CGB Review of Detroit (2017)

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

This is my review of Detroit.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

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CGB Review of Jackie (2016)

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

This is my review of Jackie!

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Helen, pray for us.

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

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

CGB Review of I’m Not Ashamed (2016)

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

This is my review of I’m Not Ashamed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CGB Review of Patriots Day (2017)

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

This is my review of Patriots Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

CGB Review of Hidden Figures (2017)

Normally I’d begin this review with a witty remark, but instead I’ll open by thanking Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson for their service to our country.

This is my review of Hidden Figures!

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This is the untold true story of three African-American women who were behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit.  The main focus is on Katherine Goble (later Johnson), a brilliant mathematician–someone you should call the next time you’re taking a complicated statistics class (another story from my life for another day)–and her struggles to be treated as an equal amongst her predominately white male colleagues.  While that’s going on, we cut to Dorothy Vaughan and her determination to become a recognized supervisor and Mary Jackson’s fight to be the first African-American female engineer at NASA.
You have my good friend Stargift Tarakasha: Pagan Pro-Life Advocate to thank for requesting me to review this, and I’m so glad I did because this is a terrific film!  🙂

The Hits
What a likable, charming cast!  I loved the bond and rapport between Katherine, Mary and Dorothy.  Their sisterhood is delightful to watch and is truly the heart of the movie.  Taraji P. Henson is exceptional as Katherine.  She brings a warmth and quiet strength to the character that makes her easy to relate to.  The best part of her performance comes when she gives an impassioned speech in which she confronts the fact that the “colored bathroom” is a mile away from her building.  I love how whenever she is doing calculations, it is as if she enters into her own world where it is just her and the numbers.  It reminded me of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.
This film handles the topic of institutional racism as tactfully as possible.  You don’t have that one overtly racist character who hisses the “N-word” at our main characters, instead the film makes use of judgmental glances, half-hearted conversations between white characters and the leading ladies, and scenes such as a white librarian telling a very respectful Dorothy, “I don’t want any trouble,” signaling her [Dorothy] to leave with her two sons.  The movie personifies “Separate but Equal” in the way it has the white characters, both male and female, treat the African-American characters.  There’s an interesting evolution of the relationship between Dorothy Vaughan and Kirsten Dunst’s character Vivian Mitchell; it starts with Ms. Mitchell hiding her sense of superiority behind a veil of sympathy towards Dorothy and the other African-American women at NASA, and as Katherine, Mary and Dorothy make progress in their work, Ms. Mitchell begins seeing Dorothy in particular in a whole new light.  The same goes for Katherine’s relationships with Jim Parsons (Sheldon from Big Bang Theory) Paul Stafford and Kevin Costner’s character Al Harrison.  Paul and Al work as exact opposites of one another.  Paul represents blatant institutional racism, while Al’s obsession with space and calculation explains his inadvertent enabling of benign racism.
I’d like to say kudos to the audience I saw this with.  There were quite a few scenes where the audience clapped; for one, when Al Harrison knocks down the “Colored Ladies Only” sign from the women’s restroom, hence allowing the African-American women of the building to use any women’s bathroom they want.  I normally don’t comment on the audience when I see these movies, but I would like to point out that the audience at my screening was quite diverse, which speaks of Hidden Figures’ appeal to anyone regardless of their background.  🙂

The Misses
This movie sort of has the same problem as the 2015 Steve Jobs biopic and “The Martian” in that, unless you are an enthusiast of math and science, the calculations might go over your head.  Granted, the film focuses more on the emotions of the characters who are doing the calculations rather than the numbers themselves, but still filmmakers have yet to find a way to make chalkboard-mathematics exciting to those who aren’t fans of math.
This movie does fall into some inspirational-movie-tropes, like uplifting music playing in the background when, say, a main character makes a statement or when Paul Stafford and the other office workers first see Katherine’s equation.

Overall, Hidden Figures is an enjoyable, feel-good biopic to start off 2017!  With wonderful performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, a tasteful handling of institutional racism and an engaging story, Hidden Figures propels to the stars of good cinema, bringing to light the heroic service of three courageous women who paved the way in getting us to the moon and back.

