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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

Steve Jobs
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — As the lively profile of a wildly successful uber-geek, Steve Jobs (Universal) is likely to appeal to many a youthful tech fan.

Parents should be aware, however, that this is a morally complex life story — the computer pioneer and Apple, Inc. co-founder died in 2011 at 56 — recounted with a vocabulary that’s anything but user-friendly for younger moviegoers.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, creator of TV’s The West Wing, brings his patented cut-and-thrust patter to Jobs’ biography. He structures his story around three landmark product launches: 1984’s unveiling of the original Macintosh, the presentation of the NeXT computer in 1988 and the 1998 introduction of the iMac.

What these public events, and the behind-the-scenes moments surrounding them, reveal — via Michael Fassbender’s nimbly mood-shifting performance — is a volatile and enigmatic genius whose blustering arrogance masked a deep-seated vulnerability.

Adopted as an infant under circumstances that troubled him in adulthood, Jobs has a tense relationship with his born-out-of-wedlock daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss). In fact, so great is his antipathy toward Lisa’s mother, his despised ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), that Jobs publicly denies his paternity while implying that any one of host of men could be Lisa’s actual father.

Although he eventually relents, Lisa — played, at older ages, first by Ripley Sobo then by Perla Haney-Jardine — is left emotionally scarred by her absent father’s attitude.

Jobs’ closest professional relationships are equally fraught. His long-suffering gal Friday, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), has her loyalty, and patience, tested at every turn.

Jobs’ longtime collaborator, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) — a friend since before their legendary days tinkering together in a California garage on what would become the first Apple computer — finds his old partner admirable yet maddening. As for the man Jobs recruited early on to be Apple’s CEO, Wall Street veteran John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his role varies, over time, from patron and father figure to outright adversary.

In short, director Danny Boyle’s engaging character study provides viewers with a balanced portrait of a man who was, at once, a radically deficient parent, an unpredictable business ally and a profoundly gifted designer and retailer. Taken as such, Jobs iconically embodies the extremes of his baby-boomer generation: creative but supremely self-absorbed, relentlessly driven at the office but messy and unsettled in his private life.

Though his underlying qualities eventually win at least partial audience sympathy, experienced discernment is required to work through the morass of contradictions produced by Jobs’ mercurial personality. Particularly with regard to ethical matters, his is a record of behaviour better pondered by the well-grounded than absorbed by the impressionable.

The film contains mature themes, including illegitimacy, a bit of irreverent and sexual humour, about a half-dozen uses of profanity and considerable 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.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

The Last Witch Hunter
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — Trick-or-treaters beware: The Last Witch Hunter (Summit) is on the prowl, ferreting out ghouls and goblins, with a noble priest as an unexpected ally.

This silly film, directed with intense seriousness by Breck Eisner (The Crazies), recycles such well-worn motifs as an immortal yet lonely saviour figure, a secret religious society and a demonic scheme to destroy the world.

Think Game of Thrones crossed with Superman and The Da Vinci Code, and you won’t be far off.

The story begins 800 years ago. It’s a dark time when bad witches have unleashed a plague to destroy humanity. These vile, zombie-like creatures bear no resemblance whatever to the cinematic gold standard of witchiness: green-skinned Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz.

Valiant if scruffy warrior Kaulder (Vin Diesel) has lost both his wife and daughter to the black-magic malady. Consumed with the desire for vengeance, he slays the all-powerful Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht), destroying her minions in the process.

Before she dies, however, the queen curses Kaulder with the gift of eternal life — and never-ending solitude.

Flash forward to modern-day Manhattan, and Kaulder — dashing and dapper in designer suits — works in the shadows, keeping an eye out for rogue spell-casters.

He’s been assisted, for the past eight centuries, by a succession of priest-confessors called the Dolans — no relation, one trusts, to the cardinal-archbishop of New York. These presumably Catholic clerics belong to a secret society called the Axe and Cross, dedicated to maintaining the uneasy peace between humans and witches.

The so-called “36th Dolan” (Michael Caine) has long played the loyal Alfred to Kaulder’s Batman. He has recently announced his retirement, however, and named his successor, Dolan No. 37 (Elijah Wood).

In the manner of all such best-laid plans, this one goes awry when 36 dies unexpectedly from a nasty insect bite. Since this is a trademark means of attack among enchantresses, Kaulder suspects foul play — and a resurrection of the wicked queen.

To find her, Kaulder enlists the help of benign witch Chloe (Rose Leslie), who tends bar at an occult watering hole. In addition to mixing a mean cocktail, Chloe is also a gifted “dreamwalker,” able to send Kaulder into a trance to uncover past memories.

In the end, The Last Witch Hunter teeters on the brink of ridiculousness. Fortunately, good maintains the edge over evil; not so luckily, this suggests a sequel may be on its way.

The film contains fantasy violence, scary images and some 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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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Rock the Kasbah
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The idea behind Rock the Kasbah (Open Road) is that cheerful, wisecracking show-business survival skills can overcome peril in exotic settings.

It’s a cherished old notion. Decades ago, it worked for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their “Road” comedies — films that portrayed any foreign culture the boys happened to pass through as inherently funny.

Such a dubious premise can hardly survive in a modern context. So it’s no surprise that director Barry Levinson’s story about fast-talking, down-on-his-luck music manager Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) — who’s off on the road to Kabul, Afghanistan, and having a wonderful time — reeks of all sorts of unpleasantly outdated thinking.

Screenwriter Mitch Glazer’s script trivializes the violent horror of war, for starters. It also stereotypes devout Muslims as latent murderers. And that’s not to mention the pervasive corruption of Afghan society whereby no one is willing to do the right thing without cynically demanding a percentage of the resulting spoils.

The first two items probably weren’t on Glazer or Levinson’s conscious agenda. But viewers won’t need an excess of political correctness to feel the jarring potholes along this bumpy journey — or to recoil from one-liners that land like dud shells.

Working out of a crummy motel-room office in Van Nuys, California, veteran manager Richie appears to have reached the end of his run, but refuses to admit it. “This is not forever,” he tells one of his clients, lounge singer Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel). “This is right now.”

Opportunity arrives with the offer to Ronnie of a USO tour in Afghanistan. Despite Richie’s assurance that Kabul is “like Aspen, only in wartime,” Ronnie is so horrified at the mere sight of turbaned men that, with the help of mercenary Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis), she quickly bolts from their hotel, taking Richie’s passport and all his money with her for good measure.

Two rogue — and transparently dishonest — arms dealers, Nic (Danny McBride) and Jake (Scott Caan), propose a deal to remedy the situation. They’ll get Richie a temporary passport and considerably more money if he’ll just make a quick weapons run to a warlord’s militia. Naturally this effort, too, goes astray, leaving Richie stranded in the wilderness.

There, on a moonlit night, he hears the pure voice of Salima (Leem Lubany), a teenage Pashtun girl, singing “Trouble” by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam). Surely this is fate?

“Allah gave me this voice,” Salima tells Richie. “It’s a gift,” he agrees. “But I want 20 per cent.”

Richie spends the rest of the film angling to have Salima appear on — and win — “Afghan Star,” the local version of “American Idol.” To do so, he has to tackle her conservative family as well as the cultural taboo against women singing in public.

He’s aided in these efforts by Merci (Kate Hudson), a goodhearted prostitute whose kindly nature doesn’t prevent her from demanding a considerable share of Salima’s winnings for herself.

“We have a saying,” Richie slickly informs a group of Muslim elders. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Equally opaque, it might be pointed out, is the reasoning that led to this comedy’s existence.

The film contains scenes of drug use, verbal and visual references to sexual activity, fleeting profanities and frequent crude and crass 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.

Jem and the Holograms
By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) — Coming across the title Jem and the Holograms (Universal), those unfamiliar with the source material — an animated television series from the 1980s — might assume this is a sci-fi-oriented action-fantasy with a youngish heroine. They would be half right.

Although technology figures prominently and the female protagonist behaves courageously, this live-action picture is actually a coming-of-age musical about a girl band. What empowers the title character is her willingness to express herself creatively and take control of her destiny, not feats of derring-do or the ability to harness gadgets.

Jerrica Benton and her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) are orphans living with their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald, a coming-of-age screen icon from an earlier generation) in a central California town. Bailey also has raised two foster children, Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko). The four girls are talented musicians, adept at vocal harmonization and brimming with style and personality.

One day Jerrica, who’s shy about her abilities, records herself playing the guitar and singing a ballad she’s composed. Using the moniker Jem — the nickname her late father bestowed — she keeps her real identity a secret. When, unbeknown to her, the video is posted on the Internet and goes viral, Jem becomes an instant sensation.

Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), a rapacious and snarky music producer, wants to turn her into a superstar, but Jerrica insists she and her three sisters are a package deal. The four young ladies go to Hollywood where Erica and her male intern, Rio (Ryan Guzman), set about making them into a pop band led by the mysterious Jem, who resembles a cross between Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and David Bowie in his glam-rock days.

Jem brings along her most treasured possession — a pint-sized robot that her father, an inventor, built. This impish machine, called Synergy, provides a direct link to the past and leads the girls on a kind of treasure hunt throughout Los Angeles, where Jerrica and Kimber were born.

Aubrey Peeples exhibits great poise and likability in the title role. She’s intelligent, kind and fetching, plus she has the singing chops and musicianship to give her performance authenticity. It’s easy to believe this Jem could inspire individuals who lack confidence, are isolated or feel marginalized.

Despite being a noticeably low-budget affair, the production does an excellent job of reshaping the material for contemporary audiences. It offers genuine insight into issues fundamental to life in the digital age. Topping the list are the effects, both positive and negative, of social media and the Internet on personal identity.

Director Jon M. Chu and his editing team neatly incorporate numerous video clips submitted by real-life fans of the “Jem” series — snippets of young people making music, dancing or testifying to how much Jem has motivated them.

The rock music composed by Nathan Lanier is pleasant and catchy enough, and most of the lyrics are unobjectionable. Emphasizing the values of loyalty, integrity and freedom of expression, the movie packages a salubrious message in an attractive veneer that should appeal to teens and pre-teens.

To be sure, the operative definition of family is not the traditional one (no mention is ever made of Jerrica and Kimber’s mother). And the movie insists on showing how Jem is a source of inspiration for young male homosexuals. In general, while comparatively tame and never blatantly inappropriate, the tone and subject matter aren’t geared for children. The content advisory below indicates where “Jem” is not at its squeaky-cleanest.

Will “Jem and the Holograms” trend? Will it stand out at the box office and become a sensation in its own right? Unfortunately, in this media environment the odds are stacked against a wholesome entertainment that treats pertinent social issues with style, enthusiasm and sensitivity.

The film contains two instances of crass language, a few borderline profane exclamations, one instance of toilet humour in the form of an emoticon, two kisses between unmarried young adults, one shot of a bare male upper torso, and some mildly suggestive song lyrics. 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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John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — A horror franchise once noted for its restrained use of violence and clever methods of building suspense reaches the point of creative exhaustion with its sixth — and apparently final — chapter, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Paramount).

Though there’s a crass tone to some of the dialogue and the plot eventually incorporates a dodgy Catholic clergyman, audiences are more likely to be bored than offended by director Gregory Plotkin’s dry rehash of the franchise’s familiar elements. The use of the found footage pretense that underlies the series as a whole, for instance, now requires the willing suspension of all common sense.

And then there are the inky apparitions zooming out at viewers in largely pointless 3D. Their obtrusive presence only serves to emphasize the effectiveness of the earlier films’ reliance on unsettling implication — and on observed results lacking apparent causes.

This instalment, which connects back to previous portions of the saga through a variety of tie-ins, introduces us to average Santa Rosa, California, couple Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and Emily (Brit Shaw) Fleege. With Christmas approaching, this unremarkable duo receives a mostly unwelcome visit from Ryan’s smart-alecky brother, Mike (Dan Gill). Though he seems anything but emotionally fragile, Mike is on the rebound, so we’re informed, after being dumped by his girlfriend.

Hippy-dippy Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley) also comes to stay, though her social pedigree — whether friend, relation or New Age spiritual adviser — is never clearly explained. Skyler’s function within the plot, at least, is more obvious: She’s there to be on the receiving end of Mike’s clumsy advances and to lend a yoga-loving perspective to the supernatural events about to unfold.

Those developments swirl around Ryan and Emily’s young daughter, Leila (Ivy George). Leila has suddenly cozied up to a mostly invisible but not-so-imaginary friend named Toby — and he’s coming to take her away, ho, ho!

Clues to Toby’s identity are found among the old videotapes Ryan recently uncovered in a trove of goods he had hitherto inexplicably failed to notice. Said cache also contained an outmoded camcorder capable of documenting strange phenomena invisible to more up-to-date devices.

And the machinery on which to play the VHS tapes? Ryan has just the antique item required — he uses it, he explains, to watch vintage porn movies he swiped from his dad. Though Dad is presumably gone, his lust lives on; how nice.

With dreamy Skyler clearly no match for Toby’s malevolence, rosary-owning Emily calls the local rectory for backup. The church cavalry arrives in the earnest person of Father Todd (Michael Krawic).

A hipster who wears blue jeans along with his clerical shirt, Father Todd wastes no time on caution or consultation before breaking into full-blown exorcist mode. As befits such rashness, he gets a nasty reaction and temporarily skedaddles.

In the choicer entries among this movie’s predecessors, long periods of inactivity observed by unsleeping lenses helped inspire a sense of dread. But that effect has long since disappeared, leaving behind only a tedious residue of artifice and slowly passing time.

Toby or not Toby? We’d advise the latter option.

The film contains occult themes, sometimes harsh but mostly stylized violence with minimal gore, a glimpse of sexual activity, benignly viewed drug use, a few instances 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.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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