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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

02/11/2015
Whiplash
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Whiplash (Sony Pictures Classics) is to music education what Mommie Dearest is to parenting.

Screen dramas set in the notoriously exacting milieu of the jazz world are exceedingly rare. The morally troubling and illogical Whiplash may make them even scarcer.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle sets out to portray a familiar story about a hard-driving teacher, a willing student and the tough-minded sacrifices necessary for professional success.

Instead, he produces a bizarre amoral fiction in which both emotional and physical abuse appear to be their own reward.

Chazelle depicts human behaviour as a sanity- and rationality-free caricature. Miles Teller plays Andrew, an ambitious drummer at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York. In an undeniably mesmerizing turn, J.K. Simmons is Fletcher, Andrew’s cruel instructor who’s always clad in black.

Since the drummer controls the tempo in jazz, and Andrew wants to play in the school’s elite ensemble, there’s no room for error. Impatient when he’s not being vicious, Fletcher is the demonic embodiment of rampaging perfectionism.

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’ ” he sneers at Andrew.

Fletcher frequently repeats the story of legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who supposedly stepped up his game after Jo Jones, the drummer for Count Basie, hurled a cymbal at his head when his timing was off. (In truth, Jones probably lobbed the cymbal at Parker’s feet.)

Andrew’s rage for musical immortality is so consuming that he gives up a budding romance with girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist). At a family gathering, he announces, “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remember who I was.”

Thus we’re treated to the depressing spectacle of a kid deliberately surrendering his soul.

It’s not unexpected when Fletcher resorts to insults, humiliates all the band members, throws drums against the wall or learns that one of his previous star pupils committed suicide. It’s when he starts slapping Andrew to keep tempo and begins sadistically breaking down his pupil’s psyche that the proceedings really cross the line.

The film contains misguided values, degrading behaviour, pervasive profanities and crass language as well as occasional ethnic and sexual slurs. 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.

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — With the arrival of the genial sequel The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (Paramount), self-proclaimed “nautical nonsense” is once again the order of the day.

As for the suitable audience for this fast-paced exercise in silliness, kindergarten-level potty humour and some mildly frightening plot elements aside, director Paul Tibbitt’s mix of animation and live action adds up to an appropriate outing for all.

Fans of the long-running Nickelodeon TV series SpongeBob SquarePants, on which Tibbitt has worked in various capacities, have had to wait quite a while for their hero’s second cinematic adventure. After all, his big-screen debut, titled — what else? — The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, was released way back in 2004.

As SpongeBob (voice of Tom Kenny) returns to the cineplex, his seabed hometown, Bikini Bottom, is thrown into crisis when the secret formula for Krabby Patties — the signature delicacy of the restaurant at which SpongeBob works as a short-order cook — goes missing.

Not only does this spell potential ruin for SpongeBob’s employer, miserly Mr. Krabs (voice of Clancy Brown), it threatens to tear the whole community to shreds since the absence of their favourite foodstuff promptly reduces Bikini Bottom’s normally tranquil residents to a pack of marauding hooligans.

So, with society falling apart around him, SpongeBob joins forces with an unlikely ally, his boss’ long-standing rival Plankton (voice of Mr. Lawrence), to retrieve the vital recipe. He’s also helped on his quest, with varying degrees of effectiveness, by his two best friends: dimwitted starfish Patrick (voiced by Bill Fagerbakke) and easily alarmed chipmunk Sandy (voice of Carolyn Lawrence).

Since Plankton was, as usual, plotting to steal the list of ingredients at the time of their disappearance, he naturally falls under suspicion. But, in an exemplary display of fairness and truth-telling, SpongeBob, who knows Plankton is innocent of the crime, stands up for the unpopular curmudgeon. Yet doubts remain as to Plankton’s true loyalties.

This gives screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger the chance simultaneously to play with and to promote the commonplace screen message that teamwork is the key to success. Good-hearted SpongeBob preaches the gospel of co-operation unreservedly, but Plankton takes a lot of convincing.

Further obstacles are placed in SpongeBob’s way by luxuriously whiskered pirate Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas), who also serves as the tale’s manipulative narrator. Sometimes inside the story, sometimes working to alter it from the outside to suit his own aims, Burger Beard provides the link between the cartoon world of Bikini Bottom and “real” life.

Religion enters the picture, in a passing way, via Sandy’s panicked avowal that Bikini Bottom’s citizens must appease “the gods” in order to reclaim their meal of choice. It would take considerable interpretive effort, however, to translate her irrational, aimless paganism into even a veiled critique of revelation-based faith.

The film contains occasional menace and a few mildly scatological jokes. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I — general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Jupiter Ascending
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — Heavenly bodies — human and alien — collide in spectacular fashion in Jupiter Ascending (Warner Bros.), a 3D science-fiction romp through the cosmos.

Written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski, creators of The Matrix trilogy, the film is an action-packed, mythology-laden mash-up of several classic fantasy films, most notably The Wizard of Oz.

Instead of Dorothy Gale, we have Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), who leaves her drab Chicago home for a grand galactic adventure, guided by a hunky alien, Caine (Channing Tatum), a human-wolf hybrid with pointy ears.

Jupiter finds herself not in Oz but on distant worlds controlled by the royal House of Abrasax. Following the death of the matriarch, three children vie for control of the entire universe. The ruthless elder son, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), conspires against his sister, Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and playboy brother Titus (Douglas Booth).

In this profoundly non-biblical account, Earth was seeded by the Abrasax eons ago. It now serves as a source of raw material for a magical elixir which keeps the aliens eternally young. In other words, humans are being harvested for food, a la Soylent Green.

“Life is an act of consumption,” cackles Balem.

So where does our heroine fit in? Jupiter, although born of human parents, is somehow the heir to the entire shebang, thanks to some reincarnation mumbo-jumbo.

We discover this early on when Caine’s buddy, an astute beekeeper aptly named Stinger (Sean Bean), sees thousands of bees swarm around the young woman.

“Bees are genetically disposed to recognize royalty,” Stinger notes. “Bees never lie.”

And how. So Jupiter is swept away by Caine and becomes a pawn in the Abrasax power struggle. This damsel in distress has two goals: Save Earth, and return home to her family in Kansas — er — Chicago.

If this all sounds confusing, and more than a little silly, it is, and much of the film is unintentionally hilarious. The Wachowskis may have strong opinions about industrial might, the abuse of power, and the plight of the individual, but these all get lost in the ether.

The film contains intense but bloodless sci-fi action, partial rear nudity, some innuendo and occasional crude and profane 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.

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Seventh Son
By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) — A throwback to Saturday matinee serials and mid-20th-century action-adventure films, Seventh Son (Universal) aims to captivate moviegoers with an accessible tale leavened by fantasy and anchored by imperfect heroes who battle the forces of evil.

Based on The Last Apprentice, Joseph Delaney’s series of young-adult novels, the picture is set in an unspecified place and time, though the overall look is medieval and Eurasian. Combining elements from folk legend, martial-arts flicks, romances and supernatural thrillers, Seventh Son represents a half-baked eclecticism — an unoriginal world in which mortals wielding steel swords are pitted against sorcerers able to morph into ferocious creatures, both familiar (bears and leopards) and exotic (dragons and monsters).

It resembles a milder cousin of the HBO series Game of Thrones, minus the Byzantine plot saturated in politics and perversity. It might also function as a light repast for viewers lamenting the end of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Ring franchises.

While not in the same league as those movies, Seventh Son does have an old-fashioned air of derring-do and chivalry. There’s a low probability it will give offence. And it features quality 3D visuals and stirring, 21st-century special effects that further the story and showcase the natural beauty of the British Columbia scenery.

Russian director Sergei Bodrov is adept at orchestrating thrilling sequences in which live and computer-generated action neatly mesh. The battle scenes are easy to follow and executed with restraint. This facility does not carry over to the Bodrov’s handling of his lead actor, however.

Jeff Bridges’ idiosyncratic turn as Master Gregory, a superannuated yet sneakily agile warrior, is a major distraction. Owing to a peculiar speech pattern, he sounds as if he’s impaired by an ill-fitting dental prosthesis or mouthful of pebbles. Factoring in Bridge’s laid-back aura, it feels as though Bridges’ celebrated character, the Dude from The Big Lebowski, has been teleported into this action-fantasy milieu. (Both characters have a fondness for alcohol.) Still, Seventh Son is not the type of film that’s easily ruined by a performance.

Gregory is the sole remaining member of the Falcon Knights, an order of men — each the seventh son of the seventh son — dedicated to stamping out a demonic cadre of supernatural assassins led by Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore). At the outset, Gregory is seen imprisoning Malkin in a remote cavern. Eventually she escapes thanks to a lunar phenomenon called the Blood Moon. Returning to the mountaintop aerie from which she commands witches, warlocks, monsters and other creatures of the dark, she plans her revenge.

When she kills Gregory’s apprentice Bradley (Kit Harrington), he must find another protege, also a seventh son of a seventh son. In short order he locates Tom Ward (Ben Barnes) tending pigs on his family’s farm. Possessing special powers and guided by visions, young Tom is destined to learn from Gregory and vanquish Malkin and her minions.

Malkin sends her niece Alice (Alicia Vikander) to spy on Tom and they fall in love. Secrets are revealed, including one about Tom’s mother (Olivia Williams), and after some internecine intrigue and several violent clashes, the stage is set for a sequel.

Although couched in pagan symbols and magic, the movie’s worldview does not appear to be in direct conflict with Christianity. The idea that the division between good and evil is not clear-cut — championed by the younger generation who resist the knee-jerk hostility between mortals and supernatural beings — is more palatable than the notion that Malkin and her fallen followers behave maliciously primarily because they’ve been persecuted as outsiders.

Tom and Alice’s romance has a sensual dimension — they kiss a number of times — but greater emphasis is placed on their feelings and intellectual compatibility than on their physical attraction. While too scary for children, the material is not morally objectionable.

The film contains frequent strong yet blood-free fantasy violence, much frightening imagery involving monsters and demonic creatures, several uses of crass language, and one instance of toilet humour. 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.

McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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