Sunday, April 23, 2017

2017 Newport Beach Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Gifted [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Sigh. #Sad.

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The Lost City of Z [2016]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, April 17, 2017

The Case for Christ [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent film.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Going in Style [2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Zookeeper's Wife [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (E. Zuckerman) review

Zookeeper's Wife [2017] (directed by Niki Caro, screenplay by Angela Workman based on the book [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Diane Ackerman [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) tells the story of Antonina Żabiński and her husband Jan [wikip] (played by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh respectively) a Polish married couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s and used the premises to successfully hide some 300 Jews (some for days, others for years) during the time of Nazi Occupation (only two of the 300 Jews hidden by them were subsequently captured and killed, the rest survived the War).  For their efforts, the Żabińskis are among the 6,706 Poles (more than any other country) honored among "The Righteous Among the Nations" at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial [wikip] [website] in Jerusalem. 

To my knowledge, this may be the first Hollywood feature film to honor a Polish family that helped save Jews during the Holocaust even though, as mentioned above, the number of Poles honored at Yad Vashem exceeds all other nations, and as Poles would remind anybody who'd only listen to them, they themselves were suffered tremendously during the Nazi Occupation, and by Nazi ideology were themselves (along with the rest of the Slavic peoples) consigned do be "a slave race" for the Nazis to use as utterly expendable manual labor in the most dangerous of tasks.  As such, I can not but applaud this film that recognizes the some of the sufferings and contributions of the Poles during the brutal era of their country's occupation.

The film, like the book on which it is based, combines the story of the Żabińskis (among the source material used by Diane Ackerman in writing her book was Antonina Żabiński's own diary from the time) with other actual events of the time.  Notably, the film features an interplay (perhaps partly true, though also certainly embellished) between the Żabińskis and Lutz Heck [en.wikip] [de.wikip]*(played in the film by Daniel Brühl) who had been the head of Berlin's Zoo during the Nazi Era and was most famous for a rather bizarre Nazi-era "breeding program" for recreating an extinct species of "Ur-ox."  Of course he did not succeed, but the resulting large and _rather aggressive_ cattle have been subsequently labeled Heck cattle (or more amusingly / derisively "Nazi Cows"). 

In the film, Lutz is shown performing some of these bizarre breeding experiments on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo (largely empty of its original animals as most were killed and others were pillaged by the Nazi occupiers / taken to zoos back in the Reich) while the Żabińskis the former caretakers of the Zoo, still living in the villa on its grounds, used the zoo's various empty pens, tunnels and other facilities to hide Jews, literally under the noses of Lutz and the other Nazi occupiers.  

It makes for an interesting (and largely family friendly) story about how the resourcefulness of a Polish family helped hide and save literally hundreds of Jewish lives in the midst of literally one of the most dangerous places to be during the Holocaust.

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Ghost in the Shell [2017]

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

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

Ghost in the Shell [2017] (directed by Rupert Sanders, screenplay by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, a live-action "remake-of-sorts" of the Japanese R-rated anime cult-classic Ghost in the Shell (orig. Kôkaku Kidôtai) [1995] [IMDb] [AW] (directed by Mamoru Oshii [IMDb] [AW], screenplay by Kazunori Itô [IMDb] [AW]) both based on the manga comic "The Ghost in the Shell" [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Masamune Shirow [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a VISUALLY STUNNING if _definitely_ MIS-RATED Blade Runner [1982] / The Matrix [1999]-ish SciFi film (I would think that _most_ North Americans viewing this film would _simply assume_ that the current film is R-rated -- like its above mentioned spiritual cousins -- for all the reasons that a film like this would be rated-R -- theme, violence and here, okay "de facto" (the main character's a cyborg, rather than a human ...) nudity).

Yet, outside of the IMHO rather "no brainer" ratings-controversy and then _quite legitimate questions_ raised by the Asian American community / manga fans (fairly large out here on the West Coast) that ONE OF THE MOST ICONIC HEROINES IN _JAPANESE_ MANGA COMICS was played here by a Caucasian actress (Scarlett Johansson), see Justin Chang's review from the LA Times (above), even if the role was right up Johansson's alley, THE VISUALS in the film as well as ITS PREMISE are WELL WORTH the view:

Honestly folks, set in a BladeRunner-ish Tokyo of the near-future, this film is WELL WORTH seeing in 3D (as I did this time).  I usually don't go for the 3D glasses, but here it's _definitely worth_ the extra charge. 

Then at a time when we all wonder if the Russians were somehow able to HACK / INFLUENCE the recent U.S. Presidential election "from afar" ... the current film's premise that in a world (set a few decades, or in reality a generation or two, in the future) where humans would be choosing to get technological enhancements -- better eyes, better limbs, better organs, better "interconnectivity" with others -- and then straight-out machines would-be becoming more lifelike, A HACKER would enter the scene to try to mess with the programming of all these often literally inCORPORATED gadgets is a REMARKABLY TIMELY story, if also a similarly DISCONCERTING one.

So Parents, DON'T TAKE your 10 year-olds to this film (again, the PG-13 rating here is ridiculous) but have fun talking to your older teens and college-aged adults about how this film compares to the "far out" dystopic SciFi films of _our_ younger days.  All in all A GREAT JOB worthy of its predecessors.

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