Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Mudbound [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review
RogerEbert.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Mudbound [2017] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Dee Rees along with Virgil Williams based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Hillary Jordan [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) set in the 1940s and following two families, one white, one black eeking out livings farming amid "the mud" of rural, delta Mississippi gives a decidedly "muck covered" portrayal of the era presumably ("best guess") evoked by Trump in his quest to "Make America Great Again."

Though largely incompetent, the McAllan family (white) is clearly on top and repeatedly needs (and is able to get ...) the assistance of the neighboring Jackson family (black) in order to survive.  The obvious (and by the end utterly offensive) inequality of their relationship is what this film is about.

Both families have sons that go to war -- Jamie McAllan (played by Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (played by Jason Mitchell).  Both come back from the war as war heroes, both as changed men.  Yet ... when they do come home, the world that they had left had not changed at all.  Coming home, Ronsel, uniform / medals notwithstanding, is "reminded" by scandalized local white folk he has to leave a grocery store "by the back door" and is actually forced to apologize to two members of the McAllan family for his (by the time he got back from serving as a tank-man in Patton's 3rd Army...) _honest_ "mistake."

Readers, you get the picture ... But the tragedy is that THIS WAS TRUE.  African Americans who came back from WW II as war-heroes, came back to a nation that fought the racism of Adolf Hitler / the Nazis while being _utterly oblivious_ (and often _supportive_) of its own.  Indeed, the Nazis' Nuremberg Racial Laws were actually almost carbon copies of Old South's Jim Crow racial laws when it came to classifying the races of its citizens and banning inter-racial marriage.

The film actually helps explain why the U.S. Military actually was among the first institutions in the United States to be desegregated -- the U.S. fought the Korean War with a desegregated army -- and why after WW II the eventual victory of the African American Civil Rights movement was inevitable -- to continue with Jim Crow was simply too much for too many Americans (both black and white) to survive.

Excellent film, certainly one of the year's best.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

I, Tonya [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review
RogerEbert.com (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

I, Tonya [2017] (directed by Craig Gillespie, screenplay by Steven Rogers), while certainly well written and well acted, revisits old wounds -- an infamous 1992 incident in which U.S. figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was kneecapped (hit with a baton across the knees) by people associated to rival U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding -- leaving potential Viewers to wonder _why_ dredge this story up again a generation later.

To be sure, the story mesmerized the nation 25 years ago, in part because _both_ Nancy Kerrigan (played briefly in the film by Kaitlin Carver) and Tonya Harding (played quite wonderfully in the title role by Margot Robbie) were actually from quite similar blue-collar backgrounds.  Yet personality-wise (and certainly how the Press made them out to be) they seemed to be polar opposites: Kerrigan, despite her own family's struggles to pay for her skating, sought still to fulfill the "Figure Skating Princess" expectations of the sport, while Harding in part because she had it an _even rougher time_ of it, and in part because, personality-wise, she just didn't want to "play the game," took a decidedly "F-U" attitude toward the snobbery associated with the sport (doing skating routines to heavy-metal music at times and so forth...).  The film portrayed Harding as someone who, despite "being poor" simply _loved to skate_ and then _was really, really good at it_.

Indeed, in one of the more memorable lines of the film has Harding telling the film's interviewer: "I was the first woman to successfully land a triple axel in competition and _no one_ can take that away from me, so ... f*** you."  And honestly, she's right.  To this day, a generation later, only eight women have done so in international competition.

So the film in this regard captures an aspect of Tonya Harding's story that most people liked, sympathized with and respected.  She was basically a female Rocky figure in a sport that had room only for Princesses.  Yet that "Rocky" background surfaced some unfortunate "Rocky's neighborhood" characters including her foul mouthed, count 'em _six times married_, chain smoking "I made you what you are" / "Gee thanks" mother (gleefully played by Allison Janney), her abusive boy-friend / husband Jeff Gillouly (played by Sebastian Stan), and especially Jeff's incredibly stupid BFF Shawn Eckhardt (played by Paul Walter Hauser) who served as Harding's "body guard" and was the one who directly ordered Kerrigan's kneecapping.  Harding and her husband apparently were just trying to "play mind games" with her (which they thought, and apparently had some reason to believe, was "fair play").  Sigh ...