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Thank you Katherine Goble-Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan for your service.

 

Saint Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.

Why The Prosperity Gospel Needs To Go

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I love the TV show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”  John Oliver is a pretty famous comedian known for self-deprecation and cringe comedy.  I came across his televangelist episode a month ago, which inspired this editorial.
Oliver started off the episode by talking about preachers like Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar (yes, that is his actual name; I checked), Mike Murdock and others who preach humility, yet live extravagant lifestyles.  He showed clips of Mike Murdock boasting to his congregants about buying two private jets with cash and of Kenneth Copeland claiming that a private jet he purchased with donations was for church purposes, i.e., a “preaching machine” as he called it.  However a local news crew discovered that Copeland’s personal jet was less for spreading the Gospel and more for going on vacation.
Oliver went on to say, “…and yet, despite that personal wealth, people still send them lots and lots of money, and that’s partly because they [the pastors] preach something called the prosperity gospel…”
A disgusted “Ugh” escaped my mouth as I rolled my eyes.  This is my reaction every time I hear the words “prosperity gospel.”

I learned about the prosperity gospel a year ago and it has been a thorn in my side ever since.  I’m sure you know what it is, but just for the sake of clarity, I’ll summarize it.
The prosperity gospel, or prosperity theology as it is called in some circles, is the belief that wealth and personal success are a sign of God’s favor.  Basically, if you follow God, try not to sin and donate money to your church, you will be blessed abundantly with secure finances and material possessions.  If you’ve ever heard the phrases “name it and claim it” or “positive confession theology,” that is where they come from.
Right off the bat I thought to myself, “Hmm, this sounds really–oh, what’s the word–high-mountainy…” By the way, keep “high mountain” in the back of your mind; we’ll come back to that later.
Anyway, I have been wanting to tackle this toxic “theology” for quite some time, and after coming across John Oliver’s televangelist episode, I knew that the time had come.

The gloves are off.  It’s time to tackle the prosperity gospel.

Scriptural Elephants in the Room, or common verses used to defend the Prosperity Gospel
#1
Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—says the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”  

If you’ve been following Catholic Girl Bloggin’ for a while, you may notice that I frequently cite Jeremiah 1:5 and other verses from the Book of Jeremiah.  Even though Jeremiah is one of my favorite books in the Bible, there’s a good reason why I don’t often post Jeremiah 29:11 on a regular basis.  That is because, unfortunately, Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the verses championed ad nauseam by prosperity gospel proponents.
Let’s take a look at some context: In this chapter of Jeremiah, the Israelites were being punished for their transgressions and their punishment was being exiled to Babylon.  The prophet Jeremiah had sent a scroll from Jerusalem to the remaining elders of the exiled people.  In this scroll, the Lord tells the Israelites to build houses to live in, get married, start families, and so on.  Now, if you read the verse in its entirety, you will notice that the Lord does not give specific instructions, but rather tells them to live their lives and how they go about doing so is up to them.
It seems to me that what has happened is prosperity gospel champions see the words, “…plans for your welfare and not for woe…” and translate that to mean personal success by the world’s standards, i.e., fancy car, big house, a spouse with minimal flaws and so on.  Now there are three definitions of the word “welfare.”  The third definition speaks of the U.S. welfare system, so I’ll skip that one and go over the first two definitions.
The first definition describes welfare as, “the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group.”  With this definition in mind, I can see how one would misinterpret the Lord’s use of the word “welfare” to mean individual prosperity.
Now let us take a look at the second definition of welfare: “A statutory procedure or social effort designed to promote the basic physical and material well-being of people in need.”  At first glance, when you look at this definition and then look at Jeremiah 29:11, it is easy to miss the connection between the two.  However, I think we should let Jeremiah 29:4-11 speak for itself.

