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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

08/26/2015

No Escape
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — There’s a reason most action films centre on hard-boiled characters who know how to look out for themselves. Ordinary folk — be they accountants, dentists or that emo barista at the local high-end coffee spot who always spells your name wrong — are unlikely to flourish in the usual circumstances confronting a James Bond or a Jason Bourne.

So, while the people behind the gruelling adventure No Escape (Weinstein), led by director and co-writer John Erick Dowdle, can be honoured for trying to stretch genre boundaries by plunking an everyday family down in the midst of violent turmoil, their effort is doomed from the start.

The outcome of their experiment may be strengthened emotional bonds on screen. Yet down in the audience, their tinkering is likely to garner a harvest of winces based on moviegoers’ discomfort at seeing the innocent and the vulnerable suffer.

The endangered clan in question consists of expatriate businessman Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters, Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare). No sooner have the Dwyers arrived in the Thailand-like country where Jack is about to start a new job than a coup breaks out.

Normally, of course, that would be a matter for the locals to sort through, while protected tourists and foreign residents watched from afar. Unfortunately for the Dwyers, this particular uprising is fuelled by murderous anti-American rage, and the hotel where they’re temporarily staying soon becomes a killing ground.

Forced to flee into the teeming, unfamiliar urban landscape beyond the besieged hostelry, the foursome benefits from the help of a British-born chance acquaintance named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan).

A veteran traveller whom the Dwyers first connected during their long flight from the States, Hammond, unlike his newfound friends, knows the lay of the land quite well. Better yet, for reasons that only become fully apparent later, he also boasts a set of well-honed combat abilities.

Dowdle’s script — penned in collaboration with his brother Drew — covers some predictable moral territory. Jack rises to the challenging occasion by resourcefully protecting his spouse and children. Yet he’s troubled by some of the brutal measures to which he’s forced to resort.

Partly, no doubt, to keep the proceedings from becoming too saturated in machismo, Annie turns out to be a doughty warrior herself. And the extreme danger the couple faces only serves to reinforce their slightly frayed marital ties. Thus, during a pause in their fraught odyssey, Annie acknowledges that the rewards of her current family life far outweigh the loss of the more self-centred dreams she cherished in youth.

Yet the unsettling experience of following the Dwyers’ escape effort remains. It’s one thing to watch Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt make his way across the perilous no-man’s-land fringing the Berlin Wall in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.

However, quite different feelings are aroused by the plight of the trapped Dwyers as, with fanatical gunmen slaughtering their fellow guest, they steel themselves to jump from the roof of their hotel to the top of a neighbouring building — or, in the case of the girls, to be thrown across the yawning gap that separates the two structures. The situation is certainly dramatic and potentially tragic. But is it the stuff of adventure?

The political subtext is equally troublesome. Virtually all of the Asians in No Escape come across as inhuman marauding savages. Yet this blatant smear represents an indispensable element of the Dowdles’ flawed premise, which requires the depraved natives to prey relentlessly on their European and American victims.

To paper all this over, the dialogue includes an unconvincing political lecture portraying the whole situation as an unfortunate — but understandable — reaction to the injustices wrought by globalization.

The film contains frequent harsh and sometimes gory violence, emotionally wrenching situations, including a rape scene with partial nudity, a couple of uses of profanity and about a dozen instances each of 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.

 

Shaun the Sheep Movie
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — “Ewe” are bound to have fun watching Shaun the Sheep Movie (Lionsgate), an endearing — and pun-filled — animated feature about the madcap adventures of a woolly English flock.

The inventive, stop-action comedy is created by the master clay-crafters at Aardman Animations. They’ve previously given us the Wallace & Gromit films as well as 2000’s Chicken Run.

Unusually for a full-length title, “Shaun” is dialogue-free. The cuddly sheep baa and bleat; the mindless humans grunt and growl. But no words are spoken.

