Catholic News Service Movie Reviews



By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — “Wars are not won by evacuations,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously observed. As writer-director Christopher Nolan’s compelling historical drama “Dunkirk” (Warner Bros.) demonstrates, however, fine films can be made about them.

May and June 1940 were indeed, in Mel Brooks’ sarcastic phrase, “Springtime for Hitler.” Using blitzkrieg tactics and a surprise attack through the supposedly impassible Ardennes Forest, his forces rapidly defeated and encircled the British Expeditionary Force and its French allies. Eventually hundreds of thousands of troops were left trapped in a small pocket centred on the English Channel port of the title.

Though the Fuhrer called a halt on the land assault and assigned the Luftwaffe the task of finishing off the Allies from the air, the prospects for Britain remained dire. Were the vast bulk of its army to be taken prisoner in France, the outlook for defending against a Nazi invasion of Britain itself would be virtually hopeless.

In picking up the story at this point, Nolan takes an Everyman’s view of the situation. Dividing the action into events on land, sea and air, he apportions story lines among an ensemble cast, with sometimes confusing and dramatically diffuse results.

Representing the cornered forces on the beach is a trio of ordinary soldiers, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles). Among the few officers portrayed in the film are the senior naval representative on the scene, Cmdr. Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and his army counterpart, Col. Winnant (James D’Arcy).

Embodying the many hundreds of British seafaring civilians who answered the call for fishing and pleasure craft to join in the rescue is small yacht owner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). Dawson is accompanied by his teen son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and by Peter’s equally youthful friend, George (Barry Keoghan).

In the middle of the Channel, they rescue an unnamed soldier, played by Cillian Murphy, whose shell-shocked condition and frantic determination not to return, however temporarily, to Dunkirk pose a fresh and distracting challenge for them, with ultimately grim results.

Up in the skies, a duo of RAF Spitfire pilots — Collins (Jack Lowden) and his higher-ranking comrade, Farrier (Tom Hardy) — battle the German fighters and bombers seeking to wreak havoc on both the hapless soldiers and the shipping below.

The perils of the desperate, against-the-odds operation are fully exploited for dramatic tension, with near-death experiences awaiting almost every character.

There is a general sense of heroic pluck by incidents in which humane justice and generosity of spirit are upheld. The altruism motivating Dawson and others to risk life and limb for the sake of strangers elevates the moral tone.

While “Dunkirk” is not for the fainthearted of any age, the movie’s educational value and freedom from objectionable content makes it probably acceptable for older teens.

The film contains intense stylized combat violence, almost no gore, a couple of uses of profanity. 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 Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — A dark chapter of the Motor City’s history is revisited in “Detroit” (Annapurna), a searing period drama.

The setting is the summer of 1967, when race riots broke out in several cities across the country. In Detroit, simmering discontent over systemic discrimination and growing unemployment erupted in African-American neighbourhoods. As protesters clashed with police, businesses were set afire and looting was widespread.

The crisis, which lasted four days, resulted in 43 dead, over 7,200 arrests, and the destruction of more than 2,000 buildings. “Detroit” zeroes in on one notorious incident of the so-called “12th Street Riot”: the police raid of the Algiers Motel that caused the death of three unarmed men and the brutal beating of several others.

As violence engulfed the city, the hotel became a refuge of sorts, harbouring both innocent patrons and shady characters. Among the former are Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), members of an up-and-coming musical group, The Dramatics. Separated from their friends, they seek shelter at the Algiers.

At the hotel pool they meet two giggly prostitutes, Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and Julie (Hannah Murray), white women from Ohio who are making the most of the “Summer of Love.”

Upstairs, 17-year-old Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) decides to show off by shooting blanks from a toy pistol. Turning his attention to the growing police presence outside, he next fires the gun into the crowd.

Suspecting a sniper, the police respond in droves, and a reign of terror descends on the Algiers and its residents, including Greene (Anthony Mackie), a decorated Vietnam vet.

The raid is led by a trigger-happy cop, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), who has a reputation for shooting looters in the back. Krauss rounds up everyone and, with the assistance of fellow officer Flynn (Ben O’Toole), unleashes a ruthless, demeaning interrogation.

A witness to the unfolding horror is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard charged with protecting a nearby grocery store from looters. Dismukes suspects wrongdoing, and inserts himself into the maelstrom at a key moment.

Needless to say, “Detroit” is not for the squeamish. Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”), working from a script by Mark Boal, directs at a furious, gut-wrenching pace, placing the viewer in the very centre of the fast-moving storm and incorporating real-life news footage to enhance the immediacy.

However, though graphic, the portrayal of police brutality is never gratuitous. Coupled with the subsequent miscarriage of justice, the harrowing events re-enacted in “Detroit” offer a powerful reminder to mature viewers of a sad but significant incident in America’s past.

The film contains intense bloody violence and torture, brief female nudity and pervasive 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.


A Ghost Story

By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — “A Ghost Story” (A24) could be the best film about purgatory you’ll see this year.

That depends, of course, on whether you think that purgatory is the state in which Casey Affleck’s recently departed character exists. Writer-director David Lowery hasn’t attempted a story about religion specifically or spirituality generally, but rather has made a reflection on loss.

Still, there is a case to be made for the idea that Affleck is undergoing purgation. His silently querulous, shrouded spirit, looking like one of Charlie Brown’s trick-or-treaters with cut-out eyeholes, needs to fulfil a task in order to set things right with someone or something and thus be released from his earthly bonds.

In that, the story adheres to a formula of after-death second-chance journeys that, done in a lush fashion, became 1990’s “Ghost,” the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel” and, in the old days of Hollywood, films such as “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” or “A Guy Named Joe.”

Lowery has taken a very minimalist approach, though, with exceedingly long takes and a ghost who, although he sometimes can rattle a bookshelf or toss crockery around, is otherwise incommunicative — except to another ghost next door, with whom he speaks telepathically.

The result is often confounding, but viewers will find it difficult to rid themselves of the imagery.

Affleck and Rooney Mara play a married couple, identified only as “C” and “M” respectively. They live in a slightly tumbledown Texas ranch house to which he feels an odd devotion. He doesn’t get to explain that in detail, however, since he quickly dies in an auto mishap just outside the home.

His corpse, left alone in the hospital, suddenly springs up and heads down a hallway where a tunnel of light beckons, then suddenly shuts off. So he hangs a left and walks (we surmise) back to his house.

There, he stands, mostly in corners, and watches life — and his widow — go on without him. Is he learning anything? Lowery isn’t telling us.

The image of the dead still being near us will be comforting to many. The idea that they’re standing in corners staring at us, albeit not trying to haunt us, probably less so.

Later, somewhat like Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Eve dream, Affleck’s ghost journeys into the distant past of the property, and also into the near future, where he listens to a partygoer gas on about how life on earth means little, since we’re all quickly forgotten, and not even love or works of art endure.

This is patently false, of course. But Lowery’s not interested in building a mordant argument — or any argument at all.

Eventually, Lowery gives his ghost a task. He needs to retrieve a note his widow stuck in a doorway crack. He’s mostly just curious, but this document could also lead to a resolution of what amounts to his earthly exile.

Since Lowery doesn’t try to supply any pat answers, he instead invites the audience to discover their own questions. The result falls a little short on the entertainment scale, but demands thoughtful interpretation by discerning adults.

The film contains brief gore and fleeting 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.



By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The compact thriller “Kidnap” (Aviron) has Halle Berry’s expressive face going for it, but not a whole lot else. The film is less a story about a mother’s enduring love and sacrifice for her young son than it is a long drive in an amazingly durable minivan.

Berry is Karla, a divorced waitress who’s mom to six-year-old Frankie (Sage Correa). She’s about to get into a custody battle with her ex-husband when Frankie is abducted from a park by two cretinous goons, Margo and Terry (Chris McGinn and Lew Temple).

For what purpose Frankie has been snatched is a bit murky. Police in New Orleans issue an Amber Alert, but Karla takes off in pursuit, managing to keep the kidnappers always in view while speeding down highways — occasionally knocking aside bystanders and the odd police officer like so many bowling pins.

Director Luis Prieto and screenwriter Knate Lee have no interest in character development and motivation. There’s a mother and child, the kid is taken, Mama reverts to primeval maternal-warrior instinct, and the race is on.

Karla has a few interactions with the kidnappers, who are adept at lying about whether they’ll take her money instead of her son.

“Wherever you go, I will be right behind you — no matter what,” she vows. Ah. Got it. And so she is, although her chase, when it’s not veering into melodrama, often includes unintentional comedic moments meant to induce audience cheering.

The film contains gun and physical violence, considerable vehicular mayhem as well as fleeting profanity and 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.


The Emoji Movie

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Tech-savvy viewers will especially enjoy the wacky proceedings of “The Emoji Movie” (Columbia). But patrons of all stripes will appreciate the film’s themes of loyal friendship and faithful romance.

Set within the smartphone of high school freshman Alex (voice of Jake T. Austin), this lighthearted animated comedy tracks the adventures of a trio of misfits on their quest to reach the Internet Cloud.

Gene (voice of T.J. Miller) is a “Meh” icon meant to express only indifference. But the first time Alex makes use of him, the native enthusiasm of his personality, together with nervousness at making his professional debut, causes him to register a strange mix of emotions instead of the bland apathy he was supposed to convey.

