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 Review of The Shack (2017)

A very learned friend of mine had this to say about The Shack: Perhaps God used flawed means, such as a movie like The Shack, to show us a much bigger and more completed portrait of His love.

This is my review of The Shack!

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Mackenzie Phillips, or Mack as he is called, is your average working man. He has a wife he adores and three kids (Josh, Kate and Missy) he would die for.  He is especially close to his youngest Missy.  During a camping trip, Mack sees Josh and Kate on a canoe when Kate stands on it and causes it to capsize.  While Missy is focused on her coloring book, Mack rushes to the lake to save Kate and Josh. He gets Kate and Josh safely back to shore…but Missy is nowhere to be found.  A desperate search leads to the devastating discovery that Missy has been murdered by a serial killer.
Only her red dress remains.
Completely torn apart by the death of his child, Mack is angry when he receives a note in the mail that reads, “Mack, it’s been a while.  I’ve missed you.  I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together,” written by someone called Papa–which he rightfully perceives to be a cruel joke.  This single note leads Mack to the very shack where Missy’s dress was found.  However, instead of finding her killer, Mack finds the very Person he’s been running from: God.  He meets God in the form of the three persons of the Trinity: The Father (Octavia Spencer), the Son (Avraham Aviv Alush) and the Holy Spirit (Sumire Matsubara).

Before We Commence…
So before I begin this review, there are a couple of things I’d like to address: The original novel by William P. Young is NOT a theology book.  It was never meant to be one.   While both the book and the film do have quite a few theological hiccups that I will make note of, to completely dismiss the story is missing the forest for the trees; it’s like denouncing Beauty and the Beast because of its Stockholm Syndrome-esque undertones and ignoring its emphasis on redemption, forgiveness and the freeing power of true love.   That said, I can see the arguments for and against The Shack; those who deeply care for theological accuracy are right to err on the side of caution.  Meanwhile, there is nothing wrong with those who do find meaning in the story’s overarching message of God’s love and healing power.  My point is this: By all means, stay true with your convictions, but be sure to view all things in a balanced perspective.

Okay, so with all that out of the way, let’s get to the review.

The Hits
The portrayal of the Trinity is absolutely masterful.  Yes, yes, The Father, aka “Papa” is an African-American woman, the Son is an Israeli man, and the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman.  I understand that there’s an uber-problematic “God the Mother” movement, so portraying God as a woman is a controversial artistic choice.  Fortunately, there’s this beautiful little thing called context and it is important sometimes….actually–scratch that–ALL THE TIME!  😀  Anywho, so the reason God/Papa is manifested as a woman is because the only comforting person Mack could turn to during his turbulent childhood was his next-door neighbor, who happened to be Octavia Spencer.  This is how he perceived comfort and unconditional love.  A close friend of mine pointed out to me that in the book, it is better explained when Papa says something to the effect of, “If I came to you in My true form, you would not be able to handle it.”  This explanation does conform to what we know from Sacred Scripture, where we see Moses having to cover his eyes when he approaches the burning bush.  It speaks of God’s pastoral nature and how He meets us where we are so that He can begin to guide us to where He wills us to be.
Back to the Holy Trinity: When Mack asks, “So which one of you is…[God?]…” all three of them respond, “I AM.”  All three of them are distinct in personality, yet united in purpose.  They each have their own individual creative gifts: The Father cares for the dwelling place, the Son is a carpenter (imagine that 🙂 ) and the Holy Spirit tends the garden.  During my second viewing, I noticed how the Father, Spirit and Son have their own style of clothing, yet their color schemes always match one another.
One Person I am especially fond of is The Holy Spirit.  If you’ve been following Catholic Girl Bloggin’ for a while, you may have noticed that I’m a big fan of the Paraclete.  Let’s just say He’s helped me out quite a bit within a last year and has become my hero as a result.  🙂 Anyway, as you can imagine, an accurate and sensitive portrayal of the dove from above matters a lot to me.  So how did Sumire Matsubara do?  My friends, she is a wonderful interpretation of the Holy Spirit!  Ethereal, kind, consoling, this soft and breezy figure breathes life into the role.  She drops some convicting truth bombs on Mack in a comforting way, much like the real Holy Spirit.  I like that she’s a gardener because it speaks of the Holy Spirit’s own life-giving and creative nature.   Also, ten extra brownie points for making her shoulders shimmer every time she walks in sunlight.
Sam Worthington gives this performance his all.  An anguished father drowning in his own personal Hell, all he wants is justice and revenge; anything will do.  Having survived a brutal childhood, he managed to create an idyllic family life that was shattered at the hands of a callous predator and cannot bring himself to even begin putting back together the remnants of his broken family.  Though the faith of his grieving wife never wavers, Mack flat out (and understandably) blames God for this injustice upon his family.   Mack is a tortured soul in desperate need of healing and restoration, and Sam Worthington has the everyman persona and depth that such a role demands.
This movie really nails the love and mercy of God, and it’s not a permissive love where Mack is allowed to remain angry and jaded.  It brings to mind an epic quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “God seeks us where we are, not so that we stay there, but so that we may come to be where He is, so that we may get beyond ourselves.”  The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit seek out Mack where he is in his grief and [quite literally] bring him to where they are (the titular Shack) so that he may be challenged to grow, heal and move on.  Each person of the Trinity empathizes with Mack all while slowly but surely bringing him out of his inward anger.  This movie really demonstrates that at its core, Christianity is an encounter with a Person: Jesus Christ.  It is an encounter that will change you and the course of your life forever.  By the end of his journey, Mack is a changed man.  His perception, his actions, even his family are fundamentally transformed by this spiritual odyssey.   To encounter Christ is to be changed to your core, and if anything, the Shack understands this and it is a point that this movie hits right out of the ballpark.

