Friday, January 19, 2018

The Commuter [2018]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (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 (I. Vishnevetsky) review

The Commuter [2018] (directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, screenplay by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle), a Liam Neeson / "Taken" [1] [2] -like vehicle, is a "January movie" that, thankfully, delivers what most familiar with the genre would expect:

In the current version of this nightmare, Neeson plays lowly Michael MacCauley, once an NYPD cop (gotta get the needed skills from somewhere...), more recently a Westchester County (suburban) living "life insurance salesman" who commuted each day to work back to NYC.

Well on the random day during which the plot plays out, he, approaching sixty is summarily laid-off by a arrogant, bean-counting boss because (and what _every_ sixty-year-old American fears ...) ... he can.  MacCauley has a family, a son about to go to college, of course.  Don't matter.  At least the Ancient Greeks would leave one with a cup of hemlock tea to "contemplate one's options."

MacCauley stops by the old precinct to visit his former (and younger) partner (played by Patrick Wilson).  A little troubled / sad, he, of course, does not want to make the folks at precinct feel sorry for him.  He's assured that "life in the NYPD isn't what it used to be either" and "cheer-up, something may come up..."

Well ... something does...

Sitting down, to take his (last, for at least a while) daily commute home, a mysterious woman (played by Vera Farmiga) sits down next to him, and offers him a "simple job" that probably in a different state of mind, he might have had far more questions about: She asks him to, since he appeared to be "a regular commuter" to identify a person "who does not belong" and to surreptiously plant a small gps device on that person.  That's all.  Oh yes, and if he did so, he'd get $100,000, $25K of which was hidden in their car's bathroom, to prove to him that she was serious.  He says, "he'd think about it."  Stepping off the train, she tells him that he has 1 stop to think about it.  He takes that stop to go to the bathroom and finds the small package with $25K in $100s waiting for him.

Okay, now he's "in" but ... he hasn't even asked a most important question here: "Why would ANYONE pay a stranger to 'find someone' for $100K?"  This can't be good.  Of course, it isn't.  And, well ... anyone (or group) willing to hand someone $25K just to tease that person into doing something, is PROBABLY going to want (and be able to) to _insist_ that "the job get done" ...

The rest of the movie ensues ...

Dear Readers ... if the plot seems "a little far fetched" well ... OF COURSE IT IS ;-).  And yes, Liam Neeson has stepped into this role of "every man" yet ALSO "super man" over and over again.  But JUST LIKE A RECURRING NIGHTMARE ... the story works.

Sometimes, when we're _already quite down_ we get ourselves _sucked into nightmares_ even deeper than we dare imagine.  But then, we often find that we do have the skills to find / fight our way out...

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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Phantom Thread [2017]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB () (4 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

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

Phantom Thread [2017] (written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) though set presumably in the post-WW II late-1940s to early-1950s seems almost an allegory for our own times.  Indeed one _could_ imagine the film to be a strange (and strangely _sad_) retelling of the (one would have hoped _dated_) 18th Century "comedy" She Stoops to Conquer.

At center of the story is Reynolds Woodcock (played quite magnificently if irritatingly by Daniel Day-Lewis) an odd / repressed dress-designer to the English upper-crust of the time.  Perhaps today he would be out as gay, perhaps he'd simply remain "odd" (but rich / connected enough to be "accepted" as "odd").  Perhaps because he was gay (and, it being the late 1940s-1950s in Britain it was actually still illegal (!) to be gay), he _takes_ a vaguely East European (perhaps Jewish perhaps "merely Slavic") waitress (Alma, played again quite wonderfully by Vicky Krieps) he meets at a cliff-side restaurant near Dover as certainly his "muse" and perhaps as someone who'd appear around him enough to make it plausible that she'd be his lover. 

Wonderful.  A _certainly strange_ and possibly gay Anglo stringing along, no, practically _owning_ a young Slavic woman (she _should be so happy_ ...) seems almost an image of ... WELL GUESS ;-/.