This malfunction immediately makes Gene an outcast and draws the ire of the chief emoji, maniacally cheerful Smiler (voice of Maya Rudolph). She condemns Gene to be deleted. So he goes on the run, and joins forces with upbeat hand symbol Hi-5 (voiced by James Corden) and rebellious codebreaker Jailbreak (voice of Anna Faris).

Once one of Alex’s favourites, Hi-5 has fallen into disuse and longs to regain his former popularity. Jailbreak resents the regulated life she is forced to lead on the phone, and hopes to enjoy much greater freedom by transferring herself permanently to the Cloud.

As the three newfound friends bond, and something more than friendship blossoms between Gene and Jailbreak, the challenges of their journey force them to prove their mutual devotion. Messages about teamwork and putting the interests of others ahead of your own goals balance the emphasis on Gene’s right to break the mould and be himself.

The presence of a minor character named Poop — voiced, amusingly, by no less a personage than Sir Patrick Stewart — typifies the predictable potty humour running through director and co-writer Tony Leondis’ script, penned with Eric Siegel and Mike White. Together with episodes of peril, these jokes may make “The Emoji Movie” a less than ideal choice for the youngest film fans.

The feature is preceded by an eccentric, enjoyable short called “Puppy!” which involves a young lad, a giant, disruptive dog named Tinkles and the boy’s indulgent grandfather — who just happens to be Count Dracula.

The film contains characters in jeopardy, mild scatological humour, a suppressed crude expression and a slightly crass term. 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.
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The Exception

By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Historical kitsch applied to Second World War espionage doesn’t get more gloriously over the top than in “The Exception” (A24).

Based on Alan Judd’s 2003 novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss,” it has, as billed, Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) living out the last year of his exile in the Netherlands before his 1941 death.

Wilhelm is portrayed as a bitter, yet also kindly, twinkly eyed oldster who chops kindling wood and feeds ducks in his endless spare time while he yearns for the grand old days of the Hohenzollern Dynasty in Germany: “After all I’ve done for them, they stabbed me! In za back!”

This being the opening stages of the Second World War, a royal comeback’s not on the cards. But Adolf Hitler’s regime considers the Kaiser — exiled since the end of the First World War — and wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), good for the morale of the Fatherland. So they’re kept on a generous allowance and provided a mansion, along with vague promises of a return.

There’s a new maid, Mieke (Lily James). She’s Jewish. She’s also feeding information to local spy Pastor Hendriks (Kris Cuppens). He, in turn, delivers his reports to a far-off British agent using a beeping telegraph key.

Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is assigned as the Kaiser’s new bodyguard so he can ferret out the spying, after he’s told, “If anything goes wrong, Captain, you’ll be shot!”

He’s so quickly attracted to Mieke that even when she tells him she’s Jewish, he doesn’t care. He’s still haunted by his role in the slaughter of Poles in a botched military operation the year before.

There’s some gratuitous nudity involved in their romantic encounters. But there’s not much of it, and director David Leveaux, working from Simon Burke’s screenplay, quickly returns to the conventions of a historical thriller, and the plot churns along to its overheated conclusion.

We are led to believe that although the Kaiser was anti-Semitic, the plans for the Nazis’ Final Solution, delivered by Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), sickened him.

The plot is loosely based on real events. Still, the moment when Mieke approaches the Kaiser to tell him, “I heff a message for you — from Winston Churchill!” sounds more like an episode of the 1960s Stalag-set sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes” than a plausible piece of history.

Overall, it’s a strange little story involving archetypes, but so exceptionally well-crafted, the stale elements simply fall away.

The film contains brief graphic non-marital sexual activity with flashes of male and female nudity and fleeting 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.


Girls Trip

By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Buried underneath several layers of crass gags, “Girls Trip” (Universal) has a substantial story about loyalty and moral decisions. But libidinous raunch is the evident lure.

The intended audience for this film is women in groups, eager to vicariously enjoy some road-trip misbehaviour that comes with a considerable helping of melodrama. It’s meant to be a bonding experience.

The cast is having a very good time of it, in some cases referencing scenes from the actors’ earlier films. And the physical gags, which almost always involve sexual behaviour, are somehow separate from the core story about reconnecting and finding support.

Four women, best friends since college — when they were known as the Flossy Posse — have, in the ensuing years, gone their own ways. Sasha (Queen Latifah) is a perpetually broke former journalist hoping to hit it big with her own celebrity gossip site. Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) is divorced with small children and living with her mother.

Dina (Tiffany Haddish), still the live wire of the group, hasn’t settled down, and Ryan (Regina Hall) is a successful self-help author with an NFL star husband, Stewart (Mike Colter). She’s on the verge of receiving a massive investment so she can form “the first black Huffington Post.”

The group re-forms to go to the annual “Essence” Festival, sponsored by the magazine in New Orleans. There Ryan is to give a keynote address as a prelude to a marketing deal.

The event provides a backdrop for a lot of drinking, dancing and sexual talk prompted by Dina, especially after she learns that Lisa hasn’t had sex in years. As directed by Malcolm D. Lee from a script by Kenya Barris, Karen McCullah, Tracy Oliver and Erica Rivinoja, the quartet somehow keep their dignity when sober, but the Crescent City nights give them an excuse to cut loose.

There’s a dramatic centre as well: When Sasha learns that Stewart’s been cheating on Ryan with an “Instagram model,” she has to decide whether to sell that information or give Ryan a chance to clean the situation up out of public view. That becomes difficult when Stewart turns up with the model in New Orleans.

Later, Ryan has to decide whether maintaining the illusion of a happy marriage is worth millions of dollars.

There’s a solid structure and wrap-up to the proceedings. But the drunken — and sometimes distasteful — goings-on are certainly not for everyone.

The film contains rear male nudity, scatological imagery, drug use, sexual banter, several descriptions of sexual activity and some 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.


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Despite its ponderous title, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (STX) turns out to be a flashy but lightweight sci-fi adventure likely to divert those grown viewers content to munch their popcorn and enjoy a break from the heat of summer.

Moviegoers seeking something more memorable, by contrast, will be disappointed. And some gritty elements incorporated into the film suggest that even most mature teens should skip this trip to the stars and instead stay safely earthbound.

It’s the 28th century, and devil-may-care intergalactic law enforcement agent Maj. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) finds himself sharing both romantic tension and a series of crime-busting exploits with his more serious-minded partner, Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Initially, the latter involve the legacy of the destroyed planet Mul.

Small reptiles from that lost orb, known as Mul Converters, had the power to multiple pearl-like gems that doubled as energy-producing wonder minerals. Now, the last remaining Mul Converter has fallen into the wrong hands, and Valerian and Laureline’s boss, the Minister of defence (musician Herbie Hancock), dispatches them to retrieve it.

Later phases of the plot concern the fate of Alpha, the titular metropolis. This mega-space station, a gathering place for a wide variety of life forms, is under threat from an unidentified force, and it’s up to our heroes to get to the bottom of the mystery.

In adapting a series of graphic novels by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, writer-director Luc Besson excels at such sequences as an interdimensional chase through an exotic bazaar. Yet his sometimes baroquely overwrought film is longer on style than ultimate impact.

The love story sees playboy Valerian — whose promiscuous past is treated lightheartedly — anxious to mend his ways in favour of marital commitment. And there are incidental religious references in the dialogue, though these are partly offset by equally fleeting lines with a pagan ring to them.

In addition to an early scene in which the main duo canoodle, Valerian’s detour through Alpha’s gritty red-light district — during which he’s momentarily mesmerized by shape-shifting stripper-prostitute Bubble (pop star Rihanna), and also has to deal with her crafty pimp, Jolly (Ethan Hawke) — puts the proceedings well out of bounds for youngsters.

Bubble remains at least minimally clad. But some of her ever-changing costumes play on fetishistic fantasies, making this portion of the otherwise mostly inoffensive “Valerian” unsavoury even for older viewers.

The film contains gunplay and other stylized violence, a prostitution theme, scenes of sensuality with partial nudity, a mild oath 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-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.


Atomic Blonde

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Aspiring to be edgy and stylish, the espionage thriller “Atomic Blonde” (Focus), matches sometimes sadistic brawling with exploitative scenes of aberrant sex. The result is not only degraded but tedious as well.

In the weeks leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, British operative Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is dispatched to the still-divided city. Her mission is to retrieve a vital dossier containing the identity of every western agent active in the metropolis.

Broughton gets unreliable help form the jaded station chief, David Percival (James McAvoy). Percival, viewers are led to suspect, may be the mole whose double dealing the elusive file would reveal along with its other secrets.

Broughton receives less expected but more dependable aid from novice French spy Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). Rather rapidly, the two women wind up in bed together in more ways than one.

Told in flashbacks during a debriefing in which CIA officer Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) joins Broughton’s superiors, Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and Chief “C” (James Faulkner) as she tells her tale, the plot of director David Leitch’s film is as convoluted as its tacky appeal to its audience’s lowest instincts is straightforward.

When she’s not groping Lasalle, Broughton grapples with enemies from the Stasi and the KGB, finding creative ways to eliminate them such as plunging a corkscrew into the esophagus of one opponent. Percival, for his part, prefers a handy ice pick to the forehead. He also does Broughton one better by waking up in one scene with a duo of dames bookending him.

Tough on the men and tender with her lady, Broughton, whose adventures are adapted from the 2012 graphic novel series “The Coldest City,” embodies a pornographic adolescent fantasy.

The film contains nasty violence with much gore, graphic lesbian sexual activity, implied group sex, upper female and rear nudity, a blasphemous joke, a mild oath as well as pervasive rough and some crude and crass 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.


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