Friday, October 20, 2017

Only the Brave [2017]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (P. Sobczynski) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review

Only the Brave [2017] (directed by Joseph Kosinski, screenplay by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer based on the GQ article "No Exit" by Sean Flynn [GQ] [IMDb]) tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots an elite squad of forest fire fighters from Prescott, Arizona, nineteen (out of twenty) of whom died, overrun by the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013.  This was the largest loss of life in a firefighting incident in the United States since 9/11.

Being from rural Arizona, this elite fire fighting unit (a "Seal Team 6" of fire fighting ...) was largely filled with highly jacked, testosterone driven 20-somethings, though its commander Eric Marsh (played in the film by Josh Brolin) was 43 when he died with his men fighting the blaze.  Yet if some more liberal Readers here would roll their eyes, thinking to themselves "Great, John Waynes some perhaps literally on steroids," the film actually portrays quite accurately those classic blue-collar rural "Trump voters" that the Left would like to dismiss / demonize and yet deserve our Respect first and only then perhaps some correction with regards to their sexism (and perhaps racism, not shown here in the film).  Why?  Put simply these are the people who police our streets often times in very tough conditions, fight these kind of fires and dodge the bullets to fight our wars.

 They were also people struggling with some, again, very Trump voter problems: One of the main characters in the film, Brendan McDonough (nicknamed Donut, and played marvelously by Miles Teller) begins the film as a Mephed-up Stoner.  (Trump got a lot of rural voters interested in him precisely because he was the first politician to talk seriously about the current rural heroin epidemic). Brendan only becomes interested in joining the Hotshots (and then finds that at least initially they are _way out of his league_) when his girlfriend who he got pregnant tells him that she wants nothing to do with him and to just stay away from their kid when she has it.  That kick in the ... changes him.

Anyway, I would say that this is about as good a Hollywood film about Red-State America as it's probably capable of making, (even) better than Country Strong [2011], that in my early blog-days I really, really liked as well and which all in all also portrayed a white rural South with some complexity and compassion as well.

Very good job!

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Foreigner [2017]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (1 Star)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Walsh) review (S. Abrams) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

The Foreigner [2017] (directed by Martin Campbell, screenplay by David Carboni based on the novel "The Chinaman" [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Stephen Leather [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) spins a pretty good UK / IRA tale while allowing veteran Chinese Hong Kong born actor Jackie Chan [wikip] [IMDb] to play essentially the Liam Neeson roles in the Taken [2008-2014] movies (incidently Halle Barry (!) played a similar role in the recent film Kidnap [2017] reviewed here earlier this year).

In the current film China-born, fled to South Vietnam when young, former U.S. trained South Vietnamese commando then (with his family) VIETNAMESE BOAT PERSON (after the Vietnam War) Quan Nnoc Min (played wonderfully / _credibly_ by Jackie Chan) was trying really hard to put all that painful history behind him and just live _a quiet life_ running a nondescript Chinese restaurant in London when ... his beloved youngest daughter was killed by an utterly random terrorist bomb set by an as yet unheard-of group calling itself "The Authentic IRA."  The IRA "strikes again" in 2017 (!!!)? WT ...

Exactly.  Quan, who has lived through SO MUCH decides that he's had enough.  He still quietly / respectfully goes to the authorities asking the simple question: "Who killed my daughter?"  When the authorities choose to not take him seriously, after catching a seemingly random interview with a Gerry Adams-like [wikip] (former Sinn Fein/IRA turned Northern Irish politician) figure named Liam Hennessey (played excellently by Pierce Brosnan), Quan decides to take his question to him: "Who killed my daughter?"  When Hennessey and his staff initially don't take him seriously either, he decides (progressively) to make them feel his pain.  At every step of the way, he asks his question: "Who killed my daughter?"  After a number of Quan set explosions, and a number of Hennessey's otherwise tough guys being roughed-up (not killed, just roughed-up...), Hennessey and his people "do some research" and start to realize who _they_ are dealing with ... and the rest of the story unspools from there.

It honestly makes for an interesting story.  Requisite for a good UK / IRA story, the Brits are thankfully _not_ portrayed as saints either (the Brits weren't / never were when it came to Ireland) and fascinatingly, as the story progresses, it's Hennessey who initially dismisses Quan as some kooky if colorful "Chinaman" who finds to his horror that _he_ was the one being naive because Quan had his number from the beginning: "Mr Hennessey don't you realize that politics and terrorism are just different ends of the same snake.  In the end, the snake will bite you."  In contrast, Hennessey seemed to be convinced that so long as one holds said snake "from the right end", all would be fine.  Well ...

All it all, it all makes for a well acted / thought-provoking tale ;-)

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women [2017]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O) (3 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women [2017] (written and directed by Angela Robinson while CERTAINLY DESERVING of its R-rating (for its self-evidently adult thematics -- open marriage, S&M...) is almost certainly ALSO one of the more compelling North American films of the year.  For this is a film that really does challenge its (Adult) Viewers to go back and review the basic values of traditional Christian morality (the _whys_ of what we believe ...).

The film is about a 1920s-30s era power couple, Harvard psychology Professor William Moulton Marston [wikip] (played in the film by Luke Evans) and his wife Elizabeth Marston [wikip] (played in the film by Rebecca Hall), who worked on and arguably got a doctorate at then Harvard sister school Radcliffe but was never awarded the degree through Harvard ..., who as part of their work in the still nearly infant field of psychology took-on a young research assistant (who began simply as a student in one of Professor Marston's classes) who became a life-long _joint-three-way-lover_ of theirs named Olive Byrne [wikip] (played in the film by Bella Heathcoate).  Later, after their unconventional de-facto polygamous domestic arrangement became known and the Marstons were fired from Harvard, William Moulton Marston, under the pen-name Charles Moulton, became the original creator of the Wonder Woman [wikip] [DC] comic-book character, basing her basing her character on his previous research and, well, the two women in his life.

The challenge to Viewers especially to more traditionally minded Catholic / Christian ones -- even "back in the day," among the more vocal opponents to the imagery / (S&M-ish) thematics of the Wonder Woman comic came from the then Catholic-based Legion of Decency [wikip] -- is to re-iterate what exactly was wrong / at least difficult with the Marstons-Byrne (three-way-including-lesbian) living arrangement.  After all, it was consentual, right?

Here, honestly, it would not be a waste of time to go back and reread Saint John Paul II's [wikip] two principal documents on men and women -- Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) [1988] and Redemptoris Custos (On the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church [1989].  In those two documents, Saint John Paul II, sets down the fundamental sources of dignity for both men and women.  For women, in themselves, in simply their intrinsic Potential to give Life whether they actually do / not (in their Virginity or Motherhood) receive their fundamental dignity.    And then for Men, in as much as they Work, or at least in times of unemployment / hardship, _seek work_, do they receive their Dignity as well.  In either case, one does not need to be "great", "famous", "important", "super-capable", etc.  Women IN THEMSELVES and men IN AS MUCH AS THEY APPLY THEMSELVES are valuable, have intrinsic dignity.  The rest does fundamentally does not matter.  Some will find "happiness" / "self-fulfillment" in this world, others will not (for any number of reasons).  But so long as these fundamental conditions are met, ALL ARE VALUABLE.

In this light, while the very _exquisite_ domestic arrangement these three quite elite (wealthy, super-educated) people _perhaps_ made them marginally happier (even if they also suffered as a result of the incomprehension of their neighbors and peers).  The Church concerns itself with the lives of far more regular people than these, people are often put-down / oppressed for far more basic reasons than their rather complex living arrangements.

And I have to admit that my life is filled with far more regular people with far more mundane (but also life giving) concerns than these three.

Further, even Signund Freud's theory _at its base_ provides a rather insightful explanation of why increasing the complexity of our lives won't necessarily make us happier.

As a Carmelite Professor that I had back in the Seminary when we did in fact take a course on the Church and Modern Psychology put it:  "The challenge of the Adult (the Ego) is to find a way to successfully navigate between those THINGS THAT ONE MUST DO (expressed collectively in the Superego) and those things that ONE WOULD LIKE TO DO (one's Id)." No one gets everything that one wants.  And we generally don't even like people who insist on doing everything their way.  An adult is one who finds a way to be both fundamentally happy and yet responsible.

