Remember the big award winner this year: "Boyhood"? Well, meet "Girlhood." In French, it's actually "Bande de Filles" (Band of Girls), but the English (subtitled) very smartly became "Girlhood."
Marieme is a 16-year-old girl living in the projects in France with her abusive older brother, her charwoman mother who is hardly ever home, and her two younger sisters.
Marieme gets involved with three female highschool dropouts. She is nicknamed "Vic" (for "victory") because her best friend in the little gang gives her a necklace (presumably stolen) with that name on it. They get into mild shenanigans and dream big dreams. This easy-going film (written and directed by Celine Sciamma) takes its time and there never seems to be anything dire or truly sad or threatening going on--partly because the Fab Four always have each other. Emotions (except for youthful exuberance) are a bit repressed, or maybe that's because these girls have to be tough. There also seems to be a kind of doom about these girls without many opportunities.
To see this all-girl-all-the-time camaraderie was refreshing. (There are so few non-silly gal pal films.) I also liked the sense of a strong womanhood that pervades. But strong to what ultimate purpose? Most of the guys are kind of bums, so there's a little statement being made there. Not blatant, but when you start adding it up....
Vic has a few adventures with her new friends, gets closer to her boyfriend, plans her own path (or as her friend Lady coaches her: "Do what you want"), but Marieme/Vic is always restless.
My main question about "Girlhood" is: did we ever really get to know this girl throughout the film? (Granted, she's a teen and her personality is still developing.) She is tender toward her family and friends, but can be mean toward others. It was great having our protagonist be a "poor girl," but I never really bought that she or her friends were that poor. Their personal and other trappings always looked quite comfortable. We were just supposed to believe it. I would have been more engaged and invested in the film if it actually was a little more gritty.
Two loose ends, for me, were: no mention at all of a father, and there are four kids. And the mother simply fades out of the picture all together (not sure if we hear her voice at the very end or not).
The ending, in my humble opinion, might be a bit of a (feminist's?) dream. Vic rebels against all available options, but she's still going to make it. Somehow. Good luck to her. And who am I to say she isn't going to make it? But it was a Hollywood, Disney ending. If you just "believe".... And, of course, we need to remember, this is a French film. Stubbornly impressionistic and whimsical.
Lately, many have tried to recreate the classic yet mod yet buttoned down yet swinging Cold War 60's. Guy Ritchie's stylish and tasty "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." succeeds with flying colors and begs to be seen on the big screen. This film is as much a comedy as it is an action flick. An American spy (a dapper, smooth and scene-commanding Henry Cavill) is teamed with a Russian spy (the charming, criminally underused comedic genius, Armie Hammer). Throw two femme fatales into the mix: Gaby, "Ex Machina's" Alicia Vikkander (who seemed a bit out of her league here or just lacked confidence), and Elizabeth Debicki (a vicious villainess who makes Cruella de Ville look like Shirley Temple).
The plot is thick and zesty. The United States and Russia have teamed up to stop a nuclear bomb from being made and sold by an Italian shipping cartel with Nazi connections, helmed by the evil Victoria (Debicki). The mission is enlivened by an endless competition between the two respective spies: the Soviet and the cowboy. An East German woman (Vikkander) is recruited as bait to help find her father, the scientist forced to create the bomb under duress. Find the father? Find the bomb. This perfect set-up of three mismatched nationals creates lots of friction from the start.
There aren't too many crazy twists and turns, but you do have to stay on your toes to follow the wordy exposition. The sure-footed pace takes its time and leaves room for tongue-in-cheek, kitschy dialogue, lots of deadpanning, and always a darn good time. Profanity is nil. It's not needed. Too much grownup, sophisticated fun is being had. The predicaments and chases are fresh, and the whole film masterfully avoids clichés.
Being that Guy Ritchie is British, you know that Merry Old England will have to put in an appearance at some point in this League of Nations caper--in the form of Hugh Grant. All the actors keep up the grand conceit with great aplomb. Hammer and Debicki are still in their 20's but have old soul acting chops.
"U.N.C.L.E." mixes the gimmicks of yesteryear filmmaking (crazy camera angles, split screens, quick zooms and blocky typefaces) with today's digital abilities. "U.N.C.L.E." sports one of the best soundtracks I've ever experienced in a film. It's a character in the film. It's loud and lush and choreographed, but never just plunked in. It makes the film feel like a music video in places. Although blaring and mixed with electronica, the beats and rhythms and songsters featured in the soundtrack are always and only utterly human. You never feel like you're being ground up by a music machine.
It's truly PG-13 except for one fleeting almost-nude shot of a woman that was totally unnecessary in the midst of classy relationships between the sexes and mild innuendo. The torture section was a little too long and dark for the tone of this film, even though it ended on a much lighter note.
The ending (which leads directly into a sequel) actually has a jovial message of peace that isn't too far-fetched. "U.N.C.L.E." may be just a fun romp, but it also has a generous helping of heart and soul.
Looking for a tight suspense thriller? Look no further than "The Gift," the weak-titled, but strongly-executed directorial debut of the ever-fascinating Joel Edgerton (who also wrote and stars). The trailer is not a trailer but a spoiler, so don't even watch it. You'll know far too much at the outset. The one thing I didn't know even after watching the trailer is that Joel Edgerton was the mysterious, creepy bad guy. Edgerton is a changeling, so you've seen him in several movies, but if you don't do your preparatory movie homework or stay for the credits, you may not even realize who he is ("The Odd Life of Timothy Green," "Zero Dark Thirty," "The Great Gatsby," "Exodus"). I first became aware of him in "The Great Gatsby" where he was acting everyone else under the table. I since discovered he has a fierce fan following (which I have joined). But on to the film.
In actuality, "The Gift" is a psychological thriller, a character study of people who are relatable and not over-the-top. It's an intimate drama among the high-powered and ambitious Simon (the always on point Jason Bateman), his apprehensive wife, Robyn (the luminous Rebecca Hall who, of necessity, carries the entire movie with her every blink and wistful twist of her mouth), and the gift-bearing interloper, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), who, like a bad penny, never seems to go away.
The movie begins with a supposed fresh start for Simon and Robyn. They move into their stylish California home high in the hills with their dog and baby paraphernalia (but there's no baby or pregnancy, so the waters are troubled from the get-go). Robyn's face alone tells us she is not 100% at ease. With anything. The modernist architecture featuring outside walls of glass from floor to ceiling make the perfect ambience for peeping Toms (or peeping Gordos), and the perfect metaphor for the false transparency of all our lives. We think we know what's going on. But do we?
The saddest truth in "The Gift" is the way men lie to women, or rather often just keep them in the dark. The way men talk over women's heads to each other. How it's really about male competition and women are the spoils of war. Robyn is greatly loved, cherished and respected, she's just not part of the conversation or privvy to the bigger picture. But Robyn's utter honesty and integrity shine through. She may seem a bit passive, naive, timid or unsure of herself at first (which she might be), but it's also her sensitivity, humility, kindness and uprightness that knows something isn't right--and she patiently sits with that till the truth comes out--well, most of it.
There are a few non-sequiturs and hard-to-follow plot points, but they don't majorly detract from the overall story. You will turn the ending over and over in your mind, telling yourself that the supposed dilemma of the ending can be fairly easily resolved--which our filmmakers may realize. However, the ending still works well on many levels.
There is an extreme dearth of music which rivets our attention on the actors' every move and word. When the music kicks in, it's minimalistic, modern, and the dischordant, grating, scathing violins are perfect. The color cast is today's browns and blues which seems to work well for darker fare.
Reviews are calling this film "chilling," but I wouldn't go that far, it's more "consistently disturbing and uncomfortable." We are never allowed to relax. There are no easy moments except for a handful of quick laughs. Even though there are a few jolt-in-your-seat moments, the real horror is what ordinary people are capable of. People's philosophies of life are revealed, some explicitly. What happens when we stick unswervingly to a rotten philosophy of life? How responsible are we for how we shape, affect and possibly ruin other people's lives? Who is truly the insecure loser--the bullied or the bully?
--When I first saw the title "The Gift" on IMDB and Fandango, I thought it was a Christian film.
--Watched this film with Ma who had her usual startling and interesting insights. There was a lot to talk about on the way home. (At the first F-word, even though I warned her, Ma shouts out "Whoa!" in the theater. She laughed a few times in the wrong places, too.)
--Rebecca Hall is a Brit, Joel Edgerton is an Aussie. Both do believable American accents.
The new movie, "I Am Potential," is based on the
true story of the Hughes Family whose son was born without eyes and unable to
walk. I almost didn't want to even tell you that, because I had the experience
of coming at the story cold, and was hit by the element of surprise at every turn.
However, there's no way to review this film without setting up a few essential
background facts. If you've seen the film (with Cloris Leachman) "The
Woman Who Willed A Miracle," you are in for a similar, heartfelt,
triumphant, soaring ride.
The film begins with a rather strained relationship between new
parents, a sports-obsessed father, Patrick (Burgess Jenkins), and doting mother,
Patricia (Evansville, Indiana's own Jama Williamson!) When the extent of their
son's disabilities come to light and then become a daily reality, the marriage
and paternal commitment is stretched even further.
SPOILER ALERT: I'm just going to have to tell you a little
bit of the plot here, but the joy of watching the film (it is a joy) will be
the well-executed details. Do you want to witness a conversion? The depths of a
father's love? Observe Dad slowly bonding with his little namesake--who will
never be an athlete--but whom Dad recognizes has a love and talent for music
from his youngest years. These scenes could melt boulders, and can be applied
to any Dad who has the eyes to see and appreciate who his child really is, to
give up trying to fulfill his own ideas and dreams through his progeny. I
really thought Dad was going to walk out for the whole first part of the movie.
Just the opposite.
Patrick John and Patricia go on to have two more boys
(able-bodied). Their firstborn, Patrick Henry (Jimmy Bellinger) grows into an optimistic
young man with an upbeat disposition who simply never feels sorry for himself.
I watched some YouTubes of the real Patrick Henry who cheerily states: "So
God made me blind and unable to walk. Big deal! He gave me musical gifts!"
Even though the family has their many trials and makes many
sacrifices, the love and positivity is, well, overwhelming at times. I'm not a
fan of saccharine movies, but there are no "Hallmark" artificial sweeteners
in "Potential." This family is really a "can-do" family. We
know there are families like this out
there. We know there are physically
and otherwise challenged individuals out there who act like Patrick Henry:
overcomers. When I found myself skeptical at different points, I realized what
was happening was that this film simply showed up my own healthy stores of cynicism
and limited reserves of hope! Shamed by a film!
My glowing praise does not
mean that this is a perfect film. There are lulls with absolutely no dramatic
suspense or tension. There are bland scenes that begin without a hook, when
there is not even one question in the audience's mind (I wonder how this will
get resolved? But what will happen when...?), but "Potential" is
still worth every minute of eyeball time. I wouldn't classify it as a
"feel good" film because it's too understated for that. It's much more
an examination of fatherhood. One father's hard decision to love his son
without measure, to help his son succeed the way his son wants to succeed. To
be a team of two. If Patrick John Hughes isn't a reflection of God the Father,
I don't know who is. (You can also watch the real Patrick John Hughes being
interviewed on YouTube.)
The soundtrack can be a bit Americana-grandiose and mawkish
at times. And some of the sets, scenes and dialogue actually might be a little too "Leave It To
Beaver," golly-gee-whiz affable.
Patrick Hughes, Sr., reminds me of a man named Mike I met at
a Blackhawks game. He had rink side season tickets. His nineteen-year-old son
Mike (also a "junior") had severe autism and would go absolutely nuts
(like any good Hawks' fan!) when the team scored, shouting and banging on the
plexiglass for all he was worth. Mike, Sr. told me his story: "I used to
think there was something wrong with him [his son], and I was ashamed of him.
Then I went to Medjugorje and realized that my son is fine: there was something
wrong with me. Now our relationship has totally changed and I just enjoy
"It's not about what you see, but how you see it."
The idea and ideology of "transhumanism": that human beings are basically just brains in containers, and that if we could just find a way to upload our brains into computers or robots or such--we could live on forever--is the subject of the new film "Self/less." It was also the subject of the recent film "Transcendence." (Incidentally, Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, is a transhumanist--that is, he holds this view of the human person and is seeking to make it happen.) The trailer to this film looked intriguing and the premise clever, but I'm sorry to report that the actual execution of the film is a shambles.
An older, powerful New York business tycoon, Damian (Ben Kingsley), has six months left to live. He lives alone and has one grown daughter whom he rarely has contact with--a fact that he begins to regret. He decides to look into a company that does "shedding" or life extension. It's all very secretive and extremely expensive, but the company's head tells him they aren't as interested in the money as they are in prolonging the existence of "the world's great minds" (eugenics, anyone?). Just what Damian has ever done for humanity (or will do in his new skin) is unclear.
ONE LIFE TO LIVE
The shedding process is basically putting Damian's mind/consciousness into a younger man's body (supposedly one grown in the lab). The younger man is played by Ryan Reynolds (Canada's Ben Affleck). The process goes well enough until Damian starts to have flashbacks and memories that are not his own. In order to keep these flashbacks at bay, he must take pills provided for him by the company, who dole them out very sparingly. It starts to become very clear that Damian wasn't told, and presumably didn't ask, all that "shedding" entails and what the future really holds for him. The company is ever-present in his life and we start to see that he is practically owned by them. He is a guinea pig, an experiment.
A woman and her little girl enter Damian's life, and he begins to realize that they are something worth living and perhaps dying for. The girl is like a stand-in for the daughter he never spent much time with, so there's a kind of redemption here. But if we only have one life to live and we refuse to repent--will we really repent in our extended life? (Failure to repent while you can is probably the worst kind of procrastination.) "It is appointed for men to die once." --Hebrews 9:27 "You are merciful to all, you overlook our sins and give us time to repent." Wisdom 11:23
HOLE-Y PLOT, BATMAN!
The way it's presented, it doesn't seem like we are supposed to "like" this idea of shedding...however, I wonder if some people in the audience might be saying to themselves, "Yeah, I'd do that." How it actually occurs scientifically is never explained and the process (two MRI-like machines for the two bodies) is reminiscent of the 1950's sci-fi movie machines that "just do the job." By not giving us any details, it's a bit of a leap for the imagination, but the leaping doesn't stop there. The plot has as many gaps and holes as a slice of Swiss cheese. Also, important plot points are not made crystal clear and it takes us a while to catch up. The one thing you don't want audiences to keep saying to themselves over and over is: "But why don't they just...?" and I found myself repeating that internally many times.
Even though it seems we're supposed to have big misgivings about "shedding," it's stated over and over in the film that the body is a "prison" and an "empty vessel." Bad Theology of the Body! Bad Theology of the Body!
"The human body can never be reduced to mere matter. It is a spiritualized body, just as a person's spirit is so closely united to the body that they can be described as an embodied spirit" --JP2G, "Letter to Families," 19
FROM TRANSHUMAN TO INCARNATION
Recent convert from atheism to Catholicism, HuffPost writer and Yale grad, Leah Libresco, had to have a "transhuman to human" conversion in her thinking:
"My two biggest obstacles were the two heresies that tempted me most: Gnosticism and Pelagianism.
Gnosticism, and its attendant hatred/suspicion of the body, has made intuitive sense to me ever since I was little. I’ve been interested primarily in the abstract and the intellectual, so I’ve tended to think of my body as the thing that carries around therealme—my mind. I wanted to keep it in good enough repair for it to not inhibit or interfere with me, but, beyond that, I saw it simply as a tool, and one I wouldn’t care about switching for an engineered, robotic one, if the opportunity ever presented itself.
Ultimately, I knew I couldn’t be both Gnostic and Catholic, and I wound up more confident that Catholicism was true than that Gnosticism was. A faith that has God deliberately makethesebodies part of who we are and has his own Son come down to meet us, incarnate as we are, doesn’t look favorably on having contempt for this aspect of creation.
There is lull after lull in the action and tension, even when characters are in mortal danger. There are good isolated scenes and sequences, but the storytelling seems to get lost in these semi-detours. The woman's character is totally laughable. She is, well, a dumb brunette, and her lines are ridiculous and empty. She seems to accept all the preposterousness visited upon her extremely well. Her reactions and engagement with the drama are full of false notes. I wish I had a dollar for every time she whines: "WHAT'S GOING ON??!! IS EVERYTHING OK??!!" Another example of female air-headedness in dialogue was the stereotypical character of Damian's neglected daughter. When Damian tries to make things right with her shortly before his shedding, she spouts (for the audience's sake) these "on the nose" lines: "Sure. You were never there for me when I was growing up. You hardly ever try to get in touch with me. You think your money can solve everything."
Much of the story is predictable. I was able to keep guessing what would happen next (something I don't usually have a talent for): "I bet...yup!" so there was very little element of surprise, except for the ending which has a sizeable twist. One good takeaway was: Our choices effect others, a whole web of people, even when we think we are just making choices for ourselves. There's no such thing. Also, perhaps a film like this can give us pause: Do I accept my bodiliness, the conditions of my creatureliness, my limits? Can we accept the reality we're living in as the Creator designed it? (Satan couldn't. Adam and Eve couldn't.) Of course we want to be immortal and God wants us to be, too. But He's the Man with the plan. Do I accept God's plan? Do we even know when we're playing God anymore?
People in my audience were guffawing at super-serious moments, and a few people simply left early--I almost did, too, which is something I never do. I rarely tell people not to bother with a film, but if you're at the cinema? Keep moving past "Self/less." There's nothing to see here, folks.
--Ben Kingsley's New York accent is hideous, affected and hammy.
--Not a big screen thriller.
--Ironically, what does it really mean to be "selfless" (in Christian understanding)?
--I love how people are the evilest hitmen or victims just about to die, but...gotta fasten that seatbelt.
--I love how round after round is shot in gun battles and car chases at point blank range and no one ever gets hit.
--I actually caught myself subconsciously (is that possible?) looking for that slidebar at the bottom of a YouTube to fast forward the film! (And I was in a theater.)
--This could've been a pumpin' good ride. But it warn't.
"Inside Out," the new Pixar movie about Riley, an eleven-year-old girl whose world is turned upside down when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, is good, but not great. It's very much a kid's movie (with knowing asides to parents, as these films always have). When I first saw the trailer for the film, I guess I had very high expectations. I was elated that children were going to be taught about their interior life--that they even have one! Dramatizing the interior life, externalizing it, is always one of the biggest challenges in film, unlike literature which can write reams about characters' inner movements. Film can mostly only show. Film will use narration, flashbacks or other tools to let us know what a character might be thinking or feeling at a deeper level--beyond facial expressions and body language--but "Inside Out" is taking us right inside--as a cartoon can certainly do! Factor in that Riley plays hockey? This film, thought I, must have fallen right out of heaven.
"Inside Out" is highly imaginative with eye-popping color. We spend a good deal of the movie inside Riley's brain with her five key emotions: Joy (green-female), Sadness (blue, of course-female), Anger (red-male), Disgust (Green-female), and Fear (purple-male). Not having read much about the making of this film, I'm intrigued at the thought process/research that chose/named these as the primary emotions. Joy is all by herself as Riley's sole emotion when Riley is a baby, but Sadness follows immediately when Baby Riley begins wailing. (I would actually have put Sadness or Fear first, since birth can be traumatic and babies often cry right at birth.)
MEMORIES! LIGHT THE CORNERS OF MY MIND....
Riley's brain is "Headquarters," and Joy is in charge at the control panel as she and the gang look through Riley's eyes at the action in Riley's life. "Looking through Riley's eyes" is essentially monitoring a huge screen. Memories Riley makes are turned into colored bowling-ball-sized "memory balls" that roll around in chutes and pipes in Headquarters and then get stored elsewhere. Each memory ball acts like a crystal ball with an animated GIF playing over and over in a loop. "Core memories" are the most important--happy, formative touchstones from Riley's childhood (many of them involving hockey). They are gold and must be protected at all costs.
Outside of Headquarters (that looks essentially like the Seattle Space Needle) are islands of Riley's personality: family, goofball, hockey, friendship, honesty, etc. We are treated to all kinds of hilarious manifestations and personifications of: abstract thought, long term memory, jingles that get stuck in our heads forever, imagination, dreams, nightmares, forgetfulness, the subconscious, you name it.
WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE?
As far as the message kids might get about emotions? I'm sorry to report that the emotions are completely in charge. It's unclear where cognition and willpower come in. Riley never takes the reigns of her emotions (OK, she's only 11)--instead, they control her. (One movie reviewer made the comment that Riley was "choosing" Joy most of the time, but I didn't find it evident that Riley was doing the choosing.) We are made to see the worth of each emotion and the purpose they serve and how well things work when they all work together, but Riley seems like an automaton, simply and only driven by events, memories and feelings. Any kind of thought process (notwithstanding the "train of thought"--the main means of transportation in Riley's noggin) is really beside the point. There's a certain anthropology here, methinks. I know certain schools of thought (ha ha), stress that we are driven by our emotions more than anything else, or emotion associated with positive and negative experiences in our lives. And I suppose when we're young, or if we live an "unexamined," non-reflective life, we might continue to be all through our lives. I just would like to have seen more, well, thinking and reasoning. The emotions seem to be scrambling to save the day (literally) all the time.
The plan for Riley's life seems to be: let's just keep her happy, day after day, year after year, so she can have a happy life! Without giving too much away, if at a certain point in the film Joy gets annoying (even though she's fairly moderate and not terribly naive), don't worry--she'll be tempered. Sadness serves a very big purpose in our lives.
FEEL THE BAD, TOO, OR YOU WON'T FEEL ANYTHING
The best takeaway, perhaps, is simply what can happen when our emotions do get out of control, and how we need a full range of emotions in our lives to balance each other out. The worst thing that could happen to us is to not feel our emotions or let just one of them take over. At Riley's nadir, it really answers the question we sometimes ask ourselves: "What happens to people? What happens to people to make them so turned off on life?"
Riley's parents are wonderful: realistic and loving--a great thing to see in a film. And not only that, we get to see inside their brains once in a while, too.
Maybe I'm asking too much of this kid's film. Maybe the film had to focus on one aspect of the human person (emotions). Maybe the interplay of mind, will and heart (affectivity) is too complex for an child's animated film. I'm sure parents and kids are having great conversations about emotions, and I will bet my bottom dollar that at Junior's next meltdown, Mom and Dad are appealing to "Inside Out": "Junior, remember in the movie when...."
--The director, Peter Docter, is from Minnesota.
--It does seem the overriding theme is joy, joy, joy. (Gag me with a spoonful of sugar.)
--However, one Mom made a very good point about the film: We naturally find Joy with Sadness (and Sadness with Joy) rather than with Anger, Disgust or Fear!
--Debbie Downer has nothing on Sadness.
--Joy is sometimes more like plain old Hope.
--Paula Poundstone has such a recognizable and appealing voice. She should do a lot more voice work. The voices are cast to perfection in this film.
--All the wobbling over the abyss made me truly dizzy.
--Why does Sadness have to be chubby (that's fatism, like sexism and ageism). Why couldn't Joy be fat and happy? Pleasingly plump?
--The biggest laugh in my theater (from guys)? A look inside the teenage guy brain.
The fourth of the "Jurassic" movies, "Jurassic World" is brilliant, in keeping with the tone of the franchise, and great entertainment. The over-the-top trailer should never have shown us the escaped pterodactyls swooping down on everyone. That was a total spoiler and made the film look overblown, which it is not. "Jurassic World" retains all the fine human drama and tight, meted-out tension of the first groundbreaking (or should I say ground-pounding) film over twenty years ago.
Family is key to the characters. Two brothers (with a typical rocky sibling relationship), one a teen and one a pre-adolescent obsessed with dinosaurs, leave their parents at home and set off for a "family vacation" with their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, always a delicious ice queen) who works in a top administrative position at "Jurassic World." But she's all business (even with her one-time boyfriend played by Chris Pratt) and doesn't have much time for them. So the boys take off on their own, not always obeying park policies which you know is just such a bad idea at Dino Den.
