September 25, 2009


"Unplug yourselves…and look in the mirror. This is how God made you. We're not meant to experience life through a machine." Thus opens "Surrogates," an intriguing, inventive, satisfying, futuristic thriller, set in a time when people don't come out of their homes any more, but live every aspect of their lives (work and play) through their good-looking, real-life avatars or "surrogates." Surrogates are robots that are so life-like it's hard to tell them from their "operators," except that they're a little too perfect. Of course, some operators choose "Surrogates" very different from themselves, much like people today creating divergent online personas.

"Surrogates" repeats elements from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Blade Runner," "I, Robot," "District 9," and "Wall-E," but is unique in that it is about real humans living vicariously, hooked up to "stem chairs"—super-sophisticated VR (virtual reality). Everyone uses surrogates except a rag-tag band of resisters who live on a run-down "reservation," led by "The Prophet." The status quo highly encourages use of surrogates because it is "safer," "cleaner," etc. The company that makes the surrogates has as its slogan: "Do what you want. Be what you want."

The history and lingo of this brave new world are quickly set up in the opening scenes, and we're ready to follow FBI agent Tom Greer (the well-cast Bruce Willis), on the trail of a brand-new kind of crime: two operators died when their surrogates got destroyed. But this is not supposed to be possible. Something is going radically wrong.

Amidst crime-solving and existential questions about what it means to be human, there is a moving love story between Tom and his wife who are both grieving the loss of their young son. Tom is rethinking his use of a surrogate while his wife is using hers to escape from life, and escape even from Tom. She says of her "surry": "This is who I am now." This is so realistically portrayed that it makes you think of those of us here and now who are holed up in homes and offices, addicted to or slaving away at an online existence, and perhaps acquiring a blurred sense of our own identity. "Surrogates" operators look rather pale and sickly. Real humans are disparagingly called "meatbags" (by operators speaking through surrogates: self-hatred, anyone?) It's chilling to watch the middle-aged, vulnerable, flesh-and-blood Tom out on the streets among the young, eerily-gorgeous, airbrushed, steely, powerful, slightly-mechanical, clinical, cold surrogates, and watch how they treat him (air of disdain). Much food for thought, she said, as she typed her movie review hunched over her glowing screen after many hours at her glowing screen….

Are "surrogates" a future possibility? In the film, surrogates are also used for war—something the U.S. military is already working on (we have "drone" planes bombing in Pakistan as we speak, robots that approach and diffuse bombs, and potential recruits training on video games such as "America's Army").

There was 1) one piece of "on the nose" dialogue, 2) one faulty continuity visual, 3) one big logic gaffe, and 4) one inexplicable device, but other than that, a very smart yarn with sharp dialogue and superb acting. It made me think of how pockets of people ARE choosing to "resist" the "online life" in its infancy. Christopher West (Mr. Theology of the Body) was recently interviewed on Nightline, but he couldn't watch himself because he doesn't have a TV. A friend called him and said: "Just go to a neighbor's house!" But alas, Christopher lives in Lancaster, PA. All his neighbors are Amish!!


--Theology of the body? The whole movie is quite literally a TOB movie!

--A bold, remarkable visual statement about true beauty at the end of this film.

--Gotta keep track of who's real and who's a surrogate, and then who's "operating" which surrogate when. But it's not THAT hard.

--Reminds me of the supertacular DCTalk futuristic music video "Breathe." Everyone walks around like zombies with oxygen masks on (in some kind of police state), until someone rips one off and realizes they can breathe and it's great and it's OK and they won't die.

--Takes place in Beantown, USA! (Specifically "Dawchestah")

--SPOILER ALERT! 1) "If they killed my son looking for me—then it's my fault!" 2) Miles Strickland's body suddenly disappears as it's supposed to be burning on the bier 3) How the hey is the "rebirth of humanity" supposed to happen if everyone on the planet gets killed? 4) Why didn't the surrogate just untie the portly human computer geek and let HIM type in the codes and stuff at the end, instead of having him dictate it to the surrogate?

September 22, 2009


Bishops Affirm Support for Christopher West, Send Message to Theology of the Body Institute

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, SEPT. 17, 2009 ( The archbishop of Philadelphia and the bishop of Harrisburg are expressing support for Christopher West and his work at the Theology of the Body Institute.In an Aug. 10 statement released today, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, who is chairman of the institute's episcopal advisory board, and Bishop Kevin Rhoades, head of the diocese where the organization is located, affirmed their "strong support" for its "important work."The prelates affirmed: "We are convinced that John Paul II's Theology of the Body is a treasure for the Church, indeed a gift of the Holy Spirit for our time."Yet, its scholarly language needs to be 'translated' into more accessible categories if the average person is to benefit from it."To do this is the specific mission of the Theology of the Body Institute, and we believe that Christopher West, the Institute's popular lecturer and spokesman, has been given a particular charism to carry out this mission."The communiqué continued, "In light of recent discussions, we are happy to state our full confidence in Christopher, who continues to show great responsibility and openness in listening carefully to various observations and reflections on his work and in taking them into account."The prelates affirmed that West is in communication with them as his local ordinaries, and has their blessing.In our view, they stated, the institute's "programs, courses, and materials reflect strong fidelity to the teaching of the Church and to the thought of Pope John Paul II."The prelates affirmed their "enthusiastic encouragement" for the work of the institute, and expressed the hope that more people, including priests, deacons, religious and laity, will "avail themselves of the valuable training and resources offered" by the institute.--- --- ---On ZENIT's Web page:Full text:

