Catholic News Service Movie Reviews



By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — “Coco” (Disney) is a visually rich animated fantasy’s presentation of the afterlife, one which owes little to Christianity and much to the pre-Columbian beliefs associated with Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

Viewers travel to the other world in the company of Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), an endearing preteen from South of the Border. Miguel is on a quest to follow in the footsteps of his hometown’s most famous son, Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt), by becoming a world-renowned musician.

His aspirations have so far been stymied by the fact that his family has a long-standing aversion to all things musical. This unusual distaste first arose when one of Miguel’s ancestors deserted his wife and child in favour of a career singing and playing the guitar — with devastating emotional consequences. The tiny daughter thus abandoned is now Mama Coco (voice of Ana Ofelia Murguia), Miguel’s much-loved great-grandmother.

Desperate to make his debut at a talent night being staged as part of the Day of the Dead festivities, but lacking a guitar, Miguel sneaks into de la Cruz’s mausoleum where his trademark instrument is kept. Clues have convinced Miguel that de la Cruz was, in fact, Coco’s long-lost dad, so he feels justified in borrowing the guitar.

While inside the tomb, Miguel is mysteriously transported to the Land of the Dead. There he eventually gains a guide in the person of Hector Rivera (voice of Gael Garcia Bernal) a good-hearted but slippery character who, like all his ilk, is a living skeleton.

Miguel and Hector strike a bargain: If Hector helps the boy find de la Cruz — Miguel needs the blessing of a relative in order to return to the normal world — Miguel will bring Hector’s photograph back with him and place it on the homemade altar (known as an “ofrenda”) where the departed are honoured.

According to the movie’s mythos, that will enable Hector to visit the land of the living each year. It also will allow him to postpone the “second death,” the final disintegration that awaits each person once there is no one left alive who remembers that individual.

The film is free of any age-inappropriate content and strong on the importance of clan solidarity. Co-director Adrian Molina’s script, penned with Matthew Aldrich, has a warm spirit and considerable aesthetic credentials, with principal director Lee Unkrich.

“Coco” represents a good holiday-season option.

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.


Lady Bird
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — “Lady Bird” (A24) is writer-director Greta Gerwig’s sensitive autobiographical account of growing up in Sacramento, California.

Her recounting of the way she tested her boundaries with both her family and her parochial school is pleasing in some respects but teeth-grating in a couple of others.

As a result, some of its content, particularly a sexual encounter in which the title character is a bit shy of her 18th birthday, necessitates a restrictive classification. The scene is not lurid, but that’s the point Gerwig is making: Nothing this girl does as she explores her limits as a daughter and student, however misguided, is capable of shocking anyone except herself.

This is particularly true at the all-girls parochial school Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) — who insists that everyone call her Lady Bird — attends. It’s headed by the compassionate, good-humoured Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), who tries to help Christine identify her talents.

When Sister Sarah Joan suggests Lady Bird has “a performative streak,” she lands a part in the school musical and thinks she’s found a caring boyfriend in fellow actor Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges). But their relationship ends abruptly when she sees him kissing another boy at the cast party.

She then pursues Kyle Scheible (Timothee Chalamet) all the way to a discreetly handled carnal moment that does not conclude the way Christine was expecting it to.

It’s 2002, and Lady Bird is eager to get out of her dull hometown, which she compares to “the Midwest of California.” And she hasn’t set her sights on the kind of state-subsidized university her cash-strapped family can afford, aiming instead at somewhere she imagines will be more cultured.

Even then, Sister Sarah Joan is onto her, though. Reading one of her college-application essays, she remarks, “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento.”

“I guess I pay attention,” Lady Bird responds.

To this, the nun asks, “Don’t you think they’re the same thing?”

Lady Bird isn’t rebellious enough to roll her skirt, but she enjoys exploring taboos. She nonchalantly snacks on communion wafers, for instance, while gossiping with a friend in the back room of a chapel. When another student expresses shock, Lady Bird assures her that the hosts are unconsecrated.

