Catholic News Service Movie Reviews


20th Century Women

By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The moral compass in “20th Century Women” (A24), writer-director Mike Mills’ rambling, unfiltered drama — loosely based on his adolescence in 1970s Santa Barbara, California — is not one of the characters. Rather, it’s President Jimmy Carter.

Specifically, the film makes use of Carter’s sermon-like “Crisis of Confidence” address, usually mislabeled as his “malaise” speech. In it, he admonished America: “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.”

This drones out of a TV set with the wallop of a Shakespearean soliloquy. The principal characters up to that point have been indulging themselves as if their lives depended on it, only they’ve been calling it self-realization. They’re suitably chastened, if only momentarily.

Overall, the movie is more a nearly plotless collection of whimsy than a fully realized story. So whatever insight Carter provides quickly evaporates.

Mills takes an affectionate look back at his world, circa 1979, with well-meaning if slightly confused women attempting to steer his stand-in, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), in the general direction of sensitive adulthood with their nascent feminist ideals as their guide.

They rely heavily on the self-help literature of the time. All the adults, even the ones engaging in non-marital bedroom activities, are intensely curious about sex but don’t derive much pleasure from it. Instead, they find it eternally perplexing.

Dorothea (Annette Bening), Jamie’s divorced mother, prides herself on being open-minded but retains a faint sense that romance was better decades earlier. As Jamie keeps explaining to others, “She’s from the Depression.”

Dorothea has the notion that Jamie will become a better man if he’s advised by his 17-year-old friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), who has non-sexual sleepovers with Jamie, and 24-year-old Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the photographer and punk-rock devotee who rents a room in their ramshackle Victorian house — a structure that’s in a perpetual state of renovation.

Jamie helps Julie through a pregnancy scare and Abbie through a bout with cervical cancer that she fears will leave her unable to bear children. Dorothea, meanwhile, chain-smokes, explaining that she’s unlikely to come down with a fatal disease from it, since she began when smoking was considered fashionable.

There are several visits to a grungy rock club. And lengthy discussions of the quality of groundbreaking bands are mingled with talk of humanity’s role in the cosmos as well as the responsibility men bear toward women.

Everyone, including William (Billy Crudup), the handyman, who is occasionally drawn into the sexual situations, is determined to make moral decisions in the face of whatever obstacles they encounter. All of this makes “20th Century Women” a road trip in the company of pleasantly sensitive, albeit ethically clueless, companions. If only they had the vaguest notion of their destination.

The film contains marijuana use, brief upper female nudity and lengthy dialogue about sexual matters, including allusions to nonmarital activity. 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.


XXX: Return of Xander Cage

By John Mulderig


NEW YORK (CNS) — Somewhere behind the macho posturing that predominates in the action sequel “XXX: Return of Xander Cage” (Paramount), there’s a plot and a back story. 
Viewers are unlikely to care about the former and will have to be long in the tooth to recall the latter since this is the third in a series of films that began with 2002’s “XXX” and hasn’t been added to since 2005.

A fine wine this franchise is not. So sorting out what it was that Samuel L. Jackson’s character, NSA agent Augustus Gibbons, was doing way back in the first George W. Bush administration feels like dusty work.

Basically, we gather, he was serving as the impresario of what would become a top-secret, hush-hush, eyes-only little band of off-the-record operatives. The group takes its orthographically repetitive name not from a porno theatre’s marquee, but from a tattoo on the back of the neck of its first and leading member, Xander Cage (Vin Diesel).

After a dozen years in seclusion, pretending to be dead, Cage comes out of retirement at the behest of CIA bigwig — and perpetual sourpuss — Jane Marke (Toni Collette). Marke, it seems, has a lot to pout about since some rogue colleague has gotten hold of a device capable of turning every satellite in the sky into a destructive earthbound missile.

Cage proceeds to shoot, skateboard and smart-mouth his way through director D.J. Caruso’s pedestrian movie. He’s backed by expert sniper Adele (Ruby Rose), Tennyson (Rory McCann), a Brit who seems to have taken one too many hits to the head on the rugby field, and a DJ named Nicks (Kris Wu).

Because, after all, when you’re out to save the world you do need to have your own disc jockey in tow, no?

Donnie Yen plays shady martial arts master Xiang, who starts out as Cage’s principal adversary on the chase. Like some of the other black hats, though — including Cage’s sultry flirt interest, Serena (Deepika Padukone) — Xiang is not necessarily the villain he initially seems.

“Kick some ass, get the girl and try to look dope while you’re doing it,” intones Jackson in what passes for this sub-Bond picture’s worldview. For Cage, fulfilling the second of those admonitions means not only having meaningless sex with one gal, but an unseen encounter with a half-dozen others.

Thus, though it skims over the blood flow as innumerable extras bite the dust, its fleeting but unwelcome presentation of intimacy as a team sport makes Cage’s latest adventure unfit for most.

The film contains much action violence, some of it harsh, brief gore, strong sexual content, including semi-graphic nonmarital activity and off-screen group sex as well as references to aberrant behaviour, a couple of profanities, a few milder oaths, a single rough term and frequent 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.

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