Catholic News Service Movie Reviews


Queen of Katwe
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The glorious “Queen of Katwe” (Disney) applies the traditional formula of an uplifting sports drama to the real-life story of a Ugandan chess prodigy.

The film then goes in unexpected directions to expose the scars horrific poverty can leave on the human soul.

The principal characters are all presented obliquely as Christian, and Phiona Mutesi’s (Madina Nalwanga) first exposure to chess comes through a sports ministry. But religious faith and practice aren’t really shown here.

The hero is Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary and former soccer player who starts a chess club in an abandoned church in Katwe, a shantytown outside Uganda’s capital city, Kampala.

He turns down an opportunity to pursue a lucrative career in engineering so he can teach the village children a skill that will enable them to expand their minds. “This is a place for fighters,” he tells them.

Phiona is illiterate, since her widowed mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), a vegetable peddler, can’t afford to send her children to school. Her older sister, Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze), has temporarily escaped the shantytown squalor by living with an older man who provides her with money that she passes on to Harriet.

Phiona’s introduction to chess is a simple explanation from another girl who tells her what each piece does, finishing with “They all kill each other.”

Phiona’s an outcast even among other poor children; they’ve decided that she smells bad. She faces further scorn any time she defeats a boy.

In adapting Tim Crothers’ book “The Queen of Katwe,” director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler don’t attempt to explain the vagaries of chess, other than to demonstrate, in one scene, Phiona’s particular talent with three-dimensional thinking. Instead they concentrate on her relationships with the people around her.

The scrappy poor kids of Katwe eventually take on wealthy, educated youngsters at a college tournament, and from there on, Phiona’s exposure to the outside world grows. It’s accompanied by a sudden outbreak of low self-esteem, however, as she realizes that her life has had severely limited possibilities.

From this point on, the story picks up speed as it observes the sports-film formula. Phiona has a major defeat at a Russian tournament, suffers from despair, successfully wrestles with her inner demons and steels herself for future victories.

There’s no condescension to the poverty, which is shown matter-of-factly — and without a trace of self-pity. The result is a remarkably inspirational movie about the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

The film contains references to cohabitation. 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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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.


The Birth of a Nation
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Nat Turner’s Rebellion, an 1831 insurrection among the enslaved people of Southampton County, Virginia, represented the most serious challenge of its kind ever posed to slavery in the antebellum South.

Although brief, the uprising exacted scores of white fatalities while its savage suppression involved the legally sanctioned executions of a roughly equal number of African-Americans — as well as the deaths of many more at the hands of enraged mobs.

Turner’s life is movingly dramatized in “The Birth of a Nation” (Fox Searchlight). Making ironic use of the title of D.W. Griffith’s technically innovative but otherwise deplorable 1915 film about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, writer-director Nate Parker, who also stars as Turner, presents audiences with an engrossing profile.

Taught to read at an early age, Turner becomes a committed and eloquent preacher. But his gifts are turned to perverse use when his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), agrees, for a fee, to let him tour nearby plantations delivering sermons in favour of submission.

Times are hard and local planters, feeling the pinch, have taken measures like reducing rations. The result has been the restlessness and resentment Turner’s exhortations are meant to quell.

Yet the arrangement turns out to have wholly unexpected consequences. As he witnesses the range of inhumanities to which his fellow slaves are routinely subjected, Turner gradually becomes radicalized. And these barbaric acts are soon matched by brutalities that strike closer to home, affecting both Turner himself and his beloved wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King).

Overwhelmed by this succession of atrocious events, Turner begins to view the message of Scripture in an entirely new light.

Christian faith is obviously central to Parker’s film, his directorial debut. So too are the moral issues raised by the short-lived but bloody revolt he chronicles.

An individual tyrant, for instance, has traditionally been viewed, at least in Catholic theology, as an opponent of the common good against whom violent measures may legitimately be taken. But does the same apply to an entire class of oppressors, including women and children?

Parker handles all this with sensitivity and subtlety while nonetheless presenting Turner in an unequivocally positive light.

The educational value of “The Birth of a Nation” would normally suggest expanding its audience to include at least some teens. Yet the amount of cruel mayhem inherent in this story is so extensive that even many mature viewers will find it difficult to endure.

The film contains strong gory violence, including torture and an off-screen rape, a scene of marital intimacy, upper female nudity, a few uses of profanity and a handful of crude and crass terms. 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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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.



The Accountant
By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) — In effect, the action-drama “The Accountant” (Warner Bros.) argues that those with autism have a license to kill as well as to abet a litany of other criminal activities.

