Friday, August 31, 2018

Operation Finale [2018]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review

Jerusalem Post (A. Spiro) article background / coverage

Operation Finale [2018] (directed by Chris Weitz, screenplay by Matthew Orton) is a historical drama that tries to tell the story of Israel's intelligence service Mossad's 1960 capture and then transporting of Adolf Eichmann [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the film by Ben Kingsley) from literally "off the street" to a safe house and eventually to Israel for trial.

It's a spectacular story, arguably one of Mossad's finest hours.  A full length historical drama such as this released across the world will reach countless people that "a good book" or even "a excellent documentary" would not.  So there's certainly a great deal of value in the project.  It's just the "good book" / "sober, just the facts, documentary" would probably do _this story_ more justice than a drama always in danger of falling into "Hollywood cliché."

And at least on two counts, IMHO this film does fall into cliché:

(1) After capturing Eichmann literally "off the street" at the outskirts of Buenas Aires, literally half the film is spent on the somewhat absurd _device_ of getting Eichmann (tied up there in a safe house) "to sign."  Sign what?  Literally a paper saying that he was going from Argentina of his own free will to Israel for trial.

According to the film, apparently, Israel's STATE OPERATED airline El Al, was insistent on this technicality fearing repercussions for involving itself otherwise with an abduction.  STILL ... (!%!&) ... THEY HAD EICHMANN the Architect of the Holocaust perhaps the highest ranking Nazi to have eluded death or capture after the War.  And now MOSSAD (the Israelis) HAD HIM.  It just seems absurd to believe that ANYONE in Israel's shoes WOULD HAVE GIVEN A DAMN about this ridiculous triviality.  THEY HAD THE GUY WHO MURDERED SIX MILLION FELLOW JEWS.  And whether "he signed" or not, there's no freaking way that MOSSAD was going to leave him in Argentina after going through the huge trouble of capturing him.

(2) The decision then to spend so much of the film's time on the (at the end of the day rather trivial) plot point of "getting Eichmann to sign" reduced the film to essentially Ben Kingsley playing Adolf Eichmann as Hannibal Lector of The Silence of the Lambs [1991].   Yes, the real-life Adolf Eichmann was EASILY as creepy and EVIL as the fictional Hannibal Lector, but ...

That said, if this film gets people to go to the library or to Amazon to buy a good book on Mossad's capture of Eichmann or to watch a good documentary on it, then this would be great and the film would have fulfilled its purpose.

So while this film doesn't score particularly high in "technical merit" --  I honestly wish that the writers of the Bourne films and/or the last several Mission Impossible films had been chosen to work this story up -- I still have to give the story high marks for the subject itself.  I think it's incredibly important that the world know that Justice was done here.  Mossad here, really did "get its man."

As such, not a bad film all around, still could have been a lot better.

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BlacKkKlansman [2018]

MPAA (R)  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 (A.A. Dowd) review

BlacKkKlansman [2018] (directed and, screenplay cowritten by Spike Lee along with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Ron Stallworth [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is in the tradition of writer/director Spike Lee's other films, indeed his whole career, a "different kind of film" from mainstream Hollywood fare.

That characterization may in itself discourage many potential viewers from going to see the film.  "What do you mean different?"  "Why should I be challenged or disturbed in any way when I go to the movies?"  Well, there are others of us who don't mind being challenged and _appreciate_ well articulated perspectives coming from another from others, other people, with whom we share this world, perspectives that we could not possibly know, or understand as well, if we did not hear them from those who've lived them.

Now yes, this film is about certainly, the at least in part _amusing_ story of how Ron Stallworth (played in the film by John David Washington) the FIRST African American member of random midsized American city Colorado Springs, CO's police department (its "Jackie Robinson" as he was called) got involved in, indeed initiated, an investigation into the local Ku Klux Klan.

But the film is above all about appreciating the fundamental oddity and PAIN of Ron Stallworth's position.  YES HE WAS CSPD's "Jackie Robinson."   Yes, most of us know who Jackie Robinson was, who Rosa Parks was, who Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was.  But here was simply Ron Stallworth, a random African American guy who, again, lived in an utterly random midsized American city of the 1970s, who like many other cops of all colors and ethnicities had decided that the best way for him to do his part in this world was to serve as a law enforcement officer.  Yet here was an utterly random guy who ALSO found himself to be "the Jackie Robinson" of his world.

