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‘Beauty (‘must-see film intended for children’) and the Beast’ (‘agenda at odds with Christian values’)

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Catholic News Service

Disney’s live-action adaptation of its beloved 1991 animated film “Beauty and the Beast” arrives in theaters amid controversy over the updating of one of its characters into an openly gay man.

Emma Watson stars in a scene from the movie "Beauty and the Beast." The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. . (CNS photo/Disney)

Emma Watson stars in a scene from the movie “Beauty and the Beast.” The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. . (CNS photo/Disney)

The decision of the studio, director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”), and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos to reimagine LeFou (Josh Gad), sidekick of the villainous Gaston (Luke Evans), as Disney’s so-called “first gay character” is a regrettable one. A cherished family film has, in essence, been appropriated for an underlying agenda that is firmly at odds with Christian values.

Parents will have a hard time explaining to their kids, as most know the cartoon by heart, why LeFou has jumped on the homosexual bandwagon. His amorous advances to Gaston, proud display of a bite mark from Gaston on his stomach (due to “wrestling”), and ultimate dance in the arms of another man will raise eyebrows, to say the least.

Admittedly, many grown moviegoers will take LeFou’s transformation in stride. “Beauty and the Beast,” however, is a must-see film intended for children. Given the clear intent to make a statement with the character in question, the restrictive classification assigned below is a caution for viewers of faith, especially parents.

The pall cast over “Beauty and the Beast” is unfortunate, as the film is largely an imaginative and engaging work with an arresting visual style. An old-fashioned Hollywood musical at heart, it brims with familiar songs by Alan Menken and whirling dance sequences worthy of Busby Berkeley.

Like the cartoon, this film is loosely based on the 1740 fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. The eponymous lovely, Belle (Emma Watson), is a spirited maiden in a French village who longs for excitement.

“I want adventure in the great-wide somewhere,” she warbles. “I want so much more than they’ve got planned!”

Be careful what you wish for, dearie. No sooner does she spurn the advances of the vain hunter Gaston than Belle winds up imprisoned in a haunted castle, having swapped places with her kidnapped father, Maurice (Kevin Kline).

Enter said Beast (Dan Stevens), aka The Prince. We learn in an extended prologue that this handsome royal was transferred into a horned (but infinitely more dapper) version of Chewbacca from the “Star Wars” franchise by Agathe (Hattie Morahan), an enchantress, as punishment for his selfishness.

Agathe’s curse extended to The Prince’s staff, who became not furry creatures but household objects. These exceedingly loquacious items include Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), a stuffy mantel clock; Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), a dancing candelabra; Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), a motherly teapot, and her cup of a son, Chip (Nathan Mack); and musical duo Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), a harspichord, and Garderobe (Audra McDonald), a wardrobe.

Only if Beauty grows to love the Beast will the spell be broken, which seems a very long shot for this odd couple. A courtship ensues, with a lesson on looking beyond outward appearances for true love, until a vengeful Gaston raises an angry mob to kill the Beast, casting doubt on a happy ending.

Even in the absence of the hot-button issue already discussed, young children might be frightened by several dark moments in the movie, including attacks by wolves and Gaston’s violent assault on the Beast’s castle.

The film contains a few scenes of peril and action violence, a benign view of homosexual activity, and some sexual innuendo. 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.

 

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‘Get Out’ — Guess who’s coming to frighten you

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Catholic News Service

Is the thriller “Get Out” as good as all get out? Well, not exactly.

Clever social commentary from writer-director Jordan Peele does add heft to the proceedings. But late scenes featuring some gory encounters, together with swearing throughout, make his film a rugged ride even for grown-ups.

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams star in a scene from the movie "Get Out."  (CNS/Universal)

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams star in a scene from the movie “Get Out.” (CNS/Universal)

In a setup reminiscent of 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” young black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), is about to meet his white live-in girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents — Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford) Armitage — for the first time.

In lieu of the earlier movie’s titular meal, the occasion for Chris’ introduction to the family is to be a weekend visit to the Armitages’tony estate in the country.

While Chris is prepared for the initial awkwardness Missy and Dean display as they go out of their way to show they’re not bigots, less predictable developments leave him increasingly unsettled. There’s Rose’s weirdly aggressive brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), for instance, who seems to be spoiling for a martial-arts smackdown with Chris.

Then, too, there’s the Armitages’ strangely subdued, zombie-like household staff: maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and gardener Walter (Marcus Henderson). In fact, Chris is disturbed by the behavior of pretty much everyone he meets during his stay, on both sides of the racial divide.

As things turn ever more sinister, Peele adeptly uses horror tropes to comment on slavery, racism and liberal pieties. The plot’s denouement, however, comes dipped in a needless amount of blood.

This wrap-up is also clearly designed to incite the audience to cheer as an array of villains meet satisfyingly grisly ends. It’s ironic and unfortunate that a picture aimed at satirizing one negative aspect of human nature should eventually appeal to another.

The film contains some harsh and bloody violence, cohabitation, at least one use 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. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

 

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

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Pointless exercise: ‘A Cure for Wellness’

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Catholic News Service

The Swiss spa that serves as the primary setting for the creepy, but otherwise pointless horror exercise “A Cure for Wellness” operates, it seems, on the Hotel California plan.

Dane DeHaan stars in a scene from the movie "A Cure for Wellness." The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS photo/Fox)

Dane DeHaan stars in a scene from the movie “A Cure for Wellness.” The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. (CNS photo/Fox)

As fans of the Eagles’ 1977 hit will recall, that means, “you can check out anytime you like; but you can never leave.”

The audience may pick up on this unusual policy well before the film’s protagonist, a junior Wall Street business executive the dialogue identifies only by his last name, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), ever does.

Callous young Lockhart has been dispatched to the Alps to convince a higher-ranking colleague called Pembroke (Harry Groener) to break his recently announced resolution to make his stay at the resort permanent. There’s a big merger in the works, and his fellow board members need Pembroke to sign off on it.

Corrupt machinations add urgency to Lockhart’s mission since Pembroke is to be made the fall guy for Lockhart’s own misdeeds in the lead up to the pending deal. Rare is the capitalist who comes off well in a Hollywood movie these days.

Despite the soothing manner of the facility’s director, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), Lockhart eventually discovers that something is profoundly amiss, and his own chances of ever departing the place are remote.

Working from a script by Justin Haythe, director Gore Verbinski effectively conjures up a sinister atmosphere. But the subtlety with which he initially unsettles viewers is lost as he attempts to ratchet up the tension, in part by subjecting Lockhart to the kind of unpleasant hallucinations the Haight-Ashbury set used to term a bad trip.

Some of these delusions take place in a large complex of steam baths where people for whom the virtue of modesty would be a wise choice wander around in the altogether. The resulting imagery is more reminiscent of the work of British painter Lucien Freud than anything Hugh Hefner ever had in mind.

The mildly unnerving gives way to the gothic as a backstory about the evil nobleman who once owned the land on which the spa stands takes on increased significance. From there, the proceedings become downright lurid via plot developments involving Volmer’s daughter, Hannah (Mia Goth).

By this stage, many moviegoers will wonder why they’ve subjected themselves to this ultimately hellish journey in the first place. In fact, as its logically unsatisfying wrap-up approaches, “A Cure for Wellness” hovers on the border of the offensive. In the judgment of some at least, it may cross that line, despite the relatively respectable overall intentions of its creators.

Either way, why be a prisoner of your own device?

The film contains some gory violence, a scene of torture, strong sexual content including a graphic incestuous assault and masturbation, much nudity in a nonsexual context, a couple of uses of profanity, and about a dozen instances each of 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.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

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‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ presents cartoonish nihilism

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Catholic News Service

The stylized, nearly cartoonish nihilism and resulting high body count in “John Wick: Chapter 2” create most of the apparent appeal of this second drama about a professional assassin.

Keanu Reeves stars in a scene from the movie "John Wick: Chapter 2." 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.(CNS photo/Lionsgate)

Keanu Reeves stars in a scene from the movie “John Wick: Chapter 2.” 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.(CNS photo/Lionsgate)

The rest, as directed by Chad Stahelski from Derek Kolstad’s script, consists of small moments — quite small, since there’s nearly no dialogue — of mordant and questionable humor.

Violently pulled out of retirement, Wick (Keanu Reeves) arrives in Rome for an assignment.

“Are you here to see the pope?” a worried-looking Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the Continental Hotel, asks. Assured that’s not the case, Winston tells Wick that he has a room available to use as a base of operations.

The Continental is also the name of a secret international network of assassins of which Wick is the indisputable star, since he’s acrobatic, amazingly versatile and fearless. He also, in this episode, has a bounty on his head, so when he’s not shooting or committing mayhem in a muscle car, he’s being shot at.

The core story has Wick unwillingly drawn into a plot to seize a seat at the High Table, a criminal enterprise. Italian playboy Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) wants the seat held by his fur-adorned sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini). To get it, he orders Wick to treat Gianna with extreme prejudice.

Since a previous life-or-death commitment to Santino leaves Wick with no choice but to accept this mission, he takes to it in the manner of James Bond being equipped by Q. He’ll have to face off against Gianna’s loyal bodyguard, Cassian (Common). And Santino has a large squad of goons who don’t wish to see Wick get away alive.

It’s not a movie that requires concentrated attention. What’s needed instead is a tolerance for — and enjoyment of — elaborately choreographed stunts and chase sequences.

The film contains pervasive action violence with little blood, a suicide and brief full female nudity. 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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‘Gold’ mines mother lode of vulgarity

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Catholic News Service

Little glitters in “Gold.” To put it another way, there’s a sour taste to this loosely fact-based story that a strong performance from Matthew McConaughey in the lead role fails to dispel.

Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramirez star in a scene from the movie "Gold." 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. (CNS photo/Weinstein)

Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramirez star in a scene from the movie “Gold.” 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. (CNS photo/Weinstein)

McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a scrappy prospector in 1980s Reno, Nevada. With the stock of the company he inherited from his father and namesake (Craig T. Nelson) selling for pennies, Wells resolves on a last roll of the dice.

Inspired by a dream, he travels to Indonesia, where he joins forces with sophisticated, but equally down-on-his-luck, geologist Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez). Together, they brave the jungles of Borneo and, after a number of setbacks, including a near-fatal bout of malaria for Wells, claim the largest gold strike of the decade.

But all, of course, is not as it appears. In fact, Wells’ roller-coaster ride of good and bad fortune has only begun.

With his hairline receding and his middle paunchy, Wells, who displays a fondness for hanging out, quite literally, in his tighty whities, embodies the film’s seedy atmosphere. McConaughey endows him with smoldering ambition. Yet, though a striking figure, Wells is not a particularly sympathetic one.

A low moral tone in the boardroom, moreover, is matched by Wells’ ongoing but unhallowed bedroom relationship with his live-in girlfriend, a furniture saleswoman called Kaylene (Bryce Dallas Howard).

She’s meant to be Wells’ ethical compass, warning against the machinations of the numerous Wall Street types, led by the aptly named Bryan Woolf (Corey Stoll), who are just waiting to take advantage of him. Despite her fidelity to Wells, though, neither of them so much as mentions a stroll down the aisle or a visit to the justice of the peace.

Add to those factors the mother lode of vulgarity with which screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman embed their script, and it becomes clear that director Stephen Gaghan’s salute to entrepreneurial grit is unfit for most.

The film contains cohabitation, nongraphic nonmarital sexual activity, rear and partial nudity, frequent use of profanity, pervasive rough and crude language and a couple of obscene gestures. 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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‘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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‘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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Portrait of a crushed soul: ‘Manchester by the Sea’

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Catholic News Service

At the center of filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan’s drama “Manchester by the Sea” lays a crushed soul flawlessly embodied by actor Casey Affleck.

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck star in a scene from the movie "Manchester by the Sea."  (CNS photo/Roadside)

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck star in a scene from the movie “Manchester by the Sea.” (CNS photo/Roadside)

Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, is a janitor in several Boston-area apartment buildings. A terse yet proficient handyman, he has little interest in conversing with tenants or in social interaction of any kind. He seems numbed, almost to the point of appearing robotic. Even when he gets drunk and picks fights with random bar patrons, his belligerence is mechanical. Evidently, something terrible has prompted Lee to wall himself off from the world and other people.

The cause of his suffering isn’t revealed until roughly halfway through this gently paced film, well after Lee is summoned to Manchester, his hometown on the coast of Massachusetts, where his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), the owner of a fishing boat, has succumbed to a heart attack. Joe’s poor health was not a surprise, but Lee is startled to learn his brother has named him the guardian of his 15-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Although Lee’s bond with Joe and Patrick has withstood his absence and the tragedy that precipitated it, he’s reluctant to take responsibility for raising his nephew, not least because he dreads living in Manchester where everybody knows what transpired. Nevertheless, he takes his duty seriously and tries to do right by Patrick, a popular, outgoing teen who plays hockey for his school and lead guitar in a rock ‘n’ roll band, in addition to juggling two girlfriends.

Employing a flashback structure, writer-director Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me”) gradually doles out plot points and relevant information. This narrative technique is extremely effective at triggering wrenching emotional responses; and Lonergan’s screenplay is flecked with dark humor, along with flashes of compassion and understanding. Against a lovely backdrop provided by the Cape Ann region of Massachusetts, a carefully manicured yet naturalistic portrait of a shattered individual emerges.

Lonergan also is able to elicit tremendous performances. As Patrick, Hedges holds his own opposite Affleck, who plumbs Lee’s anguish without being showy or ever appearing to strain. Patrick’s openness and youthful vitality are the perfect counterpoint to his uncle’s hollowness and lethargy. The pathos Michelle Williams brings to the role of Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, puts Lee’s inability to express his feelings in stark relief.

“Manchester by the Sea” is suitable for adult moviegoers, many of whom will be put off by the amount of bad language and the movie’s frank treatment of Patrick’s love life. That said, the tone is never nasty, sordid or depraved.

Lee’s failure to change or grow to an appreciable extent is a more interesting hurdle. Expecting his guardianship of Patrick to be a panacea is unrealistic. But the recognition that Lee ends up only slightly better off then when we first meet him leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste. He remains incapacitated by guilt and an eviscerating sense of loss. When he declares, “I can’t beat it,” you believe him. For now at least, redemption is not in the cards.

This would be easier to accept, and the movie would be less wintry, if Lee took steps to improve his situation by, for instance, confronting his reliance on alcohol or by seeking counseling. There’s something masochistic about how he continues to punish himself for making one, albeit grave, mistake. It means the healing process cannot begin.

The movie’s major aesthetic deficiency parallels this aspect of Lee’s psychology. Rather than create an inspirational metamorphosis for Lee, and thus a more optimistic sense of closure for the audience, Lonergan lets the story peter out and the dramatic urgency wane. As it becomes clear Lee’s struggle to recover is just beginning, the picturesque shots of Manchester’s harbor and environs that Lonergan inserts between scenes strike one as quaint distractions from the profound human issues being raised. Eschewing an implausibly upbeat ending is not the problem. It’s the impression that Lonergan, daunted by the choices facing his characters, has gone into avoidance mode.

The film contains much rough language, some explicit banter, several adolescent sexual encounters, a suicide attempt, fistfights, and a partial glimpse of lower female nudity. 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.

McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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