The movie would be simply awful if good ole Alma was completely defenseless.  Instead, she "finds a way..." to make this seemingly dismally unequal relationship "work".

Sigh ... I hope this cultural nightmare that we're passing through (again...) will come to an end soon.

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

All the Money in the World [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

All the Money in the World [2017] (directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by David Scarpa based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by John Pearson [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) will probably be most remembered for the truly remarkable cinematic / technological feat in which director Ridley Scott and his editors _completely removed_ actor Kevin Spacey, who had been cast and played the role of J. Paul Getty [wikip] [IMDb] in the film (one of the film's principal figures) from the already finished (though yet unreleased) product, replacing him with Christopher Plummer.  It's seamless.  One would never guess that Christopher Plummer was not originally playing the role.

Okay then, how about the film?  Well, one could say that in this era of the super-rich (re)ascendant this is this year's addition to last year's Warren Beatty starring Howard Hughes biopic Rules Don't Apply [2016].   Indeed, in an initial voice-over has J. Paul Getty's grandson, J.P. Getty III (played in the film by Charlie Plummer) introducing us to his family's unimaginably wealthy life style he ends: "We walk in this world with you, but we're _not_ like you." 

By the tone of voice, it was clear that the character (again, then still late teenage J.P. Getty III) living then in Rome, Italy with his mother Jane Harris (played by Michelle Williams) did not mean this in a hostile or dismissive way.  Instead, he just meant this to be a statement of fact.  Why?  Well he explains sometime later: His grandfather, octogenarian J. Paul Getty was then "_not merely_ the richest man in the world.  Instead, he was _the richest man in the history of the world_."  Indeed, in a later scene, J. Paul Getty is shown showing his grandson ruins of one of the baths of ancient Rome and explaining that he truly believed that he himself was the reincarnation of one of the Roman Emperors.  Certainly no one outside of an Emperor could have possibly lived the life-style of the J. Paul Getty at the time. 

Well, but that kind of money did, in fact, make the members of the Getty family targets, and five minutes into the film, after explaining to us the Gettys' position in this world through his voice over, J.P. Getty III is kidnapped, right there, after flirting with some "little people" (a number or quite random Roman prostitutes) near the edge of Rome.  The rest of the story unfolds from there ...

Among that which unfolds is, of course, the whole question of what money can and can not buy.  Here was the richest man in history of the world, and _one_ of _his grandchildren_ was kidnapped.  And the reason why he was kidnapped was, of course, because he was "a Getty."  If he was just a random Joe, then there'd be no "benefit" to kidnapping him.  Then J. Paul Getty had other grandchildren.  If he paid ransom _for one grandchild_ would he put _the others_ indeed his whole family in further danger?  Then J.P. Getty III was actually a child of divorce.  His mother had actually divorced out of the family.  Was the kidnapping even legit?  Or was it some sort of a scam by either a "spoiled teenager" or "vindictive ex-daughter-in-law" to "get at his money."  Again, if the Gettys weren't _so insanely rich_ ... no one would care about them (or try to rip them off ...).

Anyway, it all makes for a quite interesting movie about "the difficulties of being super-rich" and perhaps like last year's Rules Don't Apply [2016] a "story for our times."

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Friday, December 29, 2017

Call Me by Your Name [2017]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB () (4 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (1 1/2 Stars)

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

Call Me by Your Name [2017] (directed by Luca Guadagnino, screenplay by  based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by André Aciman [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a challenging movie for someone like me to review.  However, it ought to be far more challenging to most reviewers than it appears to be.

It's challenging to me because it's a sexually themed coming of age story and, well, I'm a Catholic priest.  It ought to be challenging to more reviewers than one like me because it's _also_ a love story between a seventeen year old minor and an adult (!).  Yet, not one of the three secular reviewers above seemed to have an issue with that.

