NEW YORK (CNS) — With Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney), the most popular series in film history resurfaces after a 10-year hiatus.
This is the seventh instalment in the franchise as well as the first feature in a planned third trilogy. Like its predecessors, it’s essentially a family-friendly piece of entertainment, with only interludes of peril and combat barring endorsement for all.
At the controls is J.J. Abrams, creator of the television show Lost and the man who rejuvenated another iconic science-fiction franchise via 2009’s Star Trek. Hiring Abrams was a smart decision, not least because the savvy director — who also co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt — could bring a steady hand to the project and allow producer George Lucas to concentrate on selling Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Co.
Few risks were taken, particularly on the technical side. The visuals aren’t novel or awe-inspiring, but they’re sufficiently well-crafted to transport viewers where they need to go.
The primary objective seems to have been to safely pass a beloved and lucrative property from one generation to the next. This applies to the behind-the-scenes talents (as mentioned above), the fan base and the cast of characters. Abundant humour and the introduction of a pair of compelling new heroes, both portrayed with irrepressible vitality, are the keys to a successful hand-off.
Thanks to an accessible plot, Star Wars neophytes, if they exist, won’t find themselves adrift in a forbiddingly alien galaxy, however far away. And there’s enough complexity and allusive layering to satisfy those fully immersed in the saga.
The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after Episode VI, Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last warrior battling on behalf of the chivalrous Jedi Order, has exiled himself.
His twin sister Leia (Carrie Fisher), the general leading the Jedi-friendly Resistance (successor to the Rebel Alliance), wants to find him. So, too, does the First Order, an army in the service of the Dark Side. Masterminded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), this fascistic sect is bent on killing Luke and forestalling a Jedi uprising.
Leia sends her best fighter pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to the barren planet Jakku to retrieve information on Luke’s whereabouts. When Poe and his droid BB-8 separate during a skirmish, the spheroidal machine meets a young female scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley), and a disaffected First Order Stormtrooper called Finn (John Boyega).
With the First Order mounting another attack, Rey, Finn and BB-8 commandeer a familiar looking, rusted-out freighter lying in a desert junkyard. Since this turns out to be the Millennium Falcon, it’s not long before that vessel’s famed commander, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and his furry co-pilot, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), appear. (Droids C-3PO and R2-D2 make brief appearances later.)
The good guys’ principal antagonist is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a descendant of arch-villain Darth Vader and a disciple of Snoke’s who’s so torn between the upright and evil sides of the conflict that he has terrible anger issues. More ominously, First Order has a new, highly destructive weapon that makes the Death Star of earlier chapters look like a child’s toy.
The action builds to a gripping lightsaber duel in a snowy forest that ends all too quickly. Abrams never dawdles, which, as a rule, is a virtue. Yet, because he’s not a great visual stylist, his staging and framing often lack artistic flair.
This makes viewers long for Abrams to linger over sequences that do have more panache. His focus, however, is on lucidity and character development. When it comes to the movie’s look, he sticks to the Star Wars template. On balance, that’s a more than acceptable trade-off.
If there are moments you suspect you might be watching the cast-reunion special of an old TV show — John Williams’ majestic music counters that feeling to a degree — it’s largely attributable to how stiff and weather-beaten Ford and Fisher appear.
That’s not ageism. It’s a criticism of the pair’s acting and, more positively, a result of the contrast between their turns and the fresh, energized performances delivered by Ridley and Boyega. The senior duo can’t help seeming superannuated in comparison.
It’s doubtful that a movie has ever been more widely or intensely anticipated. Fuelled by marketing ploys, a publicity avalanche and a glut of merchandise, this frenzy can obscure some of the things that have made Star Wars such a cherished and enduring cultural hallmark.
They include: entertaining story lines about the perennial struggle between good and evil; lovable heroes and hiss-worthy villains, both drawn with mythic characteristics; an integrated science-fiction vision; riveting chases, battles and action set-pieces; and the celebration of classic values such as courage, honour, and fealty.
Early on, Ray and Finn buck themselves up by repeating the same line, “I can do this. I can do this.” Perhaps an awareness of the utility of self-confidence and the necessity of trying your hardest are the best takeaways from The Force Awakens. By displaying these qualities themselves, director Abrams and his team get the job done — and then some.
The film contains much stylized fantasy violence. 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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John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
NEW YORK (CNS) — Not, perhaps, since Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has the humble kitchen mop featured so prominently in a movie as it does in Joy (Fox).
That’s because this blend of comedy and drama is loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, inventor of the self-wringing Miracle Mop — and a home-shopping network sensation.
Writer-director David O. Russell reunites the casts of his two previous films, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, in weaving yet another madcap tale about a dysfunctional family hoping to hit the big time.
Unfortunately, that mop, made from a continuous loop of 300 feet of super-absorbent cotton, turns out to be far more interesting than the gaggle of human characters surrounding it. They’re too self-obsessed for their own good — or the audience’s.
Jennifer Lawrence plays the divorced mother of two who struggles mightily to keep a roof over the heads of four generations of her extended clan.
Tony (Edgar Ramirez), her ex-husband, lives in the basement. A lounge singer, he dreams of becoming “the next Tom Jones.”
Joy’s agoraphobic mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), is addicted to television soap operas. Her grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), is a dotty if reassuring presence.
And then there’s dear old dad, Rudy (Robert De Niro). A mechanic and tinkerer, he has always encouraged Joy’s creative streak, even after splitting from Terry. But, as a father, he’s an emotional train wreck with a succession of girlfriends.
His latest paramour, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), is a wealthy widow and shrewd businesswoman. When she invites Rudy’s clan for an outing on her sailboat, Trudy unwittingly sets Joy’s creative juices flowing.
Wine glasses tumble to the deck, and Joy dutifully attends to the mess. As she squeezes the mop head, however, her hands are sliced open by shards of glass.
From pain comes gain. The self-wringing mop is born!
Joy barrels along at a manic pace as our heroine’s idea, bankrolled by Trudy, goes from crayon drawings to patents and manufacture. Ultimately, Joy lands a segment on QVC, the fledgling cable channel run by visionary executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper).
He takes a shine to the spirited inventor, who represents a reality check compared to his other brassy hosts (including the late Joan Rivers, portrayed by her real-life daughter, Melissa).
“In America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary every day,” Neil tells Joy. Within minutes, 50,000 Miracle Mops are sold, and a star is born.
But success is bittersweet, and in the end there is little cause for rejoicing in Joy. Dogged perseverance requires major sacrifices, and family ties prove a lot harder to hold together than the strands of a mop head.
The film contains domestic discord, mature themes 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.
NEW YORK (CNS) — Neither the National Football League nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation comes off particularly well in the fact-based drama Concussion (Columbia).
But the film’s central figure, the Nigerian-born coroner Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), certainly does.
Given that Omalu’s generally admirable character is portrayed as being shaped, more than anything else, by his devout Catholic faith, believing moviegoers will find much to enjoy in this uplifting profile.
Omalu gained fame — and initially stirred controversy — as a result of his discovery that repeated jolts to the brain, such as those sustained on the gridiron, can cause a degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The then Pittsburgh-based pathologist, an expert in neurological forensics, came to this conclusion after studying the body of Steelers’ Hall of Fame centre Mike Webster (David Morse).
Webster had suffered a mysterious mental and emotional decline before his untimely death of a heart attack at age 50. As Concussion shows us, a number of the League’s other veterans found themselves caught in a similar downward spiral. For some, the disintegration ended in suicide.
Together with his celebrated and supportive boss, Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu publishes his findings. They win him the backing of the Steelers’ former team physician, Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin). But they also draw fierce opposition from the NFL whose in-house medical staff — led by the team doctor of the New York Jets, Elliot Pellman (Paul Reiser) — schemes to vilify the outsider and discredit his research.
The perils of taking on an institution that, as Wecht puts it, “owns a day of the week, the same day the church used to own,” are amply illustrated. As depicted here, they culminate in Wecht’s arrest by the FBI on charges that were ultimately dismissed — and that the screenplay clearly implies were trumped up in the first place.
Since Wecht’s indictment could compromise Omalu’s employment situation, and therefore his immigration status, things begin to look grim for the avidly patriotic would-be American. He finds a source of moral support, however, in the person of fellow immigrant Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
At the urging of his priest, solitary Omalu has given this newcomer — a Kenyan native — shelter as a boarder in his apartment. As the clergyman no doubt foresaw, she enlivens Omalu’s moribund social life; as he may not have expected, she also wins Omalu’s heart.
Earnest and idealistic, but leavened with humour, writer-director Peter Landesman’s picture — adapted from the 2009 GQ magazine article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas — has strong appeal for grown viewers.
Recommendation for a younger audience is hindered, however, by some salty language in the script. Although not excessive, these wayward words serve to reinforce the idea that patrons would do well to approach Concussion armed with a sound helmet of maturity.
The film contains gory medical images, a premarital situation, about a half-dozen uses of profanity, a couple of rough terms and occasional 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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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.
NEW YORK (CNS) — The run-up to the financial crisis that began in 2007 provides the backdrop for director and co-writer Adam McKay’s ensemble dramatization The Big Short (Paramount).
Based on the real events recounted in Michael Lewis’ 2010 book of the same name — subtitled Inside the Doomsday Machine — the film tells the story of a handful of disparate individuals who, unlike the vast majority of analysts, managed to foresee the coming collapse of America’s housing market.
Even as it merrily berates the greed and folly its heroes alone seemed able or willing to recognize at the time, McKay’s script, written with Charles Randolph, carefully reminds moviegoers of the human cost resulting from such widespread corruption. Some brushes with the seamy side of life and persistent machismo-driven swearing, however, may limit the film’s appeal — even among grownups.
At the centre of the action stand two equally eccentric figures: socially awkward physician-turned-brilliant-money manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and cynical, ill-tempered fund administrator Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Unlike virtually everyone else on Wall Street, Burry methodically examines the actual numbers behind the mortgage boom and discovers that the housing industry had become a house of cards.
Learning of Burry’s findings, fast-talking banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) pitches them to Baum, who does some research of his own before reaching the same conclusion.
When small-scale investment partners Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) independently run across the pessimistic information Burry has uncovered, they too want to capitalize on it. But to do so, they’ll need to enlist the help of a friend: retired Wall Street powerhouse Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). A rat-race dropout with apocalyptic notions of society’s looming downfall, Rickert has both the insider experience and the connections Shipley and Geller lack.
Despite virtually universal opposition from clients and colleagues, these six naysayers buck conventional wisdom, and bet everything on a real-estate downturn. After that, it’s a matter of holding fast to their convictions as those within the system manipulate matters to try to hold off the inevitable collapse.
Along with interesting characters acting under severe pressure, and a wealth of dramatic irony, McKay and Randolph offer audiences an amusing primer on the economic factors underlying the crash. To soften the abstract, eye-glazing nature of these lessons, they’re delivered by such unlikely instructors as actress Margot Robbie (who tutors us while sipping champagne in a bubble bath), Disney-bred star Selena Gomez and TV chef Anthony Bourdain.
Would-be crusader Baum’s outrage at the wheeler-dealer shenanigans he’s witnessing provides the movie with its moral foundation. That this same emotion makes a nice fit with a liberal political outlook goes without saying, though that point is handled with a reasonably light touch — at least until the picture’s hammer-wielding conclusion.
Before reaching that wrap-up, Hillary and Donald fans alike will have deal with a couple of burlesque-themed interludes and a barrage of vulgarity that includes at least 70 F-bombs. So, while acceptable for mature audiences, The Big Short will certainly not be to every seasoned taste.
The film contains upper and rear strip-club nudity, a suicide theme, brief irreverent humour, several uses of profanity and relentless 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.
NEW YORK (CNS) — There’s a bit of scatological humour, along with singing aplenty, in the kid-oriented comedy Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (Fox).
Yet, overall, this blend of animation and live action adds up to a moderately charming adventure that carries a mostly positive — though not unblemished — message about family and love in general.
Originally bred in the imagination of Ross Bagdasarian to serve as the fictional artists on a 1958 novelty record, the famous trio of rodent brothers — mischievous Alvin (voice of Justin Long), brainy Simon (voice of Matthew Gray Gubler) and gentle Theodore (voice by Jesse McCartney) — have been repackaged for a variety of media projects across the intervening decades.
Long after Bagdasarian’s 1972 death — his son, Ross Jr., currently guides the franchise — the critters made the leap from television to the big screen, with a stop along the way for a duo of films intended for video release only. In 2007, they were ready for their eponymous close-up, the multiplex debut which stands as this movie’s great granddaddy.
Their current escapade might be subtitled “The Courtship of Alvin’s Father” since it finds the furry lads desperate to stop their human “Dad,” Dave Seville (Jason Lee), from proposing to his surgeon girlfriend, Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley). It’s not Sam herself the boys mind — she’s nice enough to make them a good stepmom — but her bully of a teen son, Miles (Josh Green).
When Los Angeles-based talent manager Dave departs for a business trip to Miami with Samantha in tow, the trouble making triad — who earlier stumbled across an engagement ring in a shopping bag Dave had brought home — fears the worst. So, too, does Miles, who is just as anxious as Alvin and his brothers to keep the two families unmixed.
Since Miles has been given charge of the four-pawed warblers while Dave and Samantha are away, everything is in place for a journey to Florida to put the kibosh on any question-popping. Along the way, however, the quartet encounters — or creates — numerous obstacles to their plan, the most prominent arising when they run afoul of nerdy air marshal Scruggs (Tony Hale).
Scruggs proves a comically inept but remarkably dogged pursuer.
One of the background themes of this visually appealing, energetic outing concerns the jealousy the Chipmunks are shown to be nursing toward their female counterparts, the Chipettes (voiced by Kaley Cuoco, Anna Faris and Christina Applegate), who have temporarily overtaken them in popularity. Of course, such unworthy feelings don’t prevent the two groups from combining for a climactic musical number.
Parents will appreciate the turn in Randi Mayem Singer and Adam Sztykiel’s script by which we learn that Miles’ negative, resentful behaviour grows out of the insecurity he feels over having been abandoned by his father. This can serve as the basis for a valuable discussion with youngsters about the vulnerability that often lies behind aggression.
Grownups may have more mixed feelings about the nature of the central clan itself. At one level, the absurd but nurturing bond between Dave and his proteges can be taken in the same spirit as that which united E.B. White’s anthropomorphized mouse, Stuart Little, with his human parents.
Yet this unorthodox household also becomes the vehicle for advancing, yet again, the Hollywood thesis that families are a chosen, rather than a given, reality. And larger social attitudes are reflected in a scene in which an airport clerk, quizzed by Scruggs as to whether he’s recently rented a car to a group of chipmunks, replies that families come in all shapes and sizes, and “we don’t judge.”
Balancing all this is the underlying sense, throughout director Walt Becker’s lighthearted, undemanding picture, that Dave and Samantha’s marriage would be a positive development for all the principal characters.
Despite its simplistic and recycled plot, “Road Chip” will likely satisfy its diminutive target audience. As for their accompanying elders, they can pass the time pondering what must be one of the most incongruous cameo appearances in cinematic history, that put in by loudly clad underground-cinema auteur John Waters.
The film contains some mild potty humour and a single slightly crass term. 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.
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Mulderig is on the staff, and Macina is a guest reviewer, for Catholic News Service.
NEW YORK (CNS) — All those immature male characters who have made the overgrown boy a familiar figure on screen get a duo of feminine counterparts courtesy of the patchy comedy Sisters (Universal).
While director Jason Moore, working from a script by Paula Pell, apparently aims to make a point about the need to grow up, the movie he helms could hardly be more juvenile.
Though the 40-something siblings of the title, uptight Maura (Amy Poehler) and impulsive Kate (Tina Fey), are temperamental opposites, they’re bound by close ties — to each other, to their parents, Bucky (James Brolin) and Deanna (Dianne Wiest), and to their past. So when Mom and Dad announce that they’re selling the home in which Maura and Kate grew up, both sisters react with unrealistic outrage.
Their protests leave Bucky and Deanna unmoved, however. So it’s off to the otherwise empty house to clear out their childhood belongings. While doing so, the ladies strike on a plan to relive their glory years by using their former residence as the venue for a wild party for their friends from high school.
One agreed-on goal of the evening is to enable divorcee Maura to make up for her adolescent backwardness by having sex in the bedroom of her youth, something she neglected to do when opportunities were more abundant. Fortunately for this scheme, the gals have just crossed paths with hunky neighbour James (Ike Barinholtz), an obvious candidate for the role of partner in the proposed remedial romp.
While Maura is busy awkwardly pursuing James, Kate revives her feud with middle school friend-turned-teen-enemy Brinda (Maya Rudolph). Brinda is left cordially uninvited to the gals’ get-together, but keeps crashing it nonetheless.
Tone-setting incidents include Kate’s rereading of her youthful diary, which evokes fond memories of her heedless promiscuity, a married couple’s concealed act of public intercourse in the midst of the soiree and a slapstick accident for James that might require the attention of a proctologist. So much for any laughs, much less enlightenment, viewers might hope to eke out of the strained proceedings.
If Sisters is anything to go by, distaff dopiness of the Peter Pan variety turns out to have as little appeal as its masculine analogue.
The film contains misguided values, including a benign view of casual sex and drug use, a nongraphic scene of aberrant sexual activity, much sexual and some scatological humour, several uses of profanity, pervasive rough and crude language and obscene gestures. 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.
NEW YORK (CNS) — The comedy Daddy’s Home (Paramount) begins and ends with sound pronouncements about the challenges of fatherhood and step-parenting. “It’s easy to be a father,” Will Ferrell’s character, Brad, intones in a voiceover. “It’s difficult to be a dad.”
In between these brief reflections, though, the movie is just a random selection of crotch-level stunts that could have been lifted from one of Adam Sandler’s least respectable efforts.
So it’s difficult to surmise the film’s intended audience. All the more so, since the children at the centre of the action, Megan (Scarlett Estevez) and Dylan (Owen Vaccaro), are barely old enough for elementary school.
Director Sean Anders, who co-wrote the screenplay with Brian Burns and John Morris, has Ferrell playing another variation on middle-aged fathers facing identity crises.
Sensitive Brad, successful as the manager of a smooth-jazz radio operation and infertile because of a misfired dental X-ray, is devoted to his new wife, Sarah (Linda Cardellini), and the above-mentioned duo, born of her marriage to Dusty (Mark Wahlberg).
Brad’s careful attention is seldom rewarded by the kids’ affection. But his exercise of parental duties is spot-on perfect, whether he’s coaching their sports teams, leading outdoor expeditions or teaching Sunday school.
In particular, he knows the importance of “staying inside the cones,” a reference to the strictures involved in picking children up after school that’s meant to expresses Brad’s willingness to accept mild but daily humiliations as the price of his devotion.
So when the muscular and charismatic Dusty, whose past is somewhat murky, shows up for what becomes an extended visit, chaos and a frenzied, high-spending competition for the love of the children ensue.
Two twists keep this story from becoming Mrs. Doubtfire: First, although Dusty somehow knows how to mouth all the disarming child-raising nostrums, he hasn’t the discipline for the endless rounds of parental duties. Second, Dusty’s presence as a competitor increases Brad’s fecundity, which is explained in a leering visit to a fertility clinic.
The children are merely props in the alpha-male escapades, which include a motorcycle mishap, skateboarding on a half-pipe, and Brad’s big drunken meltdown at a New Orleans Pelicans game.
The film contains some non-lethal violence, a frivolous attitude toward human sexuality and reproduction, fleeting rear male nudity, coarse banter and frequent crude and crass 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 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.
NEW YORK (CNS) — Point Break (Warner Bros.), director Ericson Core’s remake of the 1991 crime adventure, comes to 3D life whenever someone in the cast is skydiving, surfing massive waves, zooming through the Alps in a wingsuit or clinging to the sheer face of a Venezuelan mountain.
But that’s all there is. Anytime a character pauses to announce, or merely grunt, one of the pearls of eco-warrior wisdom with which the dialogue is decked out, the story stalls, crashes and burns.
Despite being excessively violent, the first film, about surfing bank robbers, helped build the careers of helmer Kathryn Bigelow and stars Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. This one, with Luke Bracey taking on Reeves’ role of rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah — now an extreme athlete who excels in all forms of dangerous endeavour — is unlikely to bolster the resume of anyone involved.
Even the reuse of the title, a phrase specific to the world of surfers, seems unjustified. It’s given a purely figurative meaning as the point at which fear takes over someone’s life. “It becomes master, and you become its slave,” intones daredevil Bodhi (Edgar Ramirez), the leader of the gang Johnny has been assigned to infiltrate.
It’s also the point at which the audience’s attention wanders off after hearing a surfeit of stale bumper-sticker tropes from Bodhi and his intrepid followers.
These enlightened dudes steal money for the noblest of reasons: to disrupt exploitative diamond and gold mining. In the best Robin Hood manner, they also try to remedy economic inequality. Thus they time their raid on an airborne cash transfer so that hundred-dollar bills will rain down on an impoverished Mexican village.
Such altruism melds uncomfortably with the few Ayn Randian lines screenwriter Kurt Wimmer has tossed into the mix. One instance of such sentiments: “We are only responsible for our own path, and let others have theirs.”
More explicit than their debt to Rand is the bandits’ allegiance to an Asian mystic who, it seems, laid out eight feats of team-building courage involving air, water, and sky. If Johnny can predict these tests, he explains to his boss, Hall (Delroy Lindo), the FBI can find the bad guys.
Once Johnny goes undercover, though, he finds himself taken with his adversaries, especially curvaceous Samsara (Teresa Palmer).
The rampant mayhem of the original has been curbed, and the visual thrills to be derived from this iteration are obvious. But viewers will search in vain for any consistent morality below the slick surface or for much that lingers in the memory.
The film contains gun and physical violence, a brief scene of implied sexual activity, drug use and fleeting 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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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops