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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

02/10/2016

Hail, Caesar!
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — The February release date of writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s comedy Hail, Caesar! (Universal) could hardly be more appropriate. 

That’s because this loving sendup of golden-age Hollywood represents nothing short of a supersized valentine presented by the sibling collaborators to the Tinseltown of bygone days, specifically the early 1950s.

Indeed, the film’s rather perfunctory plot is merely an excuse to revel in the industry’s familiar yet, in cultural terms, strangely far-removed past.

So it hardly matters to the audience, nor is it meant to, when MGM stand-in Capitol Pictures’ major star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped. But it means a great deal to conscientious studio executive — and behind-the-scenes fixer — Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who undertakes to retrieve Baird without creating unwanted headlines.

Like his daily roaming of the back lot, during which he’s trailed by his devoted secretary, C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand), Eddie’s discreet efforts to resolve Baird’s disappearance introduce us to a parade of recognizable figures.

They include Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a screen cowboy in the mould of Tom Mix; Esther Williams-like swimmer DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson); handsome Gene Kelly-style hoofer Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum); Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), a pretentious helmer of drawing-room dramas; and Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton), rival gossip columnists who also happen to be sisters.

The last two are, of course, meant to recall muck mavens Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Among the stories Eddie strives to keep Thora and Thessaly from uncovering are DeeAnna’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy and Laurence’s closeted proclivities.

An obvious, though unspoken, gay subtext is on full display, however, as Burt and some extras film a musical number that matches the naval costumes of On the Town with lyrics paralleling the sentiments of There Is Nothing Like a Dame from South Pacific. The scene jokingly suggests that there may be an alternative after all.

Besides such exclusively adult fare, the movie’s satiric treatment of religion further restricts its suitable audience. Eddie is shown to be an absurdly scrupulous Catholic who measures the time since his last confession in hours rather than weeks or months. When abducted, moreover, Baird is playing the part of a Roman officer in the biblical epic of the title, a feature strongly resembling the 1959 version of Ben-Hur.

The sensitive subject matter of the fictional Hail, Caesar! requires that Eddie get clearance from the head of the National Legion of Decency — long-ago precursor of Catholic News Service’s Media Review Office. This leads to a meeting with an array of clergymen, the Legion’s priestly chief among them.

Besides squabbling between the lone rabbi and the representatives of Christianity over the divine status of “the Nazarene,” this powwow also sees the believers in Christ getting drawn into the logical quicksand that surrounds the mystical dogma of the Trinity — with muddled and supposedly humorous results.

In assessing such material, mature viewers will need to discern whether, in their judgment, faith itself is being ridiculed or merely the cheapening of sacred beliefs at the hands of crude moviemakers and misguided devotees.

The film contains a complex treatment of religious themes, including some irreverent humour, comic references to homosexuality, as well as a couple of uses of profanity and of 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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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

The Choice
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Ever since The Notebook in 2004, film adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ novels have descended into benign, prepackaged comfort food.

So it is with The Choice (Lionsgate). In keeping with the Catholic writer’s work overall, the movie tells an agreeably picturesque love story, with likable characters who briefly consider the morality of at least some of their actions. Yet, as directed by Ross Katz from Bryan Sipe’s screenplay, the picture is so intractably bland, straining not to offend, that its plot points lack all emotional tug.

The film retains Sparks’ traditional setting in coastal North Carolina, affording an opportunity for montages of moonlit beaches. There’s also a light wash about religious faith, or at least cosmic forces that control the universe.

Thus, veterinarian Travis Shaw (Benjamin Walker) doesn’t believe in God, but does believe in the power of love. Hospital intern Gabby Holland (Teresa Palmer) chooses to believe in something bigger than herself — without, however, giving the entity in question a specific name.

Travis’ widowed father, and fellow vet, Shep (Tom Wilkinson) — who’s so kindly that he’ll give a little girl a new lizard rather than tell her that her pet has died — is a more-or-less conventional churchgoer.