It once fell to me to throw-out a band from the line-up of our Parish's music festival because one of its band-members turned out to be listed as a sex offender for having had the misfortune of picking-up a sixteen year old (girl) who was at a bar (with a fake id) where he had played some years back and had a gloriously _consensual_ (or "consensual") one-night stand with her.  She thought her encounter with the "worldly" musician was AWEsome, 'cept, of course, her parents were not amused ... I also know a Catholic priest who was de-frocked, his life effectively destroyed, as a result of meeting someone at 1980s-era gay party, that someone, having ended up being a minor.  In both cases, the first case involving a heterosexual encounter, in the other a homosexual one, the context was one in which one _could_ have thought that they had the right to assume that everyone present was "of age."  Yet in both cases, it became tragically clear (too late for the adults involved ...) that this was not the case.

As a result, I simply find it extremely stupid to fantasize about "wouldn't it be nice..." when it involves a "love story" between an adult and a minor...

Yet the film proves how one could manipulate an audience (and even critics) into being enchanted by something that ought to be appalling.  My favorite (and far safer) example of this was the film version of The English Patient [1996] which won all kinds of Oscars in its year.  I laughed out-loud hearing an otherwise quite traditionalist friend of mine wax eloquent about how much he loved the movie, telling him: "Do you realize that that the two main characters in the film consummated their flagrantly _adulterous relationship_ in head banging fashion _on Christmas Eve_ with a garrison of British troops lined-up in formation in the plaza below them singing _Silent Night_" ;-).  But there it is: Set a film in an exotic location be it in WW-II era Libya (The English Patient) or 1980s era Italy (the current film) and dress the characters in "clothes of the era" and ... you can have them do ANYTHING ...

Anyway, this is certainly a cinematically lovely film, but honestly a dangerous fantasy that could get all kinds of people in a world of trouble if acted upon.  And if there's any doubt here, let me just end mentioning two words: Kevin Spacey ...

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Pitch Perfect 3 [2017]

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

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

Pitch Perfect 3 [2017] (directed by Trish Sie story by / screenplay cowritten by Kay Cannon along with based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Mickey Rapkin [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]), the third installment of this "a capella" franchise probably won't win any awards for originality ... "the shark" here has been jumped long ago ... BUT all things considered, if you liked the first two films you'll probably like this one as well.  And certainly the theatre full of glee-ful teenage girls who made up the bulk of the audience at the show where I saw the film would agree.

The film begins with the now since graduated Barden U. Bellas "out in the real world" and working rather meaningless "entry level jobs," if that... One of the college grads was still working at a barista at a Starbucks-like establishment.  Another, was not working at all.  A third, found herself doing that thing that most recent college grads dream of doing, and perhaps even do, exactly _once_ ... telling her "uncomprehending boss" to ... before realizing, "Hey, wait ... I guess I don't have a job anymore..." ;-/.

Well, sigh ... coming together, as Alumni (OMG are we "old people" already? ;-) to a gig of Barden U's current "A Capella" team ... they decide that they'd _all_ really like to sing _one last time_ together.  Turns out that one of them has a connection, through her dad, for a gig with the USO ... and so they're soon off to Spain, Italy and France to "perform for the troops."  Much ensues ...

The most enjoyable thing that ensues, is that we the Viewers get to see these actresses / singers perform a string of remarkable / perfectly choreographed A Capella numbers, and that's honestly what most people seeing this film will come wanting to see.

Yes, there's "kinda a plot" that holds the story together, but that's honestly beside the point.  This film, like the others, is mostly about the joy of singing, and then singing with a group / among friends.

And yes, that's quite nice ... Good job Anne Kendrick, et al.  Good job ;-)

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Post [2017]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB () (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

The Post [2017] (directed by Steven Spielberg screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer) is nominally about the challenges to the Press / Society that came with the 1971 leaking of The Pentagon Papers regarding a 30 year cover-up of official (U.S. military / government) opinion regarding the prospects for U.S. success in the War in Vietnam.  Yet, one would have to be utterly tone-death to not see the parallels (and on a multitude of levels, sometimes surprising) to our current situation as well.