If this summation makes the movie sound preposterous and morally bankrupt, then so be it. After doing the math, it’s the only deduction one can draw.

Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, an autistic man with a genius for crunching numbers and the ability to dispatch adversaries with brutal precision. Wolff’s story is relayed via a series of flashbacks to his turbulent childhood. In the present day, he runs a one-person accounting firm out of a Chicago-area strip mall. Although he lives modestly and takes great pains not to draw attention to himself, he’s amassed a fortune by working as a forensic accountant for drug cartels, mobsters and various despots around the world. 

His mathematical talent is innate, but owing to rigorous training provided by his father, a military officer, he’s become an expert marksman and lethal fighter — skills that come in handy given the nature of his clientele.

In other respects, Wolff presents as a caricature of someone on the autism spectrum. A slave to order and routine, he’s extremely methodical and thorough. Outwardly stolid, he lacks social skills and is unable to make small talk or pick up on non-literal types of communication. His array of adaptive behaviours enables him to cope day-to-day while safely conducting his dangerous business, which amounts to solving complex puzzles for illicit enterprises. Ultimately, he seems to enjoy the work too much.

At the urging of his unidentified handler — a woman’s voice on the telephone — Wolff takes on a legitimate customer. At a robotics manufacturing firm, a junior staffer, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), has spotted irregularities in the company’s books and he’s hired to find out where the money has gone.

Meanwhile, Treasury Department official Ray King (J.K. Simmons) assigns a young analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to discover the identity of the mathematical whiz known in criminal circles only as The Accountant. A mysterious hit man called Brax (Jon Bernthal) is also stalking him.

Director Gavin O’Connor’s presentation of the absurdly convoluted plot is uneven and sometimes ham-fisted. While the attempt to find levity in Wolff’s condition is a welcome respite from the grim proceedings, it also feels borderline offensive. Generally wooden acting doesn’t make the movie’s conceit any easier to swallow.

Despite its high, though not graphic, level of violence and a steady flow of bad language, “The Accountant” might be chalked up as a fairly intriguing, imperfectly executed twist on a durable entertainment formula. Preventing that from happening is the fact that the film doubles down on its perverse premise by making an explicit plea for greater sensitivity toward those who aren’t “NT” — neurotypicals.

To argue that the autistic should be considered “different” rather than abnormal or freakish is both plausible and valuable. Yet this message is undercut because Wolff is given a pass morally and is not accountable for his actions. The movie asks the viewer to show understanding toward Wolff, when, ironically, he shows no mercy or empathy toward his many victims. Indeed, there’s scant indication he is able to discern right from wrong. There a several vague mentions of him operating according his own moral code, though it’s difficult to say what that might be. 

Surely it’s not the idea that it’s OK to murder and facilitate crime as long as you’re funding research and supporting the humane treatment of the autistic.

Philosophically, the movie highlights the danger of lapsing into relativism when the celebration of “difference” goes too far. Christian Wolff is handicapped in a crucial respect, one that is fundamental to humanity. He is deeply flawed as a moral being and ought to be judged and treated differently than those who experience remorse and, whether or not they are able express it, change their behaviour accordingly.

In this regard, “The Accountant” does more than merely trivialize its subject matter. One might say it sets the cause of autism awareness back decades or more to a period comparable to a moral Dark Ages.

The film contains frequent intense gun violence and hand-to-hand combat and much rough, crude and profane 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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McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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Kevin Hart: What Now?
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Everything about the concert film “Kevin Hart: What Now?” (Universal) — aside from the comic himself — is oversized.

That includes the rock-concert setting at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and the giant video screens used to illustrate his stories. It also applies to Hart’s many attempts to make fun of his own life, in which he now confronts mostly rich-people problems.

His language gets raunchy. But his routine is never bawdy, mean-spirited or smutty.

Vocabulary aside, there are two main problems here: A framing device of Hart in a James Bond-style movie, directed by Tim Story, isn’t particularly funny or original. And Leslie Small, the director of the stand-up sequences, is stuck with long close-ups of Hart contorting himself and squealing to sell his jokes before the 50,000 people in the stadium.

Hart’s frantic gestures are clearly less appealing when magnified on the big screen.

Hart carefully turns all his anecdotes against himself. Though proud of having a suburban mansion, for instance, he talks of the surly raccoon that bedevils him as well as the fearful results of having a long, unlit driveway. He also worries that expensive private schooling has caused his 7-year-old son to lose his “edge” and ability to cope in a difficult world.

