Monday, January 30, 2017

Gold [2016]

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

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

Gold [2016] (directed by Stephen Gaghan, screenplay by Patrick Massett, John Zinman) is a quite-engaging if thoroughly seemy "hard-boiled" / "gonzo-ish" story, loosely based on a 1990s mining scandal involving Bre-X a Calgary-based mining company founded by Canadian businessman David Walsh

Walsh's firm had a quite unimpressive track-record until ... he took a big gamble and on the advise of a geologist named John Felderhof set-out to develop a potential gold-strike in the jungles of Borneo, Indonesia.  The initial estimate of the potential of site, reported by the site's first project manager Michel de Guzman, a geologist from the Philippines, suggested that it could become one of the largest gold strikes in history.  That estimate, of course, proved to be a fraud and ... much, much intrigue (and litigation) ensued.  But with so many players -- optimistic and/or flat-out crooked geologists, a wannabee big-shot Canadian businessman arguably way out of his depth, all kinds of higher-flying investors from Toronto and beyond (read NYC), and then the requisite corrupt / corruptable wierdos that one would find the notoriously "crony-capitalist" state that was Indonesia under Suharto -- who (all) was scamming who?   Famed Rolling Stone journalist Hunter Thompson would have cut-off his right arm to tell _this tale_. 

And so a fictionalized version is told here.  David Walsh of Calgary, Canada becomes Kenny Wells of Reno, Nevada (played quite inspiringly by Matthew McConaughey).  Geologists John Felderhof and Michel de Guzman are conflated into the character of Michael Acosta (played by Edgar Ramírez).  Together Wells and Acosta set-out, up one of Borneo's Rivers and come to a seemingly random location (literally revealed to Wells in a dream) and there they start digging, and digging and ... finding nothing.  Finally, after a month-long bout with malaria that nearly killed him, Wells wakes-up only to informed by Acosta that ... OMG they found GOLD!  Lots of it, indeed POSSIBLY the largest gold strike of all time. Wells goes back home to Reno to line-up investors and as the reports get Bigger and BIGGER ... soon even Wall Street wants a piece of the pie (and arguably pretty-much THE WHOLE PIE).  In the midst of all this "gold fever" the ONLY ONE with any sense seemed to be Wells' long-time Reno-barmaid girlfriend Kay (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) who warns Wells to just get out while he can ...

Well, of course, he doesn't ... and ... well ... when the "... hits the fan ..." there are A LOT OF PEOPLE who are ... "VERY, VERY UNHAPPY" ;-/.

When one thinks about it, even the very idea of going into a place like Suharto's Indonesia IN SEARCH OF _GOLD_ would seem like A REALLY STUPID IDEA.  Even if the gold was there, could they possibly extract it, make money on it, and LIVE TO TELL ABOUT IT? 

Certainly though it makes for one heck of a story and (one would hope) cautionary tale.  This was ONE HECK OF A "TIGER" that Matthew McConaughey's character was "petting."  Don't do this at home ...

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Dog's Purpose [2017]

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

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

A Dog's Purpose [2017] (directed by Lasse Hallström, screenplay by W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by W. Bruce Cameron [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a LOVELY, largely "can't miss" FEEL-GOOD FAMILY MOVIE unless one's some kind (perhaps any kind) of extremist -- the kind that would simultaneously be offended by the possibility that dogs would have souls AND that (to make dogs different from people) dogs would "reincarnate" rather than "go to heaven."  Anyone who's ever had a dog or loved a dog would know that "there's something in that dog" that's "a lot like us" and perhaps _better_ than us.  The other kind of extremist who'd get mad at this film would be of the PETA variety, who'd pretty much require that a dog write the screenplay and direct the film him/herself (and _that_ "would be hard" because they'd always get distracted by squirrels ;-).

So ... if you _just love dogs_ then this film will probably be for you ;-) -- and let the protesters (I was shocked when I heard that there were folks who have already verbally protested this film) be.

The film is about a dog, or the soul of a dog, (voiced throughout by Josh Gad) who's trying to figure out why he/she exists.  Being a dog is largely _fun_ but ... "there has to be more to it / life" than that.  And so we follow said dog cycle through various incarnations -- Bailey, Ellie, Tino, Buddy -- as he (and at least one time, she) tries to figure out "what it's all about."  The story goes full circle when he is incarnated as Buddy and ends-up incarnating in the environs of where Bailey used to stomp and becomes part of the lives of two humans, Ethan and Hannah (played as teenagers by K.J. Apa / Britt Robertson and as 50+ year olds and Dennis Quaid / Peggy Lipton respectively) again.  (Note that Bailey entered into Ethan's life when Ethan was 8 years old and is played by Bryce Gheisar as well).  Much QUITE PREDICTABLE but CUTE ensues ...

All told, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and would recommend it to most parents / families to watch happily together.

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Founder [2016]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent film!

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Split [2016]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, January 6, 2017

20th Century Women [2016]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hidden Figures [2016]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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