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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews


Free State of Jones
By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) –- The ambitious historical drama “Free State of Jones” (STX) considers a little-known aspect of the Civil War: armed dissent within the South born of opposition to how the war was being conducted and to the principal reason it began.

Earnest and frequently riveting, the movie revolves around Newton Knight, the Mississippi farmer who led a group of runaway slaves and fellow army deserters in a guerrilla campaign against the Confederacy. It also looks at the tumultuous early years of Reconstruction and traces the bitter legacy of slavery and racial segregation into the middle of the 20th century.

Although the material is complex and often harsh, “Free State of Jones” is suitable for mature adolescents. It ought to kindle (or reignite) awareness that precisely because racism in America is an issue fraught with pain and controversy, it warrants responsible treatment in myriad formats. One truth animates this particular effort, written and directed by Gary Ross: the absolute immorality of slavery, plainly expressed through a recitation of the biblical proscription against buying or selling any “child of God.”

Matthew McConaughey is charismatic as Knight, a hero possessing the attributes of an inspirational preacher, brave civil rights activist, and sanguine militiaman. The role gives McConaughey ample opportunity to orate and emote, and he does so with a bridled gusto that proves durable and affecting.

Knight is working as a battlefield medic when his 14-year-old nephew is killed. Already bristling at the war’s inequities — in particular the law exempting the sons of wealthy planters from fighting based on the number of slaves their families own — he deserts.

Back home in Jones County in southeast Mississippi, he sees the degree to which the army exploits the women and children who remain on small farms.

After helping several resist the confiscation of their crops, livestock and provisions, he’s forced to flee and with the help of a handful of runaway slaves takes refuge deep inside local swampland. As the war rages, more and more Confederate soldiers — unwilling to die fighting “a rich man’s war” — go AWOL. Scores from Jones County and environs join Knight. Using the swamp to evade capture, the Knight Company lashes out against the army and plantation owners. Knight becomes a Robin Hood figure who denounces slavery and, in effect, fights for the Union against the South.

After the war, he champions the right of blacks to vote and pushes back against efforts to circumvent the Emancipation Proclamation. Several times during the main action, which takes place between 1862 and 1878, the movie flashes forward to the 1948 trial of Knight’s great grandson, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), who was prosecuted for violating Mississippi’s laws against mix-race marriage.

Many viewers will be unable to overlook two blots on Knight’s moral character. The first is his savage murder of a Confederate officer. The second concerns his personal life. When he goes on the lam, his wife, Serena (Keri Russell), has little choice but to leave Mississippi with their son. A slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who once saved his son’s life and who helped Knight when he first fled into the swamp, becomes his common-law wife. They have a son together and when Serena and her boy return at war’s end, they all live together on the same parcel of land.

Filmmaker Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “The Hunger Games”) spent a decade researching the project and consulting with various scholars. He painstakingly provides historical context using screen titles and other slightly less obvious guideposts, which can give the movie a lumbering feel. There’s a sense that every emotional reaction and cognitive response has been calculated in an attempt to craft a rousing, informative Hollywood narrative. As a result, the story doesn’t unfold as organically or artfully as one hopes it might.

That said, the picture hangs together seamlessly enough, and the production values are uniformly good, with first-rate cinematography, music and design work giving it a subdued aura of realism and authenticity.

In an unusual move, Ross has created the companion website where, on a scene-by-scene basis, he discusses the historical records that informed his creative decisions, cites his sources and points visitors toward additional information.

No doubt the site will facilitate the pedagogic utility of “Free State of Jones,” but the movie stands on its own as a thought-provoking piece of popular entertainment, not to be mistaken for a great work of art or scholarship.

The film contains frequent graphic war violence including some grisly images, several hangings, the brutal execution of a wounded soldier, off-camera sexual exploitation of a woman, many racial epithets, and one use of crude and one of crass 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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John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Like its source material, Roald Dahl’s eponymous1982 children’s book, “The BFG” (Disney) comes packed with specialized terms for its own fantasy elements.

A golden phizzwizard, for instance, is the best kind of dream, while frobscottle is a fizzy drink that produces a less-than-dreamy intestinal reaction referred to as whizpopping.

As gentle as that ideal slumber, and no naughtier than that digestive disturbance, this adventure is certainly far superior to most offerings for youngsters broadcast over what Dahl called the telly-telly bunkum box. It’s entertainment for the discerning child who reads, and enjoys fairy tales with a slightly skewed perspective.

