Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Shape of Water [2017]

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

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

The Shape of Water [2017] (directed, story and screenplay cowritten by Guillermo del Toro along with Vanessa Taylor), largely set in a top-secret American Cold War era lab in the 1950s needs to be understood in the context of Guillermo del Toro's similarly magical-realist and similarly visceral Pan's Labyrinth [2006].  If Pan was an clear, utterly unambiguous condemnation of Spain's Franco era, the current film is a similarly utterly unambiguous rejection of the "Make America Great Again" mythology of the current Trump Administration.   For most of us understand this past era of "American Greatness" to be the United States of the 1950s, and here the Mexican-born director insists, indeed DEMANDS, that Viewers take A LONG LOOK at that era and ask themselves honestly: What exactly made THAT ERA "great?"

For in this film, a remarkable and sentient "Frog Man" brought to this "top secret American lab" (from apparently "the Amazon") IN AN INDUSTRIAL WATER TANK AND IN _CHAINS_ was being "studied" (tortured!) by utterly and intellectually LAZY "military scientists" (played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Shannon) shielded from any kind of scrutiny by multiple-layers of "classified secrecy."

The ONLY ONES besides these "military scientists" (and, interestingly "the Soviets") who knew that this creature even existed were the "serving staff" (cleaning ladies) that is "people who didn't matter" including African American Zelda Fuller (played by Octavia Spenser) and a deaf-mute woman named Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins).  And in the "logic of the Cold War" the ONLY THING that seemed to matter was to "protect" knowledge of discovery of this (being TORTURED) "frogman" from "The Soviets" (who of course knew all about it and were busy plotting ways TO SIMPLY KILL THE "FROG MAN" so as to deprive the Americans of "their prize").

Wow, what a "Great Era?"  And lest there be any doubt of the writer / director's intention to DRIVE A STAKE INTO THE HEART OF THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS "NOSTALGIC MEMORY" OF THAT ERA, there's a scene in a diner in which one of those torturing "military scientists," himself a tortured closeted gay man, tries to "pick-up" one of the serving hands at said diner, only to be horrifically rejected (the male-waiter responds _hysterically_ to the gay, tortured scientist's advance) BUT NOT BEFORE the waiter CHASES OUT A NICE. WELL-DRESSED AFRICAN AMERICAN MARRIED COUPLE THAT HAD THE AUDACITY OF WANTING TO SIT AT DINER'S COUNTER.  "All the seats are reserved," the waiter yells at them (the place except for the tortured gay, military scientist, getting-up the courage to hit-on said waiter, WAS EMPTY).  "Well, for when can we get a reservation?" the couple asks.  "I don't know, for you, I'd probably say ... never."


Now, the film Mud Bound [2017], canvases similar ground and also, by the end, quite unforgettably.  I suppose the question that potential Viewers of the current film ought to ask themselves before attending it would be: Will the 1950s-era Sci-Fi-ish aesthetics of the current film be "distracting" to you?  Arguably, the film is a contempoary retelling of The Creature From the Black Lagoon [1954].  If the potential Viewer who wouldn't mind the somewhat corny aesthetics (and the hammer-over-the-head thematics), chances are that the potential Viewer would very much like the film.  If not, then ...

In any case, this is a well-thought-out and brilliantly executed "magical realist" / "scify-ish" fable.  It's not for everyone, but few could really accuse it of being "dumb."  And it's certainly one of the most compelling films of the year.

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The Road Movie [2016]

MPAA (UR would be R)  RogerEbert.com (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing

Los Angeles Times (R. Abele) review
New York Times (T. Bugbee) review
RogerEbert.com (V. Murthi) review

The Road Movie [2016] (directed by Dmitrii Kalashnikov) is a guilty pleasure of a movie (though also informative in its own way).  A documentary made entirely from Russian dashcam video clips, the film quite literally becomes a "window to a world" that most Viewers, certainly from the West, would not particularly know.  The "limits of the genre" (dashcam videos)  and subgenre (dashcam videos that generally younger youtube / "vkontakte" ... "OMG that really happened (to us)..." savy Russians" would find compelling) necessarily present a Russia of mayhem ("OMG, these people are crazy...") BUT also a Russia that most of us here would not know ("OMG, THERE IS a LOT OF SNOW in Russia" ;-) // "OMG, I didn't fully appreciate / realize that Russia today, like any other modern country, would have a lot of cars / roads even out in the countryside."  Honestly, these last two points, I did not really appreciate until seeing this film).

