Friday, December 30, 2016

Silence [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review
RogerEbert.com (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)  RogerEbert.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (C-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Walsh) review
RogerEbert.com (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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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fences [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
Ebony (D. Philyaw) review
Los Angeles Times (K Turan) review
RogerEbert.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

BET coverage
Essence.com coverage
TheSource.com coverage

Fences [2016] (starring and directed by Denzel Washington, screenplay by August Wilson [wikip] [IMDb] based on his Pulitzer prize / multiple Tony Award winning (both in 1987 when it was first staged on Broadway and in 2010 on the occasion of its revival) stageplay by the same name) is an African American centric story that plays out in _thoroughly_ Chekhovian style in 1950s Pittsburgh (right at the dawn of the Civil Rights Era) that simply screams and _deserves_ OSCAR NOMINATIONS this time around (Best Picture, BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY, Best Director, BEST ACTOR, BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS).  It may not get (or deserve) ALL those nominations, but it should get at least a couple of them.

The story focuses on a mid 50-something African-American Pittsburgh GARBAGE MAN named Troy Maxson (played wonderfully throughout by Denzel Washington - both he and Viola Davis who plays Troy's wife Rose played the roles in the 2010 Broadway revival of the stage-play). 

Troy is portrayed as seething with anger.  He had been a _great_ African American baseball player "back in HIS DAY" but ... born _just a few years_ "too early" ... he never had the chance to play in the Major Leagues.  So there he was, spending his days, day-in-day-out, lifting countless _garbage cans_ (remember, he's now in his mid/late 50s) dumping _other people's trash_ into a garbage truck, all the while "shooting the breeze" (often actually quite happily) with his BFF fellow, though lighter skinned, African American garbage man Jim Bono (played by Stephen Henderson), wondering "what could have been" if he had been _just a few years younger_, Jackie Robinson's age ...

Indeed, living every day with such small encased (fenced-off ...) horizons, at the beginning of the story, Troy set-out to "right" at least one smaller indignity that was driving him crazy: "Why", he asks his BFF Bono, "are all the garbage truck DRIVERS _white_ and those DOING THE ACTUAL HEAVY LIFTING _coloured_?"

So, at the beginning of the story he goes first to his Boss, then to the Union Rep, then back to the Boss ... demanding that _this_ be changed.  And during the course of the story, the "higher ups" at that "moment in history" (when History was _about to change_) LISTEN TO HIM ... and by midway through the story, TROY "gets his Dream (of sorts...)" ... and is offered the job of Garbage Truck DRIVER, BUT amusingly (and in TYPICAL CHEKHOVIAN FASHION ;-) there are unexpected problems / unintended consequences:

(1) Suddenly, both he and Bono realize that TROY _DID NOT KNOW HOW TO DRIVE_ ;-) ...  "No matter," he says, "DRIVING is just a matter of POINTING the truck in the direction of where you want to go..."  So he fakes it and this proves to not be an _overwhelming problem_,  BUT EVEN WORSE ...

(2) by BECOMING the Garbage Truck Driver, Troy's now SITTING _ALONE_ IN THE FRONT of the Garbage Truck, and LOSES CONTACT with his best friend Bono, who's still working (now with someone new / different) in the back.  Soon BOTH are "looking to retire" because BOTH find themselves LONELY.  
    
But just as in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, etc, there's _much more_ going on "at home" than JUST "in regards to economy / work." Indeed, most of what's truly important in Troy's life plays out OUTSIDE OF / AFTER Work.  In fact, most of the Play / Story, plays-out on various FRIDAY AFTERNOONS, _after work_, AFTER Troy picks-up his weekly hard-earned pay envelope and goes home to "Hold Court," mostly in the little Backyard -- a baseball still tied there on a string to a branch so that he (or his 17 year old son...) could "practice swinging" at it -- of his Home. 

THERE in that backyard, Troy's life really plays out.  A good part of the story's title "Fences" derives its name from this reality.  Troy's wife Rose asks him to build a Fence around that backyard.  SHE wants The Fence there to actually keep Troy "in" (when he's home, he's "out of trouble" and almost by definition _with her_ ...).  HE likes the fence as well because it demarks HIS "domain."  OUTSIDE, there may be a harsh world, but INSIDE, "he's Boss" / "King."  And that he DOES see himself as "King" at home DOES cause him problems with his 17-18 y.o. son Cory (played wonderfully throughout by Jovan Adepo). 

There'd be much more to say about this story, but I _don't_ want to get into "spoiler territory."  Safe to say, Troy was _not_ a perfect character: Rose had _good reason_ to want to keep him "inside the fence."  But though he did like his life "Inside _the Confines_ of his Domain," it's clear that as an "old baseball player" he still aimed "for the Fences" at times, that is, dreamed of "Hitting the Ball out of the Park..."

All in all, this is an excellent, well-crafted story.  That the film's adapted from a stage-play is quite obvious and may hurt it at the Oscars -- stage-plays adapted to the screen are generally "far talkier" / far more "dialogue driven" than screen adaptations of novels and this is certainly the case here.  Still no one can deny that the play itself is excellent as were the performances.  Excellent job!


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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Assasin's Creed [2016]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  RogerEbert.com (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C-)  Fr. Dennis (0 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Walsh) review
RogerEbert.com (S. Abrams) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review


Assasin's Creed [2016] (directed by Justin Kurzel, screenplay by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage based on the video game [wikip] [acw] by Patrick Désilets, Corey May and Jade Raymond) like the video-game is a NAZI-like celebration "Honor", Blood, Esoteric Relics and, of course, Violence.

Parents should know that the Catholic Church, er "the Templars" is / are portrayed as Evil and the heroes in this film are of an age-old Order of Assassins who pass both their skills and memory of their "past" through their genes (and if you miss the point THROUGH THEIR BLOOD).  Himmler (actually fellow Nazi War Criminal Alfred Rosenberg) would have been proud.  Zero Stars.


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Passengers [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review
RogerEbert.com (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review


Passengers [2016] (directed by Morton Tyldum, screenplay by Jon Spaihts) is IMHO an excellent teen-oriented discussion piece even as it will INFURIATE and quite possibly OFFEND many viewers.

The premise is the following: The sleek and luxurious star ship Avalon is quietly hurling at 1/2 the speed of light, guided by artificially intelligent autopilot, on a 120 years voyage from Earth to another world called Homestead II, its 200+ crew and 5000 passengers to be kept in suspended animation for all but the last 4-5 months of the trip.

Well, 30 years into the voyage, the star ship encounters a freak meteor storm larger than its design specifications, partially damaging the vessel.  The ship's artificially intelligent operating system(s) quickly move to compensate, keeping the ship on-course for its destination and restoring, more-or-less the ship's other other functions, 'cept ... one of the passenger hibernation pods, that of Jim Preston (played by Chris Pratt) malfunctions, awakening him early ... 90 years early.   Soon to his horror Jim discovers that there's NO WAY for him to go back to hibernation.

So he finds himself alone on this sleek, ultramodern, glass-and-titanium, coffin-of-a-cruise ship/star ship with only an amiable android-of-a-bartender named Arthur (played wonderfully by Michael Sheen) to keep him company -- Robinson Crusoe [wikip] [IMDb] meets Lost in Space [wikip] [IMDb] ...

But, of course, Arthur's NOT "human."  (At one point, when Jim finds himself in an all-but-inevitable existential panic attack, the ever unflappable Arthur, calmly responds to his angst filled questions, noting: "Jim, those aren't robot questions, are they?")

This NEW _ADAM_ (Genesis 2:18), Jim is _increasingly tempted_ to ... wake-up one of the other passengers to give him company.  THIS IS, OF COURSE, THE BIGGEST MORAL PROBLEM WITH THE FILM ... BUT ALSO _EXACTLY_ ITS POINT.

He in GOD-LIKE FASHION _chooses_ to awaken a woman named Aurora Lane (played as ever wonderfully by Jennifer Lawrence) who would have been _out of his league_ in other circumstances (he a mechanical engineer, she a writer-socialite from a rich family).  By doing so, he, of course, CONDEMNS HER _TO HIS SAME FATE_.  SHE, like him, is now going to DIE on this ship before it arrives at its destination -- _HER_ DREAMS RUINED BY _HIS_ DECISION -- BUT HE will not be Alone.

The film asks, clearly, WAS THAT A LEGITIMATE DECISION?  And then, honestly, IS THAT SIN / TRANSGRESSION ... FORGIVEABLE?

