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‘Hacksaw Ridge’ depicts ‘no greater love’ heroism

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Catholic News Service

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

That statement is vividly realized in “Hacksaw Ridge,” which recounts the extraordinary heroism of Army medic Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) during the Battle of Okinawa in the closing days of World War II.

Andrew Garfield stars in a scene from the movie "Hacksaw Ridge." The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. T (CNS photo/Cross Creek Pictures)

Andrew Garfield stars in a scene from the movie “Hacksaw Ridge.” The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. T (CNS photo/Cross Creek Pictures)

A committed Christian and conscientious objector who refused to bear arms, Doss was nonetheless eager to serve his country. He single-handedly saved the lives of more than 75 wounded soldiers while under constant enemy fire, earning him the Medal of Honor, awarded by Congress.

Director Mel Gibson, working from a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, presents his fact-based drama in two parts. The first probes Doss’ childhood and upbringing in rural Virginia, while the second unfolds on Okinawa, atop a jagged cliff nicknamed “Hacksaw Ridge” for the brutality of the Japanese offensive there.

War is indeed hell, as Gibson pulls no punches in extreme battle scenes reminiscent of “Saving Private Ryan.” Awash in blood and gore, with heads blown off and soldiers set afire by napalm, the violence is no doubt realistic, but will necessarily restrict this film’s audience to those adults willing to endure such sights.

We first meet Desmond as a spirited boy (Darcy Bryce) who is losing a fistfight with his older brother, Hal (Roman Guerriero). Desmond picks up a brick and strikes Hal, knocking him out cold.

Recoiling in horror, the boy fears he has killed his sibling (shades of Cain and Abel). He hasn’t, but the incident shakes him to the core, and inspires his steadfast pacifism.

“To take another man’s life is the greatest sin of all,” his kindly mother, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), reminds her son, citing their beliefs as Seventh-day Adventists.

Fast forward 15 years, and both sons have enlisted, to the dismay of their abusive father, Tom (Hugo Weaving). A veteran of World War I, he knows firsthand the horror and futility of war.

But Desmond is keen to play his part, despite the misgivings of his fiancee, local nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). “While others are taking life, I will be saving it,” he reassures her.

Needless to say, Desmond faces ridicule and beatings by his fellow recruits at boot camp, who regard him as a freak and coward. The platoon’s leader, Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn), and the company’s commander, Capt. Glover (Sam Worthington), make his life miserable, and lobby for his discharge.

But Doss holds firm, calling himself a “conscientious cooperator.” A military court rules that he may serve as a medic, and not bear arms.

Once on Okinawa, Doss proves his mettle and earns the respect of his platoon as he runs back and forth on the battlefield to remove the wounded. His nearly superhuman actions would seem farfetched were they not true.

As might be expected with Gibson at the helm, “Hacksaw Ridge” does not sideline Doss’ religious convictions, which are integral to his story and his performance on Okinawa. With Dorothy’s Bible in his breast pocket, Desmond utters the cry, “Please God, let me get one more,” as he repeatedly plunges back into the abyss.

References to baptism and the resurrection give “Hacksaw Ridge” a transcendent, messianic quality that draws comparison with Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” As did that film, “Hacksaw Ridge” uses the pain and bloodletting it portrays to inspire viewers with a redeeming Christian message.

The film contains graphic war violence with much gore, brief rear male nudity, a scene of marital sensuality and considerable profane 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.

 

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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‘Doctor Strange’ adds magical tricks to Marvel universe

November 4th, 2016 Posted in Movies Tags: ,

By

Catholic News Service

What Tilda Swinton can conceive, Benedict Cumberbatch can achieve in “Doctor Strange.”

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in a scene from the movie "Doctor Strange." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. (CNS photo/Disney)

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in a scene from the movie “Doctor Strange.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/Disney)

As directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, this first big-screen adventure for the Marvel Comics superhero who debuted in print back in 1963 showcases a surfeit of magical nonsense and New Age rigmarole concerning spell-casting, astral bodies and the like. Accordingly, it’s not at all suitable fare for impressionable youngsters.

When a car accident severely damages his hands, blighting his career, brilliant but egotistical neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) feverishly pursues conventional treatments. But none holds out any hope of restoring his steady touch.

Desperately frustrated, he lashes out at the one sympathetic figure in his life, his long-suffering ex-girlfriend and current colleague, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). The resulting breach makes his emotional isolation complete.

Acting on a tip from recovered paraplegic Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), Strange travels to Nepal to meet the guru (Swinton) Pangborn claims brought about his seemingly miraculous cure. Her followers refer to this bald, and otherwise unnamed, personage as “the Ancient One.”

When Strange’s skeptical materialism proves a hard nut to crack, the Ancient One launches him on a series of giddy rides across the cosmos, trips during which the audience might be forgiven for half expecting him to run into the ghost of Timothy Leary or the lineup of Jefferson Airplane circa “White Rabbit.”

Convinced by these odd odysseys, Strange places himself, more or less wholeheartedly, under his new spiritual master’s tutelage. He receives a mix of martial-arts and metaphysical training from one of her disciples, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He also gets some arcane book-learning courtesy of her comically poker-faced and reticent librarian, Wong (Benedict Wong).

Instead of the healing he was initially searching for, however, Strange discovers a sort of otherworldly vocation as he becomes a warrior in the struggle between his newfound mentor and Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One’s who has embraced the forces of evil.

“Doctor Strange” features some spectacular special effects reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” And the acting rises well above the genre average, placing it in the company of the best “Iron Man” outings.

Yet, in order to enjoy these assets, viewers of faith will have to overlook all the mumbo-jumbo interwoven into the script, which Derrickson penned along with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. Thus, only those mature teens able to treat such elements as on a par with the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys, a task not made easier by the fact that the hooey on offer here comes decked out in the trappings of Buddhism, should be given the green light.

The film contains pervasive occult dialogue and action, some stylized violence, fleeting gory images and a handful of crude and crass terms. 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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‘Inferno’ a circle of tedium not unlike waiting for the dentist

October 28th, 2016 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

While not exactly hellish, “Inferno,” director Ron Howard’s screen version of Dan Brown’s 2013 novel, does produce some of the purgatorial tedium of sitting around in a dentist’s waiting room or standing at a bus stop.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones star in a scene from the movie "Inferno." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults.  (CNS photo/Sony)

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones star in a scene from the movie “Inferno.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/Sony)

On the up side, Catholic viewers will be glad to note that neither their faith nor the early history of their church is trampled on, as they both were so blatantly in Brown’s best-known work, “The Da Vinci Code.”

In fact, aside from a few scenes set in such famous locales as St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice and the baptistery of Florence’s cathedral, the church is entirely absent as “symbology” professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) embarks on another of his globetrotting cultural scavenger hunts.

The chase begins in confusion: Langdon wakes up in an Italian hospital afflicted with amnesia only to find himself, mere moments later, being shot at by an assassin (Ana Ularu) disguised as a police officer. He escapes, thanks in large measure to the help of British-bred emergency room physician Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones). An intellectual prodigy, Dr. Brooks has been a fan of Langdon’s books since childhood.

Hunkered down in Brooks’ apartment, Langdon fights off the effects of a head injury, Brooks tells him he was grazed by a bullet, but he has no memory of the circumstances, as he tries to piece together why he’s being pursued not only by a killer but by the World Health Organization.

Clues having to do with Dante’s Divine Comedy and various works of Renaissance art soon link Langdon’s plight to the nefarious scheming of billionaire bioengineer Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster). Zobrist’s paranoid views regarding overpopulation have led him to hatch a psychotic solution: He’s hidden away a pathogen that could kill off half the human race, and has fail-safe plans to unleash it. “Maybe pain can save us,” he winsomely observes.

Despite the high stakes and the unpredictable loyalties of the supporting cast the outcome of Langdon’s odyssey amounts to thin cinematic gruel.

Additionally, while it may be untainted by the theological and historical whoppers that have made Brown notorious, even as they have also made him rich, David Koepp’s script takes an ambivalent stand on Earth’s supposedly overcrowded future. Zobrist’s terrorism is obviously rejected; so too is an idea we’re told he presented for covertly putting sterilizing agents into drinking water.

Yet the widespread use of artificial contraception is at least implicitly offered as the proper preventative to the looming horror of a surfeit of humans. While the elements listed below might not otherwise bar endorsement of this thriller for mature teens, the treatment of this theme alone does so decisively.

The film contains action violence with some gore, skewed moral values, a suicide, cohabitation and nonmarital sensuality, at least one use each of profane and rough language, a couple of mild oaths and a pair of crude terms. 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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Die-hard Madea fans should enjoy her ‘Holler-een’

October 27th, 2016 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

Going by “Boo! A Madea Halloween,” Tyler Perry may be getting a little bored with his signature character.

Cassi Davis and Tyler Perry star in "Boo! A Madea Halloween." (CNS photo/Lionsgate)

Cassi Davis and Tyler Perry star in “Boo! A Madea Halloween.” (CNS photo/Lionsgate)

The language-fracturing violence-threatening moral force in a muumuu still gives out with the bickering and the lightning-fast asides. But writer-director Perry’s script gives her little to do other than mingle with college students and trash-talk with her elderly friends.

There are no shocks left in the old gal, except maybe her references to her past as an exotic dancer on the pole. So this is a film best appreciated by die-hard Madea completists who won’t mind that the plot is too casually constructed.

Madea’s nephew Brian (Perry) asks his fabled aunt (also Perry, of course) to look after his daughter Tiffany (Diamond White) on the Eve of All Hallows (in Madea-speak, “Holler-een”). Tiffany, who’s a voluptuous 17, wants to sneak out to a nearby fraternity party with two older friends.

She achieves this, of course, giving Madea the opportunity to intervene in her famous Cadillac, show off a few dance moves and leer at the guys. But once the hosts discover Tiffany’s real age, they don’t want her around, and Madea is tossed out as well.

Tiffany, meanwhile, has managed to convince Madea and her clan — pot-smoking cousin Bam (Cassi Davis) lisping Hattie (Patrice Lovely) and sex-obsessed Uncle Joe (Perry again) — that their family’s dwelling is haunted by ghosts from an old murder.

So the storyline turns to pranking by the frat boys, and eventually there are strange noises, spirit-world threats written on a bathroom mirror, and the old folks launch into haunted-house shtick in between complaining about their physical ailments and the indignities of age.

Madea, it turns out, is just as afraid of the police (“The po-po”) as she is of ghosts. But this potentially timely, possibly controversial theme is not explored in any depth.

Bam, who offers to call the authorities in Madea’s stead, does announce that she’ll get them to turn up because she can sound like a young white girl over the phone. Yet Bam’s real goal is to tweak the cops by triumphantly producing her medical-marijuana prescription card.

As in all Madea stories, much is made of the beneficial effects of corporal punishment and the need for the young to respect their elders. With regard to the former topic, the hammer-wielding harridan observes, “A little love-tap never hurt no one.”

The film contains occasional nonlethal violence and marijuana use. 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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‘Denial’ sees truth of the Holocaust put on trial

October 27th, 2016 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

By

Catholic News Service

A prominent attempt to erase one of history’s most notorious genocides and the possible strategies for defeating that effort are explored in “Denial.”

Rachel Weisz stars in a scene from the movie "Denial." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. (CNS photo/Bleecker Street)

Rachel Weisz stars in a scene from the movie “Denial.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/Bleecker Street)

Director Mick Jackson’s fact-based drama recounts the case for libel initiated in 1996 by English writer David Irving (Timothy Spall) against American historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz).

In her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” Lipstadt had labeled Irving a Holocaust denier. Following the appearance of a British edition of the work, Irving sued both Lipstadt and her U.K. publishers, Penguin Books.

Lipstadt believes that passionate testimony from survivors can prove the existence of the Holocaust and win a difficult trial in which, under British law, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Her expert lawyers are determined to bore in instead on the false theories espoused by Irving, a churlish self-taught historian of World War II who’s gone over to the dark side.

Sourced from Lipstadt’s 2005 memoir, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier,” David Hare’s script mostly avoids courtroom histrionics in favor of delineating how the defense arguments were constructed. He also shows how Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory University in Atlanta, misunderstood her legal team’s tactics nearly to the end of the trial.

The big break in the actual proceedings, held in London in 2000, was Irving’s misguided decision to serve as his own prosecutor, rather than use barristers to represent him. An additional advantage was gained when, in keeping with the rules of evidence, the defense was given access to Irving’s vast diaries, compiled over 20 years.

The film’s emotional heart is in quiet scenes filmed at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, where Jackson takes care to show melting snow on barbed wire as if the fences are weeping. Here, too, Lipstadt recites El Maleh Rachamim, the traditional funeral prayer of Ashkenazi Jews.

The camp, of course, offers its own indisputable testimony in the form of its gas chambers. But lead barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), who’s been taking notes on how the executions operated, uses the setting to observe that the lack of a complete scientific investigation of the death machinery has given a foothold for cranks like Irving. They insist that Zyklon B, manufactured as a pesticide, was used only for delousing, not mass murder.

There’s no real question of how the trial will end. Spall plays Irving with bug-eyed malevolence. Irving even goes so far as to turn up at one of Lipstadt’s book readings to heckle her and announce that he’ll give $1,000 in cash to anyone who can prove that Hitler intended to slaughter Jews.

To keep control over the testimony and deny Irving a forum for grandstanding, Lipstadt’s lawyers refused to put either their client or any victims of the Holocaust on the stand. In response to Lipstadt’s pleas for a contrary approach, solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) admonishes her, “A trial, I’m afraid, is not therapy.”

“Denial” makes a powerful point about moral as well as intellectual truth. Gainsayers of the worst horrors will always be with us, but they must be fought at every turn.

The film contains detailed discussions of atrocities and a single rough term. 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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‘Jack Reacher’ action is predictable, but limited time to dwell on that

October 21st, 2016 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

 

NEW YORK — One thing you can say for the title character in “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” (Paramount), the fellow does enjoy a good punch in the face.

Whether giving or receiving the jabs, Tom Cruise — in his second venture as the former Army officer turned freelance detective — is as durable as a cast-iron stove. Read more »

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Good intentions overshadowed by awkwardness in ‘Joneses’

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Catholic News Service

 

NEW YORK — “I am everyday people.” Such was Sly and the Family Stone’s boast in a classic 1968 song, and a similar sentiment pervades the action comedy “Keeping Up With the Joneses” (Fox).

Despite its celebration of the lives of honest, decent, maritally committed suburbanites, however, awkward handling causes both the film’s upright message and its humor to fall flat. What remains are some good intentions and fitful smiles. Read more »

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Autism trivialized in ‘The Accountant’

October 14th, 2016 Posted in Movies Tags: , , ,

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Catholic News Service

In effect, the action-drama “The Accountant” argues that those with autism have a license to kill as well as to abet a litany of other criminal activities.

If this summation makes the movie sound preposterous and morally bankrupt, then so be it. After doing the math, it’s the only deduction one can draw.

Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick star in a scene from the movie "The Accountant."  The Catholic News Service classification is O -- morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick star in a scene from the movie “The Accountant.” The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, an autistic man with a genius for crunching numbers and the ability to dispatch adversaries with brutal precision. Wolff’s story is relayed via a series of flashbacks to his turbulent childhood. In the present day, he runs a one-person accounting firm out of a Chicago-area strip mall. Although he lives modestly and takes great pains not to draw attention to himself, he’s amassed a fortune by working as a forensic accountant for drug cartels, mobsters and various despots around the world.

His mathematical talent is innate, but owing to rigorous training provided by his father, a military officer, he’s become an expert marksman and lethal fighter, skills that come in handy given the nature of his clientele.

In other respects, Wolff presents as a caricature of someone on the autism spectrum. A slave to order and routine, he’s extremely methodical and thorough. Outwardly stolid, he lacks social skills and is unable to make small talk or pick up on non-literal types of communication. His array of adaptive behaviors enables him to cope day-to-day while safely conducting his dangerous business, which amounts to solving complex puzzles for illicit enterprises. Ultimately, he seems to enjoy the work too much.

At the urging of his unidentified handler, Wolff takes on a legitimate customer. At a robotics manufacturing firm, a junior staffer, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), has spotted irregularities in the company’s books and he’s hired to find out where the money has gone.

Meanwhile, Treasury Department official Ray King (J.K. Simmons) assigns a young analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to discover the identity of the mathematical whiz known in criminal circles only as The Accountant. A mysterious hit man called Brax (Jon Bernthal) is also stalking him.

Director Gavin O’Connor’s presentation of the absurdly convoluted plot is uneven and sometimes ham-fisted. While the attempt to find levity in Wolff’s condition is a welcome respite from the grim proceedings, it also feels borderline offensive. Generally wooden acting doesn’t make the movie’s conceit any easier to swallow.

Despite its high, though not graphic, level of violence and a steady flow of bad language, “The Accountant” might be chalked up as a fairly intriguing, imperfectly executed twist on a durable entertainment formula. Preventing that from happening is the fact that the film doubles down on its perverse premise by making an explicit plea for greater sensitivity toward those who aren’t “NT,” neurotypicals.

To argue that the autistic should be considered “different” rather than abnormal or freakish is both plausible and valuable. Yet this message is undercut because Wolff is given a pass morally and is not accountable for his actions. The movie asks the viewer to show understanding toward Wolff, when, ironically, he shows no mercy or empathy toward his many victims. Indeed, there’s scant indication he is able to discern right from wrong. There a several vague mentions of him operating according his own moral code, though it’s difficult to say what that might be.

Surely it’s not the idea that it’s OK to murder and facilitate crime as long as you’re funding research and supporting the humane treatment of the autistic.

Philosophically, the movie highlights the danger of lapsing into relativism when the celebration of “difference” goes too far. Christian Wolff is handicapped in a crucial respect, one that is fundamental to humanity. He is deeply flawed as a moral being and ought to be judged and treated differently than those who experience remorse and, whether or not they are able express it, change their behavior accordingly.

In this regard, “The Accountant” does more than merely trivialize its subject matter. One might say it sets the cause of autism awareness back decades or more to a period comparable to a moral Dark Ages.

The film contains frequent intense gun violence and hand-to-hand combat and much rough, crude and profane language. The Catholic News Service classification is O, morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R.

McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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Tone and tactics undercut good intentions of ‘Voiceless’

October 14th, 2016 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

An overheated tone and characters’ questionable tactics in the struggle against abortion undercut the obviously good intentions behind the pro-life drama “Voiceless.”

Rusty Joiner and Jocelyn Cruz star in a scene from the movie "Voiceless." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults.  (CNS photo/Icon Media Group)

Rusty Joiner and Jocelyn Cruz star in a scene from the movie “Voiceless.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/Icon Media Group)

While it’s clearly meant to serve as a cinematic rallying cry for the protection of the innocent, the film instead runs the risk of reinforcing the stereotype of irate, crusading picketers collaring women in vulnerable situations.

Writer-director Pat Necerato’s protagonist is Jesse Dean (Rusty Joiner), a former Special Forces soldier, “self-taught in theology,” who runs an inner-city Philadelphia church’s outreach center where he teaches boxing. A new arrival in what the movie portrays as a dysfunctional City of Brotherly Love, Jesse is understandably dismayed to find an abortion mill operating across the street.

Previously uninvolved in the political controversy, but with a personal stake in the issue shared by his wife, Julia (Jocelyn Cruz), Jesse works to get his fellow parishioners mobilized to shutter the place.

Pastor Gil (James Russo) is opposed to this type of activism. But Jesse is spurred on by his Scottish-born neighbor, Elsie (Susan Moses). Elsie’s husband helped found the church but she has ceased to worship there because of the proximity of evil across the way.

Angry exchanges ensue. After he learns that a woman who had an abortion at the facility has committed suicide, for instance, Jesse rushes into the building, which has unrealistically ineffective security, heatedly confronting the receptionist at the front desk.

Matters escalate with an incident in which an abortion advocate (John G. Pavelec) turns up with a pistol, threatens everyone, and is killed by the police. Despite the heightened stakes, Jesse perseveres in his efforts, assuring Julia, “This is what God would want.”

Viewers committed to the sanctity of human life will sympathize with Jesse’s frustration and outrage. Yet, just as the movie centering on him seems unlikely to change the minds of the misguided about this sorrowful topic, so, too, his approach to the moral horror of legal killing, while admirable for its fervor and persistence, lacks reflection and prayerfulness.

The film contains a scene of gun violence with slight gore and mature themes. 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 glorious and inspirational ‘Queen of Katwe’

October 11th, 2016 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

The glorious “Queen of Katwe” applies the traditional formula of an uplifting sports drama to the real-life story of a Ugandan chess prodigy.

The film then goes in unexpected directions to expose the scars horrific poverty can leave on the human soul.

Lupita Nyong'o and Madina Nalwanga star in a scene from the movie "Queen of Katwe." The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. (CNS photo/Disney)

Lupita Nyong’o and Madina Nalwanga star in a scene from the movie “Queen of Katwe.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. (CNS photo/Disney)

The principal characters are all presented obliquely as Christian, and Phiona Mutesi’s (Madina Nalwanga) first exposure to chess comes through a sports ministry. But religious faith and practice aren’t really shown here.

The hero is Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary and former soccer player who starts a chess club in an abandoned church in Katwe, a shantytown outside Uganda’s capital city, Kampala.

He turns down an opportunity to pursue a lucrative career in engineering so he can teach the village children a skill that will enable them to expand their minds. “This is a place for fighters,” he tells them.

Phiona is illiterate, since her widowed mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), a vegetable peddler, can’t afford to send her children to school. Her older sister, Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze), has temporarily escaped the shantytown squalor by living with an older man who provides her with money that she passes on to Harriet.

Phiona’s introduction to chess is a simple explanation from another girl who tells her what each piece does, finishing with “They all kill each other.”

Phiona’s an outcast even among other poor children; they’ve decided that she smells bad. She faces further scorn any time she defeats a boy.

In adapting Tim Crothers’ book “The Queen of Katwe,” director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler don’t attempt to explain the vagaries of chess, other than to demonstrate, in one scene, Phiona’s particular talent with three-dimensional thinking. Instead they concentrate on her relationships with the people around her.

The scrappy poor kids of Katwe eventually take on wealthy, educated youngsters at a college tournament, and from there on, Phiona’s exposure to the outside world grows. It’s accompanied by a sudden outbreak of low self-esteem, however, as she realizes that her life has had severely limited possibilities.

From this point on, the story picks up speed as it observes the sports-film formula. Phiona has a major defeat at a Russian tournament, suffers from despair, successfully wrestles with her inner demons and steels herself for future victories.

There’s no condescension to the poverty, which is shown matter-of-factly and without a trace of self-pity. The result is a remarkably inspirational movie about the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

The film contains references to cohabitation. 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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