Friday, October 13, 2017

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Mountain Between Us [2017]

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

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

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

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

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17th Annual Shriekfest L.A.[2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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Battle of the Sexes [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the story ensues ...

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


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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Flatliners [2017]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L) (2 Stars)  AVClub (D+)  Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (N. Murray) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review

Flatliners [2017] (directed by Neils Arden Oplev, screenplay by Ben Ripley story by Peter Filardy) remake of Flatliners [1990] (directed by Joel Schumacher, screenplay by Peter Filardy) seeks to "update" the original, a film about five medical students who decide to try to explore the phenomenon of  Near Death Experience (NDE),"  They do so by boldly sending each other (one at a time) into the realm of near-death by STOPPING their hearts with a defibrillator, and then, after a period of time, attempting to revive them.  In the remake, the students chronicle their test subjects' / colleagues' near death experiences by means of recording the test subjects' brain activity through a continuous / real time MRI scan.

Okay, the method of investigation seems remarkably plausible if, of course, very, very risky. 

However, the story that follows, especially in the remake, becomes silly and arguably even offensive to many / most religious viewers: 

For instance, one of the medical students, Courtney (played by Ellen Page) who's actually the instigator of the whole experiment comes to be stalked by some demonic apparition of her younger, 10 year old, sister who she _accidentally_ killed some years before. 

I found that whole subplot so difficult to fathom that it turned me off to the rest of the movie.  It just seems inconceivable to me that a 10 year old girl would "come back" to take vengeance on her older sister, when it was so clear that her older sister had killed her _by accident_.  It's a scenario that seems utterly foreign to a Christian / Catholic sensibility. 

But perhaps to a "post-Christian" set of film-makers it somehow becomes possible.

Now while the premise of the film (as the original) is indeed fascinating (who hasn't wondered what it would be like at the moment of death?), the Catholic Church and the whole of the Biblical tradition (1 Samuel 28) has warned repeatedly against any form of "divination" (prediction of the future) and arguably the film is about a perhaps surprising new form of "divination" or otherwise "tempting fate."

As such, the Church would counsel to simply _wait_ to see what comes at death, assuring us that if we do live our lives honestly / well, that "all will turn out okay" and certainly _counsel against_ any and all attempts to "play God."

So, as inherently fascinating as the subject matter of this story may be, the Church would say ... leave it alone.  And honestly, it is clear that the film-makers once presenting the film's premise -- of a group of medical students setting out to study what awaits us in the "near beyond" -- did not know what to do with the story afterwards.

Sigh, disappointing.

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Victoria and Abdul [2017]

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

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

Victoria and Abdul [2017] (directed by Stephen Frears, screenplay by Lee Hall based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Shrabani Basu [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) tells the story of Abdul Karim [wikip] (played in the film wonderfully by Ali Fazal) a 24 year-old Muslim Indian clerk from Agar, India (home of the Taj Mahal) who in 1887 was quite randomly picked ("Ah say Abdul, put down your pencil and come with me.  We have a task for you...") and sent along with a grumpier (and even more randomly selected) middle aged clerk named Mohammed (played by Adeel Akhtar) by their colonial British superior on what would seem to us today to be a nearly farcical mission: to carry a ceremonial coin (yes, no larger or precious than a Susan B. Anthony Dollar) ALL THE WAY FROM INDIA to QUEEN VICTORIA (in ENGLAND) in honor of Queen Victoria's 50th Jubilee.

After a many month journey by ship, they arrive in England, are dressed ridiculous English-ized Indian garb -- to look essentially like "Beefeaters with turbans on their heads" -- and instructed how, during a random State dinner the two were to cross an entire room full of dignitaries WITHOUT MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH ANY OF THEM, and AGAIN, NOT, AH SAY, NOT (!) MAKING ANY EYE CONTACT WHATSOEVER WITH THE QUEEN present Her with said coin and ... QUIETLY ... LEAVE.

Middle-aged Mohammed found the whole exercise humiliating and arguably barbaric.  24-year old Abdul, perhaps because he _was_ still 24, found this task, inevitably ... exciting.  And yes, when he delivered said coin to the aging Queen Victoria [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the film again wonderfully by Judi Dench) he ... could not but help himself and ... made eye contact and ... as only a still 24 year old on perhaps an utterly stupid / meaningless task but still the _task of his young life_ ... SMILED ;-).