It seems clear to me from a number of the reviews (above) that many would find Jim's action simply UNFORGIVABLE / IRREDEEMABLE.  But then without the capacity to forgive and perhaps setting-out (alone or together) to build a future different from the one that one had previously planned, perhaps we'd all find ourselves on a cold if perhaps comfortable COFFIN-of-a-star-ship inexorably hurling to ... NOWHERE / INEVITABLE DEATH.

IMHO, an _excellent_, thought-provoking film.


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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [2016]

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

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

AdoroCinema.com press*
AlloCine.com press*
CSFD.cz press*
filmibeat.com press
film-zeit.de press*
Kritikanstvo.ru press*


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [2016] (directed by Gareth Edwards, screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, based on the characters created by George Lucas) _promised_ "A Star Wars Story" OF A DIFFERENT KIND.  And even respecting the general arc of the Original Story, the possibilities were grand.  George Lucas' franchise had, after all, created a literally an entire Universe, er "Galaxy" of potential stories.  Did it succeed?  IMHO, yes and no.

Yes, the current story is notably darker (perhaps post 9/11, post-Hunger Games [2012-2015] darker) than the original Star Wars Trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) [1977-1983] which if placed in the arc of the Overall Star Wars Saga it immediately predates.  In the current story, the Empire was clearly Dominant, its Opposition still reeling, splintered, disorganized.  To put the Opposition down forever, the Empire was just building The Death Star, a fearsome weapon of truly Massive Destruction.  A defector from the project (played by Riz Ahmed) described it to still uncomprehending members of said disorganized Rebel Alliance as "A Planet Killer."  Only when a city near one of the bases of the Rebel Alliance was destroyed by it in a tsunami of earth and molten lava (the special effects here and throughout are simply outstanding) did both Rebel Leaders like Saw Gerrera (played by Forest Whitaker), the leader of a radical splinter group in the Opposition as well as several "smaller people" like Jyn Erso (played wonderfully by Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) come to appreciate what was at stake.

What to do?  How to respond?  Well that's the rest of the movie ...

MY disappointment (somewhat) as I watched the current film was that it still ADHERES TOO CLOSELY to the OVERALL ARC OF THE ORIGINAL STORY.   Here was a GALAXY OF POSSIBILITY for _original storytelling_, and THIS STORY STILL CHOSE TO PUT ITS FOCUS ON "THE DEATH STAR."   I would have been much more impressed if the current film had been simply about "a small band of rebels" coalescing / fighting the Empire at some rather far / random edge of the Galaxy, with the "Death Star" given at most passing mention or NOT EVEN AT ALL.  PERHAPS the upcoming film about Han Solo [2018] will be more of that kind of a story ...

Still, that George Lucas' Star Wars Saga has produced this kind of "anthology film" at all, is quite impressive and bodes well for future storytelling as well.  I'd love to see still more done with the aforementioned Hunger Games series.  How did THAT fascist-like state come about?  And what of then the stories of any number of potential characters from any number of the "districts" in that story.  Similarly explorations of "Middle Earth" need not end with the exhaustion Tolkien's Hobbit and LOTR trilogy.  The story-telling possibilities there could be endless as well.

So over all, while I enjoyed the the current Star Wars "Anthology" film, I still believed "more could have been done" by _more boldly_ choosing to go off the already beaten path.

But I wish to end with mention of my favorite character in the current film, the blind Jedi monk Chirrut Îmwe (played by Donnie Yen).  A quite alone / scattered surviving member of the then persecuted / decimated Jedi Order, when in crisis, to give him courage, he would oft repeat to himself the mantra: "I am one with the force, and the force is with me."  To my Catholic / Christian ears, I hear the first line of Psalm 23: "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want ..." which in the whole Judeo-Christian Tradition has been used for millenia _for exactly the same purpose_ (to give solace and courage) as well ;-)

Overall ... good / great job!


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

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Nocturnal Animals [2016]

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

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


Nocturnal Animals [2016] (screenplay and directed by Tom Ford based on the novel Tony and Susan (1993) [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Austin Wright [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is an extremely well written / well acted, R-appropriate thriller about a bored and unhappy middle-aged Los Angeles art dealer named Susan Morrow (played quite magnificently by Amy Adams) who is, one day, blithely surprised to get a manuscript for a novel in the last stages before being published from her first husband Edward (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who she had left and not heard from for nearly 20 years.  Enclosed is a small card from said first husband, and turning to the first page of the manuscript, she finds that the book is dedicated to her ...

The novel, quite shockingly violent, about a random "Texas suburban folk" family in a several-years old Mercedes who find themselves harassed, stopped and, of course, worse ... by a trio of drunk / crazed rednecks in a beat-up rednecky muscle car on a lonely stretch of an interstate somewhere amidst the parched / dry land and tumbleweeds of West Texas one fateful evening, DOESN'T DIRECTLY CORRESPOND to Susan / Edward's "past history" together, BUT ... riveted, in a dread-ful(l) sort of way, Susan can't bring herself to put the manuscript down.

And as she reads said, awful(ly) violent, yet as utterly riveting as "a car-wreck on the highway" of a novel, we Viewers are treated to the interplay of three stories -- (1) that of Susan's current dreadfully boring and perhaps "PAST her prime" life where Susan's primary concern seemed to have been reduced to finding a way (if she felt there was a point...) to confront her still "quite-the-looker" salt-and-pepper-haired, the occasional wrinkle actually _enhancing_ the attractiveness of his smile, "Richard Gere" of a second husband named "Hutton" (played by Armie Hammer) on his more-or-less obvious infidelities towards her, (2) a recollection of the circumstances of how Susan and Edward, her _only now_ about to be published, 20-years-after-she had left him "aspiring novelist" of a first husband had met ... and eventually broke-up (again, it was she who had left him...), and (3) the story of this terribly violent nightmare of a novel.

Call it A SPIKE _driven_ into the Subconscious of a late-40 year old, this is _not_ a pretty story. Indeed, from the very first scene, it is a _quite ugly_ one.  But it is IMHO one _well written_ and _well acted_ piece.

NOT for ANYONE under 30, it's still one heck of a story.


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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

La La Land [2016]

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

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


La La Land [2016] (written and directed by Damien Chazelle) is a lovely, generally happy, sometimes poignant tribute to both "growing up" and L.A. that is already getting a _completely deserved_ El Niño scale downpour of deserved Awards nominations.  Yes, there are still a whole bunch of films to see before the curtain falls on this year's Award Season contenders, but this hands-down would be my vote for Best Picture of the Year. 

Part of what made this film work so well for me is that I KNEW THE LOS ANGELES PORTRAYED in this film WHEN I MYSELF WAS IN MY TWENTIES going to grad school at USC in the mid-late 1980s.   Every other waitress at Carrows' or Denny's across L.A. was like Emma Stone's aspiring-actress character Mia (in her current incarnation working as a barrista at a Starbuck's like cafe' on Universal Studio's lot).  And one of the few moments of sadness that I've felt since returning to Southern California (after 25 years) to take-on an assignment at a parish of ours, St. Philip Benizi, in Fullerton, CA, was hearing that Gorky's Cafe, a place where one could reliably have great in-house brewed beer (_long before_ microbreweries even existed) with some great borscht (the only place that could compete with my mother's) while listening to great Jazz at 2-3-4 AM on any Friday or Saturday night, had _closed_ some years ago.  What a tragedy, what a cultural loss.  Hence I could feel Ryan Gosling's character Sebastian's pain, as he dreamed of re-opening "a _real_ Jazz club," as well ;-). 

The the film's locations were truly iconic:  I drove that _insanely high_ 110 Harbor Freeway-105 interchange where the film's traffic jam / opening "dance number" was staged ON MY WAY TO SEE THIS MOVIE ;-).   Thirty years ago, I bought an old SLR camera from a shady dealer at Crazy Giddeon's on Hollywood Blvd, my sister, visiting from Chicago, beside me, PRECISELY TO TAKE PICTURES of "L.A. at Dusk" from the HOLLYWOOD HILLS protrayed so nicely (and so precisely at _exactly_ the right time of early-evening-turning-to-night) in the film.  I knew the then iconic beach bars (by legend "where the Beach Boys started") just off of Hermosa Beach's Pier, where Sebastian takes a contemplative stroll at one point in the story.  The film got the region's psychic geography completely right. 

And then there's the story.  Both Mia and Sebastian are in their twenties, today.  Both have their dreams, dreams that kinda intersect, kinda don't, and we watch their stories play-out, even as we recall similar dreams / stories that we had when we ourselves were young(er). 

And yes, when one's talking about dreams / memories ... a "sound track," at minimum, is required ;-).

Simply a spectacularly beautiful / nice film!  Great, great job!


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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Miss Sloane [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review
RogerEbert.com (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review


Miss Sloane [2016] (directed by John Madden, screenplay by Jonathan Perera) is a dark, monstrously calculating, "House of Cards"-like contemporary political thriller that will challenge _anyone_ thinking of committing oneself to enter the halls of government to seek to work for the greater common good.  Yet, I do believe that it's better to _know_ what "one's up against" before entering such political life than to enter such life naively.  Still, a better (and certainly far more constructive) education can be found in the documentary series 12 Stories: How Democracy Works Now [2010] [WorldCat.org] one which one should be able to find and borrow through one's local public library.

The current story centers on Elizabeth Sloane (played as always to Oscar nomination worthy heights by Jessica Chastain, _well_ on her way to becoming Meryl Streep's successor as perhaps the best actress of her generation).  Miss Sloane, MISS because, driven as she was, she apparently never had interest in marriage / family / etc, is a ruthless, well on _her_ way legendary WASHINGTON LOBBYIST who prided herself on  _NEVER_ LOSING -- contemporary Democracy's "power behind the throne," contemporary Democracy's Lady MacBeth, who though it's never mentioned could _easily_ have held Sun Tzu's The Art of War [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [eBook] as _her_ Bible -- "Never, ever let them surprise you, but wait and surprise them." 

At the beginning of the film, the Gun Lobby comes to The Firm where Miss Sloane works with a request: Already having a _lock_ on the nation's Congress, they would still like to extend their power by finding some way to 'sell guns' to _women_.  "Security moms" aside, women have been notoriously "soft" in their support / appreciation of guns.  Indeed, they tend to find guns ... well ... dangerous.  So trying to address this "negative image" that women would seem to have with guns, the Gun Lobby decides to explore the possibility of hiring The Firm where Miss Sloane works to see if they could "change such perceptions."  And yes, they're going to Miss Sloane's Firm in good part because SHE, assumed to be a Machiavellian "killer lobbyist," worked there.

YET ... both Miss Sloane's bosses (the head boss played quite excellently by character-actor Sam Waterson) and "head of the NRA"-like potential client (played by Chuck Shamata) are FRANKLY SHOCKED when Miss Sloane REFUSES the job.  She tells them quite matter-of-factly that she simply did not believe in their cause.  WHAT'S MORE, she takes the opportunity to do something EVEN MORE SHOCKING ... She decides to leave The Firm (with five of her assistants in tow) TO TAKE-ON the Gun Lobby instead.  WT ... ?

Fascinating is that that Miss Sloane does this NOT "for personal reasons" (she knew NO ONE personally who had suffered as a result of gun violence) but instead (1) as a result of _reasoned conviction_  (It _really_ made _no sense to her_ why one needs to get a drivers' license to drive, a pilots' license to fly, a medical degree to perform surgery, but any psychopath could go to a gun show and walk home with a military style assault rifle and all the ammunition that one could carry) and (2) she does it, well, for _the professional challenge_.  Remember, SHE NEVER LOSES.  As an "undefeated prize fighter," what bigger challenge in the Lobbying Field would there be than to take-on the Gun Lobby in Washington?  And so then ... it's "game on."

Now a LOT OF VIEWERS could really _get sick_ here.  Okay, the Cause is Just (and the Catholic Church in the United States has _regularly_ and _consistently_ spoken out for what would seem like common sense restrictions on gun ownership.  How could it not?  IT'S A CHURCH).  But look at The Cause's champion here: an ice-cold, thoroughly ruthless, professional lobbyist willing to do _just about anything_ "to win."  Is "winning" in such a no-holds-barred, throw anybody and everybody under the bus fight worth it?

Well that's the question asked ... and it's a very well written, well acted, if quite dark film.


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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Jackie [2016]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB ()  RogerEbert.com (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

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


Jackie [2016] (directed by Pablo Larraín, screenplay by Noah Oppenheim) is a powerful, often heart-rending / gut-wrenching movie about Jacqueline Kennedy scrambling, often, still in shock, simultaneously (1) to simply _get through_ the AWFUL hours / days after following her husband's John F. Kennedy's assassination (his head _exploded_ into her lap ...) and (2) trying to cement her husband's (and her) Legacy, his Time having been cut so tragically Short, before he / she / they would be Forgotten. 

