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‘Suburbicon’ home of middle-class depravity

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Catholic News Service

Corruption lurking under the placid surface of life in the suburbs is hardly a new theme.

But the image of universal middle-class depravity presented in the failed black comedy “Suburbicon” is so lurid as to render the movie fundamentally unbelievable. While the filmmakers’ artistic intent is clear, moreover, this nihilistic outlook may make the picture offensive to many viewers of faith.

Alex Hassell, Glenn Fleshler and Jack Conley star in a scene from the movie “Suburbicon.” The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS/Paramount Pictures)

Set in the Levittown-like housing development of the title during the early 1950s, the grotesque story is partially told from the point of view of preteen Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe). Placing a child at the center of such a tale proves the first of many questionable artistic and ethical choices involved in this project.

Early on, Nicky is awakened in the middle of the night by his father, Gardner (Matt Damon), and discovers that his family — including his wheelchair-bound mom, Rose (Julianne Moore), and Rose­’s twin sister, Margaret (also Moore) — are the victims of a home invasion.

The duo of brutish intruders (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) who, for reasons unknown, have taken the clan captive then proceed to tie them up and administer chloroform to each deliberately, and fatally, overdosing Rose.

In the wake of this unexplained tragedy, Gardner invites Margaret to move in with him and Nicky, ostensibly to provide Nicky with a female presence in his life. As soon becomes apparent, however, Gardner’s real motives in setting up this arrangement are far less respectable.

Nicky remains confused by what he discovers about Dad and Margaret’s behavior, including his interruption of them in the middle of perverse sex. But their actions strike the police officer (Jack Conley) and insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac) assigned to the case as unmistakably suspicious.

Awkwardly intertwined with the main plot is a cautionary tale about intolerance that sees the community’s first black couple, the Meyers (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke), and their young son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), besieged by angry white mobs intent on driving them out of the neighborhood.

Along with Nicky’s Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba), steadfast, dignified Mrs. Meyers is the only significant adult character who seems to possess any moral values whatsoever.

Director George Clooney, who co-wrote the script with brothers Joel and Ethan Coen and Grant Heslov, paints a perversely dark picture of human nature from which, in the case of Gardner at least, even the most basic positive instincts are absent. His film also displays an elitist disdain for the lives of ordinary people.

In these respects, “Suburbicon” can be contrasted with the Coens’ equally ebony-hued but softer-edged 1996 sendup “Fargo.” While both movies concern bumbling and easily unraveled criminality, the protagonist of the earlier film was more desperate than evil. And his downfall was brought about by an easy-to-laugh-at, yet in many ways admirable adversary.

As bleak as wintry “Fargo” may have been, the spiritual landscape of “Suburbicon” is an unrelieved, and therefore unrealistic, stretch of utter desolation, with two innocent children dangerously lost in its midst.

The film contains a skewed outlook, occasionally shocking violence with considerable gore, some gruesome images, brief aberrant sexual behavior, profanity as well as several crude terms. 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.

     

 

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Judi Dench reigns over ‘Victoria and Abdul’

October 26th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Judi Dench is no stranger to playing royalty, and she shines once again as the titular queen in “Victoria and Abdul.”

Beginning in 1887, director Stephen Frears’ historical drama, adapted from the book by Shrabani Basu, follows the unlikely adventures of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a lowly clerk at the local prison in Agra, India. He’s a tall and handsome 24-year-old, and it’s these traits that cause him to be selected to present a mohur, a ceremonial gold coin, to Victoria during her golden jubilee.

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal star in a scene from the movie “Victoria and Abdul.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/Focus Features)

Undertaking a four-month journey by sea together with grouchy Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), another randomly chosen native of the subcontinent, Abdul gets to England only to be trussed up in an artificial version of Indian servant clothing and instructed in the proper etiquette for the state occasion.

Feeling nervous and out of place, Abdul promptly violates the most important of the rules that have been laid down for him by catching the bored queen’s eye and flashing a quick smile, which she returns. The next day, she requests Abdul’s presence as her personal attendant.

Thus begins an unusual friendship. Young and naive about proper British restraint in the presence of the sovereign, Abdul engages Victoria in enthusiastic conversation, regaling her with descriptions of the Taj Mahal and the broader culture from which he springs. He progresses from servant to private secretary and finally becomes her teacher, instructing her in Urdu.

Abdul’s innocence and lack of pretension provide a breath of fresh air for Her Majesty, surrounded as she is by pompous politicians and stuffy ladies-in-waiting always trying to curry her favor. But the closer their relationship grows, the more antagonism the royal household, led by the queen’s eldest son and heir, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), unleashes on the newcomer.

The platonic bond at the heart of the plot is sweet and endearing. But the film’s attitude toward colonialism seems overly simplified. When Victoria refers to herself as empress of India, Abdul just smiles and nods. Mohammed is more clear-eyed in his analysis, but his resentment is kept on the sidelines.

“Victoria and Abdul” celebrates its main characters’ loyal attachment as well as openness, tolerance and respect for those from different backgrounds. When we take the time to get to know people for who they really are, Lee Hall’s script suggests, we may be surprised to find that our shared humanity means we have more in common with them than we might, at first, suspect.

Taken together with the movie’s historical value, such ethical insights may lead at least some parents to consider “Victoria and Abdul” acceptable for older adolescents.

The film contains a couple of uses of profanity, at least one milder oath, about a half-dozen crude terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13. 

By Sister Hosea Rupprecht, a Daughter of St. Paul, who is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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Medea’s ‘Boo 2!’ runs out of Halloween comedy and horrror

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Catholic News Service

There’s a brief moment in “Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween” in which one desperately hopes that the plot has flickered to life.

On a dark road near an allegedly haunted campground, writer-director Perry’s long-running muumuu-draped moral force, played by Perry in drag, of course, encounters the Grim Reaper, complete with scythe. Finally, she either ponders her own mortality, or “conquers” death with a well-placed punch, right? Read more »

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‘Same Kind of Different as Me’ has its heart in the right place

October 20th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

Viewers committed to scriptural values will be inclined to cut the good-hearted but uneven drama “Same Kind of Different as Me” some slack.

A poster for the movie “Same Kind of Different as Me” is displayed in this promotional photo for the film. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/Paramount)

Based on real-life events, the film recounts how wealthy art dealer Ron Hall (Greg Kinnear) came to form an unlikely friendship with Denver Moore (Djimon Hounsou), a volatile but fundamentally decent homeless man.

Anxious to repair the damage a recent affair has done to his marriage, Ron reluctantly agrees to accompany his spiritually attuned wife, Debbie (Renee Zellweger), on her visits to a local soup kitchen.

There he gradually overcomes the initial (and intimidating) hostility of his future pal, who is first seen wielding a baseball bat while making angry threats against the other beneficiaries of the charity. He also learns the details of Denver’s personal history.

So long as Hounsou dominates the scene, as he does while lyrically recalling his character’s childhood, his redoubtable talent carries the film along.

The other headliners of the cast, including Jon Voight as Ron’s booze-sodden estranged father, Earl, also bring formidable resumes to the project. But they prove less successful in overcoming the limitations of the script. It was adapted from the book, penned by Hall and Moore, by director Michael Carney, Alexander Foard and Hall.

A nondenominational religious subtext and Gospel-congruent values help to hide the aesthetic blemishes. They also contribute to making the movie probably acceptable for older teens, despite the elements listed below.

The film contains some nonlethal violence, a scene of marital intimacy, mature themes, including adultery and racial hatred, sexual references and innuendo. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

     

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

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‘The Snowman’ Nordic whodunit is too grusome

October 19th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

Though it presents itself as a complex, thinking person’s thriller, “The Snowman,” director Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s best-selling crime novel, is not above dabbling in penny-dreadful sensationalism.

Michael Fassbender stars in a scene from the movie “The Snowman.” The Catholic News Service classification is O, morally offensive. (CNS photo/Universal)

In between, this Nordic whodunit returns to plodding wearily across the frozen landscape of its unconvincing mystery story.

Set primarily in Oslo, Norway, the film tracks the efforts of gifted but alcoholism-plagued police Det. Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) to catch a serial killer who uses a snowman as his calling card, building one at each murder site.

Harry’s search is complicated by the fact that his new partner, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), seems to have a hidden agenda of her own. His tangled relationships with his ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), for whom he still carries a torch, her son Oleg (Michael Yates) and her new live-in love interest Mathias (Jonas Karlsson) offer further distractions.

Needlessly shocking visuals of dismembered limbs, severed heads and the like punctuate the stilted proceedings.

The fact that the killer’s motivation springs from the sordid personal lives of his victims as well as his traumatic childhood makes the movie even seamier. So, too, do subplots involving an abortion mill and the perverse behind-the-scenes behavior of a high-profile public figure, Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons), who poses as a champion of traditional values.

Underlying all of this is a viewpoint, presumably carried over from Nesbo’s book by screenwriters Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini, fully endorsing the ideas of the sexual revolution and implicitly labeling anyone who opposes them as, at best, a hypocrite, at worst, a psychopath.

The film contains excessive gory violence and gruesome images, a suicide, strong sexual content, including aberrant behavior, an adulterous bedroom scene and brief upper female nudity, abortion, domestic abuse and cohabitation themes, profanity and rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is O, morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

     

 

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‘Only the Brave’ — Searing look at wildland firefighters

October 17th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

The heartbreaking true story of an elite Arizona firefighting team comes to the big screen in “Only the Brave.”  

In 2013, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, as the group was known, risked their lives and raced into a raging inferno to save a neighboring town from destruction. Given more recent fire calamities, their striking example of heroism, brotherhood and self-sacrifice is both timely and inspiring.

Josh Brolin stars in a scene from the movie “Only the Brave.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III , adults. (CNS photo/Columbia)

Only the country’s top wildland firefighters earn the designation “hotshots.” These squads, the Navy SEALs of firefighting, are deployed across the country, wherever the need is most extreme.

In Prescott, Arizona, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) has dreamed for years of earning hotshot status for his 20-member crew. With Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale) as his right-hand man, Marsh has honed them into a well-oiled firefighting machine.

The diverse bunch includes Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), a ladies’ man and prankster, and Clayton Whitted (Scott Haze), a youth minister who keeps his Bible handy. Most are young, newly married, and have children, which injects additional drama and poignancy into the saga. Marsh’s wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), epitomizes the lonely existence of the spouses, constantly anxious for their husbands’ safety.

“It’s not easy sharing your man with a fire,” says Marvel Steinbrink (Andie MacDowell), wife of Duane (Jeff Bridges), the local fire chief.

During a recruitment drive, an unlikely candidate appears: Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller). He has led a dissolute life of drugs and crime and, after a one-night stand, is now a father.

This has turned out to be a major wake-up call. Before long, McDonough is running drills with Marsh’s crew, learning to clear brush, dig trenches, and create controlled burns, which contain a fire by taking away its source of fuel.

When all else fails, the men crawl inside makeshift shelters, large reflective bags which they hope let the fire pass safely over them. “It’s gonna feel like the end of the world,” Marsh warns. “As long as you can breathe, you can survive.”

In adapting a magazine article by Sean Flynn, director Joseph Kosinski deftly juggles the intimate stories of the men’s personal lives with grand set pieces which evoke the sheer terror and destructive force of the flames they battle. Although the ending is well known, its impact is no less profound on screen. So the movie’s tagline, “It’s not what stands in front of you. It’s who stands beside you,” feels well earned.

The film contains scenes of extreme peril, mature themes, drug use, brief rear male nudity, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, profanity and crude language, some sexual banter and obscene gestures. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

     

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

     

 

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‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’ is no comic book

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Catholic News Service

Fans of the comic book superheroine Wonder Woman (and of the recent film) are advised to steer well clear of “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.”

Bella Heathcote stars in a scene from the movie “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.” The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. .(CNS photo/Annapurna Pictures)

The sheer escapist pleasure of watching the wholesome feminist icon fight for truth and justice is downright spoiled on learning the sordid story of the comic’s creator, William Moulton Marston (1893-1947).

In this case, the truth hurts, and not simply because Marston (Luke Evans) liked to tie women up and paddle them. In addition to sadomasochism, he was a proponent of so-called free love and open marriage. Or, in Hollywood parlance, he was “ahead of his time.”

At Radcliffe College in the late 1920s, the hunky professor teaches behavioral psychology to his eager female students. Marston purports that all human behavior can be traced to the interplay of four emotional states: dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance.

It’s not hard to see where all this will lead. “People are happiest when they submit to a loving authority,” Marston insists.

By his side is his wife and research partner, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). Together they invent a lie detecting machine, which offers multiple opportunities to ask awkward questions (and inspires Wonder Woman’s “lasso of truth”).

Open-minded Elizabeth tolerates her husband’s roving eye. “I’m your wife, not your jailer,” she says.

The door thus opened, in marches one of Marston’s students, the gorgeous Olive (Bella Heathcote), who volunteers as a research assistant. Marston is instantly smitten. But Olive, in a surprising twist, only has eyes for Elizabeth, at least initially.

What ensues is a love triangle devoid of all propriety. The trio moves in together, engages promiscuously and, as the years pass, multiple babies are born.

It’s only a matter of time before neighborhood whispers are confirmed, and Marston is fired. To earn a living (and support all those children), he turns to writing.

“I’m going to inject my ideas right into the thumping heart of America,” Marston boasts.

Viewers will be disappointed to learn that the inspiration for Wonder Woman comes from Marston’s visit to a seedy Manhattan sex shop filled with tight costumes, ropes and cuffs.

Indeed, the early years of the Wonder Woman comic (which began in 1941) raised eyebrows for its extreme violence, bondage episodes and an acceptance of “free love” and homosexual behavior. Amid calls for the comic to be banned, Marston is hauled before a tribunal headed by moral gatekeeper Josette Frank (Connie Britton), director of the Child Study Association of America.

He has some explaining to do, as does writer-director Angela Robinson, who eagerly hoists the banner of relativism, painting a sympathetic picture of the outrageous Marston triad and casting traditional morality to the winds.

So much for being lassoed by the truth.

The film contains a negative view of religion, strong sexual content with nudity, a benign view of aberrant behavior, pornography and birth control, sexual banter, frequent rough language and one profane oath. The Catholic News Service classification is O, morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R, restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

 

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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Jackie Chan out for rogue IRA terrorist in ‘The Foreigner’

October 13th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

Jackie Chan takes a sharp turn from his typically genial screen personality to become the vengeful father of a London terrorist victim in “The Foreigner.”

Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan star in a scene from the movie “The Foreigner.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III,adults. (CNS photo/STXfilms)

In this efficiently suspenseful adaptation of Stephen Leather’s pulp thriller “The Chinaman,” director Martin Campbell and screenwriter David Marconi have produced an unembroidered drama about resurgent Irish Republican Army violence and bureaucratic treachery.

There are explosions aplenty as well as displays of military survival skills and quite a few of Chan’s well-timed kicks and punches. None of the protagonist’s bombs are intended to damage anything but property, however.

He’s grieving dad Ngoc Minh Quan, and he’s trying to get the attention of government officials any way he can. As a former American-trained guerrilla during the Vietnam War, moreover, he’s as adept at explosives and trap-setting as any urban terrorist.

Vigilantism is always a troubling theme for believing moviegoers. So, despite his precautions, he also avoids using guns, it’s disturbing that Quan is meant to be cheered in the manner of a cowboy hero as he searches for justice.

Although the story has a modern setting, the source novel, written in 1992, was published five years before the IRA’s cease-fire with the British forces in Northern Ireland. So, while Irish terrorism seems anachronistic here, the idea is that mass killings are everywhere and that a parent’s quest is universal.

On the strength of his personality and the intelligence of the script, Chan also escapes any ugly stereotypes of a wily, inscrutable Asian.

After his daughter Fan (Katie Leung) is murdered in a bombing that kills 19, Quan, who also lost his wife and two other daughters to Thai pirates while escaping China years before, expects to see Fan’s killers arrested through the usual channels. But Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a deputy prime minister with substantial political ambitions, is slow to respond and uncooperative once he does.

Quan then attempts to bribe a police inspector, Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon). But when that effort fails, he focuses all his energy on Hennessy, whose old ties to the IRA are as complicated as his relationships with his wife and mistress.

The result is a multilayered story that, although telegraphing many plot points too soon, avoids cynicism and makes for a taut journey, albeit one with a high body count.

The film contains a vigilantism theme, gun and physical violence, fleeting gore, implied sexual activity, a few profanities and frequent rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. 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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‘Happy Death Day’ is a ‘Groundhog Day’ as murder mystery

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Catholic News Service

With a name like “Happy Death Day,” a sweet, wholesome story is unlikely to unfold.

You can say that again. 

Jessica Rothe and Israel Broussard star in a scene from the movie “Happy Death Day.” The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS photo/Universal)

Rather, “Happy Death Day,” directed by Christopher Landon (“Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) is an uneasy mix of horror and humor, a slasher movie with a message of self-improvement that doesn’t go far enough.

Jessica Rothe plays college student Tree, yes, that’s her real name, who awakens on the morning of her birthday, hung over, in the dorm room of fellow student Carter (Israel Broussard), after an apparent one-night stand.

Disgusted, she storms out and starts her daily routine, which essentially means being obnoxious to all and sundry, including her sorority president Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and put-upon roommate Lori (Ruby Modine).

There’s little time for study, of course, since she’s having an affair with Gregory (Charles Aitken), her married professor. Tree also ignores repeated phone calls from her father, David (Jason Bayle), who is anxious to see her on her birthday.

Ah, but this is no ordinary birthday, for at the end of the day, Tree is stabbed to death by an assailant wearing a baby-faced mask.

Taking a page from 1993’s time-loop fantasy “Groundhog Day,” Tree awakens in Carter’s room with a major case of deja vu, as her birthday, make that “death” day, repeats itself. She will continue to relive the same day, with minor variations, always ending with her murder. 

During one loop, Carter (who, it is revealed, was a perfect gentleman), accepts Tree’s story and encourages her to play detective to uncover the killer’s identity.

Much like Bill Murray’s obnoxious weatherman in “Groundhog Day,” Tree comes to see the error of her selfish ways, and each time loop offers the chance for redemption. She takes Carter’s advice to heart: “It’s never too late to change. Each new day is a chance to be someone better.”

That’s an encouraging message, and Tree’s growth is extraordinary. But Scott Lobdell’s script only goes so far. College-age viewers (and younger) may conclude that anything which makes you happy, even aberrant behavior, is a good thing. It’s not.

The film contains moments of violence and terror, sexual banter, brief rear female nudity, a benign view of drug use, pornography, homosexual acts and masturbation, and some rough and crude 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 PG-13.

     

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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Plane crash sparks love match on ‘The Mountain Between Us’

October 6th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

The proverbial call of the wild sounds more like a roar in “The Mountain Between Us,” a trapped-in-the-wilderness survival drama based on the 2011 novel by Charles Martin. Read more »

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