First, the U.S. found itself in a War that appeared to have no real prospect of ending, victoriously anyway, anytime even remotely resembling "soon."  Today, we find ourselves in a similar war with Islamic Militants that has similarly dismal prospects of ending anytime "soon" (AND YET, we do understand in the current case that we truly have no other alternative other than slug it out.  In the case of Vietnam, there was the serious / legitimate question of whether the War there was worth it.  Yes, there had been the "Domino Theory" -- if Vietnam fell, so would a lot of other nearby nations as well.  Yet, that did not materialize even after Vietnam did indeed Fall in 1975.  Today, most public opinion is more-or-less certain that if Islamic Militants are allowed widespread safe haven ANYWHERE, that we can expect 9/11 style attacks to follow once more.  We really DON'T have a choice).

Second, the whole public debate during the Vietnam War, JUST LIKE CONTEMPORARY POLITICAL DEBATE IN THE U.S., was _tainted_ by fears of Soviet (now Russian) involvement.  This may be something that many _today_ may want to forget, but from the late-1960s through to the end of the Cold War there were LEGITIMATE fears of Soviet collusion with then THE LEFT in this country (and throughout the West) in influencing U.S. (and West European) public opinion.  Indeed, even the Watergate Break-In of the Democratic Party's National Headquarters (which eventully resulted in President Nixon's resignation) was at least IN PART driven by fears that the Communists / Cubans were somehow involved with the radically "peacenik" George McGovern campaign.   And for someone of my ethnic background, Czech, with parents who both fled Communist Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, it's simply _hard for me to believe_ that there would not have been _robust contacts_ (perhaps even simply through the Communist Party of the United States) between the Soviet bloc intelligence agencies and groups like Tom Hayden's Students for a Democratic Society, which led a good part of the anti-Vietnam War protests.  Indeed, I look at someone like former KGB officer Vladimir Putin and see someone for whom the current "colluding" hoopla would not be anything even remotely resembling his "first rodeo" in this sort of a thing.  The Soviets were seeking to influence public opinion in the West -- BACK THEN usually linking-up with THE LEFT -- throughout THE WHOLE OF THE COLD WAR. 

That all said, the Pentagon Papers did reveal something that American Public opinion needed to know -- that even the U.S. military and its government agencies did not believe that the War in Vietnam was winnable, and didn't believe so FOR DECADES.   That's what a Free Press is for: to ensure that secrets effecting millions of people's lives (how many American soldiers served in Vietnam?  And 55,000+ died there...) are available so that decisions effecting said lives could be made rationally and openly.  Yes, not every detail needed to be known, but the simple fact that even the Generals themselves did not believe the War to be winnable was important for the American public to know (and then plan for the consequences ... including the acceptance of millions of subsequent Vietnamese refugees...). 

Which then leads us back today.  It could be fairly said that _today_ we have a U.S. President more hostile to the institution of the Free Press than any since Richard Nixon, and arguably even more so.  That should worry us because if we are not given information on which to make rational judgments, then we can not effectively elect our leaders.  That's effectively Putin's line: that ALL PRESS, everywhere is basically a lie (so might as well just listen _to him_...).

So then, back in 1971, the Washington Post, under its first woman head, Katharine Graham [wikip] (played wonderfully by Meryl Streep) who was forced to take the job -- back then the Washington Post was a family business -- after her husband died (perhaps even of a suicide), risked arguably its future in printing the Pentagon Papers (jointly with the New York Times) rather than keep them unreleased.  In doing so, Katharine Graham risked lifelong friendships with some of the U.S. power elite including JFK / LBJ era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara [wikip] (played in the film by Bruce Greenwood) who had, in fact, commissioned the "Pentagon Paper" study that was being leaked.

Even the incestuous nature of "upper echelon" Washington D.C. is something that was worrisome then, and should remain worrisome _now_.  In this film, it was clear just how "everybody seemed to know each other" pretty much all their lives.  Graham's editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee [wikip] (played wonderfully in the film by Tom Hanks) had been a long-time friend of the Kennedy Family, especially JFK and his wife Jackie ...

