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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — Hollywood offers a belated Christmas gift in Paddington (TWC-Dimension), a delightful, warmhearted comedy for the entire family.

The screen adventures of the talking bear (voice of Ben Whishaw) from “darkest Peru,” who travels to Britain in search of a new home, are based on the celebrated series of children’s books by Michael Bond.

Writer-director Paul King deftly balances manic comedy with genuine affection for his source material in a story that reinforces a timeless message about being kind to strangers. His film, which mixes animation and live action, contains a few scary moments as it barrels along, but nothing too upsetting for even the youngest viewers.

We first meet our initially nameless hero, an orphan, in the Peruvian jungle where he lives with his Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (voice of Michael Gambon). Their unusual fondness for all things British (inspired by a passing explorer) includes an addiction to orange marmalade.

When an earthquake destroys his home, the young cub is encouraged to seek a new life in London. Before he leaves, Lucy puts a label around his neck: “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”

Arriving at the Victorian train station from which he eventually takes his name, Paddington meets the Brown family: Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and Mary (Sally Hawkins) and their two children, Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin). Mary takes pity on the refugee and insists he come home with them, despite Henry’s objections.

Paddington’s adjustment to life in a townhouse is rocky, to say the least, and includes several gross-out moments that will delight kiddies. Still, with his signature red hat and blue duffel coat, the bear wins the hearts of the “curious tribe” that is his newfound clan.

But danger lurks around the corner in the guise of Millicent (Nicole Kidman), a sadistic museum taxidermist who thinks Paddington would make a fine addition to her collection. “Families stick together,” Henry proclaims, as the Browns rally to protect their furry friend.

The film contains some mildly scary action sequences, brief innuendo and a few instances of bathroom humour. 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.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

American Sniper
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — For those seeking an insight into an individual veteran’s perspective on the Iraq War, director Clint Eastwood’s sober drama American Sniper (Warner Bros.) — which stars Bradley Cooper as real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle — will likely hit home.

Yet moviegoers in search of a bigger-picture moral assessment of that conflict, or of armed clashes in general, may come away disappointed.

Drawing on Kyle’s 2012 memoir (written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall trace the expert sharpshooter’s rise to celebrity status among his comrades. They also track his emergence as a prime target for enemy insurgents who eventually put a price on the Texas native’s head.

Determined to safeguard his fellow fighters — who dub him “the Legend” in recognition of his life-preserving prowess — Kyle insists on returning to combat through four gruelling tours of duty. But his exposure to the moral and emotional pressures of urban warfare predictably exacts a psychological toll and places a strain on his relationship with his loving wife, Taya (Sienna Miller).

Scenes set during Kyle’s childhood show his forceful dad instilling the belief that people can be divided into three basic categories: predatory wolves, vulnerable sheep and protective sheepdogs. From the adult Kyle’s point of view, it’s enough to know that there are villains on the loose in Iraq — and innocent victims potentially at their mercy — for his chivalrous course of conduct as an aspiring member of the third grouping to become apparent.

While Eastwood successfully conveys Kyle’s personal heroism, his film avoids engaging the larger issue of whether the geopolitical cause to which Kyle repeatedly and resolutely lent his skills was an ethically valid one. In purely cinematic terms, moreover, the picture alternates between effectively displaying the consequences of Kyle’s scaring battlefield experiences and weakly relying on dialogue that can only hint at these same wounding repercussions.

Taken on its own terms and considered as a whole, however, Eastwood’s movie reliably escorts viewers through both the agonizing instantaneous dilemmas and the longer-term complexities that confronted the courageous warrior on whom its action centres.

The film contains stylized violence with some gore, a scene of torture, a premarital situation, some sexual humour and references, several uses of profanity and constant rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. 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.

The Wedding Ringer
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Moviegoers should avoid putting themselves through The Wedding Ringer (Screen Gems). Under co-writer Jeremy Garelick’s direction, what could have been a touching comedy bogs down instead in juvenile nastiness.

Likeable nebbish Doug Harris’ (Josh Gad) betrothal to girl-beyond-his dreams — at least where looks are concerned — Gretchen Palmer (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) presents the otherwise delighted husband-to-be with a serious difficulty: Lacking any close friends, he has no one to stand by him at the altar.

So, on the advice of extravagantly effeminate wedding planner Edmundo (Ignacio Serricchio), Doug seeks out the services of best-man-for-hire Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart). For a price, Jimmy agrees to supply not only his own presence for the big day, but that of a hastily assembled — and thoroughly motley — crew of fake groomsmen.

Despite Jimmy’s rule that his relationships with clients must remain strictly professional — he’s only posing as their bosom buddy — the script, on which Garelick collaborated with Jay Lavender, sketchily traces his burgeoning affinity with Doug. Like Doug, Jimmy is an unwilling loner whose work dominates his life.

The screenplay also scores a few points off the kind of run-amok romanticism that leads brides like Gretchen to obsess over wedding details instead of concentrating on the solidity of the marriage to follow. In her case, it turns out, the forthcoming nuptials are based on the shakiest of foundations — with both future spouses acting out of shallow motives.

The potentially enjoyable proceedings first go seriously awry when Doug informs Jimmy that the nonexistent closest pal he’s going to be impersonating has been described to Gretchen as a Catholic military chaplain.

This revelation opens the way for dialogue highlighting Jimmy’s frustration with such a role — meaningless hookups with bridesmaids normally being one of the perks of his job. It also leads into supposedly humorous swipes at the clergy sex abuse scandal.

By the time Jimmy and Doug cement their bond amid a wild bachelor party, good taste has been left so far behind that Garelick and Lavender actually try to garner giggles by involving a dog in a sex act. The on-screen observers of this very public interaction — during which, unbeknownst to a blindfolded and bound Doug, Fido changes places with a prostitute — find it hilarious. We’re clearly meant to agree.

A glimpse into Edmundo’s private life, which shows his light-in-the-loafers persona — but not his orientation — to be entirely an act, is obviously intended as a jab at the stereotyping of gay men. Yet the sequence goes on, paradoxically, to mainstream homosexual unions by showing them to be as miserably quarrelsome as other marriages.

The film contains anti-Catholic and irreverent humour, strong sexual content, including depraved activity with partial frontal nudity, about a dozen uses of profanity and pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. 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.

Inherent Vice
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The meandering plot of Inherent Vice (Warner Bros.) is perhaps better appreciated in the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel on which the film is based.

On screen, however, its “nothing is as it seems” ambiance has all the charm of a bad sunburn.

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation emphasizes the narrative’s amorality and makes it all appear vaguely smutty rather than intriguing. When not aimlessly getting high, characters are being killed or else indulging in joyless sexual encounters.

What emerges is a series of scenery-chewing roles that were presumably fun to write and enjoyable for the actors to play. Private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), for example, stumbles perpetually through a fog of marijuana in 1970 Southern California.

The script’s many political references swirl around police contempt of hippies in the wake of Charles Manson’s murderous rampage, President Richard Nixon, a conservative group calling itself “Vigilant California” — as well as a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories.

Sportello gets a series of visits from women asking for help. Ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) wants assistance with powerful developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) wants Sportello to find her husband, Coy (Owen Wilson).

Tough-talking police detective Christian Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) ought to be summing up the various conspiracies. But underneath his bluster, he’s as confused as everyone else.

Sportello is occasionally told to beware of the Golden Fang. What’s that? There are many proposed interpretations, explained at great length. It’s all supposed to be surreal fun. It’s surreal, all right.

The screenplay includes a riff on part of a line from Pynchon’s text: “As long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel would always be assured a bottomless pool of new customers.” Escaping life with this movie turns out not the best use of anyone’s time.

The film contains frequent drug use, strong sexual content, including scenes of aberrant behaviour and much crass banter, as well as pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) — In the rapidly expanding, increasingly menacing world of cybercrime, hackers bent on fomenting chaos are known as blackhats.

Beyond demonstrating their own skills, their primary goal tends to be sowing disruption rather than, say, triggering a financial windfall or highlighting a particular cause or ideology.

Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), the protagonist of the topical thriller “Blackhat” (Universal), is one such coder. His ability to discern the motivations of the anonymous hacker who functions as the movie’s villain — and who would be dubbed the “black hat” in a traditional Western — is the key to the plot and to Hathaway’s truncated journey toward redemption.

Bona fide heroes are hard to come by in director Michael Mann’s films. He has built his career on creating stylish, moody crime portraits in which precious little separates the good guys from the bad.

Mann frequently evokes a shaded moral atmosphere using arresting lighting and a rich palette.

Nothing is purely white or black. Because his aesthetic suits this picture’s subject matter, themes and Pacific Rim locations, there’s good reason to expect an original movie, or at least one that makes computing and engaging in digital terrorism seem like innately dynamic activities.

“Blackhat” does not disappoint insofar as it has visual energy — a look and flow that are simultaneously kinetic and lyrical — underscored by eerily pulsating electronic music. Yet in the end it’s a standard action picture that glorifies physical aggression and unintentionally proves that hacking is far from a novel or elevated form of criminality.

The good news is that the movie is free of grossly offensive elements. By not including disturbing images of gore, streams of vulgar language or scenes of low carnality, Mann and company tweak the current action formula to a small but welcome degree.

“Blackhat” opens with a lethal cyberattack on a Chinese nuclear power plant. When the United States warily agrees to assist in the investigation, China’s leading computer forensics expert, Capt. Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), insists on consulting Hathaway, his friend and former roommate at MIT.

Hathaway, who is serving time in federal prison, wrote the original malware used in the attack. He signs on to help track the perpetrator on condition that his own sentence will be commuted if his efforts succeed.

Chen’s sister, Lien (Tang Wei), a comely network engineer, joins the team of cybersleuths, as does FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) and the U.S. Marshal assigned to keep tabs on Hathaway.

After their quarry hacks into the commodities markets to manipulate the price of soy, they travel to Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Jakarta.

The programr’s thuggish accomplice Kassar (Ritchie Coster) inflicts significant damage at various points. And a romance between Lien and Hathaway quickly flowers.

Putting his hacker instincts to positive use, Hathaway exhibits many noble qualities. His virtuousness has its limits, however, since he ultimately engages in vengeful violence.

Strapping Australian actor Hemsworth (of the superhero franchises “Thor” and “The Avengers”) acquits himself fairly well, though permanently deleting the stereotypical image of computer whizzes as scrawny and cerebral proves, as it were, a herculean task. Squinting to signal intense cogitation or furiously pecking on terminal keyboards during eureka moments certainly won’t suffice.

In Hemsworth’s defence, screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl provides minimal dialogue and exposition. On a granular level, the script has an elliptical quality, whereas the broad strokes make sense — though only until the storyline short circuits three-quarters of the way through, which might explain the subsequent reliance on violent action cliches.

Along with their decision not to weigh “Blackhat” down with objectionable material, Mann and his collaborators also deserve credit for assuming moviegoers are intelligent enough not to need everything spelled out for them. Nevertheless, style and restraint can only mask a fundamental lack of substance for so long.

The film contains considerable, moderately graphic, action violence, a mostly implied premarital sexual relationship and some crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops