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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

08/24/2016

Pete’s Dragon
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — The classic boy-and-his-dog story assumes outsized proportions in “Pete’s Dragon” (Disney), a warmhearted fantasy adventure suitable for teens and their elders.

This “reimagining” of the 1977 Disney musical bears little resemblance to its predecessor, which featured a singing troika of Helen Reddy, Red Buttons and Shelley Winters.

This go-round, song and dance have been jettisoned, and hokeyness gives way to thrilling action and tear-jerking moments. Star power includes Robert Redford, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Dr. McCoy of the current “Star Trek” franchise, Karl Urban.

The eponymous creature, moreover, is no longer a mere cartoon but a 3D computer-generated Brobdingnagian wonder, covered in green fur and possessing the habits and charm of a basset hound.

Redford stars as Meacham, a Pacific Northwest woodcarver who also serves as the story’s narrator. On a lonely road deep in a remote forest, a toddler named Pete (Levi Alexander) is orphaned by a tragic accident. He wanders into the woods and is adopted by a dragon whom he calls, not Puff, but Elliott.

Fast-forward six years, and Pete (now Oakes Fegley) is living happily in the company of his jolly green giant, much in the manner of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”

Meacham has long entertained locals with yarns of a monster in their midst. His daughter Grace (Howard), a forest ranger, is tolerant of his eccentric notions, but unconvinced.

In a strangely incongruous situation for a children’s movie, Grace already lives with her logger fiance, Jack (Wes Bentley), and his daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). The precise nature of Grace and Jack’s relationship is, of course, never specified.

Jack’s brother and business partner, Gavin (Urban), hears suspicious rumblings in the woods and gets ideas about going hunting.

“Pete’s Dragon” proceeds amiably on a predictable path with a heavy environmental theme. Echoes of “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” and even “King Kong” are apparent as man and nature collide. It’s a very tall tale, but a pleasantly fanciful one, directed at a gentle pace by David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”).

The film contains apparent premarital cohabitation, potentially frightening action sequences and a handful of mild oaths. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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War Dogs
By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) — Two young Florida men become improbable arms merchants in “War Dogs” (Warner Bros.), a fact-based movie that hovers uneasily between raucous comedy and serious expose.

At issue is the respective blameworthiness of the duo, the pitfalls of the Pentagon’s procurement system and — assuming every armed conflict is fuelled by the profit motive as the film suggests — the moral legitimacy of the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2005, Miami native and college dropout David Packouz (Miles Teller) is living with his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) and working as a licensed massage therapist. Seeking a better career, he tries selling bed linens to retirement homes with no success. Then he runs into Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), his childhood pal from yeshiva school whom he hasn’t seen for years.

A colourfully outsized, alternately obnoxious and charming figure, Efraim is a born hustler who has recently returned to the Sunshine State after a stint in Los Angeles hawking guns and ammo on the Internet. His latest scheme entails bidding on defence Deptartment contracts through an initiative designed to let small businesses get a slice of the military-spending pie.

He invites David to join his one-man operation, AEY Inc. They proceed to get rich by engaging in fraud and otherwise circumventing laws and regulations pertaining to the poorly administered program. To close their first major deal, they drive a truckload of guns from Amman, Jordan, to Bagdad’s Green Zone in Iraq.

Their success, and the sensitive nature of their business, does nothing to curtail their shared pot-smoking habit or Efraim’s appetite for cocaine and nightclubs. Iz, who gets pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl, is opposed to the war as well as to guns in general. So David lies to her about the nature of their work. (The wedding ring on David’s hand late in the film suggests they marry somewhere along the line, off-screen).

Eventually, Efraim and David join forces with a fugitive arms dealer named Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), which enables them to bid on a $300 million contract to supply munitions to Afghanistan. The project requires spending considerable time in Albania and does not end well.

Director Todd Phillips, known for “The Hangover” and other comedies featuring crude male bonding, wrote the screenplay along with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic. Basing it on a 2011 article published in Rolling Stone magazine, they take considerable creative license, not least in their attempt to imbue the story with antic humour via Efraim, who has much in common with Donnie Azoff, the character Hill played in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Hill’s talents as a comedic and dramatic actor are evident. But the performance feels derivative.