Other familiar themes include his vain attempts to communicate with his fiancee, his father’s difficulties with any form of technology and that old stand-by, ordering coffee at a Starbucks.

The film contains occasional profanities and pervasive 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.



Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Kids the same age as its preteen main character are clearly the target audience for “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” (Lionsgate/CBS Films).

But numerous elements in the film seem ill-suited to such youthful viewership. In particular, parents may not care for the underlying message of this comedy which charts — with glowing approval — its protagonist’s revolt against scholastic authority.

Naturally, the script — penned by Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Kara Holden — gives Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) an ostensibly good reason for his rebellion. Having been shown the door at two previous institutions, artistically gifted but mildly troubled Rafe lands at Hills Village Middle School only to find it ruled by rigid Principal Dwight (Andy Daly) and his excessively restrictive code of conduct: No wearing this or that item of clothing, no loitering in the halls, no touching the trophy case, etc.

In response, Rafe launches a campaign of mostly harmless pranks, each designed to be a blatant and humorous violation of one of Principal Dwight’s petty regulations. Drawing on the spelling of his name, he gives his insurrection the motto “Rules Aren’t for Everyone.”

Rafe is aided in planning and executing his stunts by his best friend, Leo (Thomas Barbusca). He’s also supported, in his results at least, by Jeanne (Isabela Moner), the sprightly classmate for whom he has fallen, though she’s not in on the secret of who’s behind the hijinks.

The opening scene has shown us that Rafe likes to stay awake all night drawing, and the fact that he and Leo now pass the wee hours carrying out their low-key deviltry will raise another red flag for grownups.

Despite the benign nature of much of Rafe’s uprising, director Steve Carr’s screen version of James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts’ novel does briefly veer into endorsing vandalism. This arises in connection with Rafe’s domestic troubles.

His sympathetic mom, Jules (Lauren Graham), has agreed to marry — and, from the time of the engagement, has already shacked up with — her creep of a boyfriend, Carl (Rob Riggle). As the audience figures out long before Jules ever does, Carl’s true love is his expensive sports car. Thus this vehicle becomes a target in Rafe and his younger sister Georgia’s (Alexa Nisenson) war on Carl, a battle that parallels the one Rafe is waging at school.

As the live action alternates with animated sequences — Rafe’s cartoon sketches come to life — much of the juvenile humour hovers at the level of a routine sitcom episode. Perhaps surprisingly, the film’s dramatic elements, by contrast, are handled deftly and to poignant effect.

Even this asset entails another warning to parents, though, since the serious part of the story revolves around the death from cancer, before the movie starts, of Rafe’s younger brother.

All told, while “Middle School” is probably acceptable for older teens, their juniors should only be given permission to see it after very careful consideration — if at all.

The film contains cohabitation, youthful defiance of authority, mature themes, including the death of a child, much scatological humor, a handful of crass terms, some wordplay and brief sexual references. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. 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 Girl on the Train
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — “The Girl on the Train” (Universal), director Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel, is a film that would like to be taken seriously.

The dialogue is meant to be weighty and the time-hopping presentation of events challenging — even deliberately confusing — for viewers.

For all its artsy pretensions, however, this seamy suburban melodrama ultimately has the feel of a sometimes voyeuristic anecdote told by a persistent barfly. While merely unpleasant at first, moreover, the movie reaches a profoundly immoral conclusion as an act of justifiable self-defense gets mixed up with revenge at its rawest.

Admittedly, Taylor does manage to elicit an intense performance from Emily Blunt in the central role of unemployed alcoholic Rachel Watson, the passenger of the title who also serves as narrator.

Obsessed about the breakup of her marriage to her now-remarried ex, Tom (Justin Theroux), aimless Rachel spends her time riding the train that passes directly by their former home along the Hudson River, where Tom now lives with his new bride, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). She also becomes fixated on Megan and Scott (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans), the seemingly perfect couple who live just a few houses up the track.

So when Rachel observes Megan apparently cheating on Scott, she’s outraged enough — and thinking in a sufficiently blurry way as a result of the booze — to try to intervene in these strangers’ lives. What follows is a tangled tale of addiction, adultery and murder with a semi-paranoid feminist theme and a male villain straight from central casting at the Lifetime network.

Mixed into it all are intrusive visits to various couples’ bedrooms and one duo’s shower. There’s even some cavorting in the nearby woods. Private life in New York’s tony Westchester County hasn’t seemed this disorderly since the great John Cheever last put down his pen.

What really pushes the picture over the ethical edge, however, is its wrap-up, a nasty bit of mayhem the audience is invited to approve and applaud. There’s a visceral appeal here to moviegoers’ basest instincts that’s only aggravated by the fact that it follows closely on a more morally sound, though barely less violent, development.

