Saturday, February 24, 2018

Game Night [2018]

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

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

Game Night [2018] (codirected by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, screenplay by Mark Perez) is an amiably goofy comedy about a 30 something couple of (mostly old-school board) game fanatics -- Max (played by Justin Bateman) and Annie (played by Rachel McAdams) who literally met at a collage scrabble (or what-not) tournament and began to date after "becoming allies" one evening after playing Risk with friends. "Oh come on, Alliances never last" warned their friends ... Yet, they took their Alliance all the way to the Altar and 10 years later, seem to be as happy as ever, their weekly "Game Night" with friends being the cement of their relationship.

Okay the premise is rather corny and though the two love gaming, neither seems to "need to win."  Instead, they seem to "game" for literally for "the love of the game" (almost any game).  Moreover the circle of friends with which they game seems to be of the same spirit.  As such, though nerdy, the characters, even at their nerdiest -- and neighbor cop, still smarting over why his wife left him, Gary (played wonderfully by Jesse Plemons) is one heck of a slow-moving nerd -- remain fundamentally like-able. 

Their quaint if fundamentally happy existence is rattled, a bit, with the re-entry of Max's far cooler and apparently far more successful brother Brooks (played by Kyle Chandler).  Now, HE'S super competitive and so soon after he arrives HE invites Max, Annie and their group to HIS (much larger than Max/Annie's) house for the next "Game Night" where he promises to take their quaint weekly night of gaming "up a notch."

When they arrive, it appears that Brooks had set-up for them an "evening murder mystery" game, 'cept ... of course Brooks _isn't_ what he seems.  Yes, he has a lot of money, but it isn't because "he invested in Panera" really "early in the game."  Instead, he has apparently several groups of mobsters chasing after him.  SO ... this initially "friendly evening murder mystery game" begins to blend reality and fiction in ways that both take the story somewhere and ... at times gets confusing (how many groups of mobsters were after him, and why?). 

Still, as experienced gamers, it turns out that Max and Annie and friends become what Brooks really needs in this moment of crisis and confusion (even he might not have fully realized how many baddies were after him).

It all makes for a kinda fun, and generally harmless movie, though some of the jokes are definitely geared to an R-rated audience.  And so, it's not necessarily a bad film for a "date night," but leave the kids at home ;-)

A pretty job folks!  Pretty good job!

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Black Panther [2018]

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

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

Black Panther [2018] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Ryan Coogler along with Joe Robert Cole based on the Marvel comic by Stan Lee [wikip] [IMDb] and Jack Kirby [wikip] [IMDb]) premiered in Los Angeles at the annual 26th Annual Pan African Film Festival held at the Rave Cinemas in the Baldwin Hills.  Yes, it was a big deal.

The release of the film was a big deal because it is the first superhero film involving an Afrocentric story and cast.  Yes, the story fits into Marvel Comics' (Avengers) Universe [MC] [Wikip].   But it also stands on its own.

Set largely in a fictionalized kingdom called Wakanda [wikip] [MC] located "somewhere in the mountains of central Africa," a kingdom that was able to cloak its technological prowess (FAR MORE ADVANCED than the rest of the world) from the outside world thanks its sitting on an enormous deposit of "vibranium" a mineral brought to the mountains of Wakanda eons ago by a meteorite.

The mineral proved able to store and redirect energy, which made even ancient Wakandan battle axes and spears more effective than their rivals' weapons.  Over the centuries the Wakandans found all sorts of ways to take advantage of "vibranium's" properties, to build (and again, even _cloak_) their entire technologically advanced civilization based on the material.

The central question facing said Kingdom and especially its Royal Family was the degree that the Kingdom ought to engage with the outside world.

After all, Africa is supposed to be backward and poor.   Indeed recently our  (U.S.) President apparently declared the entire continent of Africa to be made-up of "s-hole" countries... Yet here, in Marvel Universe [MC] [Wikip] was a [fictionalized] country, Wakanda [wikip] [MC], that did not fit the image.