Phillips and his co-writers exhibit their lack of artistic resources not only by resorting to an abundance of cursing in the dialogue but by their reliance on screen titles, voice-over narration and the blasting of middling rock-and-roll songs to punctuate key moments.

The decision to make David the hero of the story — he’s far less culpable and morally corrupt than Efraim — is understandable and may even be justified by the real-life facts. But it hobbles the movie from an entertainment perspective since Teller is an amiable yet rather bland actor. Moreover, painting David as a victim of Efraim’s machinations lets him off the hook far too easily.

While offering limited insights into what enabled its scenario, “War Dogs” is content to blame the system as opposed to the choices individuals made. Phillips and company aren’t blind to the ethical consequences of their story. Yet they downplay the fact that both men were crooks and scammers, in addition to being monumentally stupid.

Declining to pass judgment is one thing. Depicting the duo as underdogs or outsiders with a penchant for stirring up trouble and defying the odds is a cop-out. So too is the film’s abrupt, cliffhanger ending, which refuses to reveal what David has learned, what he truly values, and what he’s got in the way of moral fiber.

It’s too bad “War Dogs” can’t settle on a tone and find a satisfactory balance between men-behaving-badly humour and relevant social commentary. Bent on illustrating the idea that war boils down to money, the filmmakers forget that comedy is also serious business, and can carry its own moral import.

The film contains several scenes of violence and gunplay, cohabitation, frequent drug use, pervasive rough and crude language and some sexual banter. 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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John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

The Innocents
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Luminescent, unflinchingly honest and respectful of belief, director Anne Fontaine’s drama “The Innocents” (Music Box) is a fictional story about a convent of Benedictine nuns in mid-20th-century Poland.

The film gently explores the conflicts between duty to the living and the shattered faith that can result from acts of depravity.

The screenplay by Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial is loosely based on the real-life exploits of Madeleine Pauliac, a French Red Cross doctor who worked in Poland in the months following the end of the Second World War.

Fontaine unspools the story slowly and somewhat in the manner of a fable. That compels at least an uplifting, if not a happy, ending.

This approach is at odds with the harsh reality of the movie’s grim subject matter. But Fontaine, a strong moralist, lays out a case about the constrictions of faith when it’s separated from the world around it.

Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage), the stand-in for Pauliac, is not religious. The product of a working-class communist family, she’s compassionate, practical and tenderly leads the sisters toward solutions as they learn to trust her.

In December 1945, Mathilde is first summoned to the convent, where she delivers, by C-section, the baby of a young nun. Her training doesn’t allow her to make a detailed inquiry about how this has come about, but she’s told the horrible story anyway.

Invading Soviet soldiers, several months earlier, broke into the convent and, believing it to be their right, raped the sisters, leaving at least seven of them pregnant and the abbess (Agata Kulesza) infected with syphilis.

Their isolation and fear are appalling. They have no priest, and so can’t attend mass or add nuns to their community; they can only pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Now, the degradation to which they’ve been subjected has crushed their faith or left them fearing hell for violating their vow of chastity.

Further complicating matters, if a new political regime shutters the community for ideological reasons, these nuns will become a source of scandal, lose their spiritual authority, and be left with no place where they can expect a welcome.

And what to do with the infants? The first to be born is quickly spirited away to adoptive parents. But Mathilde realizes that this will do nothing to restore the mothers. She reminds one, “It’s your duty to protect this child’s life.”

Mathilde finally wins the sisters’ confidence when she frightens away the returning soldiers by telling them the convent is under quarantine for typhus. As the frequency of the births pick up, she enlists the assistance of her sometimes-lover, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a Jewish doctor in her Red Cross unit who is dealing with survivor’s guilt in the wake of the Holocaust.

The eventual solution to the nuns’ dilemma is provoked by a tragic death. The story wraps up a little too neatly considering the circumstances. But the script’s ruminations on how believers respond to awful times are superb.

Thus Mathilde’s conduit to the workings of the convent, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), who spent some time out in the world before taking her vows, describes her faith as “24 hours of doubt for one minute of hope.”

Though never tawdry, “The Innocents” is obviously a solidly adult picture, and not one for those in search of casual fare.

