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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews


The Forest

By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — It’s not the trees that fill the breeze with rare and magic horror-film ideas in The Forest. (Gramercy).

Oh, no, it isn’t the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji, bedecked with corpses of the many glum suicidal folks who go there to end their lives. Rather, it’s the filmmakers’ decision, based on what appears to have been a tiny budget, that the only way to conclude this story is to move it indoors to a haunted cabin so the heroine can face her own demons.

That forest is a real place. Its lush canopy, usually impenetrable, creates a perpetual shady gloom, and because it’s adjacent to a sacred volcanic landmark, it’s long had a reputation as a remote suicide spot.

The story line doesn’t endorse the act. Rather, it’s an excuse for director Jason Zada, and screenwriters Nick Antosca, Sara Cornwell and Ben Ketai to produce an abundance of spooky noises and the occasional zombie.

The idea is that the spirits of the suicides linger in the woods and can compel others to take their own lives to “join” them. The film is low on the fright scale, however.

Most of it’s taken up by hiking and talking, then hiking and talking some more, until the heroine falls into a cave before stumbling upon the cabin. Every now and then a zombie leaps out to break the tedium.

Sara (Natalie Dormer), an American, is looking for her twin sister Jess, who’s been teaching school in Japan until she decided to go camping in the Aokigahara.

Although the locals warn her, “Stay on the path,” she and travel writer Aiden (Taylor Kinney) go their own way and even share a chaste overnight camp after she discovers Jess’ tent and belongings. Sara and Jess, we learn, share a deadly childhood trauma.

So what’s real in the forest, and what’s only in Sara’s mind? There’s not enough skill in the presentation to compel anyone to care.

The film contains references to suicide, bloody physical violence and fleeting crude language and profanities. 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.


The Masked Saint
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — What’s a small-town pastor to do when his crumbling church in a crime-ridden neighbourhood is desperately strapped for cash? Why, become a professional wrestler by day and moonlight as a vigilante, of course!

That’s the unlikely — yet fact-based — premise of The Masked Saint (Freestyle), director Warren P. Sonoda’s screen version of Southern Baptist minister (and former wrestler) Chris Whaley’s fictionalized 2009 memoir.

Brett Granstaff, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Crowell, stars as the grappler who, though he calls himself “The Saint,” does not take a straightforwardly devotional approach to his bouts. Instead, when he’s not busy securing his opponent in a chokehold or doing backflips, Chris kneels and gazes upward in mock prayer, as if seeking divine approval.

Having won the title, Chris decides to retire after one last match, much to the chagrin of sleazy promoter Nicky Stone (played by ring stalwart Roddy Piper). No one crosses Nicky, however, and it’s no accident when menacing rival The Reaper (James Preston Rogers), snaps Chris’ leg, making his career finale a painful, and seemingly permanent, one.

Not to worry — there’s a down-at-the-heels church in Michigan that badly needs new leadership. So Chris packs up his supportive wife, Michelle (Lara Jean Chorostecki), and precocious daughter, Carrie (T.J. McGibbon), and heads for the Great Lakes State.

He’s immediately faced with an impossible situation. The church is broke and in debt; attendance has fallen; the choir is tone-deaf; and one overbearing parishioner, Judd Lumpkin (Patrick McKenna), thinks he owns the place. Then again, as the congregation’s largest single contributor, in some sense, he does.

Michelle assures her husband that, as a veteran fighter, he’s up to the challenge. “The Lord never gives us more than we can handle,” she insists.

Chris finds another booster in Miss Edna (Diahann Carroll), an elderly parishioner full of wit and wisdom. Miss Edna also happens to be a rabid wrestling fan. So, when she learns the secret of Chris’ always-masked alter ego, she encourages him to re-enter the ring and earn money for the church.

Surprisingly, Michelle agrees. “Where in the Bible does it say ‘thou shalt not wrestle?’ ” she asks. Point taken, and soon Chris is deftly disposing of his adversaries once again, just like old times.

His newfound confidence is expressed in another, more disturbing way. As a self-appointed crime-fighter, he uses his wrestling moves to rescue prostitutes from their pimps and foil armed robbers.

It’s a dangerous yet seductive game, and before long Chris grows pompous and irritable, neglecting his family and congregation. Can Miss Edna strong-arm some sense into her pastor before it’s too late?

Sonoda provides viewers with fast-paced entertainment, ably juggling action in the ring with drama in the house of God. Good and evil are clearly defined, bad behaviour is condemned, and characters who lose their way, and fail to find redemption, are served a heaping helping of just desserts.

The film contains some mild violence, wrestling action and a few mature themes. 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.

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.


The Revenant
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — If your idea of entertainment is watching Leonardo DiCaprio gorge on the raw liver of a freshly killed buffalo, then The Revenant (Fox) is for you.

