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‘The Lovers’ a ‘lyrical’ look at infidelity but not its damage

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Catholic News Service

To the extent that a thoughtful drama about marital infidelity can be considered lyrical, “The Lovers” achieves that. Writer-director Azazel Jacobs carefully structures his plot to minimize any gaping holes in logic. But he also downplays the extensive collateral damage adultery inflicts.

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts star in a scene from the movie "The Lovers." The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.  (CNS photo/A24)

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts star in a scene from the movie “The Lovers.” The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS photo/A24)

Perhaps he wanted to avoid making anyone a villain. Certainly, no one is ever shown to be really at fault. Lacking a steady moral compass, his characters are buffeted by life’s unpredictability.

The story focuses on Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), two doughy, respectable, middle-age empty-nesters, their son Joel (Tyler Ross) is away at college.

Their marriage has, for reasons not explained, sputtered out. Both have taken on lovers.

They seem to be mutually aware of the cheating, but they’re exceedingly polite to each other and still share the same bed. The lethargy that led to their love’s demise, as well as bland domestic rituals, prevent them from actually splitting.

Mary, her mouth a rictus of pain and confusion, has taken up with handsome, younger Robert (Aidan Gillen). Michael, whose emotional outlet usually consists of giggling, is carrying on with Lucy (Melora Walters), an emotionally fragile ballet teacher.

Jacobs keeps his story sympathetic and free of tawdriness by showing that Mary and Michael, numb in their own lives, aren’t particularly good at adultery, either. Thus they find many ways to be both physically and emotionally unavailable to their paramours.

Why Robert and Lucy regard these two as good catches is mysterious. But eventually they both deliver ultimatums. Whatever goes on, it’s never glamorous.

That, too, is one of Jacobs’ points. Love and physical attraction often make no sense, and eventually Michael and Mary find, to their considerable surprise, that their spark has returned. So, in a series of farcical sequences, they end up “cheating” on their lovers.

This lurches on for a spell until a visit from Joel and his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula), sets into motion events which reveal the hollowness of the charade.

The film contains an adultery theme, fleeting scenes of marital sexual activity, some of it potentially aberrant, and much profane and rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is L, limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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Work is a means of sanctification, say Opus Dei members

June 5th, 2017 Posted in Uncategorized

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Catholic News Service

As an audio coordinator for “Sesame Street,” Katie Robinson knew she had a job others might envy.

She liked her work, enjoyed the people she worked with and, as a bonus, she could say she knew Big Bird personally (She does, actually).

But she wanted her work to mean something more, so, in 2014, she became a supernumerary member of Opus Dei, (www.opusdei.org) the personal prelature founded in Spain in 1928 by St. Josemaria Escriva, who was canonized in 2002 as “the saint of ordinary life.” The group has more than 90,000 members worldwide — slightly more women than men — and about 3,000 in the United States. Read more »

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Young adult ministry: What works?

May 25th, 2017 Posted in Uncategorized

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Catholic News Service

Attracting and building young adult ministries requires social skills, sometimes musical skills (Karaoke nights just don’t organize themselves, you know), a strong knowledge of the basics of Christian faith and Catholic beliefs, and a warm appreciation of the unexpected.

Which brings us to adult dodgeball. Read more »

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Catholic food blogger Jeff Young connects food and faith

May 19th, 2017 Posted in Uncategorized

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Catholic News Service

Food culture is nothing new to Jeff Young, founder of the Catholic Foodie blog and podcast.

“I grew up in southeastern Louisiana. If we’re not eating, we’re talking about eating. That’s just the way it’s always been.”

Young, whose blog mixes spiritual observations with recipes, also has a keen perspective about Catholics’ relationship to food: “Food plays a very important role in salvation history, starting with the eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Read more »

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Ailing teen rescued from her mother’s quarantine in ‘Everything, Everything’

May 19th, 2017 Posted in Movies, Uncategorized Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

Cynics beware: The teen-oriented romantic drama “Everything, Everything” bears more than a little resemblance to one of those fairy tales involving a princess locked up in a castle who needs a handsome prince to rescue her.

Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson star in a scene from the movie 'Everything, Everything." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. (CNS/Warner Bros.)

Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson star in a scene from the movie ‘Everything, Everything.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS/Warner Bros.)

