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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews


Bridge of Spies
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Few incidents in the long history of the Cold War were as rich in personal drama as an exchange of prisoners that took place on a Berlin bridge early on the morning of Feb. 10, 1962.

The subjects of the tense swap were a duo of high-profile captives from either side of the Iron Curtain: KGB agent Rudolf Abel and downed U.S. spy plane pilot Gary Francis Powers.

The events that led up to this rare face-to-face engagement between the forces of East and West are skillfully chronicled in director Steven Spielberg’s outstanding thriller Bridge of Spies (Disney). As his film shows, the hard-won bargain underlying the trade was, in large part, the work of a seemingly unlikely broker, New York corporate lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks).

A specialist in insurance cases, with limited experience in the criminal field, Donovan is surprised to learn, as the movie opens in 1957, that the American Bar Association has chosen him to represent Abel (Mark Rylance) following the Brooklyn-based operative’s arrest by the FBI. It’s obviously a thankless task, but at the urging of his senior partner, Thomas Watters (Alan Alda), Donovan reluctantly accepts.

Despite the strong bias of the presiding jurist, Judge Mortimer Byers (Dakin Matthews), and the fears of retaliation expressed by his devoted wife, Mary (Amy Ryan) — concerns that turn out to be well-grounded — Donovan gives the case his all. In fact his doggedness far exceeds the strictly pro-forma defence Watters and the ABA had expected him to provide.

When Abel is nonetheless convicted, Donovan appeals all the way to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, as scenes interspersed with Donovan’s legal manoeuvrings show us, the CIA is busy developing the U2 surveillance plane to photograph Soviet military installations, and training Air Force officers like Powers (Austin Stowell) to pilot the cutting-edge craft.

Thus the stage is set for Donovan’s transition from advocate to negotiator. At the behest of famed CIA director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie), Donovan agrees to serve as the government’s unofficial representative in a secretive effort to reach a deal for Powers’ release.

Screenwriters Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen add suspense to their fact-based story — the basic outcome of which is well-known — by focusing on the fate of American graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). A rather naive youth caught on the wrong side of the newly built Berlin Wall, and conveniently accused of spying by the East Germans, Pryor is anything but a priority as far as the real cloak-and-dagger folks backing Donovan are concerned.

Still, savvy gamesman Donovan is determined to spring Pryor as well as Powers — even if he has to risk walking away with neither of them to accomplish it.

The script maintains a balanced outlook on the ideological struggle, neither sugarcoating American behaviour nor ignoring the brutality of the Communists. Together with the thoroughgoing, understated decency of its main character, this just portrayal of the past makes Spielberg’s predictably well-crafted retrospective a valuable viewing experience.

In fact, the lessons it conveys, and the ethics it upholds may lead many parents to regard Bridge of Spies as acceptable fare for their older teens, despite the potentially problematic material listed below.

The film contains a few uses of profanity, a couple of rough terms and occasional 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.

Crimson Peak
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — With Crimson Peak (Universal), director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro aims for an old-fashioned haunted house entertainment in the Vincent Price vein.

What he winds up delivering instead is a hothouse hybrid of historically naive costume drama, queasy decadence and visceral violence.

His luxurious, though overripe, ghost story — played out against a series of undeniably handsome turn-of-the-20th-century backgrounds — centres on Buffalo, New York, heiress and aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska).

A proto-feminist bluestocking, Edith displays little interest in any affairs of the heart that might transpire beyond the confines of the printed page. Until, that is, titled but impoverished British mine owner Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives in town.

Accompanied by his spooky sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Sir Thomas has come to the new world in search of fresh capital to revive the family business. His prime target in the Queen City is none other than Edith’s loving father, Carter (Jim Beaver), a thriving architect and respected civic leader.

Self-made Carter, however, has no time for the soft-living baronet — either as a business partner or as a potential son-in-law. Could that be the reason Carter quickly meets his doom in what the audience knows to be a spectacularly brutal murder but which the characters around him are content to let pass for a somewhat mysterious accident? Well, in a word, yes.

With dad out of the way, Edith and Sir Thomas promptly wed and, with the ever sinister Lucille still in tow, depart for the grand but dilapidated family seat in the English countryside. There, of course, further eerie doings are bound to be added to the occasional encounters we’ve already witnessed between 10-year-old Edith and her recently deceased, mightily worked up mother (Doug Jones in special-effects drag).