What'd be interesting, honestly, would be Harding's own review of the film and I will post the link to it when I find it.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Wonder Wheel [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review
RogerEbert.com (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Wonder Wheel [2017] (written and directed by Woody Allen), let's be honest, is a quite awkward film to view / review as our nation is going through what could become a sea-change in attitudes toward sexual harrassment / abuse in the workplace, beginning, in fact, in the movie industry.

It's not that _anything_ in Allen's current film directly touches that topic. However two going on three decades ago, Allen (1) abruptly ended his then marriage to actress Mia Farrow, and proceeded to marry his then 17 year old (!) step daughter (the two have stayed together ever since) and (2) has since been accused of having concurrently abused another, even younger, and here biological daughter, Dylan, an accusation that he's always denied.  With his last several films dealing with "gettting away" / "not getting away" with unspeakable crimes, this one included, it would seem that the question of "getting away with [something]" weighs _significantly_ on his mind (and perhaps conscience...).

Indeed, I would submit that a good part of the reason why this film hasn't been particularly well received (see the reviews cited above) has much less to do with the technical quality of the film -- IMHO, excellent, written in the style of a play by Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill -- but rather on the on the person of Woody Allen himself and the moment in history that we're living in.

And let's be clear, it is a _good moment_.  At least a few prominent serial harassers / abusers of women have had to step down from their positions of previous honor.  And probably, evoking with some caution one of the more lasting images of the French Revolution... more "heads will roll" in the future.   There's a real chance that in the next generation women will be in a far more equal position vis-a-vis men than before.

And yet, I would submit that the case of someone like Woody Allen (far more than someone like Harvey Weinstein ...) ought to indicate to us to be careful (that justice be attained by the lifting up of past victims to their proper places rather than simply destroying past sinners).  For despite his sins / failings, Woody Allen is clearly a talented person.  He's given this world far more than just his sins.  Harvey Weinstein has also probably given the world more than just his sins (as would be the case for all of us).  But Woody Allen becomes something of a poster child of the reality that WE ARE ALL _more_ than _simply our sins / failings_.

This is something actually that the Catholic Church, DESPITE ITS OWN SINS, has also ALWAYS UNDERSTOOD AND PROCLAIMED:  In a world that first denies even the existence of Sin, but then _also_ denies in all but _very rare cases_ even the possibility of Forgiveness (and then not at all based on merit, but generally simply based on power), the CHURCH PROCLAIMS BOTH: (1) that Sin clearly exists, but (2) that Jesus Christ came here _precisely_ to forgive us and lift us out of that Sin.  And I submit, the combination is THE ONLY WAY to look _realistically_ at our world.  For we can (and still may) universally destroy ourselves (rather than bring ourselves to forgive ...).  But the reality is that all of us are _more_ than just "what we've done wrong."

Some kind of "Truth and Reconciliation" (to borrow the approach taken by post-Apartheid South Africa) is needed balance the twin Realities of past Injustice / Crime and the need for people, _most people_ to add _constructively_ to society for the Common Good.  If we eliminate _everyone_ who has ever sinned, as the Psalmist asks: Who could survive? [Psalm 130:3]

Anyway, _not diminishing at all_ the reality of Sin, we have to acknowledge that even Sinners (all of us) are capable of contributing ... (and again, I do see Woody Allen as something of a "poster child" for this).  For despite whatever he may have done, the world has benefited from his existence, and again, the world has benefited from _our existence(s)_ as well).

To the movie ... ;-)

Set in the early 1950s, in Coney Island, NY, and narrated by "Mickey" (played wonderfully by Justin Timberlake) a "South Pacific" WW II vet (former sailor) now lifeguard / night school student studying to be playwright now living in Greenwich Village (hence something of a cross of Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire and Jack Kerouac), the film's about a family which lives literally under the amusement park's Ferris (Wonder) Wheel (Note that by "self-told legend" during his stand-up comedy days, that's where Woody Allen would say that he grew-up -- "under the Farris Wheel in Coney Island" -- as well ;-).

The man of the house was a late-40s/early-50s widower / carnival ride operator named Humpty (played wonderfully in "Ralph Kramden of the Honeymooners"-style by Jim Belushi) who was married to a 40-something once, long-ago, aspiring actress, once married to a musician, now divorced (by her own, admitted, damned fault) waitress at the local clam shop named Ginny (played again wonderfully by Kate Winslet evoking a combination of an older Margaret / "Maggie the Cat" from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and perhaps even more Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire).