But Immaculate Heart High School does have a non-negotiable code of deportment. So when Lady Bird interrupts a pro-life lecture with “Just because something is ugly doesn’t mean it’s morally wrong,” she earns a brief suspension. The point isn’t explored further. This is depicted as just another expression of Lady Bird’s adolescent — and, so the script’s tone suggests, largely unjustified — discontent.

Gerwig herself is not Catholic but attended a Catholic high school, and Lady Bird, although it’s not made explicit, is in the same situation. She’s not rebelling against church teachings, though, as much as life in general and her place in it.

Lady Bird’s mother, the perpetually stressed Marion (Laurie Metcalf), with whom she bickers, works double shifts as a psychiatric nurse because husband Larry (Tracy Letts) is out of work.

Gerwig takes care to show that Lady Bird is capable of rapid emotional shifts while willing to accept her mother’s point of view. She ends one argument with Marion early in the film by hurling herself out the of the car they’re driving in. Later, she stops another by cooing over a prom dress at a thrift store.

It’s no spoiler to point out that the movie’s conclusion, during which Lady Bird has finally achieved her dream of college in New York, shows a very strong old-school moral compass at work. It’s a redeeming wrap-up. But the problematic material that precedes it requires thoughtful discernment by grown viewers well-grounded in their faith.

The film contains underage non-marital sexual activity, mature themes, a same-sex kiss, a scene of marijuana use and frequent coarse 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.


The Star
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — A holiday treat suitable for all but the tiniest, “The Star” (Sony) is a delightful animated version of the Christmas story told from the perspective of some of the animals present in the manger.

Director Timothy Reckart and screenwriter Carlos Kotkin skillfully balance religious themes such as the importance of prayer and the value of forgiveness with a more secular message about pursuing your dreams. They also throw in a healthy dose of straightforward entertainment.

They work their way into the biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth through the adventures of a gentle donkey from Nazareth named Bo (voice of Steven Yeun). Curious about the world beyond the grain mill where he carries out his monotonous work, Bo yearns to exchange his life of drudgery for the fame and prestige to be gained by joining the storied royal caravan.

Bo’s best friend, a lively dove by the name of Dave (voice of Keegan-Michael Key), shares this ambition. And the pals get their chance to fulfil their aspirations when Bo successfully escapes his confinement, though he injures his leg in the process.

Bo is tended to by no one less than Mary (voice of Gina Rodriguez), after which his quest takes a detour. Despite the mild disapproval of Joseph (voice of Zachary Levi), Mary adopts her patient as a pet. Bo, in turn, becomes dedicated to protecting the parents-to-be, as they journey to Bethlehem, from the murderous scheming of King Herod (voice of Christopher Plummer).

Bo is aided in this endeavour not only by Dave but, eventually, by an affectionate sheep called Ruth (voice of Aidy Bryant) whom the pals encounter along the way. Together, the critters do what they can to thwart the unspeaking hulk of a soldier Herod has dispatched to slaughter the Holy Family and the pair of ferocious-seeming but not entirely evil dogs, Thaddeus (voice of Ving Rhames) and Rufus (voice of Gabriel Iglesias), accompanying him.

As a range of characters rely on prayer for guidance and strive to do God’s will, Mary and Joseph present the image of a well-balanced marriage by being strong for each other in moments of trial or doubt. Though some liberties are taken with the scriptural account, overall, the script is faithful to the Gospels.

The inclusion of lighthearted humour, moreover, does nothing to detract from the appropriately reverent treatment of the movie’s sacred subject matter. Though a couple of silly guano-themed lines designed to make little ones giggle might have been dispensed with, overall this is a very solid choice for family viewing. All the more so, as it may serve as the starting point for a discussion of faith in general and of the Incarnation in particular.

The film contains scenes of peril and a bit of very mild scatological humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I — general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — “Wonder” (Lionsgate) is a beautiful film about ugliness. Its protagonist is August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a 10-year-old boy born with facial deformities whose misshapen visage becomes a moral Rorschach test for the people around him.

