CGB Review of Joker (2019)

No one’s laughing now, Arthur.
This is my review of Joker!

223f11a3830814ca7e994faff3fc6ad9aefee589Arthur Fleck is an aspiring comedian who works as a freelance party clown and lives with his ailing mother in a crime-infested Gotham.  Arthur suffers from Pseudobulbar affect (PBA for short), a condition in which the sufferer experiences fits of sudden, uncontrollable laughter and/or crying.  As a result, Arthur is mostly isolated, and any time he does interact with others his PBA outbursts result in disdain at best and harassment at worst, even after he hands them a card explaining his condition.  After a series of misunderstandings, beatdowns and personal failings, Arthur Fleck descends into despair and the Clown Prince of Crime is born.

The Hits
Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck/Joker is masterfully nuanced.  Arthur’s entire character is defined by pain.  Though already teetering on the edge of instability, Arthur maintains a barely-flickering hope that he was born into the world to bring laughter and joy.  He tries to be kind in a world that forbids kindness, his efforts to spark joy turn to ash, and his own imbalanced mental state prohibit him from receiving the basic human decency he desperately craves.  Given that Pseudobulbar affect is not often shown on film, it was relieving to see that his PBA-induced laughter is not overdone or mocked; it is realistically depicted as a socially-isolating condition.  The best thing about Phoenix’s performance is that there is both great empathy and caution towards the Joker character.  He is a struggling man unable to thrive in a cruel world and turns to crime as a result.  His pain is felt throughout the film, but his evil actions later on are not glorified.
I really love that Gotham is a pit of misery in this film.  Past Gothams on film have been either too clean or a middle-of-the-road “crime-riddled but not really” vibe.  Gotham is a big, loud city where crime and despair meet to dance.  The citizens of Gotham range from apathetic and cruel to what I call “nice-in-passing,” the kind of nice where a person briefly asks, “Are you okay?” only to walk away and return to their own preoccupations.  This has been the trend of society in recent years, and Joker does not shy away from this reality.  While people do try to show niceties to one another, we have forgotten the art of empathy.  As much as I love compassionate characters, I appreciate that Arthur didn’t have that one magically kind friend/family member whose disappearance/death is the catalyst of his downward spiral.
This has been said in other reviews and I will say it here:  This movie does have a lot to say about today’s society.  If anything, the story is a call for empathy.  It asks us not to pity the downtrodden, but to make an effort to understand them.  All Arthur truly wants is a hug, a pat on the back, for even a total stranger to say, “You’re doing a great job!” but all he receives are backs turned and punches to the face.  His wounds from others are then transmitted to others, and the vicious cycle of abuse continues.  As much as American society loves the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative, how is a person supposed to reach to the top when their needs are ridiculed, their struggles dismissed, and their dignity is trampled upon?

The Misses
Arthur lives with his ailing mother, who herself suffers from the delusion that Thomas Wayne will come to rescue them from their dilapidated living conditions.  There is a twist revolving her that feels a tad underdeveloped.  We learn that she has narcissistic personality disorder, but the actual portrayal of NPD is barely explored.  She comes off as more of a defeated, preoccupied, brittle woman than a narcissistic parent who violates personal boundaries and projects their vanities onto their children.  Given the film’s concern for mental health, it is sad to see this condition underwritten.
A part of my criteria is a film’s home re-watchability factor.  Joker is a great movie, but it is definitely a theater movie, which is the nature of Oscar-contending films.  No doubt the film itself would play well in any venue, but the experience is less impactful on a small screen during the day.

God in All Things
In this new segment of CGB reviews, I discuss where Christian elements can be found in film.  As bleak as Joker is, God is in the frame, and here’s how.
When I first saw the trailer for Joker, it made me think of Saint Irenaeus’ quote, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”  What is the opposite of the human person fully alive?  The answer:  The glory of Hell is the human person fully destroyed, and that is what we see in Joker.
Arthur Fleck is flawed but inherently good, as we all are.  In the first half, he expresses his natural desire to bring joy and laughter to the world.  However, as the film goes on, he descends into a distorted version of himself.  His good qualities diminish and his worst qualities are amplified.  When he cannot make the world a better place, he instead submits to the world’s darkness and becomes one with it.  The final scene shows that he has brought joy through anarchy and laughter through nihilism, which is the exact opposite of God’s will for us.
When the compassion of Jesus Christ is cut off from our broken world, the cruelty of Satan ensnares the vulnerable.  Nothing is more heartbreaking to Jesus than to see His most wounded children turned away from His care.

Saint Dymphna, pray for us.

CGB Review of Detroit (2017)

I cannot believe this happened in America…and yet, in a most depressing way, I actually can.

This is my review of Detroit.

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On July 23rd, 1967, an after-hours unlicensed bar called “Blind Pig” had been raided (for the third time, according to historical records).  As bar patrons were taken into police custody, a Molotov cocktail was thrust at police, setting off a riot that would throw all of Detroit into anarchy.  With residents looting and officers arresting left and right, trust between kinsmen had evaporated.  The spirit of hate and violence found its way to the Algiers Motel, where various people had sought refuge from the chaos outside.  When one of the motel guests, a man named Carl Cooper, shoots a starter pistol out the window, the police outside are alarmed and suspect there to be a sniper.  They end up at the doorstep of the Algiers Motel and from there is the beginning of a horrific night: Twelve people–ten black men and two white women–are harassed and interrogated by three Detroit police officers for several hours in a search for a rogue sniper.  False executions, beatings and, eventually, actual deaths–specifically the murders of Carl Cooper, Fred Temple, and Aubrey Pollard occur within the walls of the Algiers Motel.

The Hits
So I did some research on the 12th Street Riot and the Algiers Motel tragedy (it’s commonly called an “incident,” but I’m calling it a tragedy), and based on what I read and the information I collected, I think that both events were recreated the best way they could have been.  The movie opens with the Blind Pig raiding and the riot that ensues provides context leading up to what happened at the Algiers Motel.  The first twenty minutes have a sense of grand scale and visual storytelling.  If anything, this film is a thoughtful depiction of two things: the mob mentality and anarchy.  We see the bar patrons and observers angrily question the nature of the arrests in the opening scene, and it is made clear that raids such as these are commonplace but infuriating for all who are subjected to it.  This certainly does not justify the Molotov cocktail being thrown at police, but in terms of the narrative it does provide context.  The first hour presents a picture of harassed people succumbing to blind anger and a plethora of police officers– who were probably not prepared for a riot to literally conquer an entire city–reacting the best and worst way they know how.  I mentioned anarchy and that is because Detroit has a beleaguered past and the descent of a city to the depths of chaos is masterfully portrayed in this film.   Characters are seen running into grocery stores and rushing out with food, but because we are first shown looters fueling the flames, the sense of who is friend and who is foe is significantly blurred, which is typically how things play out in real-world riot situations.  There’s a particularly heart-wrenching scene where it had been previously established that there were rogue snipers targeting officers.  With this in mind, we cut to a young black girl peeking through closed blinds.  The camera then focuses on an officer who looks up and raises his gun at the window where we can only see the girl’s eyes…but not her face.
Now let us talk about the actual Algiers Motel storyline itself.  Halfway through the second act of the film, I found myself thinking that the Algiers Motel plot is both a strength and a weakness of the film.  I will explain the strengths first.
As a depiction of authoritarianism and realistic racism, this movie does a damn good job at showing both.  It is clear right from the get-go that the officers who are interrogating the Algiers Motel residents are less concerned with finding the starter pistol and are fueled by the thrill of having power over vulnerable human beings, as well as their own personal prejudices.   In terms of realistic racism, kudos go to Will Poulter, whose performance as Officer Philip Krauss is humanistic and terrifying.  This is not a cartoony racist; this is a racist person who you could conceivably pass by at the grocery store.  He’s not a moustache-twirling villain and he’s not given any overtly racist lines to spout out.  The racism of Philip Krauss is all in his attitude, in his treatment of the rioters leading up to what happens at the Algiers Motel.  A nuanced portrayal of an individual who sees certain groups of people as subhuman is far more unnerving.  You don’t have to use the “N-word” to be a racist.  It is how you perceive and treat those who are of a different race than yourself that speak volumes about your view on human dignity.

The Misses
If you watch the second trailer for Detroit (Detroit Trailer 2 on YouTube, if you’re interested), it shows a gripping scene from the film of John Boyega trying to recollect and explain to two detectives what happened at the Algiers Motel.
I am sad to say that this scene is not the first scene of the movie and it really should have been.  The raiding of the Blind Pig bar is the opening scene, and as compelling as it is, it lacks the introduction of our main characters.  This leads into the main problem with Detroit: there is no one main character to gravitate towards and this is a chaotic story that really needs a consistent point of view.  John Boyega’s security guard protagonist Melvin Dismukes is marketed in both trailers as the film’s moral center.  However, the movie struggles to balance the character arches of both Melvin Dismukes and Larry Reed, the lead singer of The Dramatics, played brilliantly by Algee Smith.  As a result, John Boyega’s character is certainly sympathetic, but doesn’t evolve into an empathetic three-dimensional character.  Because the film is more focused on what happens rather than getting to know all who were involved, there’s no one character to connect with and feel the story through, which makes Detroit more of a spectator experience rather than a cinematic participation.  This is why Detroit is an unfocused narrative that would’ve made an excellent docudrama on the History Channel.
Here is the downside of the Algiers Motel plotline: As the second act of the film goes on, the Algiers Motel story devolves into an audience endurance test.  To be fair, because everything that happens in this plotline is intertwined, i.e. if one scene is cut from it, entire context is lost, I don’t know how the filmmakers could have shortened the second act.  That said, there is a way to properly lengthen such a heavy plotline so that it doesn’t become too long and lose impact.
I would like a final point that having John Krasinski, or Jim from The Office, play a hotheaded lawyer in the last twenty minutes of your gritty drama is a little distracting.  Just saying.

Overall Detroit will make you angry.  Whether you are black, white, whatever your background is, the ending is an egregious miscarriage of justice worthy of righteous anger.  Despite its setbacks in characterization and narrative focus, Detroit gives us a consummate picture of a frightening time in American history that we are seeing play out once again in 2017, a time when everyone thought they were in the right and nobody took the time to even consider that they could be wrong.  It depresses me and yet it does not surprise me that this tragedy happened in America.  Let us do our very best to ensure that another Algiers Motel does not happen in the land of opportunity again.

Saint Martin de Porres and Saint Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.

 

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Please pray for the repose of the souls of Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard, and Fred Temple. May they rest in the arms of our just and merciful Lord.

 

 

 

CGB Review of Dunkirk (2017)

You’re gonna need a nap after this movie because MY GOODNESS, this is quite an intense experience!

This is my review of Dunkirk!

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The year is 1940.  Nazi Germany has invaded France and, as a result, thousands of Allied soldiers are now held hostage on the seaside town of Dunkirk.  On the surface, the situation might not seem so urgent (just stay put in that town and wait for help to come along)…until we realize that the Allied perimeter is shrinking and–ergo–German forces are closing in on the vulnerable men.   In addition, these are 400,000 men who are needed back in England to protect the homefront.  Told from three perspective angles–land, air, and sea–we the audience watch with bated breath the horrors these men endure as they desperately await deliverance from the evil closing in on them.

