Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

12/20/2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Despite the high price of a movie ticket these days, patrons are unlikely to come away from a showing of the engrossing sci-fi epic “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (Disney) feeling shortchanged.

Vast in scale and operatic in intensity, this 152-minute visit to that galaxy far, far away is both satisfying and, for the most part, family-friendly.

The “Star Wars” saga has often been characterized as the Iliad of contemporary culture. So perhaps it’s fitting that the opening of writer-director Rian Johnson’s eighth episode of the narrative initiated by George Lucas in 1977 finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) imitating Homer’s Achilles by holding aloof from the great struggle in which he once took an active part.

Rather than sulking in his tent, as Achilles did, Luke is leading a solitary life of self-imposed exile among the small stone huts of a distant planet. (These scenes were shot on the Irish island of Skellig Michael, site of a medieval monastery.) His isolation is interrupted by the arrival of Rey (Daisy Ridley) who has come as a messenger from Luke’s twin sister, Leia (the late Carrie Fisher).

As the leading general of the embattled Resistance — the latter-day version of the Rebel Alliance for which Luke once fought — Leia urgently needs her brother’s famed skills as a warrior if the struggle against the fascistic First Order (successor to the evil Galactic Empire), and its malignant leader, Snoke (Andy Serkis), is to continue.

Luke refuses to join the conflict. But he does agree to train Rey in the ways of the Force. Rey will need the power of this mysterious spiritual energy, the source of Luke’s own prowess, when she eventually confronts Leia’s son, Ben Solo, a.k.a. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Originally a good person, Ben has gone over to the side of darkness, and now serves as Snoke’s chief lieutenant. Even so, he still has some elements of good remaining in him, and his ongoing moral struggle has the potential to sway the outcome of the intergalactic battle.

Though it gets off to a slow start, once it hits its stride “The Last Jedi” sweeps viewers along with stirring action and audience-pleasing plot twists. While not as taut as last year’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” this sprawling instalment of the great franchise makes, in the end, for a more memorable experience.

The script’s portrayal of the Force as capable of endowing those who cultivate it either with goodness or iniquity may strike moviegoers of faith as establishing a false equivalence of power between these two poles of morality.

Characters do make their ethical choices more or less freely. And the idea that a change in basic identity should be reflected by a change of name echoes a recurring trope in Scripture.

Audience members young or old are unlikely to spend much time meditating on these aspects of the picture, however. Instead, they’ll be content to ride this cinematic whirlwind while it lasts, and leave its mythos behind them like so much popcorn on the theatre floor.

The film contains frequent but bloodless combat violence, a scene of torture, a couple of mild oaths and a few crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. 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.

Ferdinand
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Generations of children have fallen in love with the peace-loving protagonist of Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s 1936 classic “The Story of Ferdinand.”

Now that amiable bull, who was featured in an Academy Award-winning 1938 short from Walt Disney, gets his first full-length screen outing with “Ferdinand” (Fox), a pleasing piece of animation in which he’s voiced by wrestler-turned-actor John Cena.

The book is a brief one, so it’s not surprising that the film’s plot feels somewhat padded. But good values go a long way in masking this defect and in maintaining a receptive mood among viewers.

Escaping the confines of the stable in which he and other bulls are prepared for their fateful confrontation with a matador, and where his preference for smelling flowers rather than locking horns makes him a bullied misfit, Ferdinand is adopted as a pet by an affectionate little girl named Nina (voiced at different ages by Julia Saldanha and Lily Day).

All goes well until a misunderstanding interrupts Ferdinand’s idyllic existence and sets him back on the path to the bullring — where his commitment to non-violence will be put to the ultimate test.

To turn this easily summarized story into a more than 90-minute movie, screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland introduce a variety of lively secondary characters. The most prominent of these is Lupe (voiced by Kate McKinnon), the slightly pixilated goat who volunteers to serve as Ferdinand’s coach as, once back in captivity, he reluctantly trains to face down famed bullfighter El Primero.

Charming pastoral landscapes and such colourful sights as a flower festival also strengthen director Carlos Saldanha’s picture. But what moviegoers who base their ethics on the Gospel, and parents in particular, will find most congenial is the central theme, which exalts tranquility over needless conflict.

That solid foundation will make this fable an appealing one to children who may be facing peer pressure or intimidation themselves. It also outweighs some fleeting elements Catholic viewers might find dubious, such as a comic but not fundamentally disrespectful portrayal of a group of nuns much given to blessing themselves when surprised or alarmed.

Easily frightened tots may not appreciate the dangers Ferdinand faces during his quest to be true to himself. These include a trip on a slaughterhouse conveyer belt. Ferdinand also discovers that humans always prevail in the bullring — with fatal consequences for the animals placed there.

The potty humour so common in kids’ movies, on the other hand, is virtually absent here. And, on the whole “Ferdinand” provides appropriate — and morally enriching — entertainment for a broad spectrum of age groups.

The film contains scenes of peril, some mildly irreverent humour, a vague scatological reference and one slightly crass expression. 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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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

The Greatest Showman

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — The life of pop entertainment pioneer P.T. Barnum provides the subject matter for the big, brash musical “The Greatest Showman” (Fox).

Ironically, the film arrives in theatres almost seven months to the day after the demise of the 19th-century impresario’s most lasting legacy, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Though unlikely to engage the youngest viewers, an emphasis on marital fidelity and family values in general, together with the virtual absence of objectionable material, makes this screen biography appropriate for most others. Moviegoers’ appreciation of it, however, will likely depend on their taste for the Lloyd-Webber style of Broadway and West End theatre, whose approach it imitates.

Hugh Jackman leads with his chin in playing Barnum with bring-on-the-lions enthusiasm. Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script, meanwhile, traces its protagonist’s rise from impoverished beginnings to worldwide fame with the kind of occasionally challenged, but ultimately unquenchable, optimism that might have appealed to novelist Horatio Alger.

Barnum gains support in his ascent from his childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams), who eventually turns her back on her wealthy and well-bred parents to marry him. Also shunning a genteel background to bolster Barnum’s career is his unlikely business partner, New York socialite Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron).

Assembling an ensemble of such unusual figures as Lettie Lutz, aka the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle) and dwarf “General,” Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), Barnum turns a large profit by exciting the curiosity of the masses. Tensions arise, though, when he shifts his focus away from these loyal performers and friends to concentrate on backing the American premiere of Swedish diva Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).

Barnum risks his fortune in the effort to promote Lind, hoping thereby to gain the elite standing that has previously eluded him. The fact that this breakthrough may require him to shun those on whom he has built his success fails, initially at least, to deter him.

He is equally blind to the danger his absence on the road with Lind poses to his bond with Charity and their children — not to mention the foreseeable temptation arising from the beautiful soprano’s prolonged company.

There is a pro-life underlying director Michael Gracey’s feature debut since its treatment of the social outsiders with whom Barnum surrounded himself strongly vindicates their inherent dignity and entitlement to respect.

There is, however, a historical naivete in projecting a contemporary outlook backward onto Victorian-era America. The audience is left with the impression that all the gaping inequalities of Barnum’s day might easily have been effaced by a few brassy songs delivered with the requisite zest.

Still, parents on the lookout for wholesome holiday fare will probably refrain from such nitpicking as, perhaps with teens in tow, they take in a love and success story that’s old-fashioned in the best sense.

The film contains some non-lethal violence, a mild oath and a racial slur. 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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