Posts Tagged A-rated films

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

Year of release: 2018.     Directed by Wim Wenders.

A narrative voice over (from director Wim Wenders) laments the state of the world: increasing numbers of people are starving and homeless, pollution continues to cause irreversible damage to the environment, injustices abound over the entire face of the globe. The direness of these proclamations is contrasted with a beautiful long distance shot of an Italian city, which one might assume is Rome. However, it is Assisi, the home of St. Francis, from whom our current pontiff took his name.

Wenders continues, praising the revolutionary way St. Francis confronted the injustices of his day. By adopting a life of extreme poverty and prayer he did not fight against the corruption of wealth and power, but instead led a peaceful rebellion, witnessing to the joy that comes from embracing poverty and seeing Christ in all of creation.

Brief interludes performed by a trio of actors playing St. Francis and two of his followers are scattered throughout the film, and they depict that joy and simplicity, which is reinforced by Wenders’ decision to film the interludes in a grainy, old school black and white full frame. Among other incidents from the life of St. Francis, Wenders focuses on St. Francis composing his Canticle to the Sun and meeting with the Egyptian Sultan during the Crusades to ask for peace, arguing these are some of the ways St. Francis fulfilled Christ’s command from the crucifix to “rebuild my Church.”

After the first interlude, Wenders cuts to a 1999 address from Bishop Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, in which Bergoglio calls for charity and solidarity among all Christians, which Wenders is clearly stating to be not dissimilar from St. Francis’ way of life. Thus, when the next scene shows Bergoglio becoming Pope and choosing the name Francis, the remainder of the film becomes a series of examples of the various countercultural ways that Pope Francis lives out the Gospel in his personal life, like his namesake did eight hundred years ago.

The first half of the film has a natural flow from one event to another, for which Wenders should be commended. We see Pope Francis give interviews to children, to the camera, to crowds, and to reporters calling for us all to be less attached to possessions, decrying the rampant consumerism that engulfs the world, and affirming the dignity of a work, which is something we are all called to do. A tracking shot through a parade concludes this half of the film with a touching exchange between the pope and a nun.

The second half of the film tackles more topics, sometimes jumping around to different ones in ways that don’t always flow. However, Wenders spends enough time focusing on Francis’ own words that we can see his beliefs and his explanations for how all these issues are interrelated in a sort of seamless garment: care of the environment, welcoming of refugees, defense of the innocent, condemning unhealthy consumerism – failing any one betrays a worldview which devalues the poorest and most vulnerable.

An extended segment focuses on the plight of refugees and immigrants around the world. The pope’s call to recognize refugees as the image of Christ comes as welcome rebuttal to the current USA administration’s assault upon immigrants, especially for any Catholics who are physically ill from watching supposed fellow believers defend such monstrosities. Wenders clearly intends for Francis’ words to be taken this way, not only from the location of the refugees he films, but also when he follows this part a few minutes later with Francis’ 2015 address to a joint session of Congress, focusing on his condemnation of the plunder of the environment and calling for an end to the production and sale of weapons.

In addition to the top-notch production values, Wenders greatest strength is his focus on Pope Francis and Francis’ own words, clearly portraying him as a man who lives and leads by example. It’s a bit of a pity Wenders did not include Francis’ recent apology for his callous response to the Chilean abuse scandal or any other example of the pope repenting and seeking forgiveness for his shortcomings, but in fairness to Wenders, that may have happened after post-production concluded, and his focus is on the similarities between the two Francises, and the ways they were both committed to living the Gospel.

A final flourish merges the St. Francis of Assisi timeline with today in a particularly impressive and touching way, concluding a parallel between two teachers of the Church, almost a millennium apart, who were both men of their word.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

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Isle of Dogs

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Wes Anderson.  Voices of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Babalan, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, and Liev Schreiber.

When the world has become pile of garbage, and humans are seized with paranoia and are searching for a scapegoat to preserve their way of life at the expense of others, is it possible to still find goodness in the world? Wes Anderson barks out a resounding “yes” with this tale of a boy and his dog and the dog’s dogs and a girl and her dog, and many more dogs.

