Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

01/24/2018

 

Phantom Thread

By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — All rustling silk, organza, lace and tulle in the first half and a bizarre portrayal of marriage in the second half, “Phantom Thread” (Focus) is a bumpy trip through high fashion and passive-aggressive sniping in 1950s London.

Director-writer Paul Thomas Anderson may be trying to make a statement about necessary sacrifices to make the man-woman dynamic function property, but despite the lush, appealing visuals, he’s come up with an ugly denouement straight out of a cheap horror film.

Daniel Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, sort of a Yves St. Laurent-type dressmaker in a five-story townhouse, making gowns — elegant, structured creations of the Grace Kelly era — for pampered wealthy ladies and the occasional European royal.

His sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), runs the business, leaving the temperamental Woodcock free to sketch designs and pursue romances — at least that’s what obliquely implied — with a string of live-in women. He uses the devoted, priggish Cyril to cast them aside when he grows tired of their emotional neediness.

One day on a country drive and a stop at a hotel restaurant, Woodcock encounters waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), a slim young expatriate with a non-specific European accent. After a bit of flirting, he knows he’s found himself his next muse and model.

Woodcock is immensely selfish, and considers his doting late mother as the lone perfect woman he’d known.
He accepts affection, but only on his own terms. His way of showing it, such as he’s capable, consists of doing fittings so his designs will be realized. It’s not a balanced partnership by any means.

Woodcock has a devoted staff of seamstresses and no shortage of clients attending his fashion shows, but muses are difficult to fit into his existence. Affection and sex don’t mean as much to him as the power he exerts on others.

He shortly finds Alma annoying, particularly for her habit of making too much noise at breakfast, and is perpetually on some sort of slow burn over slights real and imagined. Alma, who accepts this soul-deadening arrangement and eventually marries Woodcock, nonetheless develops a long-term plan to keep him for herself in spite of all the snippy abuse.

This is where the story takes a disturbing turn. Alma, who likes to cook and prepare drinks, figures out a way to add poisonous mushrooms to her cuisine. Not enough to kill, but enough to inflict severe illness, which creates Woodcock’s instant dependency.

Does anyone get suspicious in the least? Nope. There’s an ineffectual doctor, but anyone waiting for a police inspector to turn up is waiting in vain.

Anderson suggests that the solution to a toxic relationship is real toxins. It’s a problematic turn without any indication of justice, restricting the film’s audience to adults capable of mature discernment. There are no stitches in time here.

The film contains an aberrant view of marriage and frequent 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.

 

 

Hostiles
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — “Hostiles” (Entertainment Studios) works from the premise that not only were white soldiers in the 1890s aware of their complicity in the decades-long genocide of Native Americans, they could feel immense, paralyzing guilt about their actions.

The end result is more than a bit anachronistic — white supremacist beliefs at the time were the norm, and the all-consuming energy required for daily life in the untamed American West allowed little time for reflection — but director-writer Scott Cooper wishes to make a strong moral case.

So he opens with a quote from British novelist T.H. Lawrence, who wrote in 1923 about James Fenimore Cooper’s 19th-century novel “The Deerslayer”: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

Times were tough, hearts were hard and disputes were settled at the point of a gun. Sounds like the opening of most episodes of the TV western “Gunsmoke.”

Except that there’s no Marshal Dillon here to set matters right. Cooper’s protagonist, taciturn Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), is wracked with anguish about the slaughter he’s undertaken as well as the violence inflicted on virtually anyone he’s worked with during his Army postings. He’s killed, and seen his men killed by, the Native Americans they’ve been separating from their ancestral lands and way of life and putting them on impoverished reservations in the name of manifest destiny.

Blocker, despite his emotional damage, is an educated sort who reads Julius Caesar’s writings in the original Latin. He thinks of his task as somehow noble, but nearly rebels when he’s ordered to escort a dying Native American chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to Montana.

Along the way, he picks up Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) the lone survivor from a massacre of her family by rampaging Comanches. She’s catatonic from losing her husband and young children, but somehow restores her bearings to regard Yellow Hawk’s family with compassion. At another stop, they pick up convicted criminal Philip (Ben Foster), who will face a military execution at the end of the journey.

Master Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) brags of having made his first kill at age 14 during the Civil War, but he, too, succumbs to the accumulation of grief.

