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‘The Glass Castle’ —From Jeannette with love and squalor

August 11th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

Anyone who’s endured the ignominy of grinding poverty with an alcoholic, out-of- work parent understands that there’s nothing ennobling about the experience.

Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson star in a scene from the movie "The Glass Castle." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults.  (CNS/Lionsgate)

Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson star in a scene from the movie “The Glass Castle.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS/Lionsgate)

It’s something to endure, to escape if one can, and it leaves deep psychic scars for which later wealth is weak compensation. It’s not an experience to be sentimentalized.

For all its bitterness toward the Catholic Church, Frank McCourt’s childhood memoir “Angela’s Ashes,” in both book and film, got that much right. But “The Glass Castle,” the screen version of Jeannette Walls’ 2005 account of her impoverished youth, tries to put a cheery gloss on everything, as if all the excruciating history was somehow not as bad as it seemed at the time.

Jeannette, at age 3, is grotesquely burned when her clothing catches fire from a gas stove. This is portrayed as a character-builder rather than child neglect.

Walls’ memoir was unsparing with her indignities. They included having to use a ditch as a toilet, the constant presence of rats, and a racist paternal grandmother who molested her brother.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham, avoids all the most wretched material, however, to invoke some kind of rosy Appalachian glow. As if a Christmastime snowfall makes everything so much better because it temporarily covers up the squalor.

Walls (Ella Anderson, mostly, as a child; Brie Larson from high school on) was one of four children of Rex (Woody Harrelson), a wannabe engineer with almost no formal schooling, and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), a failed artist who never sold a painting.

Like one of playwright Eugene O’Neill’s dreamers, Rex is constantly designing a house for them (the glass castle of the title). But as a result of his boozing, he achieves none of his dreams. He and Rose Mary, though, manage to imbue all their children with vivid imaginations and lots of children’s literature so they can keep reality at bay.

After a peripatetic existence one step ahead of the law and bill collectors, the family ends up in Welch, W.Va., where Rex had grown up. It’s a rock bottom of several magnitudes. But somehow the children are educated, even when they’ve not eaten for several days. Rex’s only stable job is as a coal miner, but that doesn’t last for long.

Rex is sometimes violent. In reality, that’s always bad. In this film, though, it becomes just another of his quirks, and the father-daughter bond never breaks, even when his homespun “wisdom” sounds like something out of a phony Farmer’s Almanac.

Jeannette, with a ferocious love of writing, eventually becomes a famous celebrity gossip columnist in New York City. But even there her parents turn up, homeless and squatting in an abandoned building on the Upper East Side. She feels the need to keep her previous life secret when she becomes engaged to nebbishy David (Max Greenfield), although both she and her siblings do occasionally meet their parents for dinner.

This becomes the central conflict of the story: How does Jeannette deal with an invented reality for herself that omits her childhood poverty and her somewhat hopeless folks? When does she finally incorporate her past into her present?

That’s typically good stuff in either a drama or comedy. Here, though, it just drags on and on, which is typically the problem in a biopic in which nearly all the characters are very much alive and story lines are quietly sanitized.

There are no moral forces at work here. There’s only the feral ability to survive, as well as a depiction of poverty that’s as dishonest and delusional as Jeannette’s father.

The film contains a brief scene of implied child sexual abuse, physical violence and fleeting profanities and 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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‘Kidnap’ presents a long drive in a careening minivan

August 3rd, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , , ,

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Catholic News Service

The compact thriller “Kidnap” has Halle Berry’s expressive face going for it, but not a whole lot else. The film is less a story about a mother’s enduring love and sacrifice for her young son than it is a long drive in an amazingly durable minivan.

Sage Correa and Halle Berry star in a scene from the movie "Kidnap." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. . (CNS/Aviron Pictures)

Sage Correa and Halle Berry star in a scene from the movie “Kidnap.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. . (CNS/Aviron Pictures)

Berry is Karla, a divorced waitress who’s mom to 6-year-old Frankie (Sage Correa). She’s about to get into a custody battle with her ex-husband when Frankie is abducted from a park by two cretinous goons, Margo and Terry (Chris McGinn and Lew Temple).

For what purpose Frankie has been snatched is a bit murky. Police in New Orleans issue an Amber Alert, but Karla takes off in pursuit, managing to keep the kidnappers always in view while speeding down highways, occasionally knocking aside bystanders and the odd police officer like so many bowling pins.

Director Luis Prieto and screenwriter Knate Lee have no interest in character development and motivation. There’s a mother and child, the kid is taken, Mama reverts to primeval maternal-warrior instinct, and the race is on.

Karla has a few interactions with the kidnappers, who are adept at lying about whether they’ll take her money instead of her son.

“Wherever you go, I will be right behind you, no matter what,” she vows. Ah. Got it. And so she is, although her chase, when it’s not veering into melodrama, often includes unintentional comedic moments meant to induce audience cheering.

The film contains gun and physical violence, considerable vehicular mayhem as well as profanity and rough 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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‘A Ghost Story’ — Confounding, spare and haunting

July 28th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

“A Ghost Story” could be the best film about purgatory you’ll see this year.

That depends, of course, on whether you think that purgatory is the state in which Casey Affleck’s recently departed character exists. Writer-director David Lowery hasn’t attempted a story about religion specifically or spirituality generally, but rather has made a reflection on loss.

Rooney Mara stars in a scene from the movie "A Ghost Story." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. (CNS photo/A24)

Rooney Mara stars in a scene from the movie “A Ghost Story.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/A24)

Still, there is a case to be made for the idea that Affleck is undergoing purgation. His silently querulous, shrouded spirit, looking like one of Charlie Brown’s trick-or-treaters with cut-out eyeholes, needs to fulfill a task in order to set things right with someone or something and thus be released from his earthly bonds.

In that, the story adheres to a formula of after-death second-chance journeys that, done in a lush fashion, became 1990’s “Ghost,” the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel” and, in the old days of Hollywood, films such as “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” or “A Guy Named Joe.”

Lowery has taken a very minimalist approach, though, with exceedingly long takes and a ghost who, although he sometimes can rattle a bookshelf or toss crockery around, is otherwise incommunicative, except to another ghost next door, with whom he speaks telepathically.

The result is often confounding, but viewers will find it difficult to rid themselves of the imagery.

Affleck and Rooney Mara play a married couple, identified only as “C” and “M” respectively. They live in a slightly tumbledown Texas ranch house to which he feels an odd devotion. He doesn’t get to explain that in detail, however, since he quickly dies in an auto mishap just outside the home.

His corpse, left alone in the hospital, suddenly springs up and heads down a hallway where a tunnel of light beckons, then suddenly shuts off. So he hangs a left and walks (we surmise) back to his house.

There, he stands, mostly in corners, and watches life and his widow go on without him. Is he learning anything? Lowery isn’t telling us.

The image of the dead still being near us will be comforting to many. The idea that they’re standing in corners staring at us, albeit not trying to haunt us, probably less so.

Later, somewhat like Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Eve dream, Affleck’s ghost journeys into the distant past of the property, and also into the near future, where he listens to a partygoer gas on about how life on earth means little, since we’re all quickly forgotten, and not even love or works of art endure.

This is patently false, of course. But Lowery’s not interested in building a mordant argument or any argument at all.

Eventually, Lowery gives his ghost a task. He needs to retrieve a note his widow stuck in a doorway crack. He’s mostly just curious, but this document could also lead to a resolution of what amounts to his earthly exile.

Since Lowery doesn’t try to supply any pat answers, he instead invites the audience to discover their own questions. The result falls a little short on the entertainment scale, but demands thoughtful interpretation by discerning adults.

The film contains brief gore and fleeting crude 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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College friends reunite for raunchy ‘Girls Trip’

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Catholic News Service

Buried underneath several layers of crass gags, “Girls Trip,” has a substantial story about loyalty and moral decisions. But libidinous raunch is the evident lure.

Queen Latifah, Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish star in a scene from the movie "Girls Trip." The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS photo/Universal Studios)

Queen Latifah, Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish star in a scene from the movie “Girls Trip.” The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS photo/Universal Studios)

The intended audience for this film is women in groups, eager to vicariously enjoy some road-trip misbehavior that comes with a considerable helping of melodrama. It’s meant to be a bonding experience.

The cast is having a very good time of it, in some cases referencing scenes from the actors’ earlier films. And the physical gags, which almost always involve sexual behavior, are somehow separate from the core story about reconnecting and finding support.

Four women, best friends since college, when they were known as the Flossy Posse, have, in the ensuing years, gone their own ways. Sasha (Queen Latifah) is a perpetually broke former journalist hoping to hit it big with her own celebrity gossip site. Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) is divorced with small children and living with her mother.

Dina (Tiffany Haddish), still the live wire of the group, hasn’t settled down, and Ryan (Regina Hall) is a successful self-help author with an NFL star husband, Stewart (Mike Colter). She’s on the verge of receiving a massive investment so she can form “the first black Huffington Post.”

The group re-forms to go to the annual “Essence” Festival, sponsored by the magazine in New Orleans. There Ryan is to give a keynote address as a prelude to a marketing deal.

The event provides a backdrop for a lot of drinking, dancing and sexual talk prompted by Dina, especially after she learns that Lisa hasn’t had sex in years. As directed by Malcolm D. Lee from a script by Kenya Barris, Karen McCullah, Tracy Oliver and Erica Rivinoja, the quartet somehow keep their dignity when sober, but the Crescent City nights give them an excuse to cut loose.

There’s a dramatic center as well: When Sasha learns that Stewart’s been cheating on Ryan with an “Instagram model,” she has to decide whether to sell that information or give Ryan a chance to clean the situation up out of public view. That becomes difficult when Stewart turns up with the model in New Orleans.

Later, Ryan has to decide whether maintaining the illusion of a happy marriage is worth millions of dollars.

There’s a solid structure and wrap-up to the proceedings. But the drunken, and sometimes distasteful, goings-on are certainly not for everyone.

The film contains rear male nudity, scatological imagery, drug use, sexual banter, several descriptions of sexual activity and some 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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Kaiser Wilhelm in exile discovered in WWII spy movie

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Catholic News Service

Historical kitsch applied to World War II espionage doesn’t get more gloriously over the top than in “The Exception.”

Jai Courtney stars in a scene from the movie “The Exception.” 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. (CNS photo/A24 Films)

Jai Courtney stars in a scene from the movie “The Exception.” 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. (CNS photo/A24 Films)

Based on Alan Judd’s 2003 novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss,” it has, as billed, Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) living out the last year of his exile in the Netherlands before his 1941 death.

Wilhelm is portrayed as a bitter, yet also kindly, twinkly eyed oldster who chops kindling wood and feeds ducks in his endless spare time while he yearns for the grand old days of the Hohenzollern Dynasty in Germany: “After all I’ve done for them, they stabbed me! In za back!”

This being the opening stages of World War II, a royal comeback’s not on the cards. But Adolf Hitler’s regime considers the Kaiser, exiled since the end of World War I, and wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), good for the morale of the Fatherland. So they’re kept on a generous allowance and provided a mansion, along with vague promises of a return.

There’s a new maid, Mieke (Lily James). She’s Jewish. She’s also feeding information to local spy Pastor Hendriks (Kris Cuppens). He, in turn, delivers his reports to a far-off British agent using a beeping telegraph key.

Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is assigned as the Kaiser’s new bodyguard so he can ferret out the spying, after he’s told, “If anything goes wrong, Captain, you’ll be shot!”

He’s so quickly attracted to Mieke that even when she tells him she’s Jewish, he doesn’t care. He’s still haunted by his role in the slaughter of Poles in a botched military operation the year before.

There’s some gratuitous nudity involved in their romantic encounters. But there’s not much of it, and director David Leveaux, working from Simon Burke’s screenplay, quickly returns to the conventions of a historical thriller, and the plot churns along to its overheated conclusion.

We are led to believe that although the Kaiser was anti-Semitic, the plans for the Nazis’ Final Solution, delivered by Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), sickened him.

The plot is loosely based on real events. Still, the moment when Mieke approaches the Kaiser to tell him, “I heff a message for you, from Winston Churchill!” sounds more like an episode of the 1960s Stalag-set sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes” than a plausible piece of history.

Overall, it’s a strange little story involving archetypes, but so exceptionally well-crafted, the stale elements simply fall away.

The film contains brief graphic nonmarital sexual activity with flashes of male and female nudity and fleeting 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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Theologians suggest imagining a closer relationship with God when picturing heaven

July 20th, 2017 Posted in Uncategorized

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Catholic News Service

The old Flatt and Scruggs bluegrass spiritual captures an image many devoutly believe in its chorus: “Heaven (supernal)/ Heaven (eternal)/ I’m so glad it’s real.”

But the notion of a happy home far away in the sky after our mortal passing isn’t everyone’s idea of “the life of the world to come” asserted as the profession of Christian faith in the Nicene Creed. And uncertainty fuels the dread of death. Read more »

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‘Wish Upon’ presents fatally fulfilled desires

July 14th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

The low-budget Faustian fable that is “Wish Upon” has a bullied teen girl fulfilling her earthly desires for vengeance, money, popularity and a surprisingly chaste romance in exchange for maybe her mortal soul.

Joey King and Mitchell Slaggert star in a scene from the movie "Wish Upon." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. (CNS photo/Broad Green Pictures)

Joey King and Mitchell Slaggert star in a scene from the movie “Wish Upon.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/Broad Green Pictures)

Anyway, fulfillment using a mysterious Chinese “wish box” that grants seven of ’em is a double-edged sword. Every time Clare (Joey King) asks for something, she gets it, but someone else close to her has to die. Them’s the terms.

The character as written is hardly morally bereft. Clare is just trying to get along, and she’s still traumatized from having witnessed her mother’s suicide by hanging in the attic, but she’s a little dimwitted, too.

Clare takes a long time to catch on that this enameled box, a music box, is granting her wishes, and by the time it’s explained to her by a Chinese-American pal, she’s already five wishes into the deadly bargain.

Since her mother’s death, Clare’s father, Jonathan (Ryan Philippe), a sometimes musician, has been reduced to working as a trash picker in search of antiques, much to her embarrassment.

One day he brings home said box, for which the provenance is unknown. Clare, who just got into a cafeteria fight with one of her school’s mean girls, holds the box while expressing the hope that this girl should just rot away. Soon enough, the meanie does just that with a sudden case of the necrotizing fasciitis, known as the flesh-eating disease.

The plot meanders along this path for quite a while, with Clare getting her late uncle’s inheritance, and both she and her father achieving that all-important peer-group popularity as others meet their doom in a bathtub, a garbage disposer, an implied impalement and a runaway elevator. On this film’s budget, the splatter factor virtually ceases to be.

Director John Leonetti and screenwriter Barbara Marshall make the best of what they have, but each plot point and its resolution are telegraphed so blatantly, there’s no suspense.

The film contains fleeting gore and fleeting 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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Anyone can evangelize — here’s how

July 10th, 2017 Posted in Uncategorized

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Catholic News Service

Effective evangelizing for ordinary Catholics means keeping it simple: Listen first. Then talk.

It’s a command that accompanies our baptism. Pope Francis, in “Evangelii Gaudium” (“Joy of the Gospel”), proclaimed, “In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the people of God have become missionary disciples.” Read more »

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‘The House’ is for losers

July 7th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

Had “The House” been made as a taut, dark comedy about the price of greed, it might have some merit. Instead, director Andrew Jay Cohen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Brendan O’Brien, has produced a sloppy, illogical, cringe-inducing time-waster.

Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler and Jason Mantzoukas star in a scene from the movie "The House." The Catholic News Service classification is O -- morally offensive. (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler and Jason Mantzoukas star in a scene from the movie “The House.” The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as Scott and Kate Johansen are demonstrably stupid about the basics of financial security. But they are aware they’re in over their heads with debt. “We played by the rules and this is where it got us,” Scott complains bitterly.

Everyone’s happy when daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) is accepted at Bucknell University. But they were counting on a free-ride scholarship offered by their town, and the town council decides to build an elaborate community pool instead.

The couple’s solution is to go into partnership with their friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) to open a gambling den in his home. Frank’s trying to avoid foreclosure and get back with his wife, Raina (Michaela Watkins), who has been asking for a divorce.

Since the gambling house always wins, they figure that this is a foolproof scheme. What they don’t realize, of course, is that they’re complete fools, and that all such criminal enterprises eventually face justice.

Chaos descends quickly, with Frank putting the casino into heavy debt with high-end amenities, and the jollity comes to an abrupt end when Scott, threatening an accused cheater, unintentionally chops off his finger with a hatchet.

Light on the yucks but heavy on the yuk, “The House” becomes an onerous trial of the viewer’s attention span.

The film contains a lengthy gory sequence and frequent rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O, morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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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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