And ... with this began "a beautiful friendship."

Now why would a QUEEN fall (platonically, but still fall) for a random 24-year-old nobody from the far-reaches of her Empire?  Well ... GUESS?  State dinners can become REALLY REALLY BORING ... and what a breath of fresh-air it must have been to meet someone, ANYONE, NORMAL ... outside of "Planet Stiff."

I totally get it, and yes, it scandalized "Victoria's Court."

TODAY ... the story arguably _still_ scandalizes _us_ at least in part, because we are confronted with the "possibility" that a 24-year-old Muslim from the South Asia / the Middle East / Pakistan NEED NOT BE "A TERRORIST" ... but rather a quite normal person who smiles, has much to teach us, and who if we put aside our own blinders can actually remind us of ourselves.

Excellent film based on an excellent, well researched book, written by a nice, smiling contemporary Indian author Shrabani Basu [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb] with a journalism background who _herself_ reminds us of what we can learn if we just just open ourselves up to more than just our own "closed little courts."  Great, great job!

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Saturday, September 30, 2017

American Made [2017]

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

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

American Made [2017] (directed by Doub Liman, screenplay by Gary Spinelli) is the third major U.S. film / television production to come-out recently about CIA links to drug-smuggling into the United States during the 1980s, the other two being Kill The Messenger [2014] (a biopic about the late James Webb, the former San Jose Mercury News reporter who first reported on the matter in the mid-1990s, lost his job and ended up committing suicide some years afterwards) and then a "hard-hitting" if perhaps needlessly flashy "Rolling Stone Mag-esque" History Channel sponsored 4-part mini-series America's War on Drugs [2017]

The story is relevant to this day as millions of younger to middle-aged African Americans remain nominally listed as "felons" as a result of a "crack possession" conviction (At the height of the "War on Drugs" in the 1980s-90s "possession" of ANY amount of "crack cocaine" -- whether they actually possessed a rock or two, OR IT WAS PLANTED ON THEM during a "routine police stop" .... -- was made into A FELONY in many states).  This opened the door to many, usually Southern States to "legitimately" takeaway their Civil Rights and make them _ineligible to vote_ FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES unless some Southern governor chooses to do something about this, but then to do so would mean opening the door for his/her opponent to accuse him/her of being "soft on felons..." (not likely to happen ...).

Still, in this era of Russian meddling in our news, there's another aspect of this story to consider: The Russians (successors to the Soviets) LOST the Cold War in the 1980s.  The story: "Well we only 'lost' because the CIA 'bent all the rules' and supported anti-Communist forces in Latin America through drug-running," is well ... "very convenient."  And Readers simply consider that IF the Soviet bloc had won the Cold War, then THE BEST we could hope for today would be someone like Vladimir Putin to be "leading over us."  So all in all, IT'S A GOOD THING that the Soviet Bloc lost the Cold War ...

That said, there's enough "smoke" in this story to assume that there's _a lot of fire_ underneath.  So there is a necessity to "come clean" / "clear the air" before our society can legitimately go on.  Many believe that so many potential African American voters were kept from voting in Florida because of "ex-Felon" voting rights restrictions that BOTH the 2000 and the 2016 elections could have resulted in Democratic Patry victories and our country would _very different_ than it is today.

But this film ISN'T about voting rights.  Instead it is about one rather (in)famous drug-running pilot Barry Seal [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the film quite well by Tom Cruise) who even though he was already doing some petty smuggling while being an airline pilot for TWA -- to its the film's credit, this was shown in its opening minutes if _not_ in entirely honest hues (in reality Seal was smuggling more than just "cigars" while flying for TWA) -- before being recruited by the CIA (in the film by a Monty "Schafer" played by Domhnall Gleeson) to use his flying talents to shoot reconnaissance photos of Communist insurgent camps across Central America.  The pay wasn't that great, BUT ... they gave him a really fast turboprop plane WITH ... "plenty of room" for carrying ... OTHER STUFF.

That "other stuff" BECAME cocaine for the then UPSTART Pablo Escobar Medellin Cartel and later GUNS for the Nicaraguan Contras (and _surprisingly_, for the drug cartels as well ...) going from the U.S. to Central / South America and the Contras themselves (going back up from Central America) to a surprisingly "busy" airport in rural Mena, Arkansas during _interestingly enough_ the time Bill Clinton was governor there ... and George H.W. Bush (Sr.) was first V.P. and then President ...

It makes for "one heck of the story" and from the quite rudimentary "fact checking" that I've done, my sense is that the film makers didn't necessarily let "strict adherence to the facts" _get in the way_ of telling said "good story" ... (Again, it seems that Barry Seal was smuggling "more" than just "cigars" early in his career ...). 

"Good story" or not ... does the film encourage / glamorize crime?  It probably does, but IMHO no more than the various films made over the decades about Prohibition Era mobsters.  Does it encourage cynicism toward government?  Yes it does.  Yet, if the CIA was "looking away" as "freedom fighters" (both North American and Latin American) profiteered from gun and drug running, then ... some of that cynicism would seem to be legitimately earned and the best way to combat such cynicism is to enforce "discipline in the ranks" (expel and jail soldiers / agents who "go off the reservation").

Still in this era of Fake (or at least deeply slanted) "News" a wave of this kind of film, with "our guys" (the CIA) portrayed as "just a bunch of crooks" while such "self-criticism" though available [1] [2]  IF ONE LOOKS REALLY HARD FOR IT on the part of the Russians in Putin's Russia (successors to the Soviets) is rare, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

So while no one will accuse me of not "enjoying a good story" ... the timing of the film at time of a wave of wave of "Fake" / "Tendentious" News stories ... makes me wince a bit.  Still, Tom Cruise certainly played his role well!

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Monday, September 25, 2017

The LEGO Ninjago Movie [2017]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II) (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

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

The LEGO Ninjago Movie [2017] (directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan screenplay by Bob LoganPaul Fisher, William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern and John Whittington, story by Hilary WinstonBob LoganPaul FisherWilliam WheelerTom Wheeler, Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman) can be best understood as INTENDED FOR FIVE-TO-SEVEN YEAR OLDS (and families with 5-7 year olds ;-).

Like the other Lego movies -- The Lego Movie [2014] and The Lego Batman Movie [2017] -- there are times when this film is insanely cute, the addition here is the film's Asian twist with Jackie Chan both narrating the film's story to a precocious 7 year-old boy and playing the (Lego) character "Ninja Master Wu." 

The film centers around a teenager named Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco) growing up with a largely absent father in a seaside city (made of Legos) named Ninjago.  The absent father turns out to be more than just "absent."  Instead, he turns out to be a super villain and the city's nemesis named Garmedon (voiced by Justin Theroux) who lives in a suitably ferocious-looking lair on an island complete with a Lego volcano off of Ninjago's coast.  He regularly attacks the city, but is kept at bay by a group of teenage "ninjas" of which Lloyd is actually part.

Lloyd (as well as the other teenage ninjas / really the entire city) KNOWS that Garmedon is his estranged father and naturally hates this (and him ... for causing him so much shame).

Well one thing leads to another, notably that Lloyd at one point tries to simply destroy his father with "the ultimate weapon" which his uncle / Master Wu kept safe (in an appropriately adorned case in his home). 

What's this "ultimate weapon"?  Well it turns out to be a pen-sized / key chain laser pointer, but in a world of Lego sized characters it looks like a "laser bazooka."   Still whether the size of a convenient gadget to attach to one's key chain, or a shoulder-mounted bazooka, a red laser pointer, doesn't exactly do much, CEPT ... summon a (to the Lego sized characters) MONSTROUS SIZED (IF UTTERLY ADORABLE) KITTEN which chasing the red dot produced by the laser pointer knocks over the buildings of Lego-Ninjago like ... well, they were made out of Legos ;-)

After THAT disaster ... Master Wu sends his nephew LLoyd and his other ninja friends on a long jungle quest of redemption that forces them to cross all sorts of hurdles including a "precarious bridge of failed mentors" and traversing a "grand canyon of general unhappiness" ;-).  Finally they arrive at the "Temple of Fragile Foundations", the childhood home of Garmedon (again, Lloyd's dad).  Much often endearing (if also with a point) ensues ... ;-)

So ... three Lego movies on, I remain a fan and I really do think that Jackie Chan would make a great story-telling uncle or grandfather!  Excellent job!

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Friday, September 15, 2017

American Assassin [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review

American Assassin [2017] (directed by Michael Cuesta, screenplay by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Vince Flynn [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) introduces Viewers of the silver screen to the character of Mitch Rapp [wikip] [IMDb] (played here in the film by Dylan O'Brien).

As in the late  Vince Flynn's book series, previously generally normal / care-free early-to-mid 20-something college/grad-school aged Mitch Rapp's [wikip] [IMDb] life is forever changed by loss of his sweetheart / would-have-been-the-love-of-his-life Katrina (played briefly in the film to set the story up by Charlotte Vega) in a terrorist attack.  In the book series, she dies in the 1998 PanAm 103 Lockerbie Bombing.  In the current film, she along with other carefree tourists is gunned down (right before Rapp's eyes) in a massacre at a beach resort in Spain.

Rapp survives the attack, and decides that he's going to get Revenge.  He decides initially that he's not going to waste his time with Intelligence services.  Instead:

(1) He apparently teaches himself to speak utterly flawless / accent-less Arabic and learn (somehow) Arabic / Muslim customs to the level that he would _never_ get caught the way that poor sap of a British intelligence officer did the classic scene in Inglourious Basterds [2009] (where the poor sap, impersonating a German officer in Nazi occupied France) ordered three drinks in a bar filled with Germans including Gestapo using the wrong three fingers...);
 (2) trains like "a Demon on a Red-Bull drip" at a MMA gym and
 (3) becomes an ace sharpshooter.

I guess the old slogan is true: "MasterCard, it's everywhere you want to be..." ;-)  

His chatting with ISIS / Al Queda-like recruiters on the "dark internet" catches the attention of the CIA who apparently then with further surveillance discover his antics at the MMA gym and various shooting ranges, and ... at least one analyst at the CIA, Irene Kennedy (played in the film by Sanaa Lathan) is ... impressed.

Eventually, Rapp is taken-in -- in an interesting way at interesting time -- by Kennedy, _not_ to incarcerate him, but rather to recruit him, but ... does Mitch Rapp "want to play ball?"

And this then becomes the over-riding question in the film (and apparently in Flynn's entire series): Rapp has a clear agenda (to simply hunt down and kill Terrorists) for easily and arguably heartbreakingly understandable reasons (they murdered the love-of-his-life).  But the CIA is "bigger" than that with more issues / adversaries on its plate, some arguably more powerful and dangerous than simply annoying if also deadly "two bit terrorists."

Is Mitch Rapp going to be able to understand / accept that?  Much ensues ...

Viewers may see in Mitch Rapp [wikip] [IMDb] a combination of James Bond [wikip] [IMDb] and Jason Bourne [wikip] [IMDb] with Charles Bronson's character from the Death Wish [wikip] [IMDb] series thrown in.  He is, perhaps, a compelling character.  However, I would note to Readers here that the film here is not nearly as polished the James Bond, Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan, or the Jason Bourne films.  Some may like that.  However, the entire scenario in this film becomes not merely quite far-fetched (the James Bond plots / villains are _usually_ wildly crazy) but more problematically ... sloppy.

As such in the end, I found the current film disappointing.  It's a shame, because the lead character, Mitch Rapp [wikip] [IMDb], I found (initially) quite compelling.  It just that not only "the CIA" but also arguably the film's screen-writers chose to "not use him well." Sigh ...

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Wind River [2017]

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

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

Wind River [2017] (written and directed by Taylor Sheridan) is an extremely well written / well crafted / well acted, if (Parents take note) appropriately R-rated, thriller / contemporary murder mystery that should certainly garner an Oscar Nomination for Best Original Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan) and possibly others including Best Direction (Taylor Sheridan), Best Actor in a Leading and/or Supporting Role (Jeremy Renner), Best Actress in a Leading and/or Supporting Role (Elizabeth Olsen) and perhaps even Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Graham Greene).