Now truth be told, Africa IS a continent that's ENORMOUSLY RICH in mineral wealth, from OIL to GOLD to DIAMONDS to VARIOUS METALS / SEMICONDUCTIVE SUBSTANCES that drive the world's reusable batteries and cell phones -- A good part of the reason for the nearly decade long conflict in the 1990s across the Democratic Republic of the Congo [wikip] [CIA Factbook] in Central Africa was PRECISELY ABOUT control of those deposits of SEMI-CONDUCTIVE SUBSTANCES present there.  Yet, of course, most Africans remain desperately poor.  Why?

Well, a good part is, of course, the legacy of the exploitation that occurred during the European Colonial Era.  Yet, there remains much more current problem of endemic corruption:

I remember about a decade ago attending a presentation "Bottom of the Barrel" at the annual Catholic Relief Services Conference in Washington D.C. about the oil wealth existing in central West Africa and being surprised to hear the CRS officials asking us to lean on multinational oil companies working in those countries to declare how much oil they were actually extracting in that region.  This was because OIL PRODUCTION STATISTICS WERE ACTUALLY BEING HELD AS _STATE SECRETS_ by VIRTUALLY ALL THE WEST CENTRAL AFRICAN COUNTRIES INVOLVED.  Why?  Well ... the governments of pretty much all of these countries DIDN'T THEIR OWN PEOPLES TO KNOW how much oil was being drilled AND SOLD / EXPORTED out of their countries.  Why?  Because their leaders were pocketing the ABSOLUTELY STUNNING PROFITS from these sales.

And Dear Readers, this is just one commodity -- Oil.  North Africa is sitting on lakes of Oil.  Central Africa has Copper, Chromium, Diamonds various rare semiconductive materials as well as Oil.  Southern Africa has GOLD, Diamonds (again) and Coal. 

So there _is_ an ENORMOUS AMOUNT OF MONEY BEING MADE in Africa, it's just that it's "hidden" (KEPT FROM) the vast majority of its people [Transparency Int'l] [CRS].

Well, in the story here, the fictional mountain kingdom of Wakanda [wikip] [MC], perhaps modeled after some of the more isolated African kingdoms like Lesotho [wikip] [Recent Film] in Southern Africa, untouched by colonization because it seemed just too remote and (unbeknownst to the Western Imperial Powers cloaked by a "vibranium" powered shield) appeared "just as poor" as the rest of Africa to bother with.  This allowed the Kingdom of Wakanda [wikip] [MC] keep its independence and continue its remarkable "vibranium driven" development path, respecting traditional African institutions (notably the Monarchy) free from Western interference.

To be sure, the Wakandians prudently sent both spies and diplomats to the West to learn how things were going in the outside world, but they were _very reluctant_ to share with outsiders as to how things operated at home.  Keeping the level of its technological prowess secret actually proved quite easy as most Westerners considered Wakanda to be "just another poor isolated African "s-hole" of a country ... AND ACTUALLY many Wakandians from the Royal Family on down WERE JUST FINE WITH THAT.  Western dismissive Racism actually kept the Wakandians safe.

Yet even as Wakanda [wikip] [MC] proved capable of keeping the level its technological development a secret ... its diplomats and spies had become keenly aware of the poverty, backwardness and sufferings of their African neighbors and kin.  What to do?

That becomes the central question of the film.  T'Challa who becomes "The Black Panther" King (played by Chadwick Boseman) after his father's death, initially wished to continue to keep the true capabilities of his Kingdom secret.  However, his cousin, M'Baku (played by Winston Duke), whose father had been one of those spies sent out by Wakanda [wikip] [MC] to better learn about the ways of the outside world returns to the Kingdom with the demand that Wakanda use its vibranium-based technological power TO HELP ARM / FREE their African (and African American) brothers and sisters suffering outside.