Now in 2010, _long before_ the current Trump-Russian collusion "hoopla," the FBI broke-up an odd Russian spy-ring operating in the U.S. [1] [2].  Curious was that these were "deep cover agents" seeking to basically infiltrate "The Hamptons Circuit" (where the rich, Washington/Manhattan powerbrokers would "summer").  Why would Russian Intelligence (the FSB) want to do that?  Unless they were operating under the view that a good part of what makes the United States operate remains that incestuous "network" of interconnected power-brokers like those that existed back in the 1970s -- the Grahams, Bob McNamara, the KennedysBen Bradlee, etc ...

Indeed, interestingly enough, Nixon, like Trump, felt that he was "outside" of this loop ...

Anyway, all this makes the current film, made by Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, all now "Hollywood royalty" with certainly at least "get in free cards" to stomping grounds of the Hampton Elite, all the more interesting ...

MUCH to think about / contemplate here ;-)

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The Greatest Showman [2017]

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

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review

The Greatest Showman [2017] (directed by Michael Gracey, story by and screenplay cowritten by Jenny Bicks along with Bill Condon) is a (let's be clear / kind...) "broad stroke" Broadway style musical tribute to P.T. Barnum [wikip] [IMDb] (played in the film by Hugh Jackman) founder, eventually, of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Yet, to those who'd complain that this "Broadway Musical" was not rigorously historical ... well, let's be honest, that's _not_ what "musical theater" has ever been about.  Instead, in the tradition of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida or Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly, it's always been about grand, sweeping themes.  (I would _not_ want to write a term-paper on Evita Peron based _solely_ on Madonna's performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita [wikip] [Amzn] ;-) or for that matter base my understanding of Founding Father, the founding Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and arguably founder of the entire U.S. economic system, Alexander Hamilton _solely_ on the current rave (and rapping ;-) musical Hamilton [wikip] ;-).

And to get an idea of the "far reaches" of "what's possible" the realm of musical theater (if then a fair question could be asked, "why?" ;-), consider the "creation" of compatriots from my parents' country, the Czech Republic (where BOTH "Opera" AND "Ice Hockey" are King), where "enthusiasts" wrote an actual Madame Butterfly-esque TRIBUTE to the Czech ice hockey team's "Grand Gold Medal Victory" entitled Nagano [wikip article about the Olympics] [cs.wikip article about the subsequent Opera]* ;-)

To the film at hand ... ;-)

The story here portrays P.T. Barnum as someone who was born quite poor and consequently had a chip on his shoulder, trying in various ways to both _eliminate distinctions_ (explaining his affinity to the kinds of people he'd hire to work in his circus) and _rise up_ to the upper class that he felt had looked-down-upon and rejected him.

These two "projects" of building a truly egalitarian community where "all were for one and one for all" and his trying to "rise up to a higher station" did, of course, often clash with each other, notably when Barnum underwrote the American tour of a then famous European opera singer named Jenny Lind [wikip] (played in the film by Rebecca Ferguson).  Then, as I noted in a number of years ago, in my review of a bio-pic about J. Edgar Hoover, a personal project seeking to "restore honor" to one's family / name, is something of a fool's errand ... How much "honor" does one have to "restore" before it has been, indeed, restored?  It would seem that it's never enough ...

So P.T. Barnum is portrayed in this film as both a flawed and driven man, but also one who did, in fact, bring happiness to a lot of people, notably to the various people that he brought together to work in his circus.  These were often people, as one character in the story noted, whose "own mothers had been ashamed of (on account of their deformities)."

Overall, this is crowd pleasing film.  A number of reviewers (and biographers, in as much as P.T. Barnum has been the subject of biography) have noted that Barnum was not necessarily all that kind / altruistic to the various people who made up his circus acts.  Indeed, a strong case could be made that he exploited them.  Still ... where-else would these people go? and they also did stay.

So it all makes for ... a grand show ;-)

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