The film contains skewed values, some brutal violence with gore, strong sexual content, including graphic adultery and marital lovemaking as well as full nudity, a couple of uses of profanity and pervasive rough and occasional 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.


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Director Tim Burton is on his home turf with the gothic fantasy “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (Fox).

While his adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ 2011 novel is mildly entertaining, however, it’s hobbled by an overly complicated premise and by the head-scratching implications of time travel.

Bridging the film’s two settings, present-day Florida and the Britain of the 1940s, is kindly grandfather Abraham ‘Abe’ Portman (Terence Stamp). As a boy during World War II, Abe had been sent from his native Poland to a remote island off the coast of Wales where he had found a refuge in the institution of the title.

Though he has a frayed relationship with his son, Frank (Chris O’Dowd), Abe and his grandson, Jake (Asa Butterfield), are the best of friends, and Abe delights in regaling Jake with tales of the otherworldly goings-on he experienced at Miss Peregrine’s (Eva Green) establishment. As he gets older, though, Jake becomes skeptical about Abe’s yarns, to the detriment of their bond.

Following Abe’s mysterious death, which seems to be linked to his past, Jake convinces Frank to take him to Wales where he hopes to learn the truth about grandpa’s childhood.

Once there, Jake enters the “time loop” which allows Miss Peregrine and her charges — all of them endowed with paranormal gifts — to live the same day in the fall of 1943 over and over again. Each evening, we learn, they magically reverse time at precisely the moment a Luftwaffe bomb is about to obliterate their Victorian mansion.

As Jake falls for Emma (Ella Purnell), a girl who can float through the air, and battles an eyeless villain named Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), familiar Hollywood tropes about the value of being different from everyone else and substituting a self-selected family for an inadequate biological one are trotted out yet again. Jake discovers that he, too, is a “peculiar,” and receives from Miss Peregrine and her kids the love and attention good-hearted but ineffectual Frank has always failed to deliver.

While too scary for tots — one scene shows Barron and his evil cohorts feasting on gouged-out eyeballs — “Miss Peregrine” is generally well suited for their older siblings, many of whom will likely appreciate its macabre elements. There’s mayhem aplenty, but it’s almost all bloodless. Accordingly, only the occasional touch of slightly vulgar language, together with a couple of lapses where the Second Commandment is concerned, will raise a red flag for parents.

The film contains much stylized violence with minimal gore, some disturbing images, at least one use of profanity, a milder oath and a few crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.


By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — An overheated tone and characters’ questionable tactics in the struggle against abortion undercut the obviously good intentions behind the pro-life drama “Voiceless” (ArtAffects).

While it’s clearly meant to serve as a cinematic rallying cry for the protection of the innocent, the film instead runs the risk of reinforcing the stereotype of irate, crusading picketers collaring women in vulnerable situations.

Writer-director Pat Necerato’s protagonist is Jesse Dean (Rusty Joiner), a former Special Forces soldier, “self-taught in theology,” who runs an inner-city Philadelphia church’s outreach centre where he teaches boxing. A new arrival in what the movie portrays as a dysfunctional City of Brotherly Love, Jesse is understandably dismayed to find an abortion mill operating across the street.

Previously uninvolved in the political controversy, but with a personal stake in the issue shared by his wife, Julia (Jocelyn Cruz), Jesse works to get his fellow parishioners mobilized to shutter the place.

Pastor Gil (James Russo) is opposed to this type of activism. But Jesse is spurred on by his Scottish-born neighbour, Elsie (Susan Moses). Elsie’s husband helped found the church but she has ceased to worship there because of the proximity of evil across the way.

Angry exchanges ensue. After he learns that a woman who had an abortion at the facility has committed suicide, for instance, Jesse rushes into the building, which has unrealistically ineffective security, heatedly confronting the receptionist at the front desk.

Matters escalate with an incident in which an abortion advocate (John G. Pavelec) turns up with a pistol, threatens everyone, and is killed by the police. Despite the heightened stakes, Jesse perseveres in his efforts, assuring Julia, “This is what God would want.”

Viewers committed to the sanctity of human life will sympathize with Jesse’s frustration and outrage. Yet, just as the movie centreing on him seems unlikely to change the minds of the misguided about this sorrowful topic, so too his approach to the moral horror of legal killing, while admirable for its fervor and persistence, lacks reflection and prayerfulness.

The film contains a scene of gun violence with slight gore and mature themes. 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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