Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Founder [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review

The Founder [2016] (directed by Jack Lee Hancock, screenplay by Robert Siegal) tells the compelling (!) if not necessarily pretty story of the origins of certainly the largest fast-food franchise company, McDonald's, in history.

While as yet hearing surprisingly _no buzz_ for this film, I'd certainly say that Michael Keaton simply DESERVES OSCAR CONSIDERATION for his role as Ray Kroc [wikip] [IMDb] the one-time traveling huckster / salesman from Oak Park, Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, Illinois (suburban Chicago) who turned the "one miracle stand" operation of the McDonald brothers - Richard ("Dick") and Maurice ("Mac") (played in the film by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch respectively) - of San Bernardino, California into the multibillion dollar multinational McDonald's corporation.

How'd he do it?  He'd say ... persistence.  And one would have to say, a definite level of _meanness_, there were _definitely_ "some eggs" that were "cracked" to make _this_ "Egg McMuffin..."

But honestly, what a(n American) story!  Call it this year's rendition of The Master [2014] (a film inspired by the life of Scientology Founder L. Ron Hubbard) or Joy [2015] (a film about QVC / Home Shopping Network sensation Joy Mongano inventor of the "the self-wringing mop" ;-).  It's a story that's both trivial / _banal_ AND ... compelling / _worth telling_ ...

Excellent film!

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Split [2016]

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

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

Split [2016] (written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan) is a quite disconcerting film that I have a fair amount of mixed emotions about. 

ON ONE HAND, the film's probably WAY MORE LURID than it needs to be: Three teenage girls, Casey (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) Claire (played by Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (played Jessica Sula), are kidnapped and held in some underground compound by a crazed man in his 20s-30s (played by James McAvoy) with serious multiple personality disorder.  Since teenage girls are involved the film-maker, while never crossing into R-territory, certainly "plays at the boundary" between the PG-13 / R-ratings -- while never having the three actresses undressed completely, the director does have them show about as much skin as the PG-13 rating would allow.  SO there's DEFINITELY a CREEPY aspect to this film that will PROBABLY "ick-out" (!) a fair number of adults (including myself...) that would go to see it. 

ON THE OTHER HAND, if one imagines THE TARGET AUDIENCE to be _precisely_ TEENAGE GIRLS ... then WOW, does this film _speak the language_ of _wide-eyed_ teenage girls telling _a scary story_ to freak-out their friends!  And that's, I suppose, the film's genius.  It's a story that one would imagine a group of junior-high early-high-school teenage girls would tell each other about "some really messed-up / deeply creepy dude." 

Now maybe the next time a film like this hits the screen, it'd probably be better if it was written / made by women as well...

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Saturday, January 7, 2017

20th Century Women [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

20th Century Women [2016] (written and directed by Mike Mills) is an excellent, well-written / well-acted indie piece that simply deserves wide recognition at the Oscars -- nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (!), Annette Bening as Best Actress in a Leading Role (!), perhaps even Best Cinematography in a nice gentle indie sort of way.

Conceived as a tribute to writer/director Mills' mother (just like Beginners [2011], another simply _excellent film_, was a tribute to his father) the film is set in the California coastal city of Santa Barbara in 1979.  Both the time and place are perfect -- Santa Barbara is simultaneously beautiful, and 2 hours up the coast from Los Angeles toward the Bay Area, conceivably something of a "hippie-ish backwater."  Then the late 1970s were really at "the end of an era" (the "anything goes" lasciviousness of the 60s that with Disco / Punk extended into the mid-to-late 70s) and _just_ before the beginning of another (the 1980s / Reagan years).

So at this time, 1979 in Santa Barbara, "born during the Depression" Dorothea (played again marvelously by Annette Bening), now her mid-50s is faced the task of _finishing_ the raising of her teenage son Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann) who she had "late" (at 40), because she "married late", because ... well ... she was never exactly "a cover girl."  Her husband, Jamie's father, was long out of the picture.  First, he had left and then he had died.

So how does one "raise a son" / "raise a man ... without a man"?  That's what this film is about AND TO ITS CREDIT the story _doesn't_ "look for a man" WHEN NO ONE REALISTICALLY IS AROUND TO STEP-UP.

So Dorothea decides to "make do" enlisting the help of two younger women -- Abbie (played by Greta Gerwig) a somewhat eccentric 20-something year-old boarder and Julie (played by Elle Fanning) a few-years-older than Jamie neighbor (on whom Jamie has a deep, deep crush).  She asks THEM to help her "make a man" out of her son.

And Readers understand here that she was NOT asking either of these young women to sleep with her son.  Instead, she was _asking_ THEM to _help_ HER to _make_ HIM into a GOOD GUY.

This is an _intelligent film_.  Indeed, if anything, this film is as subversive to the "values of the 1960s-70s" as it is to "traditional values."  (Discussion of) sex does come up, and the 17-18 year old Julie is "rather loose."  BUT she actually LIKED Jamie precisely because HE WAS THE ONE GUY that she could "keep at bay" and KEEP AS A FRIEND.  She confesses to him that with all her other sexual activity she'd _never_ had an "orgasm."  "So why do you have sex?" Jamie asks her.  She answers QUITE HONESTLY, because she liked "watching the guy," watching _his reactions_.  She might not get the orgasm but she liked seeing the other person happy.

Yes, there will be all kinds of Readers here who will have _any number_ of problems (or "problems") with that answer (and of course the Catholic Church teaches that any sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is _necessarily_, at least in part, A SIN) but ... HER ANSWER was NOT _selfish_ / _egotistical_.  Julie's answer was concerned about the Other (and yet, the ONE she did not want to satisfy was Jamie who she VALUED as a FRIEND).

This is one film that unambiguously declares FRIENDSHIP to be more important than SEX and expresses the opinion that it's possible to find HAPPINESS / FULFILLMENT in HELPING / SERVING OTHERS.  Remarkable.

So folks, this is not necessarily the film to take the teenager to -- I doubt they'd get it.  But it's a very intelligent film about the task of _raising someone_ to be a GOOD PERSON.

And remember Dorothea herself was not exactly "a beauty" ... but was of course trying to defend her own worth: If only "beautiful" and "popular" people had lives "worth living" where would the _vast majority_ of the rest of us be?

Certainly one of MY FAVORITE movies of the year!  Great job!

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Friday, January 6, 2017

Hidden Figures [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (J. Hessenger) review

Hidden Figures [2016] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Theodore Melfi along with Allison Schroader based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Margot Lee Shetterly [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a well-made, crowd-pleasing (if then _necessarily_ somewhat "dumbed down") story about three Mathematicians (!), AFRICAN-AMERICAN, WOMEN who helped the U.S. win the Space Race of the 1960s.

This is EXACTLY the kind of film that one wants kids (especially GIRLS and CHILDREN OF COLOR) to see.  This is EXACTLY the kind of film that inter-generational families (of all races) ought to see together. 

If this film does not get Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (!) and at least one of the three stars get a nomination for either Best Actress in a Leading Role (Taraji P. Henson) or Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Octavia Spencer or Janelle Monáe) then it will have been robbed and the Academy will deserve the #oscarssowhite disdain that it's received in recent years.  (What about Moonlight [2016]?  IMHO, it's not even close. Moonlight [2016] is a decent-enough edgy/starter indie-piece.  But to honor _it_ IN PLACE OF _SERIOUS_ films like Fences [2016] and the current film would actually be an _insult_ to serious / dedicated African Americans in the film-industry rather than some kind of renewed recognition of them).

So what's the current film about?  Well, it's about three African American women who grew-up in the still pre-Civil Rights Era (Jim Crow) South, who, as it happened in ethnic or racial community, happened to be very gifted in mathematics.  Readers note here have been at least three other films about intellectually gifted people-of-color that came-out recently -- The Man Who Knew Infinity [2015], Queen of  Katwe [2016] and El Jeremías [2016] -- all about the challenges (often loneliness and certainly lack-of-comprehension) faced by such pioneers.

Now perhaps if not for the advent of the space program (AND the nuclear arms race ... more on that later) these three would have been relegated to teaching advanced mathematics in, then necessarily, All-black Colleges in the South.  But since the same missiles that carried satellites and human carrying space-capsules into space / orbit could ALSO carry nuclear warheads, the U.S. was in a "fight for its life" as Al Harrison (played excellently, BTW, by Kevin Costner) one of NASA's directors at (then still segregated) Virginia's Langley Research Center noted. 

As such, the country needed _all_ its "best brains" (even from people-of-color _and_ a fair number of _immigrants_...).  So the three heroines of the story -- Katherine J. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) -- found themselves working in the (still segregated) COMPUTATIONAL (then literally called COMPUTER) pool, helping to calculate _still by hand_ possible trajectories for Space Flights.

Okay ... I promised _above_ to talk little bit about nuclear arms race here, something, that while not totally ignored, was largely _glossed-over_ in the film:  IN MY FIRST YEAR IN THE SEMINARY, when I did my first year of Theology with the Servites at the then Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, CA, I MET A FRANCISCAN SISTER / PROFESSOR THERE who IT TURNS OUT was ALSO ONE OF THOSE human "computers" in the early days of the space program.  She ALSO was recruited and believed initially that she was doing calculations "to help America get into space / the moon" ... and YET, _she_ came to realize that the vast majority of the calculations that she and her colleagues were doing were _not_ for calculating trajectories for spaceships or satellites BUT rather for ICBMS to be launched possibly against the Soviet Union.  SHE TOLD ME that THIS WAS THE REASON WHY SHE LEFT HER JOB IN THE SPACE PROGRAM and BECAME A NUN ... TO _ATONE_. 

The current film actually HINTS AT THIS DARK SECRET because it shows the main character Katherine being _repeatedly given_ HEAVILY REDACTED (BLACKENED OUT) work-sets from which she was supposed to do her calculations AND KATHERINE COMPLAINED telling her supervisors that she couldn't do her work effectively WITHOUT KNOWING everything that needed to be known about her calculations.

Still while in real life the three women in the story _almost certainly_ did calculations that were about _more_ than just "putting Americans in space," at least _some_ of their work was about space exploration -- putting John Glenn (played in the film by Glen Powell) into orbit, etc. 

Now dear Readers if this feels somewhat depressing -- the realization that much of what was done _under the cover of the Space Program_ was really preparing for (and hopefully detering...) Nuclear War -- remember that the Soviets were doing the EXACTLY THE SAME THING:

Indeed, the Russians arguably "lost" the Space Race NOT because they "couldn't go to the Moon," but because more financially strapped they _chose_ to not continue further with their manned program than near Earth space AS THERE WAS NO FURTHER MILITARY REASON TO GO BEYOND THAT:  The same Vostok missile that put Yuri Gagarin into orbit (and various _unmanned probes_ to the moon / the near earth planets) was the Soviet Union's first generation ICBM.  (Similarly, the Atlas missile that put John Glenn into orbit was the United States' first generation ICBM...) To put people on the moon required larger rockets that no longer served any direct military function.  The U.S. had the money to spend on the "prestige project" of putting astronauts on the moon, Russia simply did not.  What the Soviet Union _chose_ to do with its money was building (in Khrushchev's words "like sausages...") THOUSANDS of essentially "Gagarin-class" rockets capable of raining tens of thousands of nuclear warheads on us.  Larger rockets that could have sent Soviet cosmonauts to the Moon would have no longer had any further _direct_ military utility ...

But "that's the way it was" ... And the three African American women in this story (and others like them) like Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games and the Tuskegee Airmen during WW II did the United States a service even as it did not particularly appreciate them at the time.

It is good to remember, however, that there are good people ... and patriots ... who come in all colors / genders.

All in all, while a little "dumbed-down" (on multiple levels...) this is a quite excellent film that does make one's spirit soar.  So over-all a good job with some very good acting / a very good story...

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Friday, December 30, 2016

Silence [2016]

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

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

Silence [2016] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Martin Scorsese [wikip] [IMDb] along with Jay Cocks based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Shūsaku Endō [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) gives us a glimpse of the kind of film-making that COULD HAVE BEEN possible if not for the tragic and WILDLY COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE "protests" to Scorsese's screen-adaptation The Last Temptation of Christ [1988] [IMDb] [wikip].

Those protests nearly drove Scorsese to suicide, his abandonment of the current film (which he had already begun work on), and a _stunning_ near TWENTY-FIVE YEAR DROUGHT (an ENTIRE GENERATION...) of serious religious based films by Hollywood-- until the making / critical SUCCESS of Terrence Malick's Tree of Life [2011] breathed new life into the genre.  Talk about "Out of the stump of Jesse ..."

Fascinatingly, the current film is about ... the near expunging of Christianity from a culture -- 17th century Japan -- after a period of (probably to many Viewers and Readers here) surprising success.

The film notes the truth: St. Francis Xavier's mission in Nagasaki produced 300,000 Converts to Christianity in the decades that followed.  But by the time of the story, the Jesuits had been formally expelled from Japan and Christianity was being brutally suppressed.  What happened?

Well PART of what happened is portrayed in this film: The Japanese authorities of the time decided that Christianity was a threat to Japanese identity / the public order and moved, fanatically, to suppress it.

But PART of the reason was ALSO SELF AFFLICTED (by the Catholic Church on itself) ... something, interestingly, NOT SHOWN in the film.  The JESUITS had enormous success in Japan because they had TRIED to adapt themselves to Japanese customs (as had other missionaries in earlier times as well ... St. Augustine of Canterbury famously "blessed the greenery" brought into homes by the still Christianizing Anglo-Saxons of his time from hence we get our Christmas trees... ;-).

In the case of the Jesuits in Japan, they had chosen to dress as per the Japanese custom of the time.  The DOMINICANS (who also headed The Inquisition at the time...) came to INSIST that the JESUITS _in Japan_ dress in conventional ROMAN garb (collars and all...) instead.  The result was that the Jesuits CAUGHT THE ATTENTION / GRATED the famously _xenophobic_ Japanese authorities in a way that they had not before.  Eventually, the Japanese authorities came to see the Christianity brought by the Jesuits as a "foreign cultural invasion" and moved (brutally) to suppress it.  (What I write here, I was taught in Church History course at the Servite Seminary (Mariamum) in Rome in the 1990s as an example of the tragic effects of _choosing_ to disregard local cultural sensitivities while trying to Evangelize / Preach the Gospel even today).

Eventually ...

To SAVE the remnants of their flocks (from certain if excruciatingly slow death) the Jesuit priests THEMSELVES had to _publicly renounce_ their faith AND SOME WERE THEN EVEN PRESSED INTO SERVICE BY THE JAPANESE AUTHORITIES to CENSOR ANYTHING COMING INTO JAPAN FROM THE OUTSIDE for "Christian Messaging" -- so even a Dutch porcelain plate with a little cross motif in the background was "censored" by these captive Jesuit priests as being "too Christian" to be allowed entry into Japan.

For their part, the Japanese Authorities WERE NEVER QUITE SURE that they had succeeded in destroying the Christian Faith in Japan.  (That's what happens when _any_ authority tries to coerce others to behave in one way or other).  So they _repeatedly_ demanded that both the previously baptized Japanese Christians and the formerly Jesuit priests RENOUNCE THEIR FAITH.  And after a while, ALL OBLIGED -- as the alternatives were truly hideous.

Thus, Christianity in Japan was SILENCED ... sort of.
An excellent and deeply prophetic film ... by a director who's long deserved more credit for his faith than he's received.

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AFI FEST 2016 - 3 - Kati Kati [2016] / Julieta [2016] / Wùlu [2016]

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

Kati Kati [2016] [IMDb] [CEu] (directed and cowritten by Mbithi Masya [IMDb] [CEu] along with Mugambi Nthiga [IMDb] [CEu]) is an imaginative KENYAN FILM with a supernatural / metaphysical theme about the souls of people, recently deceased, spending time at a quite comfortable Kenyan style resort while the loose-ends of their previous lives are sorted-out ... Progressively, as said loose-ends get sorted out, they disappear / move-on to the next world.  Call it a contemporary Kenyan vision of Purgatory minus the purifying flames.  Still, the vision was not without its pain.  Past sins, both large and small, have to be acknowledged and somehow paid-for (mostly by serving time) before the soul could move-on.  The soul of a Preacher who had abandoned his flock facing a Rwanda-style massacre had to pay for his cowardice / misplaced priorities.  The film focused however mostly on a woman, who initially did not realize that she was dead, and then only slowly came to understand / appreciate the circumstances of her death.  The film reminds us that death comes as a surprise and that it may take a while to fully understand (and therefore be able do deal with the effects of) the why.  Quite good / thought provoking film from a contemporary African perspective.  What does "Kati Kati" mean?  -- It means "in between." -- 3 Stars

Julieta [2016] [IMDb] [CEu] (screenplay and directed by Pedro Almodóvar [IMDb] [CEu] based on the short stories of Alice Munro [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is Spain's submission to the 2017 Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.  The film is about Julieta (played here by Emma Suárez [IMDb] [CEu]), a seemingly quite normal contemporary woman with quite normal talents / gifts and failings, who as her daughter reaches adulthood finds her life turned utterly upside down for reasons that defy explanation and yet is then forced to live with the consequences and the shame.  The film is a reminder to _all of us_ NOT "to judge" because we can never really know what happens in other people's lives / families, much less why.  What happened to Julieta, honestly, NO ONE DESERVES -- 4 Stars.

