorcist (but also from other demonically-inclined films like The Omen) but there are some differences here. It introduces modern horror stories, like intimations of abuse by a priest, and political infighting within the church hierarchy, but curiously stays away from modern horror idioms. This is definitely a man’s movie – the only female character with any substance in the film is the victim herself.

This isn’t as effects-laden or as gory as other exorcism movies, particularly those of recent vintage. Jang relies on atmosphere and an overall feeling of dread that something spectacularly bad is about to happen. He’s so good at building up the tension that the climax, when it comes, is a bit of a disappointment – but only a bit. I don’t think it is possible for any climactic scene to live up to the build-up that this one got.

Park as the possessed girl outdoes even Linda Blair here; she has her moments where the innocent little girl is present but for the most part she is chilling, manipulative, much smarter than either of the priests and in short, a worthy opponent. She scares the living daylights out of you every time she’s on the screen.

Kang is one of Korea’s rising stars and also one of its best looking. He sometimes has to play a bit of the fool and his foolishness is a bit jarring compared to the rest of the film but again, cultural differences. Movies from other places don’t necessarily have to live up to American expectations, no? In any case, he has some moments, particularly near the end of the movie. He does have a good amount of potential in any case.

The special effects are pretty minimal so American teen horror audiences will probably think this lame, but true horror fans are going to recognize the craft here and perhaps flock to it should it get any sort of distribution. Keep an eye out for it on various web horror outlets (like Shudder) and your local film festivals, particularly those that celebrate the realm of the fantastic. This is a solid, entertaining and downright spooky film that ranks among some of the best of the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Some real nice touches of authenticity. Park delivers a show-stopping performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the effects are a little weak by American standards.
FAMILY VALUES: Scenes of terror and disturbing images, as well as some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kang is considered to be one of Korea’s biggest heartthrobs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Exorcist
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Oranges and Sunshine


Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

(2010) True Life Drama (Cohen Media Group) Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, Aisling Loftus, David Wenham, Stuart Wolfenden, Lorraine Ashbourne, Federay Holmes, Richard Dillane, Molly Windsor, Harvey Scrimshaw, Alastair Cummings, Tammy Wakefield, Kate Rutter, Marg Downey, Geoff Revell, Greg Stone, Neil Melville, Tara Morice, Mandahla Rose. Directed by Jim Loach

Offshoring

Sometimes things are done with the best of intentions but upon further reflection are nothing short of evil. This propensity for doing horrible things for the best of reasons is true of governments as well as individual people.

Social worker Margaret Humphreys (Watson) ran a support group for orphans in Nottingham, England – home of the Sheriff.  While in the course of her duties, she discovers something monstrous, so much so that at first she is in disbelief.

Children of poor mothers – single moms, drug addicts, prostitutes – were routinely taken from their mothers, told their parents were dead and shipped out of England to points elsewhere in the Empire but mainly Australia. They were told that they would have oranges for the picking from trees and non-stop sunshine. The reality was that these children would be used as forced labor, many of them at Catholic-run facilities.

Humphreys would dig further and find out that there were literally tens of thousands of children who were affected since World War 2 (and in fact the practice had been going on since the mid-19th century). Approached by Charlotte (Holmes) begging her to help her find her mother, she ends up discovering that Charlotte has a brother, the suicidal and messed-up Jack (Weaving). She also helps the angry Len (Wenham) whom she eventually becomes friends with although at first he’s quite rotten to her.

She would start a foundation to help these kids which at times was funded but at others not. Because so many of the abuses took place in Catholic facilities, Roman Catholics particularly in Australia were downright hostile to her. The long hours and trips across the planet from Nottingham to Australia took a toll on her family life, with a husband (Dillane) who should have been nominated for sainthood holding down the fort at home. But in the face of governments who would be more than happy to forget about this practice (which continued until 1967) and the hostility of those who felt she was persecuting Catholics as well as her own yearning to be with her own family, could she possibly help all those who are in need of it?

This is a very powerful subject that should well provoke a deep emotional response in the viewer, but director Loach (son of veteran filmmaker Ken Loach) opts not to be too manipulative here. He could easily have demonized the government officials who mandated these decisions and the Catholic societies who behaved badly towards the children but he chooses not to make any villains here other than the policy itself.

Without a villain, there really isn’t the kind of conflict that would bring out that emotional response so instead the pressure goes on the shoulders of Watson as Humphreys to give a human face to the struggle and Watson delivers. One of the world’s most underrated actresses, she gives Humphreys a presentation as a flawed but compassionate woman, dogged in her determination to see justice done and these kids – now adults – be restored somewhat through reunions with their parents, or a vehicle for reparations for the wrongs done them. Weaving and Wenham both deliver memorable performances as well, as two men victimized in the same way but coping with it in very different ways.

The pacing is deliberately slow, maybe too much so. For the most part, Humphreys’ conflict is with apathy and that never makes for cinematic gold. Watson manages to overcome the film’s lack of inertia with a role that not only does justice to the real life Humphreys (who continues to work for these kids to this day) but also makes an unforgettable cinematic portrait of a real life unsung hero whose name is little known outside of England but really should be.

WHY RENT THIS: A tour de force for Watson. Weaving and Wenham are strong as well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a ponderous pace.

FAMILY VALUES: Some strong language and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scandal was portrayed in the documentary film The Lost Children of the Empire in which the real Humphreys appears.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with the cast and production team.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on a $4.5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso)


Cinema Paradiso

Movies are magic!

(1988) Drama (Miramax) Jacques Perrin, Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Agnese Nano, Marco Leonardi, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Isa Danielli, Leonardo Trieste, Roberta Lina, Leo Gullotta, Enzo Cannavale, Nicola Di Pinto, Nino Terzo. Directed by Giusseppe Tornatore

 

Some movies are so personal to the director that you feel like you are getting a glimpse of their very soul. Those movies can be a mixed blessing, but in other cases they become timeless classics that change your point of view forever.

Cinema Paradiso is one such film. It charts the journey of Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita who as an adult (Perrin) gets a phone call from his mother that his childhood mentor Alfredo (Noiret) has passed away. He returns to his home town in Sicily, a small village where the 20th century arrived kicking and screaming.

As a boy (Cascio) he waited in vain for his father to come back from the war. He soon found something to be fascinated by – the town’s only movie theater which is basically the only source of entertainment for the village. He is taken under the wing of Alfredo, who allows him to watch movies from the projection booth. There he learns the language of cinema – of close ups and cross cuts, of montage and flashback.

But the idyllic life of a small town takes a dark turn when a fire robs Alfredo of his sight – and it would have been more had it not been for the courage and quick thinking of Toto. As a teenager (Leonardi) he takes over the projectionist duties with the help and guidance of his mentor. He also develops a crush on Elena (Nano), a blue-eyed blonde who confounds and bedevils him, but also excites and inspires him.

He will reach a point in his life in which he will need to make a decision to go or stay – to remain the conduit of dreams in his little village, or to become a maker of dreams. We know what he chooses but why he goes down the path he takes…well, it is not exactly what you might expect.

This was the 1989 Best Foreign Film Academy Award winner, and deservedly so. Oscar doesn’t always get these things right but they sure did here. This film is a classic, a once in a lifetime movie that not only gives us a sense of nostalgia for why we love the movies but a sense of sadness for the roads not taken.

Tornatore brilliantly cast three different actors for the same role. They don’t really look much alike, but they certainly all channeled the essence of Toto. I don’t know if Perrin, Cascio and Leonardi had much communication before filming began but the performances sure come off as if they did. The three actors are seamless in changing from one to the other – and never at any point do you feel as if you’re seeing the interpretation of a role but three actors playing the same person at different points in his life. It’s amazing to see and critical to the success of the film.

There are moments of pure magic – such as Alfredo projecting the movie on a building across the square after the theater has closed for the night, or a montage of kissing scenes that were cut from the movies at the behest of the village priest who every week meticulously sat through each film, ringing a bell whenever he wanted Alfredo to snip a scene out.

Hollywood has often viewed small town life through a rose-colored lens and it’s kind of comforting to know that Rome has the same lens in place. This is a film that moves you and touches you. Even if you didn’t live a life anywhere near what Toto did you will certainly find elements of the story that will resonate with you. Cinema Paradiso isn’t just about the movies – it’s about life, and maybe that’s why we love the movies so much because at the end of the day, that’s what all movies are about in some way shape or form.

The original cut oddly enough is not the one shown in America initially. The Weinsteins made some cuts and it is that version that won the Oscar. Later, they released it briefly in its original uncut form. Strangely, like Roger Ebert, I prefer the cut version. The original one feels a bit overlong to me although it does give a good deal more insight into the Elena-Toto romance and what happened to it. You should certainly see it if you loved the American version of it, but it requires a more patient European personality I think.

WHY RENT THIS: A marvelous look at the meaning of home for better and for worse and of the place of movies and magic in it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Runs a little bit long, particularly the director’s cut edition.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality on the director’s cut and a disturbing scene of a fire in both editions.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Samples of dialogue from the movie can be heard in the Dream Theater song “Take the Time.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD collector’s edition includes both the theatrical and director cuts of the film as well as recipe cards for dishes inspired by the film as well as the Food Network show in which Michael Chiarello discussed the film and the dishes he created around it. Because the rights to the director’s cut edition lie with a different studio, the Blu-Ray version of the film includes only the shorter theatrical cut and none of the extras (including the commentaries and featurettes) found on the DVD so you might be better off finding the collector’s edition on eBay.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was in all likelihood a hit (as we only have domestic box office figures).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Picture Show

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Of Time and the City


Of Time and the City

A bleak vista in postwar Liverpool.

(Strand) Terence Davies, the Beatles, Assorted local figures in Liverpool. Directed by Terence Davies

We are all products of our environment. We feel a sense of keen belonging to a place and time; it is there we feel comforted and where we feel we understand our surroundings at least to the degree that hindsight gives us.

Unfortunately, no place is static; every city changes. Old buildings crumble and new ones take their place, glittering in the architecture du jour of the era. We find ourselves lost in our own homes, unable to make sense at what had once seemed sensible.

Veteran director, writer and actor Terence Davies spent a quarter of a century in the British working class city of Liverpool, starting just after the Second World War. His was a world of compression; row after row of houses sharing common walls, made of brick, smoke curling from chimneys to join that which belched out of the factories and the shipyards.

Like most in Liverpool, Davies grew up in a working class family, the youngest of ten children (two of which died in infancy) in a deeply religious Roman Catholic household. He found the strictures of the Church too confining and eventually rejected Catholicism, becoming an atheist instead.

His budding homosexuality caused him great suffering, trying to reconcile his feelings with societal mores and eventually deciding that the problem was with society and not him, quite sensibly in fact. He considers himself a realist; he prefers to see things as they are rather than what they could be.

This is what puzzles me about the documentary he has made about his home town. He simultaneously labels it a love letter and a eulogy and indeed, it’s both, but it seems fairly certain that Davies prefers the Liverpool of his youth to the modern one. Using archival footage (some of it seems to be home movies; whether they were shot by Davies or other Liverpudlians is not clear), Davies weaves a sense of time and place that has a certain amount of allure.

Davies narrates the movie himself, often quoting from such sources as T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Shelley and Sir Walter Raleigh, among others. This is set to the background of funereal classical music and the occasional pop song (from such disparate sources as the Swinging Blue Jeans and the Hollies).

Most Americans are probably aware of Liverpool, if they are aware at all, for being the birthplace of the Beatles, but Davies gives them little thought, other than to dismissively sniff “they inspired me to love classical music.” Indeed, he has an acerbic tongue but most of his vitriol is saved for the monarchy, which he considers an outdated custom; he was especially incensed at the expenses spent on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at a time when England, still reeling from the damage from the Blitz, was stricken by intense poverty and hunger. He certainly has a point.