The Hits
In reviewing movies, something I have learned is that with certain film pieces–primarily ones with unconventional narrative styles–is to look at what the filmmaker’s intention was in the creation of the project.  When I kept hearing from friends who had seen the film that there was little dialogue and essentially no main protagonist, I knew that finding out Christopher Nolan’s intent would be key in giving the movie a fair review.  Sure enough, I came across a quote from Nolan himself where he explains the main goal of Dunkirk:

“The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story.  I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from.  The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it?  Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole?  Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?”
–Christopher Nolan on “Dunkirk”

With that in mind, did Christopher Nolan achieve his goal in employing visual storytelling to chronicle the battle on Dunkirk?
Ladies and gentlemen…YES!  He did and he did it masterfully.   This isn’t like with Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” where the historical narrative gets bogged down by a clichéd romance between Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale.  No, this is a straightforward visual saga of 400,000 men trying to keep their heads above water (quite literally at some points in the film) as they fight to stay alive each day and night.  To quote YouTube movie reviewer Ralph Sepe Jr., “A really great film is one you can watch with the sound off and still know what’s going on.”  Dunkirk is most certainly an experience and one that should be viewed in IMAX.  Granted, it would still be effective without IMAX, but for an even more dramatic effect, I would recommend seeing it in IMAX.  The bang and clamor is palpable as the men go from one brush with death to another.  The visual experience of Dunkirk is so visceral that you WILL hear the bullets whizzing by your ear.  Your heart WILL pound rapidly at each and every bomb that falls from the sky and blasts the sand beneath their boots.  This movie provides very little breathing room, i.e. no scenes of the men joking with bottles of beer in hand, so expect to be holding your breath many times throughout the film.
Yes, there is very little dialogue in this film, and in a strange way it actually works to the film’s advantage.  Let’s be honest: In a high-stress situation, would there really be any small chit-chat going on?  No, I don’t think so.  Okay, maybe there’d be that one guy who tries to lighten the mood, but even he would have one thing on his mind in the midst of danger: “Survive.”  Because there’s no cheesy sentences about a girlfriend back home or clichéd speeches about freedom and the American way, the story is what take center-stage–as it should be.  While there is no main protagonist to relate to, this enables the audience to care for all the men, which from a Catholic perspective brings to mind the Church’s stance on the dignity of every person; how whether you know somebody’s name or not, they have an inherent dignity simply because they are.
A friend of mine pointed out, “Notice how there is very little blood.  Nobody gets decapitated or anything.  Saving Private Ryan focused on the physical aspects of war; Dunkirk is more interested in the psychological.”  You are definitely right, M.P.!  This movie will definitely leave you in a state of dread and anticipation.  The first five minutes puts us through sudden gunfire that will leave you shaken, and you’ll be even more anxious when the men narrowly survive the first round of bombs dropped.  The film is unrelenting in not letting a single moment pass without the men coming face-to-face with some form of catastrophe.   The end result is that we, the audience, are right there with them.  Our hearts are pounding as loudly as theirs, we tremble every time the characters look up at aircrafts hovering over them in the ashen skies, we do not feel safe on land or sea.  Even the skies bring the promise of hellfire upon these stranded soldiers.  Yes, there are physical deaths and wounded fighters, but the psychological hell of waiting for a bullet to come for you burns itself into your brain all the way to the end credits.

The Misses
This movie does not transition between Acts very well.  The majority of mainstream films follow a three-act structure.   I’ll give just one example:
The First Act of Pan’s Labyrinth begins with the faun’s narration of the fairytale and ends when–in present day–the faun tells Ofelia that she has to find three items before the full moon.  The Second Act starts when Ofelia crawls into the large tree to confront the Toad and ends when [SPOILER] her mother dying in childbirth.  The Third Act begins at Carmen’s funeral and leads us to the climax and resolution.
Case in point: With Pan’s Labyrinth, you knew exactly when and how the story was progressing.  Meanwhile with Dunkirk, it was a bit hard to tell where we were in terms of story progression.  I actually had to look at my phone at one point, and I saw that it was only 9:00 and I was at the 8:00 screening.  I wouldn’t have pointed this out if it weren’t for the fact that SO MUCH happens in the first act that I thought we were somewhere in the second act.  You know those movies that have a scene or two that is all shot in one take?  This whole movie felt like it was done in one take, which would be revolutionary if there were indicators in the plot that, “The first act is drawing to a close, now we’re heading into Act Two.”  The weaving and connecting of the storylines on air, land and sea was a tad clumsy.
I kind of wish it had an ending that was a little more hopeful.  Basically if you’ve watched The Theory of Everything all way through (which you absolutely should do because it is amazing), the vibe you got with the way that movie ended is the same one you’ll feel at the end of Dunkirk.  I’ll just put it this way: For a movie that markets the triumphant rescue of 400,000 men, the actual triumph is really downplayed.  Going back to Christopher Nolan’s intent, maybe that was the point, but still a small spark of hope after being rescued would have been welcomed.

Dunkirk is, above all things, an experience.  A bone-chilling, white-knuckled, gut-wrenching depiction of war.  Crisp camerawork, subtle acting and to-the-point storytelling elevates Dunkirk so that it stands firmly among the great war movies all while standing alone as a unique art piece in modern cinema.

Blessed Fr. Jacques Hamel, pray for us.

CGB Collaboration Review of Ghost in the Shell (2017) Guest-Starring The Laughing Man

CGB: (Wakes up in a shiny high-tech laboratory) Where…where am I?  (Hears a high-pitched chuckle) (Enter THE LAUGHING MAN, a scientist)
THE LAUGHING MAN: Hello Catholic Girl Bloggin’.
CGB: What happened to me?
THE LAUGHING MAN: You were a refugee.
CGB: Oh, well, that’s convenient.
THE LAUGHING MAN: We rescued you when your raft sank.
CGB: Way to attempt to make a statement about the refugee crisis in your script even though in reality, Hollywood cares as much about refugees as Willy Wonka does about a bratty child.
THE LAUGHING MAN: (Shrugs) Just be grateful that Hollywood cares about refugees while it’s still convenient to.  Anyway, we saved you and now we have redesigned your entire being so that you are the first sentient cyborg.
CGB: (Tries to sit up, but finds that I am strapped to the way-too-bright table)  Are you about to tell me that the big twist is that I used to be a person of a different nationality but then you placed my brain in a Caucasian gal’s body?
THE LAUGHING MAN: (Stares blankly at me)  How do you know the seemingly smart, yet accidentally racist plot twist?
CGB: My real last name is of Portuguese origin–was I Ofelia from Pan’s Labyrinth?!
THE LAUGHING MAN:  No, you were actually–
CGB: Oohh, I know!  I was Moana of Motunui?!  Can I have the little pig as a pet?  I love Pua!
THE LAUGHING MAN: What film do you think you’re in, Miss Bloggin?
CGB: The live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell starring not me, but Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese protagonist Motoko Kusanagi!

This is my review of Ghost in the Shell (2017)!

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The Major, also known as Motoko Kusanagi (not much of a spoiler; even I knew that’s what her real name is and I’ve never even seen the original 1995 movie!) is a humanoid cyberborg who works at Hanka Robotics as a perfect super soldier hunting down the worst of the worst.  An encounter with a geisha robot leaves her shaken and questioning her forgotten past and current existence.  While that inner drama is going on, a mysterious cyberterrorist called Kuze begins terrorizing Hanka Robotics and it’s up to the Major to stop his anarchic reign.
My friend and fellow blogger who wishes to be known as The Laughing Man will be helping me analyze this live-action Anime remake.  My points are in blue and his are in teal.

The Hits
CGBThe Major/Motoko herself is a pretty compelling character.  Though her character is essentially every “humanoid-cyberborg character contemplating their purpose” ever, Johansson’s performance engages us in her personal odyssey.  The Major is flesh and metal, brain and code; an invincible, yet not indestructible sentient being who finds herself seeking connection and questioning her blurry origin.   Little hints and pieces about her past are slowly and subtly as puncturing bullets hit her targets.   While she is stone-faced and focused, there is a deep vulnerability to her–dare I say–a humanity within her sleek armor that make her weaker moments believable and sympathetic.  Both the script and Johansson do a phenomenal job at blurring the Major’s character so that you don’t forget she’s a humanoid cyberborg, yet you believe her very real, very human thoughts and feelings.  Instead of hammering us over the head with her robotic body or human nature; rather Scarlett Johansson’s performance as the iconic Major is allowed to speak for itself.
The world design is astonishing to behold.  I love the city segments where we can just watch the Major walk through cyberpunk Tokyo and we get to see all the lights and hologram projections throughout the day-to-day.  Those geisha robot things are super creative and I wish we saw them more in the movie.  I wouldn’t mind a climactic battle involving the Major doing battle with those robotic geishas coming at her.  If this movie gets a sequel (it probably won’t, but hey, a girl can dream, right?) I would hope to see that!  There are quite a few recreations of the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie and, for the most part, these recreations were done with careful consideration of those scenes.  Even though I am not a Ghost in the Shell fan, I can tell that a great deal of care and effort went into being as respectful to the source material as possible, which is to be commended.
I give this movie a lot of credit for making me ponder something that I haven’t really considered: What exactly makes us human?  The movie cleverly calls into question whether it is having a physical body or just the existence of the soul with or without the body that makes us truly human.  Is the physical body a necessity or a formality while the soul and mind are the defining characteristics of being human?  Can you still be human if your entire body is metal, but your brain is that of a flesh-and-blood person?  These questions that came to mind made me further appreciate that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, for He is Who made us human.  While the movie itself never actually answers these questions, any believer would find it suitable to bring questions such as these before our Lord and allow Him to guide them to His Truth.  The central theme of both this film (and the Anime it is based on) is identity and this theme is well handled.  I would argue that the search for identity is the beginning of the search for God.

Genesis 2:7, “…the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.”

LM: Much like the 1995 original and the Stand Alone Complex television series it spawned, the 2017 Ghost in the Shell works in large part because of its cyberpunk aesthetic. The film is undeniably stylish from a visual standpoint, even as its narrative follows the well-worn trajectory of the cinematic origin story. The production design is immersive and breathtaking. Scenes shot within hotel conference rooms, nightclubs, and tenement buildings feel lived-in. I wouldn’t hesitate to draw comparisons to the original Star Wars or Avatar. In terms of its overall design, the film is a triumph. The designs of various cybernetic characters are also a sight to behold, what with their adjustable eyes and flamboyant costumes. In many respects, I was reminded of the Capitol from The Hunger Games.
The action set pieces are also exhilarating. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s opening sequence. As robot commandos storm a hotel conference room, we are immediately captivated. Not only that, but the film foregoes many of the action movie tropes that have given contemporary thrillers a bad name. I can’t recall any instances of shaky-cam, and most of the action sequences were simple enough to follow. A confrontation involving Section 9 Chief Aramaki was especially thrilling to watch and absolutely dazzled me the first time I saw it.
And then, there’s Scarlett Johansson’s performance. As somebody who supported her casting from the very beginning, I was very pleased with her work here. She turned the Major into a compelling character, one whose identity crisis and desire to belong were captured especially well in two surprisingly intimate scenes. The Major’s interactions with some of the film’s secondary characters – including Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Ouelet – help the audience empathize with her. She might be a cyborg, but she feels like a full-fledged person (like a lithium flower just about to bloom). Speaking of which, the scene where the Major is being “built” is handled extremely well, even as it copies the same sequence from the original.
There’s a poignancy to some of the film’s later scenes that resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. Going into Ghost in the Shell, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of emotional character development. I was anticipating a dumbed-down action vehicle with sci-fi elements. But director Rupert Sanders and his team of screenwriters have injected the film with a hefty dose of pathos. Of course, I can’t describe some of the movie’s later revelations without delving into spoiler territory, but rest assured, there’s more to this remake(?) than meets the eye.

The Misses
CGB: There are three scenes, including an action sequence, that feature seizure-inducing lights.  While I don’t have epilepsy or sensitive eyes myself, viewers who have these conditions may want to be aware of these scenes.  The first incidence happens in the opening credits, and two of them occur in the second act.  The climactic battle is pretty tame in terms of rapidly-flashing neon strobes of light, but still, knowledge is power.
Batou…
yeah, even in the trailers he felt very off to me.  There’s something very restrained about his character.  I can tell that there is more to his character in the Anime than what the film is allowing us to see.   He’s not a bad character per se, he’s perfectly serviceable as the Major’s friend and confidant, but he’s your typical stoic tough guy with a soft spot for our main protagonist. 
While I praised the handling of Major’s character to high Heaven, now I must go into how the technicalities.  What do I mean by this?  Well…
Okay, so the Major is the first sentient robot person–that’s all fine and good–BUT they make a big deal about this only to show us humans who have those two holes in the back of their necks like the Major does.  There’s one scene where a scientist is killed by Kuze and he first takes off a half of her face which reveals wires and metal instead of tissue and bone, i.e. she was a robot-ish person.  What?!  You have humans who are actually robots and there are robot characters who act more human than the humans.   Now this may be how it is in the original source material, but even if that is the case, this is not explained very well or even at all.
So while doing this collaboration, Laughing Man (LM) and I decided not to reveal the big plot twist, hence I will say this: the twist itself is problematic, but would probably be less so were it not for the fact that it brings to mind a certain person named Rachel Dolezal. 

LM: There’s no denying that Ghost in the Shell lacks the philosophical rigor of its predecessors. In the hands of a truly visionary filmmaker (think Arrival’s Denis Villeneuve), this could have been a more thoughtful meditation on the ways in which technology blurs our human identities.  While Johansson turns the Major into a believable character with great emotional depth, I often felt as though the film gave in to its baser urges.  Make no mistake: the various set pieces are thrilling to watch and well pace, but they couldn’t help but feel lacking in originality.   This becomes even more evident when the film borrows visual references from the original.  These homages are frequently distracting and serve no other purpose but to remind the viewer of the (superior) 1995 version.
The plot is also a bit of a mess.  Not only that, but it is also far less interesting than the Major’s personal journey.  CEO Cutter of Hanka Robotics is nothing more than a generic corporate villain, while cyber-terrorist Kuze’s complexities are buried beneath some truly hideous costuming.  The design for this character is particularly bad, which is a shame because the relationship between his character and the Major’s is one of the movie’s high points.
Ghost in the Shell also does a great disservice to its secondary characters. Section 9 team members such as Togusa, Ishikawa, and Saito are introduced briefly and only show up when they have a critical role to play. Not only that, but the dynamic between the members of Section 9 is woefully underdeveloped. The TV series recognized the importance of the interplay between its characters. Unfortunately, that is a quality this adaptation lacks. While a series of shootouts towards the end of the film do the characters some level of justice, there was still a great deal of wasted potential, particularly when it comes to the Major-Batou relationship.  At times, the film’s overreliance on visual effects becomes apparent. The hologram advertisements in many of the outdoor scenes feel intrusive and somewhat gaudy.  Indeed, there are numerous instances when the film’s aesthetic makes it feel overly stylized.
The score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe can best be described as workmanlike. It lacks the memorability of earlier compositions by Kenji Kawai (featured in the end credits) and Yoko Kanno.  In fact, the score doesn’t even measure up to either of the two theme songs, performed by Origa, from Stand Alone Complex. 

Verdict
LM: Having seen the movie twice, I remain conflicted. Originally, I gave it a B+. However, upon a second viewing (and increased exposure to the source material), the film’s faults became more apparent. On the one hand, I feel like Gene Siskel, when he changed his grade for Broken Arrow after listening to Roger Ebert’s assessment of the film. On the other hand, I don’t want to let other critics shape my perspective on the movie, which I found rewarding in its own ways. Tentatively, I have no qualms about giving the film a B and recommending it, even as I consider the possibility of revisiting it a second time.

CGB: Frankly, my dear guys and gals, I thoroughly enjoyed Ghost in the Shell.   Sure, it’s pretty standard as far as sci-fi flicks about humanoid cyborgs go, but it’s certainly no Dragonball: Evolution.  While the things that don’t work fall flat, the things that do work are worth noting.  Everyone involved really cared for this project and while it hasn’t been a critical or commercial darling, it’s better to put effort into something and have it fail than to just throw something half-hearted out into the open for quick cash.  A thoughtful performance from Scarlett Johansson, breathtaking visuals and a respect for the source material make this adaptation of Ghost in the Shell better than it should have been.  The glaring flaws are still there, but the sum of its parts make those flaws forgivable.  I don’t think I’ll be seeing again, but I wouldn’t mind picking it up when it comes on DVD. 

CGB: (Sits up on shiny laboratory table) And that was the review of 2017’s Ghost in the Shell!  Boy, we did pretty good, Laughing Man.  (Looks around)  Laughing Man?  (No one is around) Is this gonna be like Passengers, where I’m all alone on some overly-complicated spaceship?
(Enter KAEL)
KAEL: Everything they told you…was a lie.
CGB: (Turns around) Are you Kuze?!
KAEL: My name is Kael.  (Puts on some wicked sunglasses)  That is all you need to know.
CGB: (Searches for weapon, but is empty-handed) W-what happened to the Laughing Man?
KAEL: A friend of yours?
CGB: Yeah, friend and collab partner.  Also, the person who would know how to get me out of here and back home.
KAEL: To find him, you’ll need to go to a very important….
CGB: (Braces self for an impossible task) Bring it on!
KAEL:…Interview.
CGB: (dumbfounded) Wait, what?!
KAEL: At a very…circular place.  (Raises eyebrow) You are very confused.
CGB: Did my face give it away?
KAEL: No, my telekinesis did.  (Looks to the right) Go out that door and you will see.
CGB: (Opens mouth)
KAEL: Yes, the key to getting out of here was literally right in front of you the whole time.
CGB: (Walks past KAEL, looking freaked out, but saying nothing) (Opens door, is blinded by sunlight) (Vision clears) (Looks up) What the?  The Circle?  (Looks up at the sleek building ahead) Is this that Circle place from the Emma Watson and Tom Hanks movie?!

(Cut to black)

 

Saint Joseph of Cupertino, pray for us.

CGB Review of Jackie (2016)

The real title of this movie should been this line from Bobby Kennedy:
“What did we accomplish?”

This is my review of Jackie!

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First Lady Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy was sitting right next to her husband, President John F. Kennedy when Lee Harvey Oswald shot the bullet that killed the 35th President of the US of A.  In the days after the assassination, Jackie must come to grips with her own grief and the reality of being basically shooed out of the White House all while her husband’s funeral is arranged.

So the Kennedys have a presence in my family.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the last Democrat my Grandma Joanie voted for.  She also witnessed the assassination of Robert Kennedy on television.  My uncle has read countless books on JFK and the assassination.  My own mother has always had great respect for Jackie Kennedy.  “She was a class act who held herself with dignity,” she said to me while we watched this film.  With this context in mind, you can imagine that my mother and I started the movie with hope that Natalie Portman would shine as the dignified and collected First Lady we admire.
When the movie was over, we looked at each other with the same thought:
Mrs. Kennedy, you deserve a better movie.

The Hits
To her credit, Natalie Portman definitely mastered Jackie’s signature voice.  It was said to be a very distinct voice with a unique pitch, and Portman nails this very well.   Her whole look is classic Jackie Kennedy, especially her fashion.  Keep in mind that Mrs. Kennedy inspired women’s fashion and her impact in this regard is still present to this day.  A lot of her costumes are classic Jackie Kennedy and that kind of mindfulness to her true fashion is to be admired.
I really appreciate the historical accuracy and attention to detail.  Everything from the costumes to the set design right down the camera lens gives the film an atmospheric, period-piece feel and boosts the credit of its authenticity.
This movie has a lot–and I do mean–A LOT of very good lines, primarily from Jackie herself.  Lines from “I believe the characters we read on the page become more real than the men who stand beside us” to “There are two kinds of women, those who want power in the world and those who want power in bed,” the second being an exact quote from the real Mrs. Kennedy.  Halfway through the film, I began to wonder if the screenwriter had previous experience writing monologues because Natalie Portman gives some very compelling monologues as the movie goes on.
The thing is I really, really wanted this to be a good movie.  However, I’m not going to lie and say that it was a good movie because, well, it just isn’t.  Allow me to present to you my litany of everything wrong with Jackie.

The Misses
Director Pablo Larrain really wanted this to be the next American Sniper, but didn’t understand what made American Sniper work.  For one, this movie tries WAY TOO HARD to be stylistic and as a result, the camera–good Lord, the camera–has too many close-ups of Natalie Portman’s face.  This would be fine if Portman was allowed to be more expressive, which she isn’t.  No, this movie relies on her doing that ugly-cry face and just looking off with a blank-ish face, so the incessant close-ups are pointless.  Oh, and speaking further on the camera, this movie will features Dutch angles for no reason and the lens will be dimmed so that the lighting is too bright and everything looks unnecessarily grimy.  Hey, guys, you don’t need to go grimy when you’re just filming a ball scene!  This is a biography about Jackie Kennedy, not Hacksaw Ridge!
Portraying a real life person is a very delicate task that requires a great deal of sensitivity and humility.  I don’t think Natalie Portman got this memo because she gives us a Jackie Kennedy who displays an oddly restrained erratic temperament that was never known of the real Mrs. Kennedy.  As a result, instead of being a sympathetic character who could be empathized with, this fictionalized version of Jackie who changes her mind every fifteen seconds, snaps at people for no reason, tries to hide from her problems instead of tackling them, and becomes very frustrating to watch.  Now this wouldn’t bother me too much if we had scenes of her dignified and collected manner contrasting those unstable moments.  Unfortunately, we don’t get those scenes, so all we’re left with is an unhinged character who is difficult to sympathize with.
Having watched a good number of biographies in my day, here’s something I’ve come to learn: Biographies are centered around something other than the person they’re focused on.  At its surface, American Sniper was the story of Chris Kyle, but at its core it is a study of PTSD among our nation’s veterans.  The Theory of Everything may focus on Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde, but beyond the surface it’s about reaching for the stars even when the stars are impossibly high above your head.   Even I’m Not Ashamed, which has some glaring flaws of its own, propelled the overarching narrative of what one person is capable of when they place their lives in God’s hands.
So with all this in context, what is Jackie really about?  Is it the story of women in politics?  I don’t think so.  It’s never established whether Jackie is treated differently because of her gender or not, and no other female character faces marginalization from the system.  Is this the story of grief?  Not really.  JFK’s own presence as a character is never felt, so we can only watch characters grieve without feeling it ourselves.  At best, it could be the story of picking up the pieces of a short-lived legacy, but nothing about Natalie Portman’s performance conveys to us that she herself is even convinced of her husband’s legacy.
Here’s the really sad thing: Every problem I just went over would have been solved in the blink of an eye if the movie had opened with the assassination.  Here, let’s fix that right now, shall we?!
(Opens with black; a gunshot is heard, screams are audible) (Camera cuts to JACKIE, who sits in shock and silence, staring down at her husband, who lies slumped on her lap.  Slowly JACKIE places her hand on her cheek.  She lowers her hand and gasps quietly at the sight of her husband’s blood on her fingertips).
There!  Isn’t that better?  Now we the audience are in shock, Natalie Portman is in shock, we share her state of mind and now we are relying on her to be our emotional anchor.  Maybe instead of opening the film with a terrible violin score and Natalie Portman staring blankly into the distance on some beach, how about open your movie in a way that places us in the main character’s shoes?

What more can I say?  Jackie is a missed opportunity in every sense of the word.  It’s the kind of movie that wants to win awards, but doesn’t know what it needs to do to deserve such acclaim.  Hopefully another Jackie Kennedy movie comes out in the future, but if it ends up being anything like this film, then perhaps it is better for Mrs. Kennedy-Onassis to remain a historical figure untouched by crummy cinema.

Saint Helen, pray for us.

1 a Jackie Kennedy (2)
Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis (1929-1994).  You were a fine woman, a class act who held herself with poise and grace.  Please pray for us.

For you history buffs out there, I took the liberty of finding the original White House tour given by First Lady Jackie Kennedy herself, which the movie does recreate to great effect.   I hope you enjoy this little slice of American history.

CGB Review of I’m Not Ashamed (2016)

I am not going to apologize for speaking the Name of Jesus, I am not going to justify my faith to them, and I am not going to hide the light that God has put in me.  If I have to sacrifice everything…I will.  I will take it.
–Rachel Joy Scott in a letter she wrote on April 20th, 1998; one year to the day before the Columbine tragedy.

This is my review of I’m Not Ashamed!

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April 20th, 1999 started out as an ordinary day. Seventeen-year old Rachel Joy Scott went to school and attended her classes as she would any other day.
At exactly 11:19 am, Rachel was eating lunch with her friend Richard Castaldo on the grass near the west entrance of the school.  They were soon approached by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who attacked them both with guns in their hands and hatred in their hearts.

Rachel was the first person killed by Harris and Klebold, who would go on to kill eleven other students and a teacher.
This is the story of her life and how she sparked a chain reaction of God’s love that continues to this day.

I discovered Rachel when I was fourteen-years old and just starting my Confirmation journey. My mother bought me the book “Rachel’s Tears” and I read it during my first Confirmation retreat.  As a kid, I always prayed and went to church, but reading about Rachel’s walk with God inspired me to make my Catholic faith my own.  Now having rediscovered her as an adult, I realize how much Rachel’s story has impacted my own walk with Jesus, which is why she holds a special place in my heart.  As you can imagine, I’ve been looking forward to this movie for quite some time.
Well, I finally own the DVD and have finally watched it…twice.
Here we go, on with the review.

The Hits
Masey McLain is the glue that holds this movie together, and my goodness, she carries the film on her shoulders with excellence.  She is a wonderful Rachel Scott.  Not only does she resemble her very well, but she captures Rachel’s outgoing personality, her passion for life, her heart for others and her desire to be real in one fell swoop.  She brings an authenticity and depth to the character so that she’s not just some sheltered good girl, but a real person who struggles with everyday issues all while clinging to her faith.  Speaking of which, PRAISE BE TO GOD that Rachel isn’t given the God’s-Not-Dead treatment, i.e. the “all-Christian-characters-are-perfect-beings” trope. While the film rightfully highlights her loving nature and acceptance of others, it allows her to make mistakes, to fall flat on her face and miss opportunities to do what is right.  Making light of her flaws allow her good deeds and triumphs to be even more meaningful.  We know that these acts of kindness are being done by a relatable human being and not a two-dimensional archetype.
The relationship between Rachel and her friend Nathan Ballard (based on her real life friend named Mark Bodiford) is the emotional anchor of this film.  They have a great rapport and Ben Davies’ performance serves to make Nathan the grounded “big brother” to his newfound, spirited “little sister.” Their friendship serves as a heartfelt subplot and an evolving example of a life touched by Rachel’s compassion.  On a side note, I really appreciate how her influence isn’t shown in some ridiculous burst of everyone at Columbine high school turning into nice people because–potatoes–but rather in small doses of kindness here and there.
In her journals, Rachel was incredibly deep in her relationship with God to the point where if you only read the journals without any context of her overall personality, she could come across as an uber-pious person who is difficult to connect with.  The film takes a different approach and actually dials down on her religiosity.  Her faith takes the form of her treatment of others and through excerpts of her writings via voiceover narration.  She never quotes scripture or beats anyone over the head with the Bible.  Her Christianity is expressed by her choices and her response to the world around her.  People need to see the human side of following God and this movie presents this beautifully.
All right, how does the movie portray the actual tragedy?  My answer: As well as it could have.  Mind you, we’re talking about a tragedy that changed America, so of course portraying it would be a delicate issue.  The filmmakers recognize this and go about it with as much tact and respect as possible.  While we follow Rachel’s story, we cut to brief scenes of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold plotting and preparing for the massacre at Columbine.  As the third act draws to the climax, it becomes effectively sickening to watch Rachel go about her final days as the knowledge of what is about to happen to her sinks in.

The Misses
The filmmaking itself is passable.  Aside from some nice transitions and a particularly creepy shot of Harris and Klebold approaching the school on the day of the shooting, there are a few scenes that just stop abruptly.  If you’re looking for a more avant-garde film style, you probably won’t find it here.
Rachel’s biological father Darrell Scott is weirdly absent from this film.   I say “weirdly” because in real life, Darrell Scott and Beth Nimmo (Rachel’s parents) had a good relationship with one another.  Rachel herself was close with both them and her stepparents Larry Nimmo and Sandy Scott.  However, you wouldn’t know that if you watched this before reading the book “Rachel’s Tears” because Darrell Scott in this movie is the absentee father who is nowhere to be found.  This wouldn’t bother me too much if I didn’t know that shortly after Rachel’s death, Darrell was the one who started the organization Rachel’s Challenge and is one of its prominent speakers to this day.
Speaking of Beth and Larry Nimmo, their parenting in this movie is kind of inconsistent.  In the first fifteen minutes, Rachel gets busted by her mother for sneaking out with her friends and engaging in smoking and drinking.  But then we see her being allowed to walk alone to her youth group Breakthrough.  Granted, when we first see her at Breakthrough, she is driven by her sister Dana, but after that, she’s going to Breakthrough by herself at night.  The parenting tries to be both assertive and lax, which results in some odd inconsistency.
There is only one thing that really bugs me.  Granted, it doesn’t ruin the movie for me at all, it’s just a side effect of the burden of knowledge.  Here it is:
So on April 20th, 1998, Rachel wrote, “I am not going to apologize for speaking the Name of Jesus…if I have to sacrifice everything, I will.”  As mentioned in the review’s opening, that was written one year to the day before her death.   Meanwhile, the movie starts in April of 1998, Rachel’s sophomore year.  During this time, she’s not shown as being religious yet.  She doesn’t verbalize this quote until the end of the second act, which I am assuming takes place in either February or March of 1999.  The only reason this bugs me is because I know how significant it is that she wrote the quote one year to the day before her death.  Yes, I know that her alleged martyrdom is still hotly debated after all this time, but that doesn’t take away from the significance of that particular quote and when exactly it was written.

If more Christian films were like I’m Not Ashamed, then the genre would be so much better.  I’m Not Ashamed is a powerful example of how to follow Jesus, all you have to do is be an ordinary person who is willing to be used by Him to make a difference in the lives around you.  Despite some strange choices regarding the portrayal of the Scott family and hasty editing, the handling of the tragedy is as tactful as it could have been and Masey McLain’s performance pays a respectful homage to Rachel, capturing the essence of who she was during her short time on Earth.  This is the story of Rachel and everything about her is presented correctly.  That fact alone is why I can forgive the film’s mistakes.
The Christian film genre needs to present stories of people being people while they serve God, not holier-than-thou stereotypes who only serve to propel an agenda.

Thank you Rachel for your faith, your courage and for starting a chain reaction of kindness and compassion.  You have touched my heart and will continue to touch millions of people’s hearts forever.

Rachel Joy Scott, pray for us.
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May they rest in peace.

If you are interested in supporting the organization Rachel Challenge, be sure to check out their website: http://rachelschallenge.org

CGB Review of Patriots Day (2017)

As I did in the Hidden Figures review, I would like to thank our law enforcement, first responders and the people of Boston for their services in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing.

This is my review of Patriots Day!

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This is the story of the officers, first responders and everyday civilians who came together to hunt down Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two men responsible for the Boston marathon bombing on April 15th, 2013.
I was at a Political Science club meeting when the Boston marathon bombing happened.  The professor who was moderating the meeting brought it to our attention, but it wasn’t until I got home and my parents had turned on the news when I learned what had taken place.

The Hits
Patriots Day seemingly blends its own camerawork with actual footage before and moments after the bombing.  This technique works so well that I honestly had a hard time telling which was footage and which was the film.  There are a few times where the difference becomes easy to spot, but for the most part, the footage and the recreation of said footage work well together.
This movie places great emphasis on the efforts of different people from all walks of life uniting for one cause: To catch the two men who orchestrated the bombing.  Because unity is the focus of the film, all of the characters act like real people in a very real situation.  There is no “big-bad-government-official-versus-rogue-cop-who-knows-it-all” or anything too cliché.  In this story, the citizens of Boston–police, civilian and all–are the heroes and the bombers are the enemies.  Any infighting that happens between the law enforcement characters and the government agents is short-lived when a new development in the case emerges or an even trickier situation comes up.  These moments cast aside all petty agendas and force the characters to look the big picture in the face.
I appreciate how the movie acknowledges the conflict with labeling the attack as “terrorism.”  Although the Boston marathon bombing was absolutely a terrorist attack on civilian life, the fact is once an attack is defined as terrorism, the media, the government and other powers that be jump headfirst into controversial waters and–yes–American Muslims who are trying to live peacefully with their families find themselves bracing for Islamophobic backlash.  The movie uses dialogue between government officials to tackle in a subtle way the realities of post-9/11 America, and I commend the film for doing so.
There is an intense, masterfully-done interrogation scene between an interrogator named Veronica (Khandi Alexander) and Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist, who you may known as Supergirl), the wife of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and American convert to Islam.  It is entirely dialogue driven with faint background music, which allows the tension of the scene to simmer and settle.
Speaking of the bombers and Katherine Russell, the portrayal of these characters are as realistic as possible.  It is clear that Tamerlan calls the shots in his house and that Dzhokhar, though has his own agenda, is mostly a sheep following his brother’s sinister lead.  As for Katherine, she is shown as a witting bystander; neither verbally encouraging nor discouraging her husband’s plot.  The brothers work on making bombs while Katherine quietly feeds her child milk and cereal.

The Misses
If you are an anxiety-sufferer like myself, then the first act might have you on edge.  I knew that the bombs were coming, but because the film doesn’t show time cards during the Boston marathon itself, I didn’t know when to brace myself for impact.  I literally jumped in my seat and had to take deep breaths after the bombing happens. Granted, I’m sure the filmmakers do this intentionally, but I also want to keep moviegoers who may be sensitive to certain things in mind.

Overall Patriots Day is a harrowing, gut-wrenching, emotional film, which is exactly why you should see it.  Like Silence, it does what movies are supposed to do: It made me cry, it made me anxious, it made me mad; it is an engaging experience that makes you feel for the characters on their quest for justice.   Compelling performances, tactful screenwriting and a thoughtful portrayal of the event makes Patriots Day a powerful film that needs to be experienced by the masses.

Saint Botolph, patron saint of Boston, pray for us.

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May the victims of the Boston marathon bombing rest in peace.