PROFIT VS. WAR VS. SCIENCE VS. NATURE
Chris Pratt plays Owen, a former Navy guy who trains raptors to follow commands. Vincent D'Onofrio thickens the plot as an unscrupulous war monger who sees the potential for breeding dinos as war machines. The scientist in charge of the breeding lab also throws ethics to the wind as he creates hybrids and completely new dinosaurs. So, similar to the other films in the series, we have the voices of commerce, utilitarianism, science run amok, and a voice of respect for animals and nature itself (Owen).
It's hard to say much about the plot without giving too much of this funzo suspense-thriller away. Suffice it to say that it's all action after we witness: the present-day development of the mega-theme park (it really is pretty awesome); the dilemma of needing bigger thrills and more "wow factor" from "bigger, louder" dinos with "more teeth" (the Park has become old hat!); and the inciting incident of an escaped, ferocious, highly-intelligent, lab-creation "Indominus Rex," with unknown behaviors.
Before the mayhem begins, there's just one well-placed conversation about the morality of it all between Pratt's and D'Onfrio's characters. It made me think of how much more urgently we need to have these conversations about the manipulation of the human genome!
BIG STORY, BIG LAUGHS, BIG ROMANCE
The battle for the upper hand winds up being between commerce (the Park must go on!) and utilitarianism (war for the sake of war). And both have one thing in common: human life is cheap. The body count isn't extremely high or graphic, but those bodies are some people we've gotten to know. The goreless gore and constant frights might be a bit intense for little ones.
The chemistry between Claire and Owen really clicks, and much of the comedy emanates from the outdoorsy tough guy wooing the indoorsy, prim, control freak gal. In fact, there's quite a bit of laugh-out-loud comedy--mostly dialogue. There's also lots of gasp-out-loud moments which somehow this film frees you up to do. Even if you are a staunchly silent moviegoer.
"Jurassic World" serves up an unexpected thrill a minute without bludgeoning the audience. It's masterfully well-paced in the style of 20th century films. There's an all-over 20th century feel to this larger-than-life, truly epic and almost "Western" film, except for the dull and dreary lack of light and color that continue to plague our digital world. You will be ruined for life after witnessing the next-stage visual effects. I sincerely forgot that the dinos, especially the velociraptors weren't actual beasts.
The biggest laugh and most unbelievable, tongue-in-cheek element in this whole film? Bryce Dallas Howard in stilettos for the duration.
--Like "Mad Max: Fury Road," I was loathe to watch this film, but was most pleasantly surprised right out of the paddock (pun intended).
Oftentimes I am sure I'm going to like a movie and am very
disappointed. Rarely am I sure I will detest a movie and turn out liking it.
"Mad Max: Fury Road" is one of those latter films.
named for "Mad Max," this is not his movie. It's really Imperator
Furiosa's (Charlize Theron) story. With her shaved head, calm, take-charge determination
and hurt-but-gentle eyes, she quietly steals the movie from Max (the superb Tom
Hardy--once again with a mask on his face) as the filmmakers no doubt intended.
Indeed, Max's name is only revealed at the end of the film, and his backstory
is never supplied. Theron carefully avoids falling into a one-note angry
feminist rut in her portrayal.
SHADES OF ISIS
The world of Furiosa and Max is dystopian with a capital "D." A
hideous warlord, Immortan Joe, enslaves everyone: men and boys are warriors and
laborers, women are warrior-breeders and milk-providers for the warriors (ISIS,
anyone?). Immortan Joe controls the water supply in the arid desert and is
beyond miserly with rationing. Furiosa attempts to rescue women chosen as
breeders, racing across the desert in her "war rig." Max is strapped
to the front of an enemy vehicle hot in pursuit as the "blood bag" (hooked
up to a direct intravenous line) of Immortan's crazed and ambitious foot
soldier, Nux (Nicholas Hoult, Hollywood's go-to ghoul). Max eventually joins
forces with Furiosa, spurred on by vision of a little girl who calls him
The film is a non-stop war on wheels. The incredible chase
scenes filmed in the Namib desert include trucking it into a massive (visual
effects) sandstorm. There are pauses to regroup, reconfigure, catch one's
breath, but I wish they didn't use the sparse fades-to-black at all. Completely
broke the tension and took us out of the movie. The pace is hoof-pounding, but
not heart-stopping, so we could've handled seamless transitions throughout the
The plot and dialogue are campy but high-minded comic book
fare, with deep primal, mythical, Judaeo-Christian roots. There's A LOT to
unpack here. Theology of the Body? Everywhere, and not always far off the mark,
either. At one point, I realized this film would have been fine with almost no
dialogue--it is that stunningly visual of a story. In some ways it reminded me
of the brutal elegance of the war-fest that is the film "300,"
although very different in design. "Fury Road" could easily win Oscars for
set design, FX, cinematography and editing. The soundtrack is spot-on with unique
drums and beats and strains and sound effects that blend hand-in-glove with the
action, except for a few trite melodramatic scorings. (Once again, from the
reviews I read, I thought it would be over-the-top, ear-punishing cacophony,
but it was not.) The pulse and action can be relentless, but it's not big and
dumb, it's clever and mesmerizing. Luxurious attention is given to passing
details. You blink, you lose.
The comedy exudes from the meticulously inventive world and
characters that have been created. My favorite is the heavy metal guitarist
dangling, marionette-like, from the front of one of the vehicles, who strikes
up the soundtrack to each battle on cue--not so unrealistic, as we know music
has carried troops into battle from time immemorial. My second favorite comedic
relief is the half-gazelle, half-giraffe, supermodel breeder women who are
inept damsels in distress one minute and mechanics and fighters the next.
GARDEN OF EDEN
One reviewer noted that there's "no sex." True, no
sex (the verb). But there is so much about the sexual difference and
procreation standing at the crux of the film. This is also a film about life
and hope and the rawest of human survival. Furiosa and the women are heading to
a garden that once existed, the land of greenery, the land of
"mothers." The women are the keepers of seeds of all kinds. Indeed,
so much of women's heroism involves living things, growing things, giving
"the new person" a chance, protecting life, cherishing life, carrying
life, nourishing life, bringing life to birth and fruition. These tasks are not
presented as "women's burden" in "Fury Road," in fact they are
presented as extremely valuable and privileged, simply that women should not be
treated as "things," as the women's rebellious graffiti declares: "We
are not things!" "Our babies will not be warlords!"
We have the two extremes in our world today: Women voluntarily
and ideologically eschewing their bodies and motherhood as de facto slavery and some kind of biological tyranny on one hand;
and semblances of the scenarios in "Mad Max" and "The Handmaid's
Tale" perpetrated by the likes of sex traffickers, ISIS, and Boko Haram on
COMPLEMENTARITY & COLLABORATION
The women are all good. The men? It depends. There are both
male and female elders. Like "Maleficent" and "Frozen," "Fury Road" is women saving women (except that there is indispensable collaboration with men who are smart, good and necessary). But this is not a battle of the sexes. It's a battle of
the good against the bad and ultimately against a despotic regime.
The body count is quite high, but the gore is minimal (or am
I just jaded) and we don't see aftermaths of the extreme violence. The
body-abuse is also huge to our heroes and our villains, so much so that out of
the oh, 150 blows each receives, we know that just one would have polished each
character off. All I could think of was how a career-ending concussion sustained
by an athlete could also possibly shorten life or impair quality of life for
good. But, of course, this is pure surreal fantasy that's ALL action.
The takeaway? Some things will never change. Men and women
are indispensable to life, to each other, to society and human flourishing. But it's really not necessary to look like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley to be a part of
--"There's a power that comes with having a child. You've done something incredible that no man could ever do or understand." --Megan Fox
--"Fury Road" passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
"The woman...[is] reflected in the figure of Mary. It
is the figure that embraces society, the figure that contains it, the mother of
the community. The woman has the gift of maternity, of tenderness; if all these
riches are not integrated, a religious community not only transforms into a
chauvinist society, but also into one that is austere, hard and hardly
"Christ is betrothed to the Church, a woman. The place
where it receives the most attacks, where it receives the most punches, is
always the most important. The enemy of nature--Satan--hits hardest where there
is more salvation, more transmission of life, and the woman--as an existential
place--has proven to be the most attacked in history. She has been the object
of use, of profit, of slavery, and was relegated to the background; but in the
Scriptures we have cases of heroic women that have transmitted to us what God
thinks about them, like Ruth, Judith...."
Fans of "Pride and Prejudice" will love the new adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel, "Far From the Madding Crowd." It's a romance of class divisions as well as gender divisions (in the sense that a fiercely independent and independently wealthy female sees no "need" for a husband). Miss Bathsheba Everdene* (the astute and expressive Carey Mulligan) is also a very proud woman by nature, which both serves her and trips her up.
A THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE?
"Madding" starts off with a bold proposal of marriage, but fans of the "Twilight" series will love the fact that Miss Everdene has her pick of not two, but three suitors: the farmer/shepherd (Gabriel Oak, played by the hunky, strong and silent Matthias Schoenaerts), the older, socially awkward, paternal squire (Mr. Boldwood, played with precision by Michael Sheen), and the playboy soldier (Sergeant Troy, played with rascality by Tom Sturridge). Which man will she choose, if any? These fully-developed characters are brought to life by a harmonious cast.
It's curious why Hardy would make an assertive, commitment-phobic (she really is) woman like this his protagonist, and not having read the book myself, I don't know if she was given any kind of modern upgrade for the screen. Perhaps Hardy was trying to explore the female heart, trying to understand women and women's motivations. Does he succeed? On some fronts, yes. On others, no. But I believe we always have to remember that when we're watching a film, a statement is not necessarily being made about all women, but this particular woman, this particular character. A statement is not necessarily being made about all men, but this particular man, this particular character.
MEN'S HEARTS, WOMEN'S HEARTS
What Hardy does seem to know very well is a man's heart, what it's like when a man truly loves a woman. Perhaps this is really a man's romantic story. Or maybe it's just both a man's and woman's romance, as movies used to be. All three men truly love a woman. Hardy seems also to know what it's like when a woman plays with a man's heart. Although Miss Everdene states that "it's not women who jilt men, it's men who jilt us," she is inexplicably fickle in her affections and desires. At times she seems completely disloyal, even to herself. She seems to have contracted our contemporary disease of wanting to endlessly sample, never settle down, never be sure, never make a firm decision, always have a "wandering eye." A clue to why she is so afraid of trusting, of making the wrong choice, or of being rejected might be captured in a song she sings at a dinner for her farming staff. (This same song is repeated during one of the trailers for the film and the credits at the end of the film, so the filmmakers must be trying to make a point.) The words of the song are addressed to a young woman: "Let no man steal your thyme," because when your time has passed, he'll get rid of you.
The men in "Madding" are incredibly loyal and fiercely protective of the women they love. Even though Miss Everdene can take care of herself in many ways, she does need these men for many reasons (as the men need her for many reasons). These are not utilitarian needs, but rather those of a truly human community and communion. Helpmates. (See 1 Corinthians 11:11.) "Madding" shows us glimpses of how the male/female collaboration can be a peaceful and beautiful synergy on many levels. Since the setting is pastoral, and Miss Everdene is an equestrian, there's a lot more than tea drinking and mincing about going on in the film.
A GRACIOUS AGE
Had "Madding" been shot on film, we'd enjoy beautiful landscapes and rich colors everywhere. But, alas, it was not, and one drawback to the film is the paltry, pedestrian color palette. The fine soundtrack, however, is blissfully rich and audibly "invisible."
These men and women of "Madding" were bred/taught how to relate properly and well with each other from their youngest years, no matter their state or status in life. Do we teach any kind of proper, becoming, humble, gracious behavior anymore? The question simply is: what kind of a society do we want to live in? In today's world of instant gratification, it's hard to imagine the protocols, manners and restraint displayed in "Madding," but the actors inhabit this 19th century milieu convincingly. Personally, I find all the refinement quite civilized, charming, refreshing, and massively appealing.
*Yes, a most unfortunate name. "Miss Everdene" sounds far too much like "Katniss Everdeen."
--I always thought it was "maddening."
--"It is difficult for a woman to express her feelings in a language designed chiefly by men." --Miss Everdeen (But WAS language "designed by men" or was it co-designed?)