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September 15, 2009



Ever since God made us clothes to cover our bodies, we've been obsessed with those coverings. But what is fashion? What is beauty? Anna Wintour, editor of "Vogue" magazine, and her longtime collaborator, Grace Coddington, seem to know.

Grace Coddington & Anna Wintour

In "The September Issue," a low-key PG-13 documentary (could've been PG)--an A & E indie film that feels like television--we not only get to follow Anna and Grace all over the world to fashion shows and fashion shoots, and observe their interaction with the world's top designers, we also get inside Anna and Grace's heads and eyes as they work on the September issue of Vogue (a phonebook sized mag). What's the big deal with the September issue? It's THE time of year when women see what's new and change things up in their wardrobe. And Anna Wintour will have a lot to do with making or breaking what's "in." She is considered the world's most powerful woman in couture.

If you read/saw and enjoyed "The Devil Wears Prada," a novel-into-film about Anna Wintour (played to the teeth by the incomparable Meryl Streep), penned by a young woman who used to work at Vogue, you'll want to meet the real Wintour. She's more an intensely-focused British businesswoman than the ice queen she's made out to be, although she doesn't readily suffer foolishness. It's fascinating to watch her work and carry herself with a sort of unquestioned absolute aesthetic moral authority. "Vogue" not only operates like a tightly run ship, but also like a religion. "High priestess," "pope," "church," and "infallible" are alternately used to describe Wintour's world and verdicts.

Grace Coddington, a former model from Wales, is a hands-on stylist and a warm complement to Anna's efficiency. If Anna is the soul of "Vogue," Grace is the heart. (Interestingly enough, the names "Anna" and "Grace" both mean "grace.") Despite the tremendous respect, admiration and trust in each other's ability, you'll probably want to get out of the way when they go toe to toe over their differing tastes. Both are women of incredible resolve who love what they do. So much of what they do is simply SEEING. Anna and Grace's eyes take us through "SI." Anna's fixate like a hunter's, Grace's constantly dart around, gathering and creating.

This documentary is getting high marks from all corners, and for fans of "Project Runway," and "The Rachel ["I die"] Zoe Project" or fashion magazines in general, "SI" is a wonderfully human window into the day-to-day innermost workings of the industry. I expected this doc to be a fast-pasted, pumping catwalk, madcap ride, but it's actually quite contemplative. Models (and their crazy world) don't figure in too heavily. "The September Issue," after all, is just that: an "old media" printed periodical (albeit dominated by pictures), and Wintour's world is anything but frenzied. (Sing to yourself the Mary Poppins' song: "A British household is run with precision….")
I was hoping to learn something about color and fabric and artistry and design, and I did. Anna is less candid about her rationale than Grace, and because of that, Grace begins to steal the show. Grace comments that she feels "left behind," because she's a "romantic," and she hearkens to a sensibility of the past (which shows up so elegantly in her artistic choices—I'm with you, Grace!) However, she draws herself up bravely and says: "But we have to charge ahead." Anna echoes these words about fashion being futuristic: "So, what else?" This must be the meaning of "fashion forward."

Never having flipped through even one issue of "Vogue," I was pleasantly surprised that Wintour's choices tend to be classic rather than avant-garde (like the New York Times Style Magazine which I DO read: you know, models throwing raw meat at each other, sitting on rubbish heaps, and often dressed in garb that one wouldn't even wear on Halloween). The ethos of "Vogue" is to tell stories through the photos, to create thematic worlds of fantasy and make-believe. Wintour's personal style is conservative, feminine, multi-colored, contained and slimline—always looking like a young Mom from the 60's or 70's. Her hair and makeup fit her perfectly and give her a certain agelessness.

What's fascinating about the Vogue offices and those that work there, is that it seems Wintour alone dresses up every day. Others, especially the women, are make-up free, with often unkempt hair and the plainest of clothes. Most are model thin. There are many wonderfully human ("they're just like us") moments, inclusive of Anna, Grace and everyone else: When Anna leaves the room, the staff look around nervously: "So what are we supposed to do with feathers this Fall?" Someone breaks the tension: "Wear 'em!" And even the best designers make giant fashion faux pas. Wintour herself wishes for "a better back end."