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their fruits.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters.  Increase there; do not decrease.  Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the LORD, for upon its welfare your own depends.  For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not be deceived by the prophets and diviners who are among you; do not listen to those among you who dream dreams, for they prophesy lies to you in My name; I did not send them—says the LORD.  For thus says the LORD: Only after seventy years have elapsed for Babylon will I deal with you and fulfill for you My promise to bring you back to this place.  For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—says the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”
–Jeremiah 29:4-11

It would appear that by instructing them to build homes, grow food and start families, the Lord is encouraging the banished Israelites to engage in a social effort to promote the physical and material well-being of one another, all while they await His return.  I see nothing about Him making things easy or smooth sailing for the Israelites, let alone anything about an increase in wealth.  Rather, the Lord is telling the Israelites–and perhaps us here in the 21st century–to live in the now, to provide for ourselves and for one another in the present moment, and to go into the future without fear because what lies ahead is all in His hands.

#2
Deuteronomy 8:18, “Remember then the LORD, your God, for He is the one who gives you the power to get wealth, by fulfilling, as He has now done, the covenant He swore to your ancestors.”
Now while Jeremiah 29:11 is what is often cited mostly by millennial Christians, the real culprit of the prosperity gospel is the out-of-context application of Deuteronomy 8:18.
Okay, all in fairness, if you were a Martian and you were handed a Bible that was opened to Deuteronomy 8:18 and then read it on your own without any doctrinally-sound person to explain the verse to you, you would probably think to yourself, “Oh, so the humans’ God has promised them material wealth!  Good for them!”  Yes, I know what it looks like, but let us examine this verse a little more closely.
I think the very first line speaks for itself: “Remember then the LORD, your God, for He is the one who gives you the power to get wealth.” We do not get wealth by our own merits, nor does the Lord just hand us over Scrooge-McDuck-moneybags, but rather it is God Himself who has given us the ability to obtain what we need for basic survival.  What He is saying is, “Rely on Me, trust in Me, and I will give you the ability and strength you need to provide for yourself and for those you love,” and not, “strong-arm Me into catering to your every materialistic whim.”
Come to think of it, when you read Deuteronomy Chapter 8 in its entirety, a more humbling message starts to emerge.

Deuteronomy Chapter 8:1-18
“Be careful to observe this whole commandment that I enjoin on you today, that you may live and increase, and may enter in and possess the land which the LORD promised on oath to your ancestors.  Remember how for those forty years the LORD, your God, had directed all your journeying in the wilderness, so as to test you by affliction to know what was in your heart: to keep His commandments, or not.  He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know that it is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.  The clothing did not fall from you in tatters, nor did your feet swell these forty years. So you must know in your heart that, even as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD, your God, disciplines you. Therefore, keep the commandments of the LORD, your God, by walking in His ways and fearing Him.
For the LORD, your God, is bringing you into a good country, a land with streams of water, with springs and fountains welling up in the hills and valleys, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, of olive trees and of honey, a land where you will always have bread and where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones contain iron and in whose hills you can mine copper.  But when you have eaten and are satisfied, you must bless the LORD, your God, for the good land He has given you.  Be careful not to forget the LORD, your God, by failing to keep His commandments and ordinances and statutes which I enjoin on you today: lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built fine houses and lived in them, and your herds and flocks have increased, your silver and gold has increased, and all your property has increased, you then become haughty of heart and forget the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that house of slavery; He guided you through the vast and terrible wilderness with its serpents and scorpions, its parched and waterless ground; He brought forth water for you from the flinty rock and fed you in the wilderness with manna, a food unknown to your ancestors, that He might afflict you and test you, but also make you prosperous in the end.  Otherwise, you might say in your heart, “It is my own power and the strength of my own hand that has got me this wealth.” Remember then the LORD, your God, for He is the one who gives you the power to get wealth, by fulfilling, as He has now done, the covenant He swore to your ancestors.”

Yes, it is a lot to read, but when read carefully, it becomes clear that the Lord reminds us that whatever we obtain for ourselves, it is because of His providence.  Prosperity gospel preachers argue that God provides because of our persistence, but the very verse they frequently cite says something completely different from their narrative.   This goes to show that God is not a genie who grants our every wish, but is the reason why we exist in the first place.
The result of Deuteronomy 8:18 being distorted for an earthly agenda can be found in these actual quotes from the mouths of prosperity gospel preachers themselves.