--At a certain point, Miss Everdene appears to be genuinely confused about whom to marry. When she asks what to do about it, she is told: "Do the right thing." It becomes apparent who is the "right" one for her, her strong match, or as we say in screenwriting "a worthy opponent." "A strong man of God is not afraid of a strong woman of God." --Pastor Rick Warren
--According to the novel's Wikipedia entry, several plot points have been left out of the film, but it works quite well without them.
--In spite of the deceptions, there is also a very plain and sincere way that people speak to each other in "Madding."
--A few strange camera moments.
--Another curiosity which seems to have been a custom of the day is that the proposal of marriage could be very abrupt, before the man and woman really knew each other, and it seems a response had to be immediate (a deferred answer seems to be unusual).
--Thank you, thank you, thank you to whomever got this film made. Period pieces show us that there are different ways to be human besides life according to YouTubers.
--I would say the moral here for women is: don't play with a good man's heart. I've known women who played this risky game and lost the love of their lives.
--The "meet cute" with the soldier was a bit unbelievable, but not her reasons for being attracted to him.
--Even the dog has a stage name. "Old George" was played by "Sparky."
If you saw the trailer for "Ex Machina," you were probably looking forward to this film. You will not be disappointed. Alex Garland's masterpiece is a 5-star film and a new science fiction classic, with all the bells and whistles of today's filmmaking, while managing to be a pared-down, personal human drama.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE 3.0
In brief, this is a story about Artificial Intelligence. A megalomaniac computer scientist (Nathan) has created a top-secret female robot (Ava) and invited a computer coder (Caleb) to apply the Turing Test to her (essentially how "human" she is) in his remote hideaway and research lab. This film consists of basically three actors: the incomparable Oscar Isaac as the scientist, Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan's son) as the computer guy, and Alicia Vikander as the life-like robot. That's it. Are there Academy Awards for casting directors? The international flavor of those behind the film (England, Guatemala/Cuba, Ireland and Sweden) make for a not-quite-Hollywood film (and in this case, that's a good thing).
"Ex Machina," like 2014's "Calvary" (incidentally starring Brendan Gleeson), has an exceedingly short first Act and then boom. We're in the riveting and intriguing new world of Act Two. In "Ex Machina," the new world is not complex--it's actually rather simple--but full of tension, danger, suspicion, foreboding and unanswered questions from the get-go. Minimal electronic music sets the tone for face-to-face encounters between cast members (hardly ever more than two at a time). Who is honest? Who is not? Which motivations are real? The camera cuts back and forth frequently from the contrast of majestic mountains, greenery and waterfalls of Norway (where the film is shot) to the indoor ultra-modern, sleek lab/living quarters.
REAL MEN, FAKE WOMEN
Right away we see that Nathan is arrogant and rocking a god complex. Caleb (a bright-eyed innocent) is living on Nathan's turf, on Nathan's terms in his high-security lockdown world with rigidly casual rules, and that's scary enough. Ava (another bright-eyed innocent) can be said to have passed the Turing Test on Caleb's romantic feelings for her alone. It feels like something is subtly being said about men almost preferring the perfection, the fascination of a computer, a thing, to a real woman. Stepford Wives, anyone? The feminists will have a field day with this film, which seems to be partially on the side of oppressed women--human or not--and partially reinforcing inevitable male chauvinism and domination (even if just by depicting it and by the copious full frontal female nudity). The nudity doesn't appear to be terribly salacious (but I'm a woman)--and seems more "plastic." However, Nathan and Caleb are men. They're not blind and we know that they're not strictly platonic types. And why did Nathan make a female robot, anyway? (Man creates woman.)
AN INTELLECTUAL FILM?
Nathan's handiwork is impressive and he knows it. He and Caleb hash out things like the true nature of A.I., ethics, human feelings vs. human calculations, and what the future of man vs. machine might hold. This is a sci-fi film of the moment, employing the latest technologies of the day (with which we're all familiar) as a jumping off point. Sex and gender are philosophically discussed in a somewhat Theology of the Body way. Some might call this an "intellectual film," even though the rigorous exchanges are brief. I would call it a "not dumb" film, also because it's totally entertaining. It's not mind-bending like "Inception." It's everyday stuff that we could apply to all our interactions with "digita" in some respects. (I just made up that word for all things digital.)
DARK AND DISTURBING
"Ex Machina" is dark and disturbing. It will wrap its whirring, purring, cable-y arms around you as you leave the cinema (must be seen in a cinema--this film cries for the cinematic experience!) and accompany you for a while. It's a film that begs for serious conversation and commentary.
Definitely not for kids/teens. The slow gore and skin peeling (you'll see) is altogether called for, but nevertheless, it's pretty creepy. (And the nudity is frequent.)
QUESTIONS ABOUT HUMANITY
The film raises great questions. Among them:
Is it A.I. that is really "human" or is it we who "humanize" our own creations?
Do we really want to transfer the "battle of the sexes" into android-land?
Can A.I. be programmed with a "moral compass"? Will that moral compass be necessarily relativistic? Can A.I. be capable of or "responsible" for good or evil? (Evidently "Ultron" is that evil A.I.)
(I believe we already have the answers to these questions. A great tool is John Paul II's "adequate anthropology," of course.)
When God "programs" humans, it is for the Infinite.
When (often God-denying) non-eternal humans program their own likenesses,
they program for the finite.
--Was all the one-sided (female) nudity really necessary? The film might be making a statement about the utter vulnerability of nakedness when a thing is treated like a woman, or a woman is treated like a thing. Or not. It might also just be gratuitous pawn in a godlike director's chess game. And, in our pornified culture, we do not see the naked human body rightly. There is even a fleeting--but important--reference to porn in "Ex Machina."
--If we are at all asking the question if androids are human or if humans can become cyborgs, the only question that needs to be answered is: What is a human being? (We already know what a machine/thing is.)
--Without the God-dimension and God's dimensions to our lives, human beings can be "framed" any way we want to frame humans or certain humans. The Nazis did their own framing. Pol Pot did his. Stalin did his. John Paul II did his. Who's right?
--"Ex Machina" is one of those films like a hockey game that starts off so good that you keep whispering to yourself: "Stay good! Stay good! Don't blow the end!" (It stays good.)