Isle of Dogs is admittedly an over-the-top smorgasbord of characters, elaborate and painstakingly crafted stop motion sets overflowing with Anderson’s trademarks of balanced compositions, quirky dialogue, and deadpan humor. It is also a love letter not only to canines but to Japanese culture, particularly the cinema of Akira Kurosawa.

At times it can seem overwhelming, and with the exceptions of Bryan Cranston’s gruff and scraggly stray Chief, Edward Norton’s pragmatic and talkative Rex who’s basically a canine version of Scout Master Ward, and Jeff Goldblum’s gossip-prone husky Duke, none of the dogs make a particularly strong impression as individual characters, at least not on a first viewing.

However, considering the affection that saturates every detail of the production, for me, it didn’t really matter. The joy and passion that Anderson clearly had for this film, its story, the sets, and the characters was the driving force, and it is such a spectacularly beautiful thing to witness that by the film’s end I wanted to stand up and cheer.

One aspect I have repeatedly admired about Wes Anderson’s past films is the way they portray a broken world while simultaneously showing the characters’ hopes for a more perfect one. It’s what Sam and Suzy are seeking in Moonrise Kingdom; it’s what haunts Zero’s memories in The Grand Budapest Hotel. With Isle of Dogs primarily taking place on a location called Trash Island after the titular animals are exiled there by an evil cat-loving dynasty that wishes to eliminate the canine population, the brokenness of this world could not be more apparent.

At the same time, moments of hope and joy appear throughout this world. The story primarily concerns twelve-year-old pilot Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) who flies to Trash Island on a mission to find and rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). A resistance led by a group of students fights courageously and continually for the rights of the mistreated and victimized dogs. Throughout the film we are invited to laugh and celebrate such simple delights as a dog understanding television and the inherent conflict of five alpha dogs all being leaders for the same pack. An adorable litter of puppies features into the story in a way that undermines the cynicism of another character.

Finally, the denouement features one of the most delightfully satisfying triumphs of good over evil, showing a world where people do not fear the unknown and help those in need rather than exile them. And if I’m entirely honest, I find it impossible not to love a story in which corrupt fascists who maintain their power through paranoia and public manipulation, who make disparaging comments about immigrants, and who have creepy, long-faced, soulless ghouls as their right-hand men are then undone by their own sinister schemes.

There are obvious political analogies which the story invites, which may or may not have been intentional – considering the length of time that production took, some of the similarities between the villains and the USA’s current administration are probably coincidental, but for a story celebrating the marginalized and their inherent value as part of the world, Isle of Dogs is a wonderful example of art being a realization of timeless truths.

An opening title card informs the audience that all the humans speak their own tongue, which will sometimes be translated via electronics or a translator; all the barks, however, have been translated into English. It’s an insignificant detail, but the conviction with which it is conveyed makes it both funny and touching. The same could be said for Edward Norton’s frequent, trivial banter and for Jeff Goldblum’s smart-alack catch phrases – mundane and meaningless on their own, but the commitment which the actors give to their parts makes them come alive. It is the same way for every detail this production, and it is in the paying attention to those details that this story shines out as the gem it is.

 

Content Advisory: Some intense menace and peril including a murder, much cartoon violence – might frighten young or sensitive children.                      MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Kids and up with discernment

Personal recommendation: A

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The Shape of Water

Year of Release: 2017      Directed by Guillermo del Toro.   Starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Doug Jones.

Last Sunday in church, the Gospel reading was the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God for, among other things, casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. This past Sunday I also watched The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s latest dark fairytale in which fantasy and myth give a voice to the voiceless, empower the weak, and cast down arrogant, powerful villains.

In The Shape of Water, del Toro literally creates a tale to give a voice to the voiceless. Sally Hawkins plays the mute Elisa, a cleaning woman working at a government lab with her good friend and black co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa lives above an old movie theater with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an out-of-work artist with reasons of his own to be downcast. As the film takes place in the early ‘60’s, this trio of characters all has reasons to feel rejected by society.

When the lab acquires a mysterious amphibious man from Amazon (Doug Jones), who is guarded by the sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa sees him as not as a foreign dangerous species, but as another reject of society for being different, as she is. Soon Elisa and the creature are bonding over hard-boiled eggs, LP’s, and sign language when she manages to sneak into the containment facility unobserved.

Being a fairytale, the story beats for The Shape of Water are broad archetypes, and at times some of them are a little too broad. Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland could easily be construed as too cartoonish, especially from his first interaction with Elisa and Zelda as they are cleaning the men’s restroom, where he flaunts his odd hygiene habits (or lack thereof). Giles suffers several rejections, in both his professional and personal life, some of which are not set up particularly well. And the ease with which the central plot point is executed would be unlikely.

However, nitpicking those plot details forgets that this story is a fairytale, and it is meant to symbolize an exaltation of the lowly. Therefore, that is what happens, and del Toro’s filming of it splendidly gorgeous. Nearly every scene is saturated with greens and blues, making the screen shimmer with an iridescence that reminds us of the mysterious beauty of the creature, breathing life and joy into all of the world. The only exception is Strickland’s home which is permeated by a harsh, stale yellow, showing how thoroughly he has cut himself off from joy and compassion, to the point that his life and soul fester like the finger injury he sustains.

Del Toro also finds joy in old movies from 1930’s Hollywood. Giles wishes to use cinema as a means of escapism, so he can forget the civil rights movement and his closeted sexuality, both of which cause him too much discomfort. However, Elisa’s attitude toward the old pictures shows how fantasy can be used to uplift, inspire, and communicate what words fail to say, which an exquisite black and white sequence demonstrates.

Sally Hawkins is incredible as Elisa, masterfully conveying a wide range of emotions with her facial expressions and sign language. The scene where she explains to Richard Jenkins’ sympathetic but incredulous Giles why she has to rescue the creature from the laboratory is one of the most moving of the year. Octavia Spencer plays off her silence perfectly as a supportive friend and coworker, effortlessly changing her demeanor depending on who is nearby.

The stories of Samson and Ruth are used as two recurring Biblical allegories, both of which are interwoven with the main theme of casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. The foreigner who leaves her home behind for something greater receives untold blessings, and the philistine who thinks he’s invincible as God’s anointed is struck down by his own prisoner.

By setting the film in the early ‘60’s with the civil rights movement occurring in the background, del Toro is able to give a voice to multiple groups of people who would have been rejected by society as “lesser” at that time: women, blacks, gays, and the disabled. That decision makes the film feel applicable to any time, even as parts of it are clearly a rebuttal to America’s current administration. More remarkably, there are two villains in the film who attempt to crush the meek in their thirst for power: the nationalistic American capitalists and the communist Soviets. Michael Stuhlbarg’s Soviet spy who defects to a greater cause demonstrates the narrow but noble line of rejecting two opposite and equal evils.

Finally, the epilogue is practically a prayer one could say to God. Even though we cannot see Him, we seek Him, finding Him where we least expect.

Ever since seeing Pan’s Labyrinth about a decade ago, I have looked forward to seeing del Toro’s newest films. Regardless of the narrative weaknesses that often plague his screenplays, he is an astonishingly talented visual stylist, and he uses wonderfully beautiful imagery to tell his stories in a way that is inviting and mesmerizing. As an allegory about recognizing the value of everyone who has been overlooked and denied their worth, where the simplest joy filled moments are celebrated in spectacular fashion, The Shape of Water is del Toro’s best film in over a decade.

 

Personal Recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Semi-graphic sexual content with nudity, some gruesome violence, occasional profanities and obscenities.        MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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Lady Bird

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Greta Gerwig.     Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Jordan Rodrigues, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, and Lois Smith.

Greta Gerwig is a filmmaker who pays attention. She pays attention to her characters, their hopes and dreams, the world as it is and as it should be. And as Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal of Immaculate Heart high school in Sacramento, tells Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), isn’t paying attention an act of love?

Lady Bird, Gerwig’s directorial debut, is an act of love for a very particular slice of the world, much like Frances Ha and Mistress America – the two movies she co-wrote with her partner Noah Baumbach. Lady Bird wears its heart on its sleeve (or pink arm cast, if you prefer) as it displays its affection for Sacramento, New York, theater, moms, best friends, and of course its headstrong protagonist.

As the titular headstrong protagonist, Saoirse Ronan is clearly a stand in for Gerwig, especially if one has seen Gerwig’s effervescent performance in Frances Ha. From the manner-of-fact way in which Ronan explains her character’s given name Lady Bird – “It was given to me by me” – to her desire to attend a college in the midst of the artsy culture of the East Coast, it is easy to see Gerwig’s Frances as a high school senior full of ambition and longing.

Those ambitions conflict with her practical mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) who has little patience for Lady Bird’s whims and artistic dreams and wants her daughter to attend state college with affordable tuition where she can stay close to home. In so many coming of age films, this sort of demanding parent would be a simple villain, but Gerwig cares too much about all her characters to allow that to happen here. We see Marion’s concern over her husband (Tracy Letts) potentially being laid off, her sacrificing time to help her daughter find a dress on a limited budget, and the parallel scenes of mother and daughter that bookend the film clearly indicate how similar these two characters are and how much love Gerwig has for both of them.

That love extends to the rest of the cast as well. A late scene where Tracy Letts learns some potentially disappointing information is one of the most grace filled moments in any movie this year. The respect the movie has for Sister Sarah Joan reveals how much Gerwig enjoyed her own time at a Catholic high school. Even when Lady Bird plays a harmless prank on the nun, the film laughs at the joke while acknowledging Lady Bird’s less than ideal attempts to impress the “cool” kids. As Danny, Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, Lucas Hedges is sympathetic, even when the relationship does not turn out as expected. When Lady Bird has the inevitable falling out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) Gerwig finds humor in the preposterous ways they voice their frustration with one another, indicating both how foolish their argument is and how valuable their friendship is.

As a director Gerwig’s attention to detail and eye for visual composition is incredible. The film is filled with subtle framing and editing choices that highlight the joys and the sorrows of life, finding beauty in both of them, often at the same time. Similarly constructed shots at key moments draw a heartfelt connection between Lady Bird and her mother, even when they’re at their most distant. A clever bit of crosscutting underscores the awkwardness and hurt caused by a seemingly trivial fabrication of Lady Bird’s.

Gerwig also paid attention to seemingly simple details during Lady Bird’s preproduction. Several key moments in the film involve songs by Justin Timberlake, Dave Matthews, and Alanis Morrissette. Therefore, Gerwig wrote personal letters to all three, asking for permission to use their music for the soundtrack.

Another soundtrack choice which exudes that affection for seemingly trivial details is the musical audition scene, which is easily my favorite scene in any film this year. As the high schoolers give semi-polished renditions of musical numbers for the audition, not only are the imperfections hilariously realistic and sweetly touching, but each song choice develops the respective character. A slightly off pitch and under-supported final phrase of “Being Alive” opens the scene, setting the stage for a medley of Sondheim numbers. Lady Bird gives a sassy and overacted performance of “Everybody Says Don’t,” which fits her rebellious nature perfectly. Danny sings “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods, when he’s about to go through his own similar woods. Finally, as the punchline to conclude the audition scene, Julie gives an offkey performance of “The Prayer of St. Francis,” reminding us of a Catholic hymn sung way too often.

Also, the choice of Merrily We Roll Along for a high school musical was another wonderfully endearing detail. I loved that Sondheim’s flawed but heartfelt musical about youthful dreams and ambitions was used in a film about the rough unpolished road of high school dreams and self-discovery. The opening lyric of Merrily We Roll Along is “Behold the hills of tomorrow, behold the limitless sky.” One thing this movie makes clear is that hills of tomorrow await Lady Bird wherever she goes to college, and regardless of how many mistakes she makes climbing them, she will make the best she can of her time.

A favorite quote of Sondheim’s is “God is in the details.” With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig has shown how true that sentiment is with her attention to detail, which reveals a love for her characters as well as a love for all the joy and pain involved with the changes of life.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

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Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Martin McDonagh.         Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage.

When I was in undergrad, (longer ago than I wish to acknowledge) I took a humanities course for which we read Antigone, and for a classroom of 21st century college students, it was very easy to interpret the play as the story of a noble heroine standing up for justice and truth against a tyrannical ruler. It was quite eye-opening when one of the extra reading assignments (I don’t remember who wrote it) about Sophocles’ tragedy emphasized that the name of the play is Antigone, and thus Sophocles is saying she is the tragic character with a fatal flaw. That same reading went on to say that the ancient Greeks would have viewed both Antigone and Creon (the tyrannical king) as equally wrong and equally right, because they both dealt in extreme absolutes, refusing to the see the truth to the other’s side.

Mildred Hayes (an excellent Frances McDormand) is a similar protagonist to Antigone. Her daughter Angela was raped and murdered several months ago, the Ebbing, Missouri police department has come nowhere near catching the killer, and there are several prominent officers on the force with a notorious reputation for harassing and torturing black citizens. When she notices three unused billboards just outside of town, she rents them to advertise the incompetency and corruption of the police with the following statements: “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Considering the recent news stories about police brutality and how often sexual predators get away with their crimes, it is all too easy to sympathize with Mildred. It is also easy to criticize Chief Willoughby (an outstanding Woody Harrelson) for being too lenient with the more violent and racist cops in his force, most notably Sam Rockwell’s explosive Officer Dixon, because as Mildred says, “the buck has to stop somewhere.”

However, as true as Mildred’s statement is, Harrelson’s performance clearly reveals there is more to Willoughby than a lazy, overly lenient cop. He followed every lead he got in the murder case, and every single one turned up a dead end. He’s dying of cancer, which preoccupies enough of his time that he makes the mistake of allowing the worse officers to continue working for him.

In the first instance of the film turning the tables on the audience’s expectations, when Willoughby mentions his cancer to Mildred, she bluntly responds, “I know; the whole town knows.” Shocked that she would still put up the billboards, Mildred indifferently responds, “They wouldn’t be as effective after you croak,” a morbid joke Willoughby appreciates, indicating the two of them are not that different, which is reinforced when he later returns the joke with an even harsher one.

That sort of dark humor, a trademark of Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh, is scattered throughout the entire film. However, unlike his last two dark comedies with tragic subject matter, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards is tragedy punctuated with jokes.

As a tragedy, the tragic flaw of all the characters is anger, and McDonagh indicts the audience for our own anger as well, at times stacking the deck to make that anger seem all the more justified. As I said, it is easy and natural to sympathize with Mildred, and Sam Rockwell’s nakedly racist and brutal Officer Dixon provides an easy villain to hate. However, as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) tells her, “All this anger only begets greater anger.”

That line is a succinct summary of what McDonagh is doing with Three Billboards, showing how the anger of Mildred toward the cops, the town towards her, school kids towards her son (Lucas Hedges), Dixon towards blacks, is all connected in a giant cycle making none of them that different. Even though some of that anger is justifiably motivated, when it escalates into rage, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish from the racist anger motivating Dixon.

Shortly after Mildred first puts the billboards up, the local priest callously attempts to counsel her to take them down. She retorts with a vicious insult about the sex abuse scandal. As others have noted, it is the sort of line that often receives cheers, and it comes early enough in the film, while we’re still meant to sympathize completely with Mildred, that it is certainly possible McDonagh intended it that way. However, while the rage-fueled response may feel good to Mildred and to some viewers at the time it is delivered, the remainder of the film shows that what begins as righteous anger very rarely stays that way.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Content advisory: Frequent obscene and profane language, harsh violence with considerable gore, occasional racist and homophobic epithets, frank discussion of rape                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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