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 The Shape of Water

This movie is really great!…
….IF you haven’t already seen Pan’s Labyrinth.

This is my review of The Shape of Water!

shape-of-water

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at a top secret research facility circa 1962. Though a hearing person, she communicates with the few friends she has via American Sign Language (yes, as an interpreting student, I will get into the accuracy of the ASL in this film).  All is well and mundane until a mysterious amphibian fella known as “The Asset” is brought into the lab to be both tested and tortured by Strickland (Michael Shannon).  A woman with no voice, Elisa begins to form a bond with this voiceless creature that leads her to do what she has never dared before.

The Hits
Sally Hawkins is probably one of the best mute characters in recent memory.  Elisa is a woman defined by powerlessness; no voice, lowly job, even her home is a one-room apartment in a dumpy complex.  As I mentioned, Elisa is not Deaf, but a hearing woman, yet she uses ASL to make herself heard.  This is kind of a side note, but in the film we see what is called the Helper Model, which was the first service model of interpreting.  Basically in the days before professional ASL interpreters, family, friends, teachers and members of clergy served as “interpreters” for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing.  In this movie, Elisa’s friends, a fellow janitor named Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins), her neighbor, are her helpers.  They don’t sign to her, but they understand and interpret sign-to-voice what she says when others address her.   However even her language holds little weight in a speaking world.   Her budding relationship with The Asset is contrary to her everyday existence; she teaches him ASL, she provides him with food and companionship, she is the one who eventually breaks him out of the research facility.  She has power in this relationship that she never has in her day-to-day.  Okay, yes, Eliza and the Asset do consummate their romance.  However there is no full-blown sex scene.  It’s literally this: She undresses, walks to him in her shower and pulls up the curtain.  That’s it.  There is another scene where she quite literally floods her bathroom (good luck getting that to dry later) and swims naked with the Asset, but by this point, the movie has built enough context so that this scene signifies that she essentially wants to be a part of his world.  If you’re now singing “Part of Your World” from Little Mermaid right after reading this, well, I’m sorry not sorry.  🙂
In regards to the ASL, I’d say 98% of the signs and grammatical structure are accurately used in this film.  I did see one or two old signs that are no longer used within the Deaf community (such as the sign for “mute,” which is used because Eliza is in fact a mute character), but otherwise Eliza and the Richard Jenkin character sign better than the “interpreter” guy at Nelson Mandala’s funeral.
A major theme throughout the film is the reality of those who have no power.  Every protagonist is an individual who is powerless in their own society.  We’ve covered Eliza’s powerlessness, Zelda is African-American and given the time period, she has zilch power in white America, Giles is subtly implied to be gay and closeted, so no power or agency for him, and of course the Asset is subjected to daily torture and abuse by Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland.  Speaking of Strickland, his character is the exact opposite of Eliza, Zelda, Giles and the Asset; male, white, heterosexual and in complete control of everything that goes on in the research facility.  Now his character could be seen as created to vilify conservatives, but both the script and Shannon himself make this character three-dimensional.   His power makes sense within the context of the time period the story is set in.  His oppression of the other characters is more subtle and realistic as to how someone in his position would act; he is never seen whipping Zelda or raping Eliza, but his casually racist comments and implications that these characters are beneath him make for a compelling villain.

The Misses
Okay, Guillermo, can we talk?
Now I LOVE Pan’s Labyrinth; it was my 100th review here on this blog.  That movie was a major game-changer for me and it’s one of the reasons I developed a passion for languages (I did try to learn Spanish a few years after first watching Pan’s, but the Lord guided me to ASL instead; thank You Jesus 🙂 ), but as good as Shape of Water is, the plot relies way too heavily on story elements from Pan’s Labyrinth.
Here, as a Pan’s fan, let me just walk you all through what it was like to watch Shape of Water.

Act I: Okay, this is good.  Beautiful color palate, nice greens and midnight blues…I’ve seen this color palate before, but whatever…the main villain is an oppressive, toxic-masculinity tyrant…huh, kind of reminds me of Captain Vidal, but Michael Shannon’s guy is different enough.  Okay, I like this, and hooray for ASL on the big screen!

Act II: Huh, this movie has a sympathetic doctor character who stands up to the tyrannical toxic masculine villain…oh, hi Dr. Ferrero from Pan’s Labyrinth!  Come to think of it, the powerless characters theme is similar to Pan’s…nah, this one’s different enough…

Act III: [SPOILER!!!…though not really if you’ve seen the first ten minutes of Pan’s] Okay, this whole third act is nearly identical to the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth!  Hmm, let’s see, a short-haired brunette gal standing in the rain who gets shot in the stomach by the tyrant villain.  Also there’s a brief musical montage that rips off the “what-could-have-been” ending of La La Land.