--When computers can write "The Onion," I'll believe they've passed the Turing Test.
--There are no purely clinical experiments. There are no experiments on anything without the deep insertion of human beings into the experiment, willing and unwilling, at every step and every level of the endeavor.
--There's a nod to "A Space Odyssey: 2001."
--Although making full use of the art and science of film (including eye-boggling FX), "Ex Machina" could conceivably be a play. It could totally work.
--As in the movie "A.I.," will we be able to keep straight who's human, who's not?
--The actor who plays Nathan, Oscar Isaacs, was that marvelous St. Joseph in "The Nativity Story." You've seen him in several films, but you won't recognize him because he is such a consummate changeling actor.
"Little Boy" is a new film by Alejandro Monteverde (who brought us "Bella"). I'm a big fan of "Bella," and was looking forward to Monteverde's second major film. Most unfortunately, I must report that this is a misconceived film. If it were not, I would not be doing a big spoiler here, but because the turning point of the film is what is ill-conceived--and simply unacceptable--I must.
FATHER AND SON
"Little Boy" is set in California during World War II. "Little Boy" is the moniker for, well, a little boy whose growth seems to be stunted. His doctor (an uncharacteristically slimy Kevin James) doesn't know what's wrong with him. Little Boy is constantly teased and bullied because of his height, or, rather, lack of it. Little Boy lives with his Mom (a lackluster Emily Watson, unless she was supposed to be completely aloof towards all her family members), his teen brother and his Dad, who is his "only friend," and "partner." Little Boy's relationship with his father is precious. The two of them have daring, imaginative, make-believe adventures together, and their motto is: "Do you believe you can do it?!"
Imaginative adventures are a charming feature of this film. Whenever someone is describing something or relating a story, Little Boy puts himself in the story, and suddenly, we, too, are there. The set designs are consistently elaborate and vivid, with an air of hyperreality. It brought to mind "Big Fish." This alone sets the movie apart from a Hallmark film, even though the tone of "Little Boy" is of that heart-warming genre.
The "believe!" theme is akin to Disney's favorite cri de coeur. But the question always is: "What the heck are we believing in here?" (In Dreamworks' "Kung Fu Panda," the answer is "nothingness," since the film is Buddhist in philosophy.) God is definitely a character in "Little Boy," but the "believe" isn't clearly a God thing at first. When Little Boy's father goes off to war, Little Boy's whole focus becomes finding a way to bring his father home.
Enter two wisdom figures: an elderly Japanese man, Mr. Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and the town priest, Fr. Oliver (Tom Wilkinson--who also played an excellent priest in "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"). The former (persecuted by the townspeople for being "the enemy") is a non-believer and the latter a believer, of course. These two are also friends who like to talk theology and play chess together. Of all the religious elements in the film, this odd couple's conversations ring truest. Hashimoto tells Fr. Oliver that God is his "imaginary friend in the sky" and challenges what getting Little Boy's hopes up (that his father will return) will do to his mind and self-confidence (let alone his faith in God).
"Little Boy" would have been a great film for kids (if not for what I am about to reveal which is simply the ruination of a movie that needed to be thought out differently) because of its Gospel-applying, character-building, youth-affirming exploits. The child actor who plays Little Boy (Jakob Salvati) represents a new generation of child actors (who--along with the generation ahead of his--have been unbelievably talented). Never a false note, never out of character in close-up after close-up.
A MAGICAL LIST
Fr. Oliver challenges Little Boy to become a "powerful" person (capable of bringing his father home) by accomplishing a magical list (the corporal works of mercy). Fr. Oliver serves as a mentor to Little Boy in tackling the list. The tasks are not simple nor simplistic. They involve befriending the prickly Mr. Hashimoto (easier said than done)! There is also an element of the truly "magical" (a magician comes to town and convinces Little Boy that he has magical powers). It's a rich story here and it works well. But there are problems with raising a little boy's hopes and spelling out too rigidly how faith and the will of God play out. Dealing with these subtle, highly personal spiritual matters is always difficult in film, but Fr. Oliver and Mr. Hashimoto do it well, and perhaps the point is that there are levels to belief. Little Boy desperately needs to just believe in himself.
THE FILM UNRAVELS
Now here's where all goes awry. SECOND SPOILER ALERT! Do you remember the nickname of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan? The townspeople show Little Boy the headlines. They believe he is responsible (because of a certain "miracle" Little Boy performed in their midst--a coincidence, no doubt). "Little Boy": the boy and the bomb save the day! Yay, bombs! It's total jubilation, and Little Boy is also convinced that he was responsible for the bomb. So, let's give the benefit of the doubt here. The war had been dragging on with tremendous loss of life (including soldiers from Little Boy's town). This bomb seemed to be drawing the war to a close. Little Boy believed that the dropping of the bomb would bring his father home. Did anyone really immediately understand what the atom bomb was and the havoc it wreaked? So far, so passable. But then Little Boy sees the news reel in the cinema and hears of a whole city wiped out. Then his mother tells him that the bomb may have been the worst thing for his father (now a P.O.W. in Japan). This is where the film falls apart entirely.
Can you imagine the guilt this little boy would feel? Why did the filmmakers put this unbearable burden on Little Boy? This is completely out of keeping with the lighter tone of the film. The story's fabric is ripped to shreds. The horror of the A-bomb is trivialized. How does the film deal with it? What reaction do we see from Little Boy? The film deals with it by not dealing with it. There is no reaction from Little Boy. The film just traipses on its merry way.
There is a dream sequence where Little Boy imagines that the bomb killed his father being held in Japan. (More guilt! But even that seems to slide off Little Boy.) Little Boy (who could be excused since he's just a kid) only wants his father home. That's all he cares about. But in the process, massive civilian casualties are a cause for celebration.
TOXIC PLOT DEVICES
It seems to me that someone built up this whole film around a major "plot device": the play on words of "Little Boy" and "Little Boy." But this was an exceedingly poor choice. Something else could have served in its stead to deliver a very similar film.
Truth be told, I was a little disappointed when I heard that Monteverde was doing a period piece. I was hoping he would be doing more gritty, contemporary films like "Bella," which are so needed today. I'm praying that his next film will be just that.