So I have to say that this movie, in as much as one could catch it at an "art-house cinema" somewhere in the West, or later, on DVD / streaming video on Amazon / Netflix , perhaps Vimeo, etc, is worth the trouble of seeing.  This is because Russia, as important a country that it is in the world, remains quite inaccessible.  The Russian movies that do make it to Western theaters are often limited in theme, generally ponderous Epics or perhaps like this one of a sullen, "Road Warrior" bent. 

There's of course a much larger Russian film industry than that which makes films portraying Russians as sad / depressed "Ana Karenina"-like victims or as "tough, even frightening people (Stalingrad survivors and children / grandchildren of Stalingrad survivors) who one would NOT want to mess with."  But those films -- including Russian comedies [1] [2], RomComs, Twilight Saga-like YA romances [1] [2], and tech-savy YA adventure stories -- are often hard to find... in the West.  For a couple of years, I tried offering an annual "Russian Film Tour" on my blog, offering Readers here an opportunity to see more of Russia than the scary and or depressed.  But this year, it proved hard to find subtitle files (even to machine translate into English) for such films. 

I FIND THIS UNFORTUNATE because while I do understand that Putin's Regime MAY FEEL that the West has fundamentally underestimated / dismissed Russia as "backward" and therefore MAY FEEL that "if we can't be LOVED, then let us at least be FEARED" (hence the Russian-end promotion into the West of their more PONDEROUS and often FEARSOME films). 

However, I do honestly believe that taking the other tack -- presenting Russians as REGULAR PEOPLE who LOVE, ARE FUNNY, PLAY VIDEO GAMES -- would be better for all concerned and, honestly, support the cause of World Peace.  For honestly, if Russians are portrayed simply as "stalkers of ghostly Tiger Tanks" or survivors of "a REAL (WW II-era) Hunger Games," then this just SCARES PEOPLE and makes them _less likely_ to want to interact with Russians in a positive way.  I think it'd be much better to encourage people to remember that Russians (like ALL PEOPLE) have ... MOMS who love them like our moms love us. 

Anyway, I quite enjoyed the current film, entirely composed of clips from Russian dashcam videos.  I just wish we could see MUCH MORE OF RUSSIA than just these quite limited clips.

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.

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Monday, January 29, 2018

Maze Runner: The Death Cure [2018]

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

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

Note: This Review DOES CONTAIN SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS but only because, honestly, there's little way else to talk about the way this film / series ends and, perhaps, more importantly WHY it ends in the way that it does.  (It's actually quite interesting, IMHO ...)

Maze Runner: The Death Cure [2018] (directed by Wes Ball screenplay by T.S. Nowlin based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by James Dashner [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is the final cinematic installment of the dystopian teen-oriented Maze Runner [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] series, the previous cinematic installments The Maze Runner [2014] and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials [2015] having been released in years previous.

Die hard / devoted fans of the book series and even the previous movies will probably be happy that the see that this series was able to come to a cinematic conclusion even if it appears that with the Divergent series' flame-out (after the disappointing reviews / box office numbers of the third installment of that series, the fourth film in that series remains yet to be made) Hollywood is apparently becoming more skittish in green-lighting these special-effects heavy and thematically surprising ("teenage apocalypse...") projects.

It appears that with the completion of the Hunger Games cycle (and honestly, _that_ became a slog...), our teens (and indeed the world's teens) have "moved on."  Yes, the Marvel Comics based films continue to do well, but then THOSE FILMS TEND TO BE _HAPPIER_.

To the current franchise / story ...

In the second installment, we came to understand better _why_ the society portrayed in The Maze Runner would have resorted to putting seemingly _random_ teenagers into a bizarre "Maze" (to either figure-out how to get out of said maze, or ... eventually, in one way or another ... DIE): The society resorting to this was desperately messed-up, trying to fight-off a truly civilization threatening ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE (!) ;-).  I suppose if a civilization was truly facing a "Zombie Apocalypse," it would come up with ALL KINDS OF BIZARRE IDEAS as to "how to combat it" ... including putting _random teenagers_ INTO A GIANT MAZE in hopes that SOMEHOW _they_ would "come up with something that _could_ help." ;-)

Still, once one drops the Z-bomb ... where else can one really go?   So the first half of the current film could be described as Zombieland [2009] meets Mad Max: Fury Road [2015] with an extended desert car / train chase scene that ultimately ... doesn't make a whole lot of sense, BUT ... looks "really, really cool." ;-)

Then the second half of the film involves an extended Zombies (here called "Cranks") breaching the Walls of a still modern and previously "protected" city, perhaps recalling the final Ceaucescu / Stalingrad-ish climax of the Hunger Games [2015].  'Cept the battle here seemed to have no purpose except result in the inevitable deaths of some of the series' Evil-doers.

The "cure" for Zombie-ism, as far as I could see (so this MAY be a spoiler or MAY NOT be ... ;-) turns out to be about as random as the "Maze solution" that had been proposed by some of those evil doctors who die in that final battle.

So I suppose I can report that "all ends well" at the end here.  But honestly, most viewers will probably leave wondering: WHY (did it end well)?

But THAT may have been the film-makers' / story-tellers' POINT HERE:  Sometimes TERRIBLE THINGS HAPPEN, not just to people but even to entire civilizations, and ... then ... those terrible things ... JUST STOP and ... Life can go on again.

So is this a happy ending?  Maybe, sort of, but ... I certainly left wondering ... Why?  Why did ANY OF THE STORY TAKE PLACE?  How did the plague start and why did it apparently ... stop?  BUT AGAIN, that seems to be the point being made.  Sometimes ... we just don't know.

Bummer.  Maybe ;-).  But THANKFULLY ... it's all over ;-).

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Monday, January 22, 2018

Forever My Girl [2018]

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

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

Forever My Girl [2018] (written and directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Heidi McLaughlin [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is this year's entree for another January staple -- a Southern / Country set, generally 20-something oriented romantic drama.  In recent years, adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels tended to fill this slot [1] [2] [3] [4].  Since these films tend to be "chick flicks," notable / laudable here is that this year's entree was written, adapted and directed by women.  Regular Readers of my blog would ALSO be happy to learn that Christianity has a significant and positive presence in the story and that a key supporting figure in the story is a clergyman who has to struggle with (and rises to) the challenge of forgiving / reconciling with a (son) who had previously objectively disappointed him. 

The story begins with sweet, beautiful, small-town (one would guess, former "homecoming queen") Josie (played by Jessica Rothe) finding herself stood-up at what should have been a, HER, dream wedding.  WT ... unforgivable?   Exactly ...

What happened?  Well... that's a good part of the story.  Did someone like Josie DESERVE to have this "happen to her?"  ALMOST CERTAINLY NOT.  But there it is, IT HAPPENED.  What now?

Indeed, what about ... eight years later?  That's when the story recommences ... with ... us discovering that Josie's dirty no good rotten beau had become an incredibly popular Country Western star named Liam Page (played by Alex Roe).  EVERYBODY LOVED HIM.  EVERYBODY KNEW HIS SONGS.  STILL ... deep down, even he knew that he had radically disappointed EVERYONE who had been important to him before: yes Josie, but also his dad (the above mentioned Pastor played by John Benjamin Hickey) and his childhood/hometown friends. 

Indeed, it was when by sheer "luck" that he happened to be playing in New Orleans, near his home town, finding out while watching the local news that his old best friend, the one who would have been his best man, had died in a tragic accident.  He decides to go home (for the first time in eight years) for the funeral. 

When he arrives, he finds that in his own hometown, unlike just about everywhere else, his name is mud.  Nobody seems to care that she's a country superstar.  They just remember what he did to Josie, his dad, and really to all of his childhood friends. 

Somewhat surprised, he finds that he has to eat some crow ...  But how much crow?   The rest of the story about a modern-day Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11ff) follows ...

I confess, I loved the movie.  I'm already generally a sap for these kind of Southern small town stories, but I _ALSO_ LOVED THE UNAPOLOGETIC CHRISTIAN MESSAGING IN IT.

Yes, Liam had been a real D--K.   But did it _need_ to be "all over" for him?  To many in the "post Christian" faction of our country, it would be.  To many today it seems there is no Sin in this world, but also NO FORGIVENESS>

Here, this was a largely believing community.  It was absolutely clear as day to them that Liam had hurt an awful lot of people.  ON THE OTHER HAND ... if perhaps initially _clueless_, he made amends ... they were not going to hold grudges.

Fascinating and POSITIVE.  Excellent job!

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Friday, January 19, 2018

The Commuter [2018]

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

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

The Commuter [2018] (directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, screenplay by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle), a Liam Neeson / "Taken" [1] [2] -like vehicle, is a "January movie" that, thankfully, delivers what most familiar with the genre would expect:

In the current version of this nightmare, Neeson plays lowly Michael MacCauley, once an NYPD cop (gotta get the needed skills from somewhere...), more recently a Westchester County (suburban) living "life insurance salesman" who commuted each day to work back to NYC.

Well on the random day during which the plot plays out, he, approaching sixty is summarily laid-off by a arrogant, bean-counting boss because (and what _every_ sixty-year-old American fears ...) ... he can.  MacCauley has a family, a son about to go to college, of course.  Don't matter.  At least the Ancient Greeks would leave one with a cup of hemlock tea to "contemplate one's options."

MacCauley stops by the old precinct to visit his former (and younger) partner (played by Patrick Wilson).  A little troubled / sad, he, of course, does not want to make the folks at precinct feel sorry for him.  He's assured that "life in the NYPD isn't what it used to be either" and "cheer-up, something may come up..."

Well ... something does...

Sitting down, to take his (last, for at least a while) daily commute home, a mysterious woman (played by Vera Farmiga) sits down next to him, and offers him a "simple job" that probably in a different state of mind, he might have had far more questions about: She asks him to, since he appeared to be "a regular commuter" to identify a person "who does not belong" and to surreptiously plant a small gps device on that person.  That's all.  Oh yes, and if he did so, he'd get $100,000, $25K of which was hidden in their car's bathroom, to prove to him that she was serious.  He says, "he'd think about it."  Stepping off the train, she tells him that he has 1 stop to think about it.  He takes that stop to go to the bathroom and finds the small package with $25K in $100s waiting for him.

Okay, now he's "in" but ... he hasn't even asked a most important question here: "Why would ANYONE pay a stranger to 'find someone' for $100K?"  This can't be good.  Of course, it isn't.  And, well ... anyone (or group) willing to hand someone $25K just to tease that person into doing something, is PROBABLY going to want (and be able to) to _insist_ that "the job get done" ...

The rest of the movie ensues ...

Dear Readers ... if the plot seems "a little far fetched" well ... OF COURSE IT IS ;-).  And yes, Liam Neeson has stepped into this role of "every man" yet ALSO "super man" over and over again.  But JUST LIKE A RECURRING NIGHTMARE ... the story works.

Sometimes, when we're _already quite down_ we get ourselves _sucked into nightmares_ even deeper than we dare imagine.  But then, we often find that we do have the skills to find / fight our way out...

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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Phantom Thread [2017]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB ()  RogerEbert.com (4 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

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

Phantom Thread [2017] (written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) though set presumably in the post-WW II late-1940s to early-1950s seems almost an allegory for our own times.  Indeed one _could_ imagine the film to be a strange (and strangely _sad_) retelling of the (one would have hoped _dated_) 18th Century "comedy" She Stoops to Conquer.