Wyoming based, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Ranger Cory Lambert (played by Jeremy Renner) quietly grieving the loss of his own teenage daughter to tragedy some years earlier, while on a random favor to "take care" of a wildlife predator problem for his Native American ex-father-in-law Ben (played by Graham Greene) a part-time Sheriff / part-time rancher on the nearby Wind River Indian Reservation, comes across the barefoot body (in the middle of winter and in the middle of nowhere) of an(other) frozen teenage girl.  What the heck was she doing out there, like that, in the middle of nowhere?

He reports the matter to his father-in-law, who, since a murder was suspected, dutifully calls in the FBI as the local Reservation Police Force had neither the personnel/resources nor apparently _the jurisdiction_ to investigate murder.  So ... the FBI _had to be called-in_ to the visible, seething resentment of the Native American populace and its tiny understaffed / underequipped law-enforcement community.

Who the FBI sends _doesn't_ exactly inspire respect / confidence: A young / green and seemingly out-of-her depth agent from the FBI's "Las Vegas office" named Jane Banner (played to Oscar Nomination worthy depth by Elizabeth Olsen) who drives-up "in a rental car" woefully under-dressed for the still cold Wyoming winter. When one disbelieving middle-aged Native American woman asks: "Are you _really_ from Las Vegas?," wondering what kind of "law enforcement expertise" could a perhaps sincere if overly/inappropriately bubbly (and again, if not scantily then certainly still under-dressed) "young woman from Sin City" possibly offer them -- visibly concerned/convinced that "the Whites" who've dominated them for over a century now were once again going to screw them -- Agent Banner answers, "No, I'm not originally from Las Vegas, I'm actually ... (stopping herself, realizing that her answer wasn't going to help) ... originally from Fort Lauderdale ("Sin City -- East")."

And so it is, the visibly offended middle-aged Native American woman, gets Agent Banner some weather appropriate clothes, _pointedly_ telling her: "This is NOT a gift to you. I _expect_ that you will return these clothes (in the same shape as you've received them) when you are done with them."  (Who would tell that to someone, 'cept in the context of History realizing that Whites have for _hundreds of years_ now taken _just about everything_ from the Native Americans who originally lived here)

But Agent Banner proves, in fact, both quite competent in her work and a quick intelligent study.  She realizes that this Native American community NEEDS HER, and as she is quite _socially intelligent_ she realizes quickly that she's going to need help _from them_, and especially from someone like previously introduced "good white guy" U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Ranger Cory Lambert with a good reputation in the Wind River Native American Community to help her help them.

Much ensues ...

I found the story very well crafted, extremely well acted, and if perhaps distressing (is this really where we still find ourselves today?) very, very _realistic_.

A truly impressive number of seething resentments and prejudices -- both racist and sexist -- are quite remarkably laid bare in the course of this story as its various protagonists, almost none of them initially particularly liking each other, come to realize that they were going to _have to work together anyway_ in order to solve and bring closure to this terrible tragedy.

A truly remarkable "cold, winter's tale" deserving of its praise.

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Monday, September 11, 2017

Marjorie Prime [2017]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13) (3 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Marjorie Prime [2017] (screenplay and directed by Michael Almereyda based on the stage play by Jordon Harrison) is a fascinating low budget indie sci-fi piece with a SINGLE simple "special effect" sequence that could have been pulled-off by a 10th grader ;-) ...

Set in the near future, it's about a relatively wealthy family whose aging mother / matriarch Marjorie (played by Lois Smith) is slowly coming down with dementia.  To perhaps help her better remember (or to simply accompany her, as her world inevitably shrinks / slows down) her daughter Tess (played wonderfully by Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (played by Tim Robbins) decide to buy for her a new programmable gadget called a "Prime" ... Basically, a "Prime" is a programmable holographic companion, which, since it is programmable, could be programmed to resemble (in the case of this story) a deceased loved-one.  So they buy her a "Prime", which Marjorie decides to program as a 40-year-old ("in his prime" ;-) version of her deceased husband Walter (played with wonderful, somewhat stilted/programmed inquisitiveness by Jon Hamm). 

