Catholic News Service Movie Reviews



Born in China

By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — Forget worrisome headlines about our trade deficit with China. Instead, relax and drown your concerns in the veritable tsunami of cuteness that flows from “Born in China” (Disney), a warm and fuzzy animal documentary, narrated by John Krasinski.

The latest entry in the Disneynature series — released, like several of its predecessors, in conjunction with the April 22 observance of Earth Day — “Born in China,” directed and co-written by Lu Chuan, rests on the tried-and-true premise that critters in the wild act just like us when no one is (supposedly) watching.

And so, animals are given names and personalities in the script, on which Chuan collaborated with David Fowler, Brian Leith and Phil Chapman. Complex family relationships are mapped, and every goofy moment highlighted for comic relief.

There’s also plenty of life-and-death drama on display, as the documentary captures astonishing footage of the animal kingdom across the four seasons.

As winter approaches, “Dawa,” a mother snow leopard, fears for her two cubs. She struggles to maintain their food supply atop one of China’s tallest peaks.

Down in the forest, “Tao Tao,” a golden snub-nosed monkey, resents the arrival of a baby sister, doted on by his parents. It’s the perfect excuse for him to leave home and join a renegade bunch of orphaned simians nicknamed the “Lost Boys.”

Lastly there is “Ya Ya,” a mother panda, who is perfectly content to sit and eat bamboo all day with her baby son, “Mei Mei,” at her side.

While “Born in China” may tug too hard on the heartstrings at times — the effect is occasionally cloying — its breathtaking cinematography, together with the total absence of anything objectionable, makes the film well worth the price of admission.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-I — general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is G — general audiences. All ages admitted.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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The Fate of the Furious
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Grown viewers willing to kick reality to the curb will have fun with the preposterous but lively auto-themed action adventure “The Fate of the Furious” (Universal).

Dicey moral values and a high mayhem quotient, however, mean this seventh sequel to 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious” is not a film for impressionable youngsters.

In a twist on the franchise’s central theme of staunch solidarity among the members of the self-proclaimed “family” of car racers who populate it, this instalment finds their leader, Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vin Diesel) turning on his friends and working against them. He does so, however, only under duress.

Dom is being blackmailed by elusive criminal mastermind Cipher (Charlize Theron), though the exact nature of her leverage over him remains hidden for quite a while. Since Cipher’s mad cyber skills keep her virtually untraceable, Dom’s erstwhile allies, including his wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and former federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), have their work cut out for them in hunting her (and Dom) down.

They’re helped by ultimate undercover agent Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his comically unseasoned sidekick, Eric Reisner (Scott Eastwood). Mr. Nobody also brings the team’s former adversary, rogue and now-imprisoned British special forces veteran Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), on board.

Director F. Gary Gray and screenwriter Chris Morgan put loyalty (even under strain) first and safety last as their globetrotting ensemble pursues an opponent so powerful she has her own AWACS-style airplane. (AWACS stands for Airborne Warning and Control System.)

Along with that kind of credulity straining but harmless prop comes a more troubling display of indifference to fact: Early scenes set in Cuba portray that nation as an island paradise, conveniently ignoring the reality that it has been ruled for the past half-century and more by a duo of despots.

Doses of humour and clever resourcefulness help to divert attention from the sketchy us-against-the-world ethics that have characterized the whole series. But moviegoers intent on analyzing the picture’s underlying values will wonder whether any personal consideration — even one as weighty as that coercing Dom — can justify aiding a villain in her bid to acquire nuclear weapons and gain (what else?) world domination.

On the other hand, however muddled the moral values on offer may be, they do come tricked out with distinctly Christian detailing. Nor can a movie that ends with a clan-gathering meal over which grace is pronounced — a recurring conclusion in the series — fail to endear itself, at least a little.

The film contains frequent gunplay and hand-to-hand combat but with little gore, brief partial nudity, a marital bedroom scene, an adultery theme, several uses of profanity, a few milder oaths, a single rough and many crude terms and an obscene gesture. 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.


Free Fire
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The premise of “Free Fire” (A24) is that a single extended gunfight can sustain an entire film, provided the participants in the showdown keep making incongruously funny and mordant remarks.