Both had children from their previous marriages:  He had a 20-something daughter, a "Femme Fatale" if you'd ever seen one named Carolina (played again spot-on by Juno Temple) who "came home" at the beginning of the story after a disastrous five-year marriage to a mobster, now in jail, and with his cohorts "looking for her" because, under pressure, she apparently "squealed to the Feds."  Ginny had a 10 year old "young Woody Allenesque" son named Richie (played by Jack Gore) with a penchant of "burning things down" ... yes, literally; he was a pyromaniac.

After setting-up the story, we're told by Mickie in "Act 2" that he and Ginny were having an affair; he because well, as a former sailor, now starting-out playwright, found Ginny, the 40-something once, long-ago, actress, once married to a musician, now random 40-something waitress in a Coney Island clam-shop, well, honestly _fascinating_ ;-), and she because "he saw the world" (the South Pacific, including Bora Bora, near Tahiti, where French impressionist artist Paul Gauguin escaped to from a suffocating marriage...) and because he, like her first husband, the musician, was _interesting_ which her current one, albeit with at times (when not drinking...) a heart of gold, was not...

In Act 3, however, Mickie meets Carolina, and ... the rest of the story unspools from there...

I found the story, honestly, excellent.  If the dialogue was _at times_ stilted, it was _largely done in the style of the plays of the time_.  Honestly, Tennessee Williams was stilted in his dialogue as well.  That was the writing of that time...

And this then is the paradox of Woody Allen.  Certainly flawed (as are we all) in someway, and _perhaps_ profoundly, he remains oustandingly talented.  Should he, in as much as he sinned (as we have all), pay for his sins?  Certainly, but at the end of the day, it can not be denied that he's contributed (a lot) to this world as well (as do we all as well).

So, can we find a way to both "Tell the Truth" and yet also "bring everybody back" despite their Sins?

Excellent / thought provoking film / context.

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq [2017]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB ()  RogerEbert.com (1 Star)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review
RogerEbert.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Roman J. Israel, Esq [2017] (written and directed by Dan Gilroy) tells the story of a fictionalized quiet, behind-the-scenes African American civil rights lawyer by that name (and wonderfully / compellingly played by Denzel Washington). 

Clearly somewhere on the autism spectrum, Roman worked quietly preparing briefs for his partner William Henry Jackson, the public face of their two person law firm.  Then near the beginning of the film, his partner, never seen, has a heart attack and dies some weeks later. 

Enter Jackson's sister, Lynn (played by Amanda Warren).  She soon informs Roman that "from the family's standpoint" her brother William's "crusading" had long been a drain on the family's fortune and that in the name of the family, she was liquidating his two person law-firm.  Her brother's remaining cases (and Roman, if he so desired...) she wished to hand-over to a long-time family friend and once student of her brother's when said crusading brother had taught law at a local university.  The family friend was "a white guy" named George Pierce (played by Colin Farrell) who had since become a rather big-time corporate lawyer in town. 

Roman and George certainly knew each other, but just as certainly didn't respect each other: George initially saw Roman as a charity, even basket case, one who he was considering giving a job to at his quite successful law-firm _only_ for the sake of his relationship with the Roman's deceased partner William and then the rest of the Jackson Family.  Roman, in turn, saw George as the worst kind of lawyer -- a sellout.  Perhaps Roman would not have been as appalled if George had not been a student of his beloved, now deceased partner.  However, since he had been, how could he possibly have gone over "to the dark side," quite amorally seeking _above all_ to "merely make money" for his work (rather than seeking to make the world, through one's work, a better place)?

So Roman tries initially to get another job.  Yet both his moderate autism and his attendant stubbornness quickly alienates him from a local (and modern) civil rights advocacy group, whose local office was run by Maya Alston (played quite convincingly by Carmen Ejogo). 

So what's Roman to do?  This would be a difficult situation for someone "not on the spectrum."  But here he was dealing with multiple crises and disappointments and not necessarily being the most capable of the flexibility needed to successfully adapt.   So he responds to this wave of change and disappointments in rather knee-jerk (if understandable fashion) ...

And ... the rest of the story follows.

