Sunday, March 26, 2017

Life [2017]

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

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

Life [2017] (directed by Daniel Espinosa, screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) is perhaps best understood as a SciFi story whose creators really didn't know what they wanted:

On the one hand, they wanted the respectability of well-made recent SciFi films with thoughtful / believable scenarios like Gravity [2013], The Martian [2015] and even Contagion [2011].  On the other hand, they invented a monster -- the AV Club's reviewer A.A. Dowd (above) calls it "A Space Octopus" -- that really deserves to be in a B-movie. 

Now don't get me wrong, I generally like / review favorably high budget fantastic stories like those Marvel Superhero Universe.  I even enjoyed -- smiled from ear-to-ear actually -- watching, mesmerized, two races of GIANT Transformer Robots SMASHING THINGS (buildings, cars, everything really) LEFT-AND- RIGHT while THEY BEAT the daylights out of EACH OTHER on-and-all-over the streets of Chicago in Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon [2011]

But this film didn't seem to fit in any of the these three SciFi universes: the respectable / believable if generally Dystopic kind; the "attack of the race of intelligent lobsters" low-budget B-movie kind, or the GIANT high-budget Super Hero / Super Monster / Super Villain kind.

So what's the film about?  Well, researchers on the International Space Station successfully capture a sample-return pod arriving to Mars, and begin analyzing the sample for evidence of life.  Well, something starts to grow.  Initially it seems to be growing like a colony of single celled organisms but, to the researchers horror, it coalesces into what becomes a very smart (and very hungry) multi-apendaged "space-octopus" -- everyone of its cells is BOTH a muscle and a nerve cell ...

Well, needless to say ... much ensues ...

 I would have settled for "a space virus" ;-) ... The space octopus proved just weird if, I suppose, "really really frightening."

Anyway, it just seems that the creators of this film really couldn't settle on the monster that they wanted to present. So ... sigh ... not exactly a "must see"

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

24th San Diego Latino Film Festival [2017] - Part 2

 Among the films that played recently at the 24th San Diego Latino Film Festival, held at the AMC Fashion Valley 18 Theater at the Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego, CA I was able to view and review the following:

Time Riders (orig. Los Jinetes del Tiempo) [2017] [IMDb] []* (directed and cowritten by Jose Ramon Pedroza [IMDb] []* along with Alfredo Mendoza [IMDb] and Violeta Salmón [IMDb]) is a DOCUMENTARY (from MEXICO) that followed a group of rural re-anactors from southern Mexico who organized themselves to commemorate the centenary of the march of Emiliano Zapata and his Liberation Army of the South in 1914 from Quebrantadero, Morelos to Mexico City where he and his army met with Pancho Villa and his Division of the North to help determine the course of the Mexican Revolution.  Many of the re-enactors were actual descendants of those who members of Zapata's army who made the march.  The documentary offered an opportunity for the re-enactors to reflect on Mexico's course over the Century since and offer a critique.  One of the most interesting reflections came from the re-enactors playing Villa and Zapata noting: "A century ago [Zapata and Villa] led a popular Revolution against the "scientíficos" in government (technocrats) but today we have a government largely run by incompetents (those 'scientificos' were not necessarily all that bad)."  On the other side of the coin a lot of the re-enactors, coming from rural southern Mexico after all, lamented the post-NAFTA decimation of Mexican agriculture and the current dominance in Mexico of various genetically engineered hybrid corns that farmers are effectively forced to grow: "The Revolution fought against Paternalism and the dominance of 'scientíficos,' but today they are in control again telling us once more what we can and can not do."  The juxtaposition of concerns of the past, present and even about the future give the film its title and make for an interesting and colorful documentary and certainly helps one to appreciate the heart-rending poignancy of the Mexican Revolution which was largely about Peasants rising-up and demanding to be respected. -- 4 Stars

El Malquerido [2015] [IMDb] []* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Diego Rísquez [IMDb] []* along with Emiliano Farías [IMDb] and Robert Gómez [IMDb] based on the book [WCat] [Amzn] by Eduardo Fernández [es.wikip]*[IMDb]) is a BIOPIC about ever smiling Venezuelan singer (bolerista) Felipe Pirela [es.wikip]* (played in the film by Jesús Chino Miranda [IMDb] []*)who was immensely popular across the Caribbean in the 1960s.  Yet as is often the case with artists, a combination of personal failings / naivete conspired to eventually destroy him.  For instance, at 23 he married a 13 year old wide-eyed fan (named Mariela and played in the film by Greisy Mena [IMDb] []*).  Note that while this would simply shock the contemporary Viewer / Reader, North American Rock-and-Roller Jerry Lee Lewis [wikip] [IMDb] actually did roughly the same thing, marrying a 13 year old cousin, at roughly the same time, the late 1950s.  Needless to say, that marriage could not and did not go well, and caused him other difficulties that eventually set him on a course where he was murdered in Puerto Rico in 1972 by a mafioso to whom he apparently owed money.  Fame, particularly easy / early fame ... is rarely a blessing. -- 3 1/2 Stars  

Califórnia [2014] [IMDb] [AC]*(directed and cowritten by Marina Person [IMDb] [AC]* along with Francisco Guarnieri [IMDb] and Mariana Veríssimo [IMDb]) is a truly heartrending "COMING OF AGE" STORY from BRAZIL.  Set in the early 1980s, the film's about a random 17-year-old high schooler from a relatively rich family from São Paulo named Estela (played by Clara Gallo [IMDb] [AC]*) with a "cool" / fun-loving uncle named Carlos (played by Ciao Blat [IMDb] [AC]*), still single and in his early 30s living in California.  The plan was that as soon as she finished high school, she was going to go out to visit him.  Indeed, she had foregone her "15th-birthday party" so that she could go on that trip once her high school was finished.  Well ... 10 days before she was supposed to go, she gets word that her uncle was going to go back to São Paulo instead and he's going to be staying with them for a while (Carlos was Estela's mother's younger brother).  Well, when Carlos arrives, he's the fun-loving uncle that Estela always knew -- and she still didn't fully understand why he was suddenly there and she was suddenly not going to see him in California -- 'cept ... he was ... noticeably ... thin.  The rest of this just utterly heartbreaking tale takes it from there -- 4 Stars.  

The Ornithologist (orig. O Ornitólogo) [2016] [IMDb] [AC]*(written and directed by João Pedro Rodrigues [IMDb] [AC]*) was billed as an "experimental" take on the life of Saint Anthony of Padua (Lisbon).  Playing quite late in the evening and at the Latino Film Festival San Diego (an hour and a half away from where I live), the film proved _too_ "experimental" for me to watch all the way through -- Set apparently in rural modern day northern Portugal, I left after the Ornithologist / Antonio (played by Paul Hamy [IMDb] [AC]*) was tied-up by a couple of Chinese (!) pilgrims, lost on their way to Santiago de Compostella, with said Chinese pilgrims (played by Han Wen [IMDb] and Chan Suan [IMDb]) threatening to castrate him.  Say what??  Yup ... perhaps it all would have come to make sense but I simply ran out of patience.  So I picked myself up and left.  Sigh ... -- 1/2 Star

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

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

24th San Diego Latino Film Festival [2017] - Part 1

 Among the films that played recently at the 24th San Diego Latino Film Festival, held at the AMC Fashion Valley 18 Theater at the Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego, CA I was able to view and review the following:

Guilty Men (orig. Pariente )[2016] [IMDb] []* (written and directed by Iván Gaona [IMDb] []*) is a well written "small indie" COLOMBIAN drama-to-dramedy that plays out in and around a random village in the Colombian jungled moutnainous hinterlands (Santander Department) -- the countryside portrayed was ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL.  The year was 2005 around the time when the "Paramilitaries" were beginning to "demobilize," the Paramilitaries being right wing, essentially vigilante groups that arose to "help" the government combat the Communist FARC insurgency in the 1980s.  Honestly, these Paramilitaries would not be altogether far, both tactically and ideologically, from the Klan in the States.  They "helped" "keep order" in the countryside _through terror_ (and above all extortion).   Eventually, even the Colombian government came to the recognition that these groups ended-up simply adding to the chaos existing in the countryside and eventually sought to "bring them home," that is, "demobilize" them, essentially telling them "thanks, but no thanks..."

Well, this is then when this story is set, during the "demobilization" process.  And so, in the beginning scene, three or four local men from the village are sitting in a truck, at night, at some random, though previously agreed-upon location on some muddy-dirt road out in the "Selva" (jungle) some distance from their town.  Two are small-time ranchers, one's the owner of the truck, the fourth another random local from the village.  They were there to "deliver their (final) payment" to the local Paramilitary.  Well, perhaps because this may have been _the last_ of such payments that the villagers were to make to the Paramilitaries, one of the ranchers, and older guy, decides to do what he and the others from the village probably wanted to do for a while now -- he decides to "call it even" right-then-and-there and _shoots_ the Paramilitary's bagman so that he (and presumably the rest of the villagers) could keep his / their money.  (I guess it's NOT "a good thing" to assigned to be the Paramilitary's "bag man" when things "are set to wind down ...")

Well, the village saved itself some money, BUT ... and this is then the rest of the film ... the Viewer slowly discovers that pretty much EVERYBODY in this random village is a petty crook / criminal of one kind or another.  Hence we come to see that the Paramilitaries "kinda had (their) point."  Yes, they tried to "bring order" "Medieval style" -- cutting-off the hands of petty thieves, killing insurgents and drug dealers -- but ... well ... "look at the village(rs) that they were dealing with." ;-).  

It's a (mildly) disturbing film (if one chooses to think about it at all ;-), but it's also quite funny (and about human nature, along the lines of the Romanian "Spaghetti-Eastern" comedy Afferim! [2015] of a few years back: "look at where we come from / who we are"): Among the most honest men in the village was the owner of said truck that the various "prominent men" from the village were sitting in at the beginning of the film.  But HE was looked-down-upon by his girlfriend and especially her mother because -- HE HAD "TO WORK" FOR A LIVING.  The others all owned land ... he simply owned his truck (which he used to make deliveries for the rest of the village).  

Anyway, this proved to be a lovely, well written, well acted and well shot film that will remind viewers of the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, and perhaps even of the funnier scenes of Quentin Tarrantino's Pulp Fiction [1994].  Excellent job -- 4 Stars