If the second concern would seem surprising, the point is made in the film with the still seemingly shell-shocked Jacqueline (played to nobrainer Oscar Nomination levels by Natalie Portman) asking the driver of a limo, still presumably part of the presidential fleet, in the days after the assassination, what he remembered of James A. Garfield and William McKinley, both Presidents, both having been assassinated while being President.  The driver, of course, remembered next to nothing of the two, though, yes, he remembered Lincoln.  But then Lincoln prosecuted and won the Civil War and Ended Slavery in the United States, what did JFK really accomplish in his three years as President?   Perhaps he averted Nuclear War over Berlin / Cuba.  Perhaps he oriented the Country's space program toward the Moon.  Who could really know?  Who could really tell?  Who would really remember?  Why should we (Viewers) really care?

The last question is perhaps at the heart of the story here: Why should we care?  But I think we do, care.  We will ALL meet an End one day.  How do WE want to be remembered?    Certainly, almost none of us will be remembered as JFK (or Jackie) was.  But I do believe that most of us would certainly NOT want to just ... disappear.

EXCELLENT, thought provoking film about ... Legacy.


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Office Christmas Party [2016]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  RogerEbert.com (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

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


Office Christmas Party [2016] (Josh Gordon and Will Speck, screenplay by Justin Malen, Laura Solon and Dan Mazer, story by Jon Lucas, Scott Moore and Timothy Dowling) is, obviously, NOT going to receive any Oscar Nominations.  It's not that kind of movie, it's not intended to be that kind of movie.  That said, what then is it intended to be?

The film continues in a surprisingly _long_ string of R-rated comedies about "grown-ups behaving badly."  But it's actually more complicated than that: It's part of a pretty impressive list of films about grown-ups finding themselves in any number of constraining circumstances who decide at some point in the story, early-or-late, to just say "WT..." and revolt against said constraints.  The list of films would include Bad Santa 1&2 [2003] [2016], Bad Grandpa [2013], Bad Teacher [2011], Horrible Bosses 1&2 [2011] [2014], Bridesmaids [2011]Ted 1 & 2 [2012] [2015], Movie 43 [2013], Neighbors 1 & 2 [2014] [2016], Bad Moms [2016].  Like their similarly R-rated romantic comedic cousins -- No Strings Attached [2011] or Friends with Benefits [2011] come to mind -- there's a "Wouldn't it be nice?" quality to them: Wouldn't it be nice to tell one's boss what one really thought of him / her?  Wouldn't it be nice to tell someone's bratty kid what one thought of him / her?  Wouldn't it be nice to just pitch some film (or idea) that's just completely insane and leave it to one's "higher ups" try to guess if one's actually serious about it?

So this film is about a random, relatively small family-owned tech-firm based in Chicago, constrained by market forces to be increasingly cut-throat, that decides to say "WT..." and throw one EPIC ... "Office Christmas Party" ... Why?  Arguably "to save the company" ;-) by impressing some purchasing agent from some fairly large potential buyer that unlike the bigger tech players in the field -- Dell, HP, etc -- THEY still "care about people," caring expressed here by ... partying.  

The premise here is not entirely bad.  Corporate culture can be mind-numbing / soul-killing.  It's just that the partying displayed becomes _so crude_ that there's no way that this film could be shown to ANYBODY but adults and even then with REAL ISSUES:  At one point in the film, the revelers are shown chugging some sort of a slurried alcoholic concoction through a rather engorged d... of a rather horny-looking ice-sculpture.  Honestly folks, WHO WOULD DO THAT?  Especially since even in the film, every other employee has his/her smart phone out, clicking photos of their coworkers doing this.   Try looking for another job after THAT gets posted on Facebook...

But then that's part of the point.  The film is sooo over-the-top that there's no way it could be taken seriously.  Still it's also sooo over-the-top that, as childish / sophomoric as it is, it can't possibly be shown to anyone under the 17 of the R rating and even then with serious reservations.

Still, honestly folks, it's often very funny ...


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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Apparition Hill [2016]

MPAA (PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Official Website


Apparition Hill [2016] (written and directed by Sean Bloomfield) is an excellent documentary about the Madjugorje Apparitions enjoyed a week-long run recently at the Laemle Town Center Theatre in the San Fernando Valley here in Los Angeles.  Many viewers would / will be surprised.

