Friday, December 15, 2017

Ferdinand [2017]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-I) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (V. Murthi) review

Ferdinand [2017] (directed by Carlos Saldanha, screenplay by Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland, screen story by Ron Burch, David Kidd and Don Rhymer, based on the beloved 1936 children's book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Munro Leaf [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb] and Robert Lawson [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) tells the Ferdinand (voiced quite excellently by former WWE wrestler John Cena), a bull who'd much rather "smell the flowers" than "butt heads" with other bulls, much less end up in the ring with a bull fighter.

Needless to say a "pacifist bull" was not exactly respected by the other bulls, but he does make a lifelong friend with a little girl named Nina (voiced as a child by Julia Scarpa Saldanha and as a young adult by Lily Day).  Still a "pacifist bull" / "different kind of bull" or not, Ferdinand was still a bull and, well, that resulted in repeated misunderstandings with humans who generally saw him as a simply a _huge_ (and dangerous) beast.  And try as he might, he repeatedly found himself in difficulty -- there's a priceless scene in the movie where he finds himself, a bull, "in a china shop."

Yes, the book is rather short, and the movie, being a movie is 80+ minutes long.   Yet, scenes like Ferdinand finding himself in (and for that matter, getting himself into) said china shop, lend themselves to incredibly endearing sequences.  So ... my best guide here is just simply listening to the kids in the theater ... and at the showing that I saw, it was _clear_ that the kids _loved_ watching this ENORMOUS bull trying _so hard_ to be careful when, as a bull, he really could not.

Hence, I honestly found this to be a fun / endearing movie to watch.  And there's no messaging in the film that would be harmful to kids.  The whole story is an exercise in empathy putting oneself into the shoes (err... hooves) of a bull, who despite his ENORMOUS size, just wants to play / "smell the roses" 

Great story / film!

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Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi [2017]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-II) (4 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

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

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi [2017] (screenplay and directed by Rian Johnson based on the characters invented by George Lucas) continues a Hollywood "year of tactical retreat" (in this case a "Space Dunkirk" if you will ;-).  The Empire of the original Star Wars Trilogy, reincarnated as "The First Order" seems to be ascendant and the forces of all that is good / peaceful facing annihilation.  How did the Galaxy ever get into this mess (again)?

Well, it would seem, interestingly, PARTLY out of NOSTALGIA ... One of the key villainous characters in the current trilogy, Kylo Ren (played as always spot-on by Adam Driver), son of Han Solo (played in the original trilogy by Harrison Ford and who (the character) was killed by Kylo Ren in the the first episode of the current sequel trilogy) and Princess Leia (played in both the original trilogy and in the current sequel trilogy by the late Carrie Fisher -- who died soon after the release of the first episode of the current sequel trilogy but had already been filmed for most of her scenes in the current film) seems obsessed with becoming  "the new Darth Vader."  Why?  Partly certainly out of youthful rebellion (to piss off his parents) but also out of a genuine nostalgia for a man, albeit Evil..., but "had it together" / "knew what he wanted." 

Today a lot of people admire / support contemporary strongmen like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin because they too have built an aura around them of "knowing what they want" / "willing to do whatever it takes 'to get there'" and while much has been written here in the United States about Trump's admiration of Putin, perhaps less has been made of Putin's never denied admiration / nostalgia for Joseph Stalin and the "order" he had imposed on the then Soviet Union and later its Empire.

The other, more philosophical reason for the plot (re)turn would probably be George Lucas' friendship / admiration for comparative religions scholar Joseph Campbell, for whom the "Monomyth / Eternal Cycle of Return" was a major theme.  So it should not be surprising that a generation or two after a cataclysmic battle between Good and Evil, the conditions would present themselves to begin the conflict anew.

Still, I do believe there to be significant differences in tone between the original Star Wars Trilogy and current batch of Star Wars movies including Episode VII - The Force Awakens [2015], Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [2016] and the current film.  Notably, the current batch, perhaps influenced by 9/11, perhaps by the Hunger Games [2012-15], is _darker_.

So the current trilogy has a new (and arguably even more rag-tag) rebellion fighting a surprisingly powerful reincarnated "First Order" modeling itself on the Empire of old.  And the battle honestly seems more even more desperate than before.  A small and ever diminishing flotilla of rebel craft, flushed out of their base by a far superior First Order fleet, spends much of the movie trying to escape.

Yet even as the battle between these two space fleets continues, as throughout the whole Star Wars saga, it becomes increasingly clear that the key to the battle are several charismatic figures, each "gifted by the Force" (a mystical / supernatural power that in the Star Wars Universe permeates the Galaxy) sometimes by its good side, sometimes by its dark/evil side.  And it becomes clear that it'd be far easier to simply "turn" these charismatic leaders from one side to the other, rather than to pound away at each other militarily.

Okay, but here's the problem:  While the charismatic leaders feeding on the "Dark Side" of the Force, Kylo Ren (already mentioned above) and the apparent Emperor Snoke (played quite well with some CGI enhancement by Andy Serkis) seem to be "all in" / "gung-ho" about conquering the Universe, the charismatic leaders of the "Good Side" of the Force, except for the youthful orphaned / "Joan of Arc"-like Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) seem far less convinced that fighting Evil serves any Good.  Notably, an aging Luke Skywalker (played as in the original trilogy, so now here in the current one by Mark Hamill) has retreated to a far-off island on an ocean covered world, and really did not want to get involved in the new conflict at all.

What to do?  Well, this is what the film is about, and there are many reactions.  Almost always, the younger folks -- I've mentioned Rey, but also still somewhat cocky star-fighter pilot Poe (played by Oscar Isaac), as well as several defectors from the "1st Order" side notably Finn (played by John Boyega) and Rose (played wonderfully by Kelly Marie Tran) -- would like to fight, while the older folks, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and some of her other commanders, including, one, an Admiral Hulo (played by Laura Dern) would prefer to keep the fighting to a minimum (especially since they have been outnumbered and losing ...).

Much plays out ... often, honestly, with some twists / surprising ;-).

So who then is said "last Jedi"?  That too is answered, but I'm not going to tell you ;-).  And the answer is, clearly, quite interesting (and thus worthy of a movie title ;-).

Yup, I'm still quite fascinated with how the whole saga will end.  Some hints as to how it will do so are already indicated in this episode.  But it will be interesting how it will play out.

Overall ... a quite good / excellent "middle episode" in an at least three part saga ;-)

ADDENDUM:  Catholic viewers may be surprised by a fair number of _positive_ "Catholic flourishes" in the current film:

For instance, there are some rather cute / amusing "Jedi nuns" in this story.

Then the Star Wars' salutation / words of encouragement "The Force be with you" was used in this film at least one time in manner in which its usage almost exactly corresponded to the greeting: "The Lord be with you."

Then near the end of the film there was an extended shot in which light shining through holes on the remaining band of resisters, shined on them in the shape of illuminated crosses.  The shot extended much longer than would be necessary for the sake of the story, except to allow the Audience to recognize the symbolism -- light piercing the darkness "on the good guys" in the shape of a series of crosses.

The Star Wars series with its Jedi religion was never "anti-Christian" or "anti-Catholic."  Almost all of us of my generation saw similarities between the Jedi Knights and a Catholic religious order. What I'd just like to note here is that this episode seemed even more positive toward Catholicism / traditional religion than others.  Thanks!  (I think / hope ;-).

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Mudbound [2017]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB () (4 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Mudbound [2017] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Dee Rees along with Virgil Williams based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Hillary Jordan [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) set in the 1940s and following two families, one white, one black eeking out livings farming amid "the mud" of rural, delta Mississippi gives a decidedly "muck covered" portrayal of the era presumably ("best guess") evoked by Trump in his quest to "Make America Great Again."

Though largely incompetent, the McAllan family (white) is clearly on top and repeatedly needs (and is able to get ...) the assistance of the neighboring Jackson family (black) in order to survive.  The obvious (and by the end utterly offensive) inequality of their relationship is what this film is about.

Both families have sons that go to war -- Jamie McAllan (played by Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (played by Jason Mitchell).  Both come back from the war as war heroes, both as changed men.  Yet ... when they do come home, the world that they had left had not changed at all.  Coming home, Ronsel, uniform / medals notwithstanding, is "reminded" by scandalized local white folk he has to leave a grocery store "by the back door" and is actually forced to apologize to two members of the McAllan family for his (by the time he got back from serving as a tank-man in Patton's 3rd Army...) _honest_ "mistake."

Readers, you get the picture ... But the tragedy is that THIS WAS TRUE.  African Americans who came back from WW II as war-heroes, came back to a nation that fought the racism of Adolf Hitler / the Nazis while being _utterly oblivious_ (and often _supportive_) of its own.  Indeed, the Nazis' Nuremberg Racial Laws were actually almost carbon copies of Old South's Jim Crow racial laws when it came to classifying the races of its citizens and banning inter-racial marriage.

The film actually helps explain why the U.S. Military actually was among the first institutions in the United States to be desegregated -- the U.S. fought the Korean War with a desegregated army -- and why after WW II the eventual victory of the African American Civil Rights movement was inevitable -- to continue with Jim Crow was simply too much for too many Americans (both black and white) to survive.

Excellent film, certainly one of the year's best.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

I, Tonya [2017]

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

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

I, Tonya [2017] (directed by Craig Gillespie, screenplay by Steven Rogers), while certainly well written and well acted, revisits old wounds -- an infamous 1992 incident in which U.S. figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was kneecapped (hit with a baton across the knees) by people associated to rival U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding -- leaving potential Viewers to wonder _why_ dredge this story up again a generation later.

To be sure, the story mesmerized the nation 25 years ago, in part because _both_ Nancy Kerrigan (played briefly in the film by Kaitlin Carver) and Tonya Harding (played quite wonderfully in the title role by Margot Robbie) were actually from quite similar blue-collar backgrounds.  Yet personality-wise (and certainly how the Press made them out to be) they seemed to be polar opposites: Kerrigan, despite her own family's struggles to pay for her skating, sought still to fulfill the "Figure Skating Princess" expectations of the sport, while Harding in part because she had it an _even rougher time_ of it, and in part because, personality-wise, she just didn't want to "play the game," took a decidedly "F-U" attitude toward the snobbery associated with the sport (doing skating routines to heavy-metal music at times and so forth...).  The film portrayed Harding as someone who, despite "being poor" simply _loved to skate_ and then _was really, really good at it_.

Indeed, in one of the more memorable lines of the film has Harding telling the film's interviewer: "I was the first woman to successfully land a triple axel in competition and _no one_ can take that away from me, so ... f*** you."  And honestly, she's right.  To this day, a generation later, only eight women have done so in international competition.

So the film in this regard captures an aspect of Tonya Harding's story that most people liked, sympathized with and respected.  She was basically a female Rocky figure in a sport that had room only for Princesses.  Yet that "Rocky" background surfaced some unfortunate "Rocky's neighborhood" characters including her foul mouthed, count 'em _six times married_, chain smoking "I made you what you are" / "Gee thanks" mother (gleefully played by Allison Janney), her abusive boy-friend / husband Jeff Gillouly (played by Sebastian Stan), and especially Jeff's incredibly stupid BFF Shawn Eckhardt (played by Paul Walter Hauser) who served as Harding's "body guard" and was the one who directly ordered Kerrigan's kneecapping.  Harding and her husband apparently were just trying to "play mind games" with her (which they thought, and apparently had some reason to believe, was "fair play").  Sigh ...

What'd be interesting, honestly, would be Harding's own review of the film and I will post the link to it when I find it.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Wonder Wheel [2017]

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

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

Wonder Wheel [2017] (written and directed by Woody Allen), let's be honest, is a quite awkward film to view / review as our nation is going through what could become a sea-change in attitudes toward sexual harrassment / abuse in the workplace, beginning, in fact, in the movie industry.

It's not that _anything_ in Allen's current film directly touches that topic. However two going on three decades ago, Allen (1) abruptly ended his then marriage to actress Mia Farrow, and proceeded to marry his then 17 year old (!) step daughter (the two have stayed together ever since) and (2) has since been accused of having concurrently abused another, even younger, and here biological daughter, Dylan, an accusation that he's always denied.  With his last several films dealing with "gettting away" / "not getting away" with unspeakable crimes, this one included, it would seem that the question of "getting away with [something]" weighs _significantly_ on his mind (and perhaps conscience...).

Indeed, I would submit that a good part of the reason why this film hasn't been particularly well received (see the reviews cited above) has much less to do with the technical quality of the film -- IMHO, excellent, written in the style of a play by Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill -- but rather on the person of Woody Allen himself and the moment in history that we're living in.

And let's be clear, it is a _good moment_.  At least a few prominent serial harassers / abusers of women have had to step down from their positions of previous honor.  And probably, evoking with some caution one of the more lasting images of the French Revolution... more "heads will roll" in the future.   There's a real chance that in the next generation women will be in a far more equal position vis-a-vis men than before.

And yet, I would submit that the case of someone like Woody Allen (far more than someone like Harvey Weinstein ...) ought to indicate to us to be careful (that justice be attained by the lifting up of past victims to their proper places rather than simply destroying past sinners).  For despite his sins / failings, Woody Allen is clearly a talented person.  He's given this world far more than just his sins.  Harvey Weinstein has also probably given the world more than just his sins (as would be the case for all of us).  But Woody Allen becomes something of a poster child of the reality that WE ARE ALL _more_ than _simply our sins / failings_.