La Casa Rosada [2016] [IMDb] []* (written and directed by Palito Ortega Matute [IMDb] []*) is a historical drama set in the Peruvian Provincial University town of Ayacucho at the beginning of the Shining Path Communist Insurgency that began there.  The film centers on Adrián (played admirably by José Luis Adrianzen) a philosophy professor at the local university.  Note here that Abimael Guzmán, the FOUNDER / Leader of the Shining Path during the insurgency was ALSO "a (Marxist) philosophy professor" at the local university.  SO, on the one hand, it should be clear that the two would have almost certainly known each other.  On the other hand, given that Adrián's two cute as a button 8-10 year old children were named _Juan de Dios_ and _Maria del Carmen_ (both played wonderfully by Ricardo Bromley López and Shantall Lozano Rodríguez) and among the first things they do when their father disappears is try to go to the local Priest for help (who ends up being _shot dead_ right in front of them by Shining Path insurgents / terrorists), it's obviously "complicated."  It should be clear that someone like Adrián would have known a number of the leaders involved in the insurgency.  On the other hand, it should be clear that someone like Adrián and his family would have wanted -- and throughout the whole of the film TRIED -- to just get / stay "out of the way."  Throughout the whole of the film, Adrián just wants to pick-up and try to take his family OUT OF THERE, Ayacucho (even though his beloved wife was buried there), and JUST GET TO LIMA.  Does he (and his family) succeed in doing so?  Well that's the rest of the movie ... and to the North American / Western European Viewer, it plays arguably like a TRUE TO LIFE _HORROR_ film -- just when you think he / they are going to get out, SOMETHING ELSE HAPPENS ... -- 4 Stars

El Techo [2016] [IMDb] []*(written and directed by Patricia Ramos [IMDb] []*) is a small CUBAN film about three friends, in their late-teens to early 20s in today's Havana who, like many (especially young) Cubans today are trying to make sense of the more liberalized economic possibilities available to them in Cuba today.  In this case, the three decide to try their hand at starting a small neighborhood Pizzeria -- on the rooftop of the tenement in which they live.   Indeed, part of both "the humor" and the "sadness" / "frustration" expressed in the film is the discovery on the part of all the characters in the film that "it's been A LONG TIME" since ANY OF THEM (or ANYONE IN THEIR FAMILY) had _actual EXPERIENCE_ in starting and maintaining a business.  (Interestingly enough this past spring, I had a conversation with a cousin of mine in the Czech Republic WHO EXPRESSED THE EXACT SAME PROBLEM / FRUSTRATION: "You know Zdenku (Dennis in Czech) one of the difficulties here is that (due to Communism) we had a gap of nearly two generations where there were no family owned businesses.  So no one really knew how to really start one.  A lot of small businesses failed and others fell into all kinds of other problems (facing mob-like extortion, etc)."  So the current, Cuban film is about some of these pitfalls.  One of the most amusing problems that the three face is that about 90% of their neighbors are happy to "buy" the three's pizzas but promise to pay for them "tomorrow" ;-).  Anyway, it's a light film (perhaps still tainted by Communist ideology) that touches on the problems of trying "to set out to make it on one's own" even as it expresses an optimism that there three will end-up okay -- 3 1/2 Stars

La Vida Inmoral de Una Pareja Ideal [2016] [IMDb] []*(written and directed by Manolo Caro [IMDb] []*) is a fun if definitely R-rated MEXICAN ROMANTIC COMEDY (not for teenagers, even though much of the story plays out at a private (Catholic sponsored) school in the "D.F." (Mexico City) of the 1980s).  It's about a two late-30 to early-40 somethings, Martina and Lucio (both played wonderfully by Cecilia Suárez and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who met and FELL HARD in LOVE with each other in High School in the 1980s (they are played again wonderfully as high schoolers by Ximena Romo and Sebastián Aguirre).   Then BECAUSE THEY FELL so hard for each other, they were forcibly separated from each other -- Lucio was expelled from school, and Martina was forbidden by her mother from ever contacting him again -- for well, 25 years.  Then suddenly Lucio shows up one day at the door of Martina's gallery in San Miguel Allende.  But it's been 25 years.  "A lot of water has run under the bridge," right?   A lot, often very endearing if, let's face it, quite inappropriate / scandalous ... again the film's NOT really for teens ... plays out.   Not necessarily the easiest film FOR A CATHOLIC PRIEST TO WRITE ABOUT ;-) ... but certainly a fun and endearing film that reminds us that SOMETIMES young "Romeo / Juliet-like" love can last a life-time. -- 4 Stars.

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

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Beauty and the Beast [2017]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (L) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Beauty and the Beast [2017] (directed by Bill Condon, screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos) is a lovely _race neutral_ update of the traditional French fairy tale.

Parents of children of color will probably like seeing several of the characters, though dressed in 17th-18th century garb, played nonetheless by actors / actresses of color including Audra McDonald as Mde. Garderobe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette (characters in the beloved Disney 1991 animated film).  Given that as I was entering the screening that I attended, in front of me was a cute as a button Hispanic family -- mom, pop and their FOUR YEAR OLD GIRL dressed in a golden dress like that of Belle's -- it seems clear me that Disney's clearly onto something _nice_ and I'D CERTAINLY WANT TO ENCOURAGE THIS FOR THE FUTURE, especially since NEARLY HALF OF THE CHILDREN IN THE UNITED STATES ARE "OF COLOR" NOW.   (I'd also like to note here that the CNS/USCCB's reviewer above spent _nearly half_ his review complaining that the film portrayed _one_ of the characters in the film, Lefou (played by Josh Gad) as being _possibly gay_ ... and the reviewer made _no mention at all_ of the lovely _race neutrality_ of the whole production ...).

What then to say about this live action update to the traditional French Fairy Tale / beloved 1991 animated film?  I do think it works.  The combination of CGI and live actors which already worked spectacularly well in Disney's much more thorough re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland [2010], IMHO worked well here as well: Lumiere, Cogsworth, Plumette, Mde Garderobe, Maestro Cadenza, Mrs Potts and Chip (voiced and then played by Evan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson and Nathan Mack) all stepped-up and hit-the-mark, often spectacularly.

For many contemporary viewers, especially mothers / women, the bigger preoccupation would be how did the script / Emma Watson (as commoner / villager Belle) and Dan Stevens (as the cursed Beastly prince) navigate these roles which _could be_ quite easily dismissed today as messaging to young girls to "settle" and PUT-UP WITH _beastly_ misogynist behavior.  Here I do believe that the script / Emma Watson did a very good job in portraying Belle as _not_ "a door-mat" who had _a good reason_ FOR CHOOSING sacrifice her freedom for the sake of her father (already having lost her mother, if her father (played wonderfully by Kevin Kline) had been incarcerated by the Beastly Prince then SHE would have been left with nobody ... I totally understand why she chose to do what she did).  Further, Belle actually _chose_ to warm-up to the Beastly Prince only after she realized that _he_ really had something that she had been looking-for all during her time growing-up back in the village -- easy access and respect for knowledge.  She had been laughed-at back home for being "too much of a bookworm," for being "too smart" for her own good.  Here the Beastly Prince (with his castle's giant library) offered her a chance to be more _freely_ who she always wanted to be.

So it's an interesting film about freedom and choice, and (with freedom of choice) ... choosing wisely.  I really can not but applaud it.  Good job!

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Kong: Skull Island [2017]

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

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

Kong: Skull Island [2017] (directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly, story by John Gatins) ON ONE LEVEL does to / for the King Kong [wikip] [IMDb] story what Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now [1976] did to / for Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness [wikip] [GR] -- both moved stories about turn-of-the-20th century colonial Africa to 1970s era South East Asia in the context of the Vietnam War.

Now the King Kong story about great and misunderstood Ape was always campier than Conrad's far darker parable about the "limits of Civilization," but in truth the two treaded on similar territory.  And so it is here.  As one of the reviewers I cite above already noted, King Kong is really only one (qualifying) adjective from Viet Cong ;-).  And while it _may be_ that for _some_ A GIANT (!) HUNDRED FOOT APE would _immediately seem_ like "an enemy," it's _probably_ worth taking the time to figure out whether _either_ sheer brawn or mere strangeness would AUTOMATICALLY _make_ someone (or SOMEthing) such.

But there are actually _more_ send-ups, conflations and homages present here than just mashing up the King Kong story with Conrad's Heart of Darkness / Coppola's Apocalypse Now [1976].

There's a Back to the Future [1985] / Forrest Gump [1994]-ish aspect to the film as two truly goofball "scientists" -- a burly, confident (with no particular reason to be) Trump-ish, Paul Randa (played wonderfully by John Goodman) as his quieter, if just as loopy Ben Carlson-ish "Hollow Earth" theorist assistant Houston Brooks (played by Corey Hawkins) get out of a taxi by the Washington Mall (crazy anti-Vietnam War Protests taking place at every side).  They were there to hit-up some Senator in his office for funding for their expedition). "Mark my words," Randa tells his colleague in typically confident form, "There will NEVER BE a goofier time in Washington D.C. than now."  People at the screening that I attended audibly laughed ;-)

The two were going to the random Senator's office because the (then) new Landsat imaging satellite had supposedly discovered some previously uncharted island somewhere in the South Pacific (an island previously undiscovered because it was surrounded by a perpetual hurricane storm system).  They wanted to go there, why?  Because they believed that it could be precisely _there_ that an entrance into the two's postulated "Hollow Earth" could be found.  Such an entrance could not be found _elsewhere_ across _the known reaches- of Earth, so it had to be located a place such as this ... a place previously undiscovered.  Needless to say, the Senator was not impressed.  However, when Randa suggests that the Russians have satellites of their own and could soon discover the island themselves, he gives them the go-ahead ... and the rest of the (ever campy) story ensues.

To get to the previously unknown island, the two "scientists" ask the Senator also for military helicopter escort.  Why?  Well to _test_ whether or not the Island is an entrance to "the Hollow Earth" they hope to "scientifically bomb" it ;-).

This escort is led by a Col. Preston Packard (played wonderfully by Samuel L. Jackson) who was previously quite depressed that the U.S. was pulling out of Vietnam ("After all the sacrifices, why are we leaving now?" he asks rhetorically at one early point in the film).  Well, this mission gives him and his men something still to do (even if a fair amount of his men were just hoping to get home -- alive -- soon). 

Well _bombing_ said island, "scientifically" or not, WAKES UP SAID ONE HUNDRED FOOT GORILLA ... KONG who starts flailing at the Helicopters.  Well, Col. Preston Packard knows an enemy when he sees one (even if he does not understand it, or even doesn't really have the resources to defeat it), and directs the remainder of his helicopter squadron to attack said ONE HUNDRED FOOT GORILLA, which makes a short course of them, swatting them around and around like flies.

What to do now?  Well poor Col. Packard becomes really pissed off (to a CAPT. AHAB / MOBY DICK-like level) and spends the rest of the story trying to find _some way_ to defeat this MONSTER, even as he (and the others in the group) are being given more and more information that would suggest that the GORILLA wasn't really an ENEMY but ACTUALLY SOMETHING OF A HERO ... keeping even more vicious / reptilian monsters from entering our world from below (well, what do you know?  Randa and Brooks were right ;-).

This information came from a jolly ROBINSON CRUSOE-like WW II vet named Capt Hank Marlow (played wonderfully by John C. Rilley) who the expedition encounters on the island after it had been brought down and scattered by Kong.  Capt. Marlow had been shot down over the island during World War II and stuck there ever since.  He (and a Japanese pilot, shot down at the same time) had come to see Kong as a friend. 

What to do?  It becomes clear that there are multiple ways to look at Kong.  Col. Packard keeps trying to fight him.  Others, who come to see some of the reptilian monsters that stranded WW II vet Capt. Marlow was talking about start to see that Marlow may have a point.

As goofy as this film is, it leaves one with much to talk / think about ;-)

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Thursday, March 9, 2017

2017 Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival

Of the films recently shown at the 2017 Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, I've seen and reviewed the following:

Quarries [2016] (directed and cowritten by Nils Taylor along with Nicole Marie Johnson) plays like a feminist and, yes, in part lesbian Deliverance [1972].   Just having left an abusive relationship Kat (played by Nicole Marie Johnson) decides to join a week-long all-female wilderness backpacking trip.   Because of raging nearby forest fires, the group gets dropped off in an alternative spot.  This proves to be a nightmare as unbeknownst to them, the group has to pass through a wilderness inhabited by unemployed, since like forever, gun-toting white male supremacist / survivalist weirdos, who yes, also happen to be Christian Fundamentalists.

This can't go well and it doesn't.  Much, often very violent ensues.  What I have to give the film is its cleverness even if, in retrospect, a film like this was inevitable.  It basically corrects what was missing in the largely all male Deliverance [1972] -- in place of the "effeminate" / "city slicker" males who find themselves "out of their element," this film makes the conflict between increasingly (rightfully) assertive women (who are coming out of their own pain) and really the men _most lost_ by the changes around them.  Yes, the men here are nuts, but they find themselves in the one place (a wilderness) that they feel that they still control (if only by violence) even as THE FOREST IS BURNING ALL AROUND THEM ANYWAY.  It is ONE STARK YET FASCINATING FILM -- 3 1/2 Stars

Island Zero [2017] (directed by Josh Gerritsen, screenplay by Tess Gerritsen) plays like a fun 1950s style low-budget sci-fi horror movie:  All across the Eastern Seaboard, fisheries seem to be collapsing, one by one, yet no one seems to understand why or even see a pattern.  Well almost no one; one lone marine biologist, named Sam (played with appropriate craziness by Adam Wade McLaughlin) seems to be literally "connecting the dots."  He doesn't know _why_ the fisheries are collapsing, but he sees the pattern, and goes out to a lonely island (Zero) fifty miles off the coast of Maine to test if his hypothesis is right.  It is.  But then, whatever is ravaging the fisheries ... seems to want more!  To be stuck on a quaint if lonely island when SOMETHING REALLY HUNGRY seems to be "just offshore" doesn't seem smart and ... it isn't.  The residents of said quaint little island, fifty miles off the mainland, start to be eaten, one by one as well.  What's going on?

Well that's the rest of the movie ... and, of course, the military becomes interested ... but do they want to stop this thing, or try to bring it to its side?  Who's really really going to save the people of this Island (and humanity at large) ... Again, a clever 1950s style sci-fi horror flick ;-) -- 3 1/2 Stars 

Ribbons [2016] (directed by Elias Matar, screenplay by Edward E. Romero, story by both) is psychological thriller about an Afghan War vet named Vincent (played by Patrick Hickman) who's come back to the Antelope Valley region in the far reaches of Los Angeles County.  Of course he's not well but he finds a kindred spirit in Rachel (played by Haidyn Harvey) who though underage (to drink) he finds in a bar.

Rachel has her own issues, notably an abusive father named Kenny (played by Brian Krause) and a mother named Joan (played by Anna Easteden) who won't do anything.  Well Rachel brings her new beau Vincent home to meet her dysfunctional parents and needless to say much ensues, notably Vincent, a true hero, but one who's "seen too much" has to find the renewed strength to face down an abusive loser who's never done anything substantial in his life.  Can he find the strength / courage to do so?  Well that's the movie ... As often is the case with really low-budget independent films, there's a lot of intergenerational / cultural commentary present underneath the film. -- 3 Stars

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25th Annual Pan African Film Festival - Los Angeles - Part 2

Among the films that played recently at the 25th Annual Pan African Film Festival - Los Angeles, held at the Cinemark 15 Baldwin Hills Theater at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, I was able to view and review the following:

 White Colour Black [2016] (written and directed by Joseph A. Adesunloye) tells the story of a Senegal-born photographer named Leke (played by Dudley O'Shaughnessy) who begins the story living a quite dissolute / hedonistic lifestyle in London among the glamour / fashion model set.  Then he gets word that his father had died back in Senegal and decides, reluctantly, that _for this_ (his father's funeral) he has to go back.  Complicating things are (1) that the two, Leke and his father, had last parted not on good terms, and (2) Leke had seemed to acquire something of a drug habit up there in London.  So it takes him a while (at least a few days) after arriving from London in Senegal's capital of Dakar before he gets around to heading out to the seaside town where his father's family was from.  TO SOME EXTENT, the beginning of the film feels almost like a take on Apocalypse Now [1979] -- "Saigon [Dakar], damn Saigon [Dakar], I'm only in Saigon [Dakar]..." 'Cept when Leke finally makes it out to the lovely seaside town where his dad's family's from, it turns out to NOT really be "The Apocalypse."  SURE he finds that he has to "make amends" and not only to his uncle Dabo (played wonderfully by Wale Ojo), the keeper of Leke's father's legacy, but TO THE ENTIRE VILLAGE that simply does not understand _how_ he could have missed his father's funeral.  But, after initially stumbling, he finds a way ... and the film becomes a LOVELY tribute to the enduring power and beauty of both Family and Reconciliation -- 3 Stars

The Last Disciples [2016] (written and directed by the Isabelle Brothers) well produced, MTV "Reality Show"-like modern-day adaptation of several Biblical stories -- notably of Cain and Abel, Noah and Job.  The language is often quite offensive (so it would not be for kids).  However, for teenagers who've already "heard the bad words" as well as college-aged young adults, I do think that the film offers a quite captivating approach to comtemporizing the stories of the Bible -- the story of Job, for instance, is really presented in "Entertainment Tonight " / "reality show" like format.  What's also remarkable is that the Isabelle Brothers made this film working out of their hometown of Huntsville, Alabama.  As such, they provide a tantalizing glimpse of a decentralized future of video / cinematographic storytelling, one which won't necessarily need to be centered in major cities like New York or Los Angeles. -- 3 Stars

Rebecca [2016] (written and directed by Shirley Frimpong-Mansa) is a very simple film GHANA-originating film that's presented then in a quite interesting format -- in English _with_ English subtitles.   First about the story, then a few words about the format.

The story's about a couple, Clifford (played by Joseph Benjamin) a rich Ghana-descended businessman who flew back "home" from the U.K. to get himself a wife through an arranged / brokered marriage, and then Rebecca (played wonderfully by Yvonne Okoro) the village woman who he basically bought for himself.  The two find themselves "stuck in their car," which had broken down on the road somewhere in the hinterlands of Ghana between Rebecca's village and the airport from where they would fly then (back) to the U.K.

So at the beginning of the story Clifford's clearly "in charge."  After all, he was "the one with the money" who flew out to again effectively "buy" Rebecca.  But, sitting there on the clearly not well traveled road, awaiting someone to pass by to give them assistance, power and the initiative begin to clearly swing back to Rebecca.  After all, they find themselves "stuck" in _her country_, SHE knows what's going on, HE doesn't have a clue ...  As simple as the story is -- nominally about a couple stuck in the car at the side of a largely abondoned road -- it leaves Viewers with _a lot_ to talk / reflect about.

Now about the film's format.  THE Los Angeles based DISTRIBUTOR of the film was present at the end of the screening to take questions.  He said that the format -- English with English subtitles -- was intentional, noting that there are over 2 billion people across the world for whom English is a second language.  The format English, with English subtitled may irritate many (younger) North Americans for whom English is their native language (and they are still NOT "hard of hearing").  However, he said that EVEN IN THE UNITED STATES about 35% of the potential viewing public would appreciate those subtitles.  Who would they be?  Immigrants AND older people.  Then outside of the United States, this format would allow those 2 billion people to practice their English.

Again both the story and the film's viewing format offered much to think about -- 3 Stars

AfroLatinos: An Untaught History [2016] (directed by Renzo Devia) is a DOCUMENTARY that given the size of the audience present at its screening at the PAFF-LA has an audience.   For all the problems that African Americans have had in the United States to (re)discover their voice / identity, this _excellent_ documentary (which will actually be exploded into a seven part documentary series) notes that across ALL OF LATIN AMERICA over 150 million Afro-Latinos have yet to really do so.  Almost everywhere, again ACROSS ALL OF LATIN AMERICA, almost EVERY _African descended / imported characteristic_ from curlier hair, to darker skin, to African-descended languages, dialects or accents to African-descended religions / religious conceptions are MARGINALIZED / LOOKED-DOWN UPON by the wider culture.  And yet, ALL OF THESE CHARACTERISTICS have SELF-EVIDENTLY CLEAR / INTRINSIC BEAUTY.

What's going on?  What happened?  While taking some time to explain some of the history of Afro-Latino marginalization in Latin America, the great and truly _beautiful_ strength of this Documentary is that it's A CELEBRATION OF AFRO-LATINOS and all that they can and at times already offer the larger society / world.  For instance, modern West Africans travel to Latin America, notably to Brazil, Suriname and coastal Colombia to _learn_ African languages / dialects and about African religions / religious conceptions now largely lost in their native West Africa.   Then the mixing of the cultures and races produces some truly fascinating and beautiful conceptions in both fashion and the arts.  All in all, this really promises to be A GREAT / FASCINATING DOCUMENTARY SERIES -- 4 Stars

The Healing Passage: Voices from the Water [2004] (written and directed by S. Pearl Sharp) is a remarkable DOCUMENTARY that presents AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS, POETS and PHILOSOPHERS grappling with the MEANING and LOSS resulting form the FORCED TRANSPORT OF 10-12 MILLION AFRICANS AS SLAVES FROM WEST AFRICA to THE AMERICAS (and the DEATHS OF MILLIONS of OTHERS in transport) during the Era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Imagine simply THE BONES of MILLIONS OF BODIES spread along the bottom of the Mid-Atlantic between Africa and the Americas.

Neither is it simply an issue of simply Blacks coming to terms with the Horror and Magnitude of this Tragedy: One of the more striking moments in the film involved a twenty-something young woman from an old Massachusetts family that made its fortune (presumably) in 18th early 19th century through the Slave Trade.  She and several of her relatives when back to Senegal to partly atone for their ancestors' part in this horror.  Truly a beautiful and again _very_ powerful / thought-provoking film -- 4 Stars

Nawara [2015] (written and directed by Hala Khalil) is a striking EGYPTIAN film about the tragedy of the by now quite defunct Arab Spring.

Taking place during the 2011 Protests on Tahrir Square which eventually brought down the Regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the film's about an ever-smiling 20-something  Muslim domestic worker named Nawara (played magnificently by Menna Shalabi) living seemingly on one side of Cairo and -- three buses later -- working completely on the other side (Note that while stationed in Chicago, I knew of Latina domestic workers who made similarly crazy daily commutes from South Chicago all the way to the wealthy suburbs of the North Shore). 

It was clear that Mubarak was on the way out.  The news on both State TV and Radio were now suddenly (but consistently) about the corruption of the Mubarak Regime.  Nawara and her family were excited by the promise that so much looted wealth will be returned to Egypt that EACH EGYPTIAN would receive some 200,000 Egyptian pounds in compensation.  Among other things, Nawara and her largely unemployed / working odd-jobs electrician boyfriend Ali (played by Ameer Salah Eldin) would FINALLY be able to get married.  But of course such a prospect -- that so much wealth could possibly be returned back to the county -- was horribly ... naive.  How could ever smiling, ever optimistic, but POOR Nawara possibly hope that "things would turn out well" for her and her kind?  All in all an excellent film _personalizing_ the supreme tragedy of the betrayal of the Arab Spring -- 4 Stars

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Logan [2017]

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

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

Logan [2017] (story and directed by James Mangold, screenplay by Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green) could perhaps be called "The Passion of the Mutants."

Perhaps even more than with the other Marvel Comics franchises, the X-Men series seeks to play things completely straight.  It is simply assumed that "Mutants" with extraordinary abilities live among us (and are often persecuted by us for their  "Otherness" from us, even as the Mutants have their own conflicts within their ranks including the famous one between the more peace-making Professor Charles Francis Xavier (or Professor "X") [MC] [IMDb] (played here again by Patrick Stewart) and the more hardline "Mutant and Proud" Magneto [MC] (who does not appear in this film).

Since the X-Men Series _does try_ to "play things completely straight," THIS FILM touches on A FASCINATING QUESTION: What happens when EVEN "Mutants" (or Superheroes) GROW OLD?  AND AS IT'S WITH US, it's _not just_ that their bodies / abilities begin to fail, but even their "guide post belief structures" on which one previously could "hang one's hat" / define a good part of one's life seem to change, that is, "mutate" as well? 

So the film begins in the "near future" (2029) with a noticeably older, noticeably more _run down_ Logan (aka The Wolverine) (played again excellently throughout by Hugh Jackman), as _always_ "laying low" working as an utterly nondescript "Über-like" limo driver in the El Paso, Texas area.  Why THERE?  Well, some miles across the border, at a even more utterly nondescript abandoned factory out in the Desert, he and another Mutant named Caliban [MC] [IMDb] (played here by Stephen Merchant) are "caring for" an now nonogenarian (90+ year old) Professor "X" [MC] [IMDb] (played ever beautifully, even to Shakespearean levels of pathos by Patrick Stewart).

Again, WHY THERE?  Well Dear Readers, do remember that Professor X was famously a "telepath" (he could communicate with people / mutants often over great distances with his mind).  But NOW, in his 90s, HIS MIND IS FAILING HIM -- he has something akin of a Mutant cross between Alzheimers and Epilepsy.   Yet what mere human doctor could really understand his special condition and _special needs_?  So Logan and Caliban found a LARGE METAL CONTAINER (a huge knocked over former Water Tank) at that ABANDONED FACTORY IN THE DESERT that they converted into Professor X's "living quarters."  WHY THIS AS A QUITE _SPECIAL_ LIVING ARRANGEMENT?  Well he was a powerful telepath.  Now he has a combination of both Alzeimers and Epilepsy, and OUTSIDE OF THAT TANK / OFF HIS "MEDS" HE COULD HURT OTHERS WITH HIS (UNCONTROLLED) THOUGHTS / SEIZURES ;-).

And actually it's really "kinda nice" to see that LOGAN (aka THE WOLVERINE), who's NEVER been known in the X-Men world to be a particularly "caring" sort of a guy.  He's had a lot of issues with his seeming _immortality_ even as loved ones all around him seemed to be dying all the time.   And yet, here he finds himself helping "to care for" (sort of ... Caliban complains that _he's_ doing "most of the work" ;-) the again Professor X. 

Yet, of course, there are "other things" going on.  One is Professor X (and for that matter Logan / The Wolverine) is "kinda depressed" that whereas in the 1950s-1970s he was encountering ALL KINDS of MUTANTS all the time, it's been something like TWENTY YEARS since he's met his last "new" Mutant: Are we dying off?  Were _we_ (Mutants) just some special "flash in the pan"? both he and Logan wonder.

Well, it turns out ... no.  One day, one random day, in 2029, a woman named Gabriela (played by Elizabeth Rodriguez) comes frantically looking for Logan / The Wolverine with a "special cargo" -- a 12 year old Mexican "Mutant" girl named Laura (played wonderfully by Dafne Keen) who had been created as part of some crazy "super secret genetics experiment" (using, it clearly turns out, at least in part, Logan's DNA) at some clandestine laboratory somewhere near Mexico City.  Laura's life was now in danger and Gabriela asks Logan to help her get Laura "to Canada" (interestingly NOT simply to the UNITED STATES) to safety.

Logan's of course, reluctant, but the aging, now half-senile, but as always OPTIMISTIC Professor X, is HAPPY AS PIE.  He has a NEW Mutant to SHARE FOR _ONE LAST TIME_ HIS KNOWLEDGE / EXPERIENCES with.

Much adventure (and at times fairly violent mayhem) ensues ... 

IMHO it all plays out very interestingly, though I would caution Parents about the violence (and at times course language). 

There's a closing, quite provocative scene that COULD BE TAKEN as an INSULT by some Catholic / Christian viewers.  At the burial of one of the older Mutants (Logan or Professor X, I'm not going to reveal here which one ...) the younger Mutants (Laura and her other genetically engineered friends) PUT UP A MAKE-SHIFT CROSS (!) at the GRAVE'S HEAD.  I FOUND IT IMPRESSIVE THAT THE MUTANT CHILDREN DID THAT AT ALL.  At the end of their impromptu funeral for their deceased Mentor / Protector, as the other children were leaving, Laura piously turns the Cross to its side, so that it makes instead an "X."

Again, it's a provocative scene, BUT I DID ACTUALLY FIND IT RESPECTFUL.  Laura seemed to take the Cross and OWNING IT turned it into a SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT SYMBOL to which she identified (given her experience) somewhat more: Those older mutants _sacrificed themselves_ for her and her friends.  It's not _entirely_ a bad "transmutation" of a symbol (though of course, the adventures of the X-men, are _not_ exactly "a new Gospel")

In any case, as (presently) always, this Marvel Comics based movie left one with much to reflect on / think about. 

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Friday, March 3, 2017

The Shack [2017]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-II) (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (D)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review

Nat'l Cath. Register (S.D. Greydanus) review
Nat'l Cath. Reporter (Sr. R. Pacatte) review
Christianity Today (CTPastors) review of the novel

Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (P. Sobczynski) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review 

The Shack [2017] (directed by Stuart Hazeldine, screenplay by John Fusco, Andrew Lanham and Destin Cretton based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by William P. Young [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb] in collaboration with Wayne Jacobsen [WCat] [IMDb] and Brad Cummings [WCat] [IMDb]) continues a string of quite good and, often enough, _quite excellent_ Lenten offerings put-out by Hollywood in recent years (I think of the History Channel's quite excellent The Bible,  Series [2013] and the following year's Son of God [2014] theatrical release).

Yes, the current film (as also the book that it's based on) does carry with it some controversy: God the Father (of the Holy Trinity) appears first in the story as "God the Mother" (played again quite well by Octavia Spencer).  That God "the Father" (in many languages "Father" is the default word for "Parent" ...) would be appear first in the story as "Mother" will initially rile many Christian traditionalists.  However the story here has God _having a purpose_ to coming to the story's chief protagonist, a Job-like, American (white) "Everyman" named Mack Philips (played _quite excellently_ by Sam Worthington) IN THIS WAY.

God as "Divine Parent" answers Mack's question on this point (even Mack finds it rather odd ... his whole family "back home" had been calling God "Papa") telling Mack: "Based on what you've been going through lately, I don't believe appearing to you as "Father" now would be particularly helpful to you.  You're not ready for that yet."  

So what then has been happening to Mack?  Well, we do learn that he did grow-up with an abusive father.  However, more recently, he was mourning the truly TERRIBLE (and seemingly utterly RANDOM and RANDOMLY EVIL) loss of his youngest, cute as button, daughter named Missy (played again wonderfully in the story by Amélie Eve).

At the point in the story when Mack encounters God as the Trinity (Son played by Avraham Aviv Alush, Holy Spirit by Sumire Matsubara) IN THE SHACK where his beautiful 8-year-old girl HAD BEEN KIDNAPPED TO and MURDERED, a SHACK that's _transformed_ into a LUSH AND BEAUTIFUL PLACE (though it was Winter) by THE DIVINE PRESENCE, _all_ that Mack really wanted was REVENGE or, if not that, then at least Death (for himself).

God, appearing as a TRULY all-Loving MOTHER, _helps_ him get through the first steps of letting go of the ANGER / HATE and above all CRUSHING PAIN.

And I have to admit that I both sympathized at times and ADMIRED at other times, Octavia Spencer's playing of her Role (and then also ADMIRED the scriptwriters):

When She first appears to Mack, She tells him that She had "a special love for him."  Then in the course of the seemingly several days conversation Mack has with Her, as well as with both Jesus (the Son) and Divine Breath (Holy Spirit), She repeatedly says: "Oh, I have a special love for [this or that person ... including, amusingly, [random] singer Neil Young] ;-)."  Getting tired of hearing what seemed to be an increasingly tiring cliche', Mack asks her sarcastically: "Is there ANYONE that you DON'T HAVE 'a special love for.'"  And er times, Octavia Spencer (playing GOD here, remember...) smiles and answers ... "No."  YES, our (CREATOR) GOD WOULD HAVE _A SPECIAL LOVE_ for ... US ALL :-)

There's another scene where Divine Wisdom (again portrayed, unquestionably accurately here, as a woman played by Alice Braga) offers Mack the "Judgement Seat" and then gives him the challenge of sending one of his two remaining children, teenagers Kate (played by Megan Charpentier) and Josh (played by Gage Munroe), one to Heaven and ... the other to ... Hell.  Mack refuses, saying "I can't do that."  To which Divine Wisdom answers ... "Exactly.  When they're YOUR CHILDREN, ALL YOUR CHILDREN, it GETS VERY VERY (EVEN IMPOSSIBLY) HARD." 

Finally, there does come a point when God appears at Mack's door as Father (played by Native American actor Graham Greene), to whose appearance Mack replies "I was just getting used to seeing her you as a Mother," to which GOD ANSWERS: "We're going to go now on a hard Spiritual Journey (to finally make peace with what what happened to Mack's daughter), and here you're _going to need_ a Father."

Dear Readers, I am truly IN AWE of this story.  Yes, it challenges Viewers / Readers to look at God a little bit differently than perhaps we are used to.  On the other hand, the pay-off is great.   

I don't think I've heard a better explanation of why God would permit Evil than that prsent in the exchange between Divine Wisdom and Mack -- even someone as misguided, Evil as Hitler began life ... as a Child of God. 

And yes, there are times that we need a compassionate God to _cry with_ and other times a still compassionate God to _lean (and cry) on_.  And seeing God as, above all, a Divine Parent in whose image, male and female, we were created [Gen 1, 27], helps make this work.

A excellent, and if nothing else, thought-provoking work!

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