Remarkably, none is needed for an entertaining movie that, some questionable jokes aside, makes suitable viewing for most of the family.

The eponymous hero (voice of Justin Fletcher) was introduced in the 1995 Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave and went on to star in a British TV series of his own that launched in 2007.

Shaun lives with his fellow livestock on Mossy Bottom Farm, where the daily routine is mind-numbingly dull and monotonous. The owner, known simply as “the Farmer” (voice of John Sparkes), suffers from severe myopia and extreme cluelessness. Nonetheless, he runs a tight ship, with his trusty sheepdog Bitzer (also voiced by Sparkes) by his side.

Even sheep deserve a day off now and then, though. So Shaun plots with his flockmates to go rogue after coaxing the Farmer back to sleep (by counting sheep, of course) in his camper-van bed. Sedation successful, the domesticated lambs go wild, watching TV, eating junk food and playing games.

The rollicking good times come to an end when Bitzer gets wind of the high jinks and attempts to restore order. But in his haste to wake the Farmer, Bitzer inadvertently sets the camper in motion. The vehicle rolls down a hill and onto the main road, headed inexorably toward the far-off Big City.

Aghast at the sudden absence of their source of food and shelter, the occupants of the barnyard must rally round and mount a rescue operation. Shaun and his buddies don disguises as they catch the next bus bound for the urban jungle.

Once there, the real fun begins as the human and sheep worlds collide in such places as “Le Chou Brule,” a stuffy French restaurant whose absurd name means “The Burnt Cabbage.”

Further complicating matters are the Farmer’s amnesia, the result of a blow to the head, and the wicked ways of an animal warden named Trumper (voice of Omid Djalili).

Co-writers and co-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak prove themselves adept at clever Chaplinesque sight gags and routines in what is essentially a silent movie. Still, a few audible pleasures are in store, including a tuneful “baa-bershop” quartet.

The film contains some rude bathroom humour and vague 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.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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Straight Outta Compton
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — The proper limits of free speech and the appropriate use of violence are just two of the topics raised in the striking but gritty dramatization Straight Outta Compton (Universal).

As he recounts the rise and collapse of the gangster rap group N.W.A, beginning in 1986, director F. Gary Gray clearly intends to use the ensemble’s experiences as a vantage point for a larger critique of society as a whole.

While there’s no denying the serious intent behind Gray’s collective biography, the yawning gulf between the materialistic lifestyle the whole genre of hip-hop tends to glamorize and an outlook based on scriptural values is equally indisputable. Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff’s script nibbles at the edges of the art form’s assumptions, but never fundamentally challenges them.

The story focuses primarily on the two members of N.W.A — Ice Cube (played by the rapper’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) — who went on to have headlining solo careers as well as on Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), another founder whose life took a different turn. This trio’s goal, shared with collaborators DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr..) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), is to translate the frustrations of growing up in the Los Angeles-area ghetto of the title into popular protest music.

Aided by seemingly good-hearted manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who successfully markets their sound, the guys parlay their local notoriety into nationwide fame. But controversy dogs them, based largely on the perception that some of their lyrics call for attacks on the police

The nature and legitimacy of N.W.A’s actual stance is open to debate. But there’s no getting around the fact that cops — whether they hail from Southern California or the Midwest — are relentlessly demonized in Straight Outta Compton.

In the current climate of alienation between minority communities and law enforcement, such vilification becomes more than mere evidence of a narrow cinematic perspective. Reinforced by images of the Rodney King beating — and news accounts of the acquittals that followed for the officers involved in it — this unbalanced portrayal skirts the border between radicalism and irresponsibility.

The movie’s outlook on violence in general, at least of the retaliatory sort, is ambiguous at best. Giamatti earnestly counsels Eazy-E to seek only legal means of redress after the singer is assaulted by menacing, semi-psychotic record producer Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) — who in summer 2015 awaits trial on murder charges stemming from an incident that, ironically, took place on the Compton‚ film set.