My problem with the movie boils down to this; if you are going to take us on a journey to see your home town as you see it, you need to give us a reason for us to go along, otherwise you’re just telling us that things change, something all of us are well aware of. I got the feeling that Davies is truly fond of Liverpool and despairs that the changes made to it are not for the better; that’s all well and good, but if I can’t love Liverpool – if you can’t adequately transfer your own love to me, then those changes aren’t going to feel as immediate to me. In other words, he might have stimulated the mind but not the heart.

In a sense, without involving the viewer in your emotional point of view, you’re making what amounts to cinematic masturbation. While I was able to at least find some of it – enough to make it worth my while – intriguing, for the most part this is ponderous and pretentious, a collection of images that while compelling, ultimately become meaningless without an emotional center to anchor to.

WHY RENT THIS: This is certainly a love letter to Liverpool.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit pretentious and overbearing at times, the film doesn’t give viewers a reason to love Liverpool themselves.

FAMILY VALUES: There isn’t anything here that isn’t suitable for all audiences, although I would think most children might find this boring.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film Davies has directed since 2000’s The House of Mirth and it is also his first documentary.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Stepfather

Doubt


Doubt

Sister Aloysius shows you where her heart would have been if she had one.

(Miramax) Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Alice Drummond, Audrie J. Neenan, Susan Blommaert, Joseph Foster II. Directed by John Patrick Shanley

If one has faith, one must first understand doubt. Doubt is the antithesis of faith, its polar opposite. You cannot have faith if you have doubt…can you?

It is December of 1963 and America is reeling of the Kennedy assassination. Even in the insular world of the parish of St. Nicholas, in the most American of Catholic enclaves (the Bronx), the outside world has crept in. The ramrod straight-spined principal of St. Nicholas is Sister Aloysius (Streep). For her, the world is unchanging, the same as it has ever been. Children are to be watched at all time for they are surely up to no good. Progress is a word to be spoken with the pursed expression of one sucking a lemon. There is only the sureness of faith, the knowledge that what she knows is right and true and that the discipline of her faith will carry her through.

Into this world comes Father Flynn (Hoffman), a boisterous new priest who not only accepts change, he embraces it. With the reforms of the Vatican II conference sweeping through the Church, he is eager to embrace the new progressive Church which seems to be on the verge of making itself more accessible to its flock.

Where Aloysius is stern and disciplined, Flynn is easygoing and charming. The nuns eat in rigid silence, speaking only when spoken to and fearful of the vitriolic wrath of Aloysius. The priests’ meals are boisterous, raucous with laughter and a spot of the hair of the dog. It seems inevitable that Aloysius would take a dim view of Flynn and vice versa. A collision between the two is unavoidable.

When Flynn takes an interest in Donald Miller (Foster), the only African-American child in the school, at first it seems innocent. Aloysius however seizes the opportunity to declare war on her enemy. She commands her nuns to keep an eye on Flynn for untoward behavior and Sister James (Adams), Miller’s teacher and a sweet innocent young thing who is constantly upbraided by Sister Aloysius for being inexperienced and soft on her students, becomes her unexpected accomplice. She notes that Father Flynn calls Miller to the rectory alone one day, and that when the boy returned he seemed upset; further, she detected the smell of alcohol on the boy’s breath.

That is all the ammunition that Sister Aloysius needs. Although even Sister James comes to believe in Father Flynn’s innocence, Aloysius plows on like a bulldozer, sweeping every unwanted explanation from her wake. Father Flynn’s protestations fall on deaf ears. Aloysius contacts the boy’s mother (Davis) to tell her of her suspicions but receives a surprising reaction in one of the film’s best scenes. Sister James has doubt; Sister Aloysius has faith. Which is the stronger?

This is the kind of movie that invites discussion and provokes thought. Non-Catholics will relate to this in a different way than Catholics (like me) will. Faith is a different thing for the Catholics of the early ‘60s. It is, as portrayed by Streep here, an Absolute, a capital letter that brooks no argument.

Shanley wrote this as a play and it won four Tony awards for it’s year-long Broadway run. The problem with converting plays into movies is that they can seem stage-y at times but that isn’t the case here. Shanley, who wrote Moonstruck and directed Joe vs. the Volcano a couple of decades back, creates an environment that is three-dimensional (and I’m not talking about the 3D film process) that is full and real. You can feel the chill of winter and the warmth that comes from the pulpit.

A script this strong deserves a strong cast and it gets it. The four main actors would all get Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for their performances here, and quite frankly they all deserved the statuettes that they didn’t win. Streep delivers one of the most unforgettable performances of her distinguished career as the rigid, inflexible Sister Aloysius; she literally wills her way into being and one can see the iron in her soul throughout. Hoffman is also at his best, creating a priest who is flawed as a man and completely unprepared for the onslaught of Sister Aloysius. Davis, a relative unknown, has but one scene with dialogue in the movie but she holds her own against one of the greatest actors of her generation and delivers a career-making performance. Adams has the kind of role that you would think simply would be overwhelmed by the others in the film, but she delivers the kind of performance that is at the top of her game, making a mousy role stand out in a crowd of lions.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch but keep in mind that this isn’t about whether Father Flynn behaved improperly with young Donald Miller. It is, when all is said and done, about the title – doubt and its lack thereof. Doubt is a necessity; without it we cannot question. If we cannot question, we cannot grow and if we cannot grow, we die. It’s that simple. This is one of the most powerful films of 2008 and is a must-see for everyone who loves films that make you think.

WHY RENT THIS: The contest of wills between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn at the heart of the movie is brilliantly acted by Streep and Hoffman; their confrontations are worth seeing by themselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The subject matter can be very wrenching and the resolution of the movie might leave some with a bad taste in their mouths.

FAMILY VALUES: The situations are very adult and will likely go over the heads of the more innocent sorts. Proceed with caution; the movie raises questions that you may not be prepared to answer right away.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film, which is Shanley’s first directorial effort in 18 years, is dedicated to Shanley’s first grade teacher who was the inspiration for Sister James.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a roundtable discussion with the cast on the differences in performing styles and preparation between theater and film, as well as a feature on the Sisters of Charity, the order depicted here and a discussion with several nuns of that order on the changes that swept through it at about the time the movie is set.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Hollywoodland

Angels and Demons


Angels & Demons

"What's the plot doing way over there?"

(Paramount) Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgaard, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Thure Lindhardt, David Pasquesi, Victor Alfieri, Elya Basin, Rance Howard . Directed by Ron Howard.

Any institution that is around long enough is bound to acquire opponents, if not enemies. For the Roman Catholic Church, the oldest institution on the planet, those opponents are many. But, as they say, it only takes one.

The Church is mourning the sudden and unexpected death of the pope, considered a progressive and fair-minded pontiff, beloved by his flock. As the College of Cardinals gathers to elect a new leader for their church, two very disturbing events occur. The first is the theft of a small but significant amount of anti-matter, a substance manufactured in an experiment partially funded by the Church. The second is the kidnapping of four respected cardinals, all of them considered favorites for the papal election, or as they are known more commonly in the Vatican as the preferati.

The powers of the pope are invested in Patrick McKenna (McGregor), the assistant to the previous pope (or Camerlengo as the position is titled), and he is given further reason for misgiving when he receives a cryptic but menacing note, as well as a live cam feed that indicates that the missing anti-matter is somewhere in the Vatican.

To help in the investigation, Inspector Olivetti (Favino) of the Vatican Police Force recruits an unlikely ally – Robert Langdon (Hanks), the Harvard professor of symbology whose investigations in The DaVinci Code brought down the Opus Dei group and caused much embarrassment for the Church. He arrives in the Vatican along with scientist Vittoria Vetra (Zurer) who was working on the anti-matter project and whose father was gruesomely murdered during the theft. She reports that the battery-charged electronic cannister holding the anti-matter would eventually fail when the battery died; when it did, a sizable chunk of Rome would be vaporized.

Langdon determines that the note was written by the Illuminati, an ancient society of scientifically-inclined Catholics who underwent extreme persecution in the days of Galileo. Deciphering the note, he figures out that the plan is to execute the four cardinals, once every hour in four locations sacred to the Illuminati (each having to do with one of the four elements). Langdon must follow a variety of clues to discover where each cardinal is going to meet a grisly end and arrive there before said cardinals get an early opportunity to see God live and in Person.

He is opposed by Commander Richter (Skarsgaard), the head of the Swiss Guard who are kind of the secret service of the Vatican. To let you know how he feels about the situation, he growls in a voice dripping with disdain “What a relief, the symbologist is here” when Langdon arrives at the Vatican. Also conservative Cardinal Strauss (Mueller-Stahl) is suspicious of the openly non-religious Langdon.

This is a very slick-looking thriller that utilizes its Roman locations effectively (although the Vatican locations were all recreated on a set – as you might imagine, the Church refused to allow the filmmakers permission to film there). Howard is one of the best directors working today, and his skills are one of the movie’s outstanding features. The pacing is brisk and doesn’t give you time to think about all the implausibility in the script.

The script is one of the major downfalls of the film. Writers Akiva Goldsmith and David Koepp – both of whom have delivered some really well-written scripts in the past – aren’t entirely to blame for this. Dan Brown, author of the novel, is a talented writer of page turners, but sacrifices a lot of common sense for the sake of a good plot turn. Are you telling me that the combined minds of the Swiss Guard and the Vatican Police Force, who guard some of the most important people and treasures in the world, were unable to turn the note upside down to figure out that it was sent by the Illuminati?

The script is also rather talky. Hanks spends a lot of time cogitating and then delivering a pronouncement like an explanation point “Why didn’t I think of it before? The Church of San Whoever, patron saint of Earth Wind and Fire!” It’s not that Hanks does a bad job – he’s quite believable inasmuch as he can be as an academic who isn’t fazed by being shot at and have any number of murder attempts made on him. In some ways he’s more of an action hero than scholar, but Hanks makes sure the scholarly side is well-represented.

The international cast (with actors from Israel, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, China, Russia, Denmark, Austria and elsewhere) are solid. McGregor just about steals the movie as the pious Camerlengo. I like him as an actor more and more in every role I see him as. Zurer is likewise solid in a role that literally has no reason to be there – she’s eye candy, nothing more but she at least makes a credible attempt at being at least physicist-like. Skarsgaard and Mueller-Stahl, veteran character actors both, lend gravitas to their roles.

I’ve really spent a lot of time dwelling on the movie’s faults, and that’s a bit unfair. Granted, they are glaring imperfections, but quite frankly this is a solid summer thriller with plenty of mindless entertainment. The trouble is it kind of bills itself as a smart thriller which is a bit of a disservice. This is the kind of movie that if you think too much about it you’re not going to like it as much. Instead, just sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a pretty good one.

WHY RENT THIS: A nonstop thrill ride that doesn’t pause long enough for you to catch your breath. McGregor is becoming a much more watchable actor than he was in the Star Wars prequels. Breathtaking sets, special effects (particularly one sequence in St. Peter’s Square) and use of Roman locations make this extremely watchable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is full of holes and lapses in logic that detract from the action. While it bills itself as an intellectual thriller, it works better as mindless entertainment. Some egregious factual errors, particularly as to historical context and Catholic  

FAMILY VALUES: Some rather spectacular and gruesome murders occur, some of which may be too intense for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: While filming in Rome, the crew and equipment were blocking the passage of a bridal party on the way to a church for their wedding. Upon hearing about the situation, Tom Hanks personally escorted the party through the filming area and prevailed upon crew to move equipment so that the party might pass. The grateful family of the bride invited Hanks and director Howard to stay for the reception but their busy filming schedule prevented it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a feature on CERN, home of the large hadron collider and the world’s largest particle physics factory. The crew were permitted to film on the premesis (although not in sensitive areas) and the achievements of CERN are discussed in some detail.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Soloist