“I am a little god.  I have His name.  I am one with Him.  I’m in covenant relationship.  I am a little god.  Critics be gone!”
–Paul Crouch

“When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass.”
–Pastor Creflo Dollar

“When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance.”
–Joel Osteen

The prosperity gospel treats God as a permissive doormat being who becomes helpless and bends to our will if we believe hard enough and verbally declare victory before it has even happened.  According to the prosperity gospel, God serves us.
In essence, the prosperity gospel trumps free will, meaning that someone else’s ability to make my life difficult by their choices is supplanted by my “power” to influence God by my declaration of faith.  In other words, “If I say it, God’s gotta do it.”
At the risk of using an overused meme…
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The idea of a God who does all that He can to propel our individual success instead of sticking to His own plan for humanity is actually quite frightening.  Success means different things to different people.  For one person, success is a modest house and enough food for three square meals.  For another, success could mean getting that promotion even if it means someone else who may need that promotion more than them getting knocked down.  There’s a very good reason for the phrase, “Thy will be done.”  God is infinite and can see the big picture; we are short-sighted, finite humans and can only grasp at what’s in front of us.  Our will being done instead of God’s will does not always work in our favor.

#3
James 4:2, “…You do not possess because you do not ask.”
A major aspect of the prosperity gospel is what is called “name it and claim it.”  It’s basically tell God exactly what you want and He will give it to you.  James 4:2 is the basis of this argument.  Now there’s actually more to the verse and we will come back to that in a second.
Prosperity gospel proponents tend to (conveniently) only see the tail-end of James 4:2.  In fact, Pastor Creflo Dollar once wrote, “When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass.”  You can read it here for yourself: http://ww.creflodollarministries.org/BibleStudy/Articles.aspx?id=329
Stop right there, sir.  God DOES have a choice when it comes to how He answers our prayers; He’s the inventor of having a choice!  Two words: Free will.
Also, God always answers prayers; it’s just that sometimes, His answer is, “No,” because what we might be asking at that time is not consistent with His will.  The answer we get may not always be the answer we were hoping for, but God never fails to respond.  Even His silence can be an answer.
You may notice that, unlike the previous two segments, this one is very short.  There is a reason for this.
Would you like to know what James 4 actually says?  I’m glad you asked…

James 4:1-3, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?  Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?   You covet but do not possess.   You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.  You do not possess because you do not ask.  You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

Oh, the irony.  One of the verses used to advance the prosperity gospel is a verse that, when read fully, actually rebukes it in one fell swoop.  That last sentence, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions,” is a kick in the teeth to the prosperity gospel.
I think my work on this segment is done.

Upon The High Mountain
Remember earlier how I said that the prosperity gospel seems very “high-mountainy?”  Let’s really think about this: Who in the Bible is quoted as saying, “All these [kingdoms] I shall give to You, if You will prostrate Yourself and worship me“?  I’ll tell you one thing: It wasn’t Jesus.
Let’s cast our gaze a little lower…

Ah, there you are, Satan.  I almost didn’t recognize you behind all those distorted scripture verses and shiny dollar-sign deception.
No, actually, I did.  As a Catholic blogger I have a responsibility to help others recognize that the prosperity gospel is a brainchild of the evil one, his dangling carrot used to lure souls seeking purpose in their lives. The prosperity gospel has Satan’s claw marks slashed all over it.  Think about it: Sickly-sweet catchphrases peppered with scripture here and there, proclaimed with boldness by popular preachers who insist that God is on their side.  It’s downright Luciferian.
The worst part is many prosperity gospel preachers say all the right things to make their money-driven agenda hard to catch.  When I was looking up quotes from prosperity gospel preachers, a lot of them didn’t sound heretical at first.  The quotes were the kind you would have as a motivational refrigerator magnet.  Many of these ministers have written devotionals that are bought and sold in droves.
But, you see, that’s how the devil operates.  He’s a jerk, but a highly intelligent one who takes his time.  He knows it would be counterintuitive to just show up as–oh, let’s say– an imposing gargoyle with horns and a pitchfork and start shouting, “Hey, I’ll give you whatever you want if you obey me!”  He wouldn’t get very far if he did that.  Hence, he works slowly and behind a variety of disguises.  I would argue that the devil can come in the form of a well-dressed man eloquently stringing together promises of wealth, neatly packaged with scripture and public admiration.