Wùlu [2016] [IMDb] [CEu] (written and directed by Daouda Coulibaly [IMDb] [CEu]) is a WEST AFRICAN (SENEGALESE / FRENCH)  crime story about Lagji (played in the film by Ibrahim Koma [IMDb] [CEu]) who is introduced to us, the Viewers, at the beginning of the film as a bored and ambitious bus driver in his 20s from Bamako, Mali (Mali's "Second City" ...)   Tired of spending his days simply driving random, seemingly "inconsequential" people (_just like_ himself) from one random town at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert to another, HE TAKES THE INITIATIVE to LOOK-UP "THE MOB" and _offer_ his "services" to help run cocaine and heroin in his "God forsaken" part of the world.  And HE becomes _quite good_ at this, lifting _him_ and all around him -- his family, his girlfriend -- out of both squalor and utter anonymity to a life-style and notoriety that ought to make most Western / better educated Viewers (who'd take this for granted...) blush.  This is, in part, a "success story," but ... "paid for" with an _awful moral price_ and since it is based on CRIME, it can't possibly end well.

Western viewers, who'd be interested, are paid many times over for the investment of their time / ticket price ... because one is offered entry into a world that one would have difficulty even imagining.  A scene simply at a random (and armed) border crossing between Senegal and Mali is priceless (something straight out of Star Wars [1976] or Blade Runner [1982]), as are Laghi's eventual dealings with various Al Queda figures (portrayed in the film as basically an Islamic version of Colombia's FARC -- militarized drug dealers who've attached themselves and their "cause" to an UTTERLY RANDOM if "locally credible" ideology to justify otherwise psycho-sociopathic actions that they would be doing _anyway_ ...).  A credit at the end of the film notes that Al Queda's over-running of Mali's "First City" Timbuktu a number of years back was financed in good part by ... drug money ... 

All in all, an excellent West African "Scarface [1983]" of a film, well worth the time / ticket price for anyone lucky enough to find it. -- 4 Stars

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Sing [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Walsh) review (Susan Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review

Sing [2016] (screenplay and codirected by Garth Jennings along with Christophe Lourdelet) is a generally fun and well-made if not overly original animated "barnyard fable" / "juke box musical" about ... what is it about? ... standing-up and letting oneself ... sing.

Set in a city populated entirely by animals of all kinds, the film's focus is on a diminutive Koala Bear / "theater owner with a heart of gold" named Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) whose pride and joy was a Theater left-to-him by his venerable dad, which ... well ... was "going under" because NOBODY it seemed wanted "to go to the show" anymore ;-/.

 Well, ever the optimist -- has ANYONE ever seen _a depressed_ Koala Bear? -- he and his aging secretary Miss Crawly (an Iguana with one glass eye, voiced by Garth Jennings) come-up with a sure fire way to fill the seats:  They sponsor a "singing competition."  Okay, a typo in Miss Crawly's initial poster advertising the event (remember she has a glass eye) generates MUCH MORE ENTHUSIASM than the event probably warranted ;-) ... but yes, the two soon get a theater full (and out into the street and around the block) of potential contestants.

What follows is something of an updated "Chorus Line" type story (but with animals).  What's NICE is that there REALLY ARE NOT ANY VILLAINS IN THIS STORY.  All the characters, voiced by the likes of John C. Riley, Seth MacFarlane, Jennifer Hudson, Reese Witherspoon and Scarlet Johannson, "have their stories" but NONE OF THEIR STORIES ARE "MEAN" (or DEMEANING).

As such, this is a lovely "Koala Bear of a smile" story. 

My favorite characters in the film are the members of an apparently Asian-style ("Siamese Cat") "girls band" who come late to their audition, are told kindly (and repeatedly) that, as such, they _won't_ be performing, but just keep cheerfully showing-up anyway.  Again, this is a film that _can not_ but put a smile on one's face.

So even if this is NOT a particularly "original story," it's a well-done one and one that will make for an enjoyable time for one and one's family.  Good job! ;-)

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