Yet Heller, the only white character of any significance in Compton,‚ turns out, in the end, to be more of a greedy manipulator than a genuine mentor. And an earlier scene has made giddy fun out of an armed confrontation between the freewheeling womanizers of N.W.A and some rivals for the affections of the ladies they’re currently, er, entertaining in a hotel suite.

In fact, these competitors interrupt an orgy. Not only is this interlude needlessly explicit, it also serves to reinforce the picture’s overall misogyny, under the terms of which women’s body parts are far more prominent than their personalities.

A more critical treatment of the ethically impoverished worldview that permeates the music it celebrates would have made this sometimes flavourful slice of pop culture history endorsable for at least a few mature viewers. And including a line or two of dialogue not weighed down with an obscenity would have helped as well.

The film contains flawed morality, some harsh violence, strong sexual content, including brief but graphic casual activity and full nudity, drug use, several instances 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.


Sinister 2
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The desultory Sinister 2 (Gramercy) presents as good an opportunity as any to reflect on a seldom noted, yet deeply irksome piece of contemporary horror film bric-a-brac: the inevitable cameo by a Catholic priest.

Vicious caricatures of the clergy and sacrilegious portrayals of religious practice have become as commonplace in chiller plots as scream-inducing jump cuts. So the opening visit of this flick’s hero, So & So — and, yes, that really is the name of the formerly minor character played by James Ransone — to a confessional booth suggests we’re off to an ill-starred start.

Although So & So proves an inept penitent, Father Rodriguez (John Beasley) somehow recognizes the ex-deputy as a demon-hunter; perhaps Father has seen the first movie? Rodriguez correctly suspects, moreover, that this spiritual warrior is facing a fresh set of troubles.

“Do you want my professional opinion?” the cleric rumbles. En garde, Catholic viewers!

“You don’t stop evil. You can only protect yourself from it.”

Oh, a platitude. Not so bad.

Rodriguez, it seems, is only there to enunciate the theme in a movie that merely samples religious imagery intermittently. Happily for all concerned, having done so, he doesn’t reappear.

Together with returning screenwriters Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, Ciaran Foy — who replaces Derrickson in the director’s chair — reintroduces the franchise’s bogeyman, a hulking white-faced pagan deity named Bughuul (Nicholas King).

Bughuul likes to lure children into killing their families in elaborately gruesome ways. In the manner of a tiresome tourist of old — circa, say, 1965 — Bughuul also enjoys documenting these deaths with a superannuated home movie camera.

The disturbing twist this time results from the filmmakers’ flawed effort to give Bughuul a quasi-moral justification for his freewheeling slaughter. They do so by hinting that at least some of his victims may have been abusive parents.

Along those lines, would-be furniture restorer Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon) has fled her violent husband Clint (Lea Coco). With her young twins, Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), in tow, Courtney has moved into an abandoned parsonage in rural Indiana.

Naturally, the house has a haunted basement, and the shuttered church on the property — the venue for one of Bughuul’s mass murders a few years earlier — is crawling with the ghosts of children.

These unsuitable playmates try to convince first the sensitive Dylan, and then Zach, to do Bughuul’s bidding. They even show the lads “snuff films” of their own past misdeeds.

And, after all, the script suggests, Clint is somewhat cruel and controlling. Perhaps he has it coming?

The finale involves crucifixion imagery in a cornfield. This has less to do with religious allegory than with the well-established fact that there are only so many ways for a demon to dispose of his victims on a limited budget.

The film contains a vengeance theme, frequent violence, much of it involving children, numerous disturbing images as well as considerable profanity and rough 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.

American Ultra
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — The premise on which the action comedy American Ultra (Lionsgate) rests is a relatively clever one. Yet the film’s potential appeal is overwhelmed by the excessive violence with which this initial scenario is developed.

