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‘The Resurrection of Gavin Stone’

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Catholic News Service

The parable of the prodigal son gets a soapy Hollywood treatment in “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone,” a faith-based comedy-drama.

The eponymous character (Brett Dalton) is a washed-up former child star whose bad-boy antics land him in big trouble during a visit to his hometown in Illinois. Sentenced to perform 200 hours of community service and unable to leave the state, Gavin reluctantly moves back in with his estranged father, Waylon (Neil Flynn), a carpenter (hint, hint).

Gavin’s community service is at an evangelical Christian megachurch run by Pastor Allen Richardson (D.B. Sweeney). “We really do believe in second chances here,” the pastor says.

Naturally, Gavin is a fish out of water and unused to cleaning bathrooms.

Fortunately, there is an outlet for his creative energy. The church is rehearsing a Passion play for Easter, and the ragtag group of volunteer actors could use some inspiration.

The production’s comely director, Kelly Richardson (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes), who happens to be the pastor’s daughter, is suspicious of the flashy newcomer. All actors must be professed Christians, so Gavin pretends he is saved.

“I’ve had the passion of the Christ for a couple of years now,” Gavin quips.

Before you can say “Alleluia!” Gavin is cast in the lead as Jesus, sheds his narcissism, and begins to see the light, as per the film’s title.

Dallas Jenkins directs with sincerity from a predictable but non-preachy script by Andrea Gyerston Nasfell that offers lessons in forgiveness and redemption suitable for all ages.

The film contains a nongraphic portrayal of the Crucifixion. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I, general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG.

 

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Pet-lovers will revel in charming ‘A Dog’s Purpose’

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

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Catholic News Service

While cats are said to be blessed with nine lives, the clever canine at the center of “A Dog’s Purpose,” voiced by Josh Gad, guides us through his adventures over four eventful lifetimes. Repeatedly reincarnated, he (and, for one stint, she) returns in the guise of various breeds and encounters a range of human caregivers.

Dennis Quaid stars in a scene with a dog named "Buddy" in the movie "A Dog's Purpose." The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. .(CNS photo/Universal)

Dennis Quaid stars in a scene with a dog named “Buddy” in the movie “A Dog’s Purpose.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. .(CNS photo/Universal)

Although the concept of recurring earthly existences is kept strictly confined to the world of animals, the New Age-style philosophizing the four-legged protagonist engages in along the way may strike some viewers as a bore. That’s offset, though, by his droll, dog’s-eye view of the world.

During the first of his visits to the planet, as a golden retriever, he’s rescued from a dangerous situation and adopted by 8-year-old Ethan Montgomery (Bryce Gheisar). Ethan’s sympathetic, but unnamed, mom (Juliet Rylance) welcomes this addition to the household, and helps convince his reluctant (and equally nameless) dad, played by Luke Kirby, to accept the pooch, whom Ethan dubs Bailey.

Bailey becomes Ethan’s inseparable companion as the lad grows into a high school football star (KJ Apa) and finds true love with Hannah (Britt Robertson), a girl he meets at a fair. Ethan’s bright prospects are further burnished by winning a college athletic scholarship. But his father’s worsening alcoholism casts a pall over his life and eventually threatens his future.

While his bond with Ethan proves the most enduring of his relationships with humans, during other intervals Bailey first serves as a police dog called Ellie and later becomes a Corgi named Tino. Ellie does her best to comfort her lonely trainer, widowed Chicago police officer Carlos (John Ortiz), and Tino helps to liven up the stagnant social life of his companion, pining single gal Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste).

Pet lovers will revel in director Lasse Hallstrom’s slight but charming screen version of W. Bruce Cameron’s best-selling 2010 novel. Parents will be pleased to find the movie free of any genuinely objectionable elements.

Grown guardians also will want to note that some sequences are too potentially frightening for the smallest pups.

Those inclined to be cynical may balk at bucolic scenes vaguely reminiscent of a TV ad for hay fever medicine. Still, a good-hearted romantic wrap-up matching characters played by Dennis Quaid and Peggy Lipton succeeds in keeping things cuddly for all but the most jaundiced.