In Polish and French with subtitles.

The film contains mature themes, including rape and venereal disease and several non-graphic depictions of childbirth. 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.


Ben-Hur
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Few films come to the screen with the kind of storied pedigree that lies behind “Ben-Hur” (Paramount).

Subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” Civil War Gen. Lew Wallace’s best-selling 1880 novel, which had previously been made into a wildly successful stage play, first reached audiences of the newfangled cinema way back in 1907. Since that adaptation was completely unauthorized, however, a lawsuit resulted that still stands as a landmark in the development of copyright protection.

Flash-forward nearly two decades and an epic-scale 1925 production starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman becomes, reputedly, the most expensive silent film ever made. This version struck critical gold and won popular favour, though the financial outcome — given that outsized budget — was murkier.

The popularity of biblical themes and swords-and-sandals derring-do in the Hollywood of the 1950s made an update of “Ben-Hur” almost inevitable. And so the last year of that decade saw the release of director William Wyler’s 212-minute extravaganza in which Charlton Heston, in the title role, stepped into a chariot and made movie history at breakneck speed.

All that represents quite a historical and cultural burden for director Timur Bekmambetov and his collaborators — including executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey — to bear in bringing his “re-imagining” to the screen. Which is a shame, since, considered strictly on its own terms, his iteration of Wallace’s classic story makes for a reasonably satisfying action picture.

The bad news for believers — whose hopes may have been raised by the participation of Burnett and Downey, fixtures in the world of Christian-oriented media projects — is that, primarily because of a poorly written script, this “Ben-Hur” fails to convince when Wallace’s religious theme comes to the fore.

It arrives by way of what must still be a familiar plot to many, at least in its initial setup: First-century Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) lives a prosperous life in Jerusalem, where he carries on a friendly rivalry with his Roman adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), and finds happiness through marriage to his true love, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi).

After Judah gives shelter to Dismas (Moises Arias), a young zealot who was wounded fighting against foreign rule, however, disaster strikes the House of Hur. So, too, does betrayal since Messala, now an influential army officer on the staff of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), refuses to risk his career by helping the family that took him in as a child.

Consigned to the miserable existence of a galley slave, and certain that the other members of his clan — including his mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), and sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia), for whom Messala once carried a torch — have all been executed, Judah thirsts for revenge against his foster sibling. Until, that is, multiple encounters with Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) open his eyes to the value of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Although the role of Dismas, whose subversive activities substitute for those loose roof tiles that got Heston in trouble, is an innovation, the epic sea battle and that trademark chariot race remain. Aficionados of the 1959 version may find these lacking, but they’re serviceable enough when weighed in isolation.

The real trouble arises when screenwriters Keith Clarke and John Ridley turn from mere diversion to something deeper. By skimping on the careful and time-consuming character development that would have been needed to make Judah’s ultimate conversion believable, they doom the religious dimension of “Ben-Hur” as surely as Dismas does its protagonist and his household.

What viewers are left with is the cinematic equivalent of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace, a redemption unjustified and unpersuasive precisely because it’s unearned.

Though the causalities that litter the arena as the movie’s most famous sequence progresses would normally suggest recommendation for mature viewers only, other elements are discreet enough that attendance by older teens would probably not be out of place.

The film contains generally stylized but harsh violence with several grisly deaths and some gore as well as a nongraphic marital bedroom scene. 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.

 

Kubo and the Two Strings
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — While it uses animation to recount the fantastical adventures of a young boy, “Kubo and the Two Strings” (Focus) is not really suitable for the most youthful moviegoers.

Adolescents and grownups, on the other hand, will likely have no difficulty appreciating the artistic achievement of director Travis Knight’s feature debut while simultaneously placing in their proper context those elements within it that are at odds with Christian belief.

Set in Japan at an unspecified period, this captivating fable follows Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), a street urchin, as his troubled — indeed, literally haunted — family history launches him on a quest for a magical set of armour. He’s accompanied, and protected, on the journey by a prudent monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and a courageous but accursed samurai (voice of Matthew McConaughey) whose body a spell has transformed into that of a beetle.

Rich visuals along Kubo’s odyssey are matched by the deep emotional appeal of the interaction among the characters. And melancholy alternates with touches of wit in Marc Haimes and Chris Butler’s well-crafted screenplay.

But conflicted familial relationships — Kubo’s principal adversary is his own grandfather, the Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes) — make this too serious, and potentially upsetting, for kids. Equally, an outlook on death suggesting that the departed survive only in the memory of the living would probably confuse impressionable viewers.

Most teens, however, will recognize that the story is obviously far removed from real life and that plot ingredients borrowed from the Land of the Rising Sun’s native mythology need not be taken to heart.

The film contains nonscriptural religious beliefs and stylized combat with minimal gore. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. 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.

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Florence Foster Jenkins
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Like the Second World War-era New York socialite it profiles, “Florence Foster Jenkins” (Paramount), a charmingly eccentric blend of comedy and drama, has its heart in the right place.

Yet moral complications are integral to this fact-based story, and they limit its appropriate audience, as a general matter, to discerning adults.

That’s a shame, because other objectionable elements in director Stephen Frears’ film are few, and this is, overall, a deeply humane tale from which young people might benefit.

Not content with her role as a generous and influential patron of Gotham’s music scene, Foster (Meryl Streep) yearns to take to the stage as a singer. The only difficulty is that she is spectacularly untalented. Not just bad, excruciating to a point that’s unavoidably comic.

Attempting to square this circle, and protecting Foster from the truth about her voice, becomes a full-time job for her husband, failed British actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). He shamelessly bribes the city’s newspaper critics, and assiduously restricts ticket sales to a small circle of friends willing to focus on Foster’s sincere enthusiasm rather than the outrageously awful effects she produces.

Bayfield gains an ally in his efforts when sympathetic young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) comes on board as Foster’s new accompanist. But this duo of guardians faces heightened stakes when Foster insists on booking Carnegie Hall for a night.

With characteristic deftness, Streep gets across both the full ridiculousness and the touching pathos of Foster’s situation. But her complex marital arrangement, and Bayfield’s concurrent relationship with his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), whom he maintains in a separate household, require careful sifting.

For reasons not to be revealed for fear of a spoiler, Bayfield is not the straight-out adulterer the description of his lifestyle given above might make him seem. There are circumstances beyond his control that mitigate, though they cannot fully excuse, the guilt of his actions.

In fact, Bayfield’s character evokes just as multifaceted a response from moviegoers as does Foster’s.

While his unusual love for his wife appears genuine enough, viewers are bound to ask themselves to what degree it’s tainted by the desire to share in her wealth. Nicholas Martin’s script — and Grant’s performance — successfully maintain suspense on this point for much of the running time.

The ethical conflicts at work here invite more compassion than condemnation. So parents willing to make them the starting point for a discussion about the nature of marriage and the vagaries of human love may be inclined to allow especially insightful older teens to attend.

The film contains mature themes, including adultery and venereal disease, a morning-after bedroom scene, vague references to homosexuality, at least one profanity and a couple of uses each of 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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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

Jason Bourne
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Nearly all of the characters in “Jason Bourne” (Universal) are under surveillance, being hacked, or in the gun sight of a government assassin.

Director Paul Greengrass, who co-scripted with Christopher Rouse, bookends the story with extended car and motorcycle chases, with the result that vehicle casualties considerably outnumber the body count from weapons.

Although the number of shootings does necessitate an adult rating, the film’s lack of gore and relatively mild language make this possibly acceptable for older adolescents — especially those who understand that the longer the car chase, the thinner the plot.

Matt Damon returns in the fifth big-screen outing for the monosyllabic government agent who first appeared in the novels of Robert Ludlum. He’s still seeking justice for his father, who died in a “black ops” expedition in Beirut some years earlier, and for himself, since the CIA’s Operation Treadstone turned him into a pitiless killer with memory problems.

He finally gets close to learning the truth about the project when Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), his fellow operative from the earlier instalments, downloads all the relevant files onto a flash drive with the intention of putting them online. This produces the comment, from an anxious CIA official, “We’ve just been hacked. Could be worse than Edward Snowden.”

This threat never comes to pass, though. The CIA, it seems, not only has video cameras worldwide, it can shut down any computer with just a few clicks. And since CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) prefers killing people off rather than having them arrested and imprisoned, Nicky is doomed.

The moral centre here is the CIA’s tech whiz Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) who manages to warn Jason about impending peril in the nick of time with split-second texting and protect him with a sharpshooter’s aim.

The ethics of making secret government information available to the world becomes an undeveloped story thread.

There’s also a subplot about an underhand deal between the government and tech mogul Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed). But this only serves as another way of putting Jason and Heather in shared danger.

The film contains frequent gun and physical violence and fleeting 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.

 

Indignation
By John Mulderig
 

NEW YORK (CNS) — Set in the early 1950s, the challenging drama “Indignation” (Summit) portrays a version of American society that in many ways — and for both good and ill — no longer exists.

It’s a world where an intellectually gifted young Jewish man might find himself accepted to, but isolated at, an elite college. But it’s also a time and place where atheism was considered radical and where the same young man might be surprised, indeed perplexed, by a seemingly nice young lady’s willingness to engage in sex on a first date.

Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the protagonist of both Philip Roth’s 2008 novel and screenwriter and first-time director James Schamus’ adaptation, is subject to all these circumstances. He’s also living under the shadow of the Korean War in which, as some of the opening scenes show, one of his acquaintances from his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, has recently been killed.

Having won a scholarship to fictional Winesburg College in Ohio, Marcus is safe from the draft. But that doesn’t prevent his overprotective father, Max (Danny Burstein), from worrying obsessively about his future.

In fact, Max’s behaviour is so excessive that, by the time Marcus actually departs, it’s begun to take a toll on his marriage. Marcus’ loving but sensible mother, Esther (a wonderful Linda Emond), can’t understand her husband’s endless — and apparently baseless — fretting.

Arriving on campus, Marcus sticks to his books and his job in the library, at least until fetching coed Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) catches his eye. Smitten by the WASP-y doctor’s daughter, he asks her out for an evening together that culminates in a spontaneous, degrading act on her part that confuses Marcus at least as much as it gratifies him.

Indeed, as their relationship moves forward, Olivia’s promiscuous behaviour and Marcus’ bewilderment about it prove a serious hindrance.

Another difficulty for Marcus presents itself in the person of Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), the traditionally minded embodiment of what Marcus regards as all the outmoded attitudes prevailing at Winesburg. A self-professed nonbeliever who has memorized whole passages of British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s essay “Why I Am Not a Christian,” Marcus particularly objects to the school’s requirement that he attend chapel.

Like Olivia’s wantonness, however, Marcus’ infidelity is not to be taken at face value.

Just as the former is a symptom of emotionally disturbed Olivia’s mental imbalance — we learn that she’s attempted suicide by slitting one of her wrists — so Marcus’ brash rejection of religion is part of his adolescent, and not very original, attempt at rebellion. That’s why Dean Caudwell’s response –- a strange mix of solicitude and stubbornness — drives the overly intense youth to distraction.

Based on the brief sample of it the audience is given, moreover, the predictably bland, interdenominational spirituality being parceled out in the college’s chapel is not an expression of faith in which most Catholics will feel much investment.

Schamus’ debut is obviously not for the casual moviegoer. But grown and well-grounded viewers will recognize the subtleties calibrating the story — and its message.

The film contains mature themes, including suicide and an ambivalent treatment of religion, brief violence with slight gore, discreetly portrayed but aberrant premarital sexual activity, fleeting irreverence, a couple of uses of profanity, at least one rough term and several crude expressions. 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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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

Suicide Squad
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Initially stylish but ultimately ridiculous and chaotic, the DC comics-based adventure “Suicide Squad” (Warner Bros.) also features some dubious moral values. Add to that the film’s lurid atmosphere overall and its appeal, along with its appropriate audience, dwindles still further.

If there’s any good news to be salvaged from this mess, it’s that casting Viola Davis as a tough-as-nails government bureaucrat works quite well. Davis plays hard-bitten intelligence agent Amanda Waller. Waller’s pet project is the creation of the combat team of the title, an ensemble of violent villains she’s determined to spring from prison and put at the service of the government.