In the opening minutes of the film, Wintour shares that she thinks some people are intimidated by fashion, they don't understand it, and so they put it down (reminiscent of Anne Hathaway's character in the film "Devil Wears Prada" being cut down to size by the Wintour-character when she giggles at the seriousness with which everyone is taking fashion).

So, do nuns care about fashion? Why not? We're women, aren't we? At World Youth Day 2000 in Rome, I was with twenty other congregations of Sisters. We voted on the prettiest habit, and the Sisters of Life won. Designer: the late Cardinal O'Connor.

--Anna Wintour wears/promotes fur. :[
--There were many men in my audience. The whole audience felt free to groan (disagree) with Anna's decisions.
--"September Issue" has lots of genuine, not-set-up humor.

September 2, 2009


YYY 1/2

The sci-fi hit "District 9" is 30% social statement (a la Ray Bradbury) and 70% blast 'em to Hades violence and special effects.

An alien spaceship breaks down over Johannesburg, South Africa, and the government sequesters the aliens in a refugee camp that quickly turns into a restive slum. Signs—many which you and I saw on buses and billboards as a clever promotion for the film—are everywhere: "Humans only!" White South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp is, of course, holding a mirror up to apartheid. White and Black South Africans are now united against the new outsiders. The two-legged, erect, human-sized aliens that look like a hybrid of Star Wars' Storm Troopers and giant shrimp are pejoratively called "prawns."

The movie is filmed in a gritty, pulsing, hand-held cinema-verite style, much like "Cloverfield." It's hard to look away, and the acting is superb. Much of it is presented as a video news magazine/diary that makes it seem even realer. "D9" feels like a European film without the "auteur" arbitrariness, and like a Hollywood action film without the greatly overblown pyro-technics and soundtrack. But this is not a small film. It's big, just somehow a little closer to the bone and a little less sleek than an "American film," which, for me, is a welcome change. Small horrors, encroaching on our normal lives and growing, are far more terrifying than big, loud, "BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID RIGHT NOW ON CUE!" Tinsel Town tropes. The CGI creatures (whose language is translated by subtitles) are completely, I mean completely, and seamlessly integrated into the live action as never before.

Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a government operative, is in charge of re-settling aliens in a new camp. He likes his job way too much, and has prawns killed with impunity. (He has much more pause killing humans later on.) This almost-goofy overachiever transforms (in more ways than one) into a desperate fugitive in a matter of hours. The hunter becomes the hunted. The story-line is very imaginative, and the film world can toast a fresh talent in the not-yet-30-years-old Blomkamp (who has a background in visual effects)!

The ethos of "D9" can be summed up in Wikus's terse reply to an alien's son who is delighted by similarities to himself that he observes in Wikus: "We are NOT the same!!"

A thought-provoking subplot involving bio-tech, power-lust and armaments firmly embeds "D9's" subject matter in the sad realities of (often black market) international commerce. I thought to myself at one point: just change up the players and the goods a little bit and we've got reality happening somewhere in the world this very moment.

The action only lags at the suddenly slowed-down, drawn-out gun battle ending which tries to play up a few heart-warming plot-points that were thin to begin with. Also at the end, the terms, conditions and rules of the story are repeated too much. We get it. But these are minor flaws. The final resolution is rather unique and complete, albeit with a hint of mystery.

"D9" is rated "R" for "bloody violence and pervasive language." It's no more violent than today's general movie violence, but there's a lot of, well, carnage. Alien weapons vaporize/liquefy people like juicy tomatoes. And there's a lot of vomit. Oodles of vomit. If you don't like violence, gore and just plain groddiness (although I wouldn't deem it "gratuitous), "D9" is not for you. The considerable use of the F-bomb doesn't feel gratuitous either, given the circumstances. And uttered with an Afrikaner accent, it doesn't even sound like our harsh American usage, if there's such a distinction.

Nigerians come off looking very, very bad in this movie. This would never happen in a contemporary American-made film. There's a huge buzz online that "D9" is racist. It seems to be an intra-Africa thing as to how certain Africans look at other Africans. Seems to me this is the REAL "alien" story here! However, at one point, it was confusing, because when the Nigerians supposedly switched into their own language, they were speaking the Zulu "click" language. Forget "Inglorious Basterds": D9" seems to be some kind of revenge film when it comes to Nigerians. Just Google "Nigerians and District 9."

"D9," in the end, is pure entertainment. There's not a whole lot of heroism. Nobody really changes. The good stay good. The bad stay bad. In the main, everyone is just trying to survive.

And what does the ever-hovering spaceship signify? Home--always out of reach? And what is home? Where you're welcome?


--"D9" is based on a graphic novel.

--Is the slightly mysterious ending ripe for a sequel?

--You will not, I repeat, not be able to eat a Big Mac or any other meat for a while after watching D9. Trust me.

--The magic elixir that every protagonist in every movie is after is actually an elixir!