A Catholic would have to have been living under a rock for the last 30-40 years to not know of the Madjugorje Apparitions and unsurprisingly they have proven to be about as divisive in the Church as anything that one could possibly imagine.  Honestly, no matter what position one could take on the still ongoing Apparitions, one is more or less certain to be dismissed by a large percentage of contemporary Catholics.

So in this regard, I do want to thank the writer / director and his crew for making this remarkably accessible arguably "Reality Show style" documentary about the phenomenon.

The project began with the film-makers publicizing a contest: send us a short video explaining why we should pick you to go with six others on an all-expenses paid week-long pilgrimage to Madjugorje.  Yes, they advertised this contest in English language generally Conservative Catholic media, which would _somewhat_ limit "the pool of contestants."  On the other hand, two of the seven people they picked, one from England, the other a police officer from Chicago, were basically young / middle-aged skeptics who thought that their families (or _inlaws_) "were NUTS" :-) to be taken up by the Madjugorje phenomenon (and PLENTY of rank-and-file Catholics, both Madjugore-philes and non, could EASILY relate to them and their families ;-).  Could the two have been feigning their skepticism?  If so, honestly, film-makers look these two up, because they would have given Oscar level performances here.  Among the others were a husband and wife, with the wife suffering from Stage 4 Cancer and another a middle aged man suffering from advanced ALS.  There was also a young woman, Catholic Convert, from a Mennonite background, who just found "the whole focus on Mary" to still "be odd" (and arguably heretical).

So the film-makers picked well.

Then skeptics of the phenomenon WOULD BE SHOCKED, HONESTLY SHOCKED, to see Madjugorje looking NOTHING LIKE one _could_ imagine it to be (filled with a multitude of "old ladies" hobbling up some random hill in still medieval, still bombed-out former Yugoslavia (from the _still_ quite recent wars there) _snarling_ that those relatives _not_ with them were almost certainly going to Hell when they came home ;-).  INSTEAD FOLKS, Madjugorje turns out to look like a quiet, thoroughly modern, "Olympic Village" -- think of Nagano or Lillehammer filled in good part by SMILING YOUNG PEOPLE FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD.  A miraculous, wrought-metal statue of Jesus in the center square (it "weeps" water, "sometimes...," strangely) out of the back of one of his knees ;-), could have been made by Pablo Picasso or Salvador Dalí ;-). Yes, the trek up the Apparition Hill is still precarious -- honestly looked as if it could have been "sent over" from Mel Gibson's set for the Passion of the Christ.  I _know_ (EVER _NICE_, SMILING! ;-) "old ladies" who've visited Madjugorje (repeatedly) and I honestly marvel, now, that they could have gone up said hill ;-).  And then the group's conversations with one of the visionaries, again ever-smiling, ever-nice were also very nice. (I knew that from before ... that the visionaries from Madjugorje were _always_ reported to be really nice, ever-smiling people)..

All in all, this film, _can_ make one "think" ... I myself have never been to Madjegorje (mostly honestly because of time) and I'm _not_ necessarily someone who'd be "naturally predisposed" to believe in these Apparitions.  Indeed, with a science background, and _generally_ on the "pro-Vatican II Council" side of the contemporary Catholic Church divide, I'd be _assumed_ to be "on the skeptics' / rejectionist side" (by both sides in the argument).  HOWEVER, over the years, I've known a lot of good people, good parishioners, who've gone to Madjugorje, generally _repeatedly_, and I've seen over the years THE GOOD WORKS that MOST OF THESE SMILING "MAGJEGORJE PEOPLE" DO on a routine, day-to-day basis.  As such, I came to the film "with an open mind" and LEFT HONESTLY SURPRISED / IMPRESSED.  I now understand better WHY so many people who go to Madjugorje return there over, and over again.  It's lovely, beautiful, peaceful, modern ... emphatically _not_ a "condemnation of our time" ... instead, a vision of what our time could be.

Great documentary!

Oh, yes, did the lady with Stage 4 cancer (or the guy with ALS) get healed?  No.  At least she died a month or two after her trip.  But anyone with a heart would see that the trip, the pilgrimage, was worth it anyway.  We do say that Healing involves far more than the physical.  It was obvious that she died in peace, and her family was in greater peace as well.


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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Manchester by the Sea [2016]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review
RogerEbert.com (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 ()  RogerEbert.com (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
RogerEbert.com (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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