It all makes for a quite thought-provoking (and discussion provoking) film:

(1) What is our primary motivation in work and even in life?  Merely to "succeed"? to make (a lot of) money? or to make the world (or at least that part of the world around us) a better place? 

(2) How do we see those who are "different" around us?  Do we see them merely as burdens / problems to manage (away if possible)?  Can we imagine learning significant things from "others" especially those who appear "burdensome"?   And perhaps most fascinatingly, can we come to understand that those people who we look down upon, may actually have quite developed (and not particularly flattering) opinions of us as well? 

Interesting / thought provoking stuff ;-)

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Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review
RogerEbert.com (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri [2017] (written and directed by Martin McDonagh) is a pretty stark and dark film about a terrible tragedy that beset both the fictionalized town of Ebbing in rural Missouri and then specifically the Hayes family living at its outskirts.

Some nine months previous to the story's telling, 19-year old Angela Hayes (played briefly in a flashback by Katryn Newton) had been savagely raped and murdered as she was walking to and/or from said home at the outskirts of town and ... there were _no leads_.  The perpetrator's DNA didn't seem to appear on any database, it happened at night, off a rural road; the local Sheriff Bill Willoughby (played quite wonderfully by Woody Harrelson) was convinced that the crime had been committed by a passerby, a drifter, who probably wouldn't be found until he was caught bragging about it in some dive somewhere, or perhaps already in prison.

But tell that, of course (and he did, repeatedly, both as sympathetically and at times exasperatedly as one could imagine) to Angela's mother Mildred (played to certainly Oscar nomination levels by Frances McDormand).  She's the one who pays for a year's worth of advertising on those three billboards on a rural road near where she lived / near where the crime occurred, hoping to embarrass the local police into "doing something." But ... sigh ... what was there to do that was not already done?

Dear Readers, this is a film different than advertised.  It's _not_ really about "getting the Authorities to do something."  It's above all about the horror (and horrific after-effects) of a crime.  Yes, one can understand Mildred's desire for "closure" (which she quite understandably takes to mean at least in part "catching the monster" who did this to her daughter).  But ... honestly _how_ does one "close" this kind of a wound?

The film struck me as surprisingly similar in its thematics to a seemingly far gentler film (until...) named A River Runs Through It [1992].  Yes, horrific tragedy can _change_ people ...

"Friend and neighbor you have taken away from me,
My only companion is darkness." -- Psalm 88:19

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Lady Bird [2017]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  RogerEbert.com (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review
RogerEbert.com (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

America-Magazine (E. Blondiao) conversation w. writer/director Greta Gerwig

Lady Bird [2017] (written and directed by Greta Gerwig) is IMHO a fascinating arguably _sincerely Catholic themed_ "coming of age" film that will probably infuriate, at least initially, many/most Catholic viewers.  And yet, I do agree that it's a love letter, celebrating fondly Gerwig's (not / never Catholic) years growing-up / attending a Catholic high school in quite mundane "the Midwest of California" Sacramento, CA.

I confess, I've been a fan of Gerwig's acting career since I began my blog from Damsels in Distress [2011] / Lola Versus [2012] to Frances Ha [2013] / Mistress America [2015] / Maggie's Plan [2016], and I've always suspected her to be "a sympathizer."  Maybe one day she'll go through RCIA, maybe not.  But ever since she played a character in Lola Versus [2012] who was going to write a Doctoral Dissertation on "commas" and "the small _spaces of silence_ that they bring," I've always seen her as a believer in God (more or less admitted by the end of the current film).  For that was how the  Biblical Prophet Elijah, "in a silent sound", encountered the Almighty and Ever-Living God [TM] on Mount Carmel one random day [1 Kings 19:11-13].

And then Gerwig is actually most brutal / most iconoclastic when confronting the true Idols of contemporary YA American culture:  The film's protagonist, Christine aka Lady Bird (played with appropriate teenage, hair partially dyed, eye-rolling disdain by Saoirse Ronan), finds her first sexual experience (yes, girls attending Catholic high school do at times contemplate / even experiment with sex...) to be ... _disappointing_.   She then goes to Prom initially with her ex-boyfriend who she had broken-up with because ... essentially "what else is one to do so late in the game?"  Then even more iconoclastically, when it becomes clear that her ex-boyfriend and his friends weren't at all interested in going to the Prom anyway, she asks to be dropped-off at the home of her generally _always smiling_, but somewhat "weight challenged" (and hence "never asked") BFF Julie (played wonderfully by Beanie Feldstein).  She convinces Julie to "just get on a dress" and together, _as friends_ they go then to the dance (the film was set in 2002).

