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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

11/25/2015

The Good Dinosaur

By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — The Good Dinosaur (Disney), the latest 3D comedy-adventure from the animation wizards at Pixar, can be thought of as a warm and fuzzy cousin to the Jurassic films.

Having conquered the mysterious world of the tween mind in Inside Out, Pixar now turns back the clock 65 million years to explore the (purely imaginary) interaction between dinosaurs and man.

The Flintstones this is not. But despite a few intense action scenes, The Good Dinosaur is wholesome — and often hilarious — entertainment for the entire family.

Director and co-writer Peter Sohn gleefully reworks history by proposing that the asteroid which may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs never happened. Instead, they evolved in an anthropomorphic fashion, talking and acting just like humans.

In this topsy-turvy world, plant-eating dinosaurs farm the land, while carnivores — such as the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex — are cattle ranchers. The real threat is not from fellow dinos or primitive man, but nature itself.

And so we meet an adorable Apatosaurus named Arlo (voice of Raymond Ochoa) and his extended family of farmers: Poppa Henry (voice of Jeffrey Wright), Momma Ida (voice of Frances McDormand) and Arlo’s rambunctious siblings, Buck (voice of Marcus Scribner) and Libby (voice of Maleah Padilla).

Henry inspires his progeny to make their mark through courage and strength. “Earn it by doing something big in life,” he intones.

That’s easier said than done for Arlo. Sensitive and fearful, he struggles to keep up and win his father’s respect.

Tragedy strikes (shades of The Lion King), and Arlo is separated from his family, alone in a strange world. His only companion is a feral Neanderthal boy (voice of Jack Bright), who walks on all fours and howls at the moon.

Arlo fittingly christens his new friend Spot.

And so, this dino “boy” and his “dog” wander the landscape, searching for the way home. Along their path they encounter an array of eccentric characters, including a grizzled T-rex cowboy named Butch (voice of Sam Elliott), who dispenses wisdom around the campfire.

“If you ain’t scared, you ain’t alive,” he says.

There’s a delight in watching The Good Dinosaur seamlessly transition from family tale to buddy movie to rip-roaring western, and then back again. All these genre variations share spectacular backgrounds rendered in photo-realistic fashion.

The real world is scary at times, and the film has its share of intense moments which could give pause to the youngest. No worries for their elders, though: Plucky Arlo inspires as he finds his inner dino and rises to his challenges.

The Good Dinosaur is preceded by Sanjay’s Super Team, a short animated film that is startling (for Hollywood) in its embrace of organized religion. Director Sanjay Patel draws on childhood memories growing up in India in this dialogue-free tale of a boy who comes to respect his father’s devotion to Hinduism.

Jewish and Christian viewers with small ones in tow will appreciate the cartoon’s affirmation of faith via a child’s vivid imagination.

The film contains a few scenes of peril. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I — general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

 

Creed
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — “One step, one punch, one round at a time” is the mantra of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa in Creed (Warner Bros.). This seventh “Rocky” film is an imaginative and — if you can believe it — somewhat gentle reboot of the blockbuster franchise.

The same patient motto sums up director Ryan Coogler’s approach to his task. In the screenplay he co-wrote with Aaron Covington, Coogler is wise enough to touch lightly on all the familiar notes of the 1976 original, thus reminding his audience that he respects the past even as he reinvents for the future.

Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers; the character was killed in the ring in Rocky IV). Adonis is determined to fulfil his destiny as a boxer.

This resolve justifies just enough flashbacks to show that the kid had it tough in foster care and a series of juvenile detention facilities. He uses his fists instinctively. Indeed, even after being rescued from poverty by Creed’s last wife, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), and despite a promising future in finance, Adonis knows he belongs in the ring.

So he abandons weekend bouts in Tijuana and the trappings of luxury in Los Angeles for training in scruffy, cold Philadelphia. His coach, of course, is the legendary former heavyweight champ, now widowed and operating an Italian restaurant.

Adonis doesn’t pummel any slabs of beef in a meat locker, but the regimen is otherwise intact: Rocky has him chasing chickens and performing one-armed pushups. Rocky even repeats the admonishment he long ago received from trainer Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith): “Women weaken legs!”

Along those lines, there’s a supportive and chastely portrayed romance with Adonis’ spunky downstairs neighbour, R&B performer Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is suffering from progressive hearing loss.

The traditional montages of physical exertion and self-realization build up to the climactic bout in which Adonis is pitted against British light-heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), who’s facing a prison term.

Adonis tries at first to conceal his parentage. But the fame that results when the information leaks out, after an early, decisive victory, gives him his shot at the title fight. This enables him to confront both his physical and emotional limits.

The script’s underlying message is that, no matter what the circumstances, the cherished old values of self-sacrifice and discipline can prevail. That outlook may, in the judgment of many parents, extend the movie’s appropriate appeal, making it acceptable fare for mature adolescents.

The film contains bloody physical violence and fleeting rough 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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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

Victor Frankenstein
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Given the number of screen treatments Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus has received over the years, it’s safe to say that Victor Frankenstein (Fox), the latest attempt to adapt her novel for the multiplex, is not the worst.

It’s just as certain, however, that director Paul McGuigan’s horror-flecked drama is nowhere near the top of the list.

So Boris Karloff, the monster in both the fine 1931 take and the even more definitive 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstein, can continue to rest in peace. So too can the director of that outstanding duo of pictures, James Whale.

The gimmick behind McGuigan’s version has to do with the titular mad scientist’s traditional assistant. As pictured by script writer Max Landis, and portrayed with futile dedication by Daniel Radcliffe, this is not your Dad’s Igor.

Afflicted with a deforming malady, Igor is an abused and despised circus performer in Victorian London who harbours secret, self-taught medical knowledge until his kindly future patron (James McAvoy), recognizing his outstanding intellect, rescues him from virtual captivity. This enables Igor to become both Frankenstein’s partner — in a bow to current egalitarianism, a second fiddle no more — and our narrator.

Under his guidance, we watch free thinker (i.e., scoffing atheist) Frankenstein spar with religiously zealous Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) of Scotland Yard. Turpin is determined to thwart the charismatic but overreaching researcher’s revivification schemes.

In between bouts of enthusiastically aiding his mentor and spells of wanting to slow him down, Igor pursues romance with Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), a trapeze artist-turned-socialite he knew — and admired from afar — in his days of misery. Lorelei’s liberator from the big top, we’re told in passing, is a gay blade about town who uses her public companionship to disguise his preference for “the company of men.”

The tension between faith and science is one of the themes halfheartedly pursued amid the film’s steampunk-style spectacle. But the representatives of the two sides in the dialogue’s debate are equally unbalanced — Frankenstein is given to spittle flecked rants, while Protestant Turpin, having no rosary to clutch, nervously swings a cross around on a string — and therefore unconvincing.

Though McAvoy matches Radcliffe’s commitment, the movie winds up feeling as cobbled together, lumbering and directionless as the monster that lurches through its climactic scenes.

Still, the chaos is kept bloodless and the vocabulary, with a single exception, respectable. So parents’ decision as to whether mature teens should become viewers will largely depend on their feelings about an off-screen get-together between Igor and Lorelei for which we’re given a very brief set-up as well as a morning after scene that finds Igor smiling broadly in the manner of a satisfied conquistador.

The film contains considerable stylized violence, an implied, but benignly viewed, premarital encounter, a single crude term, a few mild oaths and a fleeting reference to homosexuality. 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.

 

Secret in Their Eyes
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — In the long lead-up to its twist ending, only allusions to an “open” marriage would really trouble the ethical waters for mature potential viewers of the crime drama “Secret in Their Eyes” (STX).

On the far side of that surprise, however, lurks a sudden shark attack of blatant immorality: a justification of coldblooded killing that renders this film completely unacceptable for viewers of any age.

One of the casualties of this last-minute ambush is a reasonably clever premise pitting national security concerns of the highest order against the pursuit of justice in a case whose outcome, despite the heinous nature of its underlying offence, can affect only a limited circle of individuals.

In the nervous months following the 9/11 attacks, the Los Angeles office of the FBI is straining to prevent a West Coast follow-up to the tragedies that transpired in New York and Washington. One means of doing so is to monitor mosques that intel suggests may be hotbeds of radicalism.

This strategy entails hours of boring hidden-camera surveillance work for fellow agents, and close friends, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Jess (Julia Roberts). The arrival of a new colleague, bigwig prosecutor Claire (Nicole Kidman), provides a pleasant distraction from their drudgery, however: Much to Jess’ amusement, Ray falls instantly for the comely but engaged gal, and does a very poor job of disguising his emotions.

But far darker developments are soon in the offing. A body is discovered in a dumpster next door to the sanctuary Ray and Jess are tracking, and when the duo arrives on the crime scene, Ray is thunderstruck to discover that the raped and murdered victim is none other than Jess’ teen daughter, Carolyn (Zoe Graham).

Ray plunges into a vigorous investigation on behalf of his devastated pal, but soon finds himself stymied. The prime suspect in the case, a regular at the mosque named Marzin (Joe Cole), turns out to be a bureau mole whose identity must be protected at all costs.

The corrupt upshot of this complication proves emotionally wearing for Claire, but takes a far graver toll on Ray. Quitting the FBI, he moves east, but remains obsessed with nailing the untouchable Marzin.

More than a decade after Carolyn’s death, Ray’s relentless pursuit of her killer leads to an apparent breakthrough and to a reunion with his former co-workers. Yet resolution of the wrongdoing — and of his missed romantic opportunities with Claire — remains elusive.

In adapting Argentine author Eduardo Sacheri’s novel “La Pregunta de Sus Ojos,” which previously served as the basis for Juan Jose Campanella’s eponymous and Oscar-winning 2009 film, writer-director Billy Ray shuttles somewhat confusingly between time periods. Yet he evokes a striking performance from Roberts as a grief-emptied, justice-hungry parent.

Roberts’ turn might be credited for raising the movie as a whole out of the realm of the routine. But the revelation of what eventually befalls her is framed in a way that unmistakably invites viewers to approve of actions wholly contrary to scriptural norms.

The film contains warped values concerning justice, the sanctity of human life and marital fidelity, unsettling images of violence with brief gore, a discreetly portrayed act of indecent exposure, several uses of profanity, at least one instance of rough language and occasional crude and crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. 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.

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 (Lionsgate), one of the most successful cinema franchises of recent times reaches a surprisingly glum finale.

Given that the series is founded on the idea of a dystopian society where young people are sacrificed in the gladiatorial tourneys of the title, perhaps the sober tone of this fourth and final chapter in the screen saga is only appropriate. All the more so, since the later stages of the narrative chronicle the bloody effort required to challenge the regime that sponsors these barbaric contests.

Still, while a restrained mood may be fitting, there’s no denying that the film’s grimly realistic, though largely bloodless, portrayal of combat makes the last stretches of its heroine’s long odyssey something of a slog. The wide audience for whom this briefly horror-tinged sci-fi outing is suitable will take their leave of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), accordingly, in a worn-down and meditative frame of mind, rather than with any exuberance.

At once a victor in and subverter of the Hunger Games, former media darling Katniss has become the symbol of the revolution being led by rebel President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and establishment turncoat Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Although this duo wants to use her for strictly symbolic purposes, stubborn Katniss has an agenda of her own.

Without consulting anyone in authority, Katniss has committed herself to the task of assassinating President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), the tyrannical chief of the old order. Along the way to fulfilling this mission, however, she’s distracted by romantic complications left over from the earlier passages of her story.

Fellow Hunger Games veteran Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) has had his love for Katniss infected with hatred against her as a result of being captured, tortured and brainwashed by the enemy. Emotionally broken, he veers between trying to kill his former sweetheart and continuing to carry a torch for her.

Katniss’ childhood friend-turned-steadfast-comrade, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), whose affections have made him Peeta’s long-standing rival, is equally, if less painfully torn. He’d like to take advantage of Peeta’s vulnerability, but finds Katniss too troubled by Peeta’s pathetic fate to give him her wholehearted love.

As director Francis Lawrence wraps up the blockbuster adaptations of novelist Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, his film avoids painting armed conflict with too bright a palette. And the obscenity-free script, penned by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, honourably explores the morality of war and the justice of targeting oppressors.

The dialogue makes incidental references to the suicide pills which are routinely distributed to insurgent soldiers so that, if taken prisoner, they can avoid torments similar to — or perhaps even worse than — those doled out to Peeta. Parents of teen viewers may want to discuss the fact that Catholic teaching forbids resort to such measures, no matter how fearful the ordeal a captive may potentially face.

The film contains much stylized and some harsh violence but with minimal gore, mature themes including war atrocities and suicide, potentially frightening scenes, and an apparently innocent but possibly ambiguous bedroom encounter. 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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The Night Before
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — One of the many running gags in the raunchy stoner comedy The Night Before (Columbia) is that Seth Rogen’s character, Isaac, heads out on an annual Christmas-Eve bender wearing a sweater emblazoned with the Star of David.

The routine culminates at a Midnight Mass Isaac attends in the company of his wife, Betsy (Jillian Bell), and her family.

Noisily paranoid from the concoction of illegal drugs Betsy has supplied to him, Isaac throws up in the middle of the aisle. He then casts a shocked glance at the crucifix above the altar, points to his emblem on his chest and announces to the congregants, “We did not kill Jesus!”

That’s pretty much the savor of this putrid stew. If there’s a theme lurking among its trashy ingredients, it seems to be the conclusion that — along with his two bacchanalia buddies, slacker Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and football star Chris (Anthony Mackie) — man-boy Isaac had better stop clinging to adolescence. Not exactly the deepest, nor the most original, of cinematic insights.

The trio has been observing their traditional spree since 2001, when they first pursued their all-night partying as a way to comfort Ethan after the death of both his parents.

Stuck in a series of humiliating dead-end jobs and having broken up with his girlfriend, Ethan wants to keep the custom going. Isaac, a lawyer who’s about to have his first child, and Chris, who’s enjoying the considerable financial rewards of his gridiron success, aren’t so sure.

But there’s an added impetus this year: Ethan has stolen three tickets to a secretive bash called The Nutcracka Ball. The goal of attending it sets the three on an intoxicated and clunky odyssey through the streets and bars of New York, where everyone is making a lot of noise, yet no one seems particularly joyous.

Director Jonathan Levine, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir and Evan Goldberg, uses a succession of street-side characters, including drunken Santas, to philosophize about the true meaning of Christmas. But it’s heedless hedonism — particularly substance abuse — that really guides this sleigh ride to nowhere.

The film contains blasphemous humor, constant, benignly viewed drug use, full nudity, semi-graphic casual sexual activity 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.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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