Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Mudbound [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, December 11, 2017

I, Tonya [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Wonder Wheel [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the movie ... ;-)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent / thought provoking film / context.

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And ... the rest of the story follows.

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

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

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

Interesting / thought provoking stuff ;-)

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Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Lady Bird [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly what a film!

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Friday, November 24, 2017

Darkest Hour [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coco [2017]

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

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

Coco [2017] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, story by Jason Katz, Matthew AldrichLee Unkrich and Adrian Molina) while not without some initial problems (refer to the CNS/USCCB review by J. Mulderig above) largely gets the Mexican "Day of the Dead" tradition right.

On November 2nd, the Catholic Church as a whole remembers the Day our Faithful Departed (All Souls Day), assumed because we knew them (we knew their gifts as well as their failings) to be in Purgatory (where they have to still purify themselves, that is correct / make amends for said failings) rather than end up in either Heaven or Hell.  We pray for them that their time in Purgatory would not be terribly long (that they would do what they need to do to make things right).  And we have hope that those who will come after us will pray for us as well and that we will, if we've already made it to Purgatory rather than fallen to Hell, eventually make it to Heaven as well.

The Catholic Church's three tier structure of the Afterlife has generally been welcomed by indigenous / pre-Christian cultures the world-over because it mercifully does not automatically send all non-absolutely-perfect Christians after their deaths to Hell.  There is this LARGE middle category where our loved ones can go to (again, because we know them, yes, their failings but also their good qualities), from where Heaven remains possible and Hell not inevitable.

For instance,  in my parents' native Czech culture, Nov 2nd popularly called Dušičky*, or the "Day of the Little Souls", is extremely important EVEN TO THIS DAY (as the day when EVERYONE, both religious and non, goes to the cemetery to remember their departed loved-ones). And the Russians (Orthodox) ALSO celebrate elaborate prayer services called Panykhidas for their departed loved ones each year.   More fundamentalist religions generally don't offer this "middle option" and so the vast majority of people in those traditions are simply doomed.

In Mexico, as elsewhere Nov 2nd is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT and the Church's prayers "For the Faithful Departed" has been conflated there with various pre-Christian traditions, all basically seeking to remember / honor our deceased loved ones.

It is this Mexican pre-Colombian set of Traditions of simply remembering the deceased loved ones that is largely portrayed in this film.  However, I would argue that the Catholic concept of Purgatory, the working-out of past tragedies / crimes / misunderstandings is _not_ lost in the story either.

Most Mexican Viewers of the current film (and Mexican descended Readers of this review) will probably have little difficulty harmonizing the two sets of Traditions (Catholic / indigenous) with each other.  And again, the concept of reparation, making things right, is _not_ lost in this either.

Alright, to the story of the film at hand, told marvelously by Disney / Pixar, using animated techniques that wonderfully pay homage to traditional Mexican culture: For instance, the whole prologue to the story (it's setup) plays-out, in animated fashion on pieces of papel picado (the elaborately cut-out pieces of tissue paper which are, in fact, used as decorations for the traditional Mexican commemoration of the Day of the Dead).  AND THE PROLOGUE TO THE STORY IS _REALLY_ IMPORTANT:

The film's chief protagonist 10-12 year old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is from a family of shoemakers BUT ... he'd much rather be a musician and play the guitar / sing.

He's being prevented from doing so by his ENTIRE FAMILY, especially by his abuelita (grandmother, voiced by Renee Victor) because FIVE GENERATIONS BACK abuelita's own grandmother, by now deceased, Mamá Imelda (voiced by Alanna Ubach) and her then baby daughter, now abuelita's own mother and Miguel's great grandmother, Mamá Coco (voiced by Ana Ofelia Murguía) ... were left ABANDONED by Mamá Imelda's husband ... A DIRTY NO GOOD MUSICIAN ;-).

So it could be said that Miguel _has_ "music in his genes" BUT ... there's a _still unresolved_ family tragedy / crime GOING BACK FIVE GENERATIONS that is preventing him from fulfilling his destiny.

