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Judi Dench reigns over ‘Victoria and Abdul’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Catholic News Service

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

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

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

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

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Catholic News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

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‘Only the Brave’ — Searing look at wildland firefighters

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

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Catholic News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

     

 

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

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

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Catholic News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The film contains a vigilantism theme, gun and physical violence, fleeting gore, implied sexual activity, a few profanities and frequent rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. Motion Picture Association of America rating is R, restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

     

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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

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

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Catholic News Service

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

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‘Battle of the Sexes’ when male chauvinism loses on court

October 3rd, 2017 Posted in Movies, Uncategorized Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

The early 1970s in all its revanchist sexism, double-knit-fabric garishness and choking cigarette smoke is the setting of the coming-of-age story that is “Battle of the Sexes.”

That the coming of age arrives for Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) when, as a 29-year-old champion tennis player, she achieved her greatest fame by defeating 55-year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in the gaudiest, most-hyped tennis exhibition match of all time in Houston’s Astrodome, makes this no less poignant.

This lightly fictionalized version of history is ultimately more about King than the past-his-prime Riggs, but the script by Simon Beaufoy, as directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, takes pains to show each character’s harsh isolation and crippling doubts leading up to the match.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in a scene from the movie “Battle of the Sexes.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. (CNS/Twentieth Century Fox)

King, married to the bland Larry (Austin Stowell), copes with her realization that she’s attracted to hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) despite the scandal and loss of income that would have meant then. Cut off from equal prize money by the all-male gatekeepers of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, she seeks equal pay for women on the small Virginia Slims tour. (A cigarette sponsoring tennis? Welcome to the ’70s!)

Riggs, trapped in a corporate job and a loveless marriage to wealthy socialite Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and unsuccessfully struggling with a gambling addiction, is desperately trying to make himself relevant in a sport in which he’d excelled decades before, but he has to settle for hustler stunts such as filling the tennis court with livestock.

He finally sees a lucrative opportunity, the chronic gambler’s vision of the ultimate payoff, by promoting himself as the ultimate male chauvinist pig who takes on women to “prove” male superiority in tennis and other matters.

Riggs isn’t entirely serious, but most of professional tennis, which has long spurned his clowning, is on his side, and he knows it all makes for good TV.

King’s other major rival is Australian Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), the only player on the women’s tour with a child, and suspicious of King’s sexuality. “That’s what happens on an all-women’s team,” Court tells husband Barry (James Mackay). “Licentiousness, immorality, sin.”

Well, not in this movie, no. Stone makes King both conflicted and a little prim, and Larry, who knows the score and also Billie Jean’s ultimate fixation only on her game, eventually lectures Marilyn with, “I’m her husband and we’re just both a phase.”

Real life is never this neat, of course, but the plot necessarily churns toward the big showdown with all the formula and backstage clichés this requires.

Riggs first takes on Court, and manages to break her confidence as he defeats her before the match with King that drew 90 million TV viewers. King, however, is one tough cookie who polishes her skills while Riggs gulps vitamins and fails to train.

The film contains references to aberrant sexuality and fleeting profanities. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

 Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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‘Birth of the Dragon’ takes the action out of kung fu

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

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Catholic News Service

No one goes to a kung fu movie to savor plot nuances. They’re all about tightly choreographed kicks and punches, and pleasing epigrammatic dialogue about near-monastic discipline and self-control, mixed in with a dusting of Asian spice.

Xia Yu and Philip Ng star in a scene from the movie “Birth of the Dragon.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/BH Tilt)

“Birth of the Dragon” — a fictional retelling of a real confrontation between Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) and Chinese martial-arts master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) in San Francisco in 1964 — hits all these notes, but dully. There’s far more talking than punching, plus a subplot involving Chinese criminals that comes off as stereotyped.

The good intentions and moral core of the film, adapted from an article by Michael Dorgan, are on display, though. Director George Nolfi and screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele show Lee — a future martial-arts legend who died at only 32 in a 1973 accident — as cocky and engaging. He teaches his craft to groups, including white men, with the intention of popularizing it while building his nascent screen career.

Lee wants to make kung fu “bigger than the Hula Hoop,” he claims. “Bigger than Coca-Cola.

Most of the screen time, though, is taken up by Lee’s student, Steve (Billy Magnussen). His earnest goofiness ties all the plot threads together, as when he becomes enamored of shy waitress Xiulan Quan (Qu Jingjing) who’s actually a “possession of Auntie Blossom” (Xing Jin), a crime lord who brought her to America.

There aren’t any opium dens here, mostly there are just scowling gangsters throwing punches and making threats. But viewers get the feeling that such ancient Asiatic canards are never far away.

Wong, older and dignified, arrives from China and takes a job as a dishwasher because he’s undergoing some form of penance. He’s suspicious of Lee’s teaching of Westerners, since he believes that all forms of martial arts address one’s soul, and should not be used to procure fame and wealth.

Eventually, Lee, who admires Wong, challenges him to a fight. Bets go down, there’s a big finish as old school takes on new school, and Lee’s legend, like that of a gunfighter, is born.

The relatively restrained language and low level of mayhem in “Birth of the Dragon” probably make it acceptable for at least some mature adolescents.

The film contains much nonlethal violence 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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‘Logan Lucky’ is a zany heist caper

August 24th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

Director Steven Soderbergh reinvents his “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy with a backwoods twist in “Logan Lucky, ” a zany heist caper.

Adam Driver, Tom Archdeacon and Alex Ross star in a scene from the movie “Logan Lucky.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS /Fingerprint Releasing, Bleecker Street)

Instead of suave leading men like George Clooney and Brad Pitt, who rob casinos with sophistication and flair, Rebecca Blunt’s screenplay presents a band of mismatched misfits from West Virginia who turn to crime in the hope of a better life beyond the trailer park.

The resulting romp is an amusing bit of fluff, a tasty confection that, like cotton candy and other late summer treats, does not linger long in the memory. It’s safest for grownups, but possibly acceptable for mature teens as well.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) has just lost his job as a coal miner. He adores his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), who lives with his mean ex-wife, Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes). With Bobbie Jo planning to relocate out of state, Jimmy is in desperate need of cash to move closer to his daughter.

He concocts a scheme to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway in neighboring North Carolina during a NASCAR race. The racetrack sits atop a series of tunnels which Jimmy helped to excavate, and where he observed the elaborate system of pneumatic tubes that funnels cash from the betting windows and concessions above to the vault below.

A bit too eagerly, Jimmy’s siblings hop on board: his one-armed bartender brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), who makes a mean martini, and his sassy sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), a beautician.

All that’s needed is a demolition expert to blow a hole in the vault. Enter the aptly named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, straying very far indeed from his James Bond persona). There’s one catch: This lunatic is in prison.

No worries: Jimmy and Clyde arrange to spring Joe for the heist and have him back in his cell before the guards miss him.

“Logan Lucky” rolls merrily along, introducing more oddball characters than you can wave a racing flag at, including Joe Bang’s dimwit born-again brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), and a smarmy race-team owner with the brilliant name of Max Chilblain (Seth MacFarlane).

As the climax nears, expect a few curve balls, as well as curvaceous FBI agent Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank). She arrives to investigate the so-called “Hillbilly Heist,” which also goes by the code name “Ocean’s 7-11” (wink, wink).

The film contains drug references and occasional profane and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

 

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

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

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Catholic News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The film contains a brief scene of implied child sexual abuse, physical violence and fleeting profanities and rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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