This is the genre of the siege movie, somewhat in the style of 1976’s “Assault on Precinct 13.” Plot and character development are ignored in favour of the presumed enjoyment of watching villains working out their issues by blasting away at each other in a decaying Boston factory.

The setup involves a deal to buy assault rifles that quickly goes bad. So, the two sides spend the rest of the run time pulling their triggers and reloading while attempting to retrieve a briefcase loaded with cash.

Think of it as an extended pie fight, but with bullets. It would work out better were the movie actually comedic. But director Ben Wheatley, who co-wrote the screenplay with Amy Jump, is instead completely vested in choreographing these scruffy, amoral characters as they pop up from hiding places to fire off a few rounds. He also has them crawl around painfully after receiving flesh wounds.

There are occasional funny moments for viewers willing to detach the violent proceedings from real life. Thus, a soothing John Denver ballad — from an 8-track tape in a battered van — plays in the background at one ominous moment. And would-be gun buyer Justine (Brie Larson) says of arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), “He was misdiagnosed as a child genius and he never got over it.”

But Wheatley also goes for the obvious in a ham-handed manner. This is an old umbrella factory, but no one has one when the sprinklers go off.

This being 1978, the characters have to rely on a single landline phone, and duck a fusillade of bullets if they want to call anyone on the outside for reinforcements.

The buyers, in addition to Justine, are Chris (Cillian Murphy), an Irish Republican Army operative, Frank (Michael Smiley), Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley). Selling, besides Vernon, are Martin (Babou Ceesay) Gordon (Noah Taylor) and Harry (Jack Reynor). The unctuous Ord (Armie Hammer) attempts to be the middleman.

Eventually, Wheatley runs out of wisecracks and has most of the characters die in a variety of gruesome ways. But there’s no resolution to the mayhem. “Free Fire,” accordingly, ends up a claustrophobic exercise in mindless conflict.

The film contains pervasive gun and physical violence, fleeting gore, drug use, occasional profanities and constant rough 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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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.


By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Endearing and well-acted, director Marc Webb’s drama “Gifted” (Fox Searchlight) might have been a family-friendly movie.

Elements in screenwriter Tom Flynn’s script, however, make this thoughtful film — which examines the proper balance between cultivating youthful talent and the need for even extraordinary kids to lead a normal life — exclusively suitable for grown-ups and perhaps older teens.

Facing the issue outlined above is easygoing Florida boat mechanic Frank Adler (Chris Evans). Informally entrusted with the care of his then-infant niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), at the time of her mother’s suicide, Frank has had to adjust his bachelor lifestyle for the sake of stand-in fatherhood (Mary’s real dad has shown no interest in her.)

Frank has also had to come to grips with the fact that Mary, like her mom before her, is a math prodigy.

Believing, as the audience eventually learns, that his sister’s death was at least partially caused by the demands their hard-driving mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), made on her to concentrate only on her studies, at the cost of both friendships and romance, Frank wants something different for Mary. So, after homeschooling her to the age of 7, he enrols her in the local public school.

Though Mary’s caring teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) soon discovers her gift, and suggests that she would be better off in a more competitive environment, Frank keeps to his plan. He even turns down the possibility of a full scholarship at a private academy.

When British-born Evelyn turns up, though, Frank faces a more formidable challenge to his intentions. Evelyn initiates a lawsuit to win custody, and Mary becomes the prize in a bitter courtroom battle between the two.

The generally wholesome atmosphere of the proceedings is briefly marred by Mary’s exposure to the aftermath of a bedroom encounter and her use of a vulgar expression. Additionally, viewer discernment is required to sort through a conversation Mary and Frank have about religion.

This discussion pits ex-philosophy professor Frank’s somewhat passive agnosticism against the faith that guides his and Mary’s warmly affectionate landlady and neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer). Frank maintains, fairly enough, that no one can know for certain whether there is a God. But Frank is open to belief in general and, when Mary specifically asks about Jesus, Frank encourages her to imitate him.

The dialogue implies that religious ideas are wholly unconnected to reason, an exaggeration of the proper dividing line between what we can perceive with our senses and what transcends them. Yet the fact that this exchange takes place against a glowing sunset suggests that the moviemakers’ sympathies may not be on the side of cold rationalism.

The film contains nongraphic premarital sexual activity, mature references, including a suicide theme, a single rough term 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 — 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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By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — The few adult viewers for whom it’s suitable might be tempted to nickname the feverish domestic drama “Unforgettable” (Warner Bros.) “Wifie Dearest.” 

That’s because Tessa Connover (Katherine Heigl), the obsessive, perfectionist ex-spouse at the centre of the film’s action, continually calls to mind Faye Dunaway’s fuming, rage-prone persona as Joan Crawford in 1981’s “Mommie Dearest.”

It’s not the use of wire hangers that has Tessa seething, though. Rather, it’s the prospect of her milquetoast former husband David’s (Geoff Stults) forthcoming marriage to his live-in girlfriend, Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson).

By purloining Julia’s cellphone — shared custody of young daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice) gives Tessa access to the new couple’s household — Tessa conveniently discovers that her rival has an abusive ex-boyfriend named Michael Vargas (Simon Kassianides). Impersonating Julia online, she reconnects with the brute, and it’s not long before she’s planning to frame Julia for his murder.

That may sound like a spoiler, by the way. But in fact, the movie opens with a battered and bewildered Julia being interrogated over the crime, then switches to a prolonged “how did we get here?” flashback.

Director Denise Di Novi keeps the pot boiling along the way to a climactic catfight in which hair is pulled, fingernails are deployed and a fireplace poker is brandished. But Di Novi and screenwriter Christina Hodson throw in some unsavory and gratuitous ingredients that limit the appeal of “Unforgettable” even for those with a taste for cinematic junk food.

These include Tessa’s emotionless — and futureless — parking-lot tryst with a good-looking stranger she just met and David and Julia’s escapade in a restaurant bathroom. In another scene, Julia no sooner turns on the taps of her bathtub at home than the experienced moviegoer knows that her silky robe is coming off on screen.

It’s not silk that sells, after all.

The film contains occasional violence with some gore, cohabitation, strong sexual content including graphic scenes of casual and premarital sexual activity, brief rear and partial nudity, about a half-dozen uses of rough language, a few crude terms and a mild oath. 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.

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The Promise
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — The relatively little-known genocide of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks 100 years ago is brought into sharp focus by “The Promise” (Open Road).

Taking his cue from epics like “Doctor Zhivago,” director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Robin Swicord, melds an important history lesson with a tender love story. Viewers will emerge with newfound knowledge of the enormity of the holocaust (1.5 million people killed between 1915 and 1922) while appreciating its profound impact on individuals and families.

The story begins in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in 1914. The First World War is on the horizon, and the formerly mighty Ottoman Empire, which once controlled vast areas of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, is crumbling.

Michael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), an idealistic medical student from a small Armenian village in southern Turkey, is entranced by the cosmopolitan city, and especially by Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), a vivacious artist and fellow Armenian.

Never mind that Michael has made a promise of marriage to Maral (Angela Sarafyan), who awaits him back home. Nor that Ana is seeing firebrand American journalist Chris Myers (Christian Bale), who’s in Turkey to document the war.

Michael and Ana fall in love. But their plans for the future are spoiled when Turkey joins the war on the German side, and decides to embark on a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Up to this point, Muslim Turks and Armenian Christians have long lived together in relative harmony. All that changes, surreptitiously at first, as Turkish soldiers force Armenians from their homes. Most are shot outright; some are marched into the desert to prison labour camps.

As Armenians, Michael and Ana are targeted. Chris attempts to report on the killings and inform the world, but is arrested.

“The Promise” follows the travails of each character as the slaughter intensifies. Chris’ plight attracts the attention of the real-life American ambassador, Henry Morgenthau (James Cromwell), who sounds the alarm.

Remarkable courage, perseverance and their unwavering Christian faith sustain the victims against all odds. “Our revenge will be to survive,” Ana tells Michael.

Despite the warnings below, given its potential to raise awareness of a historical tragedy — one that the Turkish government, to this day, has never acknowledged — “The Promise” is probably acceptable for mature adolescents.

The film contains scenes of wartime atrocities and violence and brief crude 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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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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