Catholic News Service Movie Reviews


Hacksaw Ridge
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

That statement is vividly realized in “Hacksaw Ridge” (Summit), which recounts the extraordinary heroism of Army medic Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) during the Battle of Okinawa in the closing days of the Second World War.

A committed Christian and conscientious objector who refused to bear arms, Doss was nonetheless eager to serve his country. He single-handedly saved the lives of more than 75 wounded soldiers while under constant enemy fire, earning him the Medal of honour, awarded by Congress.

Director Mel Gibson, working from a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, presents his fact-based drama in two parts. The first probes Doss’ childhood and upbringing in rural Virginia, while the second unfolds on Okinawa, atop a jagged cliff nicknamed “Hacksaw Ridge” for the brutality of the Japanese offensive there.

War is indeed hell, as Gibson pulls no punches in extreme battle scenes reminiscent of “Saving Private Ryan.” Awash in blood and gore, with heads blown off and soldiers set afire by napalm, the violence is no doubt realistic, but will necessarily restrict this film’s audience to those adults willing to endure such sights.

We first meet Desmond as a spirited boy (Darcy Bryce) who is losing a fistfight with his older brother, Hal (Roman Guerriero). Desmond picks up a brick and strikes Hal, knocking him out cold.

Recoiling in horror, the boy fears he has killed his sibling (shades of Cain and Abel). He hasn’t, but the incident shakes him to the core, and inspires his steadfast pacifism.

“To take another man’s life is the greatest sin of all,” his kindly mother, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), reminds her son, citing their beliefs as Seventh-day Adventists.

Fast forward 15 years, and both sons have enlisted, to the dismay of their abusive father, Tom (Hugo Weaving). veteran of the First World War, he knows firsthand the horror and futility of war.

But Desmond is keen to play his part, despite the misgivings of his fiancee, local nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). “While others are taking life, I will be saving it,” he reassures her.

Needless to say, Desmond faces ridicule and beatings by his fellow recruits at boot camp, who regard him as a freak and coward. The platoon’s leader, Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn), and the company’s commander, Capt. Glover (Sam Worthington), make his life miserable, and lobby for his discharge.

But Doss holds firm, calling himself a “conscientious co-operator.” A military court rules that he may serve as a medic, and not bear arms.

Once on Okinawa, Doss proves his mettle and earns the respect of his platoon as he runs back and forth on the battlefield to remove the wounded. His nearly superhuman actions would seem farfetched were they not true.

As might be expected with Gibson at the helm, “Hacksaw Ridge” does not sideline Doss’ religious convictions, which are integral to his story and his performance on Okinawa. With Dorothy’s Bible in his breast pocket, Desmond utters the cry, “Please God, let me get one more,” as he repeatedly plunges back into the abyss.

References to baptism and the resurrection give “Hacksaw Ridge” a transcendent, messianic quality that draws comparison with Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” As did that film, “Hacksaw Ridge” uses the pain and bloodletting it portrays to inspire viewers with a redeeming Christian message.

The film contains graphic war violence with much gore, brief rear male nudity, a scene of marital sensuality and considerable profane and crude 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 R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.


Doctor Strange
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — What Tilda Swinton can conceive, Benedict Cumberbatch can achieve in “Doctor Strange” (Disney).

As directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, this first big-screen adventure for the Marvel Comics superhero who debuted in print back in 1963 showcases a surfeit of magical nonsense and New Age rigmarole concerning spell-casting, astral bodies and the like.

When a car accident severely damages his hands, blighting his career, brilliant but egotistical neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) feverishly pursues conventional treatments. But none holds out any hope of restoring his steady touch.

Desperately frustrated, he lashes out at the one sympathetic figure in his life, his long-suffering ex-girlfriend and current colleague, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). The resulting breach makes his emotional isolation complete.

Acting on a tip from recovered paraplegic Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), Strange travels to Nepal to meet the guru (Swinton) Pangborn claims brought about his seemingly miraculous cure. Her followers refer to this bald, and otherwise unnamed, personage as “the Ancient One.”

When Strange’s skeptical materialism proves a hard nut to crack, the Ancient One launches him on a series of giddy rides across the cosmos, trips during which the audience might be forgiven for half expecting him to run into the ghost of Timothy Leary or the lineup of Jefferson Airplane circa “White Rabbit.”

Convinced by these odd odysseys, Strange places himself, more or less wholeheartedly, under his new spiritual master’s tutelage. He receives a mix of martial-arts and metaphysical training from one of her disciples, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He also gets some arcane book-learning courtesy of her comically poker-faced and reticent librarian, Wong (Benedict Wong).

Instead of the healing he was initially searching for, however, Strange discovers a sort of otherworldly vocation as he becomes a warrior in the struggle between his newfound mentor and Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One’s who has embraced the forces of evil.

“Doctor Strange” features some spectacular special effects reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” And the acting rises well above the genre average, placing it in the company of the best “Iron Man” outings.

The film contains pervasive occult dialogue and action, some stylized violence, fleeting gory images 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 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.


By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Parents trolling for family fare at the multiplex need look no further than “Trolls” (Fox).

This loopy but charming animated comedy — which, happily, has nothing whatever to do with bad behaviour on the Internet — makes enjoyable viewing for a wide range of age groups, excluding only the very youngest.

Though its originates with a product line of plastic dolls, directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn’s infectiously fun 3D fable feels more like a party than a commercial. In fact, the best way to gauge the sensibility underlying their brightly hued, music-laden celebration might be to imagine a preteen girl taking over a 1970s discotheque.

Said lass would no doubt identify immediately with our heroine, an irrepressibly sunny optimist named Poppy (voice of Anna Kendrick). But she would likely feel far less kinship with Poppy’s companion on the quest to which most of “Trolls” is devoted, Woody Allen-like perpetual worrier Branch (voice of Justin Timberlake).

This odd couple is thrown together and forced to hit the road after several of their friends are kidnapped by an evil — and otherwise unnamed — Chef (voice of Christine Baranski) from a race of Troll-eating giants called Bergens. Bergens, so we’re informed, believe that their only source of happiness lies in a tummy full of Trolls.

So it’s up to Poppy and Branch to save an ensemble of their pals — including Biggie (voice of James Corden), the community’s unofficial leader, and DJ Suki (voice of Gwen Stefani), its top tune spinner — from being served up in a stew or a casserole.

In true storybook fashion, the success of their enterprise turns out to depend on the secret, seemingly hopeless love harboured by Chef’s sensitive — and much put-upon — scullery maid, Bridget (voice of Zooey Deschanel), for the young ruler of the Bergens, King Gristle (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

As the titular creatures sing, dance and group-hug their way through the proceedings, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger promote loyalty and teamwork. They also showcase the transformative power of romance — the spell of which is cast, predictably enough, over others besides Bridget.

Only the looming threat of one set of characters consuming another, along with touches of slightly naughty humour, indicate that “Trolls” is not a good choice for the smallest moviegoers.

The film contains a flash of rear nudity, brief scatological humour and wordplay and a few very 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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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.


Almost Christmas

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Writer-director David E. Talbert’s ensemble comedy “Almost Christmas” (Universal) is clearly meant to be a crowd-pleasing holiday treat.

While its fundamental values are savoury enough, however, dialogue larded with vulgarity taints the familiar recipe Talbert employs. Along with some mature themes and references, that makes the resulting dish unfit fare for kids.

As yuletide approaches and his combative relatives gather at his Birmingham, Alabama, home, recently widowed family patriarch Walter Meyers (Danny Glover) has only one goal in mind: keeping the peace. The principal challenge to his desire for harmony comes from the longstanding rivalry between his two daughters, successful dentist Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) and cash-strapped, newly divorced single mom Rachel (Gabrielle Union).

The roving eye of Cheryl’s husband, Lonnie (JB Smoove), as well as the unresolved grief and consequent prescription-drug addiction of Walter’s youngest child, college athlete Evan (Jessie T. Usher), also threaten to cause disruption. So, too, does the sassy tongue of Walter’s good-hearted sister-in-law, May (Mo’Nique), a globetrotting backup singer.

As the dysfunction-driven proceedings follow their predictable path, the mood ranges from raucous to sentimental. Talbert uses flashbacks to showcase the model marriage Walter shared with Grace (played in youth by Rachel Kylian and in maturity by A. Sabrena Farmer). His script also sends the whole clan to an upbeat church service and some of its members to help out at a homeless shelter.

Despite Walter’s long-standing attachment to it, the latter institution is endangered by the political ambitions of his elder son, would-be congressman Christian (Romany Malco). At the behest of his scheming campaign manager, Alan Brooks (John Michael Higgins), Christian agrees to seek the backing of real estate developers who want to gentrify the area around the shelter, forcing it to shutter or relocate.

Cue more conflict — and some heavy-handed moralizing.

The sadness caused by Grace’s absence receives more skillful treatment than the machinations. On the whole, though, “Almost Christmas” fails to make much of a lasting impression. In fact, it’s likely to have dropped from viewers’ memories by the time this year’s crop of indoor evergreens hits the mulcher.

The film contains off-screen adultery, drug use, some sexual humour, a few instances of profanity, a handful of milder oaths and frequent 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.

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