Also appalled by the way Africans and African Americans are treated, yet wanting to protect his own Kingdom, T'Challa has to "grow into the job" of being King quickly to chart a wise and sustainable course.

The rest of the story ensues ...

Now Dear Readers there are some great performances, often by women, in this film -- notably Leticia Wright's performance as Shuri, T'Challa's ever smiling technologically savy teenage younger sister, Danai Gurira who plays Okuye the head of a bad-A all African female "vibranium spear-wielding" Palace Guard, and Lupita Nyong'o who plays T'Challa's once and presumably future fiancee' Nakia, and as also a trained Wakandian spy, is no wilting flower either. 

Yet, I've chosen to focus my attention on here on the story's central question -- what should a good / wise African "with some means" DO in face of the sufferings of so many Africans and members of the African descended diaspora around the world? -- because it's a question that the Catholic Church has actually challenged Africa's political leaders with as well.  Some 25 years ago, in the aftermath of the Synod on Africa, some of Africa's political leaders (many of which remain in power to this day, or until recently ...) apparently asked then Nigerian Cardinal Arinze: "Do you want us all to become 'Saints'?"  To which he famously responded: "Yes, Africa needs a number of its Leaders to become Saints."

I've noted above that Africa is rich in all kinds of special and often extremely valuable minerals.  There should be a way that this mineral wealth could used to transform the destinies of the vast majority of Africa's people for the better rather than just make a very small number of people (both African and non) mind-bogglingly rich.

Africa does need strong leaders with superhuman wisdom and honesty.  Yes, (like all the world) it needs its Saints [1] [2] [3] [4].

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

The 15:17 to Paris [2018]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C-)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

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

The 15:17 to Paris [2018] (directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Dorothy Blyskal
.based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spenser Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern [Atlantic] [GR] [Amzn] [IMDb]) despite lackluster reviews (above) is thematically a quintessential Clint Eastwood directed movie (of this time):

For this is the story of three utterly average guys, Anthony SadlerAlek SkarlatosSpenser Stone in their early 20s, okay two of them were in the U.S. military, who knew each other since middle school (the three play themselves as adults, and Paul-Mikél Williams, Bryce Gheisar and William Jennings play them as tweens).  Near the end of a "reunion trip" of sorts -- Stone, a male nurse serving in the U.S. Air Force was stationed in Portugal, Skarlatos took some R&R near the end of his Oregon Army National Guard tour in Afghanistan and together they convinced Sadler, still in college, to "just get himself a credit card" and fly out to meet them in Italy -- while on the 15:17 train from Amsterdam to Paris on August 21, 2015, they found themselves suddenly present to nascent terrorist attack.

A young Moroccan man, Ayoub El Khazzani (played in the film by Ray Corasani), had entered one of the train's bathrooms with his suitcase, pulled-out the weapons / cartridges that he prepared, stepped-out of the bathroom and started shooting.  The first two passengers that he passed, tried to tackle him and one of them was shot / seriously wounded.  But then the three heroes in the film were present a little further down the first compartment that he had entered (and were actually sitting in the wrong part of the train -- they had "cheated," sneaking-up into 1st class to use the train's wifi ;-). THEY charged, tackled and disarmed him.  And Stone though himself somewhat wounded, since he was a nurse, was actually able to save the life of the passenger who first tried to tackle the assailant and had been shot by him.

It all made for A REMARKABLE STORY all the more so because the three really were utterly "regular people" who simply "stepped-up" BIG-TIME in a moment that they needed to.

Yes, a fair number of reviewers complained that the three's lives were perhaps _too average_, BUT THAT WAS CLEARLY Clint Eastwood's point.  These were three regular guys who did EXACTLY THE RIGHT THING in the moment when they were called to do so.

And then honestly, to me, IT DIDN'T HURT THAT THE THREE WERE CHRISTIAN (perhaps even Catholic -- as one of them, again A TOTALLY "REGULAR GUY," liked praying the Prayer of Saint Francis -- "Lord make me an Instrument of your Peace...")

I loved the movie, applaud Clint Eastwood's willingness to do it, and even in the way that he did it, with the three heroes simply playing themselves, and find the film's message VERY VERY NICE -- We all need to be prepared (and brave enough) to do the right thing at the right time when circumstances call us to "step up."

Excellent film / story!

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Friday, February 9, 2018

12 Strong [2018]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

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

12 Strong [2018] (directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, screenplay by Ted Tally and Peter Craig based on the book The Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Doug Stanton [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) tells the in good part truly remarkable story of a unit of U.S. Special Forces Green Berets, led by Capt. Mitch Nelson (played quite admirably by Chris Hemsworth) who were dropped into Afghanistan some six weeks after 9/11, to link up with a General Dostum (played in the film by Navid Negahban), the leader of one of the factions in Afghanistan's then quite tattered Northern Alliance.

Riding on horseback with said Afghan warriors, while repeatedly calling-in absolutely devastating B-52 airstrikes from the sky, they helped the previously tattered Northern Alliance army capture just IN THREE WEEKS a key Taliban supply choke-point that led to the Taliban regime's collapse in Afghanistan ONLY A FEW MONTHS LATER.

IT IS A REMARKABLE STORY _definitely_ deserving both a best-selling book / film.

But there are some "nagging issues" that _in fairness_ deserve to be mentioned here as well:

(1) We AMERICANS actually _don't_ have a monopoly on these kind of films.  In recent years, RUSSIA, POLAND and even INDIA (and these are just the countries / films that I know of) have made SIMILAR MOVIES involving true stories of individuals and/or units in legitimately "against all odds" situations who "came through for their countrymen-women" or "their country's honor."  These films include:

The Russian film Kandahar (2010)[]*, about the resourcefulness of the members of a Russian civilian flight crew after finding themselves taken hostage by the Taliban in Kandahar in 1995,

the Polish film Karbala [2015], about a Polish unit (as part of the "Coalition of the Willing") in Iraq that held off Sadr's Shiite Militia in that holy city during an uprising there in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, and

the Indian film Airlift (2016) [FiBt] [IMDb] about an initially cynical Indian expat businessman who found himself along with his family trapped in Iraq-occupied Kuwait and who organized the evacuation of some 170,000 of his countrymen-and-women from the country in the weeks just before the commensement of the Persian Gulf War; and

(2) While this film is about a unit of twelve U.S. Green Berets who were dropped into a hostile country where in all honestly, at least initially, they could not trust ANYBODY, what this seemingly "little band" of American soldiers did have is A SKY SEEMINGLY FULL OF B-52 BOMBERS that could be called-in at any time to _absolutely obliterate_ ANYTHING in front of them.

Well that's what we pay for with our Defense dollars.  And in the nearly two decades since 9/11 we've developed a fleet of drones that make even the small squads of human Green Berets largely obsolete.

And I do think that this is (largely) GREAT because it allows our troops to be deployed far more safely than otherwise.

Still to portray this story as an "against all odds" or even "fair fight" is NOT EXACTLY TRUE.  Indeed, there is a dimension to this movie that resembles the still early 1960s era British film Zulu (1964) [wikip] [IMDb] which was apparently made to commemorate the 85th Anniversary of "the stand" during the 1870s-80s "Zulu Wars" of 150 red coated British soldiers who ARMED WITH GATLING GUNS ... "fended off" (cut-down / massacred) hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of (to the British, utterly incomprehensible) spear-and-shield charging Zulu warriors (who were arguably just trying to KEEP THEIR LANDS THEIRS, FREE OF BRITISH IMPERIAL ENCROACHMENT / OCCUPATION).

Anyway, the current film is a compelling story of a squad of 12 American soldiers who (backed by THE WHOLE OF OUR NATION which has invested (probably rightly) so heavily in our Air Force that we literally OWN THE SKY) led a previously tattered rebel Afghan army to victory in a key battle over the Taliban.

IT IS A GREAT STORY, but as much as we'd like it to be, it's not exactly "David and Goliath."  Still I'm certain that the twelve soldiers involved (as well as families) certainly WOULD NOT CARE.  Those B-52s kept those twelve soldiers, OUR twelve soldiers, on task and ... alive.

Good / great job!

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Saturday, February 3, 2018

Have a Nice Day (orig. Hao ji Le) [2017]

MPAA (UR would be R) (4 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (S. Abrams) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Have a Nice Day (orig. Hao ji Le) [2017] (written and directed by Jian Liu) is a fun / irreverent Quentin Tarantino-ish CHINESE INDIE (!) animated film, that "displeased" the censoring authorities in China (it was banned there ;-).

To understand the achievement of this film, think honestly of Quentin Tarantino deciding to set Pulp Fiction [1994] in China's equivalent of (though more prolitarianish) South Park [1997-].  And from this perch of a random Chinese industrial town in the middle of nowhere, the writer / director skewers absolutely everyone / everything, from capitalists to communists to even simple random small-town consumerists.

This is because film is setup with a rather desperate robbery: a construction worker Xiao Zhang (voiced by Zhu Changlong) who also serves as a driver for a local crime boss "Uncle Liu" (voiced by Siming Yang) decides one day to steal a bag filled with money from said crime boss' "bag man."  Why?  He _needs_ (or "needs") money to send his girlfriend all the way to South Korea repair the results of botched, presumably locally-performed, cosmetic surgery...

The robbery sets of in motion the rest of the film as "Uncle Liu," clearly unhappy / "disappointed" sends out his men, notably a normally quite efficient old-time enforcer named "Thin Skin' (voiced by Xiofang Ma) to recover the money.  However, with it becoming known through the grape-vine that "there's a large bag filled with money" out on the streets, all kinds of people, INCLUDING some arguably RELATIVES of poor Xioa Zhang, come out of the woodwork to try to get a hold of that "bag of cash" as well.

In the midst of this all kinds of other smaller "dramas" playout -- two other enforcers for "Uncle Liu" discuss religion: "Tell me, who's bigger? God or the Buddha?"  "I don't know, I'd imagine that they're both BAD-A Dudes."  "Yes, but I want to follow the bigger one." ;-)

Then poor "Thin Skin" on THIS particular day, EVERY TIME, he's about _whack somebody_, gets interrupted by his cell phone: "No I'm NOT interested in any Shanghai investment opportunities _right now_ ..." ;-)

A particular joy is an utterly random Big Lebowski [1998]-like detour / music video which envisions two of the film's characters (the girl is actually related to Xiao Zhang) suddenly being thrown into a EuroVision-like song contest, with the random music video SPECTACULARLY conflating BOLLYWOOD DRAMA / SOUND, still 1950s-60s (Mao era) SOCIALIST-REALIST ICONOGRAPHY with DC / MARVEL COMICS (as well as some traditional Chinese Buddhist / Imperial) IMAGERY thrown in as well.

 That video is a JAW DROPPING experience and about as gleefully "South Park-ish" as it gets.  It alone probably killed (indeed gleefully SELF-IMMOLATED) the film's chances with China's censors ;-).

Anyway, while certainly violent and often gleefully irreverent, hence not for everyone, I LOVED THE FILM, AND ITS MERE EXISTENCE.  For this film reminds us of THE VALUE OF FREEDOM.  Sure the film is often "stupid" but it's a "stupidity" that's often knowing and pointed. And the "powers that be" -- ALL "POWERS THAT BE" -- ought to be BIG ENOUGH to either answer _directly_ the film-makers' challenges (rather than try to "ban" the film, as China's authorities apparently have) or simply laugh along as well saying: "You know, it's a bit more complicated than you portray, but we get your point ..."

GREAT FILM! (if again, NOT for kids and many adults will probably find offence in the film as well ;-).

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