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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews


Avengers: Age of Ultron

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — The seemingly ever-expanding media universe centred on Marvel Comics spawns yet another property with the arrival of the so-so sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney).

Occasional flashes of wit relieve the endless succession of explosive special effects in writer-director Joss Whedon’s follow-up to his 2012 adventure The Avengers. But, for a variety of reasons, parents should be at least as wary of this outing as they were of its predecessor.

To his credit, Whedon keeps the mayhem stylized as he reunites the titular team of superheroes to face their latest problem: a supposedly peaceable tech project undertaken by uber-engineer Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), that’s gone horribly awry. The unintended result of Stark’s tinkering is Ultron (voice of James Spader), an artificial intelligence-guided villain who can self-replicate at will.

To defeat this swarming, homegrown foe, Stark’s colleagues — Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — will need to overcome their petty rivalries. All the more so, since Ultron is being aided by superpower-wielding twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff.

This Eastern Europe-bred duo — alternatively dubbed Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch — nurse a long-standing grudge against the film’s ensemble of good guys. Their shared resentment originates in an incident from their childhood that would seem to parallel the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war of the 1990s. What we’re meant to make of this implicit allusion to real-life events, however, remains unclear.

There’s a lot of that sort of ambiguity going around, especially given the muddled approach Whedon’s script takes to its under-realized main theme: the apparent opposition between human freedom and the blessings of tranquility.

His consciousness partly shaped by the darker aspects of his unwitting creator’s cynical worldview, Ultron believes the only solution to humanity’s incurable aggressiveness may be the elimination of the species as a whole. Is this annihilating outlook meant to serve as anything more than a convenient means of raising the stakes in Ultron’s confrontation with the Avengers to a planetary level? It’s hard to judge.

More obvious are the dings in the movie’s moral surface. These include a number of less-than-heroic exclamations and a couple of ill-considered jokes.

The latter defects include a remark about Ultron “multiplying faster than a Catholic rabbit.” While Whedon may be able to claim a vaguely pontifical pedigree for that one-liner, taken together with the other elements listed below, it renders his picture inappropriate for impressionable youngsters.

The film contains pervasive but bloodless violence, brief irreverent and anti-Catholic humour, fleeting sexual banter and some crude and crass 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.

Far from the Madding Crowd
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about romantic entanglements in the English countryside returns to the big screen in Far from the Madding Crowd (Fox).

In this fourth film adaptation of the classic work, director Thomas Vinterberg aims squarely at the Downton Abbey fan base while remaining faithful to his source. A top-rank cast, lush cinematography and high drama — both above and below stairs — combine into a treat that’s suitable for teens as well as grownups.

The setting is England’s bucolic West Country, some 200 miles away from the “madding” — that is, frenzied — population of London. Life may be quieter along the Dorset coast but the living is also hard, as shepherds tend their sheep and farmers hope for a good harvest.

At the heart of the story is Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan). This proto-feminist is spunky and independent-minded. She casts Victorian conventions aside, speaking freely and joining in the farm work on the homestead of the aunt (Tilly Vosburgh) and uncle with whom she lives.

Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a kindly shepherd, admires Bathsheba’s spirit. He impulsively proposes marriage, but she turns him down.

“I’d hate to be someone’s property,” Bathsheba confesses. “I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband.”

Famous last words, of course. But before any further romantic complications set in, Bathsheba’s world is turned upside down by an entirely different kind of development.

Her uncle dies and leaves her his land, along with the family fortune. Suddenly Bathsheba is a powerful woman in a world run by men, but she’s determined to make her own way.

“It is my intention to astonish you all,” the new boss tells her bewildered staff.

As she achieves success, matters of the heart resurface in a big way. Suddenly Bathsheba, who seemed destined for spinsterhood, has not one, but three suitors.

First, Gabriel — who has suffered financial reverses and come down in the world — returns to the scene when Bathsheba hires him to tend her sheep. Gabriel still carries a huge torch for Bathsheba, but now assumes the role of her guardian angel.

Second, there’s William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a “mature” bachelor who owns the neighbouring farm. Prosperous but lonely, Boldwood sees marriage to Bathsheba as his last chance to acquire the wife and family for which he longs.

Last but not least, a cad is thrown into the mix: Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), an army sergeant with a questionable past. Dashing in his red uniform and handy with a sword, he awakens previously unknown feelings in Bathsheba.

Whom — if any — of these candidates will our heroine choose? Suffice it to say, there are many twists and turns in store, with a lesson in true love and commitment thrown in for good measure.

The film contains brief violence, some sensuality and a single disturbing image. 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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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Ex Machina
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The crass misogyny of Ex Machina (Universal) overwhelms any thoughtful considerations it might have to offer on the rapid development of artificial intelligence.

Writer-director Alex Garland apparently presumes that a big naked finale doesn’t count as gratuitous nudity if all the women on display are robots. Exploitation filmmakers of an earlier generation would likely have given that idea an approving nod — followed by a cynical guffaw.

Up to that point, Garland tries to inject some wit into his science fiction scenario, which operates on the time-tested mad scientist formula.

The fevered genius in question is Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a former prodigy who at age 13 wrote the code for an Internet search engine called Bluebook. He now devotes vast sums from the seemingly bottomless wealth that resulted to his remote laboratory.

Nathan benefits from the ongoing aid of his silent servant, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). But when he decides he wants to run an experiment in artificial intelligence, he summons the assistance of Bluebook employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), whom he enthusiastically dubs “the most talented coder in my company.”

Caleb will be overseeing the Turing Test. Named after computer genius Alan Turing, the experiment rests on the theory that if a robot’s conversation can pass for human about 70 per cent of the time, the automaton qualifies as a thinking entity.

Ava the robot (Alicia Vikander) has a Plasticine face, inquiring eyes, blinking lights in her transparent limbs and a level of skepticism that Nathan may or may not have programmed into her. She also boasts a buxom, skimpily clad physique in the style of all fembots.

Caleb and Ava are always separated by a glass wall when they converse, and most of their encounters sound like awkward speed dating. Occasionally she arranges power outages to switch off Nathan’s monitoring so she can tell Caleb what she really thinks — she cogitates and reasons splendidly — of Nathan’s intentions.

Ava also likes to put on a wig and dress up like a “real woman,” an avocation enabled by the supply of cosmetics and chic attire Nathan has thoughtfully assembled.

Although battery-powered, Ava fears for her “life.” She’s only the latest prototype of Nathan’s creations. The earlier ones, stored in closets, have all rebelled at his need for domination. Nathan, so we’re given to understand, is such a genius that his circuitry endows his progeny with the semblance of a mortal soul.

Mad scientists never end well. And Ava, in the manner of all femme fatales, is never quite what she seems. In fact, she’s exceedingly anxious to escape and take on the world — armed with whatever wiles that might require.

The film contains strong sexual content, including numerous images of full nudity, some knife violence, a few uses of profanity and much rough 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.

Marie’s Story
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence.” So wrote Helen Keller (1880-1968), the deaf-blind activist portrayed in the 1962 movie The Miracle Worker.

Keller’s depth of perception and zestful attitude — despite all obstacles — are shared by Marie’s Story (Film Movement), a fictionalized profile of Marie Heurtin (1885-1921), often called the French Helen Keller.

This joyous film stands out among cinematic offerings with not one but two important messages: a demand to respect human life at all stages, and a positive portrayal of women religious.

Born deaf and blind and wholly unable to connect to the world around her, by the age of 14, Marie — played by deaf actress Ariana Rivoire — is a feral creature, prone to wild outbursts.

With nowhere else to turn, her exasperated parents (Gilles Treton and Laure Duthilleul) bring Marie to the Larnay Institute, where an order of sisters runs a school for deaf girls.

The mother superior (Brigitte Catillon) rejects Marie’s application, as the school has never taught a child who is blind as well as deaf. “How would we communicate with her?” she asks.

Marie returns home, but not before making a big impression on one idealistic nun, Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carre).

“Today I met an imprisoned soul, tiny and quite fragile, that I saw shining brightly through her prison bars,” Sister Marguerite writes in her journal. “The girl is locked in a world of darkness and silence. How can we talk to her?”

With all the spunk of Maria in The Sound of Music, Sister Marguerite lobbies the mother superior to give Marie a chance.

What ensues is a master class in unconditional love, patience and perseverance, as teacher and student start to break down the walls of isolation. It’s a slow and frequently violent process that is at times painful to watch, but that nonetheless makes suitable — and impressive — viewing for teens and adults.

Director Jean-Pierre Ameris brings a rare sensitivity and poignancy to his inspirational story. The magnificent setting of the French countryside in full bloom, moreover, complements the tale nicely. The profoundly life-affirming results are not to be missed.

In French. Subtitles.

The film contains some potentially disturbing scenes of a frightened child. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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