A Plan For Woe
Now I am aware that declaring something to be the work of the devil is often perceived as extreme and alarmist.  You never want to give the fallen angel too much credit because he is a defeated foe who flees like Roadrunner at the Name of Jesus.  However, a friend from my parish pointed something out to me:  The prosperity gospel has the ability to accomplish two very destructive outcomes.
The first destructive outcome is to cause believers to worship a false Jesus; a “Jesus” who is a cross between Santa Claus and Genie from Aladdin.
The second destructive outcome is that it has the capability to drive a person completely away from God if they don’t get what they feel entitled to.  There is also the propensity for the person to feel that they are not worthy of God’s love since they didn’t get what they expected; perhaps they figure they aren’t doing something right or aren’t “good” enough for God.  This causes them to despair and a lost sheep wanders into the night.

The Greatest Promise of Them All
So if serving the Lord doesn’t grant you wealth beyond your wildest dreams and a steady road to success, then what does it get you?  I would like to talk to you about two teenage girls who could really teach us what following Jesus is all about.
Meet Chiara Badano and Rachel Joy Scott.

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Chiara Badano (1971-1990)
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Rachel Joy Scott (1981-1999)

Chiara lived in Sassello, Italy.
Rachel resided in Littleton, Colorado.
Chiara was Catholic.
Rachel was non-denominational.
Chiara and Rachel never met during their time on earth, but they had one thing in common:  Both of these girls loved the Lord with all their heart and soul and committed themselves to serving Him through acts of kindness.  They were unashamed of the Gospel and strived to glorify Jesus in their daily lives.  By prosperity gospel standards, Chiara and Rachel would be considered most deserving of all the abundant blessings and personal success the Lord has in store.
In reality, Chiara was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer.  Rachel was the first victim of the Columbine massacre.  Chiara lost her hair and the ability to walk, while Rachel’s commitment to Christ caused five of her closest friends to abandon her.
What did they have to say about their personal losses?

“If I had to choose between walking again and going to Heaven, I wouldn’t hesitate.  I would choose Heaven.”
–Chiara
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“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.”
–Rachel
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Chiara was 18 when she died.  Rachel’s life was taken at age 17.  Neither of them had ever asked the Lord for fame or riches.  In fact, Rachel once wrote in one of her journals, “I don’t want to be successful without You, God.  I can’t be successful without You.”  Meanwhile, Chiara never begged God to take her cancer away.  As she was losing her hair, she said this: “For You, Jesus…if You want it, I want it too!
These two ordinary girls went after the heart of God.  They drew near to Him, and in turn, He made His love known to them.  At a young age, Chiara and Rachel fully understood that the ultimate reward for following Jesus is far greater than any material possession.  They embraced the Lord’s greatest promise: Himself.
God never promises us a perfect spouse, a perfect big house or a perfect bank account.
He doesn’t promise to make things easy.  He doesn’t promise that you won’t go through hard times.  He doesn’t promise that things will always turn out as planned.
What He does promise is that He will be with you.  He will stay with you when everyone else has left.  When you need to vent, He will be your listening ear.  When you need a shoulder to cry on, He will hold you tightly in His arms.
The greatest promise of them all is God Himself.  His unconditional love, His endless mercy, His loyal friendship, His unfailing assistance; all these things that the human heart yearns for is His free gift that He wants to give to you.
The bank account will dwindle, the car will break down, the house will be sold to another; the riches of this world come and go.
Only He remains forever.

“Father, reach out Your hand.  Grab ahold of my life.  Open my eyes to Your wonderful light.  Fill me up with Your undying love.  Save me a place in Your kingdom above.”
–A poem by Rachel Joy Scott

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CGB Review of Miss Sloane

What a sad world politics is; follow your conscience and lose, or sell your soul and win.

This is my review of Miss Sloane!

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Madeline Elizabeth Sloane, or Liz for short (she never goes by her first name) is a Washington lobbyist who is notorious for her cunning intellect and insatiable appetite to win at any cost.  After turning down an opportunity to work for an NRA-type gun lobbying group, Miss Sloane instead takes a job working for a gun-control advocacy group (think a fictitious version of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence) and comes to discover that the price to pay for victory in this arena may be higher than she had anticipated.

The Hits
I really appreciate that the filmmakers picked the topic of guns, which certainly does get heated, but isn’t nearly as volcanic as abortion or gay rights.  While their approach to the subject does have a left-leaning slant (this is leftist Hollywood we’re dealing with here), they do manage to make it accessible to both sides of the argument.  It also helps that the issue of guns is the backdrop, while the primary focus of the narrative is the behind-the-scene battle between competing lobbyists.
Jessica Chastain is magnificent in this role!  Now mind you,  I’m guessing that her role as the villainous sister in Crimson Peak was just a practice-run.  An icy woman with a piercing gaze, cloaked in an armor of designer clothes, a sharp tongue and grudging prestige, Miss Sloane is a femme fatale with a deeply flawed humanity.  I would say that she’s a character you love to hate, but then again, you can’t quite hate her.  Chastain’s performance doesn’t make Miss Sloane a complete witch, but rather allows moments of vulnerability without completely shedding her hardened persona.  Honestly, I really hope that Jessica Chastain continues playing flawed protagonists and even antagonists!
Esme Manucharian, played wonderfully by Gugulethu “Gugu” Mbatha-Raw, is the perfect foil to Miss Sloane.  Warm eyes with a gentle expression, Esme is the heart of the operation with Miss Sloane as the head.  The fight against gun violence is a personal one for Esme, in contrast to Miss Sloane’s impersonal pursuit of victory.  Esme is the losing follower of conscience while Miss Sloane is the winning warrior who sells her soul.
I would like to point out that I’m really glad the film subtly tackles insomnia.  It’s more a background detail of Miss Sloane’s character arch and is not completely in-your-face.  We never see her close her eyes for a quick nap, let alone is there ever a scene that begins with her waking up from a restful night.  While one would hope that she would end up getting help for her sleep deprivation in the end, it seemed more in-character that the self-preserving and prideful Miss Sloane wouldn’t admit this weakness to herself.

The Misses
Sam Waterson, who you will definitely know if you’re a fan of Law and Order, seemed a little too cartoonish at times.  No, his performance wasn’t horrible, but there’s one early scene where he’s confronting Miss Sloane and he looked like he was trying a little too hard, to the point of borderline overacting.
I think director John Madden might like “Gone Girl” a little too much, because Madeline Elizabeth Sloane is basically Amy Elliot Dunne if she [Dunne] were a lobbyist and–well, I don’t want to go into spoiler territory–so I’ll put it this way: The last twenty minutes of this flick pull some serious “Gone-Girl-eqsue” plot conveniences that are a bit of a stretch.  Now I happen to love Gone Girl, both the book and the movie, but still, some originality is always welcome.
A lot of the character relationships are underdeveloped.  I can tell that there was an idea for a friendship between Miss Sloane and Esme, but because of the titular character’s inability (or lack of willingness) to connect with others, the relationship never becomes anything more than two philosophically-opposed women who aren’t truly friends, yet are never really enemies.  Now the argument could be made that their relationship is meant to be lukewarm, but even by those standards, how the relationship develops feels very aimless to the point where I never felt ; like I said, there probably was an idea, but it got lost as production of the film went on.  Sorry, guys, but one scene with Miss Sloane and Esme eating at a Chinese restaurant isn’t gonna cut it.  They did a good job making Miss Sloane and Esme polar opposites, but how these two ladies connect goes quietly unexplored.

Miss Sloane succeeds as both a complex character study and a political thriller.  In this film, the chase is more interesting than the catch; the fight between lobbying groups is engaging enough to where we can put up with the political jargon and talk of poll numbers.  Jessica Chastain’s performance electrifies every frame while the tasteful handling of the subject matter makes this easier to sit through than all three Presidential debates (yes, I just had to bring up the 2016 election; I regret nothing!).  Despite some plot conveniences and undercooked relationships between characters, Miss Sloane stands tall on its own two feet.  For the political junkie in your life, I’d recommend that they give this one a shot.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.