This gentle, moving drama centres on Auggie’s struggle to win acceptance from his peers as he transitions from being educated at home to attending the fifth grade of his local middle school. But it also explores the lives of his supportive parents, Nate (Owen Wilson) and Isabel (Julia Roberts), and his loving older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic).

Via gives Auggie unstinting affection despite the fact that his emotional needs have left her feeling overlooked by Mom and Dad.

Though reluctant to subject Auggie — who usually goes out in public wearing an astronaut’s helmet that conceals his face from view — to the potential ordeal of school life, Nate and Isabel know it will be the best thing for him in the long run. They find an ally in Auggie’s principal, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), a rabbi-like figure who serves as the movie’s ethical core.

As for Auggie’s fellow students, their attitudes range from the open friendliness displayed by easygoing Summer (Millie Davis) to the cruel hostility embodied by would-be top dog Julian (Bryce Gheisar). Somewhere in the middle is Auggie’s on-again, off-again pal, Jack Will (Noah Jupe).

Though fundamentally kind and, eventually, genuinely fond of Auggie, Jack is case study in subtle variability and the negative effects of peer pressure. When circumstances enable Auggie to overhear some heartless remarks about him that Jack makes simply in order to fit in with the crowd, the effect is devastating. A later scene in which Julian comes to recognize the full impact of his bullying also carries a wallop.

Subplots involving Via’s best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), and newfound love interest Justin (Nadji Jeter) reinforce the idea that all of us are potential heroes or villains. Though some of the people in Auggie’s world are wholly good — his parents and Justin, for example — no one is presented as irredeemably wicked.

In adapting R.J. Palacio’s 2013 best-seller, director and co-writer (with Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne) Stephen Chbosky has created a winning and memorable film about the significance of ordinary life and the lasting impact of everyday choices. Despite a few mature elements, the movie’s valuable lessons make it appropriate fare for most teens.

The film contains a scene vaguely referencing married sexuality, fleeting scatological material, a couple of fistfights, one use of profanity and a single mildly 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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Justice League
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — When it comes to repetitiously threatening the world with annihilation, Hollywood is almost as persistent as North Korean state media.

So the global danger looming over “Justice League” (Warner Bros.) feels all-too-familiar, a case of Yogi Berra’s famous deja vu all over again.

Set to bring on the apocalypse this time is Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), a giant alien who wants to reassemble a trio of energy-generating boxes collectively known as the Unity. Bad idea, as this would unleash a chain reaction that would leave all life on Earth kaput.

From humanity’s perspective, Steppenwolf’s timing couldn’t be worse since, as viewers of 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” will remember, Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead. With Krypton’s favourite son out of the picture, it’s up to Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to thwart Steppenwolf’s scheme.

Realizing they’ll need all the help they can get, the Caped Crusader and the Amazonian warrior set out to gather a team of superheroes or, in DC Comics parlance, metahumans. Their trio of targeted recruits is made up of the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

The speedy Flash is enthusiastic but human-robot amalgam Cyborg has a tendency to brood while master of the sea Aquaman is a loner. Batman and Wonder Woman, meanwhile, have contrasting ideas about how to pursue their quest.

Adding to a franchise that kicked off with his 2013 film “Man of Steel,” director Zack Snyder deploys predictably outsized special effects. But the meager story laid out in Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon’s screenplay features a crucial plot development — not to be specified for fear of a spoiler — that may not go down well with Christian viewers. And, overall, the script offers little in the way of human interest.

There are some laughs to be had from the Flash’s socially inept persona, however. The idea of a youthful, Woody Allen-like nebbish endowed with superhuman powers is an appealing one, and Miller makes the most of it. But his performance is hardly enough to compensate for this action adventure’s glaring weaknesses.

With Steppenwolf’s weapon of choice vaguely suggesting a sinister version of the Trinity and science intruding on a divine prerogative in the sequence referred to, but not analyzed, above, this is not a suitable choice for young and impressionable moviegoers. Neither will it satisfy demanding grownups.

The film contains constant stylized violence, two uses of profanity, a milder oath, several crude and a couple of crass terms and some bleeped-out swearing. 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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