The leading figures in this dirty half-dozen are skilled assassin Floyd Lawton (Will Smith), aka Deadshot, and psychiatrist-turned-psychopath Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), or Dr. Harleen Quinzel in her old job.

Together with Australian killer Boomerang (Jai Courtney), arsonist Diablo (Jay Hernandez), skin disease-afflicted brute Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and escape artist Slipknot (Adam Beach), Deadshot and Quinn find themselves placed under the command of the military’s leading special ops warrior, Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and compelled to do Waller’s bidding. Their first mission is to take on an evil specter whose campaign of destruction has forced the evacuation of an entire city.

Whence this malignant spirit? Well, it seems that archaeologist June Moone (Cara Delevingne), Flag’s true love, got more than she bargained for when she went barging into an Aztec temple one day. She not only unleashed — and became possessed by — a long-dead witch called the Enchantress, she also summoned up the Enchantress’ brother, thus ultimately enabling his current bout of urban non-renewal.

As if to complicate a murky plot still further, Batman’s (Ben Affleck) longstanding adversary, the Joker (Jared Leto), gets added to the mix, pursuing an agenda of his own. Primarily, that means reuniting with his girlfriend, Quinn, whose love — or at least lust — he won in prison, and whom he then drove bonkers using the tools of electroshock therapy.

And then, straight out of left field, there’s Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a lady samurai whose deceased husband’s soul is trapped in her sword. For no very clear reason, she winds up tagging along on the quest to quell the Enchantress’ sibling as well.

Writer-director David Ayer’s film is barely passable while the action is chugging along. But scenes attempting to give moral shading to the characters — and bonding them as a pseudo-family — misfire completely.

Viewers are supposed to be impressed by the fact that career hitman Deadshot loves his young daughter, Zoe (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon), for instance. More persuasively, Diablo expresses his penitence for having misused the fire that shoots from his hands at will by refusing to employ this supernatural gift — at least, that is, until the script really needs him to for the sake of an explosive finale.

The film contains pervasive action violence but with minimal gore, scenes of debased sensuality, a couple of uses of profanity, and much crude and 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.

 

Cafe Society
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — “Love is an emotion, and emotions aren’t rational,” a character muses midway through writer-director Woody Allen’s seriocomic “Cafe Society” (Lionsgate).

This variation on “the heart wants what the heart wants” — a saying ultimately traceable, in a slightly different form, to an Emily Dickinson poem — is not a lucid theme here.

Allen’s love triangle, perpetually set in orange sunlight in both its Hollywood and New York settings to evoke nostalgia, whirls its central characters through several painful romantic entanglements.

These men and women are all one-dimensional archetypes, however. Sincerity, moreover, gives way to Allen’s one-liners, and no one becomes any wiser for their experiences.

In 1936, Bronx-bred Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who no longer wants to help out in his father Marty’s (Ken Stott) jewelry store, decides to leave his supportive family to find a job with his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful agent out in Tinseltown.

Phil fixes contracts, drops names and solves such dilemmas as “Adolphe Menjou is threatening to walk off the set!” He doesn’t have much beyond menial errands for Bobby. But to help the lad acclimate to his new surroundings, Phil introduces him to his lissome secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).

Bobby and Vonnie quickly hit it off, although he doesn’t realize that the journalist boyfriend of whom she often speaks is actually Uncle Phil, who wants to leave his wife. No one in Hollywood, including Nebraska-born Vonnie, is the person he or she appears to be — although Vonnie is very clear-eyed about her life choices.

When Bobby learns the truth, he gives up on L.A., returning to Gotham to manage a new nightclub owned by his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). This leads to more glamorous nightlife and eventually to marriage with shimmering blond heiress Veronica (Blake Lively).

Allen, who provides a lot of needless narration in lieu of plot, stages all the necessary confrontations and arguments. He then brings the whole ensemble together at the end to ponder their decisions and the melancholy they’ve brought on themselves.

Even so, any sustained, serious engagement with topics like marital fidelity gets lost amid Allen’s trademark humour.

The film contains bloodless gun violence, mature themes, including adultery and prostitution, a drug reference, several uses of profanity and at least one crude term. 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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