Well ... Miguel spends his time hiding his interest in music from his family.  But things come to a head when he's challenged by one of the local mariachi players to enter into the town's annual DAY OF THE DEAD MUSIC CONTEST.  He'd love to do so, but he'd need to borrow someone's guitar -- good old abuelita had discovered his and SMASHED IT.

Well, Dear Readers, you know how musicians are -- NO ONE WANTS TO LEND OUT ONE'S GUITAR ;-).  SOO ... Miguel, on the Day of the Dead, enters into the town's cemetery, breaks into the tomb of the town's most famous son, A Mariachi player by the name of Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) to steal (err borrow) his guitar.  And by then, he actually suspects that Ernesto de la Cruz may have been his great-great-grandfather (so it wouldn't really be stealing anyway ;-).

Well, Miguel gets to the guitar, strikes one chord, and ... since it's ALSO the Day of the Dead, starts seeing Dead People ;-) ...

He then sets out to find good old Ernesto de la Cruz, to meet him and get his blessing.  While looking for Ernesto, he also meets Mamá Imelda, his great great grand mother, as well as all the other deceased members of his family, who he recognizes from their photographs that that the family would put on the family's Day of the Dead altar.  Needless to say, even the deceased are not excited that Miguel was trying to find _a musician_. 

Much ensues as Miguel tries to get to Ernesto's rather luxurious home in the "abode of the dead" (while his own family members, both living and deceased, are trying to prevent him from doing so).

I do want to tell Readers here that the story has some interesting twists: Yes, to begin to get answers, Miguel has to make it to Ernesto, BUT ... the story of what actually happened back to Miguel's family 4-5 generations ago is actually more complicated than it would initially seem.

I won't get into this further, because that would enter into Spoiler territory.  However, I will say that the story of what happened to Miguel's family that made them hate music so much (and for so long) is one that would interest a company like Pixar whose stories are often far more complex / poignant than would initially meet the eye ... Think here of WALL-E [2008]Up [2009], Toy Story 3 [2010], Finding Nemo [2003] and Finding Dory [2016].  All of those films were far more emotional than one would have initially expected them to be.  The same is the case here.

I will say, of course, that there is a happy ending.  However, it's also an ending worthy of the entire setup of the story.

After all, I began this review noting that in the Catholic conception of things, most souls would go to Purgatory initially before proceeding to Heaven.  Why?  Because there would still be "loose ends" in their lives that would need to be fixed before they could proceed further.

Here is a story, about a tragedy that happened 4-5 generations back that still needed to be fixed.

Wonderful job Pixar / Disney, wonderful job! ;-)

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Monday, November 20, 2017

The Star [2017]

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

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

The Star [2017] (directed by Timothy Rekart, screenplay by Carlos Kotkin, story by Simon Moore and Carlos Kotkin) is a cute star-studded film about Jesus' birth taken from the point of view of the animals in the story, notably from the POV of the donkey (voiced by Steven Yeun) on which the very pregnant Mary (voiced by Gina Rodriguez) rode to Bethlehem where she gave birth to Jesus.  Also in the story are the camels (voiced by Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan and Oprah Winfrey) who amusingly seem to more about what's going on than "the three kings" (voiced by Joel Osteen, Phil Morris and Fred Tatasciore) did ;-).  There's also a lovable sheep (voiced by Aidy Bryant) who interestingly seems to "herd" everybody in the story "together."

I have to say that I LIKED THE STORY.  Sure, it's kinda cutesy, but it's also aimed for FIVE YEAR OLD KIDS.  In that regard, it's a lovely story.  And I did appreciate that SO MANY STARS and from a truly _wide_ cross-section of American society took part in it.

All in all, though it's not going to win many awards, it never intended to.  Instead, it tells the story of the birth of Jesus from a novel and interesting point of view and -- to kids ;-).

Good job!  Very good job!