For all of its visual richness, Crimson Peak is fatally flawed on a number of levels. Take, for instance, the chronological ignorance — or indifference — that leads the screenwriters (Matthew Robbins collaborated with del Toro on the script) to portray the waltz as something new and daring to the people of 1901. Napoleon might well have found the waltz novel, Teddy Roosevelt, not so much.

That’s just one of the factors that cause the movie — with its relentlessly off-key human interaction — to come across as more Harlequin Romance than Bronte sisters classic.

Of far greater concern than any literary slide, however, is the decline that sees the gruesome details of Carter’s demise repeated and multiplied. As the action intensifies toward its lurid conclusion, thematic elements also go south, plumbing the depths of repellent depravity.

The film contains excessive gory violence, semi-graphic scenes of perverted sexual activity and marital lovemaking, brief rear nudity, a pornographic image and at least one rough term. 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.

By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — High school football players battle racism on and off the field in Woodlawn (Pure Flix), an entertaining and inspirational film that’s appropriate for most age groups.

Based on the true story of star running back Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), who went on to play for the University of Alabama and the Miami Dolphins, Woodlawn demonstrates to young and old alike that, with God and family on your side, nothing is impossible — including, in this instance, a winning record.

The setting is racially torn 1973 Birmingham, Alabama, a veritable war zone of riots and cross burnings. With the implementation of court-mandated desegregation in public schools, 500 black students arrive by bus to join their 2,000 white peers at Woodlawn High.

Tensions flare, especially on the sports field, where athletically gifted newcomer Tony literally runs away with the ball, earning him the nickname “Touchdown Tony.” This incites jealousy among his white teammates and fellow students.

Supporting Tony are his loving parents, Louise (Sherri Shepherd) and Junior (Lance Nichols). On the sidelines is legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (Jon Voight), who knows a superstar in the making when he sees one.

Woodlawn’s own no-nonsense coach, Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop), just wants to win games. At a loss about how to reconcile his players to the new paradigm of integration, he reluctantly agrees to let a “sports chaplain” address the squad.

Enter Hank (Sean Astin), an outsider with a mission. Fired up after attending a Billy Graham crusade, Hank issues a direct challenge to the players.

“Make a decision to stand up and be forgiven, no matter what you have done,” he exhorts them. “That’s how much God loves you. I’m asking you to choose Jesus.”

Within minutes, a “miracle” happens: Tony and 40 fellow players, black and white, step forward and pledge themselves to the “better way” through living the Gospel message.

As improbable as it sounds, that’s apparently how it unfolded in real life. Change rippled through the school and out into the community and even affected rival teams. It isn’t long before an initially skeptical Coach Gerelds asks to be baptized.

Needless to say, such religious activity does not go down well with the local school board — who are obligated to maintain the constitutional borderline between church and state. Among other things, Coach Gerelds is ordered to stop the communal pregame recitation of the Our Father. But such measures fail to undermine the positive new atmosphere, and Woodlawn rolls on to an unprecedented winning streak.

“Look around us. We’re not alone,” Hank says. “This is what happens when God shows up.”

Brother directors Andrew and Jon Erwin — Jon co-wrote the script with Quinton Peeples — prove skillful at juggling complex football action with quieter moments in church. Although they approach their narrative from an evangelical perspective, their themes of faith, reconciliation and social justice will, of course, resonate with Catholic moviegoers.

The film contains scenes of mild racial violence and aggressive football action. 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.

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — As ideas for Halloween-themed movies go, a big-screen version of the blockbuster children’s book series Goosebumps (Columbia) is better than many. Not only do author R.L. Stine’s numerous volumes have what might conservatively be called a proven commercial track record — 400 million fright fans can’t be wrong — they also trade in the more innocent aspects of the genre.

Thus no oversexed teens were harmed in the making of this movie. No summer campers had their lakeside idylls ruined by a slit throat; nobody had a blood-soaked nightmare on Elm or any other street.

What we’re offered instead is a mildly scary adventure that serves as an overview of Stine’s prolific works, rather than an adaptation of any one of them, and that wittily incorporates the writer himself into the story via an amusingly self-deprecating portrayal by Jack Black.

The plot is built on the conceit that the monsters Stine has created over the past 23 years — a vast menagerie of them by now — are not only vivid but real. Though each is safely confined in the bound and locked manuscript of the tome that contains his story, the danger of any one of them escaping has forced Stine and his teen daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush) to live a reclusive life marked by frequent relocations.