The Misses
So early on in the movie we learn that Mack may or may not have succeeded in poisoning his drunken, abusive father.  This is brought up in Tim McGraw’s narration of Mack’s childhood (though I kind of wish Octavia Spencer’s Papa had been doing the narrating, but whatever)…and then is NEVER brought up again.   There is a deleted scene where it is mentioned, but it’s clear that the filmmakers weren’t quite sure what to do with this aspect of Mack’s character.
Though I did praise to high Heaven the film’s portrayal of the Holy Spirit, I will admit that the script does get a little wishy-washy with the Advocate at times.  They definitely got the “comforter and consoler” to the tee, but keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is both the love of God and the wrath of God.  Sometimes He roars, sometimes He whispers.  He will sound the alarm and shake an unrepentant sinner to their core if that is what it takes to save them.  If there ever are future cinematic depictions of the Holy Spirit, I do hope that He is written as the kindly Teacher who will lay down the law with (holy) fire when necessary.
I was all onboard with The Son’s character until He said this line: “Religion…it’s too much work.  I don’t wants slaves; I want friends.”  I literally facepalmed and said aloud, “Darn it, you had to go there?!”  Yeah, the Son went the same route as the “I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” guy.   Granted, I probably should have seen that coming given that the author has a more–let’s be kind and call it–progressive view on religion than a Catholic gal like myself, but still…WHY?!
All right, so the biggest theological elephant in the room concerns the sovereignty of God, i.e. the “God in the control” aspect of Christian doctrine…and this is what the movie tries to tackle and, at the same time, also tiptoes around.  Throughout the flick, Mack challenges the Father about why an all-powerful and merciful God would allow the innocent Missy to be brutally murdered.   The movie tries to use the “God is good” and “God can bring marvelous good out of terrible tragedies,” but it tiptoes when God’s goodness and control are further challenged.  There is one unspoken question that does loom over the script: Was Missy’s death the work of evil, the will of God or maybe even both?  If one of the main characters wasn’t God Himself, then this question could afford to go unanswered.  However, because the Triune God is one of the story’s protagonists and the movie is trying to make sense of this tragedy, the question itself almost can’t be answered because it would create some plot holes.  Suffice it to say, Papa tells Mack (paraphrasing here), “I can bring incredible good out of unspeakable tragedy.  Remember that I do not create the tragedy.”
I think it’s okay to admit that the topic of God’s sovereignty is a very difficult one to comprehend with our finite understanding.  Now that does not mean that we shouldn’t bother to study it; on the contrary, study and read every book written on the subject to your heart’s content!  However, keep in mind what Saint Thomas Aquinas once said, “If you can understand it, then it’s not God.”  Learn and try to understand, but don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself unable to fully comprehend the mystery of our God.

Final Verdict
Is the Shack perfectly sound on a theological basis?  No.  There are some questionable lines and logic that will rub people the wrong way.  As I said before, I completely understand students of theology who will not get behind The Shack.  They are not wrong in their caution.
All of this being said, as a conversation starter on the love and mercy of the Lord, as a tale of one man’s spiritual journey towards healing and restoration of self, The Shack shines bright.  It stumbles on some theological aspects of Christianity, but in demonstrating the radical transformative power of an encounter with Jesus Christ, the Shack does not hold back and shows this element of the Christian religion in all its glory.  Perhaps movies like The Shack are willed by God to challenge believers and non-believers alike to go out and learn what the Christian faith is truly all about.  Those concerned about theological errors can be emboldened to study more and argue eloquently, while those who find meaning in this story can be renewed in God’s love for all humanity.   That, my friends, is how God writes straight with crooked lines; by using flawed means to show us a much bigger and more completed portrait of His everlasting love.

Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, 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 Collaboration Review of Beauty and the Beast (2017) with Monique Ocampo/MsOWrites

Certain as the sun rising in the east, tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme…

This is my review of Beauty and the Beast (2017), guest-starring the one and only Monique Ocampo, also known as MsOWrites!

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Cue the music, Jay!  (Our friend Jay plays the Belle/Little Town theme)

CGB: (Walks out of little cottage) Huh, I didn’t know I lived in a cottage.  (Shrugs, smiles at quaint little cottage) I’m not complainin’.  Oohh, there’s tulips on the side of the cottage!  Well, anyway….(Begins singing) Little film, it’s a brand new remake.  All-star cast and some brand new songs.  Little film, starring Emma Watson.  Everybody says…

Critic 1: IT SUCKS!

Critic 2: IT SUCKS!

Critic 3: IT SUCKS!

Rad-Trads: IT SUCKS!

All together: IT SUCKS!

CGB: There go the critics with their gripes like always.

MsOWrites: Seems like they’re never satisfied.

Both of Us: Because way back when we were kids, Disney made a princess flick.  And it was one that we both loved.

Nostalgia Critic: Good morning, girls!

MsOWrites: Good morning, NC!

Nostalgia Critic: Where are you off to?

CGB: We’re doing a review.  It’s the remake of the classic Disney movie.

Nostalgia Critic: That’s nice.  But honestly?  It was meh.

CGB: Well, we haven’t even seen it yet.

MsOWrites: We might be in for a pleasant surprise.

Nostalgia Critic: It still sucks, though.

Critics: Look there they go, they’re just so optimistic.   Can’t they see that the original’s the best?

Critic 1: Emma Watson’s auto-tuned.

Critic 2: The supporting cast was underused.

Rad-Trads: And let’s not forget the token gay LeFou!

(MsOWrites and I come out of the theater two hours later)

MsOWrites (crying): Oh, isn’t this amazing?

CGB: Are you crying?  Because so am I!

MsOWrites: I never do…but yeah, I’ll make this exception.  There’s just so much of this film that’s good and true…

CGB: It would certainly please JP2!  Let us do a review, just me and you!

MsOWrites: We could show both the Catholic and secular world why it’s good!

CGB: Let us begin!

 

