Catholic News Service Movie Reviews


The Great Wall
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Those seeking nothing more from a movie than sheer spectacle may be satisfied with director Zhang Yimou’s visually interesting but thoroughly implausible action adventure “The Great Wall” (Universal).

Epic in scale, the film is shallow in emotion and characterization. On the upside though, its central romance is completely chaste and its dialogue mostly free of cursing.

To appreciate those assets, however, viewers will first have to swallow a whopper of a premise. Drawn by the wealth they could gain by introducing gunpowder into the West, two medieval European mercenaries, William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal), arrive in China after an arduous journey during which they were harried, as the opening scenes show, by unidentified adversaries.

But an unpleasant surprise awaits the visitors. As they soon discover, their unwilling hosts are preoccupied with battling vicious alien monsters called the Tao Tei. It was to defend against these marauding creatures, whose idea of eating Chinese has nothing to do with General Tso’s chicken, that the famous structure of the title was built.

Or so, at least, the script — written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy — attempts to inform us with a straight face.

William gradually becomes committed to this struggle, not least because he’s attracted to Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the fetching commander of one division of the local forces, the Crane Corps (think Cirque du Soleil with spears). But Pero remains focused on the original scheme.

He’s abetted in it by Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another traveller who came to the Middle Kingdom years before for exactly the same purpose as the new arrivals, and has been held prisoner ever since.

What with catapults launching great balls of fire and innumerable colourfully uniformed soldiers manning the ramparts, there’s plenty to absorb the eye. As for the brain or heart, not so much.

Super-skilled archer William undergoes something of a conversion, evolving from a lone wolf who boasts of trusting no one to a team player, at least where Lin Mae is concerned. And the movie’s conclusion does show him putting loyalty to Pero above potential profit, a choice the screenplay implicitly but unmistakably endorses.

But he remains merely the battle-hardened, scarred warrior type rather than a fully rounded person. Nor is there much individuality to Lin Mae.

Given that these two never so much as kiss, on the other hand, and that the screenplay is seldom marred by vulgarity, many parents may consider “The Great Wall” acceptable for older teens. All the more so since the mayhem of the fight against the Tao Tei is portrayed far more suggestively than graphically.

The film contains action violence with little gore, a mild oath as well as at least one crude and a couple of 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.


The Comedian
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — If a movie’s going to be titled “The Comedian” (Sony Classics), and the phrase isn’t intended ironically, since the film is about a stand-up comic, the audience has a right to expect that some mirth, at least, awaits therein.

Well, more’s the pity. With Robert De Niro as insult comic Jackie Burke, this is where funny has gone to die — cringing the entire way.

Portrayals of sad, bitter comedians chasing fading laughter and applause have been around for decades, notably with Laurence Olivier in “The Entertainer” (1960), Billy Crystal in “Mr. Saturday Night” (1992) and Adam Sandler in “Funny People” (2009).

What makes “The Comedian” unique in this pantheon is that, whenever De Niro grabs a microphone and launches into one of Jackie’s caustic, profane rants, whatever pleasant storytelling flow has existed up to that point suddenly ends — in the manner of a car crash.

Jackie’s at a precipice in both his life and career. His fame comes from a starring role in a catchphrase-laden 1980s sitcom, which threatens to pigeonhole him as a nostalgia act.

He has anger issues, too, and one night he attacks a heckler, who quickly puts the assault on YouTube. Viral ignominy finally gives Jackie’s career some heat, but he’s too suspicious and unbending to take advantage of it.

Unable to leave New York City because of his probation and sentenced to community service at a soup kitchen following a stint in jail, Jackie tries to reconnect to humanity through his steady comic patter with the homeless. He also starts a furtive romance with Harmony (Leslie Mann), a mobster’s daughter who’s also doing community service and has temper problems of her own.

Everyone in Jackie’s orbit suffers from his abuse, including his agent, Miller (Edie Falco), brother, Jimmy (Danny DeVito), and sister-in-law, Florence (Patti LuPone).

Director Taylor Hackford and a quartet of screenwriters capture a bickering, yet affectionate, show-business milieu, somewhat reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose” from 1984. But in Jackie, they have too unpleasant and pointless a character to sustain a compelling narrative.

The film contains references to non-marital sexual activity, occasional profanity and frequent rough 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.


Fist Fight
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — We have to inquire: What kinds of audience laughter are the makers of the misbegotten “Fist Fight” (Warner Bros.) going for?

Broad guffaws at human frailties? Nope, none of that. Expansive hoots at outrageous physical comedy? Again, not here.

That leaves bitter, humorless sneering at various forms of human degradation. If there’s a sweet spot for that, this film has found it.

Director Richie Keen and screenwriters Van Robichaux and Evan Susser have constructed this unpleasant mess as a series of dirty jokes.

It’s the last day of the academic year at a crumbling Atlanta public high school, which has a tradition of year-end senior pranks. So a lot of these, usually involving crude sexual imagery or animal abuse, go on while the faculty worry about impending layoffs.

Nebbishy English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) is fearful of losing his job because his wife is pregnant. And Strickland (Ice Cube), the only member of the staff who actually stands up to the pranksters, does so with nearly feral outbursts in a misguided attempt to maintain his dignity and authority.

Finally, Strickland has had too much of the high jinks and, with Andy in tow, goes after a student with a fire axe. Principal Tyler (Dean Norris) then has to decide, before the last bell, which one of the two is going to get the figurative axe as a result. With some urging from Andy, he chooses Strickland.

So Strickland challenges Andy to an after-school brawl in the parking lot, and the ensuing complications take up the rest of the plot — with much ridicule directed at Andy’s fears along the way.

The film contains strong sexual content, including pornographic images, drug use 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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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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