Lovingly directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by the late Melissa Mathison (who also wrote “E.T.”) “The BFG” combines live actors with motion-capture animation to recount the celebrated story of the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) and his orphan friend Sophie (Ruby Barnhill).

Admittedly, the film lacks some of the interactive whimsy and silliness of the long-running children’s theatre versions, in which the language-mangling giant is an actor inside a massive puppet. Here, all the threats to the intrepid Sophie are dangerously literal. But Spielberg is unmatched in his ability to visualize the colourful dreams the giant magically collects, then distributes to sleeping kids.

Ten-year-old Sophie lives in a gruesome London orphanage operated by an incompetent. So at night it falls her to see to it that the doors are locked and the windows shut. This is how she first spots the homely behemoth making his nocturnal rounds.

Like King Kong snatching Fay Wray, the giant quickly reaches in to abduct Sophie, carrying her off at a sprint to faraway Giant Country. There he explains that he had no choice but to remove her lest, having spotted him, she blow his cover.

The BFG, we learn, subsists on a single foul vegetable, the snozzcumber. But he’s the only vegetarian in Giant Country.

The rest of the landscape is occupied by even larger, far meaner creatures with names like Fleshlumpeater (voice of Jemaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (voice of Bill Hader). As their monikers more than hint, they’re all rampaging carnivores.

Thus the BFG has to protect Sophie from the others of his ilk. She’s not the first child who’s visited his homeland and, as he puts it, his flesh-loving counterparts are “always swallowing up human beings like they was sugar lumps.” However, that doesn’t stop spunky Sophie from arguing fearlessly with her outsized defender about anything and everything.

After several dangerous encounters and a sequence — the picture’s best — in which the giant demonstrates his dream-catching technique, Sophie works up an unlikely plan. She and the BFG will visit Buckingham Palace and appeal to the Queen (Penelope Wilton) to find a way to capture the bad giants so their child-snacking days will be over.

There, predictably, the frobscottle wreaks havoc on royal protocol — as well as on the sovereign’s pet corgis.

Since genuinely objectionable material is entirely absent from “The BFG,” parents’ only task will be to assess whether the peril in which Sophie finds herself, together with the delight the movie takes in whizpopping, makes this unsuitable fare for the smallest viewers.

The film contains potentially frightening situations and some mild bathroom humour. 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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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Independence Day: Resurgence

By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Something like pondering leftovers discovered in the back of the refrigerator, a movie studio decided, “Hey! This hasn’t gone bad!”

The result is “Independence Day: Resurgence” (Fox), a reprise of the hit alien-fighting epic of 20 years ago in which the nations of the world united to fight a common foe, led by an inspirational United States president and a swaggering fighter pilot.

In the pre-9/11 days, it all seemed like it might be possible. This sequel, though, just seems like an exercise in nostalgia for most of the actors from the original.

Will Smith’s pilot has died in the ensuing years, but his son Dylan (Jessie T. Usher) now also flies fighter aircraft. There’s also a new president, of course, President Lanford, played by Sela Ward, who is alarmingly trigger-happy when it comes to keeping the planet free of evil aliens.

The swagger in the skies this time is rebellious pilot Jake (Liam Hemsworth), who refuses to play by anyone’s rules. But he has a winning smile.

Wild-eyed scientist Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner) comes out of his 20-year coma to make fresh calculations to repel the invaders, and former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) suffers torment from the “voice” of the alien leader in his head. “They’re coming back, and this time we might not be able to stop them!” he announces.

Engineer David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is among the first to detect the alien mothership sending signals before its return, and his father, Julius (Judd Hirsch), whose claimed all the credit for the first time the aliens were stopped, ruminates, “This may be bigger than before.”

The aliens’ mothership certainly is more immense, but the special effects, including the powerful beam that incinerated the White House in 1996, are just too familiar to delivery any jolts. This time, both London and Hong Kong are obliterated, but the mayhem all seems to be by rote.

Warlord Dikembe (Deobia Oparei), part of the international coalition united against the toothy alien force, finds that their laser weapons and continuous snarling anger are no match for his machete.

Instead of showing real human anguish, director Roland Emmerich, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, Dean Devlin and James Vanderbilt, is only interested in obliterating buildings and aircraft.