At center of the story is Reynolds Woodcock (played quite magnificently if irritatingly by Daniel Day-Lewis) an odd / repressed dress-designer to the English upper-crust of the time.  Perhaps today he would be out as gay, perhaps he'd simply remain "odd" (but rich / connected enough to be "accepted" as "odd").  Perhaps because he was gay (and, it being the late 1940s-1950s in Britain it was actually still illegal (!) to be gay), he _takes_ a vaguely East European (perhaps Jewish perhaps "merely Slavic") waitress (Alma, played again quite wonderfully by Vicky Krieps) he meets at a cliff-side restaurant near Dover as certainly his "muse" and perhaps as someone who'd appear around him enough to make it plausible that she'd be his lover. 

Wonderful.  A _certainly strange_ and possibly gay Anglo stringing along, no, practically _owning_ a young Slavic woman (she _should be so happy_ ...) seems almost an image of ... WELL GUESS ;-/.

The movie would be simply awful if good ole Alma was completely defenseless.  Instead, she "finds a way..." to make this seemingly dismally unequal relationship "work".

Sigh ... I hope this cultural nightmare that we're passing through (again...) will come to an end soon.

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

All the Money in the World [2017]

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

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

All the Money in the World [2017] (directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by David Scarpa based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by John Pearson [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) will probably be most remembered for the truly remarkable cinematic / technological feat in which director Ridley Scott and his editors _completely removed_ actor Kevin Spacey, who had been cast and played the role of J. Paul Getty [wikip] [IMDb] in the film (one of the film's principal figures) from the already finished (though yet unreleased) product, replacing him with Christopher Plummer.  It's seamless.  One would never guess that Christopher Plummer was not originally playing the role.

Okay then, how about the film?  Well, one could say that in this era of the super-rich (re)ascendant this is this year's addition to last year's Warren Beatty starring Howard Hughes biopic Rules Don't Apply [2016].   Indeed, in an initial voice-over has J. Paul Getty's grandson, J.P. Getty III (played in the film by Charlie Plummer) introducing us to his family's unimaginably wealthy life style he ends: "We walk in this world with you, but we're _not_ like you." 

By the tone of voice, it was clear that the character (again, then still late teenage J.P. Getty III) living then in Rome, Italy with his mother Jane Harris (played by Michelle Williams) did not mean this in a hostile or dismissive way.  Instead, he just meant this to be a statement of fact.  Why?  Well he explains sometime later: His grandfather, octogenarian J. Paul Getty was then "_not merely_ the richest man in the world.  Instead, he was _the richest man in the history of the world_."  Indeed, in a later scene, J. Paul Getty is shown showing his grandson ruins of one of the baths of ancient Rome and explaining that he truly believed that he himself was the reincarnation of one of the Roman Emperors.  Certainly no one outside of an Emperor could have possibly lived the life-style of the J. Paul Getty at the time. 

Well, but that kind of money did, in fact, make the members of the Getty family targets, and five minutes into the film, after explaining to us the Gettys' position in this world through his voice over, J.P. Getty III is kidnapped, right there, after flirting with some "little people" (a number or quite random Roman prostitutes) near the edge of Rome.  The rest of the story unfolds from there ...

Among that which unfolds is, of course, the whole question of what money can and can not buy.  Here was the richest man in history of the world, and _one_ of _his grandchildren_ was kidnapped.  And the reason why he was kidnapped was, of course, because he was "a Getty."  If he was just a random Joe, then there'd be no "benefit" to kidnapping him.  Then J. Paul Getty had other grandchildren.  If he paid ransom _for one grandchild_ would he put _the others_ indeed his whole family in further danger?  Then J.P. Getty III was actually a child of divorce.  His mother had actually divorced out of the family.  Was the kidnapping even legit?  Or was it some sort of a scam by either a "spoiled teenager" or "vindictive ex-daughter-in-law" to "get at his money."  Again, if the Gettys weren't _so insanely rich_ ... no one would care about them (or try to rip them off ...).

Anyway, it all makes for a quite interesting movie about "the difficulties of being super-rich" and perhaps like last year's Rules Don't Apply [2016] a "story for our times."

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