Monday, February 1, 2021

2021 Sundance Film Festival


After nearly a year-long hiatus both work (I've been busy in my day job as pastor of a fun / lively multilingual parish in SoCal and confronting quite head-on the homelessness crisis [1] [2] [3] here in our part of the county / country) and pandemic related, I've decided to put a toe in the water to see I could start writing my blog again.

First, I am very happy that a good number of the lovely if more obscure films that I've reviewed over the years have found their way to various streaming platforms [1] [2].  However, I'm most intrigued honestly by the door opened if perhaps only temporarily of being able to attend festivals like the the famed Sundance Film Festival virtually at home.  

At time of much suffering, being able to watch the films of the festival at home was a gift and one that I would honestly ask the movie industry to explore.  I had always liked the film festivals though lamented that many of their gems were almost impossible to find afterwards.  So I'm very happy to have the chance to both enjoy the films and to share my experiences of them here.

Among the Festival's showings I was able to see:

I was a Simple Man [2021] (written and directed by Christopher Makoto Yogi) a gentle personalist tale set in rural Hawaii about Masao Matsuyoshi (played in his youth, as an adult and as an elderly person by Kyle Kosaki, Tim Chiou and Steve Iwamoto respectively).  Born in Hawaii but with Japanese immigrant parents, he has a Chinese Hawaiian girl-friend named Grace (played by Constance Wu) who he marries over objections of his parents.  One would think that his life would be more or less set.  But then tragedy strikes and repeatedly: his parents and younger brother return to Japan just before the War starts and he never hears from them again.  His beautiful wife soon comes down with cancer and dies shortly afterwards, leaving him with children to raise, somewhat.  The film itself mostly plays out as he, now elderly, becomes ill and must prepare to meet the end of his life as well.  It's a gentle film about yes, a simple man, who nevertheless had a life of both simple pleasures and regrets.  -- 3 Stars  

How it Ends [2021] (written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein) is an apocalyptic comedy conceived and filmed in Los Angeles during the summer of 2020 during the Coronavirus crisis: The story begins on the morning of the Last Day, an asteroid was going to hit and destroy the earth later that evening.  Presumably all that could be done, has been tried, and has failed.  All that was left to do was to prepare to die.  So the story follows "the last day" of Liza (played also by Zoe Lister-Jones) a late 20s early 30-something, Los Angeles residing computer programmer -- she had successfully created some random app a number of years back -- as she walks around the neighborhood, amusingly with "her younger self" (played by Cailee Spaeny who generally only she could see, but perhaps because it was "the last day" others began to see and interact with as well), while Liza tries to "set things right" with various people -- Liza's mom (played by Helen Hunt), dad (played by Bradley Whitford), her once BFF Ala (played by Olivia Wilde) and  heartthrob Sal (played by Logan Marshall-Green).  The scene in which Liza and Ala talk (and set things right) apparently after a long period of time is priceless / probably the best in the film.  Otherwise the film is simply a gentle film made under the trying circumstances of COVID. -- 2 1/2 Stars

In the Earth [2021]
(written and directed by Ben Wheatley) is a COVID-recognizing horror film -- not directly about COVID-19 but certainly made in its context.  The film is about a rather desperate research experiment conducted in the forests of the English countryside in response to a fictionalized deadly pandemic where the increasingly mad scientists involved had made a link between the pandemic and the larger ecological crisis effecting the earth.  Basically "Nature had become mad as hell" and communicating through the interconnected root systems of trees had decided to fight back against a humanity that clearly did not respect it.  Much increasingly "mind blowing" ensues ;-) Yet as fun as the film's premise was, much more could have been done with it. That may have to wait for a larger budget and filming circumstances far less trying than those experienced in 2020. -- 2 Stars

The Pink Cloud (orig. A Nuvem Rosa) [2021]
(written and directed by Iuli Gerbase) about a world-wide environmental crisis -- a deadly pink cloud appears driving everyone the world-over into their homes -- was actually conceived and filmed before the 2020-21 coronavirus pandemic.  Yet, the film predicts many of the problems (isolation / loneliness) and responses (use of videochats, social media) that we've come to rely on to get by during the COVID-19 crisis.  The film focuses on a 30-something couple Giovana (played by Renata de Lélis) and Yago (played by Eduardo Mendonça) who had just met / hooked-up the night before the deadly pink cloud had appeared.  Both had responsibilities outside, Giovana to her mother (somewhere), and to a younger sister (capable, of course, of communicating easily via social media), Yago to his aging father (with at least an in house caregiver) in the beginning stages of Alzheimers.  Yet now the two were stuck together "for the duration" of the crisis, and ... the crisis seems to extend ... .  Yes, the civil authorities come up with a simple if not particularly convincing mechanism of keeping everyone supplied with basic necessities -- food, water, electricity.  However, no one is able to go outside without facing quick, certain death.  So given the situation "what would you do? ..." -- 3 Stars

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Friday, February 7, 2020

My Oscar Picks 2020

IMDb listing
Official Website

Dear Readers,

This past year, I was necessarily focused on events in our community / parish, so I didn't have a lot of time to write here.  But I did still see a fair amount of films.  We'll see how this goes next year.  I have enjoyed writing this blog.  It is possible that I'll have more time to write here again.  If not, this may be the last set of Oscar Picks that I will be publishing.

Fr. Dennis

Will Win -- Parasite
Should Win -- Joker, Once Upon in Hollywood, Little Women
Should Have Gotten Consideration -- The Farewell

Will Win -- Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
Should Win -- Joaquin Phoenix (Joker), Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)

Will Win -- Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
Should Win -- Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story), Renee Zellwiger (Judy)
Should Have Gotten Consideration -- 

Will Win -- Brad Pitt (Once Upon in Hollywood)
Should Win -- Brad Pitt (Once Upon in Hollywood)

Will Win -- Laura Dern (Little Women),
Should Win -- Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell), Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)
Should Have Gotten Consideration -- Kate Blanchett (Where'd You Go, Bernadette?)

Will Win -- Quentin Tarrantino (Once Upon in Hollywood)
Should Win -- Quentin Tarrantino (Once Upon in Hollywood), Todd Phillips (Joker)
Should Have Gotten Consideration -- Greta Gerwig (Little Women)

Will Win -- Once Upon in Hollywood
Should Win -- Once Upon in Hollywood, 1917Joker
Should Have Gotten Consideration -- Little Women

Will Win -- ParasiteOnce Upon in Hollywood,
Should Win -- Once Upon in Hollywood, Knives Out
Should Have Gotten Consideration -- The Farewell

Will Win -- Little Women
Should Win -- Little WomenJojo RabbitJoker

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Saturday, October 5, 2019

Downton Abbey [2019]

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

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

Downton Abbey [2019] (directed by Michael Engler characters and screenplay by Julian Fellowes) delivers what it promises ... a two hour visit to a place that millions of viewers across the English speaking world and beyond had come to know and love through the successful television series about "more tranquil times" ... when it was being debated and starting to be settled as to whether paupers, people of darker complexions and foreign tongues, women as a whole, to say nothing of then invisible people like homosexuals were ... worthy of rights.

And so it is here.  And all is regally blessed and proven "fine" at the Abbey as they receive word that the King and Queen were planning a visit to their part of the Realm, were inviting themselves over to the Abbey (I guess, if you're the King, you can do whatever you want, AND "what an honor it would be" in any case), and ... (mild spoiler alert) all turns out well.

But, then, how could it not...?  Directed by the steady guiding hand of the _wisest_ of local patriarchs, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville) albeit with an American wife Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern) but then with a stable, well-trained, LOYAL abbey staff, what could possibly go wrong?

Yes, there are the pesky Irish who want to get a shot at the King (played by Simon Jones).  But even the King "understands" (and arguably _forgives them_).  So ...

There is a loveliness to all this ... and in the crassness of our time it is certainly appealing, just as long as we realize that when we enter stories like this, we enter a world essentially of "Platonic Forms" about as real as that of Middle Earth / The Hobbit.  That said, we all need stories that give us comfort and peace. 

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Judy [2019]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (K, Turan) review (M. Castillo) review
AVClub (C. Siede) review

Judy [2019] (directed by Rupert Goold, screenplay by Tom Edge based on the stageplay "The End of the Raindbow" by Peter Quilter) tells the story of the last year of Hollywood legend Judy Garland's [wikip] [IMDb] life as a troubled but still top-billed night-club singer in ... London.  She died there, of an ... accidental barbiturate overdose at 47 in 1969.  What happened to the teenage Dorothy of Wizard of Oz [1939] fame?  Well, life ...

And it was not a particularly good one.  We do get to see the costs of fame in Mid-20th Century Hollywood (1930s-1960s).  To a large extent therefore, the film follows a well beaten path.  One needs only to think of Sunset Blvd [1950].

Still, just because "we've heard the story before," doesn't make it untrue.  And it honestly MAY BE USEFUL for people be reminded from time to time what "costs of fame" are.

Here we see the effects of thirty years of "studio management" on the life of one of its biggest stars, Judy Garland (played as a teenager by Darci Shaw and later as an adult by Renee Zellwiger) who "captured America's hearts" as the wide-eyed innocent / naive Alice in Wonderland like teenager Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz [1939] and yet was even then mercilessly reminded that she could be replaced AT ANY TIME by any number of OTHER wide-eyed, innocent / naive "girl next door" types even arguably more attractive than she was, "So SHUT UP, take the 1930s-era diet and sleeping pills that we're giving you, and just DO WHAT WE SAY..."

We thankfully live now in the #MeToo era, where the worst of this abuse is being progressively exposed.  Yet while there was no indication in the film that Garland was sexually abused by her studio bosses / handlers, the film story makes clear that the Studios and their managers basically _owned_ their "stars" in any case, especially their younger ones, and almost inevitably turned them into the basket cases that we come to read about in the tabloids in their later years. 

Is it worth it?  Do these poor people even know what they're getting into? 

Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, here Judy Garland ... Pray for us.

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Friday, October 4, 2019

Joker [2019]

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

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

Joker [2019] (directed by Todd Phillips, screenplay by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver) offers an appropriately dark (and rather credible) origin story for The Joker [DCC] [Wikip] [IMDb] (played in this film by Joaquin Phoenix) among most unforgettable American comic book super-villains of all time.

Troubled little man, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) -- "fleck" literally means "spot" or "stain" in many central European languages, including German -- tries to make the best of his hard, little life in the troubled, timeless, fallen New York City-inspired Gotham (the people of Gotham drive 1960s-70s era cars, use smart phones, 1970-80s era answering machines and watch 1930s era Charlie Chaplin movies...). 

Brought-up by his similarly beaten-down by life, cheated-upon, abused, single mom (not by choice), "worth no more than change," Penny (played by Frances Conroy) for whom Arthur had been the one source of at least some joy in her life ("he was always such a happy boy...") and then told by said mom to "keep putting on a happy face," Arthur ekes out a living as a "clown for hire" ... and suffers ALL the indignities of being dressed as a clown in a hard / cynical town that is NOT laughing (except at someone's expense) ... and he becomes ... well what can anybody expect?

The film makes for an inspired, if yes, dark, character study exposing the cruelty of a society that, well, doesn't give a damn.  Indeed, Robert De Niro, whose breakthrough portrayal of a similarly invisible, troubled titular Taxi Driver [1976] put him, forever, among Hollywood's greats, plays a significant role in the current story, though NOT as another anonymous loser but rather as a Johnny Carson-like "star", whose career actually feeds on the little losers like poor Arthur and Penny Fleck, who religiously stay-up to watch his show even as he largely makes fun of their difficult lives.