This is something actually that the Catholic Church, DESPITE ITS OWN SINS, has also ALWAYS UNDERSTOOD AND PROCLAIMED:  In a world that first denies even the existence of Sin, but then _also_ denies in all but _very rare cases_ even the possibility of Forgiveness (and then not at all based on merit, but generally simply based on power), the CHURCH PROCLAIMS BOTH: (1) that Sin clearly exists, but (2) that Jesus Christ came here _precisely_ to forgive us and lift us out of that Sin.  And I submit, the combination is THE ONLY WAY to look _realistically_ at our world.  For we can (and still may) universally destroy ourselves (rather than bring ourselves to forgive ...).  But the reality is that all of us are _more_ than just "what we've done wrong."

Some kind of "Truth and Reconciliation" (to borrow the approach taken by post-Apartheid South Africa) is needed balance the twin Realities of past Injustice / Crime and the need for people, _most people_ to add _constructively_ to society for the Common Good.  If we eliminate _everyone_ who has ever sinned, as the Psalmist asks: Who could survive? [Psalm 130:3]

Anyway, _not diminishing at all_ the reality of Sin, we have to acknowledge that even Sinners (all of us) are capable of contributing ... (and again, I do see Woody Allen as something of a "poster child" for this).  For despite whatever he may have done, the world has benefited from his existence, and again, the world has benefited from _our existence(s)_ as well).

To the movie ... ;-)

Set in the early 1950s, in Coney Island, NY, and narrated by "Mickey" (played wonderfully by Justin Timberlake) a "South Pacific" WW II vet (former sailor) now lifeguard / night school student studying to be playwright now living in Greenwich Village (hence something of a cross of Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire and Jack Kerouac), the film's about a family which lives literally under the amusement park's Ferris (Wonder) Wheel (Note that by "self-told legend" during his stand-up comedy days, that's where Woody Allen would say that he grew-up -- "under the Farris Wheel in Coney Island" -- as well ;-).

The man of the house was a late-40s/early-50s widower / carnival ride operator named Humpty (played wonderfully in "Ralph Kramden of the Honeymooners"-style by Jim Belushi) who was married to a 40-something once, long-ago, aspiring actress, once married to a musician, now divorced (by her own, admitted, damned fault) waitress at the local clam shop named Ginny (played again wonderfully by Kate Winslet evoking a combination of an older Margaret / "Maggie the Cat" from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and perhaps even more Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire).

Both had children from their previous marriages:  He had a 20-something daughter, a "Femme Fatale" if you'd ever seen one named Carolina (played again spot-on by Juno Temple) who "came home" at the beginning of the story after a disastrous five-year marriage to a mobster, now in jail, and with his cohorts "looking for her" because, under pressure, she apparently "squealed to the Feds."  Ginny had a 10 year old "young Woody Allenesque" son named Richie (played by Jack Gore) with a penchant of "burning things down" ... yes, literally; he was a pyromaniac.

After setting-up the story, we're told by Mickie in "Act 2" that he and Ginny were having an affair; he because well, as a former sailor, now starting-out playwright, found Ginny, the 40-something once, long-ago, actress, once married to a musician, now random 40-something waitress in a Coney Island clam-shop, well, honestly _fascinating_ ;-), and she because "he saw the world" (the South Pacific, including Bora Bora, near Tahiti, where French impressionist artist Paul Gauguin escaped to from a suffocating marriage...) and because he, like her first husband, the musician, was _interesting_ which her current one, albeit with at times (when not drinking...) a heart of gold, was not...

In Act 3, however, Mickie meets Carolina, and ... the rest of the story unspools from there...

I found the story, honestly, excellent.  If the dialogue was _at times_ stilted, it was _largely done in the style of the plays of the time_.  Honestly, Tennessee Williams was stilted in his dialogue as well.  That was the writing of that time...

And this then is the paradox of Woody Allen.  Certainly flawed (as are we all) in someway, and _perhaps_ profoundly, he remains oustandingly talented.  Should he, in as much as he sinned (as we have all), pay for his sins?  Certainly, but at the end of the day, it can not be denied that he's contributed (a lot) to this world as well (as do we all as well).

So, can we find a way to both "Tell the Truth" and yet also "bring everybody back" despite their Sins?

Excellent / thought provoking film / context.

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq [2017]

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

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

Roman J. Israel, Esq [2017] (written and directed by Dan Gilroy) tells the story of a fictionalized quiet, behind-the-scenes African American civil rights lawyer by that name (and wonderfully / compellingly played by Denzel Washington). 

Clearly somewhere on the autism spectrum, Roman worked quietly preparing briefs for his partner William Henry Jackson, the public face of their two person law firm.  Then near the beginning of the film, his partner, never seen, has a heart attack and dies some weeks later. 

Enter Jackson's sister, Lynn (played by Amanda Warren).  She soon informs Roman that "from the family's standpoint" her brother William's "crusading" had long been a drain on the family's fortune and that in the name of the family, she was liquidating his two person law-firm.  Her brother's remaining cases (and Roman, if he so desired...) she wished to hand-over to a long-time family friend and once student of her brother's when said crusading brother had taught law at a local university.  The family friend was "a white guy" named George Pierce (played by Colin Farrell) who had since become a rather big-time corporate lawyer in town. 

Roman and George certainly knew each other, but just as certainly didn't respect each other: George initially saw Roman as a charity, even basket case, one who he was considering giving a job to at his quite successful law-firm _only_ for the sake of his relationship with the Roman's deceased partner William and then the rest of the Jackson Family.  Roman, in turn, saw George as the worst kind of lawyer -- a sellout.  Perhaps Roman would not have been as appalled if George had not been a student of his beloved, now deceased partner.  However, since he had been, how could he possibly have gone over "to the dark side," quite amorally seeking _above all_ to "merely make money" for his work (rather than seeking to make the world, through one's work, a better place)?

So Roman tries initially to get another job.  Yet both his moderate autism and his attendant stubbornness quickly alienates him from a local (and modern) civil rights advocacy group, whose local office was run by Maya Alston (played quite convincingly by Carmen Ejogo). 

So what's Roman to do?  This would be a difficult situation for someone "not on the spectrum."  But here he was dealing with multiple crises and disappointments and not necessarily being the most capable of the flexibility needed to successfully adapt.   So he responds to this wave of change and disappointments in rather knee-jerk (if understandable fashion) ...

And ... the rest of the story follows.

It all makes for a quite thought-provoking (and discussion provoking) film:

(1) What is our primary motivation in work and even in life?  Merely to "succeed"? to make (a lot of) money? or to make the world (or at least that part of the world around us) a better place? 

(2) How do we see those who are "different" around us?  Do we see them merely as burdens / problems to manage (away if possible)?  Can we imagine learning significant things from "others" especially those who appear "burdensome"?   And perhaps most fascinatingly, can we come to understand that those people who we look down upon, may actually have quite developed (and not particularly flattering) opinions of us as well? 

Interesting / thought provoking stuff ;-)

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Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri [2017]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB () (4 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

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

Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri [2017] (written and directed by Martin McDonagh) is a pretty stark and dark film about a terrible tragedy that beset both the fictionalized town of Ebbing in rural Missouri and then specifically the Hayes family living at its outskirts.

Some nine months previous to the story's telling, 19-year old Angela Hayes (played briefly in a flashback by Katryn Newton) had been savagely raped and murdered as she was walking to and/or from said home at the outskirts of town and ... there were _no leads_.  The perpetrator's DNA didn't seem to appear on any database, it happened at night, off a rural road; the local Sheriff Bill Willoughby (played quite wonderfully by Woody Harrelson) was convinced that the crime had been committed by a passerby, a drifter, who probably wouldn't be found until he was caught bragging about it in some dive somewhere, or perhaps already in prison.

But tell that, of course (and he did, repeatedly, both as sympathetically and at times exasperatedly as one could imagine) to Angela's mother Mildred (played to certainly Oscar nomination levels by Frances McDormand).  She's the one who pays for a year's worth of advertising on those three billboards on a rural road near where she lived / near where the crime occurred, hoping to embarrass the local police into "doing something." But ... sigh ... what was there to do that was not already done?

Dear Readers, this is a film different than advertised.  It's _not_ really about "getting the Authorities to do something."  It's above all about the horror (and horrific after-effects) of a crime.  Yes, one can understand Mildred's desire for "closure" (which she quite understandably takes to mean at least in part "catching the monster" who did this to her daughter).  But ... honestly _how_ does one "close" this kind of a wound?

The film struck me as surprisingly similar in its thematics to a seemingly far gentler film (until...) named A River Runs Through It [1992].  Yes, horrific tragedy can _change_ people ...

"Friend and neighbor you have taken away from me,
My only companion is darkness." -- Psalm 88:19

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