Their latest home base, a small town in Delaware, seems a safe enough refuge until transplanted New Yorker Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) moves in next door. Much against his will, Gotham-loving Zach has been forced to take up residence in the sticks because his mom, Gail (Amy Ryan), has found a job as the assistant principal in the local high school.

Though he expects to be incurably bored in this new setting, Zach quickly finds two consoling diversions. The first is friendship with his awkward but irrepressible classmate, Champ (Ryan Lee). The other is love at first sight with Hannah.

Stine, needless to say, does his petulant best to squelch the young pair’s puppy-style romance. But his aggressive behaviour backfires when Zach jumps to the conclusion that her weird dad is somehow a danger to Hannah, and decides to do a little trespassing to investigate.

In the course of his peaceful home invasion, during which he gets reluctant backup from Champ, Zach inadvertently releases one of Stine’s ghouls. Soon they’re all breaking free and wreaking havoc — with Slappy (voiced by Black), the creepy ventriloquist’s dummy who serves as both Stine’s alter ego and his nemesis, leading their campaign of gore-free destruction.

The remainder of the running time is devoted to the struggles of Stine and his trio of youthful companions to unite their efforts and recapture their malevolent adversaries. Watching them do so will make pleasant viewing for most family members.

Still, director Rob Letterman’s cheerful bit of gothic fluff isn’t for everyone. Small fry may be overly unsettled by the marauding array of creatures — which includes a mummy, a werewolf and others of that ilk.

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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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

99 Homes
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Trenchant, didactic and unflinching, 99 Homes (Broad Green) also is an example of profoundly moral filmmaking.

Director Ramin Bahrani, who co-scripted with Amir Naderi, portrays the Faustian bargain struck between two bit players on the Orlando, Florida, real estate scene as each tries to weather the maelstrom of forces unleashed by the financial crisis that began in 2008.

Bahrani’s scenes of families being forced from their homes — staged with real police officers and residents of New Orleans (where the film was shot) — have a painful documentary reality. He manages to make knocks on the front door sound as terrifying as hostile gunfire.

The story opens with unemployed construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), and young son, Connor (Noah Lomax), being evicted by pitiless broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon).

It’s a humiliating ritual in which the residents, unable to make mortgage payments, are given just a couple of minutes to gather their most essential possessions — after which all their furniture is deposited on the curb.

Many have lawyers, and have gone to court to prevent precisely this outcome. But the legal system is overburdened, the judges lack compassion and the system as a whole is rigged by corrupt political machinations.

To make this explicit, Carver gloats about receiving money from Fannie Mae — as the Federal National Mortgage Association is informally known — to resell foreclosed properties. Sometimes forged documents also are involved.

After moving Lynn and Connor into a motel, Nash is forced to do some quick thinking. So when a confrontation over stolen tools leads to an offer to work for Carver, Nash grabs at it — even if his first task turns out to be shoveling backed-up sewage out of a foreclosed house.

Carver, we learn, needs a new assistant for his soul-corroding work because his last one committed suicide. Nash is soon directing the eviction crew because it turns out that Carver — who is not as one-dimensional as we were initially led to believe — loathes these confrontations, which often require him to carry a handgun.

Still, there’s no doubt of the infernal presence Carver echoes when he growls at Nash, “When you work for me — you’re mine.”

After that, however, Bahrani frequently gives Carver pithy speeches to illustrate that Carver knows that what he’s doing, although legal, is less than ethical.

“You go to church?” he asks Nash. “Only one in a hundred are going to get on the ark, and the other poor souls are going to drown. I’m not going to drown.”

Sometimes his words, meant to sound severe, are merely trite. “America doesn’t bail out the losers,” he lectures Nash. “America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.”

Later, Carver states the obvious: “Who in their right mind wouldn’t rather put people in a home then drag them out of it?”

Nash, who wants to make enough money to get his own dwelling back, works without compunction. In his greed, he even chisels his crew out of their wages. The truth of his downward spiral slowly dawns on Nash as the stakes increase with a multimillion-dollar deal for a bulk buy of distressed properties.

Lynn serves as his moral compass. She’s wary of returning to the house they were evicted from, and reacts in horror when she realizes the means Nash used to purchase a luxurious new replacement for it.

By making both Carver and Nash profoundly human — with all the flaws that condition entails — Bahrani forces his audience to realize the degrading agony that has resulted from the real estate meltdown.

The film contains a scene of suicide 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.

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