And it wasn't easy.  First, the other officers in CSPD didn't necessarily know initially what to do with him, and yes, SOME couldn't get past his skin color (while to Spike Lee's consistent credit throughout his whole career, he makes sure that Viewers know that OTHERS did).  AND members of his own African American  milieu didn't necessarily see him always as "one of them" either.   Ron Stallworth _became_ very useful to CSPD, because he would discreetly attend / monitor functions of local Colorado State University's Black Student Union: "Hey, are you a spy?"  Well partly yes, but also in good part no.  It's honestly better for society (and law enforcement) know what's going on in smaller groups before things get out of hand.

And it is Ron Stallworth who comes across a surprisingly deep involvement of the KKK way out there in the "sleepy Colorado plains."

So this is really an excellent film and allows ALL its viewers to enter into the world of Ron Stallworth and ask the questions: "Why did this man have to become 'a Jackie Robinson' at all? Why could he have not been seen as 'good enough' from the get go?"

Finally, this film is a very strong reminder to all of us why calls for "Making America great again" are so hated and feared by this country's communities of color.  To an African American, America WASN'T "great" when his/her ancestors came to this country _in chains_.  And it WASN'T GREAT when for even 100 years after the nominal end of slavery, African Americans could stand to be lynched at the whim of a white population intent on keeping people of color "in their place."

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Friday, August 24, 2018

The Spy Who Dumped Me [2018]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review

The Spy Who Dumped Me [2018] (directed and cowritten by Susanna Fogel along with David Iserson) is a fun if at times trashy "spy chick flick."  Directed, cowritten and principally starring women, it makes for a joyful "turn about" to the generally "women as eye-candy" or "ice cold bad-A" conventions of the genre. 

Random / average NY 30-something Audrey (played by Mila Kunis) begins the film absolutely furious because her suddenly strangely absent boyfriend Drew (played by Justin Theroux) appeared to dump her by text.  Turns out he's absent because he's a spy, turns out he dumped her because he wants to keep her out what he's gotten himself involved in -- searching for a tiny flash drive that contains all kinds of super important / super nefarious information on it, that half the world's spies are looking for.  Well, like it or not, Audrey finds herself sucked into this intrigue anyway when she finds herself abducted, straight off of a NY street) for a while by an MI-6 agent named Sebastian (played by Sam Heughan) doing so, again, "to protect her." 

Protect her from what?  Well Audrey and her BFF Morgan (played wonderfully in her bouncing off the walls / "I have nothing but caffeine in my veins" utterly unpredictable manner by Kate McKinnon) decide to go to Europe to find this flash drive that everybody is looking for (and some think that she somehow has already anyway).

And the rest of the story unspools from there ... 

Part of the joy of the movie for me was that the movie plays out across Europe, pretty much ALL OF EUROPE and so (I thank Ukrainian descended Mila Kunis or Kunišová for this) Eastern Europe -- Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech Republic is not given the short shrift.  Yes, we get to see an amusing scene with Audrey and Morgan trying to figure out how to pronounce where all the trains nominally departing a Viennese train station are going to -- but just try to pronounce a random Hungarian place name, or for that matter a Czech one (if you don't know how to do it ;-).

But then there are some real gems here.  The part of the film that plays out in the Prague is introduced WITH AN AUTHENTIC 1960s CZECH COVER of the Nancy Sinatra song "These Boots are Made for Walking" (the Czech cover was called "Boty proti Lásce" or "Boots against Love" basically the same idea ...).  Again THANKS MILA!!  This was part of the reason why Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviets in 1968: the whole culture was taking its cues from the West rather than from the East. 

Anyway, the story trots across back and forth across the whole of continental Europe and Audrey / Morgan, though entering this world / "spy game" as neophytes at the beginning quickly learn, and improvising (having their own networks of friends and families, as well as skills that "regular spies" would never have thought of) soon hold their own.  Indeed, there's a "fight scene" in a staid Viennese cafe where by the end, these two women will have used every implement / instrument in that whole cafe _as a weapon_  It's brilliant and funny ;-).

So overall, while at time raunchy (the R-rating is probably deserved) it makes for a fun woman/girl-centric spy-buddy movie.  Good job!

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Crazy Rich Asians [2018]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (M. Castillo) review
AVClub (C. Siede) review

Crazy Rich Asians [2018] (directed by Jon M. Chu, screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Kevin Kwan [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a fun all Asian cast romantic comedy that tells a story that anyone who's attended a major university in the United States in the last generation or two (or, heck, gone to see even _one_ true "Bollywood" movie in one's lifetime) would know -- there ARE plenty of _crazy rich Asians_ in this world.

