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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews


Money Monster
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — Forty years ago, Peter Finch gave an Oscar-winning performance in the black comedy “Network.” He played Howard Beale, a crazed television news anchor who exhorts his audience to shout out, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

The film exposed the superficiality of TV and its seductive (and often pernicious) effect on viewers. It highlighted the medium’s potential to lull the public into passivity, disposing them at the same time to make foolish choices.

“Money Monster” (TriStar) might best be thought of as the poor stepchild of that 1976 movie. It offers a similar allegory on the power of the media, along with an up-to-the-moment indictment of Wall Street machinations and corporate greed.

George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, host of the eponymous TV program on which he peddles investment advice. Surrounded by Vegas-style dancers, loud music, and bold graphics, Gates whips his audience into a frenzy as he ticks off the most promising stocks and bonds.

“Without risk there is no reward!” he says with Beale-like passion.

Clearly, Gates relishes his status as something of a mash-up between Jim Cramer of CNBC’s “Mad Money” and P.T. Barnum. His antics are viewed with chagrin, however, by Patty (Julia Roberts), his ever-patient producer (and erstwhile girlfriend).

Gates gets more spectacle than he bargained for when, in the midst of a live episode, a gun-wielding intruder bursts into the studio. Kyle (Jack O’Connell) has a bone to pick with Gates: He lost his life savings by following a bum tip on Gates’ show.

The young man demands to know why a much-hyped stock, Ibis Clear Capital, mysteriously went south, losing $800 million in a single day for small investors like himself.

Kyle straps a bomb on Gates, and amid much shouting and angst (also Beale-worthy), a tense hostage drama unfolds in real time on screens across the world.

The ever-resourceful Patty senses that things are not what they seem. And it’s soon clear that Ibis’ CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West), has some explaining to do.

Director Jodie Foster (“The Beaver”) keeps the plot moving at a furious pace, mimicking the quick edits and short attention span of today’s TV. Unfortunately, this approach leaves precious little time to flesh out the main characters and explore their back stories.

The blame for such shallowness is shared by a predictable screenplay. Writers Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden prove overly reliant on cliches.

Entertaining, but evanescent, “Money Monster” turns out — ironically enough — to partake of the same strengths and weaknesses that generally characterize the medium it sets out to skewer.

The film contains occasional violence, brief semi-graphic sexual activity and frequent profane 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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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

A Hologram for the King
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The simple joys of a stable career and a second chance at love are celebrated in “A Hologram for the King” (Lionsgate).

While Catholic viewers will welcome the former element in this adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel, the personal component will strike them as less straightforward.

It takes quite a while for the story, which stars Tom Hanks as Alan Clay, to raise even the prospect of this happy ending. Following the pattern set in the book, writer-director Tom Tykwer instead has his protagonist wandering in the Arabian Desert for most of the film, brooding over his past misdeeds — and suffering quite a bit as a result.

As things kick off, it’s 2010 and Alan, a business executive, is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he’s trying to persuade the king to invest in a holographic teleconferencing system. Unless he lands the contract, divorced dad Alan won’t be able to keep his daughter in college.

He’s staying in a luxury hotel. Yet he and his small staff have to work in a large tent, without air-conditioning or Wi-Fi, at the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade — a planned but unfinished city with no clear completion date.

Jet-lagged, Alan never can show up on time. But as it turns out, the king never appears when expected, either.

Since Alan’s team can’t prepare its work and the king’s arrival is uncertain, he has a great deal of time to figure out what has gone wrong in his life, a subject he sometimes discusses with his driver, Yousef (Alexander Black). Yousef went to college in Alabama and has an obsessive appreciation for American pop music.

Among the past events haunting Alan is his last business venture: the closing of a U.S.-based Schwinn bicycle factory so that the bikes could be made — more cheaply of course — in China.

Amid the self-recrimination, Alan fends off romantic advances from Danish embassy staffer Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen). He also explores the beginnings of an honest adult relationship with Saudi doctor Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), who treats a large cyst that suddenly appears on his back.

Biblically literate viewers will see someone lost in the sand and afflicted with a boil. But Alan’s journey of discovery mostly just lurches in several misguided directions before he gains a solid footing, and something of a moral centre, through his liaison with Zahra.

The sharp differences between Saudi law and culture and western sensibilities are downplayed in the interest of comedic points. Noticing a crowd in the street, Alan asks Yousef what’s going on, only to be informed that they’re spectators who’ve gathered for a beheading. Alan passes up an invitation to witness the next execution.

Saudi religious police, hunting for infidels and women dressed in styles deemed immodest, lurk about. But they’re only discussed, not encountered.

Resistance to them does ostensibly provide Zahra with a useful excuse to go snorkeling with her top off, though. Seeing her in the water from above, she explains, these agents of oppression won’t be able to tell she’s not a man.

The film contains adult themes, brief upper female nudity, a scene of drug use and fleeting rough and profane 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.


Last Days in the Desert
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — “Who do you say that I am?” As has often been pointed out, this question — originally posed by Jesus to the Twelve Apostles — is in fact a decisive inquiry directed by the saviour at each and every human being.

In crafting his thoughtful, but ultimately unsatisfying, religious drama “Last Days in the Desert” (Broad Green), writer-director Rodrigo Garcia attempts to sidestep this crucial issue of identity. His respectful ambivalence toward his possibly divine — but possibly merely human — protagonist not only undercuts the film’s appeal for believers, it creates some aesthetic confusion as well.

The script embroiders on the biblical story of Jesus’ 40 days spent fasting and praying in the desert. Toward the end of that period, Garcia imagines an encounter between the Lord — here called by his Hebrew name, Yeshua, and played by Ewan McGregor — and a family of wilderness dwellers.

Oppressed by prolonged solitude and by God’s apparent absence — the first line of dialogue is his plaintive cry, “Father, where are you?” — Yeshua, though initially wary of human contact, finds temporary relief in his interaction with the clan. Yet, as he becomes emotionally invested in their problems, the situation grows more complicated and the tone darker.

The unnamed trio of relatives faces difficulties both spiritual and physical. The Father (Ciaran Hinds) and his teen son (Tye Sheridan) are in conflict over the lad’s future, while the Mother (Ayelet Zurer) is beset by an unidentified illness that seems certain to prove fatal.

Yeshua tries to reconcile the uncommunicative dad with his ambitious child. The latter’s longing to immerse himself in the wonders of urban life by leaving the wasteland behind and moving to Jerusalem clouds his genuine love for his affectionate but controlling father.

The parallels between this oedipal face-off and Yeshua’s unstable relations with his heavenly Father are one of the movie’s more obvious themes. Issues of mortality and loss, meanwhile, are highlighted as Mom’s strong personality struggles to shine through her failing frame — and as her husband contemplates his future without her.

Watching all of this with mocking spite, and doing his best to sow doubt in Yeshua’s mind concerning his fitness for his impending mission, is the Devil (also McGregor) who manifests himself as his adversary’s double.

Moviegoers well versed in the Scriptures will find Garcia’s bobbing and weaving, as he struggles to avoid taking a definitive stand on his lead’s true nature, both confusing and frustrating. Yeshua stoutly upholds his unique status as Son of God in the face of Satan’s challenge on that score. Yet, in glaring contrast with the Jesus of the Gospels, he fails to contradict the Father’s weary denial of an afterlife.

Similarly, a moment of compelling, if unspoken, epiphany during which a character seems to perceive Yeshua’s divinity is followed by a crucifixion and burial sequence that remains mute on the pivotal subject of the Resurrection.

While few of the usual red-flag elements are present, this unsettled outlook on one of the most vital tenets of the Christian faith makes “Last Days in the Desert” inappropriate fare for all but well-catechized grownups.

They’ll find the picture’s striking cinematography and its cast’s high level of artistic commitment offset by a sluggishly paced plot that fails to evoke as much interest in viewers as it does in the central figure about whom its primary creator remains so resolutely irresolute.

The film contains religious themes requiring mature discernment, brief partial nudity and momentary scatological humour. 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.


The Darkness
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — A cut-rate budget leaves the possession-themed horror flick “The Darkness” (BH Tilt) looking more than a bit frayed around the edges.

Big frights? Not here. Telekinesis? Nope. In fact, the low-rent demon at the centre of it all mostly likes to turn on spigots when someone leaves a room.

Exorcism? A certain dread always attaches to screen portrayals of that ritual, since inevitably they’re turned into a sort of Latin-rant vaudeville routine with one-dimensional priests.

But in this case Dame Fortune has smiled on us, with all references to anything churchy — the fleeting sight of a crucifix, which goes unemployed, excepted — having been entirely excluded.

Kevin Bacon as Peter, the family patriarch, concedes that no one in his family has much of a belief in any faith, and even explains to wife Bronny (Radha Mitchell) that hotel rooms no longer have Gideon Bibles because many guests find them offensive. Who knew?

As a result, director Greg Mclean, who co-wrote the screenplay with Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause, relies instead on two Native American exorcists equipped with copper dowsing rods, a feather and a stubborn determination to complete their task. Their intensity is not contagious.

The story gets rolling via a misadventure for the family’s autistic son, Michael (David Mazouz). On a clan vacation to the Grand Canyon, he falls down a hole into the remains of an ancient temple of worship dedicated to some off-beat spirits.

Said structure has somehow been missed, over the years, not only by all the tourists who flock to the area but by archaeologists as well.

Michael, who seldom speaks and doesn’t know fear, takes some sacred rocks home with him and finds that if he lines them up like tarot cards, the invisible demon quickly sets up shop and invites a few horned pals over to create sooty mayhem on the walls — and on other family members as well.

It’s what these demons always do, as Peter learns in an online video. And of course, they’re gunning for Michael’s soul after their sacred space was violated.

As for Michael’s teen sister, Stephanie (Lucy Fry), based on the way the intruders lurk around while she takes a shower, their interest in her appears to be somewhat less spiritual.

The film contains an occult theme, a brief nongraphic bedroom scene between spouses, a couple of profanities, at least one rough term and some 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.


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