Yes, Catholic parents should know that there's a scene in the film in which the two, Christine aka "Lady Bird" and her BFF Julie are shown eating communion hosts (_unconsecrated_) as "potato chips" as they randomly "discuss life" in the school's chapel's sacristy after Mass.   But when our protagonist finally "gets her wish" and gets the scholarship to go to some NYC liberal arts college, she finds herself ... going to Mass / Church ;-).

Appropriately R-rated (Parents _ought_ to have a say if they want their minors to see the film).  Still, I do think that this is a very intelligent film that actually _offers_ teens and college students the opportunity to go to Mass / Church without being seen as "uncool" for doing so.

In the end, Greta Garwig's protagonist discovers that without the Faith that she learned in "boring Sacramento", life even in "exciting NYC" can be ... rather empty.

Honestly what a film!

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Friday, November 24, 2017

Darkest Hour [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times () review
RogerEbert.com (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Darkest Hour [2017] (directed by Joe Wright, screenplay by Anthony McCarten) continues a recent fascination in the Anglo-American world with the life of Winston Churchill [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the current film by Gary Oldman), for this is the third film in less than a year about him, the other two being Churchill [2017], Dunkirk [2017] and now the current film, the first about the lead-up to the 1944 Invasion of Normandy which served to decisively win World War II for the Allies, and the second film along with current one about the much darker time (hence the current film's name...) near the beginning of the War when, honestly, ALL could have been lost, IF NOT perhaps for _this man_.

For years, Winston Churchill had been sounding the alarm in Britain and the West about the existential danger to a free humanity that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis posed.  Since Britain and France were desperate to avert another war as murderous as the First World War, Britain's previous Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain [wikip] (played in the current film by Ronald Pickup) hoped they could buy Hitler off through a policy of Appeasement. After washing his hands from a potential conflict between Germany and my parents' country of Czechoslovakia (by giving Hitler everything that he wanted ... at the time...) Chamberlain tried to declare that he had acheived "Peace with Honor" and "Peace in our Time," to which Churchill retorted that as a result of selling the Czechs into essentially slavery Britain will find neither Peace nor Honor, and eighteen months later, when the story of this film began Chamberlain if perhaps both cowardly and not particularly bright admitted that "Churchill was right."

But what now?  In a line that certainly stuck-out for me in this film, Churchill tells his wife Clementine (played wonderfully in the film by Kristen Scott Thomas) that, with the Germans having invaded Holland and Belgium and racing toward France, he was being made Prime Minister _now_ only because "the ship was already sinking."  His hope, as remarkably, always was, to try to still keep it (Britain) afloat.

AND THE TASK WAS DAUNTING.  As was amply presented in this summer's film Dunkirk [2017], THE WHOLE of BRITAIN'S army was soon surrounded near the French port of Dunkirk, And the legendary British Navy notwithstanding, WITHOUT a CREDIBLE ARMY ... there was simply no way the British political class would support continuing the War.

So he had to find a way to get the army out: Having been his whole life associated with the British Navy, Churchill did know a thing or two about its capabilities and its contingency plans, and so he did call on the Navy to requisition all those private boats and pleasure craft to sail out to Dunkirk and bring the vast majority of the British soldiers trapped there home.

But there still was the need to convince the political class to keep fighting.  Many, notably Viscount Halifax (played in the film by Stephen Dillane) wanted to still make a deal with Hitler if it would prevent an invasion.

Perhaps more than even the other two films, this one was about one man trying to convince an entire nation (and especially its leadership) that FIGHTING rather than SURRENDER was still worth it. 

The Viscount Halifax was right.  Almost certainly SOME KIND OF A DEAL could have been made, but MY GOD, WOULD THIS WORLD BE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT (and MUCH, MUCH WORSE FOR IT) if Britain would have folded.

There are times when one really does have to _stand_ and fight even if success is by no means guaranteed.  Excellent film!  But ... why are we seeing SO MANY films about Churchill now?  What are we being warned about?

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