Sure, there are also plenty of poor Asians as well (as there are poor North Americans / Latin Americans, Africans, etc).  But one of the joys of this movie has been that it's A NORTH AMERICAN MOVIE about ASIA that _doesn't_ focus on "Calcutta" or "the mean streets" of Manila, Shanghai, Tokyo or Hong Kong).  This film unabashedly declares -- hey, a lot of us Asians today do actually have _a lot_ of money.

Now we Christians aren't supposed to be focused so much on money.  On the other hand, if Western Christians continue to pretend that "the only people with money are North Americans or Europeans" then we simply choose to walk away from reality.

Indeed, the film begins with a fascinating quote attributed to Napoleon: "Let China sleep, because when she wakes up, she'll roar" and then after a bitingly funny first scene that sets up the story, the opening credits roll to a great (and absolutely true to contemporary global culture) Chinese cover of the Barrett Strong song "Money, that's what I want" ;-).

To the film ... Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu) a young, clever first generation American / NYU economics professor is invited by her economist approaching two years boyfriend Nick Young (played by Henry Golding) to attend his best friend's wedding "back in Singapore."  Her first guess of what she's in for is when the two board the plane and instead of finding their seats (where the rest of us would sit) "somewhere back in coach" they're escorted to a first class suite that most of us would only have heard rumors about (but do exist on ... mostly Asian airlines).  "Sooo, you're rich ...?" "We're comfortable." "THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT SUPER RICH PEOPLE WOULD SAY."  

And the rest of the story unspools from there... ;-)

The display of wealth (and competence, every member of Nick's family seems to be running something major / big) could perhaps begin to get irritating after a while ... But what then to say of all those, indeed _generations_ of "Jane Austen" inspired movies?

So, recognizing certainly that there are hundreds of millions, arguably BILLIONS of people living in poverty in Asia, why not remind ourselves that there are also millions, tens of millions of Asians who are "quite wealthy thank you" indeed, "SUPER wealthy, thank you" as well.  Otherwise we'd remain with a 19th Century "Rule Britannia" mindset that's simply no longer true ...

Now if we could ALL learn to share ...

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Papillon [2018]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB () (2 Stars)  AVClub ()  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (M. Rechtshaffen) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub () review

Papillon [2018] (directed by Michael Noer, screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski based on 1973 screenplay [wikip] [IMDb] by Dalton Trumbo [2015 film] [wikip] [IMDb] and Lorenzo Semple, Jr based on the books Papillon [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] and Banco [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Henri Charrière [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is another remake, here of an already dark (if largely true) French "Devil's Island" prison tale, that no one was really clamoring for.

I suppose prison and prison break-out films, probably the best of which in the United States in my lifetime was the Stephen King based film The Shawshank Redemption [1994], like other "genre films" speak to us on a deeper subconscious level.  If we feel trapped, in need of breaking free from something, but to do so would be very "complicated," then I suspect these kind of stories would be appealing.  And if we feel that we live in a time that feels more oppressive than others that we've lived through, then the metaphor of "Prison" and its attendant "Darkness" would again "speak to us" in a way that in happier times it would not.

And this film as well as its 1973 antecedent is _plenty dark_.   The current film begins by reminding us that its chief protagonist Henri 'PapillonCharrière (played in the current film by Charlie Hunnam) was no saint.  Indeed, he was safe-cracking hoodlum tied-up in the Paris underworld of the early 1930s. 

But like perhaps the Marvel Comics "Deadpool," he wasn't all bad.  He too had a girlfriend who loved him.  But when one "plays tag with the Devil" one can get burned.  And so it was, perhaps out of petty spite, perhaps because of simple convenience, his immediate (mob) boss had him framed for the murder of an annoying henchman he had to dispose of.  So said boss had the henchman killed and ... then had the police pick up Charrière for the crime.

'Cept this was France of the 1930s, a France that couldn't agree on much of anything except ... if you turned out to be a criminal you _really_ deserved to be punished: Convicted felons were put on prison ships and transported across the Atlantic to ... penal colonies along the alligator / malaria infested jungle coast of French Guiana ... basically to die.  Even after finishing their _pointless_ but extremely _hard labor_ sentences, former inmates were expected _to stay_ there in French Guiana for a term as long as their original sentence, doing ... exactly what?  Most inmates apparently didn't live that long to find out.  Apparently 40% of the inmates sent to French Guiana died in their first year.

