Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Circle [2017]

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

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

The Circle [2017] (directed and screenplay cowritten by James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb] based the latter's novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn]) is an IMHO pretty thought provoking teen / young adult oriented cautionary tale about a Google-like internet company that's piercing / shedding ALL boundaries.

Yes, 20-something "every Millennial" Mae (played by Emma Watson) along with most Viewers found it cool to have, thanks to well-connected friend Annie (played by Karen Gillan), scored a job with said Google-like Silicon Valley giant named "The Circle" led by an Apple-founder Steve Jobs' like "charismatic visionary" named Bailey (played with magnificent high-tech witchery by Tom Hanks).  Indeed, with a MS-suffering dad (played by Bill Patxon) and a company that "cares" it could have seemed to May and her family like a lifesaver.  'Cept and there's ALWAYS a 'Cept ... what a creepy outfit "The Circle" turned out to be ...

A few weeks into working at said Circle a couple of nice / polite HR people come by Mae's cubicle to say: "We couldn't help but notice that you were off campus for 46 hours this past weekend.  We were just wondering ... why?"

"BECAUSE I HAVE A LIFE / A FAMILY / LOVED ONES ..." could have / should have been her answer.  And to some extent, that's the answer she gives, but ... she also gives in: The Circle's campus, Readers should note is ... pretty Cool.  It has pretty much EVERYTHING that a twenty-something could want, 'cept (that word again ...) PAST FAMILY / FRIENDS.

In other words, "The Circle" is a Totalitarian Cult and an expanding / pretty Evangelical one at that.

The rest of the film becomes a near constant interrogation of Viewers: What would YOU do?  When would YOU finally say ENOUGH?  (But even if you said ENOUGH ... WHERE would you "run to"?)

As such, The Circle presents that "Titanium Gulag" of the future, where one comes to have difficulty in distinguishing "The Shining City on a Hill" with a REALLY BRIGHTLY LIT ... PRISON.

Yes, Mae _kinda_ gets back at her (perhaps) "oppressors" but "kinda" is the operative word.  It isn't convincing.

With everybody's identities / privacy so thoroughly compromised in this near-future Dystopia by such "Circle innovations" as "SEEchange" (tiny disposable web-connected battery operated webcams that ANY USER could DROP ANYWHERE so that ANYONE, ANYWHERE, COULD SEE EVERYTHING GOING ON ANYWHERE) and "TruSELF" (a "secure" onestop "identity profile" that the Circle would provide, WITH THE PROVISO that ... well, one could be FOLLOWED online by ANYBODY, ANYTIME for ANY REASON), who cares ultimately that Mae is (perhaps) able to put her Bosses under the same scrutiny as she (and all the other "little people") are?

A lot of the younger reviewers (above) sigh "so what?"

Yes, perhaps here I am happy that I'm middle aged.  This is simply NOT the way we should be heading.  We should have a right to be able _to hide_ (to breathe...) occasionally.  Let our Confessions be to God (or to a Priest in a Confessional), not to ANYBODY, ANYWHERE, WATCHING US FOR ANY REASON ...


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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

15th Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles [2017]

 Of the films that played recently at the 15th Annual Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, held at the Regal L.A. Live Cinema in Downtown Los Angeles, I was able to view and review the following:

Chronicles of Hari (orig. Harikatha Prasanga) [2016] [IMDb] [FiBt] (directed and cowritten by Ananya Kasaravalli [IMDb] [FiBt] along with Girish Kasaravalli [IMDb] [FiBt] and Gopalakrishna Pai [IMDb]) offered a quite fascinating, traditional Indian contribution to the TRANSGENDER QUESTION raging through society across the world today.  The story here, based in part on truth, is about an actor (played by Shrunga Vasudevan) who apparently _committed suicide_ after many years of playing the role of Hari an Indian Goddess as part of a traditional, ALL MALE, Hindu acting troupe. HE DIDN'T PARTICULARLY LIKE PLAYING THIS ROLE, but the troupe's director essentially forced him to do so, telling him that somebody had to play the role, it made no sense to train multiple actors to play it especially since he was actually quite good at it.  Indeed, a lot of the traditional Hindu women going to the troupe's presentations were quite impressed in his playing of Hari.  But soon his playing of this role got in the way of his personal life: He found it all-but impossible to get married, because even though traditional marriages in Hindu culture tend to be arranged, neither the families, nor the potential brides wanted [their daughters] to get married to someone who made his living playing a woman.  Rejected in this way, and unable to "switch roles" within the troupe, he did then fall into a certain amount of "gender confusion": He started to wonder if he was actually "[meant to be] gay."  But then to be gay in rural India is not necessarily the easiest thing in the world to be either and this caused him all sorts of other problems -- rejection now by his own family, rejection in pretty much every town / village that he tried to set-up home in.  So, driven eventually to despair, he ... The film calls quite stark attention to a fair number of contradictory messages sent by [in this case traditional Indian] society:  Here the society _wanted_ young men to play women's roles in traditional Hindu plays, but then had _no place for these actors_ afterwards -- they were rendered both "unmarriageable" [with traditional Hindu women] and not allowed to be openly gay.   So what options would these actors have?  A simply fascinating / thought provoking film -- 3 1/2 Stars 

Sexy Durga [2017] [IMDb] [FiBt] (written and directed by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan [IMDb] [FiBt]) was a simply _excellent_ minimalist contemporary Indian _horror movie_.  The story is SET IN SOUTH INDIA in and around a small town in the midst of an annual festival in honor of the Hindu Goddess Durga.  And it is about A YOUNG COUPLE -- Kabeer, A MUSLIM presumably from said town, and Durga, HINDI, BUT FROM NORTH INDIA (played by Rajshri Deshpande [IMDb] [FiBt]) and hence one who didn't speak the local language -- trying to hitch a ride to the train station to "get out of town."  Why?  Presumably because neither of the two "fit in."  They get picked-up by a couple of young SOUTH INDIAN MEN in a van, who ... and THAT'S THE POINT OF THE FILM ... one honestly doesn't know their motivations: On one hand they're kinda helpful, on the other hand, they REPEATEDLY (inadvertently?) SCARE THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF said couple, especially out of said woman who has the same name as the Goddess in honor of whom this enormous and ecstatic festival was taking place (Honestly, the footage from the festival itself is both fascinating and at times disconcerting, though the Christian viewer should note that there are Christian faithful in various parts of the world who do some fairly disturbing things as well as part of their devotion -- including literally handling poisonous snakes up in Appalachia and having themselves literally crucified in some places in the Philippines).   Were the young men trying to be helpful to this already "on edge" couple?  AGAIN ONE SIMPLY DOES NOT KNOW and the film plays out JUST LIKE A NIGHTMARE: Just as one thinks that things are FINALLY being resolved (in one way -- good, or horribly bad -- or another) THERE'S  NEW TWIST ... and THE FILM'S TENSION resumes again.  It all plays like a SIMPLY OUTSTANDING HORROR / PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER -- 4 Stars.

Hotel Salvation (orig. Mukti Bhawan) [2016] [IMDb] [FiBt] (directed and screenplay by Shubhashish Bhutiani [IMDb] [FiBt], dialogues by Asad Hussain [IMDb] [FiBt]) CLOSED this year's Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and proved to be a simply outstanding film about a naturally complicated relationship between aging father Daya (played by Lalit Behl [IMDb] [FiBt]) and grown/middle aged son Rajiv (played by Adil Hussain [IMDb] [FiBt]) with his own family, indeed marriageable 20-something daughter.  Basically, the film is about the father Daya, aged 77, who comes to the conclusion that "it's his time to die." As a good Hindu, with moderately reasonable means - not super-rich, not poor - this meant making _a final pilgrimage_ to the Hindu Holy City of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges River ... where he would achieve moksha (the Hindu term for spiritual liberation/salvation) ... die.  And there are hotels along the river there in Varanasi run by Hindu priests which offer accompaniment to the Hindu devout who come to the city, to the mighty Ganges, to die.  Now was Daya particularly sick?  No not really.  He just had a clearly sincere / profound feeling that "his time has come."  Interestingly enough, when he and his son arrive at the hotel, the Hindu priest running the hotel, taking a look at Daya, does in fact believe him that he's probably going to die there.  But he _also_ tells him and his son that they can only stay at the hotel for two weeks and afterwards if Daya does not die, they must go back home.  How can one "schedule death"?   As a non-Hindu looking at this story play out, I did leave with something of a naturalistic theory BUT ... I do think there's a sincerity present that does go beyond simply the naturalistic.  Plus, it is clear that while most of the devotees who come to the town to die, do (somewhat surprisingly) do so, there are others (including one woman who becomes a fairly important character in the story) who don't.  Plus the Hindu priest who gave the incoming Daya "two weeks to die" (or else leave) proves to be a bit more flexible with the devotees coming to the hotel than it would initially seem (he does let some clearly stay longer).  ANYWAY, THIS IS A FASCINATING FILM and honestly WORTH THE VIEW for ANYONE INTERESTED IN INTER-FAITH DIALOGUE / COMPARATIVE RELIGION -- 4+ Stars.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

2017 Newport Beach Film Festival

 Of the films that played recently at the 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival, I was able to view and review the following:

North of Known [2017] (directed by Bryan Smith) is a visually spectacular extreme sport documentary about Gavin McClurg [wikip] and Dave Turner traversing (over 37 days) the whole of the remote 480 mile Alaska Range (which includes Mt Denali the tallest mountain in North America) largely be means of paraglider.  Beautiful, simply beautiful.  I honestly never would have thought of the idea of doing this, but, oh my, what a remarkable Odyssey.  Who knows, one day astronauts on mars may travel that planet in this way as well.

In preparation for the trip, the two had dropped off by helicopter several caches of food, spacing them along the route at regular intervals (basically at where they expected to find themselves at the beginning of each week of travel).  They did this so that they wouldn't have to carry all their supplies for the whole month with them.  Then, of course, a film crew would helicopter-in to film them, though some of the footage included that taken by helmet cams and cameras otherwise mounted to their (paraglider) gear.

I left the film absolutely exhilarated.  Honestly, what's possible these days, and what a beautiful world we (still) have! -- 3 1/2 Stars

Good after Bad [2016] (written and directed by Anne Marie Hess) is a small indie film about a somewhat bullied/put-upon high schooler named Shelley (played quite excellently by Maddie Hadson) with _lots of issues at home_ who gets helped-out by a somewhat "dropped out of the sky" random wealthy man named Wes (played again quite excellently by Billy Burke) who was a relative of one of Shelley's "sort of" (but not particularly good...) high school friends.  Yes, a film like this today raises eyebrows.  Yet, the film is quite unapologetic.  Shelley's quite realistically portrayed teenage life was often (not always) veering precariously to the edge and her single mom had a great deal of difficulty dealing with her own difficulties.  So Wes became something of a godsend.  Are all rich older men good?  No, certainly not.  But are they _all_ (somehow) self-absorbed / bad?  Certainly _not_ as well.  In my six months here at my new assignment in Southern California, I've met a truly large number of richer middle-aged+ people (people my age plus), both men and women, who are by any standard good, concerned and generous people.  What Wes did for this teenager-at-risk is certainly quite interesting and discussion producing.  Yes, this film probably would have been easier-to-watch if some other character took interest and helped this girl.  But, what if (as is often the case...) there is simply no one else around to do so?   Do we let people drop-off the edge / fall through the cracks (just) to be PC? -- 3 1/2 Stars

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Gifted [2017]

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

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

Gifted [2017] (directed by Marc Webb, screenplay by Tom Flynn) while generally well and compassionately acted, treads (except when the film-makers _chose_ to be stupid...) where it's safe. 

The story was to center on a seven-year-old girl Mary Adler (played quite convincingly by McKenna Grace) the daughter of at least one gifted mathematician (and quite possibly two) who had been raised up to this point by her uncle Frank (played by ... Luke Evans).  Why?  Why would her uncle Frank, her mother's brother be raising her and not either her mother or father?  Well her mother was a very gifted mathematician, from a family of gifted mathematicians, but ... giftedness has its price.  Mary's mother was awkward socially, got herself pregnant by a man who also proved incapable of making a commitment to the child produced by their encounter, and so ... Mary's mother _committed suicide_ (!) at some point, in Frank's apartment, leaving Frank with her.

Now Frank, in the story no slouch on the brainy side -- he apparently was an Associate Professor (in Boston ...) at the time -- took his sister's suicide as something of a sign (or final straw) to give up that lifestyle and ... took his infant niece to Florida where he chose to live in a trailer park and "fix boats" for a living.  Again, why?  One's guess is that he was _tired_ of being "special" and preferred to seek to have a more normal way of life.  And that is then what he wanted his niece to have as well.

Well, all went well, until Mary made it to first grade, and ... it became clear that she was ... gifted as well.  What to do?  Frank seemed adamant with almost Evangelical zeal that she _remain_ "in a normal school" (even if she was bored there ...).  The school teacher and then principal google the family's name and find that Mary comes from a family of mathematicians.  Since the principal becomes "fuzzy" about the validity of Frank's guardianship of Mary, she makes contact with Mary's grandmother (and Frank's mother...) Evelyn (played by Lyndsay Duncan), and Evelyn comes down to Florida to try to take away Mary from her wayward son to put her into a proper (genius) school ...

And soon, the battle for Mary's future / upbringing is on ...

The story isn't bad, just predictable except in perhaps the most banally stupid of ways: Frank and Mary's school teacher Bonnie (played quite well by Jenny Slate) following stupid / seamy "Hollywood protocol" find their way to bed, which could have cost Teacher Bonnie her job ... and certainly makes Frank into a "big dumb jerk" ... and makes a film that OTHERWISE would have made for _a very nice family film_ into one that really wouldn't be suitable for actual kids of Mary's age.

Stupid, but I guess why waste big hunk of "man flesh" like Luke Evans on a sympathetic regular guy role.  All that was missing, I guess was a speedo scene ... And then, perhaps the film-makers thought "Jenny Slate should have felt so lucky" to do a topless covered by a pillow scene with an "A-list hunk" like Luke Evans.

#Sigh. #Sad.

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The Lost City of Z [2016]

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

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

The Lost City of Z [2016] (screenplay and directed by James Gray based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by David Grann [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) while based on a true story is certainly no Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981]

Instead, call it "Downton Abbey [2010-2015] goes to the Jungle" (and perhaps with this film along with the "Dunkirk drama" Their Finest [2017] this sub-genre about _really boring_ "lower born turn of the century British aristocrats" will have finally "jumped the shark"). 

Set in the early 20th Century, the current film is about thoroughly once undistinguished British officer (hence with perhaps "something to prove") turned quite by accident into Amazonian explorer Percival Harrison Fawcett [wikip] (played in the film Charlie Humman): Sent after many years in the career doldrums on a random yet quite dangerous surveying mission (arguably because better connected British officers from more distinguished families didn't want to go ...) to the then uncharted but rubber-rich (and hence disputed) frontier region between Brazil and Bolivia called Acre, he returned with pottery evidence that out there in the jungle had once existed an ancient civilization.  He then becomes obsessed with finding said civilization even though he has difficulty being taken seriously by the quite crusty if very prestigious (they were British you know...) Royal Geographic Society.

Much Downton Abbeyesque only "with flynets" ensued ... Those who like period pieces about the British Empire in the interwar period will probably not find it terrible.  But it is _slow_ ...

ADDENDUM - We Servites (my religious order) actually know something about this region as our Order's probably most famous Mission is located on the Brazilian side of the border in Acre.  And I was actually helped translate a book commissioned by the Brazilian Servites on Amazonia of that region.

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Monday, April 17, 2017

The Case for Christ [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Christianity Today (K. McLenithan) review (J.W. Kennedy) review

The Case for Christ [2017] (directed by Jon Gunn, screenplay by Brian Bird based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Lee Strobel [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]), I have to admit, I came to with some ... fear.

While I'm at a parish where I may now actually use Strobel's book for a still in the works "Rocket Scientists Faith Discussion Group" (yes, I've literally buried _three_ different elderly rocket scientists - aerospace engineers (veterans of the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs - since coming out to Orange County, CA to my new assignment ;-), the _vast majority_ of the thousands of parishioners who I've worked with over the last 20 years _don't_ need any proof of the Resurrection.  It's a living reality to them day to day: How else can one get the strength to put aside alcohol, to stop yelling (or even beating) one's spouse or kids (and _start_ to put family / loved ones first again ... rather than "chasing trophies" of any manner of kinds) or get over Losses (again of a plethora of kinds)?

Rising from the Put/Hammered-down / Dismissed as Dead, is a surprisingly common experience for most of us.  That Jesus would to do it FOR REAL is a Testament that God truly understands what life in this still quite Fallen world is like and his desire to assure us that NOTHING / NO ONE of this world will have the final word over any of us, that that final word truly belongs to God who made and loves us all (incidentally a beautiful reflection on God's love for each and everyone of us is given in another Christian based movie The Shack [2017] that came out at the beginning of Lent this year, with the current film coming out to close it out). 

But then is all this just a nice "pipe dream"?  This is what former Chicago Tribune investigative reporter and (as a result of his conversion in the process) later Chicago-area Willow Creek Megachurch Pastor Lee Strobel (played in the film by Mike Vogel) sought to do -- prove one-way-or-another whether all this a bunch of nonsense.   And it's clear that when he began this project he was firmly hoping to prove to his wife (played in the film by Erika Christensen) that _her_ new found faith (as a result of a near family tragedy) was silly, distracting and even threatening their marriage.

Obviously, he came to a different conclusion.  He did so in a quite sober manner that should give the educated person at least some pause.  He noted that the ancient attestations, yes, in the New Testament are numerous (more than 5000 ancient copies of the NT are existent -- for context that's more than 4x as many as the Iliad, the next most numerously available text from the ancient mid-East -- and the oldest fragments of the NT go back to only a few decades from the event).  He noted fairly significant details in these ancient attestations -- notably that ALL the NT accounts of Christ's Resurrection have WOMEN encountering the Risen Christ first (if the story was invented, this detail would not serve the inventor's interest, as women's testimony was almost universally considered "unreliable" in the ancient mideast (and really up to only recent times).  Finally, he noted that Jesus would have almost certainly have died on the Cross (a possible explanation of a "fake Resurrection" would have been that he had not have actually died).  But even an Journal of the AMA article on the matter argued that assuming that Jesus was crucified, he would have had to have died -- from asphyxiation (following the other injuries of his ordeal, notably his flogging).  So ...

... if nothing else, it should make people think.

Again, I'm not necessarily sure that this is the best way to argue for Christianity, BUT IT DOES NOT HURT that there are serious people like Strobel seeking to argue the case.

Excellent film.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Going in Style [2017]

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

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

Going in Style [2017] (directed by Zach Braff, screenplay by Theodore Melfi, story by Edward Cannon) is not a complicated movie and there have been similar ones made recently as well, notably: the Ben Stiller / Alan Alda / Eddie Murphy, et al starring light dramedy Tower Heist [2011], the essentially "Igor / Frankenstein" but _real_ Andrew Garfield / Michael Shannon starring horror story 99 Homes [2014] (about the culture of "vulture capitalism" in the real estate market in-and-around Orlando, Florida after the 2008 Financial Crisis), the docudrama The Big Short [2015] (about six financial odd-balls who actually _made billions_ by _betting_ on the 2008 Crash) and finally the George Clooney / Julia Roberts starring vehicle Money Monster [2016] (about a guy who storms into a CFN-style "investment talk show" wanting to just start _shooting people_ who caused him to stupidly lose his life savings).  All these films brim with (and at some point _begin_ to exploit...) obvious resentment born of the view that the rich / connected people of Wall Street have essentially looted the futures of the poor and middle class of this country for their financial benefit ... and have largely gotten away with it.

In the current scenario, three retired "specialty steel workers" (played by Michael Kaine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin) facing the loss of their entire pensions due to a corporate financial deal that "moved operations completely offshore" decide to rob the bank that made that financial deal possible -- "Rat Pack" (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr) style.  Much ensues ...

Again, this is not a complicated story.  People of faith _should be_ at least _a little_ concerned about a story that, after all, GLORIFIES THEFT, even if perhaps "righteous theft."

Still, this film (and others like it) would probably never have been made if there wasn't a more or less obvious sense in society that justice has simply not been done (or even been close to having been done) with regards to the 2008 Financial Crisis that really did hurt / destroy the financial futures of tens of millions of people.

So my sense is that these kind of films will continue to be made (and continue to be quite popular) until the frustration these films have been fed by has been dealt with or otherwise dissipates.  The effects of crimes that go unpunished ... linger.

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