Like the geography, the theme will be familiar to Sparks’ fans: “Now pay attention, because I’m about to tell you the secret of life,” Travis announces at the opening. This is followed by, “Every decision you make leads to another choice.”

In reality, there are just two choices. The first is Travis and Gabby’s decision, after a series of miscues, to fall in love, even though both are in longstanding, albeit dull, relationships. That takes up the entire first hour, and is followed by marriage, two children, general bliss and many sunsets.

The second decision is an ethical one: whether to continue extraordinary means of life support following a car crash on a stormy night. In a better-written drama, this would be the meat. Here, it’s just an excuse to pile on more cheese.

The substance of the decision isn’t shown. There’s not even much of a discussion. Either way, however, there’s no danger that Catholic moral norms concerning medical treatment will be flouted — or that viewers’ sympathy will be elicited in support of their violation.

What we’re really doing is biding our time in the hospital until we can return to the seaside.

The film contains brief semi-graphic premarital sexual activity with partial nudity, at least one mild profanity and several crude terms. 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.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — That rustling sound you hear is Jane Austen and her crinolines. They’re spinning in the grave they share over a transgression called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Screen Gems).

As its title suggests, this comedy-drama is Downton Abbey meets The Walking Dead. The result is not pretty.

Why tamper with perfection, you might well ask. After all, Austen’s 1813 novel of manners and relationships is considered one of the finest in English literature (and has been adapted more respectfully multiple times for film and television).

Why indeed, except perhaps to pander to a new generation of non-readers and the current vogue for blood, guts, and anything to do with the undead. Given the context — and that title — no one expects Shakespeare, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is an often enjoyable send-up of costume dramas.

Regrettably, however, the movie takes a jarring wrong turn with a disrespectful treatment of Christianity, placing what could have been an amusing — if occasionally gory — trifle well outside acceptable bounds for viewers of faith.

This detour also would have pained Austen, a clergyman’s daughter who may have poked fun at the foibles of some of her characters in the ministry, but whose underlying faith — the source of her sympathy with those very shortcomings — is evident across her works.

Outward appearances initially deceive. Working from the best-selling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (who also introduced the world to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), writer-director Burr Steers faithfully re-creates the look and feel of Regency England, from grand country houses set in lush parkland to costumed ladies twirling at a fancy ball.

Additionally, the basic plot is retained. A country couple, the Bennets (Charles Dance and Sally Phillips), have five daughters. Their top priority is to marry each to someone with good prospects and a healthy bank balance.

The second daughter, Elizabeth (Lily James), is a keen observer and critic of the courting rituals that result, as several eligible suitors come to call, including Charles Bingley (Douglas Booth), Parson William Collins (Matt Smith) and George Wickham (Jack Huston).

Admirers of Austen’s novel will wonder why the ladies are sitting around cleaning pistols and sharpening swords, instead of knitting, and why they conceal daggers under their skirts.

“My daughters are trained for battle, not the kitchen,” Mr. Bennet proudly tells the suitors. “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of singing, dancing and the art of war.”

And so the picture veers off into an alternate universe. As this story goes, a deadly plague in the 1700s unleashed a “zombie apocalypse” with the dead rising and feasting on human flesh. Britain was overrun, and fortifications were built to contain the epidemic.

Young women like the Bennet girls were dispatched to China to learn martial arts and swordplay, transforming them into more fetching counterparts to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

As the war advances, Elizabeth — now called “Lizzie” — meets an unlikely suitor, Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley). She’s repelled by his apparent arrogance but impressed by his prowess in beheading and garroting zombies.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ultimately collapses in on its own silliness, but not before several disturbing references to the Christian faith. The worst finds zombies attending a service inside “St. Lazarus Church,” where they consume an unorthodox — to say the least — version of the “blood of Christ,” hoping for a cure.

The muddled proceedings leave it unclear whether evil zombies or irreverent filmmakers ought to be blamed for this ghoulish, quasi-sacrilegious parody of the eucharist. Either way, moviegoers would do better to stay home and brush up on their Austen.

The film contains an exploitative use of the sacred, bloody violence and some sexual innuendo. 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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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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