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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

07/13/2016

The Secret Life of Pets
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Back in 1995, the classic children’s film “Toy Story” purported to show audiences what playthings get up to when they aren’t being observed by people. Now “The Secret Life of Pets” (Universal) does much the same for domesticated animals.

The result is an entertaining animated free-for-all in which amusing characters and pleasing visuals of the Manhattan setting predominate over a serviceable but sketchy plot.

Terrier Max (voice of Louis C.K.) is the pampered pooch of New York apartment dweller Katie (voice of Ellie Kemper). Max’s only complaint is that Katie’s work separates them for much of the day.

While she’s gone, though, Max is free to cavort with the other pets in the neighbourhood, including Gidget (voiced by Jenny Slate), a fluffy Pomeranian who harbours a secret crush on him. With their owners absent, the animals not only communicate with one another, they act in all sorts of ways the humans never suspect.

Max’s mostly pleasant routine is suddenly disrupted one evening when Katie brings home big, shaggy Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet), a rescue dog from the pound. Though Duke initially tries his best to be friendly, Max, feeling threatened, rebuffs him. It’s not long before the two sink into a rivalry that leads to the series of comic misadventures to which helmer Chris Renaud, together with co-director Yarrow Cheney, devotes most of his attention.

As Max and Duke go inadvertently on the lam — and struggle to evade the city’s animal enforcement officers — they fall in with a variety of colourful personalities.

These include Snowball (voice of Kevin Hart), a diminutive rabbit whose manners, vocabulary and fondness for violence incongruously mimic those of a crazed gang leader, as well as a hawk named Tiberius (voice of Albert Brooks). Tiberius has an ongoing ethical dilemma: he’s torn between his desire to befriend other creatures and his urge to devour them.

The upshot of it all is that Max and Duke’s mutual hostility begins to melt away in the face of shared adversity. And romance blossoms as Gidget proves her mettle in Max’s hour of need.

Targeted tots will learn lessons about accepting the arrival of a younger sibling and about the value of self-sacrifice. The smallest moviegoers, however, may be put off by the dangers that loom on screen while some parents may not be pleased by all the litterbox humour on display there.

Those mild lapses in taste aside, “The Secret Life of Pets” makes for an experience as warm and fuzzy as a cuddle with your favourite puppy or kittycat. The feature is preceded by an animated short, “Mower Minions,” in which the pixilated creatures of the title attempt to raise some cash by doing yardwork — with predictably chaotic, and hilarious, consequences.

The film contains potentially frightening scenes of peril, considerable cartoon violence and numerous scatological jokes involving animals. 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 of Catholic News Service.

 

The Legend of Tarzan
By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) — Just beneath the surface of “The Legend of Tarzan” (Warner Bros.), a Gilbert and Sullivan opera is trying to claw its way out.

That’s not to say the latest big-screen take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Lord of the Jungle” creation is remotely clever or lyrical, only that it’s a wee bit silly and unspools just a few Victorian gentleman’s whiskers shy of an overblown parody.

A loud summertime diversion, the movie wants to provide something for everybody — at least those seeking a history lesson, a passionate romance, or a rousing adventure in which the good guys are easy to distinguish from the bad. And yet, despite also offering many stabs at humor, the topsy-turvy, tongue-in-cheek quality reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan is mostly inadvertent.

The whiff of satirical intent emanating from “The Legend of Tarzan” derives from how much it strains to frame the material in ways contemporary audiences will connect with and find relevant.

No doubt, the topics of slavery, animal rights, environmental degradation, greed and the military abuses of colonialism are pertinent. But director David Yates and screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer handle them in such a clumsily overt manner that it drains both the seriousness and the fun out of the experience. All the work is done for the audience; there are no blanks left to fill or connections to draw.

In sum, the movie is so eager-to-please it emits an air of desperation. During the opening sequence, this sense of panic is discernible in the fearful, discombobulated expressions on the faces of Belgian soldiers as they clash with tribal warriors in the circa-1884 Congo.

After mowing down numerous tribesmen, every soldier is killed. The only survivor is the civilian leading them. He’s Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), the wicked emissary of Belgium’s King Leopold.

Sent by his bankrupt monarch to organize the systematic exploitation of the Congo’s people and natural resources, Rom’s long-range plan entails mass enslavement and the deployment of vicious mercenaries. His immediate task is to save his own skin by striking a deal with the fierce Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who demands a certain personage be brought to him in exchange for Rom’s initial quarry, a fortune in diamonds.

Cut to10 Downing Street, London, where John Clayton, the Earl of Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgaard), is being urged to accept King Leopold’s invitation to travel to the Congo on behalf of Great Britain. As we learn in a series of gauzy flashbacks, that’s where he became an orphan and, after being reared by gorillas, gained fame as Tarzan. It’s also where he ran afoul of Chief Mbonga.

Now, eight years after arriving in England with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie) — also raised in the Congo, albeit in more conventional fashion as the daughter of an American teacher in a Congolese village — Lord Greystoke wants to lead the quiet life of an aristocrat. Still, the lure of Africa is impossible to resist.

Unaware they are being led into a trap, Tarzan and Jane go back to the Congo accompanied by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American soldier-turned-humanitarian who is conducting his own fact-finding mission.

The irreverent use to which a rosary is put will dismay Catholic viewers. Rather than fiendishly twirl the ends of his mustache, as a stereotypical villain might, Rom fingers the string of prayer beads that are always in his right hand. Far worse, the cruel, power-hungry bureaucrat uses his rosary — made of “Madagascar spider silk” and given to him by a priest when he was a boy — as a lethal weapon.

Skarsgaard acquits himself well enough considering he isn’t required to speak very many lines, let alone deliver any dramatic speeches. His purpose is to appear chiseled, scarred and brooding, alternately the sensitive lover in a romance novel and an enormously powerful action figure capable of swatting aside soulless outsiders and uniting the human and zoological denizens of the Congo against a common enemy. Robbie is a lovely and capable, if slightly shrill, Jane.

Purportedly modelled on a real yet unidentified historical figure (as is Rom), Jackson’s character Williams serves as comic relief. He also provides an American and African-American perspective on slavery. After fighting in the Civil War, he becomes a mercenary and wants to atone for atrocities he committed against Native Americans and Mexicans during the earlier phase of his life.

Visually, “The Legend of Tarzan” has a stiff, cartoonish quality — call it digital arthritis — and won’t awe a new generation of moviegoers as they behold Tarzan swinging through the jungle on vines. The animal sequences are comparatively realistic however, which is surprising since no live animals appear on camera.

Nevertheless, during the action scenes it’s unlikely viewers will ever forget they’re watching computer-generated effects. And the romantic interludes resemble perfume commercials. The music is overbearing and predictable throughout.

At one comparatively quiet juncture, Rom tells his captive Jane, “People love a good story.” He’s correct, and that’s why the filmmakers should have let the plot and pictures speak for themselves. Their misguided effort to coddle the audience by spelling everything out prevents them from spinning a consistently entertaining yarn.

The film contains frequent non-graphic violence, a scene of mild marital sensuality, irreverent behaviour and humour as well as several uses of profanity, crass language and rude banter, 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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McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — The nuptials turn nasty in “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” (Fox). This potentially enjoyable comedy from director Jake Szymanski departs from its initial promise as a conversion story and instead follows an all-too-familiar path to the gutter.

Fed up with their misbehaviour and womanizing at social events, the family of hard-partying brothers Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) Stangle insist they bring dates to their younger sister Jeanie’s (Sugar Lyn Beard) destination wedding in Hawaii. The hope is that such companionship will stabilize them.

But best friends Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza), the apparently nice girls the lads eventually end up with, after posting an ad on Craigslist, are not what they seem. Mild mayhem and clan conflict ensue.

Through it all, the four main characters supposedly mature, becoming both more self-aware and less selfish. Yet, as scripted by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, the vaguely fact-based film slides in the opposite direction.

In adapting the real-life siblings’ 2015 memoir “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates: And a Thousand Cocktails,” the screenwriters seek to reap laughs from recreational pill popping and bizarre sex acts as well as from situations made awkward by their violation of the incest taboo. The upshot for viewers with any sense of morality or taste is a match made in hell.

The film contains strong sexual content including graphic premarital and aberrant activity as well as full nudity; much sexual humour; occasional irreverence; benignly viewed drug use; about a dozen uses of profanity; and pervasive rough and crude language. 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.

 

The Infiltrator
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Though it’s adapted from Robert Mazur’s memoir of his takedown of the Medellin drug cartel in the 1980s, bankers, not cocaine smugglers, are the real villains in “The Infiltrator” (Broad Green).

The lackluster film, however, doesn’t explain money laundering by Panamanian financiers as well as it showcases Mazur (Bryan Cranston) as an amiable and moral family man leading a double life.

Incredible as it seems today — when all identities are presumably traceable online — Mazur, a U.S. Customs agent, could play “international banker” Bob Musella all day, and still return each evening to a quiet domestic life in Tampa, Florida.

His false persona came complete with an elaborate fake office and a private aircraft supplied through government seizure. On the downside, it also involved fighting gun battles and getting run off roads in high-speed chases.

This obviously must have taken a psychological toll. But director Brad Furman and screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman (the helmer’s mother) downplay this aspect in favour of keeping the multinational deceptions going.

Mazur/Musella’s biggest weapon isn’t a gun — he doesn’t even seem to carry one — but rather a tape recorder hidden in his briefcase.

There are a lot of bad guys to deceive: friendly Panamanian bankers who will disguise any transaction if asked, flamboyant Colombian drug lord Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez) as well as Ospina’s chief distributor, Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt). Mazur woos Alcaino with the help of Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), an undercover agent on her first assignment who poses as Mazur’s fiancee.

Along the way, Mazur also clashes with fellow operative Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), who gets him into several dangerous scrapes, and with an informant, Dominic (Joseph Gilgun), who enjoys describing the painful means of death that await if Mazur’s elaborate ruse goes awry.

Somewhere in all of this the suspense goes missing. The banking scenes register as light comedy while Mazur’s lengthy efforts to ingratiate himself with Alcaino have the flavor of a domestic drama.

No one discusses the toll of cocaine on addicts, or how drug use leads on to more lethal crimes. Instead, the smuggling is only viewed as an easy way to make considerable money at a time when the U.S. government’s response to addiction largely consisted of the slogan “Just Say No.”

The film contains gun violence with some gore, drug use, implied aberrant sexual activity as well as frequent profane, 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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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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