Monday, November 20, 2017

The Star [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Walsh) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

The Star [2017] (directed by Timothy Rekart, screenplay by Carlos Kotkin, story by Simon Moore and Carlos Kotkin) is a cute star-studded film about Jesus' birth taken from the point of view of the animals in the story, notably from the POV of the donkey (voiced by Steven Yeun) on which the very pregnant Mary (voiced by Gina Rodriguez) rode to Bethlehem where she gave birth to Jesus.  Also in the story are the camels (voiced by Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan and Oprah Winfrey) who amusingly seem to more about what's going on than "the three kings" (voiced by Joel Osteen, Phil Morris and Fred Tatasciore) did ;-).  There's also a lovable sheep (voiced by Aidy Bryant) who interestingly seems to "herd" everybody in the story "together."

I have to say that I LIKED THE STORY.  Sure, it's kinda cutesy, but it's also aimed for FIVE YEAR OLD KIDS.  In that regard, it's a lovely story.  And I did appreciate that SO MANY STARS and from a truly _wide_ cross-section of American society took part in it.

All in all, though it's not going to win many awards, it never intended to.  Instead, it tells the story of the birth of Jesus from a novel and interesting point of view and -- to kids ;-).

Good job!  Very good job!

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The Man who Invented Christmas [2017]

MPAA (PG)  Fr. Dennis (0 Stars)

IMDb listing

The Man who Invented Christmas [2017] (directed by Bharat Nalluri, screenplay by Susan Coyne based on the book by Les Stradiford [GR] [IMDb]) is an incredibly stupidly / offensively titled film.  Indeed, if ANYONE on the Left would wonder why Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, one could simply take a moment or two to contemplate the title of this film.

Did Charles Dickens "invent Christmas?"  OF COURSE NOT.   Why then _stupidly_ title this film --a film that COULD HAVE BEEN INTERESTING (about how Dickens came up with the plot of his famous novel A Christmas Carol) -- in a manner that _guarantees_ that it will OFFEND TENS OF MILLIONS OF  OTHERWISE POTENTIALLY INTERESTED AMERICAN VIEWERS.

My answer: Unless there's A LOT OF RUSSIAN MONEY invested in this stupid film (in which case its release under this name COULD HAVE BEEN INTENDED by emerging real-life SUPERVILLAIN Vladimir Putin TO PRODUCE shock and division in the United States), it would be that the Lunatic Left continues to have some kind of evil / misguided Death Wish.

Indeed, the Lunatic Left made both Franco and even Hitler possible: In 1930s Spain, Franco became a "voice of reason" (!) after unbelievably stupid Spanish Communists began storming Convents AND SHOOTING UP NUNS (in my Religious Order, the Servites, we now honor one such nun Bl Maria Guadalupe Ricart Olmos, OSM as a martyr because was SHE ONE OF THOSE NUNS taken out one random night during the Spanish Civil War and shot-up by some _crazed_ squad of "forward looking" Spanish Communists)

Then the Russian Bolsheviks' campaign of seeking to destroy Christianity in Russia (shutting down the churches, turning them into storage sheds or worse, deporting and/or shooting their priests) guaranteed that _tens of millions_ of German voters in the 1930s would see the "law and order" Nazis as a _far more sensible_ option to the chaos, arrogance / evil of the Soviet Communism.

But did Charles Dickens "invent Christmas"?  Again, OF COURSE NOT.  Readers remember here that I'M A CATHOLIC PRIEST:

Some weeks ago, we spent part of our Parish Liturgy Committee Meeting talking about which of the Readings from the FOUR Possible Christmas Masses (ALL OF WHICH ALL GO BACK TO AT LEAST THE TIME OF ST. GREGORY THE GREAT -- 5th-6th Century A.D.) we were going to use at our various Christmas Liturgies (from 4 PM and 9 PM on Christmas Eve to Midnight on Christmas Eve to morning on Christmas Day to early afternoon on Christmas Day).