So ... as I was saying, this was _not_ a cheerful story.  And one immediately could understand why inmates would really, really want to escape, and go to extra-ordinary lengths to keep hidden the few valuables that they had.  The current version of the film was more explicit about this than the 1973 version was (though for its time, the 1973 version, was plenty dark as well).

Repeatedly, I was saying to myself "Okay, this is probably where I'd just hang myself, or plunge myself in front of an alligator hoping to quickly die." 

And then I remembered that actually the Old Testament Joseph had found HIMSELF in prison, betrayed first by his brothers and sold into slavery, then denounced falsely by his Egyptian slave-owner's wife and ... found himself at his lowest point in the Darkness of an ancient Egyptian Dungeon with ONLY "his dreams" to keep him company AND ... it turned out that it was through his (there in the Dungeon) _learned ability_ to "interpret dreams" that eventually got him out of that Dungeon, all the way up to Pharoah's court and into a position where he could actually save his brothers [Genesis 37, 39-].  And both the nation of Israel and Christianity exist today because this man, who NO ONE would have blamed if he "just gave up," _chose to continue to live / try_ anyway.

So I reminded myself that while we're "here" in this life we really should never give up, that despite everything God has a purpose for what happens (and that all will ultimately turn out okay, if not in this life then in the next).  Indeed, there's a _far happier_ passage in the Book of Acts, in which Saints Paul and Barnabas were locked-up in a Dungeon as well, but with the presence of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, even in the Darkness of Midnight there, they literally "Could not Keep from Singing" [Acts 16:16-40] ;-).

In any case, the story of Henri Charrière aka Papillon (Butterfly) is a dark if compelling one.  And I suppose the Viewer is reminded that through the French would consider themselves along with us in the United States to be the paragons of freedom-loving democrats -- we with our "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," they with their "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" -- the French, like us (think Guantanamo or how we treat the homeless people in our country), could also be brutally cruel to people they decided not to like or respect.  Still Henri Charrière aka Papillon (Butterfly) chose not to give up.

I'm glad that the prison system of Devil's Island is itself now ... dead, lying on the ash-heap of history.

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Sunday, August 5, 2018

Christopher Robin [2018]

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

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

Christopher Robin [2018] (directed by Marc Forster, screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, story by Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson based on the characters from the Winnie the Pooh books [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by A.A. Milne [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb] and Ernest Shepard [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a lovely family oriented film that offers parents and children the opportunity to discover / rediscover these characters that like the once a boy (in the original stories) now, in the current film, an adult Christopher Robin (played by an excellently casted Ewan McGregor), many of us may have "left behind" for years.

For at the beginning of the current story the 8 year old Christopher Robin leaves the magical "Hundred Acre Wood" behind his family's cottage in Sussex, England, to (1) go off to boarding school, (2) grow-up, (3) go to War, (4) settle down after the War,  (5) get married to a lovely and kind woman named Evelyn (played by Hayley Atwell) with whom (6) he had a lovely 8 year old daughter named Maddie (played by Bronte Carmichael), and (7) get a really boring job as an accountant "in the efficiency department" of a luggage (baggage...) company to support this grown-up and, let's face it, really really boring life.  What happened?

Well it turns out that Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings), the once imaginative 8 year old Christopher Robin's talking teddy bear, ALSO "woke-up" one dreary morning in that once magical "Hundred Acre Wood" to find that all of his friends Eeyore (voiced by Brad Garrett), Piglet (voiced by Nick Mohammed), Tigger (voiced by Jim Cummings), Kanga (voiced by Sophie Okonedo), etc, had disappeared.  So ... in his disarming simple mindedness, he, Winnie the Pooh, decides that he's going to look for Christopher Robin because, "Christopher Robin would know what to do..."

Call it honestly a children's, a "Winnie the Pooh" version of the Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Matt Damon WW II classic Saving Private Ryan [1998], because _so lost_ had Christopher Robin become in life that he didn't even know how lost he was: When the adult, thoroughly responsible but by now all but soul-dead, Christopher Robin first encountered Winnie the "teddy bear" of his childhood after all those years, he honestly didn't know what to do.  And he didn't understand why this talking teddy bear, who came back for him at this point in his life would, passing by a vendor of helium balloons, would _so want_ a balloon: "Why do you want that balloon so much?" the approaching middle age Christopher Robin growls at his childhood teddy bear.  And Winnie the Pooh answers him, "Because it makes me happy."

OMG ... the rest of the movie unspools from there.

We don't need 10 balloons, much less a 100 balloons.  But an _occasional_ simple / cheerful "balloon" can indeed ... help make us feel _happy_ ;-)

Excellent point / story!

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