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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

12/31/2014

The Imitation Game
By Kurt Jensen


NEW YORK (CNS) — In the pantheon of dramas about famed mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954), The Imitation Game (Weinstein) is distinctive for its plucky, aphorism-spouting Second World War code-breakers, its chocolate-box Bletchley Park setting and its oblique treatment of sexuality.

Cambridge University-educated Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a protean figure in the development of computers, has a claim on our attention that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates do not. His work in breaking the Enigma code used by the German military indisputably helped to defeat Hitler and shorten history’s most devastating conflict.

Turing also occupies a prominent place in the annals of the legal prosecution of homosexuality. Arrested in 1952 for “gross indecency,” Turing agreed to undergo hormonal treatments that amounted to chemical castration to avoid imprisonment. His death two years later was ruled a suicide.

Turing’s life and work have already sustained two TV movies: Breaking the Code in 1996, based on the eponymous 1986 stage play, and the docudrama Codebreaker in 2011.

Here, director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore jump between scenes of Turing’s boarding school days, during which he developed discreet romantic feelings for fellow student Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon), his heroic wartime service and his trial.

Any story of Turing’s career, from a moral perspective, consists of opening a series of secretive thematic nesting dolls. The making and breaking of codes for both Allied and Axis forces was a secret; so was the knowledge that Enigma had been “solved.” Similarly, on a personal level, Turing’s attraction to his own sex had to be deeply shrouded.

Which secrets are worth keeping? Who gets to be told? How many lives should be put at risk once the code is cracked?

The film’s big lesson is summarized by Turing in conversation with colleague Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley): “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” Thus Turing’s success depended on an odd combination of mathematical brilliance, arrogance and a complete lack of interpersonal skills.

As for his sexual secrets, he masks those, at one stage, by announcing that he and Joan are engaged.
Viewers need not buy into a contemporary agenda contrary to Judaeo-Christian morality to recognize the tragedy resulting from laws that deprived individuals of their freedom based on private, consensual sexual activity.

In scenes predating his legal woes, Turing’s giant, primitive computer — which he names Christopher — spins its wheels slowly while he and his team fight off impatient bureaucrats insistent on pulling the plug. As they do so, much historical nuance is simply pared away to keep the drama afloat.

Though equally unsubtle, a patriotic archival montage at the end of the picture may leave at least some audience members longing to stand up and wave Union Jacks while singing Dame Vera Lynn’s hit There’ll Always Be an England.

The film contains mature themes, including homosexuality, and brief coarse language. 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.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.


The Gambler
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Perhaps intended as a giddy ride through the gritty world of underground betting, The Gambler (Paramount) comes off instead as a bleak drama whose underlying outlook veers between materialistic pessimism and naive romanticism.

Director Rupert Wyatt’s remake of Karel Reisz’s 1974 film focuses on cynical college professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg). When he’s not transforming his English literature class into a whining seminar on the elusiveness of genius — and the pointlessness of trying to work, or even live, without it — Jim occupies himself by indulging his gambling addiction.

Over the course of a single disastrous night, Jim’s fondness for high stakes — which already has him running a large deficit — lands him in staggering debt, partly to underground casino operator Mister Lee (Alvin Ing) and partly to Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams), a surprisingly witty loan shark.

Jim’s compulsion, so we infer, derives at least in part from his wealthy upbringing and from the ease with which his emotionally unsteady mom (Jessica Lange) long ago kicked his pa to the curb. Such ancient family history notwithstanding, Jim puts the squeeze on Mummy, though the resulting respite is short-lived.

A more exacting source of possible relief is to be found in the hefty shape of yet another gangster, Frank (John Goodman). Though he presents himself as even more ruthless than Jim’s current creditors, Frank winds up taking a kindly interest in his potential client — to whom he imparts his philosophy of life in terms entirely unprintable.

Back in his daytime persona, meanwhile, Jim woos uber-gifted Amy (Brie Larson), his most promising student and the bright beacon summoning him to a more straightforward life.

Given privileged Jim’s egotism and irresponsibility — he has, after all, no one to blame but himself for the fix he’s in — it’s difficult to expend much sympathy on him. So it’s a safe bet that those few moviegoers for whom his chancy story makes acceptable viewing will find that their investment in it yields poor returns.

The film contains occasional violence, upper female nudity in a strip club scene, a handful of profanities 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.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
By John Mulderig


NEW YORK (CNS) — With The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Warner Bros.), director Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films based on Catholic writer J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again reaches a rousing finale.

Mixed opinions have been generated by Jackson’s transformation of a single, relatively slim volume into a trio of longish movies. But few will deny that this concluding screen chapter progresses at a steady clip and successfully engages viewers’ interest — even if newcomers to the story are not offered much in the way of explanation or exposition.

On a deeper level, the climactic struggle of Jackson’s wrap-up chronicles between the forces of good and evil, both within and surrounding its characters, offers valuable lessons for those moviegoers mature enough to endure the narrative’s many armed confrontations.

An early example of these frequent clashes pits heroic human warrior Bard (Luke Evans) against the fearsome dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch), the bane of many in Tolkien’s imaginary world of Middle-earth. As those well-versed in their Hobbit lore will know, it was Smaug who long ago exiled the hearty but stubborn Dwarves from their ancestral mountain bastion of Erebor.

After Bard takes advantage of a hidden vulnerability to slay Smaug, accordingly, the Dwarves’ quest to reclaim their fabled citadel — a mission on which they’ve been skillfully aided by the formerly fainthearted Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) — reaches a successful culmination.

But no sooner have the Dwarves recovered their stronghold than the untold wealth stored up there begins to obsess their king, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). It’s a particularly inopportune moment for Thorin to be plagued by the hopeless greed and paranoia that are symptomatic of “dragon sickness,” since a vast army of evil Orcs, led by their odious chief, Azog (Manu Bennett), is on the march against Erebor.

With their natural opponents on the verge of war with each other over Thorin’s refusal to recognize anyone else’s claim — however just — to a portion of Erebor’s treasures, the Orcs’ malignant plan to reestablish the dominance they once exercised over the whole of Middle-earth looks likely to succeed. All the more so once the dire warnings of Bilbo’s wizard mentor, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), appear to fall on grievance-deafened ears.

The script for this combat-heavy parable — on which Jackson collaborated with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro — poises the warping effects of avarice against the redeeming consequences of heroic selflessness. Teens and grown-ups alike will profit from seeing these contrary traits weighed in the balance, even as they enjoy the picturesque adventure that provides the backdrop for such affirmative moral reckoning.

The film contains pervasive, sometimes harsh battle violence with minimal gore and a couple of crass expressions. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Unbroken
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Positive values permeate the inspirational fact-based drama Unbroken (Universal). Despite its admirable qualities, however, the film also represents something of a missed opportunity.

That’s because, in bringing Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling account of one U.S. airman’s experiences during the Second World War to the screen, director Angelina Jolie emphasizes his sufferings at the expense of the remarkable attitude of forgiveness he was eventually able to adopt toward those who had abused him.

The aviator in question is Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell). As early scenes demonstrate, Louie started life as a mischievous, directionless boy (C.J. Valleroy). With the help of his supportive older brother Pete (John D’Leo), though, Louie discovered his talent for running, a gift that propelled him all the way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

As an Air Force bombardier serving in the Pacific Theater, Louie would go on to confront far more formidable challenges than those to be found on the track. Together with his best friend, Capt. Russell “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), and their crewmate tail gunner Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock), Louie survived a crash landing at sea, only to face nearly seven weeks adrift on the open ocean.

Eventually taken prisoner by the Japanese, Louie was singled out for mental and physical mistreatment by Mutsushiro Watanabe (Miyavi), the unbalanced commander of his POW camp. In response, he drew on the same determination that had enabled him to rise to the top as an athlete to endure through a marathon of cruelty.

Working from a script by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, Jolie vividly re-creates the brutality to which Allied captives of the Japanese were all too often subjected. But she relegates her main character’s unusual, if not unique, spiritual achievement in reconciling with his former persecutors to a written epilogue.

Viewers of faith will be all the more disappointed by that decision since the movie’s opening suggests that Louie’s Catholic upbringing was at least the indirect inspiration for this hard-won ethical accomplishment.
Louie later shows ambivalence toward Phil’s uninhibited display of prayerful devotion in the wake of a close call in the air. Yet the screenplay implies that at least a residue of Louie’s religious training remained with him as he faced the soul-testing rigours of his traumatic confinement.

The film contains combat and other violence, including torturous beatings, rear male nudity in a non-sexual context, a couple of uses of profanity and of crude language, a few crass terms as well as a bit of mild sexual humor. 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.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Into the Woods
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Despite its fairy-tale roots, and Christmas Day release date, Into the Woods (Disney) is an inappropriate choice for youthful moviegoers.

Though initially pleasing, this ultimately problematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s long-running 1987 stage musical reflects on its iconic source material in a way that might misguide impressionable viewers.

As scripted by Lapine, the action wittily interweaves a number of classic children’s stories with its main narrative tracing the quest of a village baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) to undo the curse of barrenness placed on his family by a witch (Meryl Streep) whom his father (Simon Russell Beale) long ago wronged.

To break the spell, the childless couple must assemble a series of objects, each of which is connected to a familiar fable.

Thus they cross paths with damsels-in-distress Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and with their respective princely rescuers (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen); with pert Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) as she tangles with the wily Wolf (Johnny Depp); and with a peasant boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) who, much to his short-tempered mother’s (Tracey Ullman) impending chagrin, has a giant beanstalk looming in his future.

All of this transpires whimsically enough at first under Rob Marshall’s direction. In particular, the central duo’s mutual devotion appears exemplary, and bears fruit not only in co-operation but in the pastry chef’s belated recognition of his spouse’s determination and resourcefulness.

But late plot developments lead into brooding reflections on the two-edged legacy of gaining worldly experience: Is it best to stay at home in a safe environment or to venture into the disorienting terra incognita symbolized by the woods, a confusing landscape where the norms of everyday life are set aside?

More disturbingly, the screenplay seems to suggest that those who have been intrepid enough to explore the unknown can jettison objective moral standards in favour of do-it-yourself ethics.

On the surface, this may involve only the rejection of prefabricated criteria, such as those that would inevitably pigeonhole the witch as evil and the more appealing characters as noble and blameless. But a far more sweeping interpretation can reasonably be given to lyrics like these: “You decide what’s right/You decide what’s good ... .”

Into the Woods subverts the conventional idea of a straightforward happy ending, forcing audiences to ponder more convoluted meanings and eventualities. While youngsters would find themselves ill-equipped to engage with such subtleties, at least some older teens may possibly be equal to the task.

The film contains complex moral themes requiring mature discernment, a scene of adulterous kissing, some stylized violence and the mildly abusive treatment of minors. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) -- All creatures great and small, including some long-dead humans, spring to life when the sun goes down in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Fox), the third film in the popular franchise.

The original cast returns for some good-natured and, with one or two exceptions, family-friendly mayhem, directed once again by Shawn Levy, who helmed both Night at the Museum (2006) and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009).

The story line remains essentially the same: Larry (Ben Stiller), a guard at New York's American Museum of Natural History, harnesses the power of an ancient Egyptian tablet, which makes the wax exhibits, stone statues and dinosaur skeletons around him miraculously come alive at nightfall.

But this go-round, there's trouble on Central Park West. The tablet is decaying, and Larry must find a solution or risk losing his museum "family."

It's quite an extended clan: There's President Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams, in his final film role); Egyptian pharaoh Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek); Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher); and Lewis and Clark's Native American guide Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck).

Look sharp or you'll step on miniature stars from two historical dioramas: rootin'-tootin' cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and Roman centurion Octavius (Steve Coogan).

There's even a new caveman in town, a manic Neanderthal named Laaa, also played by Stiller.

Seeking a fix, Larry heads to the retirement home where former museum guards Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Reginald (Bill Cobbs) and Gus (Mickey Rooney, also in his final screen appearance), reside.

As a boy, Cecil was with the joint Anglo-American expedition which unearthed the tomb where the slab, and its secret, lay hidden. Head to London, he tells Larry, and look for an answer in the Egyptian collections of the British Museum.

And so Larry and his rebel teenage son, Nick (Skyler Gisondo), pack up the tablet and a few "family" members and cross the Atlantic.

Needless to say, Larry's talisman casts its spell on the British Museum, where figures ranging from the centaurs on the Elgin Marbles to ferocious three-horned dinosaurs are soon on the rampage. But never fear -- to the rescue rides Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens), legendary knight of the Round Table.

Lancelot is befuddled by these strange visitors but gamely joins the crusade to restore the tablet. The answer lies with Ahkmenrah's father, Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley), pharaoh of the Nile, who -- as a preliminary -- commands all present to, "Kiss my staff!"

If it sounds silly, it is. Despite the seemingly requisite toilet humor provided by a monkey named Crystal, however, and some outsized dino behavior that might intimidate tots, overall, "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb" offers viewers good-natured and amiable fun.

The film contains some intense action sequences, childish scatological humor and mild innuendo. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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