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The Man who Invented Christmas [2017]

MPAA (PG)  Fr. Dennis (0 Stars)

IMDb listing

The Man who Invented Christmas [2017] (directed by Bharat Nalluri, screenplay by Susan Coyne based on the book by Les Stradiford [GR] [IMDb]) is an incredibly stupidly / offensively titled film.  Indeed, if ANYONE on the Left would wonder why Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, one could simply take a moment or two to contemplate the title of this film.

Did Charles Dickens "invent Christmas?"  OF COURSE NOT.   Why then _stupidly_ title this film --a film that COULD HAVE BEEN INTERESTING (about how Dickens came up with the plot of his famous novel A Christmas Carol) -- in a manner that _guarantees_ that it will OFFEND TENS OF MILLIONS OF  OTHERWISE POTENTIALLY INTERESTED AMERICAN VIEWERS.

My answer: Unless there's A LOT OF RUSSIAN MONEY invested in this stupid film (in which case its release under this name COULD HAVE BEEN INTENDED by emerging real-life SUPERVILLAIN Vladimir Putin TO PRODUCE shock and division in the United States), it would be that the Lunatic Left continues to have some kind of evil / misguided Death Wish.

Indeed, the Lunatic Left made both Franco and even Hitler possible: In 1930s Spain, Franco became a "voice of reason" (!) after unbelievably stupid Spanish Communists began storming Convents AND SHOOTING UP NUNS (in my Religious Order, the Servites, we now honor one such nun Bl Maria Guadalupe Ricart Olmos, OSM as a martyr because was SHE ONE OF THOSE NUNS taken out one random night during the Spanish Civil War and shot-up by some _crazed_ squad of "forward looking" Spanish Communists)

Then the Russian Bolsheviks' campaign of seeking to destroy Christianity in Russia (shutting down the churches, turning them into storage sheds or worse, deporting and/or shooting their priests) guaranteed that _tens of millions_ of German voters in the 1930s would see the "law and order" Nazis as a _far more sensible_ option to the chaos, arrogance / evil of the Soviet Communism.

But did Charles Dickens "invent Christmas"?  Again, OF COURSE NOT.  Readers remember here that I'M A CATHOLIC PRIEST:

Some weeks ago, we spent part of our Parish Liturgy Committee Meeting talking about which of the Readings from the FOUR Possible Christmas Masses (ALL OF WHICH ALL GO BACK TO AT LEAST THE TIME OF ST. GREGORY THE GREAT -- 5th-6th Century A.D.) we were going to use at our various Christmas Liturgies (from 4 PM and 9 PM on Christmas Eve to Midnight on Christmas Eve to morning on Christmas Day to early afternoon on Christmas Day).

The Christmas trees in our Church go back to the time of the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury, St. Gregory the Great's BFF (hence again 6th Century AD) who St. Gregory had sent to evangelize the then fearsome, barbaric and at the time rumored TO BE CANNIBALISTIC Anglo Saxons.  The Anglo Saxons had over-run the southern part of previously already Christian Roman Britain (St. Patrick, who lived in the 4th century A.D., whose name derives from the latin word Patrician or basically 'rich boy' was Romano-British ;-).  Returning to St. Augustine of Canterbury, he had the wisdom of not making a "problem" of the Anglo-Saxon custom of bringing into their homes the branches of evergreen trees in the height of winter.  Instead, recalling the many times trees played a significant role in the Bible -- (1) the Trees of Good and Evil / Life in the Garden of Eden, (2) the Wood out of which Noah built the Ark, (3) Jesus being laid down in a Manger (the Midnight Christmas Liturgy referred to above took place originally in the NATIVITY CHAPEL at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome (built in the early 5th century), where THE RELIC OF JESUS' CRIB brought back to Rome by St. Helen, the mother of Constantine back IN THE 4th CENTURY was KEPT), and finally (4) Jesus being nailed to and saving us all through "the wood of the cross" -- the future St Augustine of Canturbury decided to "let it go" / bless said evergreen trees and ... from this we have our Christmas trees ;-)

Then we have our Christmas plays and our Nativity Sets depicting Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, the animals, the stars and angels THANKS TO ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI who loved the story so much that he promoted it where-ever he could.

To this day, one could go to the Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, Italy, and see an ENTIRE STREET with HUNDREDS OF SHOPS SELLING NOTHING BUT "PRESEPI" (Nativity Sets) of every conceivable level of complexity from the simplest -- Mary, Jesus, Joseph, Star above, to entire medieval town / village to contemporary city-scapes.

And if you were there, you'd probably hear, over and over again, playing in the background, probably the most famous Italian Christmas Carol ("Tu Scendi dalle Stelle" [wikip] [YouTube]) attributed to Napoli's own St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787).   It should be noted that pretty much ALL of the traditional ENGLISH Christmas Carols -- Adeste Fideles / "O Come O Ye Faithful" [it-wikip]* comes self-evidently to mind -- are actually translated FROM LATIN hence predate their English usage.  And I come originally from a Czech household.  The Czech Christmas Carols "Narodil se Kristus Pán" (Born is Christ the Lord) [cs-wikip]* and Nesem Vám Noviny" go back to "ages past" the first to the 15th century, the second, as a folk hymn, honestly unknown.

So to purport that Charles Dickens (!), as great an author as he was, somehow _invented Christmas_ is NONSENSE arguably even EVIL NONSENSE that gives nihilists and other enemies of truth comfort.  Shame. -- ZERO Stars.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

Justice League [2017]

MPAA (PG-13) 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. Turan) review
RogerEbert.com (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Justice League [2017] (directed by Zach Snyder, screenplay by Chris Terrio and Jack Whedon, story by Chris Terrio and Zach Snyder, based on the characters of DC Comics [DC] [wikip]) unites various superheroes of the DC Comic Universe [wikip] -- including Batman [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played in this series by Ben Affleck), Superman [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played in this series by Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the series by Gal Gadot), The Flash [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played here by Ezra Miller), Cyborg [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played here by Ray Fisher) and Aquaman [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played here by Jason Momoa) -- to fight the emerging threat of an ancient supervillainous deity named Steppenwolf [wikip] [IMDb] (voiced in the film by Ciarán Hinds).

It is noteworthy here that most of humanity (including the fully human / more contemporary superheroes in the story) was/were totally oblivious of even the existence of this re-emerging supervillain threat.  Only Wonder Woman and Aquaman (whose origin stories link them to the GrecoRoman mythological Amazons [wikip] and Atlantians [wikip] respectively) understand who Steppenwolf was, what he was up to, and what kind of an Apocalyptic / "world destroying" threat he was.   This is a characteristic of DC Comics, whose supervillains tend to be either extraterrestrial or otherwise generally hidden "under the muck" of this world until they quite suddenly appear in order to threaten humanity's very existence.

Much of course ensues as Wonder Woman and Batman assemble the superheroes to fight this emerging threat -- Steppenwolf being German for "wolf of the steppes" or cayote -- who was making his lair somewhere in subterranean central Russia (!).  Among that which ensues is that the two realize that they're going to have to find a way to _resurrect_ Superman (killed in the previous installment Batman vs Superman: The Dawn of Justice [2016]).  Minor spoiler alert: they succeed.  How?  I'm not going to tell you ;-).

All in all, the story plays out as a typical superhero movie with much action, much "glass breaking" level of mass destruction.  Then characteristic of the DC Comics universe the story is generally darker / more "hard-boiled" than the stories that play-out in the Marvel Comics universe and there are fairly easily identifiable if still low-level motiffs previously associated with 1920s-era (pre-Hitler's definitive rise) German Fascism.  (I'll leave it to Readers here to reflect on my charge here and identify the more obvious examples -- I make mention of several in the immediate paragraph above).

As such, while not a bad superhero movie, I am "wary" and I much prefer the Marvel Comics stories.

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Wonder [2017]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  RogerEbert.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

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

Wonder [2017] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Stephen Chbosky along with Steven Conrad  and Jack Thorne based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by R.J. Palacio [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is truly a remarkable film that come Oscar time deserves _at minimum_ nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and then Best Picture.  I rarely cry at the movies, yet, I found myself tearing up _repeatedly_ as the story of Auggie (played wonderfully by Jacob Trembplay) a quite significantly physically challenged (mostly by this point _aesthetically challenged_) fifth-grade boy was told.  After 20+ surgeries, his face was still quite significantly scarred / deformed.

The true genius of the story IMHO was that it was told MOSTLY from the perspective of Auggie _and then of the kids / teens_, including his older sister Via (played to a stunning break-out performance level by Izabela Vidovic) in his life.  As such, the story wasn't solely about him, but about the both on-one-hand remarkable, yet on-the-other utterly _ordinary_ kids / teens around him.  AND EVERY TIME a "conflict" presented itself in the story, the story dutifully portrayed the other person's "side" / perspective as well.  I FOUND THIS TO BE _WONDER-FUL_.

I found it absolutely beautiful to enter into the world of Via, who if not for her clearly (and by nobody's fault) _special needs_ younger brother, would have had an otherwise normal (or "normal") life:  She both "understands" and yet is inevitably jealous that "mom" (played again wonderfully by Julia Roberts) ends up _necessarily spending_ so much more time focused on Auggie than on her.

Then there was classmate Jack (played by Noah Jupe) who was both "kinda a friend" but also "part of the class" (again of 5th graders) who found Auggie, well, at least on some level necessarily _different_ / _strange_.  There's even Via's BFF Miranda (played again wonderfully by Danielle Rose Russell) who suddenly, as the two enter high school, starts acting "strange."  Why?  Well ... there's a story there ;-).

Then though set in the context of a rather prestigious NYC prep-school, the kids in the school are not lily white.  Via's love interest in the story is a wonderful, whose family taught him well, well-groomed/behaved African American teen named Justin (played by Nadji Jeter).  When Jack and Auggie appear to drift apart, an African American girl named Summer (played wonderfully by Millie Davis) steps up to be Auggie's BFF for a while (and even helps explain to Jack why Auggie was so mad at him).  And Auggie's principle teacher Mr Browne, again African American (played by Daveed Diggs) carried the well-deserved respect of all.  And the Principal of the school Mr. Tushman (played by Mandy Patinkin) presumably Jewish would make Sholem Aleichem (author of the stories that became Fiddler on the Roof) proud.

This was honestly A REMARKABLE STORY, ADAPTED TO FILM, that so wonderfully reminds us, that though perhaps many of us may have become jaded in our time and look-out for our interests, many others, and especially the young are still _fundamentally good people_.  Yes, misunderstandings still can occur, but if one took time to learn their perspective on the story, one would _understand_.

Simply a wonderful film / story, richly _deserving praise_ and certainly one of the best North American films of the year.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express [2017]

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

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

Murder on the Orient Express [2017] [IMDb-Hist] (directed by Kenneth Branagh, screenplay by Michael Green based on the celebrated novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Agatha Christie [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) continues the current cycle of remakes / updates of celebrated novels / stories of the past.  Yet while perhaps borrowing from other recent updates there remains a _slightly_ hyper-real "story book" quality to the film's set designs -- one thinks here of the reboots / remakes of the Sherlock Holmes [2011+] stories, The Three Musketeers [2011], Anna Karenina [2012], The Great Gatsby [2013] and even the original Star Trek [2013] [2016] series -- even then the sets here are more subdued than in the case of the examples just mentioned, and certainly _the pacing_ of the current film tracks much more closely to the pace of the original novel than in the case of the other recent remakes.

That said, Viewers are confronted with the question of whether this decision to adhere so closely to the pacing of the original novel was a good idea.  To be honest, and though I feel somewhat embarrassed as I write this, I found the current film _far more boring_ than say the recent remakes of the The Three Musketeers [2011]Anna Karenina [2012] and even the Sherlock Holmes [2011+] stories.  Further, since the 1974, also star-studded screen version of Murder was _so good_, one's left with the questions: Why bother with the making of the current remake? How did this film "move the ball?"  Say what one will, ALL of the above mentioned recent remakes did, at least aesthetically, _move the ball_.  The set designs of Anna Karenina [2012]The Great Gatsby [2013] and even the recent Sherlock Holmes [2011+] remakes, The Three Musketeers [2011] and  the Star Trek [2013] [2016] reboot were often simply stunning.  And even the often frenetic pacing of those recent films often carries with it its own charm (if nothing else, one marvels at these films' choreography).  In contrast, the pacing of the current film is kinda ... ho hum and leaves one wondering why, except that it was (perhaps) "time", the current film was made at all.

So what's the film about?  Well it retells the classic Agatha Christie story of her celebrated detective Hercule Poirot [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the current film by Kenneth Branagh) finding himself traveling in lavish (dare one say Grand Budapest Hotel [2014]) style on the 1920s-30s era Orient Express [wikip] from Istanbul to London, when ... (1) an avalanche somewhere in the Balkans halts the train, and (2) a MURDER, I dare say MURDER takes place on the train. 

As the good detective interviews the various fellow travelers (played by such current Hollywood stars as Judi Dench, William De Foe, Michelle Pfeiffer Penélope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley) on the high class train car in which they were traveling, he finds that pretty _all of them_ had _some_ connection to the murder victim, and ... I'm not going to tell you.  Either you already know how this story ends, or if you don't ... and if you don't, I'm not going to ruin it for you ;-).

All in all, this _not_ a bad, current generation remake of the classic story.  It's just I think it rather fails the why was the remake made? / "move the ball" tests. 

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Saturday, November 4, 2017

LBJ [2016]

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

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

LBJ [2016] (directed by Rob Reiner, screenplay by Joey Hartstone) is a quite compelling biopic about consumate 1960s era politician President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the film to levels worthy of Oscar nomination consideration by Woody Harrelson).  Yet it's probably not for everybody.

Who the film would certainly interest would be those interested in both politics and history and certainly Viewers get a glimpse of a politician who knew how to get things done in Washington DC.  If one rates Presidents simply on the number of pieces of legislation, often very significant pieces of legislation (including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, The Great Society Programs such as Medicare / Medicaid, Equal Opportunity Act of 1964 and Head Start), LBJ ranks #1 as the most successful President in U.S. History.

Yet, this is certainly not the only standard nor perhaps the best standard to rate a President and LBJ was, of course, a complex figure -- a Southerner who managed to push through the most significant pieces of Civil Rights legislation in U.S. history, one who despite misgivings from the very beginning nonetheless got us into the Vietnam quagmire.  A key question raised in this film was about his sincerity with regards to any of the initiatives that came to define his Presidency.

That question MAY be unfair.  It would seem simply unbelievable that LBJ would embark on his War on Poverty / Great Society crusade if he did not fundamentally believe in it.  The film clearly shows that he could have QUITE COMFORTABLY settled back into serving-out Kennedy's term (he became President as a result of JFK's assassination) and perhaps even run / gotten elected on his own as a center-right "Southern Democratic" President, and our nation would be very different (and IMHO, honestly, I'm not kidding, _much worse_ for it) than it is today.  The Kennedy-esque Northern Liberals would have had to vote for him anyway (no real alternative) and white Southern Democrats (as the film amply showed) WOULD HAVE JUST LOVED HIM if he put the brakes on the Civil Rights movement.  BUT HE DID NOT DO THAT.

Anyway, the film which plays-out during the years BEFORE and IMMEDIATELY after John F. Kennedy's assassination helps the Viewer appreciate the political complexities and choices facing LBJ at the time.  Again, I honestly do believe that LBJ chose well.

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