Director Nima Nourizadeh’s fish-out-of-water story begins by showing us the humdrum life of small-town West Virginia slacker Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg). Though he aspires to become a comic book artist — an ambition in which he’s supported by his stabilizing live-in girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) — Mike currently toils as a convenience store clerk.

Along with sketching in his notebook, Mike devotes a considerable portion of his free time to smoking the pot supplied to him by twitchy local misfit Rose (John Leguizamo). Mike’s leisurely lifestyle is suddenly interrupted, however, when a mysterious stranger (Connie Britton) appears at his workplace and starts spouting what sounds to him like gibberish but is, in reality, a coded warning.

As the audience knows, but Mike has yet to discover, this visitor is a CIA agent named Victoria Lasseter. She’s out to trigger Mike’s suppressed memories of participating, under her direction, in an agency research program designed to turn ordinary citizens who had run afoul of the law in a minor way into highly skilled warriors.

In the aftermath of the project, which failed and was shuttered, Mike’s recollections of the experience were erased. Yet he subconsciously retains the cutting-edge combat abilities he gained from the experiment.

That’s just as well because Victoria’s ruthless bureaucratic rival Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) — the creator of a similar but far more sinister program designed to turn the criminally insane into government fighters — is out to show the superiority of his trainees by siccing them on Mike.

Though it amounts to the single joke on which screenwriter Max Landis wagers his script’s whole fortune, the combination of low-key wonderment and ninja-like dexterity with which Mike reacts to his peculiar circumstances — ably conveyed by Eisenberg — is good for a few laughs. At a deeper level, meanwhile, Mike’s single-hearted devotion to Phoebe, made manifest by his determination to propose to her, does add some positive morality to his situation.

But the gory results of Mike’s campaign of self-defense, during which he deploys everything from the edge of a spoon to an iron-headed club hammer, are far too explicitly portrayed.

They sabotage the light tone as well as the movie’s more serious moments — such as Mike’s briefly sympathetic encounter with one of his pursuers (Walton Goggins). They also turn what might have been an amusingly dizzy outing into a queasy rampage.

The film contains frequent graphic bloodletting, cohabitation, drug use, at least one instance 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.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Ricki and the Flash
By Maria Macina

NEW YORK (CNS) — Not even the storied talent of Meryl Streep can hold together the scattershot elements of the character study Ricki and the Flash (TriStar).

Despite the perennial Oscar nominee’s presence, director Jonathan Demme’s film veers disconcertingly between drama and romantic comedy. It also shifts unconvincingly from a realistic view of moral shortcomings to the illusion of simplistic solutions.

Streep plays Ricki Randazzo, a 60-something failed rock star and current bar-band front woman. Ricki, whose real name is Linda Brummell, long ago abandoned her family to pursue her musical ambitions.

Ricki spends her days working at the check-out register of an organic food mart. Constantly broke, she’s also a commitment-phobe who keeps her very likeable band mate and live-in boyfriend, Greg (Rick Springfield), at arm’s length.

Though she seems content enough with her honky-tonk existence, Ricki is forced to confront the legacy of her own selfishness when her sympathetic ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), summons her beck from L.A. to Indiana to help him cope with a family emergency.

Their daughter, Julie — portrayed by Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer — has been thrown into a downward emotional spiral by the sudden desertion of her hubby, Max (Gabriel Ebert), who has thrown her over for another woman. Along with Julie’s difficulties, Ricki faces the enduring hostility of her two sons, Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate), as well as the no-nonsense truth telling of Pete’s second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald).

While Springfield turns in a strong performance as Ricki’s ethical anchor, Streep feels uncomfortable in the character’s skin and is never really believable as a rocker. Diablo Cody’s disconnected script, moreover, fails to set. Instead, the geographically disparate parts of Ricki’s story feel like two largely unrelated narratives unfolding in a single movie.

The musical performances do serve to advance the plot in a few instances. But they more often come across as extraneous.

The screenplay takes an interesting approach with Ricki, making her a leather-wearing, free-spirited hippie who also holds at least some of the convictions of a conservative Republican. Thus she openly expresses her dislike of President Barack Obama and her admiration for the U.S. military. (Ricki’s brother, we learn, was killed in the Vietnam War.) Ricki also shows her discomfort with Adam’s homosexuality.

What degree of sympathy are we meant to feel for these opinions? As with the treatment of Ricki’s fundamental choice to forsake domestic life in favour of her dreams of musical greatness, the exploration is shallow and the evidence ambiguous.

In dealing with that central topic, Cody is unsparing in her portrayal of the long-lasting damage caused by Ricki’s disappearing act. Yet, not only do Greg’s dogged affections offer her fresh hope, viewers are also left with the distinct — and unsatisfying — impression that all the ruinous destruction Ricki left behind can ultimately be cleaned up with good intentions and a well-chosen song.

The film contains cohabitation, a non-graphic premarital bedroom scene, benignly viewed drug use, mature themes, at least one use of profanity and several crude and crass terms. 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.

Macina is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

Hitman: Agent 47

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Some things, as we know, improve with the passage of time. Alas, film adaptations of the video game series Hitman do not seem to be a case in point.

In 2007, director Xavier Gens’ eponymous big-screen addition to the franchise showcased gory, limb-grinding violence and considerable nudity. While novice helmer Aleksander Bach’s redo, Hitman: Agent 47 (Fox), tones down the sexuality, the level of mayhem remains much the same.

Eight years ago, we steered readers away from the initial version. Our current advice: Rebuff the reboot.

One of the first defects to become apparent, on a purely cinematic level, is the picture’s overly explicated, yet under-accounted-for plot. Perhaps the best way to approach this partly burned, partly runny omelet is to observe that virtually everyone of any significance in the cast is hunting for the same person: to wit, a fugitive biologist called Litvenko (Ciaran Hinds).

Litvenko’s estranged daughter, Katia (Hannah Ware), wants to reconnect with her missing dad for personal reasons. The otherwise unnamed purebred assassin of the title (Rupert Friend), whose genetic engineering was supervised by Litvenko, has a contract to fulfil — and, apparently, no feelings to spare for anyone he might harm while completing it.

Then there’s obviously-not-my-real-name John Smith (Zachary Quinto). Though he starts off by posing as Katia’s self-appointed protector, Smith has reasons of his own for tracking the solitary girl and, through her, Litvenko.

Working away in the shadows, meanwhile, is a reclusive underworld kingpin named Le Clerq (Thomas Kretschmann) who would also like to get his hands on Litvenko.

Some of the dialogue in Skip Woods and Michael Finch’s script feebly defends free will in the face of the immoral manipulation to which Agent 47 and others of his ilk have been subjected. “We determine who we are by what we do,” Katia insists as she works to counter 47’s fatalism.

But philosophy is hardly the point. Eliminating extras is the real agenda, and the means of death range from the familiar, viz., bullets and car crashes, to the gruesomely exotic. Falling squarely into the latter category are the conveniently placed airplane engines that are made to double, courtesy of the special effects department, as human meat grinders.

The film contains pervasive nasty violence with excessive gore, brief partial nudity, a couple of profanities and about a half-dozen uses each of 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.


The Man From UNC.L.E.
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Another cultural landmark of the baby-boomer generation returns to the foreground with the arrival of the breezy espionage yarn The Man From UNC.L.E. (Warner Bros.).

The droll humour that punctuates director and co-writer Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the mid-1960s television series, as well as the James Bond-style glamour that permeates it, will likely please viewers. But they’ll find little of substance to take away with them once the final credits roll.

Still, in collaborating with Lionel Wigram on the script — and in helming the proceedings — Ritchie does keep the violence sufficiently vague to make his film acceptable for a broad adult audience.

Though its action is set at the height of the Cold War in 1963, this origin story’s premise recalls the alignment of forces that prevailed during the Second World War two decades earlier. That’s because the Kennedy-era adversaries of East and West have once again agreed to co-operate, as they had — however uneasily — in the glory days of the big bands.vv

And the motive for their temporarily repaired alliance? Same as it ever was: fighting the Nazis.

Hitler’s leftover minions, and their Mussolini-loving comrades from south of the Alps, are back, it seems, to causing trouble. This time, they’ve managed to spirit away prominent scientist Dr. Udo Teller (Christian Berkel). Teller is the genius behind a revolutionary development in nuclear know-how that, should it fall into the wrong hands, would spell doom alike for D.C. and the Kremlin.

So it’s time to play nice, much to the machismo-driven chagrin of two apparently born enemies: Napoleon Solo of the CIA (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin of the KGB (Armie Hammer). Yet these forced friends turn out to have more in common than they initially realize, since neither serves his government with a truly willing heart.

Suave Solo is an ex-GI who took to plundering art treasures in the waning days of the war. The use the intelligence establishment can make of his underhandedness is the only thing standing between Solo and a long stint in prison.

For rage-prone Kuryakin, it’s the stick — not the carrot — that keeps him working as a spook. His disgraced father, we learn, fell from Stalinist favour, and was carried off to the gulag.

Rounding out the team formed by these unwilling collaborators is Dr. Teller’s estranged daughter, Gaby (Alicia Vikander). Gaby is a skilled auto mechanic whose Solo-aided escape from East Berlin serves as the movie’s opening adventure.

Together this improvised trio tracks the suspicious activities of Alexander Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani), the shady heir to a fascism-tainted Italian industrial fortune, and his scheming, but oh-so-elegant wife, Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki). As Solo and his colleagues shadow the couple, audiences get a taste of “la dolce vita” courtesy of a high-end stay in Rome, a day at the speedster races and a visit to the Vinciguerra’s private island.

Along the way, a substantial, if slightly strange, relationship blossoms between Illya and Gaby. But their more or less respectable tether is ethically offset by Solo’s carefree philandering — though, admittedly, Ritchie deals with his Napoleon’s conquests more by implication than demonstration.

The picture’s underlying anti-war, pro-friendship sentiments are congenial enough. Yet reflective moviegoers will note that they rest, to some extent at least, on an implied moral equivalence between the Soviets and their western foes that’s wholly at variance with the truths of history.

The film contains much violence, including torture, but with little gore, brief gruesome images, off-screen casual encounters, glimpses of partial nudity, some sexual banter and a couple of crude terms. 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.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

The Gift
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The Gift (STX) takes its time unwrapping. What begins as a psychological thriller eventually reveals itself as another entry in the revenge-fantasy genre.

Someone wronged back in high school wreaks elaborate self-styled “justice” on a smugly successful former classmate. So in place of lusty teens and a vaguely sinister summer camp, here we’re dealing with an upscale couple living the American Dream in Southern California.

When one of the victims isn’t peering down a dark hallway, we get occasional discussions about moral behaviour — usually in terms of the distant past.

No one changes his or her point of view. There’s only a growing realization that none of these characters can be taken at face value.

The story includes a few competently delivered seat-jumping shocks, since writer-director Joel Edgerton — who also plays the mysterious retribution-seeker, Gordo — happily embraces some horror cliches in the midst of his understated style.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have moved to the West Coast from Chicago because of Simon’s exciting new job as a corporate security expert. They’re both anxious for a new start.

In Robyn’s case, that means re-launching her freelance interior-design career while recovering from a miscarriage.

Time, Simon insists, heals everything; “It’s really important not to look back.”

Not so fast, Simon. On their first outing to a hardware store, whom should the spouses encounter but the mumbling Gordo — an acquaintance from Simon’s school days.

Socially awkward Gordo has had a rough time of it as an adult. The military didn’t work out for him, and he has a bit of a criminal record.

He’s also generous to a fault, or so it seems. He starts dropping by the couple’s expensive house with gifts, leaving presents at the front door when they’re not home.

He even — cue the spooky music — drops in on Robyn when she’s alone.

Robyn, sensitive and compassionate, doesn’t find Gordo all that annoying, and is initially suspicious of Simon’s damning descriptions of him. She’s briefly on her husband’s side, however, after Gordo invites the duo to dinner at a fancy home that turns out not to be his.

Yet, even as she learns the awful secret of Gordo’s past, Robyn also discovers that her manipulative husband has a dark side of his own.

Since all motivations in this breed of movie tend to be underlined with epigrams, Gordo, who neither forgets nor forgives, admonishes Simon, during a physical confrontation, “You’re done with the past, but the past isn’t done with you.”

The conclusion is marred by several logical flaws as well as by the misogynistic notion that Robyn can somehow be made to represent a sexual “gift” herself.

The film contains a vengeance theme, some physical violence, an implied sexual assault, adult banter, a couple of uses of profanity and frequent 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.

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

Fantastic Four

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — The misfortunes of its principal characters become mildly miserable for the audience of the glum sci-fi adventure Fantastic Four (Fox).

Parents of the teens at whom this origin story, drawn from the Marvel Comics series, is squarely aimed will want to be aware, moreover, of late scenes featuring some harsh bloodletting. These forays into mayhem make the downbeat film doubtful fare even for older adolescents.

In rebooting a chronicle that reaches back, in print, to 1961 — and whose big-screen history includes an unreleased Roger Corman take as well as two features from the mid-2000s — director and co-writer Josh Trank shows subtlety in his treatment of the titular group’s unsought superpowers.

But the script, which Trank penned with Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater, shows no such delicacy as it delivers a ham-handed critique of the military-industrial complex and pushes a naive “science will save us from ourselves” message.

The screenplay’s by-the-numbers promotion of teamwork is little better since it’s transmitted via dialogue so predictable veteran viewers may occasionally be able to mouth the next line in advance.

Through scenes that, at times, resemble an old Archer Daniels Midland commercial, we’re introduced to the work of a quartet of youthful science prodigies whose shared dream is to transport stuff — and, eventually, passengers — to a previously unknown dimension.

Said project has been, at least implicitly, the singular obsession of likeable geek Reed Richards (Miles Teller) since his days as a misunderstood grammar school student. One of the few to appreciate Reed’s genius early on was self-taught engineer Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), a classmate who thus became both Reed’s earliest collaborator and his best friend.

But Reed and Ben, it turns out, weren’t the only ones knocking on the door of alternate reality. Under the auspices of the wealthy Baxter Institute — and under the magisterial supervision of their dad, institute official Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) — unruly rebel Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and his straight-arrow adopted sister, Sue (Kate Mara), have been making their way toward the same threshold.

So too has brooding but gifted bad boy Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). (Note to self: Never get mixed up with folks named von Doom.)

Once all four — Ben falls temporarily by the wayside — gain Baxter backing and begin pooling their efforts, the successful construction of the necessary gadget becomes a foregone conclusion. Less easily foreseen are the consequences of an alcohol-fuelled celebration of their achievement during which the lads decide to make unauthorized use of the device.

Anxious to forestall others who might steal the limelight by becoming the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of their targeted realm, the guys plan a hurried visit to the Other Side, and Reed invites Ben to tag along They’ll stay just long enough to have a look around and plant the U.S. flag.

Surely they won’t be transformed into Super Stretchy Guy, the human equivalent of the burning bush, a hulk made up of boulders and a villain so evil there’s really no labeling him? And there’s no way Sue could find herself turning erratically invisible, is there?

As its travellers across the time-space continuum discover, there is such a thing as outstaying your welcome. Alas, Fantastic Four does just that.

The film contains brief gory violence, glimpses of partial nudity, at least one use of profanity, a handful of crude terms and an obscene gesture. 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.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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