The film contains mature themes, including alcohol addiction, possible cohabitation, some stylized violence with brief gore, scenes of peril and light scatological humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II, adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG.

 

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

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‘XXX: Return of Xander Cage’

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Catholic News Service

Somewhere behind the macho posturing that predominates in the action sequel “XXX: Return of Xander Cage,” there’s a plot and a back story. 

Viewers are unlikely to care about the former and will have to be long in the tooth to recall the latter since this is the third in a series of films that began with 2002’s “XXX” and hasn’t been added to since 2005.

Kris Wu, Ruby Rose, Rory McCann and Vin Diesel star in a scene from the movie "xXx: Return of Xander Cage." (CNS /Paramount)

Kris Wu, Ruby Rose, Rory McCann and Vin Diesel star in a scene from the movie “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.” (CNS /Paramount)

A fine wine this franchise is not. So sorting out what it was that Samuel L. Jackson’s character, NSA agent Augustus Gibbons, was doing way back in the first George W. Bush administration feels like dusty work.

Basically, we gather, he was serving as the impresario of what would become a top-secret, hush-hush, eyes-only little band of off-the-record operatives. The group takes its orthographically repetitive name not from a porno theater’s marquee, but from a tattoo on the back of the neck of its first and leading member, Xander Cage (Vin Diesel).

After a dozen years in seclusion, pretending to be dead, Cage comes out of retirement at the behest of CIA bigwig, and perpetual sourpuss, Jane Marke (Toni Collette). Marke, it seems, has a lot to pout about since some rogue colleague has gotten hold of a device capable of turning every satellite in the sky into a destructive earthbound missile.

Cage proceeds to shoot, skateboard and smart-mouth his way through director D.J. Caruso’s pedestrian movie. He’s backed by expert sniper Adele (Ruby Rose), Tennyson (Rory McCann), a Brit who seems to have taken one too many hits to the head on the rugby field, and a DJ named Nicks (Kris Wu).

Because, after all, when you’re out to save the world you do need to have your own disc jockey in tow, no?

Donnie Yen plays shady martial arts master Xiang, who starts out as Cage’s principal adversary on the chase. Like some of the other black hats, though, including Cage’s sultry flirt interest, Serena (Deepika Padukone), Xiang is not necessarily the villain he initially seems.

“Kick some (posterior), get the girl and try to look dope while you’re doing it,” intones Jackson in what passes for this sub-Bond picture’s worldview. For Cage, fulfilling the second of those admonitions means not only having meaningless sex with one gal, but an unseen encounter with a half-dozen others.

Thus, though it skims over the blood flow as innumerable extras bite the dust, its fleeting but unwelcome presentation of intimacy as a team sport makes Cage’s latest adventure unfit for most.

The film contains much action violence, some of it harsh, brief gore, strong sexual content, including semi-graphic nonmarital activity and off-screen group sex as well as references to aberrant behavior, a couple of profanities, a few milder oaths, a single rough term and frequent crude and crass 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.

 

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

 

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TV Review: HBO’s ‘The Young Pope’ is cartoonish and offensive

January 20th, 2017 Posted in Movies, National News Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

Behind the opening credits of “The Young Pope,” a naked baby boy crawls over a sea of infant mannequins, and a man dressed as the Roman pontiff emerges at the other end.

As bizarre as that may sound, the controversial, provocative new miniseries from pay-cable channel HBO only gets stranger from there.

Jude Law stars in a scene from the HBO television drama series "The Young Pope." (CNS photo/HBO)

Jude Law stars in a scene from the HBO television drama series “The Young Pope.” (CNS photo/HBO)

The 10-episode program premiered Sunday, Jan. 15, and will air Sundays and Mondays through Feb. 13, 9-10 p.m. each night.

As viewers might expect from an HBO presentation, “The Young Pope” contains strong, often gratuitous sexual content, nudity and profanity. As such, it’s exclusively suitable for a restricted adult audience, all the more so since these elements are mixed in with subject matter sacred to Catholics.

Perhaps best known for his Academy Award-winning 2013 film, “The Great Beauty,” Italian director Paolo Sorrentino helms the series, for which he was also the principal writer.