The Hits
CGB: So how did Hermione Granger do playing everyone’s favorite “most peculiar mademoiselle”?  My answer: Emma Watson is a wonderful Belle!   This Belle is a lovely reinterpretation of the original character, mixing her trademark book-loving nature with an inventor’s vibe.  I really appreciate that Emma Watson’s Belle actually feels different from Paige O’Hara’s Belle from the 1991 classic.  O’Hara’s Belle is dreamy, optimistic and overall innocent.  Watson’s Belle is grounded, pragmatic and even bohemian in more ways than one.   One of my biggest concerns is that Emma Watson would come off as an overconfident-in-her-own-self-actualization character, but luckily there’s a sweetness and humility to this new Belle.  Also Watson’s Belle has more agency in this film than she did in the original; locking herself in the dungeon while pushing her father away, telling the Beast that he has to stand so that she can take back to the castle and so on.   Finally, I’m going to add brownie points for that one scene where she teaches a young girl how to read.  Brilliant!  😀  The Beast’s character is pretty much the same as he was in the original; starts off as mean, coarse and unrefined, but ends up becoming so dear and almost kind.  😉 Here, though, his temper is not as jarring as it was in the original.  The sympathy factor of his character is applied right away so that we, the audience, are easily able to refrain from judgment before we get to know him.  His pain and torment are palpable as his growing feelings for Belle begin to break down the inner walls he has placed around his broken, guarded heart.
Kevin Kline is a wonderful Maurice!  I really appreciate that they dialed down his quirkiness big time and made him into an actual character.  Warm, gentle, thoughtful, I can just see him hoisting little Belle onto his lap and reading to her by the fireplace.
Luke Evans is having the time of his life playing Gaston, and I had a great time watching his Gaston.   The usual arrogance of the original character is still there, but we see his progression towards evil.  Also I do like that he’s not impractically buff like in the cartoon, but that his toxic masculinity is displayed by his ignorance and overcompensation.  Now, given that I’ve brought up Gaston, you’re probably waiting to see LeFou mentioned here.  Before MsOWrites and I get into the whole gay LeFou thing, let me talk about the character LeFou.  He is definitely an improvement from the cartoon character.  His “hero-admiration” toward Gaston explains his loyalty to him and he is actually the smarter of the duo.  In a way, he serves as a manifestation of Gaston’s effect on people; how he [Gaston] is able to grab and hold the attention of women and men alike, which was always the point of Gaston’s character to begin with.
EVERMORE!  Oh my goodness, what a beautiful song!  It’s like someone took Augustine’s Confessions, some passages from the Book of Psalms and a hint of the Song of Solomon, then threw them into a blender and then–somehow–they just mixed into the most melodic purée.  Also the song really sums up a wonderful theme in this film: That people come into our lives who touch our hearts so much that when they leave us, just their presence will remain in our memory forever.  They illustrate this when Maurice is singing about Belle’s mother, but the theme comes full circle with Evermore.

MsOWrites: First of all, the opening scenes were stunning in their visuals.  We actually get to see the prince and the residents in the castle and watch the Enchantress cast her spell.  As much as we all love the stained glass narration from the original, the prince’s character arc is to learn what true beauty is, which is kind of the whole point of the entire story in the first place.
The scene with Pere Robert wasn’t as elaborate as the bookshop scene in the original, but there’s a good explanation.  It wouldn’t make sense for there to be a bookstore in a town that doesn’t have that many people who can or even want to read.  However Pere Robert is a priest with a personal library.   He doesn’t have as many books, but he generously loans the books he does have to Belle.
I appreciate the nuances that have been added to the story.  For one, when Belle asks Monsieur Jean if he has lost something again, he responds, “I believe I have.  Problem is I can’t remember what!”  This is actually a small hint at [BIT OF A SPOILER, though it’s told to us in the opening prologue] the “forget-the-freaking-huge-castle-just-down-the-road” enchantment that the Enchantress placed on the entire town.   Yeah, her spell not only turned the now-adult Prince into a hideous CGI goat-man, but also did what the neuralyzer from Men in Black does to people.   It does feel like a convenient cop-out, but it works within the context of the story.
In defense of the songs, I thought these new versions of songs we all know sounded just fine.  They had a more Broadway stage vibe to them, which makes sense given that this is an event musical film.  The auto-tuning is necessary for the actors who are not professional singers and the background music of the songs are faithful to the original music.

The Misses
MsOWrites: So about that magic book thing…yeah, it kind of creates a plot hole.  If it can just transport the Beast anywhere he wants, then why wasn’t he using it all the time prior to Belle’s arrival?  Also, why didn’t Belle use it to get back to the village and return to her father?  The book is used once and then we never see it again.  What?

CGB: Remember how filled with wonder Belle was when she sang about the beauty of books to those sheep?
What?  You don’t sing to sheep?  I do it all the time!  Alas, that’s not the point.  The point is that Hermione–er, I mean–Emma Watson could’ve sung that part about, “oh, isn’t this amazing?  It’s my favorite because…here’s where she meets Prince Charming, but she won’t discover that it’s him till Chapter 3” with a little more enthusiasm.
Speaking of which, Obi-Wan Kenobi (from the Star Wars prequels) plays Lumiere, but there is a bit of a catch: Ewan McGregor himself has stated that he has never seen the original film.  GASP!  Anyway, once I learned that, his performance in this film kind of made more sense.  I’ve seen this movie twice and I didn’t really care for this Lumiere during either time I saw it.  In fact, I think because there was so much focus on getting Belle, the Beast and Gaston right, the supporting cast feels less colorful.

An Unexpected Theological Truth
Both of Us: We consider ourselves students of Mother Teresa.  Throughout her ministry to the poor in Calcutta, she deemed every person she helped as, “Jesus in His most distressing disguise.”  That credo is on display in this film and in the original, as well.  We are going to focus on this film for the sake of argument.  While the Beast most certainly doesn’t act Christ-like in the beginning, Belle does when she chooses to bring him back to the castle after he rescues her from the wolves.  As their relationship develops, he begins displaying Christ-like characteristics such as mercy, understanding and kinship.  One of the many, many beautiful realities of Jesus is that when we follow Him, He brings out the best in us even during difficult times.  With this in mind we see how once she begins ministering to him, Belle becomes the best version of herself and the same happens to the Beast in return.  There is a saying that difficult people show their need for love in unlovable ways and the Beast is a manifestation of that adage.
We challenge you to think of the “Beast” in your life and ask yourself if he/she is in need of mercy and forgiveness.  Sometimes Christ comes to us in the form of an unpleasant person who we can either wash our hands off and avoid at all cost, or show them compassion and forgive their faults just as Belle does with the Beast.

The Elephants in the Room
#1. This film has a gay agenda!
MsOWrites: Let’s address the biggest elephant in the room first. There was a lot of hype and backlash about a “gay scene” in this movie involving the character of LeFou. While it’s true that LeFou is shown to have feelings for Gaston, the actual gay scene is just two seconds long.
Neither of us are promoting gay marriage.  However, we do agree with the idea of representation. We need to acknowledge that there are people out there who are attracted to the same sex and treat them as people instead of a stereotype.  This advocating of representation also applies to those who identify as asexual as well.  (I’m looking at you, Riverdale!)
Trust me when I say that Disney isn’t the only name in “children’s programming” to include a gay character.

CGB: So I already talked about this on both the blog FB page, but I’ll just rehash some of my thoughts here.
The original film makes it very clear that Lefou, as well as every woman and man in the entire village, is hopelessly enamored with Gaston. In addition, Gaston presents himself (quite loudly and boldly) to be THE ideal man, THE symbol of masculine perfection. Lefou, being Gaston’s right-hand man, would most likely be the one who gets the most sucked in to the–I guess we can call it–the cult of Gaston.  It’s not just LeFou, it’s him and all of the village who are swept up in it, which explains why everyone immediately goes along with Gaston’s “let’s-kill-the-Beast” tirade with no questions asked.
Also, let’s look at Lefou himself. What does he personally gain from being around Gaston all the time? They’re not brothers or related in any fashion, and there’s no indication that Lefou owes him money or anything; in retrospect, Lefou has no real reason to associate himself with Gaston at all. One could make the argument that there is a social benefit to being around Gaston, but Lefou is never established to be a self-serving character who is trying to get ahead in society by being around the “right people,” so that wouldn’t hold up.
Simply having a character who happens to be gay in a film is not in and of itself promoting same-sex marriage.  How it is presented is what matters.  LeFou never actively hits on Gaston and there’s no gay wedding at the end.  There will be those who say, “You give [gay people] an inch and they’ll take a mile!”  However, that inch has to make sense.
You can be a faithful Catholic who staunchly defends the sanctity of marriage and acknowledge that there are LGBT people who are created in His likeness and image.  In fact, that’s basically what we’re supposed to be doing.  We are supposed to bring all people, gay or straight, to the Gospel, not chase them away from it by foaming at the mouth over a fictitious character who happens to be gay.  As Christians, we are called to rise above our outrage culture and be a people of the better way.  Love without truth is permissiveness and truth without love is brutality.  Only the truth spoken with love brings hope and enlightenment. 

#2. This film is uber-feminist!

CGB: I’m pretty sure I’ve made it clear by now that I identify as a pro-life feminist (I would emphasize, but the label itself is pretty self-explanatory).  With this lens, I observed that the feminist undertones of this film were centered around the theme of the anti-intellectual village.  For one, notice how only the boys go to school and the girls are the ones learning to keep house.  This establishes how Belle is the outsider woman who chooses the solace of books over the conventions of the little town.  It is not wrong to use film to point to the very bleak reality that there are still countries in our world where girls are not allowed to read or even go to school.  I would argue that it would probably behoove Western feminists to focus less on promoting abortion and more on calling attention to the injustice of depriving girls an education.

MsOWrites: The main issue that Belle has with the villagers is that they choose to stay in their simple, provincial ways. Belle is shown doing laundry by having a horse pull a barrel full of soap and clothes. When I heard about Belle being an inventor who created a washing machine, I actually expected some kind of steampunk contraption. The invention that Belle created was actually something all the villagers could use. But instead of being open-minded about a better way to do their laundry, they destroy her invention. They also berate her about teaching a young girl to read.
There’s a similar argument going around that Belle, her father, and even the local priest are members of a “literate caste.” Keep in mind that Belle and her father fled Paris in the midst of the plague and that priests are more often than not assigned to minister to small towns. And at the time, priests were well-educated. It’s not that these three deliberately kept their books away from everyone else. They have a school for young boys, but LeFou admits to being illiterate and they would rather side with the amoral war hero (Gaston) over the kind music box maker (Maurice). The townspeople chose to be ignorant throughout the film.

CGB Review of The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)

Holy LEGOs, Batman!

This is my review of The LEGO Batman Movie!

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Three years after Emmet and company rescued LEGO…city, I guess (the main location never really had an established name)…Batman (Will Arnett) is continuing his crusade against crime in his beloved Gotham City.  However, his “I-don’t-need-nobody” attitude is starting to get the best of him and is beginning to harm the few interpersonal relationships he has.  His isolated world is turned upside when, after sarcastically “promising” to adopt the sweet orphan boy Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), Dick is welcomed into Wayne Manor by Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) and is taken in as Bruce Wayne’s/Batman’s adoptive son.  Along with unintentionally becoming a foster parent, Batman also has the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and his evil plan for complete and total world domination to worry about.  Oh, and he has a crush on now-Commissioner Barbara Gordon because why not?  Luckily their relationship is handled WAY better than it is in the Killing Joke adaptation.

Anywho, before any fans of the Killing Joke get angry at me, ONWARD with the review!

The Hits
Once again, the self-aware comedy is top notch!  There are a lot of really clever and incredibly funny jabs at past Batman incarnations and DC comics in general.  As with the last film, LEGO Batman is superbly animated.  The amount of detail to each frame and dedication to making every LEGO piece move smoothly will never cease to amaze me.
Will Arnett’s Batman was one of the best parts of the already-awesome LEGO Movie and he totally delivers here in his own solo flick!  His LEGO Batman is a bruiting, egocentric man-child…and yet there is a complexity to him which comes in the form of his inability to cope with the death of his parents even after all these years (and adaptations).  Within his character arch is a great self-sanctification message; as the story goes on, Batman slowly but surely puts his own ego and desires aside for the good of Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon and eventually all of Gotham.  The climax features a great moment of humility and self-denial from Batman, which is a much-needed lesson to both kids and adults alike in our entitled society.  Dick Grayson, aka Robin, is so adorable in this movie.   I like how he’s actually a teenage boy and not a twentysomething college fellow; it makes his innocence and whacky antics more endearing.  Also BRAVO to the film’s pro-adoption message!  By golly, we need all the positive examples of adoption we can get.
Now I’ve never been an avid reader of the Batman comics, but even as an outsider looking in, I can safely say that the portrayal of Batman and Joker’s rivalry here is the best I’ve seen since the Dark Knight!  I like dark and gritty as much as the next guy, I do appreciate the satirical take on Batman and Joker’s animosity.  Batman and Joker have always been each other’s ying and yang, and that one just couldn’t exist without the other.  This movie not only acknowledges this, but EMBRACES it!   I’ve always known that Joker has carried a secret soft spot for the Caped Crusader (and by that, I mean that the Joker secretly never wants to kill Batman because doing so would be killing the one person who is actually a worthy match to fight, and for Mr. J, where’s the fun in that?) and the movie doesn’t go crazy with it by having the Joker be in love with Batman or anything.  It’s more of a “I-appreciate-you-as-my-rivaling-equal” kind of rapport.  I actually think it was quite a bold move to make Batman kind of a bad guy and have the Joker be the more likable of the duo.

The Misses
So there is a bit of a continuity error.  In the LEGO Movie, the elements like water and fire were made ENTIRELY out of LEGOs.  Here, however, Batman goes swimming in an earlier scene and the water is actually, well, water.  Yeah, I know it’s a nitpick, but it was just less funny to see ole Bruce swimming in liquid than in blue LEGO pieces.
The movie can be a bit overwhelming at times.  The pacing is 100% fast, nonstop with little breathing room.  Jokes are thrown at a rapid-fire speed and the plot does little to take a break.  I can literally count the quiet moments with my fingers–all two of them.  Granted, I know that this isn’t Arrival, which took its time, but some pauses in the narrative would have been nice.

As a huge fan of the LEGO movie, I give this solo LEGO Batman flick two thumbs up!   This is another wonderfully assembled, cleverly crafted picture by the master-builder filmmakers who brought us the first flick.  Knee-slapping satire, colorful characters and positive messages of sanctification, friendship and adoption makes the LEGO Batman Movie a neon-colored treat for the whole family!

Saint Pelagia, pray for us.

CGB Review of The LEGO Movie (2014)

There’s no other way to begin this review except by saying…

EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!  😀

This is my review of The LEGO Movie!

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Emmet (Chris Pratt) is just your average, ordinary…LEGO person or piece or whatever you call him.  Anyway, Emmet lives a pretty unremarkable life as a construction worker amidst a sea of yellow faces.  When a strange piece called “the piece of resistance” gets stuck on Emmet’s back, he is whisked away by oddball characters such as a pretty tough gal named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and the prophet Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) on a mission to stop the evil Lord Business from freezing the entire LEGO world using the Kragle.

This plot is so ridiculous and nonsensical, which is why I love it so much!

The Hits
This movie is so gosh darn creative!  I was laughing so hard when I saw that the lava in the opening scene is made of red LEGOS!  I love how even the water is made of blue LEGOS.  The animation is truly something to behold.  Rich colors, smooth movements, excellent camerawork, the level of detail is astonishing and you can tell that a lot of thought and precision went into making everything just right.
For being a boring everyman…LEGO…being thingamajig, Emmet is a pretty endearing character.  They don’t make him clumsy or any other everyman (or everywoman) character trope, but they don’t give him special powers or any quality that would make him stand out.  He’s just a bland, likable guy with a kind heart (and a face of yellow) who ends up truly being the hero that the city needs.  Wyldstyle is pretty funny and with Vitruvius, you can tell that Morgan Freeman is trying so hard not to laugh with each line of dialogue he says.  Also Will Arnett’s Batman had me rolling on the floor laughing.  Batman sure does bruit a lot, doesn’t he?  I know that’s one of his signature qualities, but seen in a satirical form really does put perspective on it.
This is the kind of movie that should not have worked, but makes itself work with awesome results.  What makes this ridiculous concept work is its self-awareness.  The script knows that it is a laughable idea and, instead of trying to make itself more epic than it actually is, it embraces the nonsense and comedic possibilities.  Self-important prophecies, the chosen one narrative and pop culture are satirized to great effect.  The voice actors do a great job at taking things seriously when it is needed, but they aren’t like characters in a Christopher Nolan film where EVERY. SINGLE. LINE. OF. DIALOGUE is treated as the most important thing ever said.  The tongue-in-cheek quality is why this movie is so hilarious and a real blast to watch!

The Misses
The action is so fast-paced that it is hard to see at times.  Viewers with sensitive eyes or who are prone to getting headaches from watching fast motion with neon colors might want to close their eyes during the action sequences.

Everything is awesome with the LEGO Movie!  This surprise hit from 2014 is a brilliantly animated gem that both kids and adults can enjoy.  Top-notch animation, an impressive cast, charming characters, and a clever use of satire and cheeky humor all culminates to the LEGO Movie being…just so darn…AWESOME!  😀

Saint Isidore the Farmer, pray for us.

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