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Movie Review: The Big Short

Abigail Benjamin

I'm calling for a boycott of The Big Short. On the surface, this smart and funny movie about four quirky bankers who figured out the unavoidable fall of the US Housing Market 2 years before Allan Greenspan, has all the fun of Oceans 11 meeting Princeton's Econ 101. 

The actors are established favorites, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Christian Bale. Brad Pitt disappears into his role of a burned out Wall Street Trader who moves to Colorado and starts his own Farm to Table movement. "Seeds are going to be the new currency!" he tells two investors before helping them make a billion dollar bet against the thriving US Economy. 

Steve Carell resurrects his comic genius from The Office to play a grouchy banker who is fed up with the choas of lies surrounding the mortgage bond market. The scene where he pieces together the amount of illogical thinking behind American bond trading during a 2005 dinner with an industry insider, is worthy comparison to Joseph Heller's, Catch 22. Marisa Tomei makes a brief cameo as Steve Carell's long-suffering wife. I'm reminded instantly why this incredible actress won an Oscar. 

There is a lot to like in The Big Short. The photography is fast paced and edgy. The plot is quick. The acting is great. The theme is interesting. However, there is a line of sexism that runs throughout the entire movie. In the end, this is not a movie that I'd recommend to my husband or my friends.

The director seemed insecure about how to maintain audience interest while his narrator describes important Economic terms. As a result, the movie relies on the advertising equivalent of a barely dressed woman posed on the hood of a Grand Am in order to sell more cars.

In The Big Short, a naked woman defines the term "Subprime Mortgage" while she sips champagne in a bubble bath. Actress Selena Gomez  lounges suggestively on a black jack table while an Economist defines "Synthetic Collatoral Debt Obligations." The female character who represents the Security Exchange Comission, (SEC), literally kisses a Goldman Sachs banker while wearing an extremely short miniskirt. I felt willing to shut my eyes when the male bankers conducted business at strip clubs. However, these additional insults made me feel I alienated from a movie script written primarily to appeal to sophmoric guys. 

I wish I could tell director Adam McKay in a pre-production note that he doesn't need to resort to cheap tricks because he's already co-written a great script, assembled a great cast, and almost everyone wants to understand by the US Housing Bubble burst in 2007 and set off a world-wide recession. Yet I can't. So I'm asking my friends to boycott this film instead. 

Votes for Women! (Oh wait, that was the slogan from 100 years ago.) Films for Women! 

Movie Review: Joy

Abigail Benjamin

It's impossible to fully convey how amazing the movie "Joy" is to watch as a writer. This movie is less a "movie," and more of a new experience in playwriting. Go see it with an open mind. The main theme is a familiar rags to riches story. The main character, Joy, invents a self-wringing mop that becomes an instant success on a new TV Venture called QVC.

The main beauty of this movie is its the innovative plot structure. There is no other movie that mimics this original process. This movie moves fluidly through time. There are deep dream sequences. There is outrageously great acting from the powerhouse trio of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro. 

The end result of this total creativity in how to tell a story, is that we end up seeing and experiencing this journey in sync with the characters. I already knew the ending of this movie before I went into the theater. Yet I got to sit in total suspense because I didn't know how this impossible result was going to happen. Somehow by not showing this movie in a strict chronological time sequence, the effect end up being a creation of more intimacy, more suspense and greater drama.  

I left this theater feeling energized. I left the theater feeling more committed to my artistic goals in 2016. If anything in your New Years Resolutions included becoming more committed to self-direction, resilience, and creativity, go see Joy soon!  

Star Wars Movie Review

Abigail Benjamin

"The director worked hard to give us our childhood back!" my 43 year old husband told me, his 40 old wife, on my way out to see the new Star Wars movie, "The Force Awakens." Forty minutes into The Force Awakens, I realized that my husband had actually undersold this movie. My 12 year old daughter was enjoying a film better than anything I had experienced. The female lead, Rey, is a STEM teacher's dream. Rey is a techie with advance computer programining. She climbs cliffs and swings lightsabers with the athletic ease. Rey is pretty, smart and best of, extremely funny.

"This movie has jokes!" my 12 year old tells me happily.  I remember the past 6 movies she has patiently sat through, the "classic" Star Wars, where the dialogue was practically non-existent. Star Wars became a classic of good versus evil based on computer graphics and sci-fi shorthand. This movie has all the best features but with the added grown-up additions of a plot and multi-layered characters.

Without giving away the plot, this film is a great resource for Catholic Families. The 'lightsaber' is a good metaphor for the practicality of a good prayer life. The evil Kyo Ren, tells the inexperienced heroine, Rey, "I can be your teacher." Yet Rey's power with the blue lightsaber, which once belonged to the long missing Luke Skywalker, is something powerful and innate. In a critical battle, Rey closes her eyes and accesses a powerful force inside of her self. Rey's access to the "Force" is one of the clearest secular examples of how prayerful meditation can enhance the power of the Holy Spirit that exists within all Christians. Carmelite mystic, Elizabeth of the Trinity, told us to focus on the power of the "Trinity which exists within us."  That's a pretty deep metaphor to explore. After this watching this movie, I started thinking about my daily prayer time as my "Jedi mind training."

The most powerful force in the world can be a woman with a clear mind and full heart. Thank you "The Force Awakens" for giving me back my childhood love of the Star Wars franchise! 

Check out my friend Rita's Star Wars Movie Review for advice on taking even younger children to The Force Awakens. 

Movie Review: City of Trees

Abigail Benjamin

D.C. Filmmakers, Lance Kramer and Brandon Kramer, won the Audience Choice Award for their film City of Trees at the American Conservation Film Festival on November 1, 2015. This intimate documentary follows a Green Jobs Project in Ward 8, one of the poorest areas of Washington, D.C. In the film, a non-profit called Washington Parks and People, received a 2 million dollar stimulus grant to teach urban forestry to former prision inmates and other unemployed residents of D.C.

There is something innately delightful about touching a tree. The filmmakers captured the joy on the job trainee's faces as they learned about urban forestry. Without preaching, this documentary showcases the dignity of work and the healing power of nature. I loved watching men hang from a tree for the first time and struggle to critique each other in a practice job interview. In another favorite scene, a father holds up the sunglasses he bought for his unborn daughter with money from his first paycheck.

The job of planting trees inside Ward 8 is not easy. One screenshot shows a murder victim dying a few feet away from huddled workers at a park job site. Later, community tensions result in the employer's tires getting cut in an act of vandalism and a political tussle that seemly uniquely fierce in a Capital City divided by both politics and race.  

This documentary allows us deep access into the thoughts of participants. Chronic unemployment, Impoverished Communities and Environmentalism are situations that don't sit easily with each other. I appreciated the restraint that the filmmakers showed to avoid pat answers to the problems of brown grass, dying trees, and litter in Ward 8 Parks. I join in the filmakers hope that kids can play in the red and gold leaves under healthy Maples and Tulip Trees in Ward 8 Parks next Fall.

American Conservation Film Festival

Abigail Benjamin

The tagline to the American Conservation Film Festival is Engage, Inform, Inspire. This Festival event lives up to its billing! It's impossible to over-sell how gorgeous historic Shepherdstown, WV is in the Fall. Seeing innovative films about our environment inside a gorgeous mountain setting among intensely passionate people became one of the highlights of my move back home.

The American Conservation Film Festival will continue from 4:30 to 9:00 PM on Sunday, November 1, 2015. This is the coolest event to attend if you live in my area. Tickets are $12 for a 3 to 4 film session. There are also "pay what you can" and "free ticket" option. Children age 12 and under are free. Catholics will love to see Pope Francis' concern about the environment expressed in film. Conservationist and Environmentalist will be inspired. Anyone who loves photography will find rare and exciting movie shots. 

If you can't get to the Film Festival, check out the extensive website and watch many of the films online. My list of favorites include, "The Little Things," a film about sustainability made by professional snowboarders, "The Bat Man of Mexico" by the BBC (note: I'm not a fan of bats, but this film was an incredible story of hope for endangered animal populations), and North of the Sun, which I want to beg everyone I love to download for $4.99 and watch. North of the Sun is basically about two Norwegian guys who spend a winter, as as sort of "gap" year living in isolation on a beach above the Artic Circle. They surf. They pick up 3 tons of plastic trash from the beach. The eat expired food that's free from a supermarket miles to the south. They make their own shelter. One of them has to hike up a mountain to get enough  cellphone bars to call his girlfriend in New Zealand. Its this unbelievable gift that the digital camera has given us that we get participate in the authentic lives of people distant from our own in geography and culture.

Local Filmmakers inside of West Virginia also had an opportunity to shine in this festival. Take two minutes and learn first hand about the chemical spill that poisoned the water for 300,000 West Virginians in 9 counties in January 2014. Filmmaker Keely Kernan makes this Mom's first hand account powerful and real.

For a more in depth coverage of the chemical spill, including the equivalant of a 911 emergency call for a chemical spill, watch Elk River Blues.  Elk River Blues is the single hand creation of West Virginia Public Television Film Creator, Mike Youngren on behalf of the environmental advocacy group, the WV Rivers Coalition.  Mr. Youngren even flew the drones that took the beautiful photography shots of the headwater region of the Elk River.

Another local environmental film is Blood on the Mountain, which talks about the horrors of mountain top removal by coal mining companies. I missed watching this film myself because of my volunteer commitments at the festival. The post-film discussion with the film makers and over 100 moviegoers was deep and passionate.  

Movie Review: Captive

Abigail Benjamin

Take a risk this weekend, and watch "Captive" on it's opening night on Friday, September 18, 2015. "Captive" isn't your typical Christian movie. Based on real events, "Captive" shows how an imperfect heroine fings both inner freedom from her drug addiction and external freedom from a sociopath kidnapper on the same night.

In 2005, accused felon Brian Nicholas (David Oyelowo) broke out of a courthouse jail cell in Atlanta and killed four people in his bid to escape. Subject to a massive manhunt, Nichoals held single mother Ashley Smith (Kate Mara) hostage inside her own apartment for seven hours. During her kidnapping, Ashley survives by her unusual calmness in the middle of danger and her ability to connect to the human being inside her kidnapper. In one surreal scene, the serial killer Brian asks Ashely if she needs his help to cook pancakes and he's delighted when she gives him real butter. 

Ashley's kidnapping is famous because she read the religiously themed book "The Purpose Driven Life" outloud to her kidnapper.  I was surprised to discover from the movie that she didn't start off her kidnapping as a strong Christian. In fact, Ashley lost custody of her daughter due to her drug addiction. The movie begins with Ashley seemingly hopeless struggle to overcome drug addition, keep her low paying job, and regain the right to mother her only child. At the end of the movie, Pastor Rick Warren, the author of "The Purpose Driven Life," appears in an Oprah clip to say that Ashley's story is important because it shows that "God can use imperfect people for his own good purpose." 

"Captive" is also an imperfect movie that serves a good purpose. The movie's pace is a little off. Sometimes the background scenes made me feel like I was watching an overly long episode of Law and Order. However, the movie's story is compelling. Actor's David Oyelowo and Kate Mara both turned complicated and layered performances. At the movie's end I was left asking big questions about what it means to "set the captive free" from the emotional bonds of despair and addiction. 

I strongly recommend seeing that movie Captive with a Christian friend and talking about movie's meaning over wine or cappuccino!


Captive is rated PG-13 for violence, especially a brutal 5 minute murder sequence at the start of the movie, and two incidents of drug use.There was some bad language. There is no sexual assault. The Catholic News Service has reviewed this film as A-III (Adults).

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Abigail Benjamin

This documentary on famed Sushi Chef, Jiro Ono, is the real deal! I was so inspired by this chef's humility. His world renowned Sushi Restaurant is a ten seater inside a Tokyo Subway Station. Watching this film is a perfect way to mentally reset after a tough weekday. 

Movie Review: Mr Holmes

Abigail Benjamin

This August, please schedule a relaxing movie break for yourself to watch Mr. Holmes in between buying school pencils and harvesting some overabudence zuchinni  plants.  "Mr Holmes" is British Storytelling at its best. This movie is deep and layered and beautiful to watch. 

If you love the Sherlock Holmes books, you'll love this realistic depiction of Sherlock Holmes at age 93. Holmes starts a friendship with Rodger, the young son of his new housekeeper, which is subtle and realistic. Go see this film if you've ever had a fanastic relationships with a grandfather. Go see this movie if you love bees, or English gardens or fantastic twists of in a mystery plots.

"Mr. Holmes,"  is so beautifully told, that I'm hesitant to give much of the plot away. Holmes has retired from Dectective work and now struggles with age related dementia. Encouraged by the clever Rodger, Holmes attempts to write down the currect version of his last case, that he believes was inaccurately told thirty years ago by Watson. The movie is set in 1947, with frequent flashbacks to 1917, the year of his last Dectective Case. 

"Mr. Holmes" is a homage to the craft of writing. Holmes finds a cure to his depression and confusion, not from his morphine, his homemade Royal Jelly or an elusive homopathic cure from devestated post-WWII Japan. Instead, the interested questions of a young boy encourage Holmes to solve the mystery of his last case.  In this movie, it is the reader who saves the writer!

Please rush to see this limited release movie while it is still in theaters. The quality of acting and directing in this movie really deserve to be scene on a full screen and not on a TV or iPhone. The lush filmwork of English gardens alone is worth the price of a movie ticket. (I joked with my husband that watching this film had all the pleasures of gardening without the risk of sunburn or poison ivy rashes.) 

I hope this movie gives you an Oasis of peace in the middle of a hectic time of winding down the summer and preparing for the onslaught of Fall. I found in this film a new respect for life cycle of bees, for the importance of flower gardens, and the beauty of a life well lived in authentic connection with others. 


Know Before You Go: (A Breakdown of the Movie for Catholics)  This movie is rated PG. It has references to deep issues about the bombing of Hiroshima, the fraility of old age and a passing reference to morphine. The ending scene (which I don't want to give away) is quite dramatic. I wouldn't take any child under the age of 13 to see this movie without previewing it first. In the end, the kids will probably be bored by the slow pace of this movie. This is a "grown-up" film to enjoyed alone or with other adults.

A plot twist involves the Occult. I didn't find that objectionable in this movie because Holmes shows the true facts of the issue to be  logical instead of supernatural.  Instead of "contacting spirits" a grieving Mom appears to be simply remembering her deceased children in an empty garden. When Mr. Holmes offers to "read the palm" of a client's wife, she reveals his trick is to be a fake way to hide his deduction powers about her case.

In addition, this film deals with miscarriage and infertility. That might be a strong trigger for some Catholic women who struggle with grief over those issues. However, I thought this was a respectful portrayal of the intense loneliness of that specific cross.  A main character doesn't resolve this heartache in a "Catholic manner."  However, I thought the storyline about the hidden grief of mother whose "arms are empty" felt both respectful and sympathic.  I hope I get to watch the BBC make more movies that respect life from conception to natural death.

Movie Review: Paper Towns

Abigail Benjamin

There are so many reasons to love a John Green movie! Green's teenagers are funny, smart and often, surprisingly kind. In a 2015 film lineup of Marvel Comics and the Mockingjay Part 2, I root for more movies to explore the ordinary love lives of teenagers.

"Paper Towns" is not "The Fault In Our Stars." It's a movie that is far messier, and I fear a more accurate depiction of how teenage boys view marriage, sexuality, and family life in current American Society. The typical Romantic Comedy format is inverted in this film. The boy falls in love with the girl, yet she shuns intimacy not only with him, but also with her little sister and her best friend.  She ends up putting a literal 1200 miles between her hometown of Orlando, Florida, and a made up geographic spot in Up State New York (a fake Paper Town, created by a mapmaker to fight copy write infringement).

In the last line of the movie, the hero tells us "A girl is not a mystery or an adventure." I left the movie feeling disquieted. I am a woman of both mystery and adventure. I venture to guess that all emotionally healed and fully alive women share those traits with me.  Teenage boys are the "canaries in the coal mine" in terms of how despairing our culture has become with even the hope of having authentic and life-giving relationships between men and women.

In Romantic Comedies, it used to be that finding a spouse was an adventure that ended with the start of a new adventure--building a life together. In this perfectly politically correct John Green movie, a teenage hero comes to a different conclusion.  I can't help but think that we're all the poorer for losing a rite of adulthood, the innocent belief that "life will all come together" for us once we find and kiss the right person of the opposite sex.

Facts: Catholic News Services has rated this as A-III--adults only. The movie is rated PG-13. There are a lot of inappropriate sex jokes, two brief nude scenes and sex outside of marriage.

Movie Review: Self/Less

Abigail Benjamin

In an era of crazy medical ethics and weakened family life, the sci-fi thriller Self/less is the perfect date night movie.  A rich elderly man rebels against his fatal cancer diagnosis and sets up a change reaction of miserable events among an Army family with a sick child. This film is a special interest to Christians because it rises questions of meaningful suffering, sacrifice, the emptiness of wealth, and the importance of the family.

Self/less blends original plot twists with solid acting. Ryan Reynolds, the film lead, is not a new actor, but his intense performance as the film's lead made the film feel thoughtful and exploratory, instead of a grown-up version of "Freaky Friday." Fans of "Downtown Abbey" will be thrilled to see cameo apperances by Mary Crawley, I mean Michelle Dockery, and Good Wife fans will see Matthew Goode turn in his best acting preformance since "Brideshead Revisited."  

Self/less is not a perfect Christian movie. There is a lot of graphic violence with more intensity than most spy movies. There are some nude scenes with pre-maital sex in the early movie scene. I'm ususally pretty squimish about both those issues. What saved this movie for me was the intense philosophical discussion about medical ethics, class, and the importance of meaningful family connections which underscored the entire structure of this film. 

After I watched Self/less I felt more hopeful about the future of movie making. Self/less is written by two Spanish brothers who asked some interesting questions after first learning about the cancer diagnosis of Steve Jobs from Apple. The brothers asked "What if Steve Job's money could by him a new body? What would that world look like?"   Here is an interesting interview by the writers behind Self/less. 

Self/less in currently in movie theaters. I'm so grateful that my local theater has cheap Sunday tickets. Hope to meet you at the movies soon!

San Andreas Movie Review

Abigail Benjamin

San Andreas, a new movie about survival during a massive California earthquake, is smarter than your average disaster flick. This movie is a rare hybrid of great actors, a pro-male story line, and amazing special effects. 

Actor Dwayne Johnson gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as an almost divorced LA firefighter who must save his estranged wife and daughter from a series of life threatening emergencies. This movie combines the excitement of rescue helicopter scenes with the tenderness of two grieving parents who finally find a way to come back together from the brink of divorce.

The romance between the daughter and an English engineer is an unexpected treat. An annoying younger brother, who tags along for a job interview, ends up playing wing man and getting his older brother a date with a beautiful girl. The older brothers responsibility for the protection of his sibling during a major natural disaster is seen as meaningful and important. Meanwhile, the sister's grief over her young sibling death is both underplayed and realistic.

This movie is an ode to First Responders everywhere. Most of the action scenes focus on how an calm LA Fireman can outwit an earthquake. I was impressed, that this movie highlights the gift of quick male problem-solving skills in all venues, not only life-saving techniques that require pure muscle. For example, the English boyfriend uses his intelligence to create a make-shift jaws of life to save his girl. The scientists at Cal-Tech, one of which is played by Paul Giamatti, shine in terms of their brilliance, bravery, and self-sacrifice. 

I don't mean to slight the main purpose of the movie which are the outrageously cool special effects. If your going to splurge on 3 D this summer, buy the special sunglasses for this film. The scene where an unexpected earthquake hits the Hoover Dam is Summer Hollywood Action at its best.

I'm not a disaster movie kind of woman. I did close my eyes a lot during the intense scenes in the film. Yet I'm so happy that I stretched my comfort zone to see this movie with my 65 year old father and my 10 year old son. The Romantic Comedy playing this week is "Aloha" and surprisingly, San Andreas ' pro-family message that "real love is about self-sacrifice" seemed far sweeter. 

Rating: PG-13

(I took my mature 10 year old son and he loved it. The disaster scenes are pretty intense. I'd guess Age 15 & Up viewing age for more sensitive kids.)

Date Night Choice: Yes! Practically as good as attending a Papal Mass to reinvigorate your commitment to building a strong marriage and healthy family life. Relationships matter during times of struggle!