The Christmas trees in our Church go back to the time of the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury, St. Gregory the Great's BFF (hence again 6th Century AD) who St. Gregory had sent to evangelize the then fearsome, barbaric and at the time rumored TO BE CANNIBALISTIC Anglo Saxons who had over-run the southern part of previously already Christian Roman Britain (St. Patrick, who lived in the 4th century A.D., whose name derives from the latin word Patrician or basically 'rich boy' was Romano-British, but kidnapped by then still pagan-Irish raiders, who he later then returned to convert ;-).  Returning to St. Augustine of Canterbury, he had the wisdom of not making a "problem" of the Anglo-Saxon custom of bringing into their homes the branches of evergreen trees in the height of winter.  Instead, recalling the many times trees play a significant role in the Bible -- the Trees of Good and Evil / Life in the Garden of Eden, the Wood out of which Noah built the Ark, Jesus being laid down in a Manger (the Midnight Christmas Liturgy referred to above took place originally in the NATIVITY CHAPEL at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome (built in the early 5th century), where THE RELIC OF JESUS' CRIB brought back to Rome by St. Helen, the mother of Constantine back IN THE 4th CENTURY was KEPT), and Jesus being nailed to and saving us all through "the wood of the cross" -- he decided to "let it go" / bless said evergreen trees and ... from this we have our Christmas trees ;-)

Then we have our Christmas plays and our Nativity Sets depicting Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, the animals, the stars and angels THANKS TO ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI who loved the story so much that he promoted it where-ever he could.

To this day, one could go to the Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, Italy, and see an ENTIRE STREET with HUNDREDS OF SHOPS SELLING NOTHING BUT "PRESEPI" (Nativity Sets) of every conceivable level of complexity from the simplest -- Mary, Jesus, Joseph, Star above, to entire medieval town / village to contemporary city-scapes.

And if you were there, you'd probably hear, over and over again, playing in the background, probably the most famous Italian Christmas Carol ("Tu Scendi dalle Stelle" [wikip] [YouTube]) attributed to Napoli's own St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787).   It should be noted that pretty much ALL of the traditional ENGLISH Christmas Carols -- Adeste Fideles / "O Come O Ye Faithful" [it-wikip]* comes self-evidently to mind -- are actually translated FROM LATIN hence predate their English usage.  And I come originally from a Czech household.  The Czech Christmas Carols "Narodil se Kristus Pán" (Born is Christ the Lord) [cs-wikip]* and Nesem Vám Noviny" go back to "ages past" the first to the 15th century, the second, as a folk hymn, honestly unknown.

So to purport that Charles Dickens (!), as great an author as he was, somehow _invented Christmas_ is NONSENSE arguably even EVIL NONSENSE that gives nihilists and other enemies of truth comfort.  Shame. -- ZERO Stars.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

Justice League [2017]

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

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

Justice League [2017] (directed by Zach Snyder, screenplay by Chris Terrio and Jack Whedon, story by Chris Terrio and Zach Snyder, based on the characters of DC Comics [DC] [wikip]) unites various superheroes of the DC Comic Universe [wikip] -- including Batman [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played in this series by Ben Affleck), Superman [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played in this series by Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the series by Gal Gadot), The Flash [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played here by Ezra Miller), Cyborg [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played here by Ray Fisher) and Aquaman [DC] [wikip] [IMDb] (played here by Jason Momoa) -- to fight the emerging threat of an ancient supervillainous deity named Steppenwolf [wikip] [IMDb] (voiced in the film by Ciarán Hinds).

It is noteworthy here that most of humanity (including the fully human / more contemporary superheroes in the story) was/were totally oblivious of even the existence of this re-emerging supervillain threat.  Only Wonder Woman and Aquaman (whose origin stories link them to the GrecoRoman mythological Amazons [wikip] and Atlantians [wikip] respectively) understand who Steppenwolf was, what he was up to, and what kind of an Apocalyptic / "world destroying" threat he was.   This is a characteristic of DC Comics, whose supervillains tend to be either extraterrestrial or otherwise generally hidden "under the muck" of this world until they quite suddenly appear in order to threaten humanity's very existence.

Much of course ensues as Wonder Woman and Batman assemble the superheroes to fight this emerging threat -- Steppenwolf being German for "wolf of the steppes" or cayote -- who was making his lair somewhere in subterranean central Russia (!).  Among that which ensues is that the two realize that they're going to have to find a way to _resurrect_ Superman (killed in the previous installment Batman vs Superman: The Dawn of Justice [2016]).  Minor spoiler alert: they succeed.  How?  I'm not going to tell you ;-).

All in all, the story plays out as a typical superhero movie with much action, much "glass breaking" level of mass destruction.  Then characteristic of the DC Comics universe the story is generally darker / more "hard-boiled" than the stories that play-out in the Marvel Comics universe and there are fairly easily identifiable if still low-level motiffs previously associated with 1920s-era (pre-Hitler's definitive rise) German Fascism.  (I'll leave it to Readers here to reflect on my charge here and identify the more obvious examples -- I make mention of several in the immediate paragraph above).

As such, while not a bad superhero movie, I am "wary" and I much prefer the Marvel Comics stories.

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Wonder [2017]

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

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

Wonder [2017] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Stephen Chbosky along with Steven Conrad  and Jack Thorne based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by R.J. Palacio [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is truly a remarkable film that come Oscar time deserves _at minimum_ nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and then Best Picture.  I rarely cry at the movies, yet, I found myself tearing up _repeatedly_ as the story of Auggie (played wonderfully by Jacob Trembplay) a quite significantly physically challenged (mostly by this point _aesthetically challenged_) fifth-grade boy was told.  After 20+ surgeries, his face was still quite significantly scarred / deformed.

The true genius of the story IMHO was that it was told MOSTLY from the perspective of Auggie _and then of the kids / teens_, including his older sister Via (played to a stunning break-out performance level by Izabela Vidovic) in his life.  As such, the story wasn't solely about him, but about the both on-one-hand remarkable, yet on-the-other utterly _ordinary_ kids / teens around him.  AND EVERY TIME a "conflict" presented itself in the story, the story dutifully portrayed the other person's "side" / perspective as well.  I FOUND THIS TO BE _WONDER-FUL_.

I found it absolutely beautiful to enter into the world of Via, who if not for her clearly (and by nobody's fault) _special needs_ younger brother, would have had an otherwise normal (or "normal") life:  She both "understands" and yet is inevitably jealous that "mom" (played again wonderfully by Julia Roberts) ends up _necessarily spending_ so much more time focused on Auggie than on her.

Then there was classmate Jack (played by Noah Jupe) who was both "kinda a friend" but also "part of the class" (again of 5th graders) who found Auggie, well, at least on some level necessarily _different_ / _strange_.  There's even Via's BFF Miranda (played again wonderfully by Danielle Rose Russell) who suddenly, as the two enter high school, starts acting "strange."  Why?  Well ... there's a story there ;-).

Then though set in the context of a rather prestigious NYC prep-school, the kids in the school are not lily white.  Via's love interest in the story is a wonderful, whose family taught him well, well-groomed/behaved African American teen named Justin (played by Nadji Jeter).  When Jack and Auggie appear to drift apart, an African American girl named Summer (played wonderfully by Millie Davis) steps up to be Auggie's BFF for a while (and even helps explain to Jack why Auggie was so mad at him).  And Auggie's principle teacher Mr Browne, again African American (played by Daveed Diggs) carried the well-deserved respect of all.  And the Principal of the school Mr. Tushman (played by Mandy Patinkin) presumably Jewish would make Sholem Aleichem (author of the stories that became Fiddler on the Roof) proud.

This was honestly A REMARKABLE STORY, ADAPTED TO FILM, that so wonderfully reminds us, that though perhaps many of us may have become jaded in our time and look-out for our interests, many others, and especially the young are still _fundamentally good people_.  Yes, misunderstandings still can occur, but if one took time to learn their perspective on the story, one would _understand_.

Simply a wonderful film / story, richly _deserving praise_ and certainly one of the best North American films of the year.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express [2017]

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

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

Murder on the Orient Express [2017] [IMDb-Hist] (directed by Kenneth Branagh, screenplay by Michael Green based on the celebrated novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Agatha Christie [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) continues the current cycle of remakes / updates of celebrated novels / stories of the past.  Yet while perhaps borrowing from other recent updates there remains a _slightly_ hyper-real "story book" quality to the film's set designs -- one thinks here of the reboots / remakes of the Sherlock Holmes [2011+] stories, The Three Musketeers [2011], Anna Karenina [2012], The Great Gatsby [2013] and even the original Star Trek [2013] [2016] series -- even then the sets here are more subdued than in the case of the examples just mentioned, and certainly _the pacing_ of the current film tracks much more closely to the pace of the original novel than in the case of the other recent remakes.

That said, Viewers are confronted with the question of whether this decision to adhere so closely to the pacing of the original novel was a good idea.  To be honest, and though I feel somewhat embarrassed as I write this, I found the current film _far more boring_ than say the recent remakes of the The Three Musketeers [2011]Anna Karenina [2012] and even the Sherlock Holmes [2011+] stories.  Further, since the 1974, also star-studded screen version of Murder was _so good_, one's left with the questions: Why bother with the making of the current remake? How did this film "move the ball?"  Say what one will, ALL of the above mentioned recent remakes did, at least aesthetically, _move the ball_.  The set designs of Anna Karenina [2012]The Great Gatsby [2013] and even the recent Sherlock Holmes [2011+] remakes, The Three Musketeers [2011] and  the Star Trek [2013] [2016] reboot were often simply stunning.  And even the often frenetic pacing of those recent films often carries with it its own charm (if nothing else, one marvels at these films' choreography).  In contrast, the pacing of the current film is kinda ... ho hum and leaves one wondering why, except that it was (perhaps) "time", the current film was made at all.

So what's the film about?  Well it retells the classic Agatha Christie story of her celebrated detective Hercule Poirot [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the current film by Kenneth Branagh) finding himself traveling in lavish (dare one say Grand Budapest Hotel [2014]) style on the 1920s-30s era Orient Express [wikip] from Istanbul to London, when ... (1) an avalanche somewhere in the Balkans halts the train, and (2) a MURDER, I dare say MURDER takes place on the train. 

As the good detective interviews the various fellow travelers (played by such current Hollywood stars as Judi Dench, William De Foe, Michelle Pfeiffer Penélope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley) on the high class train car in which they were traveling, he finds that pretty _all of them_ had _some_ connection to the murder victim, and ... I'm not going to tell you.  Either you already know how this story ends, or if you don't ... and if you don't, I'm not going to ruin it for you ;-).

All in all, this _not_ a bad, current generation remake of the classic story.  It's just I think it rather fails the why was the remake made? / "move the ball" tests. 

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Saturday, November 4, 2017

LBJ [2016]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB () (3 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (M. Rechtschaffen) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

LBJ [2016] (directed by Rob Reiner, screenplay by Joey Hartstone) is a quite compelling biopic about consumate 1960s era politician President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the film to levels worthy of Oscar nomination consideration by Woody Harrelson).  Yet it's probably not for everybody.

Who the film would certainly interest would be those interested in both politics and history and certainly Viewers get a glimpse of a politician who knew how to get things done in Washington DC.  If one rates Presidents simply on the number of pieces of legislation, often very significant pieces of legislation (including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, The Great Society Programs such as Medicare / Medicaid, Equal Opportunity Act of 1964 and Head Start), LBJ ranks #1 as the most successful President in U.S. History.

Yet, this is certainly not the only standard nor perhaps the best standard to rate a President and LBJ was, of course, a complex figure -- a Southerner who managed to push through the most significant pieces of Civil Rights legislation in U.S. history, one who despite misgivings from the very beginning nonetheless got us into the Vietnam quagmire.  A key question raised in this film was about his sincerity with regards to any of the initiatives that came to define his Presidency.