So what’s my whole point?  On it’s own, this movie is great…BUT if you’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth, which is even better, Shape of Water is just good.  Now the reusing of plot elements don’t destroy Shape, but it is a little worrying that this movie is so dependent on the eleven year old predecessor.  Look, Guillermo, I know that Crimson Peak, an original story by yourself, didn’t work out so well at the box office, but you can still create original stories that don’t need to be spoon-fed by a previous work.  Going forward, an artist needs to branch out and try new things.  At some point the copying of tropes that worked in the past will tire and your work will become dated.

Overall The Shape of Water is definitely an experimental film, primarily with the premise of “why doesn’t the creature from the black lagoon get the girl?” question.  The movie is held together by excellent performances, a fantastic representation of American Sign Language, and the intrigue of the premise.  Hopefully this will be the only time Guillermo del Toro copies and pastes from Pan’s Labyrinth and will create works that stand on their own in the future.  But for now, I’m glad The Shape of Water is receiving all the accolades it has clearly earned.

Saint Margaret of Cortona, pray for us.

CGB Review of The Disaster Artist (2017)

Oh hai Mark!

Guys and gals, after a two-month absence, I’m back!

This is my review of The Disaster Artist!

the-disaster-artist-james-franco-movieBased on the book “The Disaster Artist,” the making of “The Room” is chronicled through the tumultuous friendship between Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) as they meet in an acting class, form a bond and travel to LA together to prove all the naysayers wrong.  The end result is “The Room,” a film both infamously terrible and an instant classic.  Before I go on, yes, I have seen The Room and will be reviewing it soon.

The Hits
The heart of the story is the relationship between Wiseau and Sestero, mostly shown through Sestero’s perspective.  Experiencing Wiseau’s strange nature through Sestero’s eyes was a smart choice since it balances out the weirdness of the story.  Speaking of Tommy Wiseau, James Franco’s performance is amazing!  The accuracy and attention to detail is noteworthy.  Everything from the off-putting accent to the hair, his mannerisms; James Franco transforms into Tommy Wiseau.  I appreciate how the film never makes Wiseau into a joke, rather it humanizes him and works around his eccentricities, preventing him from coming off as a caricature.  As for Dave Franco, while his performance isn’t anything remarkable, he is the grounded and sensible friend who keeps Wiseau’s oddities in check.  The fact that brothers James and Dave Franco star as Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero heightens the chemistry between the protagonists, making their relationship believable and natural.
Having never read “The Disaster Artist” book, I didn’t realize until halfway through the film how one-sided and toxic Wiseau and Sestero’s relationship is.  He doesn’t try to break up Sestero and his new girlfriend, but his disapproval of the romance is loud and clear.  His mistreatment of the cast and crew of “The Room” is not sugarcoated at all; we see him humiliate Juliette Danielle during the awkward sex scene by pointing out a zit on her shoulder, he refuses to turn on the air conditioning, causing a cast member to faint and getting into shouting matches with the cameraman and producer.  Wiseau himself could range between codependent and emotionally abusive, but both James Franco’s performance and the film make it very clear that he only has the propensity for being difficult and not abusive by intent.  Due to minimal emotional intelligence and a lack of social skills, Wiseau is portrayed as a man who does have a good heart, but chooses self over others more often than not.
The big question with this movie is does it work on its own in spite of “The Room” being the backdrop?  As someone who has seen the original “The Room,” but is not a mega-fan, I say YES!  The first hour is an underdog story that humanizes the relationship between Wiseau and Sestero, while the second hour continues to develop their troubled friendship all while successfully recreating iconic scenes from “The Room.”  The underdog aspect of the story remains front and center even as the making-of comes into play.

The Misses
Honestly my only complaint would be that the third act feels somewhat rushed.  SPOILER: So Sestero and Wiseau have a big confrontation and then Sestero walks off the set of “The Room.”  One fade to black later, Sestero looks up while driving and sees a movie poster for “The Room.”  Sestero and Wiseau meet again (after an unspecified amount of time) and they make up pretty quickly.  Given how much Wiseau has taken advantage of him, I kind of wish we had see Sestero resist forgiving Wiseau, even just a brief look of consternation on his face before realizing what brought him and Wiseau together in the first place.  Granted, having never read the book, I don’t know if this is how it happens in the novel, but it felt very rushed to me.

Verdict
Guys and gals, The Disaster Artist is anything but a disaster.  This is a fantastic biopic of how the best-worst movie of all time came to be.  A well-crafted script, an endearing love for “The Room” permeating from every actor involve, and the chemistry between James and Dave Franco bring Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero to life, enabling we the audience to empathize with their wild journey towards turning a crazy dream into a cult classic reality.

Saint John Bosco, pray for us.

CGB Review of It (2017)

I wonder if holy water would’ve worked on Pennywise.  I guess I’ll try it out the next time I see a killer clown while grocery shopping.