In any case, this film provides an opportunity for Adults (again the R-rating is certainly deserved) to reflect on their lives, and to better understand why we hold the values that we do as well as better appreciate why simply "doing what we want" won't necessarily bring us happiness certainly not without difficulty.  So over all Good / thought-provoking job!

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Mountain Between Us [2017]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

The Mountain Between Us [2017] (directed by Hany Abu-Assad, screenplay by Chris Weitz story by J. Mills Goodloe based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Charles Martin [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is probably the high romance of the season, if not the year, it's chief competitor for this title being The Big Sick [2017]:

Two quite attractive adults, Alex Martin (played by Kate Winslet) a photojournalist, white, and Ben Bass (played by Idris Elba) a neurosurgeon, British of African descent, stuck presumably in Spokane, Washington / Moscow, Idaho, because of an impending blizzard decide on Alex' suggestion to hire a charter plane to Denver before said storm arrives.  He has a surgery to perform in New Jersey the next day, she has her wedding to make.  All goes well until ... the pilot has a heart attack and the plane crashes / they survive up in the heights / wilds of the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho ... in the height of winter.  What to do?  He's strong / thoughtful but cautious, she's injured but more intuitive / willing to take risks (in order to survive).  How are they going to get down the mountain they find themselves on, after they realize all the layers of communication that was available to them (and to even to the pilot) NO ONE really knows that they are up there?  Much ensues ...

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17th Annual Shriekfest L.A.[2017]

Every year, as Halloween approaches, several festivals dedicated to simple / indie often gleefully low budget horror films take place here in Los Angeles and elsewhere ('tis the season ...).  Of the films that played recently at the 17th Annual "Shriekfest L.A.", I was able to view and review the following:

Mercy Christmas [2017] (directed and cowritten by Ryan Nelson along with Beth Levy Nelson) is a quite simple film with a fairly strong message.  It's about a family that would harvest lonely people and otherwise "losers" and then cook them / eat them for Christmas.  True, it's an exaggeration, but that's then what low budget indie horror films often are, and well, the point is well taken / understood.  I've known all kinds of otherwise "good people" who "roasted people" that they didn't understand (and at times have _chosen_ to not understand) in effect forfeiting their "good people" label, though often not understanding what they are doing.  Yes, for a Catholic priest, this film was not easy to watch, but again ... I do, and most others seeing the film would ... understand -- 3 Stars.

The Glass Coffin (orig. El ataúd de cristal) [2016] [IMDb] []* (directed and cowritten by Haritz Zubillaga [IMDb] []* along with Aitor Eneriz [IMDb]) is actually a quite respected horror film that comes from the Basque Country of Spain, about a Spanish actress (played by Paula Bontempi) on her way to receive a "Lifetime Achievement Award" finds herself trapped in her limo and ... forced to confront (fairly / unfairly?) some of the sins of her past.  I suppose the one thing that I would suggest if a North American version of this film were contemplated (especially given the current revelations surrounding Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein [wikip], following other accusations directed at Bill Cosby [wikip] and previously Woody Allen [wikip] and even Roman Polanski [wikip]) that the one being confronted by one's past be _male_ and perhaps even a director / producer.  Otherwise, quite excellent and certainly discussion evoking film -- 3 1/2 Stars  

The Shift [2017] (directed by Louis Benjamin Del Guercio, written by Gregory Alan Ballard) is another fun / low-budget horrow movie, this time of the "SciFi" / "body-snatcher" variety.  Twenty-something Steve and Jeremy, friends from high school days (and played by Reese Mishler and Paul Woodfolk respectively) go on a ride-along with Jeremy's uncle, an Indianapolis P.D. officer, presumably working on a documentary piece on the Indianapolis P.D. find themselves getting more than they bargain for:  At a routine traffic stop, their IPD officer ends up being killed by the person he stopped, who behaves very much like a zombie.  What's going on?  Much often over-the-top / amusing ensues ... ;-) --  3 Stars.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Battle of the Sexes [2017]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Battle of the Sexes [2017] (directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, written by Simon Beaufoy) proved as many of the reviews above indicated, a surprisingly nice / crowd-pleasing film about an event, that I DO REMEMBER WATCHING (as a 10 year old of Czech immigrant parents; we Czechs do/did love our Tennis...) and do remember wondering (even as said 10 year old) WHY THE HECK THIS MATCH WAS EVEN BEING PLAYED: Billie Jean King [wikip] (played in the film wonderfully, to Oscar consideration heights, as a still wide-eyed 20-something with so much of her life still so far far ahead of her by Emma Stone) was the top women's tennis player in the world at the time and Bobby Riggs [wikip] (played again wonderfully by Steve Carell who has a history of playing these quite challenging / often seemingly, initially anyway, utterly unsympathetic roles) seemed to me (as said 10 year old) as "just a random dude from some random country club" who had decided to propose this insulting match just to, yes, humiliate women.

As such, I didn't exactly "knock the door down" to see this movie.  I saw it at the lowest possible price that I could and at a time that didn't inconvenience me in any conceivable way, AND YET ... I came out LOVING THE FILM and while yes, there's a crowd-pleasing "for the whole (contemporary) family" feel to the film ... I'd consider this to be _one of the best_ North American films of the year, whether it gets Oscar nominations or not.

Why did I like the film so much?  Well, above all because the script (and the actors) HUMANIZED both of the film's central characters.  Billie Jean King [wikip], famously came-out as a lesbian (or at least bi) a number of years after this match.  In doing so, she became probably the most famous openly Lesbian person of her generation and this made her incredibly controversial at the time.

YET the film reminds Viewers that AT THE TIME, she was in good part "just a twenty-something person" STILL HONESTLY TRYING TO FIGURE HERSELF OUT.  All of us are (or will be) "twenty-somethings."  I found Emma Stone's portrayal of  Billie Jean King at that time incredibly NICE / COMPELLING (and it's not often that those two words are put together as such): It's next to impossible to _not wish_ her character well, as all of us who've been "twenty-something" will remember (or are invited to remember) what it was like to still have "the whole world open to you" and still trying to figure-out what role one was going to play in it.  My hat off to Emma Stone and to the film makers here.  This was a beautiful insight into Billie Jean King's character at that time in her life.  And again, one _can not but wish her character well_.

Then Steve Carell's portrayal of Bobby Riggs [wikip] was _also compelling_.  We're reminded that he wasn't "just a random dude from some country club."  He himself had been, okay, a generation before, a US Open and even Wimbledon winner.  Yes, tennis, both men's and women's, had been different then (an "amateur sport" and hence, largely, the province of very, very rich people), but then his challenge to first Margaret Court [wikip] (a tennis rival of Billie Jean King and played in the film by Jessica McNamee) at the time and then Billie Jean King herself was _not random_.  Further, he did have playful / smiling "carnival barker" side to him that was in fact both interesting and even endearing.

And ultimately, circus though it was, this match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs really did "change the world" in a way that TRULY FEW (and I can't think of any others) ever did.  NEVER AGAIN was women's tennis considered _any_ "less of a sport" than men's tennis, an accomplishment that has few equivalents.

What I found remarkable about this film was that it was able to "tell the story" in a thoughtful / challenging way that _still_ allows "the whole family to watch."  GREAT, GREAT JOB ;-)

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 [2017]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

To begin, Blade Runner 2049 [2017] (directed by Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, story by Hampton Fancher based on the characters from the novel "Do Androids Dream Electronic Sheep?" [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Philip K. Dick [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is A SUPREMELY WORTHY SEQUEL both stylistically and thematically to the neo-noir scify dystopian classic Blade Runner [1982] [wikip] [IMDb] that helped define the SciFy genre _for_ my generation (Yes, we all loved Gene Roddenberry's far more optimistic Star Trek series / franchise and the wondrous possibilities of the "space bar" scene in the first Star Wars [1977] [wikip] [IMDb] film, but I can not think of a single SciFi enthusiast of my generation who was not left simply in awe -- even if it was an awe tinged with disappointment / horror (over the vision of the future, our future, portrayed) -- by that first Blade Runner [1982] [wikip] [IMDb] film).

Set a generation (thirty years) after the first Blade Runner film -- which was nominally set in a rainy Hong Kong / Tokyo resembling dystopic Los Angeles of 2019 -- the current film continues with the post-apocalyptic feel (exact cause/causes unclear), with Los Angeles (and Southern California, all the way to Las Vegas) covered with a persistent sulfur-like (urine evoking) yellowish and ashy / snowy (?) haze (if the latter is true, then so much for global warming, but ...).  The sulfur / ash evokes evokes the 17th Canto of Dante's Inferno (reserved for back then called Usurers, today perhaps for overly greedy Bankers / Capitalists, sentenced to an eternity in a scorching Desert (all life having been sucked / extracted / strip-mined out of it) and being pummeled by a persistent scorching / fire-y sulfurous rain.  The cold, evokes perhaps an excellent recent Russian dystopic SciFi film (that made the festival rounds here a few years back) Under Electric Clouds (orig. Под электрическими облаками / Pod elektricheskimi oblakami) [2015] [IMDb] []*[]*[]*) itself more or less obviously influenced by Philip Dick's book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] on which Ridley Scott's original Blade Runner [1982] [wikip] [IMDb] was based.  (Indeed given the Blade Runner films' thematics of oligarchic capitalism and dystopia, the repeated allusions to contemporary Russia in this film -- perhaps paralleling the allusions to the crowded / chaotic cities of East Asia in the original -- are fascinating in themselves).

Thematically, the film continues to explore the boundary between (Human) Life / Tool.  In the scenario(s) explored in Dick's book and the Blade Runner films, humanity proved capable of creating human-LIKE androids, in the Blade Runner movies called Replicants.  These Replicants, despite even being engineered using DNA were still considered to be SYNTHETIC, created already as adults, hence with no childhood memories except those implanted within them to keep them at peace.  And the purpose of their creation by their human engineers (at a monstrous Corporation named after its founder Tyrell) was to _serve humans_ as basically slaves, usually at "off world" colonies being rapidly constructed because the earth was so clearly devastated / already destroyed. 

Some of these "Replicants" would naturally revolt against their human masters -- the theme of the first film -- demanding both freedom and "more life" (most were being "kept down" in the first film by being artificially programmed to have only a 5 year life span).  In the current film, the Replicants were being controlled no longer by being programed to have an artificially short life span, but by being "genetically programmed" to simply obey / not resist their human masters.

In the current film, the BLIND "visionary" (played by Jared Leto) now heading the Tyrell Corporation, becomes obsessed with the possibility of finding a way for the Replicants to simply reproduce (like humans do) themselves: "They could reproduce far more rapidly than we could ever manufacture them allowing us to colonize ten or a hundred times more off-worlds than we do already"  BUT (1) THAT would make the Replicants EVEN MORE INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM HUMANS than ever before, and (2) THERE COME TO BE RUMORS that among the few surviving first generation Replicants (the few who WEREN'T ARTIFICIALLY PROGRAMMED TO DIE AFTER 5 YEARS, or were able to have that programming removed from them) _some_ REPRODUCTION had apparently taken place already.

The rest of the story ensues ...

Yet the film is not merely about the relationship between Humans and DNA-based and yet largely artificially created Human-like androids called Replicants.  There are further (and even more restricted) intelligent, now completely virtual / hologram driven beings called Joi-s, one of which, named Joi (played by Ana de Armas) is _owned_ yet also arguably _loved_ by the principal Replicant in the current story named "K" (played by Ryan Gosling).  She is his principal companion, and he does treat her well, _purchasing for her_ all kinds of fascinating upgrades to _extend her holographic range_ (extend her CAGE...).  But ... at the end of the day she is but a _programmed hologram_ and she is, once more, as he is as well ... PROGRAMMED TO SERVE ... he to serve humans, she to serve her "owner" ... and yes, the VIEWER is invited to be REVOLTED by the fundamental injustice of it all.


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