Language issues here aren’t so strong as to preclude mature adolescents, but they’re likely to be puzzled at the absence of cyber-warfare and the presence of thousands upon thousands of jet fighters.

The film contains action violence and fleeting rough and profane 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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The Shallows
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The formula of shark movies has changed little in the 40 years since the rubbery star of “Jaws” menaced the New England coastline.

So the makers of “The Shallows” (Columbia) have to struggle to give their minimalist version of girl vs. Carcharodon carcharias fresh threats and suspense.

The great white predator here is approximately the size of a firetruck. That’s good.

But he’s mostly CGI and vague menace, except for occasional chomps and leaps from the water, until near the end of the story. That’s bad.

Despite having a blue whale and an entire school of dolphins to nibble on, he stays focused on Nancy (Blake Lively), whose surfing vacation in Mexico has unwittingly invaded his feeding grounds.

Nancy, a medical school dropout mourning the recent death of her mother, has decided to visit her mother’s favourite “secret” beach as a way of keeping that old connection. She’s barely completed one languorous ride on the waves when the shark intercepts her, knocking her off her board and slicing up her left thigh.

She’s marooned on a rock 200 yards from shore, figuring out how to get her board back and get back to land, fighting off blood loss, terror, frustration and exposure to the elements.

Language puts this on the adult side of the ledger, but there’s not enough of it to preclude older adolescents. The little there isn’t gratuitous, but rather what people are most likely to say when a shark closes in on them.

Nancy doesn’t start out on her adventure alone, but the strip of sand is so secluded, few venture there, and anyone who swims out to rescue her quickly becomes prey.

So director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski keep her on her own, with only her medical training, versatile use of earrings and ability to time the shark’s movements keeping her alive.

The film contains some gore and fleeting rough and 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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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.


The Purge: Election Year
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — It’s little cause for surprise that “The Purge: Election Year” (Universal) sticks to the commercially tried-and-true formula of its franchise predecessors by appealing to the very impulses it pretends to condemn.

With equal predictability, the film relies, once again, on the premise first trotted out in the 2013 original — namely, a dystopian future America where one night a year is set aside for legally sanctioned murder and mayhem.

Nor would there be much to worry about in the fact that returning writer-director James DeMonaco adds a ham-fisted political message to the hypocritical mix, though it’s one so blatantly partisan that it comes across like an ad from the Democratic National Committee.

What eventually becomes astounding, however, is the degree to which DeMonaco deepens the religiously offensive elements of the second film in the series, 2014’s “The Purge: Anarchy,” into outright — and perverse — blasphemy.

The throwaway plot focuses mainly on Hillary Clinton stand-in Sen. Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). A presidential candidate whose campaign is based on opposition to the saturnalia of slaughter, Roan is in the crosshairs of the ruling cabal who established it, the absurdly named New Founding Fathers of America, or NFFA.

Struggling to protect her is her bodyguard, the hero of the last outing, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo). Gruff but good-hearted, Leo is personally as well as professionally committed to Roan and her cause.

Despite his best efforts, however, Leo and his charge end up on the dangerous streets of Washington on the big night. There they dodge malefactors before acquiring the protection of deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his younger sidekick, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and his friend, Laney (Betty Gabriel), a volunteer ambulance driver during the purge.

These are, of course, the proletarian Good People. If you were in any doubt about that, you need only reflect that Marcos is a Mexican immigrant, while Joe has just had the insurance on his beloved store cancelled by an uncaring corporation, and all uncertainty will be dispelled.

As for the Bad Guys, you just have to glance at the Confederate flag sewn onto the camouflage worn by Earl (Terry Serpico), the skinhead assassin dispatched to hunt Roan down, to gain your bearings. But Earl is merely the agent of the powerful, all-white NFFA, those guns-and-God types whose preferred future president is creepy Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor).

Owens, presumably a Protestant clergyman of an evangelical cast, serves as the conduit to the confused but vicious attack on Christianity’s most sacred beliefs and practices that coincides with the film’s climax.

Vested in something between a choir robe and priestly garb, Owens presides over a “Purge Mass” that combines the fiery oratory of a revival meeting with ritualized human sacrifice. And the venue for this infernal liturgy? The aptly named — and unmistakably Catholic — Church of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Further details would be superfluous. No person of goodwill should patronize “The Purge: Election Year.”

The film contains sacrilege and anti-Christian bias, much gory violence, about a half-dozen uses of profanity and pervasive rough and crude dialogue. 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.

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