Now the trick here is that though perhaps his holographic physical appearance was no doubt designed through "uploaded photographs," his memory bank is programmed by conversation.  The more one talked to him, thus feeding him with information, the more he becomes "real."  To make Walter Prime "more real" Marjorie has to talk to him, sharing her memories of her times with Walter (her deceased husband).  That puts grown daughter Tess and her husband Jon off the hook as Marjorie spends most of her time now talking to a quite interested Walter "Prime," and Jon seems to have fun then talking to Walter "Prime" as well as he "corrects" some of Marjorie's memories to better fit his own recollections of things.

The concept of creating such a "Prime" who exists primarily through the memories of others is truly fascinating.  And the story starts to play with it ... Midway through the movie Marjorie dies and Jon buys another "Prime" (now Marjorie "Prime") to help his wife Tess cope with the loss of her Mother.

Then another character dies (presumably in some tragic accident).  And soon there are THREE "Primes", interacting now _primarily_ with _each other_ with only one human feeding the three with  memories.

It's just a brilliantly simple film, though very well acted: All the actors play their characters straight as an arrow, producing a fascinating vision of the future in which at least some versions of some people could live past their human lives in this world, based on the memories that others had of them.

It just makes for a brilliant, just brilliant sci-fi story... and WITHOUT any "car chases" or "starship battles" ;-)

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Wound (orig. Inxeba) [2017]

MPAA (UR would be R) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing (F. Mignard) review* (V. Petkovic) review (A. Wilkinson) review

Los Angeles Times (R. Abele) review (P. Sobczynski) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review

The Wound (orig. Inxeba) [2017] (directed and screenplay cowritten by John Trengove along with Malusi Bengu and Thando Mgqolozana) a South African film built around the traditional Xhosa initiation rite called Ulwaluko.  In the rite young Xhosa men are separated from their families for a period of time, taken to a camp in the countryside, invited/forced to endure a circumcision-like wound and then in the days-to-several weeks in which the wound heals, are led by a group of somewhat older mentors into manhood.  The film, which in the United States premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival opened recently at the Laemmle Theaters across the Los Angeles area.

The film which has a particular, arguably propagandistic take on the Rite -- it plays like a South African / traditional Bantu-people rendition of Brokeback Mountain [2005] or Moonlight [2016] ... -- NEVERTHELESS the film offers viewers a fascinating opportunity to reflect on what exactly makes "a man" or more generally "an adult."

I write this Dear Readers because there's little doubt that this age-old Xhosa rite is meant sincerely to initiate its young men into the Responsibilities of Adulthood, AND YET ... since it is (by its _nature_) SECRETIVE ... it lends itself to ... corruption / abuse:

A couple of the mentors prove to be gay, and quite notably EVEN THOUGH traditional Xhosa society _looks down upon_ homosexuality (and arguably _persecutes_ it), the Elders of the Xhosa community seem to LET IT GO ON ... there ... in the context of said Rite.

What the heck is going on??

Yes, Dear Readers, WHAT IS GOING ON HERE? ;-)

MY take on this Rite is perhaps different from the intent of the film (which at least to some extent sought to expose the hypocrisy present in "traditional Xhosa society").  For my own reasons, I _don't_ particularly like my understanding of the film, but it makes for A FASCINATING UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT MAKES A MAN / ADULT:

IS AN ADULT ... one capable of "keeping one's mouth shut?" :-).

It's to me a fascinating question, and plays in a very interesting way on the theme of the recent Stephen King inspired film It [2017] (which also opened here this week).  That film was about a town in which ALL the adults were "silent" even as all kinds of horrors took place in the town, horrors that their kids saw, but NOBODY seemed to do anything about.

Be that as it may, by the end of the current film, most Viewers would find it clear that the Xhosa traditional Ulwaluko initiation rite lends itself to homosexuality.  (And like other secretive Rites, it would lend itself to various other kinds of corruption / abuse).  That said, what does, in fact, the Rite teach its initiates?  And arguably is that lesson necessary for a Society's survival?

Fascinating stuff!


To us, the Servite Friars of the United States Province, any film about the various native peoples of Southern Africa has a special resonance because since 1948 we have been responsible for the Catholic Mission in KwaZulu (Zululand).  While the Xhosa and Zulu peoples are naturally not the same, many of their customs are similar.  Another GREAT recent movie about the native peoples of the region is The Forgotten Kingdom [2013] about a young man who comes back to the mountain kingdom of Lesotho to bury his father.

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It [2017]

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

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

It [2017] (directed by Andy Muschietti, screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Stephen King [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) felt like a film that will probably be better in its "director's cut".  Not that the film was bad; it did its job, but ... I always feel sorry for film makers trying to condense "1500 pages" of a novel (and by an author with a fanatical cult following) into a reasonably sized film for the movie screen.  Either the film runs way too long (like the LOTR's Return of the King [2003]) or ends up like this one, where one feels that 10, 20 even 30 or 40 necessary minutes were sent to the cutting-room floor by nervous producers worried about contemporary attention spans.

Though transposed to the 1980s from the 1950s (presumably to make Part II be set in the current day), the film tells the story of middle-school kids in a small, random town, a fictionalized Derry, Maine, that's tormented by ... many things.  Its more "mundane"/day-to-day torments come from teenage bullies, both male and female, as well as parents of all kinds: pushy, emotionally absent/clueless, to physically and even (implied) rapey / sexually abusive.  Indeed, there is enough quite natural horror in these kids' lives that there would be no need to add any supernatural horror.  BUT ... this is a Stephen King story ;-),

SO ... in the midst of these awful day-to-day torments one of the kids, a somewhat portly "New Kid on the Block" (played by Jeremy Ray Taylor), who incidentally secretly loves listening to the boys-band New Kids on the Block [wikip], discovers that the seemingly sleepy little town seems to be hiding (or is unawares of) a dark secret -- Every generation (27 years or so), there's a spate of unsolved murders / disappearances, mostly of children.  Then there's an eerie silence for 26 years and in the 27th year the horror repeats itself again.

What's going on?  Well, sleepy, or at least silent Derry seems to be in the midst of yet another one of these spates of murders / disappearances.  Another one of the kids, Billy Denbrough (played by Jaeden Lieberher), whose little brother Georgie (played by Jackson Robert Scott) is among the town's first current "disappeareds", is convinced that someTHING,, "IT," lurks in the city's sewers.  But even his own dad, Georgie's dad, seems to prefer that Georgie's disappearance remain unsolved.  "He's dead Billy," he tells his son. "Don't further traumatize your mother." 

And this is how it is: NO ONE of the older generation wants to do anything.  They prefer to cower in silence.  And perhaps they KNOW that ... "IT'll go away."

But this band of little "losers," which includes Billy (who stutters), Ben (the somewhat chubby kid who finds that awful / evil pattern in the town's history), Beverly (a 1980s-era "Molly Ringwald" character played by Sophia Lillis) known in the kids' middle school as the "class slut" (and yet harbors a secret at home), a small Jewish kid (played by Jack Dylan Grazer) whos's preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and African-American Mike Hanlon (played by Chosen Jacobs) whose grandpa would just prefer that he "keep his nose to the ground", working (and "just his mouth shut") CHOOSE to "not shut up."  And ...

... the rest of the story ensues.

It's honestly AN INTERESTING TAKE on MY GENERATION (I was a teenager in the 1970s and college student in the 1980s) ... when a lot of "secrets" were still kept quiet, even as OUR GENERATION'S TEEN ORIENTED FILMS often dealt with Horrors (one thinks of the Halloween, Prom Night, Nightmare on Elm Street movies... of my time).

It's just that the characters in the story seemed to be reduced simply to their most basic elements.  Again, a 30-40 minute LONGER film that would have fleshed out some of these characters' stories a bit more would have produced a more satisfying film.

So over all, it wasn't a "bad job" here -- there are obvious homages in the film to late-1970s-80s era classics like Carrie [1976] and The Shining [1980] (both based on Stephen King novels [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn]) as well as ... Breaking Away [1979] -- I just honestly wish that THIS FILM was ... a bit longer / more developed.

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