Anachronistic thinking aside, director Stella Meghie’s adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s young adult novel, which features the genre’s familiar theme of embracing love even at the risk of death, is gentle, tasteful and faithful to the book. A bedroom scene shared by its barely-of-age main couple, however, makes it doubtful fare even for mature adolescents.

Amandla Stenberg is Maddy, a very bright and literate teen who has been told since her earliest years that she has severe combined immunodeficiency, or SCID. She’s just like the famous bubble boy, except with the run of an entire hermetically sealed house.

This structure was specially designed for her by her mother, Pauline (Anika Noni Rose). Visiting nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera) rounds out the isolated household.

One step into the outside world, and any virus or bacteria could prove fatal. Maddy lives the most solitary of lives, but insists to her mom that being alone isn’t the same as being lonely.

Her one melancholy wish is to see the Pacific Ocean, which is just three miles away. Occasionally Pauline still mourns for Maddy’s father and brother, who died in a traffic mishap.

Then handsome, sensitive Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in — right next door! He, of course, turns out to be Maddy’s instant soul mate.

Olly has troubles of his own, though. He sometimes has to protect his mother and sister from his abusive drunken father, who has difficulty holding down a job.

Conveniently, the windows in Maddy and Olly’s rooms are directly across from each other. So, soon enough, they’re not only texting but communicating through placards held up to these panes.

Maddy starts dreaming about the big wide world, having long soulful conversations, and anticipating that all-important first kiss. “I’d rather talk to him than sleep,” she announces.

What could possibly happen now? Will Pauline’s protectiveness turn out to have been excessive? Will true love triumph?

You betcha it will. Aware of the target audience, screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe sustains the romantic fantasy without letting any harsh real-life consequences intrude. In fact, his script displays all the gritty realism of a Gidget movie. Still, to borrow a line from the late Roger Ebert, this is a picture with which only an old grumpypants could find fault.

The film contains brief sensuality as part of a mostly off-screen nonmarital encounter and a single instance of rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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‘The Dinner’ doesn’t go down easy

May 5th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

“The Dinner,” a trenchant morality tale about the nature of evil and mankind’s savage underpinnings, turns out to be as infuriatingly dense and labyrinthine as Dutch author Herman Koch’s 2009 novel.

Richard Gere stars in a scene from the movie "The Dinner." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults.  (CNS/The Orchard)

Richard Gere stars in a scene from the movie “The Dinner.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS/The Orchard)

It’s not meant to be comfortable viewing, though, any more than the book was meant to be a tranquil read. It addresses moral challenges straight on, and when is that ever soothing?

Director Oren Moverman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Koch, has Americanized the settings. But he has kept intact the central conflict between Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) an ambitious congressman planning to run for governor, and his brother, Paul (Steve Coogan), a schizophrenic and embittered high school history teacher with a particular obsession about the Battle of Gettysburg.

One evening, Stan invites Paul and wife Claire (Laura Linney) to join him and his new spouse, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), for a very expensive dinner. The venue is one of those Beaux Arts mansions in which the dining experience is tightly choreographed theatre with overly fussy dishes.

The goal, in Stan’s words: “We’re gonna talk tonight. We’ll put it all on the table.”

But the night is about far more than long-simmering sibling resentments. Each couple has a teen son, and together the cousins (Charlie Plummer and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), who are also friends, have participated in the horrific abuse and murder of a homeless woman, setting her on fire.

No one’s been charged. But a video of the woman set ablaze is now online and there’s been a blackmail threat.

All this, as well as Paul’s illness, is shown in a long series of flashbacks.

Neither brother is quite the person outward appearances suggest, and as their spouses discuss the crime and the destruction it will wreak on their respective families and aims, their lack of empathy quickly widens in unexpected directions.

This, of course, allows for long, angry monologues, diatribes which the actors, shot in close-up, obviously relish. But these tirades are not especially edifying for viewers trying to keep up with the plot or with details like which nefarious lad belongs to which set of parents.

Perhaps the closest recent parallel to this film is Michael Haneke’s 2009 “The White Ribbon,” which showed German children descending, years before World War II, into feral cruelty without a smidgen of guilt.

So this isn’t escapist fare, but neither does it preach. The script recognizes that humans are complicated, never more so when parents are confronted by the worst thing they could discover about their children.

The film contains physical violence, mature themes and some profane and rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R, restricted.

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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‘How to Be a Latin Lover’

May 2nd, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

There are so many plot threads going in “How to Be a Latin Lover,” they never quite come together. Rather, the film becomes a scattershot comedy wavering uncertainly between warm family fare and a sex farce.

Kristen Bell and Eugenio Derbez star in a scene from the movie "How to Be a Latin Lover." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. .(CNS photo/Pantelion Films)

Kristen Bell and Eugenio Derbez star in a scene from the movie “How to Be a Latin Lover.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. .(CNS photo/Pantelion Films)

The uneven tone, together with long stretches of exposition that wind up being deadly dull for the audience, make the movie a difficult slog, even though it’s weighted toward a moral lesson about the value of work for its protagonist.

Maximo (Eugenio Derbez) decided in childhood, after the death of his hardworking father, that the easiest way to financial security would be to find a rich lady to take care of him. This he has achieved through his 25-year marriage to the elderly Peggy (Renee Taylor), who indulges his every materialistic whim, so much so that his only means of mobility around her vast estate consists of hoverboards.

This inverted Chaplinesque arrangement ends abruptly when Peggy has an affair and decides the union is over. Maximo, penniless because of a prenuptial agreement, moves in with his estranged sister, Sara (Salma Hayek), an industrious widow with a 10-year-old son, Hugo (Raphael Alejandro).

This is where the pathos and life lessons are presumably supposed to begin, as Maximo, now flabby and graying, tries to figure out how to get any kind of a job and from there, learns the value of having strong family ties as well as a moral core.

Instead, director Ken Marino and screenwriters Chris Spain and Jon Zack chart a zigzagging course between crass gags, as Maximo instructs Hugo on how to land Arden (McKenna Grace), the girl he has had his very shy eye on, and Maximo’s instruction and inner change as he learns how fundamentally decent Sara and Hugo can be.

He has not given up his gigolo ways, however. His main goal with his newfound work, even on a tiny income, is to gain the attention of, and ultimately wed, Celeste (Raquel Welch), an even wealthier heiress who just happens to be Arden’s grandmother.

Celeste has two prosthetic arms, a fact which is perhaps supposed to be symbolic but, in the end, only becomes the source for a tasteless sight gag.

This formula demands, and gets, a happy ending for all. Yet the plot’s many fits and starts make the journey to the contented wrap-up torturous.

The film contains brief sensuality and fleeting crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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‘Free Fire’ would be better with pies instead of bullets

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Catholic News Service

The premise of “Free Fire” is that a single extended gunfight can sustain an entire film, provided the participants in the showdown keep making incongruously funny and mordant remarks.

Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley star in a scene from the movie "Free Fire."  The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.  (CNS/24)

Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley star in a scene from the movie “Free Fire.” The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS/24)

This is the genre of the siege movie. Plot and character development are ignored in favor of the presumed enjoyment of watching villains working out their issues by blasting away at each other in a decaying Boston factory.

The setup involves a deal to buy assault rifles that quickly goes bad. So, the two sides spend the rest of the run time pulling their triggers and reloading while attempting to retrieve a briefcase loaded with cash.

Think of it as an extended pie fight, but with bullets. It would work out better were the movie actually comedic. But director Ben Wheatley, who co-wrote the screenplay with Amy Jump, is instead completely vested in choreographing these scruffy, amoral characters as they pop up from hiding places to fire off a few rounds. He also has them crawl around painfully after receiving flesh wounds.

There are occasional funny moments for viewers willing to detach the violent proceedings from real life. Thus, a soothing John Denver ballad, from an 8-track tape in a battered van, plays in the background at one ominous moment. And would-be gun buyer Justine (Brie Larson) says of arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), “He was misdiagnosed as a child genius and he never got over it.”

But Wheatley also goes for the obvious in a ham-handed manner. This is an old umbrella factory, but no one has one when the sprinklers go off.

This being 1978, the characters have to rely on a single landline phone, and duck a fusillade of bullets if they want to call anyone on the outside for reinforcements.

The buyers, in addition to Justine, are Chris (Cillian Murphy), an Irish Republican Army operative, Frank (Michael Smiley), Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley). Selling, besides Vernon, are Martin (Babou Ceesay) Gordon (Noah Taylor) and Harry (Jack Reynor). The unctuous Ord (Armie Hammer) attempts to be the middleman.

Eventually, Wheatley runs out of wisecracks and has most of the characters die in a variety of gruesome ways. But there’s no resolution to the mayhem. “Free Fire,” accordingly, ends up a claustrophobic exercise in mindless conflict.

The film contains pervasive gun and physical violence, fleeting gore, drug use, occasional profanities and constant rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is L, limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter — When it’s a demon, who you gonna call?

April 4th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

This year’s crop of demon-possession plots, that hardy stalwart of horror, kicks off in high style with the very adult “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.”

Emma Roberts stars in a scene from the movie "The Blackcoat's Daughter." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults.  (CNS photo/A24)

Emma Roberts stars in a scene from the movie “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/A24)

Although this story gives unusually short shrift to the rite of exorcism, which is portrayed even more casually and inaccurately than is usually the case in such dramas, the filmmakers have at least taken care to show an actual demon. That’s rare these days.

This one has two horns, inhabits a glowing basement coal furnace and, in another retro touch, calls his new best friend through a hallway pay phone. So the film is entrancing for quite a while before the stabbing victims begin to pile up.

Still, writer-director Oz Perkins keeps the gore factor comparatively low, emphasizing instead slow-building psychological horror, spooled out slowly through interlocking, time-shifting plot lines, all centered on a Catholic boarding school in upstate New York in the dead of winter.

There’s a trick ending, which Perkins tips in advance. But, since there’s a generous helping of the demon, that’s no more than an acknowledgment of the audience’s intelligence.

Gloomy freshman Kat (Kiernan Shipka) has had a vision of her parents’ death in a car crash on their way to pick her up for the school’s winter break. Rose (Lucy Boynton), an older student, fears she might be pregnant, and has arranged for her folks to pick her up on the wrong day so she’ll have time to tell her boyfriend.

These two are supposed to look after each other before the expected parental arrivals. Meanwhile, Kat starts getting and making calls, but not to her parents; she has a new pal in residence who demands murderous sacrifices. The cutlery flashes and heads roll.

In a third subplot, Joan (Emma Roberts), who has broken out of an asylum, desperately tries to return to the campus, utilizing a clueless but well-meaning couple, Bill and Linda (James Remar, Lauren Holly). They turn out to be Rose’s parents.

It eventually falls to kindly Father Brian (Greg Ellwand) to bring some clarity to the mayhem, although the movie is so vested in its deceptive ending, Catholic belief is only pro forma. But hey, at least someone knows how to recognize a demon.

The film contains an occult theme, knife violence with some gore, occasional profanities and fleeting crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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‘Slamma Jamma’ dunk funk

March 24th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

The well-intentioned sports drama “Slamma Jamma” occasionally comes to tepid life on basketball courts. But a weak script, together with production values indicative of a low budget, keep it hobbled as a story of redemption and Christian faith.

This is a scene from the movie"Slamma Jamma." The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. (CNS RiverRain Productions)

This is a scene from the movie”Slamma Jamma.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. (CNS RiverRain Productions)

Based very loosely on the life of slam-dunk champion Kenny Dobbs, it stars Chris Staples (a former Harlem Globetrotter in real life), as Michael Diggs, a onetime college basketball star potentially worth millions as a pro.

He’s unable to profit from his talent after an unscrupulous agent takes advantage of him. Coasting on his fame, he gets pulled into the violent armed robbery of a gun store, which earns him a six-year prison term.

Not very adroitly, the film shows Diggs embracing evangelical Christianity behind bars, and, upon release, slowly rebuilding his life by energetically making new contacts while working a series of menial jobs. Since he starts out humble, there’s no big transformative moment and so little in the way of dramatic tension that “Slamma Jamma” becomes almost unwatchable.

Away from the hoops, writer-director Tim Chey, no dab hand at dialogue, comes up with little other than clichéd, if supportive, remarks from Diggs’ ailing mother, Gemma (Rosemary Smith-Coleman), and from a neighborhood minister, Pastor John Soul (Ray Walia).

Diggs eventually gets his life back on track by winning slam-dunk competitions, halftime events, typically, with prizes in the many thousands of dollars. The faith elements are limned only sparingly, making this movie a tough slog even for those inclined to look favorably on religious fare.

The film contains a scene of gun violence and some trash-talking. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II, adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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