Concerns for the Catholic: I counted 2 uses of the Lord's Name and a few cuss words. I tend to give those films a pass when the bad languages happens in a life & death moment and isn't part of the regular dialogue. While imperfect the language is pretty clean for an Action genre. 

Immodesty: The opening scene has a girl in a bikini. I also groaned with the modestly dressed heroine took off her shirt to use as a bandage for a hero. (However, my son pointed out that was a positive act of charity!) This movie has absolutely no sex scenes. Avoiding that fact alone makes me want to do double back flips. When the boy and girl kiss for the first time a younger sibling yells "Mom will love her!"

Marriage: Divorce is shown as having a negative impact on the child and non-filing spouse. 

All considering this is an extremely pro-family movie made for grown-ups.

War Movies To Watch With Your Honey on Memorial Day Weekend

Abigail Benjamin

I'm a woman. War Movies are not generally a first choice pick for my Netflix queue. For Memorial Day Weekend, however, here is my list of surprisingly good finds in this tough on the heart genre. 

1. Unbreakable -This true story of an Olympian who survives a Japanese POW Camp, by director Angela Jolie, was the perfect WWII film to watch with my older kids. The war scenes were pretty sedate, which is important to me because I've got a sensitive heart. The film's optimistic message of Hope gave me lots of meaty topics to talk about with my family. The scene where the memory of one Mom's Italian cooking keeps 3 dehydrated men alive on a thin raft in the middle of a hostile ocean is one of my favorite movie images of all time. This is a great choice to watch to honor all men who died in WWII.

(If you are a reader, the book, "Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," by local D.C. author Laura Hillenbrand is a great continuation of this movie).

2. Fury This WWII film is more intense in its depiction of battle. This is a movie that I won't watch with my kid. I did feel like the violent shots were always "for a good purpose." There is also plenty of dialogue and good character development, something I find critical whenever the majority of characters are all wearing the same uniform. Brad Pitt stars in this movie and there is a haunting scene where he brings fresh eggs to a civilian enemy's home in the middle of Germany. There was something about seeing the image of men taking time out from war to eat brunch with proper table manners that really made me rethink my usually boring job of cooking dinner for my family.  

(Notes: There was one scene with a gross war injury where I shut my eyes, and there is implied sexual contact between unmarried adults after that awesome brunch scene I loved. There is obviously a lot of violence and I think I remember a lot of cussing. For some reason, I have a much higher threshold for cussing in War movies, rather than other movie types. I feel like that is the price for realism since I would also probably swear if my life was in danger constantly.)   

3. The Hurt Locker

This movie had much more intense drama. The main character is a solider who serves as an expert at defusing bombs in Iraq.  This movie's direct, Katheryn Bigelow, was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director. Her work is outstanding in this film. This movie is worth seeing, even if War Films aren't your usual cup of Chai because we all need to support women in film! 

4.Monument Men 

This movie has so little battle scenes that it hardly qualifies as a War Movie. It does have Art, shot after shot of glorious European Medieval Paintings and Sculptures. If you missed Art History 100 in college, here is your make-up quiz. Also, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett have terrific scenes fighting in French. If you can't handle normal War Movie far, this really is your go to pick for Memorial Day weekend.

Films to Let Your Boyfriend/Husband/Male Best Friend See Alone

1. American Sniper I watched this film because I usually love Bradley Cooper's work and this film had a lot of Oscar buzz. This movie felt like a boring Western to me. There were lots of wide angle "atmosphere" shots in the desert, lots of shooting scenes, and shallow character development. I didn't tear up until the last real pictures of Chris Kyle's funeral. I think the real life characters have an interesting story. I'm eager to read the biography of Chris Kyle, American Sniper, and his wife new book, American Wife.

2. Bridge Over The River Kwai--One of these days I'll watch my Army Reserve Husband's favorite WWII flick with him, but I secretly hope I get to dodge that Netflix choice for another year.

3. Saving Private Ryan I think I'm the only one of my friends who hated this ground breaking film when it came out. There is that ever-lasting jerky camera shot that actually made my less sympathetic to my grandfather's first hand description of storming the beach at Normandy. There is also the pessimistic message that ethics are useless in war time.  If you sit through this movie a second time, I think it counts as penance.