Sunday, December 4, 2016

Manchester by the Sea [2016]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB () (4 Stars)  AVClub (A)  Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Manchester by the Sea [2016] (written / directed by Kenneth Lonergan) is a generally well-written and certainly well-acted indie piece about a contemporary New England family that had suffered multiple tragedies that certainly deserves Oscar consideration for several awards including (certainly) for best actor and (possibly) for best direction.

Yet it is by no means a perfect film and (yes) its MORAL failings make it hard to recommend as anything but a REALLY SAD (yes, honestly, BRING THE KLEENEX) if also LOVELY "blue collar art piece."

What am I talking about?  Well, the film's about a late-30 something thoroughly guilt-ridden / shell of a man, Lee Chandler (played wonderfully, honestly to Oscar nomination levels by Casey Affleck), who's nonetheless given custody of his brother Joe's son 16 year-old son Patrick (played again generally quite excellently by Lucas Ledges) after Joe (played by Kyle Chandler) dies of a sudden heart-attack. 

Why wouldn't Patrick's mother automatically get custody of Patrick?  Indeed, why didn't she have custody of Patrick to begin with?  Well she was an almost lost-cause alcoholic.  She comes into the picture (briefly) in the latter part of the story as a _sincerely_ if also quite desperately "Born Again Christian" (the Chandlers being generally if not particularly deeply devoted Catholics) trying, well, _sincerely_ to regain control over her life (Honestly, you just want to cry for her ...).

Why then would Lee be such a mess?  Well, HE was coping with (or really _still_ shell shocked from) a family tragedy that HE was at least _partly_ if perhaps _not wholly_ responsible for.  And, well, his now late-brother seemed to have more confidence in him than he had in himself.  (Again, you just want to cry for him / both as well ...).

Finally, if not surrounded by such awful tragedy, Patrick, a rambunctious and popular hockey-playing (this is blue-collar Massachusetts after all ...) sixteen year old would be a generally happy high schooler.  But of course, his dad died of a heart-attack early in the story and his mother was, well, "somewhere / away" for most of the story, presumably "in treatment."  (You want to cry for him as well ...)

So where could one find moral fault in such a sad story?

Well ... the parenting presented in this film was really quite awful.  Yes, 16-year-old Patrick had a rough life.  Presumably the various girls his age around him had similarly rough lives as well.  Still, I REALLY DID FIND IT SHOCKING (and honestly _unrealistic_) THAT THE PARENTS IN THIS FILM WOULD BASICALLY "BE COOL WITH" and EVEN _HELP_ THEIR DAUGHTERS SLEEP WITH THIS GUY. 

I just don't believe that to be credible.  Yes, Patrick was young, attractive and _sad_.  But I just can't imagine a mother of a teenager his age "being cool with" _her daughter_ sleeping with him as a result.  It just doesn't compute for me.  AND I DON'T THINK IT'S A GOOD EXAMPLE TO PARENTS WATCHING THIS FILM, let alone to their teens.

As such, while a SAD and often BEAUTIFUL MOVIE ... I honestly CAN'T RECOMMEND IT as anything more than "an unrealistic art piece" AND I WOULD HOPE THAT PARENTS would NOT "pimp" their daughters out like the various parents did in this film.

Yes, Patrick's life was "hard," but NOT THAT "hard" to "deserve" such "assistance" ...

Two Stars ...

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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Moonlight [2016]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB () (4 Stars)  AVClub (A)  Fr. Dennis (0 Stars w Expl)

IMDb listing

Ebony (D.S. Daniels) review
TheSource interview w. actors

CNS/USCCB () review

Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Moonlight [2016] (written / directed by Barry Jenkins) is an APPALLINGLY TENDENTIOUS FILM and IT WILL BE A TRAVESTY IF _THIS_ FILM becomes THE ONLY African American Film that gets nominations at the Oscars this year.

Why?  Call this film Boyz in the Hood [1991] meets Brokeback Mountain [2005].

Dear Readers, I've reviewed and FAVORABLY all kinds of LGBT THEMED FILMS (from Carol [2015] to Stranger by the Lake [2013]) over the years as well as all kinds of African American produced films (from Tyler Perry productions to films that would generally only play at film festivals like the annual and _excellent_ Black Harvest Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago).  It seems almost A JOKE to me that THIS AFRICAN AMERICAN FILM is somehow "catching the eye of the Liberal Media Establishment."

And honestly, IT MIGHT EVEN BE A JOKE from the perspective of the writer/director ... "Okay, Hollywood, you can't seem to SEE our films.  So let me make a film about a confused / sensitive and possibly gay 'gangbanger' AND MAYBE YOU'LL _SEE_ THAT ONE ..."

And wow, has the critics-sphere done so and ... GUSHED

Now folks, it's not _just_ the "confused / sensitive and possibly 'gangbanger'" who's presented to us in this film.  His father is, of course, ABSENT, and his mother's DRUG ADDICTED and "earns her keep" as a TWO BIT / FREELANCE PROSTITUTE. 

This film could honestly win awards at a "diversity section" of a KKK / "Alt-Right" film festival: "Exploring _the very horizons_ of why your white virginal daughter ought not be hanging-around with black dudes..."  

Honestly, if THIS FILM gets Oscar nominations and Hidden Figures [2016] and Fences [2016] (both far more positive / honest) do not, then the Academy should just go to Hell.   And honestly, the Academy Awards are _not_ the only game in town.  There are at minimum the BET Awards as well as the NAACP Image Awards

I have no doubt that the current film will probably do well at one or both of these programs as well BUT IT WILL NOT BE STANDING _ALONE_ THERE.  

But for now ... ZERO STARS.

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Loving [2016]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB () (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

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

Loving [2016] (written and directed by Jeff Nichols [wikip] [IMDb]) is a lovely, unpretentious picture about a quiet couple of rural Virginia introverts who nonetheless helped change history.

Mildred (played by Ruth Negga) and Richard (played by Joel Edgarton) Loving were born and grew-up in a part of rural Virginia so marginalized / so far "from the beaten path" that they honestly did not "see color."  Blacks and whites, all poor, mixed also with long departed (expelled / wiped out) Native Americans, lived (and loved) side-by-side in / around their hamlet of Central Point in Caroline County, Virginia since basically forever.  Honestly, the only "crime" that two committed was that they decided to try to make their union official -- a Marriage.  And that then caused them their grief.

For at the time, 1958, it was illegal for a couple of differing races to marry in the State of Virginia.  Yes, up until the Civil Rights Era, Virginia and the rest of the Jim Crow South had its OWN versions of the Nazi Era Nuremberg Laws / South African Apartheid Laws -- in Virginia the statute at issue was its Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which criminalized the marriage of a white person with a person of color.

So to get Married, the two had to go North to Washington, D.C. to do so.  They then returned to their home in Central Point, VA to continue their lives, believing themselves to be now married, only to have their home raided by the Country Sheriff and their men (at 2 AM) and arrested for violating said Virginia "Racial Integrity" statute.  FACING JAIL TIME (mind you Mildred was pregnant), their lawyer pled them a deal: In return for pleading GUILTY to violating the statute forbidding inter-racial marriage, their SENTENCE was suspended ON THE CONDITION THAT THEY LEAVE THE STATE AND NOT RETURN FOR 25 YEARS, if they returned, they'd have to serve time in prison.

The two moved out a cousin of Mildred's who lived in Washington, D.C.  But being country folks, living in the city was never a good fit for them and they did pine to return.  After the famous Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963, Mildred wrote then President Kennedy's brother Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General, for help.  He referred her letter to the ACLU which then contacted Mildred and Robert to take-up their case.  The rest of the film takes it from there ...

Among the "textural aspects" that this film gets right is its presentation of the relationship between the Lovings and the young, enthusiastic, perhaps still necessarily naive lawyers Bernie Cohen and Phil Hirschkop (played respectively by Nick Kroll and Jon Bass) from the ACLU who represented them.  The two lawyers saw themselves as Fighting Injustice (which they were) and Making History (which they ended up doing).  But Mildred and Richard Loving just wanted ... to go home.

Honestly, a lovely, understated film about a truly momentous moment in the struggle for Racial Equality in this country shown ... truly "with feet on the ground."

Great job folks, great job!

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Rules Don't Apply [2016]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Rules Don't Apply [2016] (screenplay and directed by Warren Beatty, story by Warren Beatty and Bo Goldman) may be a film "more for our times" than director Beatty and the rest of Hollywood ever would have thought.  With the country having apparently chosen to give the country back to obscenely rich, eccentric (and all but unaccountable) old white men, a film about the utterly bizarre (and _controlling_) billionaire Howard Hughes gives us a taste for what we're in for.

The film's actually about two "little people" who find themselves as trapped by Hughes' power / money as a couple of insects mesmerized by a gas lantern at night.  One was Marla Mabrey (played by Lily Collins)  who arrived wide-eyed to Hollywood along with her less trusting Baptist mother (played wonderfully by Annette Bening) at the beginning of the story, having been hired as a "contract actress" for Howard Hughes' RKO Studio after being crowned "Apple Blossom Queen" in some sort of a talent / beauty competition back home in rural Virginia.  The second was Frank Forbes (played by Alden Ehrenreich) about Marla's age, a young / good honest Methodist boy from Fresno (again basically rural) California who had just landed a job with Hughes' studio "as a driver" (though it was clear that he considered this job as "getting his foot in the door" of Hughes' Corporation, akin to getting a job "in the mail room" at a big bank / corporation "out East").  Driving Marla and her mother to the Cage, er Hollywood Mansion, where they'd be staying ... alone ... was Frank's very first assignment on his very first day "on the job" ...

It was clear that both Marla and Frank had ambitions.  Both were willing to work hard and arrived in Hollywood quite wide-eyed / optimistic.  What becomes clear ... and this honestly offers a really frightening insight into what we can come to expect (again) in the coming years in this country ... is that their WIDE-EYED OPTIMISM / WILLINGNESS TO WORK HARD _DIDN'T MATTER_.  The ONLY thing that seemed to matter was what Howard Hughes (played wonderfully in ever smiling but eccentric / paranoid / megalomaniacal... fashion by Warren Beatty himself) wanted.  And Howard Hughes, a BILLIONAIRE, _didn't_ "feel the need" ... to do much... ;-/.

Soooo ... we Viewers come to see honestly to our HORROR that Howard Hughes apparently had DOZENS of "contract actresses" who he'd _house_ (and pay) ACTUALLY QUITE WELL -- again Marla (and her mother) were handed A MANSION for their living quarters -- BUT were LITERALLY kept as "kept women" ... "a harem" ... with NOTHING TO DO.  Yes, they were all "hired" / brought to Hollywood as "contract actresses" BUT ... Howard Hughes, disorganized as he was (disorganized because HE WAS NUTS...), REALLY HAD NO WORK FOR THEM.

Did he at least sleep with them?  No, not really ... he apparently was too disorganized for much of that as well.  Did he at least let them get it on with others?  NO.  He had his managers enforce a sadistic "no tolerance for fraternization" rule between the "contract actresses" and their "drivers" (the only people they'd ever really see), the drivers effectively becoming "the eunuchs" in this insane equation.

And that's how the "land of Howard Hughes" seemed to run ... on one man's insane genius.  And he seemed too rich / powerful for ANYONE of his other employees / managers to tell him the truth ... that he was crazy ... lest, of course, they'd be fired.

Could this go on forever?  Well ... go see the film ... And if you find this whole story frighteningly familiar ... well Life does imitate Art sometimes.

So dear friends, welcome (perhaps) "Back to the Future" ... honestly a great if frightening film about what _may_ come to us ... again.

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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Allied [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (P. Sobczynski) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Allied [2016] (directed by Robert Zemeckis, screenplay by Steven Knight) is an EXCELLENT 1940s / World War II "period piece" MADE IN THE STYLE of 1940s "High Romance / High Drama" film-making -- heck the first third of the movie even takes place in Casablanca ;-) -- this is a film for film lovers ;-).

Starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, he a Canadian intelligence officer, she apparently a French resistance fighter who escaped to Morocco from Paris, the two meet and fall in love in Casablanca on a mission to assassinate the German ambassador there.   Much quite and necessarily melo(dramatic) ensues ...

I don't want to say much more.   I do think a little of the "timeline" in the film is a little "off" as I don't think that the Germans were still launching full-on Bombing Raids on London in 1943.  Lobbing V-1s and later shooting V-2s, yes.  But I don't think that they were sending in the bombers by then.  But what's a mistake or two with historical facts when High Love and Romance is at stake.

Honestly, utter catnip for an Oscar Nomination or two (Best Actor / Actress) ... or three, four or five (Best Director, Screenplay and Film) ... and certainly pleasant to watch ... if at times through the tears ;-)

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Moana [2016]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review

Moana [2016] (co-directed by Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams, screenplay by Jared Bush, story by Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell) is a cute, positive and arguably empowering Disney animated feature, that nevertheless would probably cause some initial (and even some  lingering) concern for a fair number of Catholic / Christian parents.  Yet as with all challenges, IMHO it becomes an invitation for Parents and their Families to deepen their understanding of their own Faith, even as as they interact with greater knowledge with their friends and neighbors who may well be of differing Faiths and Cultural traditions.

The story here tells that of a Polynesian Princess heroine named Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) who is  "Chosen by the Ocean" to "Restore the Original Order of Things" / "Save her People" and it is told from the perspective of the Polynesian Culture from which the story originates.

As such, right at the beginning of the film, Viewers are presented a non-Biblical (Polynesian-inspired) Creation story -- explaining (1) how things began (the Creation of the World as the Sea-Faring Polynesian People knew it) and (2) why things came to be the way they were (how if not Sin then at least Decay entered into the World...).  The introduction sets-up and informs the rest of the story.

At this point Christian Parents could find themselves somewhat challenged as to how to put this story into the context of the Christian Faith that they are trying to teach their kids.  Not only is the Polynesian Creation story rather (but not completely) different from those encountered in the first chapters of Genesis, but the Polynesian Creation story also has different characters:

In the Polynesian inspired Creation story presented: In the Beginning, when the world was but Ocean, it was the Goddess Te Fiti who Brought Life into the World, and then a Demigod named Maui (voiced in the film by Dwayne Johnson) pulled Islands out of the Ocean with his Fishhook on which People could live.     

Christian parents can be reminded here that the very first verse of the Bible begins with: "In the Beginning, when the Earth had no form, God's spirit breathed upon the Waters, and God said ..." (Genesis 1:1-2).  Later that God "made a dome to separate the 'Waters above' from those 'below' and called 'the Waters above Sky" (Genesis 1:6-8) and afterwards, "on the third day", God ordered collected "the Waters below into a single basin to make dry land appear, calling the Land  'Earth' and the Waters 'Sea.'" (Genesis 1:9-10).

I mention this to remind Readers here that the Polynesian inspired Creation story presented in this film is _not_ entirely unlike that of the Biblical one, each inspired, in good part, on the Experiences of the Cultures that invented them.  But I would continue then to _underline_ that there is certainly MORE being SAID in the Biblical Creation story (as probably in the Polynesian one) than simply presenting a "Flow Chart" for the Creation of the World.

This is because the Catholic Church, while appreciating, even Glorying in, the beautiful Symbolic Language of the first chapters of Genesis -- The First Chapter of Genesis is proclaimed in its Entirety as the First Reading at the Easter Vigil each year -- nonetheless considers their "Spirit" (their underlying Theology) more important than the "dead letter" of the Words [cf CCC #390].  What has been understood to be be the "underlying Theology" of the first chapter of Genesis?  That: (1) God Exists, (2) God Created Everything, (3) God Created Everything IN A PURPOSEFUL MANNER and WITH A PURPOSE IN MIND.  Indeed, the structure of the Genesis 1 account appears to be similar and arguably _a response to_ the Babylonian Creation account, the Enuma Elish, which had the world created as an "accidental result" of a "Cosmic War" (basically each time a Babylonian God or Goddess died in the course of the Cosmic Battle, something sprouted out of the Corpse...).  As such, at its core, the Biblical proclamation with regards to the Universe (All That Is) is that the Universe has a God-ordained Purpose / Meaning.  This would distinguish it from any number of other Creation stories interested in simply explaining "how things came to be."  

Further, while it _indeed_ "could be fun" for a Catholic / Christian family to compare Moana, the princess heroine in this film, TO MARY (also a teenager CHOSEN to HELP SAVE THE WORLD) and "demigod" Maui to a combination of Jesus (Son of God), the Greek god Prometheus (who also sought to help people / humanity), and even Lucifer (a powerful angel who got greedy), THE KEY DIFFERENCE between THE CURRENT DISNEY STORY and the STORY OF JESUS is that while FEW / NO ONE would argue that Moana / Maui "really existed" that's EXACTLY what we Christians proclaim about Jesus, THAT HE (and his human mother, Mary) REALLY DID: "The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us." (John 1:14).

Yes, that is AWESOME (in the True sense of the word) -- that Jesus would "embody," indeed INCARNATE God and (all that was Written about God) in our World in himself -- but then that's again EXACTLY what what the Church has Proclaimed about Jesus for 2000 years: that "[Christ Jesus] is the image of the invisible God" [Col 1:15] and was NOT "just a story" ... separating him from any number of other stories about other mythological, legendary or story-book heroes ... like the ones here in this film.

Anyway, "with all that in mind" ;-) ;-) ... enjoy the story here ;-).  It is really cute.  Little kids will _really like_ "the coconut people" ;-).

But please don't let this story (or others like it) "bring down your faith."

Jesus / Our Faith are in a different category ;-).  

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

AFI FEST 2016 - 2 - Crosscurrent (orig. Chang jiang tu) [2016] / Godless (orig. Bezbog) [2016] / Layla M. [2016]

Among the films that played recently at the  2016 AFI Fest here in Hollywood, I was able to see the following:

Crosscurrent (orig. Chang jiang tu ) [2016] [IMDb] [AW] (written and directed by Yang Chao [IMDb] [AW]) is a visually beautiful, heavily Buddhism inspired reflection on timelessness and change as it follows the captain of a smallish-to-midsized family owned freighter taking a somewhat questionable cargo (a load of some kind of "illegal fish") up the Yangtze River from Shanghai to destination(s) ... _somewhere_ "West."

As he's about to start The Journey, he both spots / takes-note-of a beautiful if seemingly random Young Woman on a neighboring vessel in Port and comes across a Book of Poetry (imagine that) left by someone who had made that Journey, up the Yangtze River, some time before.

He then repeatedly runs into the Young Woman on his Journey and she always seems a step or two ahead of him.  And with regards to the Book, perhaps its most interesting characteristic would be that though written by someone who took this Journey Upriver as well, it was NOT ancient, but rather simply written by a random Sailor who made the Journey "in 1985."  But this would be classic Buddhism: What's 10, 20 or even a 1,000 years if one's talking of taking a Timeless Journey (if ever carried on the CHANGING Current of Time) ;-).  And indeed even since 1985, there were some fairly MASSIVE changes in the Geography of this Journey -- the Three Gorges Dam had since been built and some of the cities (!) referred to by the anonymous sailor were either inundated completely or moved.  And yet, there was the Eternal Yangtze River, changed "somewhat" but also Flowing as ever before.

Dear Readers, this is _not_ a "fast moving film."  Indeed, some of the critics have complained about its (to them) "lack of direction."  But as both a Travelogue -- the Buddhist shrines at Digang (Digangzhen) and Pengze, Zhang Fei Temple by Yunyang (moved recently as a result of the Three Gorges Dam), and  Fengdu are highlighted -- and as a Reflection on the Flow of Time, the film's really quite Excellent ;-) -- 4 Stars

Godless (orig. Bezbog) [2016] [IMDb] [CEu] (written and directed by [CEu]) is a small, contemporary BULGARIAN film about the very traditional (orthodox) Christian themes of Conversion / Repentance and Redemption.  A young visiting "home care" nurse named Gana (Hanna, played by Irena Ivanova [IMDb] [CEu]) is introduced to Viewers as an already thoroughly "hardened by life" / cynical sort of person -- we see her "supplementing her income" by STEALING the I.D. cards of the elderly persons that she visits.  She gives the stolen I.D. cards to her boyfriend who in turn sells them to the Mob under the protection of 30-years-on corrupt local police official (hence he's "been in the trough" since BEFORE the fall of Communism) who then use the I.D. for all kinds of Identity Theft type crimes (draining bank accounts, taking out ridiculous loans in the old people's names, etc).  

Well, one of the new "old people" she's asked to start taking care of is an old, formerly jailed by the Communists, Choir Director of a small nearby Orthodox Church.  He invites her to hear his Choir, and it's THE FIRST TIME in a VERY LONG TIME that she's experienced ANYTHING so Innocent / Beautiful.  And so, yes, she starts to have a Crisis of Conscience.  Can she continue to rip-off her Elderly charges as she had so cynically / matter-of-factly done before?  And yet, she's ALSO "tied up with the mob" and so it's NOT EASY to "walk away."  Excellent, and naturally very sad film -- 3 1/2 Stars 

Layla M. [2016] [IMDb] [CEu] (directed and cowritten by Mijke de Jong [IMDb] [CEu] along with Jan Eilander [IMDb] [CEu]) is an excellent DUTCH "scared straight" style film about a young darker-skinned teenager named Layla (played with SPOT-ON teenage arrogance / naivité by Nora El Koussour [IMDb] [CEu]), the daughter of Moroccan immigrants but growing-up in Amsterdam, who despite being at least partially RIGHT about the racially inspired injustices that she and her friends / family experience, MAKES SOME TERRIBLY TRAGIC CHOICES: 

She runs off with her cute, slightly older, "knows a koranic verse or two" (but at HIS YOUNG AGE, ONLY "one or two...") / "just starting to grow a beard..." similarly young, coffee-and-milk-complected Arab-growing-up-in-Amsterdam boyfriend, who she "met online" hence UNDER THE RADAR of her already quite worried parents (They're NOT dumb, but short of locking her up, one simply _can't_ watch a kid _all the time_).  She marries him and, well, essentially _joins_ I.S.I.S. (!!) with him ... -- CHOICES that, of course, COME TO HAVE INCREDIBLY SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES.  

The genius of the film is that it PLAYS IT STRAIGHT _all the way_ through.  Viewers completely understand this young girl ... AND YET by the end of the film NO ONE, not even the young potential real-life Laylas out there would miss the film's message: Layla made some REALLY, REALLY BAD CHOICES that for which she was going to pay: There's simply no future for the wife of a probable suicide bomber.  None, except PERHAPS blowing oneself us as well, and THAT by definition ENDS one's future right then and there.  So no growing-up, no kids, no life like your parents or other family.  And if one doesn't do that ... just a REALLY LONG TIME IN JAIL (or returning to become a rest-of-one's-life burden to one's family).  Excellent film -- 4+ Stars

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