Brilliant, if scathing and sad.  Definitely NOT for pre-teens nor for the weak of heart.  But can help us understand some of the madness of our times.

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Saturday, August 24, 2019

Dora and the Lost City of Gold [2019]

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

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

Dora and the Lost City of Gold [2019] (directed by James Bobin, story by Tom Wheeler, screenplay by Matthew Robinson and Nicholas Stoller based on the series Dora the Explorer [2000-] [wikip] [IMDb] created by Chris Gifford, Valerie Walsh and Eric Weiner) is a fun family friendly movie that takes the fun / inquisitive Dora to both high school and the big screen.

In the film, Dora (played first, briefly, as a precocious 6 year old by Madalyn Miranda, and then ten years later as a teenager by Isabel Moner), is sent by her "Indiana Jones"-like / clearly "field-work" enjoying university professor / explorer parents (played by Michael Peña and Eva Longoria) from the Andean jungles of Peru, where she had grown-up, to her "tios" in Los Angeles, so that she could experience, well, "the indigenous peoples of ... high school" ;-).

A little disappointed that her parents wanted to send her away just as they seem to have made a breakthrough in their search of a lost Inca city, she nevertheless takes on the challenge of learning "a whole new culture" with the enthusiasm that one would expect of Dora from the TV series (and the daughter of ethnographers).  The problem of course is that, at least initially, "the natives" of random Southern California high school are not exactly open to being understood by / much less being friends with someone who seems to have come from another world.

A plot twist sends both her and a number of her classmates to back to the jungles of Peru where of course ... much ensues ;-), and the classmates get to experience something outside of their day-to-day experience and ... come to appreciate what Dora has to offer.

Like the TV series that it is based on, the film's got an unabasshedly positive message, reminding us that we all have something to offer, and generally speaking, if at first we don't get along with each other, it's because we still don't really understand them.

Hispanic families will certainly appreciate the care taken to present the role of the extended family -- the tios (uncles/aunts), primos (cousins) and the wise/respected/saintly/kind abuela (grandma) -- in Hispanic (and actually in most non-North American) cultures.

Overall therefore a quite excellent family film!

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Where'd You Go, Bernadette [2019]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (H. Rupprecht) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (M. Castillo) review
AVClub (J. Hessenger) review

Where'd You Go, Bernadette [2019] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Richard Linklater along with Holly Gent and Vince Palmo, based on the novel [GR] by Maria Semple [wikip] [GR] [IMDb]), though marketed as a Comedy is NOT REALLY that.  It's a Dramedy, I suppose, but it's serious enough to not really be funny at all.

The film is about Bernadette Fox (played quite thoughtfully by Kate Blanchett) a 40 something once promising young architect (in "sunny Southern California") who for reasons that become increasingly clear, left that world to marry a random if quite successful "development engineer" ("heading his own team...") working for Microsoft named Elgie (played by Billy Crudup).  So together they live in a rainy but wealthy enclave of Seattle among other highly educated 30 and 40 somethings and the two have a lively and almost necessarily naive teenage daughter named Bee (played by Emma Nelson). 

It's a wet golden cage.

And after the drip, drip, drip of the torment of clearly somehow previously frustrated dreams, Bernadette is ready to ... well, you get the picture.

Everything is still presented in a remarkably _gentle_ way (mediated by large amounts of money that most of the film's Viewers will not have), but ... a comedy?  No, there are some real issues being lifted up here.

Further, PG-13 rating notwithstanding, it's not really a film for kids or teenagers either.  It's for the Parents and deals with the central challenge articulated by Freud a century ago: balancing the fulfillment of obligation and desire.

What can religion (not present in the film at all) to the mix?  That (1) God does want us to be happy and (2) God doesn't care if we come to be "important" because God does love us all.  Finally, (3) as St. John Paul II already noted in his second encyclical Laborem Exercens (On the Dignity of Work) we were created by God to create.  It simply isn't good for us to "do nothing" no matter how rich or poor we are. 

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