That question MAY be unfair.  It would seem simply unbelievable that LBJ would embark on his War on Poverty / Great Society crusade if he did not fundamentally believe in it.  The film clearly shows that he could have QUITE COMFORTABLY settled back into serving-out Kennedy's term (he became President as a result of JFK's assassination) and perhaps even run / gotten elected on his own as a center-right "Southern Democratic" President, and our nation would be very different (and IMHO, honestly, I'm not kidding, _much worse_ for it) than it is today.  The Kennedy-esque Northern Liberals would have had to vote for him anyway (no real alternative) and white Southern Democrats (as the film amply showed) WOULD HAVE JUST LOVED HIM if he put the brakes on the Civil Rights movement.  BUT HE DID NOT DO THAT.

Anyway, the film which plays-out during the years BEFORE and IMMEDIATELY after John F. Kennedy's assassination helps the Viewer appreciate the political complexities and choices facing LBJ at the time.  Again, I honestly do believe that LBJ chose well.

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Suburbicon [2017]

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

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

Atlantic (D. Sims) interview w. George Clooney
Hollywood Reporter (S. Galloway) interview w. Matt Damon

Suburbicon [2017] (directed and screenplay cowritten by George Clooney along with Joel and Ethan Coen and Grant Heslov)  is a searingly dark in our day seemingly absurdist comedy (evoking Fellini's absurdist though not nearly as dark (just really, really wierd) comedy Satiricon [1969]) about a random all-white post WW II / 1950s era suburb into which a nice random African American family tries to move-in.

Yet, as absurdist a comedy as it may seem, the story is inspired by all-too-well known post WW II / 1950s era incidents in which new white homeowners feeling, somehow entitled to do so, often resorted to violence (truly by "any means necessary") to keep African American families and those of other racial minorities out of their newly constructed neighborhoods.  This was the case even though these new white homeowners were able to buy their homes based on GI Bill FHA loans that veterans of color were _nominally_ eligible for as well.

Look, Dear Readers, my ancestry is Czech and in 1950-60s Chicago, the heavily Czech American populated suburbs of  Cicero and Berwyn were _infamous_ for keeping African American families from moving-in through violence.  My dad, emigrating to the U.S. (and the Chicago area) in the 1950s as a chemist did not need to live in Cicero / Berwyn.  So I grew up in _even more_ lily-white suburbs where simple economics kept their neighborhoods largely "racially pure," but I know (and to my own shame) _exactly_ what this film is about.

And no matter what else could be said about this 1950s-60s era injustice (and MUCH could be said -- including how this kind of post-WW II housing discrimination has kept African Americans economically down to this day) WHAT IS ABSOLUTELY CLEAR IS THAT THIS KIND OF VIOLENCE AGAINST BLACKS / OTHER MINORITIES NEED NOT EVER HAPPEN AGAIN ... unless ... WE LET IT.

So then ... the current film is about two families, neighbors, in an "idyllic" fictionalized 1950s-era suburb.  One of the families, the Mayers was black (mom, dad and 10 year old son played by Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke and Tony Espinosa) and the other was white, headed by an accountant of some kind, named Gardner (played by Matt Damon), his wife (played by Julianne Moore), her sister (also played by Julianne Moore) and ten year old son (played by Noah Jupe).

Actually / ironically the two families though _actual neighbors_ seemed to get along _quite well_, BUT ... that was perhaps because Gardner's family was TOO BUSY DEALING WITH ITS TRULY SORDID DEMONS to be bothered with their new neighbors being of another perceived "lower" race.

Yet even as the sordid "family drama" involving (1) Mob debts, (2) Adultery and even possibly (3) Incest plays out _quietly_ within the "confines" of the Gardner household, THE ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOOD becomes increasingly (and increasingly violently) agitated _by the mere presence_ of the _quiet_ African American Mayer family in their midst.

What the heck is going on?  Yes, what the heck is going on?  And do we HONESTLY want to go back to this kind of mentality?

Yes, this is an UGLY film, but intentionally so.  And I COMPLETELY UNDERSTAND George Clooney / Matt Damon, et al for wanting to make it.

Again, do we really want to go back to _this_?

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