In the opening episode, a papal conclave delivers a surprising outcome as the 47-year-old archbishop of New York, Cardinal Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) becomes Pope Pius XIII, the first American pontiff. Mistakenly believing he would be able to dictate policy to this inexperienced newcomer, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Vatican’s secretary of state, manipulated the vote in Belardo’s favor.

Pius immediately signals that he’s going to be his own man, however and a different kind of pope as well. He does so most dramatically by his choice of a nun to serve as his chief adviser.

Having lost his parents at age 7, Lenny grew up in an orphanage at which Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) worked. There, she raised him and another boy, the future Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepherd), as her sons. Now, Pius helicopters her into the Vatican so he can rely on her for guidance.

This back story is implausible in two respects. American children growing up without parents in the 1970s wouldn’t be sent to orphanages; they would be placed in foster care. Sister Mary’s religious order, moreover, wouldn’t have permitted her to raise children as though they were her own.

Pius also signals a new direction when he delivers his first address to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Visible only in silhouette, he declares, “I am closer to God than I am to you, and, if you want to see me, go see God first.” When someone shines a green laser light in his face, he snaps, “How dare you shine a light in your pope’s face?”

Playing on the fact that many younger Catholics, including priests, tend to be conservative, idealizing the church before the Second Vatican Council, Sorrentino has crafted a simplistic caricature of them, a stick figure wholly lacking in subtlety, albeit a self-contradictory, even paradoxical, one. Pius is the anti-Francis, yearning for the restoration of items like the papal tiara and the “sedia gestatoria,” a portable throne on a platform carried by a group of attendants that was last used in 1978.

Pius’ theology is equally unsympathetic. Evangelization? “Been there. Done that,” he remarks.

“And reaching out to others? Time for that to stop.”

This is also a pope who can’t function without Diet Cherry Coke Zero, coffee and cigarettes. Petulant and vindictive, he makes a mockery of confession by declaring, “I don’t have any sins to confess… My conscience doesn’t accuse me of anything.” The protagonist of “The Young Pope” is, in brief, a jerk.

As irksome as many Catholics will find all of the foregoing, Sorrentino ups the ante to the level of outrage with a dream sequence in which Pius urges an adulating throng to have abortions, promote euthanasia and enjoy free love. If that’s somehow meant to be thought-provoking, it registers instead as patently and pointlessly offensive.

Saddled with a cartoonish view of the church, and driven by the urge to be edgy, “The Young Pope” repels more than it engages.

 

By Chris Byrd, a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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‘Split’ delves into multiple personality prognosis

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

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Catholic News Service

“Split,” the latest psychological thriller from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, posits that victims of childhood sexual abuse are not only prone to dissociative identity disorder, split personalities, but also that each persona can have unique physical characteristics.

Anya Taylor-Joy stars in a scene from the movie "Split." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults.  (CNS photo/Universal)

Anya Taylor-Joy stars in a scene from the movie “Split.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/Universal)

In addition, Shyamalan suggests that victims of the condition have hidden strengths that may be advanced on the evolutionary scale. That’s typically an excuse to lard on special effects and stunts, but not here.

Shyamalan’s not out to make anyone think too deeply about this prognosis. He prefers to couch the story in the efficient tropes of a cheese-ball teen-abduction drama, using a reliable scream queen, Anya Taylor-Joy, as a lure. The film does not veer in the direction of exploitation, however, making it possibly suitable for older adolescents.

His devotees will recognize Shyamalan’s continued exploration of the concept of the immortal soul, which began in 1999 with “The Sixth Sense” and continued with “Unbreakable” the following year.

Shayamalan’s villain, Kevin (James McAvoy), abducts three teen girls, Casey, Claire and Marcia (Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula), in suburban Philadelphia and whisks them away to what appears to be a subterranean lair, but is later shown to be an underground warren of rooms at a zoo.

Kevin’s motives are not clear. It turns out he’s the frightened host of 23 other personalities, of whom we see a cheerful 9-year-old boy, a prissy British woman, a fey clothing designer and an angry thug. There’s also a 24th personality he particularly fears, which he calls The Beast.