This wilderness survival drama, directed and co-written by Alejandro Inarritu (Birdman), is chock full of squeamish moments. But for adults with stomachs strong enough to last the duration, rewards await: a powerful film with first-rate performances, stunning cinematography, and timely messages about good versus evil, and of redemption versus revenge.

DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a real-life explorer and fur trader. In 1823, Glass joined an expedition up the Missouri River, led by Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson).

In what is present-day South Dakota (but filmed in Canada and Argentina), the company of men traps beavers for their prized pelts while enduring the ravages of winter and frequent raids by Native Americans.

Glass sympathizes with the latter, as he married a Pawnee woman (Grace Dove), who was killed by a U.S. soldier. Their mixed-race son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), is a member of the expedition.

Disaster strikes when Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear, an especially grisly scene. Barely alive and unable to move or speak, he must remain behind while the others go for help. Three volunteers agree to stay with him: John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a trigger-happy hunter; Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), a wide-eyed innocent guide; and Hawk.

Capt. Henry’s instructions are clear: care for Glass, but should he succumb, provide a decent burial.

Fitzgerald seethes with impatience, as Glass’ accident has set back his lucrative hunting plans. So he decides to smother Glass to put an end to his misery, and allow the others to move on.

Hawk intervenes to stop the murder, but is killed by Fitzgerald, who proceeds to toss the still-alive Glass into a shallow grave, to Bridger’s horror. The two men then depart, leaving Glass for dead.

Or so they think.

Glass refuses to succumb, crawls out of the grave, and embarks on a 200-mile odyssey through vast uncharted lands to avenge his son’s murder and bring Fitzgerald to justice.

As such, he becomes a “revenant,” or one returned from the dead.

Glass’ reappearance made newspaper headlines at the time, but the details of his story were sketchy, to say the least. Inarritu based his screenplay on the 2002 book “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge” by Michael Punke, but admitted embellishing the story for dramatic purposes.

Along the way, Glass is assisted and befriended by a lone Pawnee, Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud). His family was also killed by the “white man,” but he offers measured advice.

“Revenge is in the Creator’s hands, not man’s,” he tells Glass.

Indeed, since seeking revenge is contrary to Christian teaching, we correctly leave the final judgment to God. Whether Glass takes this advice remains to be seen.

The film contains bloody violence and gore, several disturbing images, a sexual assault, brief nudity, and frequent rough, crude, and profane 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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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.


The Hateful Eight
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (Weinstein) is a sprawling, hugely self-indulgent, misogynistic and lengthy beyond bloated (183 minutes, including an intermission) vengeance tale best appreciated only by his most ardent fans.

That’s assuming that long stretches of tedium don’t drive them away. This is one dreary bag of hot gas, without a single breakout monologue to give the story some memorable polish.

As with Django Unchained in 2010, the director-writer shows his mastery of the elements of the classic western, a genre largely ignored for many years except for comedies. There are outlaws, a stagecoach, arguments settled at the point of a gun or the thump of fists, and the characters, all of whom are shown to be morally compromised, endure hostile weather.

And when they’re through talking about all of that, they usually spring into unexpectedly grotesque violence only because Tarantino evidently finds it amusing. He’s not as interested in telling a story with classic techniques as he is in setting up old tropes, then kicking them apart.

So a story that combines a tough winter slog with a claustrophobic murder mystery in a snowbound Wyoming hostelry becomes quite oppressive indeed.

Tarantino puts eight tough-talking louts in Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they have taken shelter in a raging blizzard that makes travel impossible. John Roth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter known as The Hangman because he prefers to deliver criminals alive for their executions.

He has in tow a seemingly feral outlaw, Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and eventually joining him on the stagecoach driven by O.B. (James Parks) to Minnie’s are Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Chris (Walton Goggins), who is set to be the next sheriff of their destination, Red Rock, as soon as he arrives there.

The proprietress and her husband are not to be found, but there instead are a former Confederate general, Sandy (Bruce Dern), a traveling British hangman, Oswald (Tim Roth), a helpful Mexican stable hand, Bob (Demian Bichir), and the easygoing Joe (Michael Madsen).

As the plot unspools oh-so-slowly, all of these characters are revealed to be far more menacing then their initial exteriors, and Tarantino, in the tradition of an Agatha Christie mystery, starts finding ways to kill off a sufficient quantity until the truth is revealed.

In addition, Daisy sustains quite a large number of punches from John, and Maj. Warren, a former Union officer who claims to have been a pen pal of President Lincoln, endures quite a number of crude racist remarks.

The horses, it should be said, maintain their dignity at all times.

The film contains extended bloody gun and knife violence, frequent crude racist banter, and pervasive rough, crude and profane 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.

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.


Copyright (c) 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops