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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

Child 44
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The Stalin-era crime drama Child 44 (Summit) is, alas, as murky as Siberian mud. That’s too bad, because the premise of the Tom Rob Smith novel on which the film is based — the first volume in a trilogy of thrillers — is sound.

In the Soviet Union in 1953, a serial killer is stalking young boys. The added twist in what would otherwise be a routine procedural is that such crimes can’t officially exist. In fact, even reporting them goes against the party line because such deaths are viewed as a uniquely capitalist problem.

The relevant Stalinist dictum, repeated several times in the dialogue, is: “There can be no murder in paradise.”

This clash of vile reality with the state-enforced psychological unreality by which it must be ignored has potentially intriguing consequences. Everyone involved creates a web of lies, making for a multilayered plot that, in a better-crafted movie, would provide suspense — and, perhaps, a few moral lessons about life under tyranny as well.

There is at least an effort to provide context. In order for the audience to understand how these characters have been formed by cruelty, we’re given glimpses of Stalin’s manmade famine in the Ukraine of the 1930s. The devastating legacy of the Second World War is also referenced.

None of it works. Director Daniel Espinosa and screenwriter Richard Price get bogged down in details, subplots and stereotyped apparatchiks — so much so that the picture appears not to move at all for the nearly unwatchable first hour of its daunting 137-minute running time.

Tom Hardy is Leo Demidov, a state security officer who was orphaned during the Ukraine disaster, and is now attempting to investigate the murders. His wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace), a teacher, has her own complicated past.

Demidov is exiled from Moscow when he finally makes progress on the case. Even then, however, he can’t let the killings go.

He gets help from sympathetic Gen. Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman), but is constantly harassed by Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), a fellow security officer who wants to keep the crimes concealed.

In a somewhat ironic, not to say Orwellian, development, Child 44 has been banned from theatres in the Russian Federation as well as in other successor states to the Soviet Union. The objection seems to be the negative light in which numerous characters are shown.

Apparently, there were no bad guys in paradise either.

The film contains gun and physical violence, a fleeting scene of semi-graphic sexual activity as well as occasional profanity and rough 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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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

The Age of Adaline
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Glossy proceedings follow on a silly premise in the serviceable romantic drama The Age of Adaline (Lionsgate).

Viewers willing to swallow its whopper of an opening hypothesis will be somewhat rewarded by the movie’s endorsement of long-term loyalty. The pass it gives both to out-of-wedlock sexual behaviour and to the seedy implications of its own late plot developments, on the other hand, tends to spoil the recompense.

All of which moral nuance needs to be seen within the wildly improbable context of the lengthy — and yet, in one important aspect at least, unchanging — life of Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively).

As a 29-year-old widow in 1930s San Francisco, Adaline is involved in an auto accident that causes her temporary death. Yet, due to the unique circumstances surrounding the mishap — rare meteorological conditions, lightning-charged molecules, blah, blah, blah — she emerges from the trauma not only revived, but entirely immune to aging.

Adaline’s sui generis situation would seem, at first blush, to be an enviable one. But the fear of being confined and experimented on by prying government authorities, together with the awkward imbalance her perpetual youth would inevitably introduce into any amorous relationship, puts Adaline on the run — and leaves her more or less isolated — for the next eight decades.

Jump forward four score years, however, and Adaline finds herself reluctantly falling for wealthy Silicon Valley tech whiz Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman). This turn of events delights her now-elderly daughter, Flemming (Ellen Burstyn). But complications from Adaline’s long past threaten her contemporary chance for commitment-based happiness.

The hurdles on her path to bliss arise because of Ellis’ connection to William (Harrison Ford), an old beau of Adaline’s from the Swinging Sixties. The bond between the two men — not to be detailed here for fear of a spoiler — has some distinctly unpleasant undertones. Yet these the script, co-written by J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz, blithely ignores.

Lively’s skillful portrayal of Adaline’s not-quite-resigned state of self-enforced loneliness helps to quell some of the skepticism inescapably inspired by director Lee Toland Krieger’s far-fetched yarn. Yet, while the ethical ins and outs of Adaline’s saga can be difficult to evaluate, given her tale’s vast divergence from real life, it’s a safe bet that her story is not fit fare for the naturally youthful.

The film contains bedroom scenes implying benignly viewed non-marital and premarital relationships, graphic but bloodless crash sequences and at least one instance each of profanity and crude 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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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

True Story
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — Crime and punishment are at the heart of True Story (Fox), a detailed dissection of a real-life murder case.

The grisly undertones of this whodunit — adapted by director and co-writer (with David Kajganich) Rupert Goold from the memoir by Michael Finkel — make it appropriate for mature viewers only. Yet, for those able to endure its seamier aspects, the film provides a cautionary tale about narcissism and the perils of seeking fame and fortune through the misdeeds of others.

In 2002, Christian Longo (James Franco) is arrested in Mexico and charged with the murder of his wife and three small children back in Oregon. When found, Longo is inexplicably impersonating Finkel (Jonah Hill), a former reporter for The New York Times.

Dismissed from the Times the year before for manipulating the details of an article about the African slave trade, Finkel had retreated to Montana with his wife, Jill (Felicity Jones). By the time of Longo’s detention, Finkel is hard up and worried about his future.

Suspecting there’s a juicy story in Longo’s deception, Finkel arranges a meeting with the ex-fugitive. Their unexpected rapport is instant — and mildly creepy.

What ensues is mutual manipulation. Longo, slimy yet charismatic, seeks a sympathetic ear as he insistently asserts his innocence with such preposterous lines as, “Sometimes the truth isn’t believable. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not true.”

Wide-eyed and surprisingly naive, Finkel grows ever more excited at the prospect of writing a best-selling book about the ultimate vindication of a wrongly accused suspect. Jill, however, is increasingly alarmed by her husband’s unaccountable — and potentially damaging — obsession.

Goold is fond of tight closeups and ambiguous expressions which certainly keep the audience guessing as Longo’s trial approaches.

The film contains disturbing images of death and some profane 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.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Little Boy
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Religious values and a gentle sensibility pervade the family-friendly drama Little Boy (Open Road).

Yet, while suitable for a wide audience, director Alejandro Monteverde’s good-hearted, nostalgic parable, set in 1940s coastal California, is not without its occasional aesthetic lapses.

At its best, this tale of an undersized, bullied lad named Pepper (Jakob Salvati) who sets out to prove his faith in God by performing a series of good works is reminiscent of the 1983 holiday-themed classic A Christmas Story.

Whereas the protagonist of that film had no more exalted goal in mind than to receive a B.B. gun as a Christmas present, however, Pepper is angling for a far weightier objective. He’s praying for the divinely guided release of his beloved father, James (Michael Rapaport), a GI taken prisoner by the Japanese.

Early scenes narrated by the adult Pepper (voice of Barry Ford) show us the touching bond between the youthful outcast and his sympathetic, resolutely supportive dad.

Under James’ guidance and inspired by the example of his favourite comic-book and serial movie hero, Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin), diminutive Pepper comes to believe in his own potential. Thus he’s able to give a positive response to his father’s repeated question: “Do you believe we can do this?”

In the wake of James’ emotionally wrenching departure for the war, Pepper’s kindly parish priest, Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), tries to help the seven-year-old recognize the difference between mere wish-fulfilment and trust in God’s providence. He presents Pepper with a list of the corporal works of mercy, and encourages the boy to carry them out as a tangible demonstration of his pious devotion.

Along with the more familiar tasks of feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, Father Oliver also requires Pepper to cleanse his mind of hatred by befriending a fellow outsider, Japanese-American widower Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Since his discharge from a government-run detention camp, Hashimoto has been ostracized by the local community — and threatened by some of its more hotheaded citizens.

Pepper’s older brother London (David Henrie) has been among those targeting Hashimoto. Though Pepper himself gradually overcomes his antipathy toward the reclusive stranger, London shows little inclination to greater tolerance. Their compassionate mother Emma (Emily Watson), by contrast, proves more open-minded.

With its lessons about persistence in belief and the need to overcome prejudice, “Little Boy” will be particularly welcomed by viewers of faith. Even those who appreciate its numerous assets, however, may note moments of forced plotting.

James, for instance, is portrayed as having essentially no choice but to take London’s place in the ranks after the latter, an eager volunteer, turns out to be flat-footed — and therefore medically unfit to serve.

There are also interludes of undeniable sentimentality. Yet this plucky and positive tale, with its affirmative presentation of the priesthood — and of Catholic life in general — makes for winning entertainment that’s well-suited to all but the youngest potential moviegoers.

The film contains scenes of combat with minimal gore and a couple of crass terms. 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.

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