Kevin, when he’s out and about, seeks help from a psychologist, Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She’s aware that she’s seeing only part of a very complicated puzzle and that Kevin was abused by his unstable mother as a child. But she doesn’t know about the abductions.

Casey, it turns out, is best equipped to deal with Kevin since, as we are shown in discreet flashbacks, she was molested by an uncle at an early age, and the abuse continued for years after the death of her father. The other two girls are mostly just fodder for escape attempts and Kevin’s many threats and murderous intentions.

So from early on, “Split” follows the familiar pattern of teen girls in peril, with a general “moral” about what doesn’t kill you making you stronger, in this case, amazingly stronger.

The film contains gun and physical violence with some gore, mature themes, including sexual abuse, 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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‘20th Century Women’ presents plotless collection of whimsey

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

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Catholic News Service

The moral compass in “20th Century Women,” writer-director Mike Mills’ rambling, unfiltered drama, loosely based on his adolescence in 1970s Santa Barbara, Calif., is not one of the characters. Rather, it’s President Jimmy Carter.

Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig star in a scene from the movie "20th Century Women." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults.  (CNS photo/A24 Films)

Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig star in a scene from the movie “20th Century Women.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/A24 Films)

Specifically, the film makes use of Carter’s sermon-like “Crisis of Confidence” address, usually mislabeled as his “malaise” speech. In it, he admonished America: “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.”

This drones out of a TV set with the wallop of a Shakespearean soliloquy. The principal characters up to that point have been indulging themselves as if their lives depended on it, only they’ve been calling it self-realization. They’re suitably chastened, if only momentarily.

Overall, the movie is more a nearly plotless collection of whimsy than a fully realized story. So whatever insight Carter provides quickly evaporates.

Mills takes an affectionate look back at his world, circa 1979, with well-meaning if slightly confused women attempting to steer his stand-in, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), in the general direction of sensitive adulthood with their nascent feminist ideals as their guide.

They rely heavily on the self-help literature of the time. All the adults, even the ones engaging in nonmarital bedroom activities, are intensely curious about sex but don’t derive much pleasure from it. Instead, they find it eternally perplexing.

Dorothea (Annette Bening), Jamie’s divorced mother, prides herself on being open-minded but retains a faint sense that romance was better decades earlier. As Jamie keeps explaining to others, “She’s from the Depression.”

Dorothea has the notion that Jamie will become a better man if he’s advised by his 17-year-old friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), who has nonsexual sleepovers with Jamie, and 24-year-old Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the photographer and punk-rock devotee who rents a room in their ramshackle Victorian house, a structure that’s in a perpetual state of renovation.

Jamie helps Julie through a pregnancy scare and Abbie through a bout with cervical cancer that she fears will leave her unable to bear children. Dorothea, meanwhile, chain-smokes, explaining that she’s unlikely to come down with a fatal disease from it, since she began when smoking was considered fashionable.

There are several visits to a grungy rock club. And lengthy discussions of the quality of groundbreaking bands are mingled with talk of humanity’s role in the cosmos as well as the responsibility men bear toward women.

Everyone, including William (Billy Crudup), the handyman, who is occasionally drawn into the sexual situations, is determined to make moral decisions in the face of whatever obstacles they encounter. All this makes “20th Century Women” a road trip in the company of pleasantly sensitive, albeit ethically clueless, companions. If only they had the vaguest notion of their destination.

The film contains marijuana use, brief upper female nudity and lengthy dialogue about sexual matters, including allusions to nonmarital activity. 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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‘The Bye Bye Man’ is overwrought. tiresome

January 16th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

“Don’t think it! Don’t say it!” Such is the frantic, oft-repeated mantra of the bewitched and bewildered, not to mention generic, characters who populate “”The Bye Bye Man.” Their struggle to evade the malevolent specter of the title (Doug Jones) ultimately proves more tiresome than terrifying.

To begin with, scholarship student Elliot (Douglas Smith), his live-in girlfriend, Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and his best pal since childhood, John (Lucien Laviscount), really have no one to blame but themselves. In their eagerness to move off campus, they would go and rent a house that any sensible person could have told them at a glance was haunted.

And they do insist on staying there long after the going gets weird.

They’re not up against your average chain-dragger or mischievous poltergeist. Instead, the hooded, Frankenstein-ish Bye Bye Guy specializes in causing hallucinations that set each member of the trio against the others with potentially fatal results.

Since a number of these delusions have to do with Elliot’s fears about Sasha and John hooking up on the basis of raw mutual attraction, those adults foolish enough to subject themselves to this sketchy flick should at least be wise enough to leave the kids, including teens, at home.

That pesky Bye Bye Man: making Elliot want to kill John, giving Sasha what seems to be the flu, and making John think Sasha’s fey buddy Kim (Jenna Kanell), the would-be medium he just bedded, has maggot-like bugs crawling in her hair!

In adapting a chapter from Robert Damon Schneck book, “The President’s Vampire,” director Stacy Title and her husband, screenwriter Jonathan Penner go easy on the gore. But the ensemble’s whining about their collective plight, along with the way they double down ad nauseam on the movie’s catch phrase, wears on viewers’ nerves.

Those willing to stick it out will at least get a cameo’s worth of Faye Dunaway in Norma Desmond mode. As for the movie as a whole though, “The Bye Bye Man” ain’t ready for his close-up.

The film contains considerable violence with some gore, brief rear nudity, a discreet bedroom scene, implied casual sex, cohabitation, about a half-dozen uses each of profanity and crude language as well as sexual references and banter. 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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‘Sleepless’ is awash in blood and silliness

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Catholic News Service

There’s little chance of catching a quick nap during “Sleepless,” a noisy, vulgar, and highly violent police drama.

Michelle Monaghan and Jamie Foxx star in a scene from the movie "Sleepless." The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS/Open Road Films)

Michelle Monaghan and Jamie Foxx star in a scene from the movie “Sleepless.” The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS/Open Road Films)

Based on the 2011 French film “Nuit Blanche” (“Sleepless Night”), this tense thriller, directed by Baran bo Odar, involves a complex game of cat-and-mouse between law enforcement and drug dealers on the mean streets of Las Vegas.

“This city is crawling with dirty cops,” declares Jennifer Bryant (Michelle Monaghan), an internal affairs investigator for Sin City’s police department. Badly beaten while trying to break up a narcotics ring, she suspects her fellow officers were behind the attack.

The dirtiest cops may be Vincent Downs (Jamie Foxx) and his partner, Sean Cass (rapper T.I.). Both are dealing cocaine on the side, supplying Stanley Rubino (Dermot Mulroney), a smarmy casino owner, as well as the local drug lord, Rob Novak (Scoot McNairy).

When a delivery goes awry, Novak’s henchmen are killed, and Cass runs off with the cocaine, Rubino plots his revenge. He kidnaps Downs’ son, Thomas (Octavius J. Johnson), and holds him hostage until Downs can deliver the goods.

Despite being stabbed in the chest, Downs races against the clock (and fends off sleep) to retrieve the drugs and rescue his son, all the while pursued by Bryant and her partner, Doug Dennison (David Harbour).

Added to the mix is Downs’ ex-wife (and Thomas’ mom) Dena (Gabrielle Union), an emergency room nurse who just happens to be handy with a pistol.

Andrea Berloff’s script, awash in blood (and silliness), tries to keep viewers guessing until the very end as loyalties shift and true identities are revealed. The last-minute message that crime doesn’t pay barely retrieves this gritty vigil from being ruled out for all.

The film contains relentless graphic violence, including gunplay and torture, and pervasive crude and profane 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.

 

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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‘Patriots Day’

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Catholic News Service

While “Patriots Day” is an effective dramatization of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and its violent aftermath, the film is also an unsparing portrayal of those events. Thus it can only be recommended for the sturdiest adult viewers.

Mark Wahlberg stars in a scene from the movie "Patriots Day." The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS /CBS Films)

Mark Wahlberg stars in a scene from the movie “Patriots Day.” The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS /CBS Films)

Director and co-writer Peter Berg approaches his daunting subject from multiple perspectives, predominantly that of fictional police Sgt. Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg). Stationed at the finish line of the race, held annually on the holiday of the title, Saunders is among the first responders to the chaos unleashed by radicalized Muslim brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) Tsarnaev.

Other strands of the story, scripted by Berg in collaboration with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, involve lead FBI investigator Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), and his local counterpart, Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman).

Among the victims profiled are young husband and wife Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea) and Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) as well as Chinese-born app designer Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) whom the murderous siblings carjacked and kidnapped. Meng’s courage and quick thinking helped foil the Tsarnaevs’ plans to carry out a further attack in New York’s Times Square.

Berg ratchets up the suspense as authorities scramble to identify and capture the fugitives before they can claim more casualties. And “Patriots Day” is clear about the need to oppose evil with love and decency, an outlook most forcefully expressed through a powerfully delivered monologue from Wahlberg’s Everyman character.

Yet, although the treatment of it never descends to the exploitative or manipulative, the bloody carnage caused by the duo’s series of assaults is not kept off-screen. The grim sights from which Berg refuses to avert his gaze or ours are not meant to evoke a visceral or vengeance-hungry response in the audience. They are, rather, an unflinching presentation of reality.

Taken together with the dialogue’s torrent of tension-induced swearing, however, this visual realism makes “Patriots Day” suitable fare for only a few. Still, serious minded grownups will find positive values prevailing amid the many losses.

The film contains disturbing and sometimes gruesome images of terrorist mayhem, considerable gore, drug use, a marital bedroom scene, several uses of profanity and pervasive 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 R — restricted.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

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Morality play shot down in volley of bullets in ‘Live by Night’

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Catholic News Service

The glossy crime drama “Live by Night” traces the rise of Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck, who also wrote and directed), a Boston-bred gangster in the Florida of the 1920s and ’30s. Though not exactly a hoodlum with a heart of gold, Coughlin is presented as a sympathetic figure in Affleck’s serious-minded adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel.

Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck star in a scene from the movie "Live by Night." The Catholic News Service classification is L, limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. .(CNS/Warner Bros.)

Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck star in a scene from the movie “Live by Night.” The Catholic News Service classification is L, limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. .(CNS/Warner Bros.)

Mature viewers, accordingly, will need to bring discernment to bear as plot developments test the limits of Coughlin’s ruthlessness. Given that style trumps substance throughout the mayhem-driven proceedings, however, such an effort is likely to be no more than modestly rewarded.

Disillusioned by his experience of military service during World War I, Coughlin returns from overseas determined never to have to follow orders again. Seeing lawlessness as a form of freedom, he embarks on a career of low-level thievery that puts him at odds with his father, Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), a high-ranking police officer.

As he gains some notoriety, Coughlin resists the pressure to join forces with, and therefore knuckle under to, either of the Hub’s leading underworld figures, Irish-American kingpin Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Italian mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone).

Things become dangerously complicated, though, when Coughlin falls for White’s alluring moll, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). The resulting conflict has near-fatal consequences, and leaves Coughlin thirsting for revenge.

Allying himself with Pescatore, Coughlin relocates to the outskirts of Tampa where, with the assistance of longtime friend Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), he supervises his new boss’ rum-running racket. This brings him into contact with a fresh love interest, Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), the elegant scion of a wealthy but shady Cuban family.

Coughlin’s plans to cap the mounting success of his enterprise by building a lavish casino — prohibition, he realizes, won’t last forever — draws the opposition of an unlikely adversary, local evangelist Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning).

Morality, social commentary and Christianity of the revival meeting variety are all part of the mix here. But the faith on display is tattered, the ethics muddled and any consistent message gets lost amid the climactic hail of bullets.

Is it acceptable to kill some people, e.g., Ku Klux Klansmen, but not others, like our Aimee Semple McPherson stand-in? Was the WASP establishment to blame when the immigrants they systematically held down turned to criminality?

These are some of the moral rapids Affleck attempts to navigate, only to get distracted by an overstuffed story and the urge to move on to the next shootout. The result is a scenic but not very satisfying voyage.

The film contains questionable values, frequent violence with some gore, semi-graphic premarital sex, upper female nudity, a couple of uses of profanity and constant 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 R, restricted.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

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