This is my review of It!

it-trailer-2

Based on both Stephen King’s novel and the 1990 miniseries of the same name, It tells the story of the Loser’s Club, a misfit group of outcasts who begin experiencing frightening apparitions and visitations from Pennywise, a demonic killer clown who has been terrorizing Derry, Maine for thousands of years.

The Hits
The kids are the heart of this story and these child actors are absolutely fantastic!  Their chemistry with one another is impeccable; I could believe that these kids would hang out at a Starbucks after school together.  While it is uncomfortable to see twelve-year olds dropping F-bombs, I honestly prefer that over cheesy phrases that no kid would ever say.  I like how they don’t go into long diatribes about their friendship.  Their bond is shown to us through their actions and decisions as a group, how they come to each others’ rescue whenever one of them is reeling from an encounter with Pennywise.  Much like the first Alien movie, this film spends its first hour fleshing out Bill, Stan, Ben, Beverly, Eddie, Richie and Mike and establishing them as friends through circumstance.  You get the sense that it is in being rejected by others that they have come to accept one another.
All right, let’s talk about Pennywise because, by God, how can you not talk about Pennywise?!  Bill Skarsgård nails it as Pennywise.  Gone is the witty banter of Tim Curry’s interpretation of Pennywise.  This Pennywise is basically a Machiavellian demon, one who rules his chosen targets by presenting himself as their worst fears made manifest.  After we meet him in the film’s first eight minutes, the movie then proceeds to build up the terror of anticipating his unpredictable presence rather than having him screech at the kids in every single scene.  He is featured more prominently in end of the second act and the entire third act, but for the first hour and a half, he’s like the Fire Lord in Avatar: The Last Airbender; shrouded in mystery and kept in the shadows with a single red balloon being his calling card.
What keeps the Pennywise apparitions from becoming too repetitive is that they are used to establish the worst fears and darkest memories of our protagonists.  Bill is forced to revisit his guilt over Georgie’s death when he follows Pennywise (disguised as Georgie) into his flooded basement and faces not-Georgie, who is wearing the same yellow raincoat he was last seen wearing on the day of his death.  Mike’s first Pennywise encounter comes to him in the form of burning hands trapped behind a door, a gut-wrenching representation of the family he lost in a horrific fire.  These scenes are critical to the character development, as well as for getting a sense of Pennywise’s possible omniscience and immortality.  I really wonder if this is what it would look like if God actually gave Lucifer a free hand.  Luckily the old serpent can’t do squat without God’s permission, and after seeing this movie, I’m most certainly glad that’s the case!
Speaking of which, I would like to say that while this is a secular film, it would not be far-fetched to call this an unintentionally accurate portrayal of what it is like to deal with spiritual attack.  Not so much the over-the-top scares, but in the depiction of the unnerving reality of being bullied and harassed by evil.  Granted, this isn’t a de facto story of spiritual warfare, but I do feel that those who do work in that field (such as those involved in deliverance ministry and maybe even exorcists) could benefit from watching this film.  Spiritual attacks certainly make life challenging, but they can also serve as a wake-up call to run to Jesus if you’ve been moving away from Him for a while.

The Misses
There’s this really unnecessary love triangle between Bill, Bev and Ben (try saying those three names ten times fast) that the filmmakers do try to develop, but it ultimately falls flat because it’s just a distraction from the main plot.
Speaking of Bev, she has this reputation of being promiscuous, even though we see that it’s not the case at all.  This point is hand-fisted throughout the film.  Now while I am glad that slut-shaming is addressed in this film, it gets tiresome by the fifteenth time a character throws an accusation of promiscuity in Bev’s face.  There’s a more subtle way to write slut-shaming into your movie, and I hope filmmakers learn how to do so.
The very end of the film features the kids basically making a blood pact that they’ll return to Derry if Pennywise returns.  Yeah, I felt that was a bit much.  Hey, guys, I think a verbal agreement would’ve been just fine, but what do I know?  I guess being stalked by a killer clown can make you resort to extreme measures.

Overall It can certainly be called a crowd-pleasing horror flick.  This movie is like Deadpool in that it’s better watched with a group of friends at a midnight screening.  Fortunately even if it weren’t a midnight movie, the script is well-written and stands on its own two feet.  Add to that the stellar performances of Bill Skarsgård and the child actors, and excellent directorial work from Director Andy Muschietti, and you’ve got yourself a Stephen King adaption worthy of the hype and applause it has received.

Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, pray for us.

Given that the new It film is immensely dark and heavy, I thought it’d be fun to add the Nostalgia Critic’s review of the 1990 miniseries “It” as a bonus feature.  🙂

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!

shack-trailer2 (2)

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)!

ghost-in-the-shell-2017 (4)

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.