To survive on this sad, loping journey requires everyone to find common ground so they can repel the ongoing threat of Comanche raiders. This dips into the ancient racial trope of “good” and “bad” Native Americans, and also creates, as the lone form of suspense, the question of who will die along the way.

The story would undoubtedly have worked better if only a couple of the principal characters were deeply depressed. But Cooper gives everyone an overwhelmingly sensitive conscience and a sense of how they’ll be regarded by history. The result is an unrelentingly unsentimental road trip that can be appreciated by an adult audience aware of how many times Cooper wants to just wear them down.

The violence and racism are matter-of-factly and realistically portrayed. There’s no mythology here, and also no joy. Any character, if exceedingly fortunate, becomes merely a survivor.

The film contains gun and physical violence, fleeting gore and some racist dialogue. 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 Commuter
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — If you think your trip back and forth to work is trying, consider the plight Liam Neeson finds himself in as “The Commuter” (Lionsgate).

Neeson’s character, police officer-turned-insurance-salesman Michael MacCauley, is already having a bad day even before he catches the train from Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal to suburban Tarrytown. Strapped for cash to begin with, Michael has just been let go from his job.

So when a stranger who calls herself Joanna (Vera Farmiga) offers him a large sum to identify one of his fellow passengers on the basis of a few scanty clues, the bizarre proposition gets his attention. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Joanna is not on the side of the angels and that her proposal is as much blackmail as bargain.

With his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), and son, Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman), in danger, Michael turns for help to Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson), a friend and fellow cop who is still on the force. But he must largely fend for himself as he pursues his frantic search.

If all this sounds murky and improbable, it is, though lively action sequences help mask that fact. To the extent that director Jaume Collet-Serra’s generally efficient thriller aims to do anything more than deliver on the pleasures of its genre, though, its serious intentions are undermined by the logical shortcomings of the story.

Collet-Serra and screenwriters Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi do present their protagonist with a fundamental moral dilemma: Should he imperil a stranger in exchange for the safety of his family? But the clumsy way they back him into this corner blunts the impact of their perfectly respectable ethical message.

As for the script’s digs at corporate America via the abrupt and uncaring way in which Michael gets the axe and through the nastiness of Vince (Shazad Latif), a commuting broker who is rude to everyone within reach, they are even more maladroit. (The dialogue uses up the sole F-word to which a film rated PG-13 is entitled to flip the bird to Vince’s ex-employer, real-life brokerage Goldman Sachs.)

Although “The Commuter” is not endorsable for kids, the bloodletting is at least minimal since Irish-born Michael prefers fisticuffs to gunplay. From an aesthetic point of view, while it avoids a total train wreck, the wheels on this vehicle for Neeson do creak under the weight of its large cargo of suspended disbelief.

The film contains much brawling and some lethal violence with brief gore, a scene implying use of pornography, about a dozen profanities, a couple of rough and several 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.

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Proud Mary
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — As the title character in the drama “Proud Mary” (Screen Gems), Taraji P. Henson plays a hit woman with a heart of gold. By turns violent and sentimental, the tall tale that centres on her unlikely persona is consistently unconvincing.

A year after rubbing out his father, a hopelessly indebted bookie, Mary takes in orphaned preteen Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who has since become a petty street criminal. Discovering that “Uncle” (Xander Berkeley), the Fagin-like leader of the gang into whose service Danny was ensnared in the wake of his dad’s death, was physically abusive to the lad, she proceeds to dispatch him with all dispatch.

But Mary’s new domestic arrangement does not sit well with Benny (Danny Glover) and Tom (Billy Brown), the father-and-son team who run the mob family to which she belongs. They’re concerned, moreover, that Uncle’s slaying — which Mary carried out without their permission and denies having committed — has touched off a gang war.

Dedicated to protecting Danny, Mary also yearns to break free of her ties to Benny and Tom, the latter her ex-boyfriend.

Intended as an homage to female-led blaxploitation films of the 1970s (think Pam Grier), director Babak Najafi’s movie is all style and no credibility. That’s mainly because John Stuart Newman’s screenplay fails to lay the foundation either of its farfetched plot or of its adoptive central relationship.

Worse yet, morality gets taken out as the script gives Mary a pass for the two most prominent of her killings on the grounds that her targets — a reputed child molester eventually shares Uncle’s fate — are bad guys. In the parlance of the Old West, they needed shooting — or so at least we’re intended to think. This untenable stance is only partly offset by the drift toward goodness of Mary’s overall conversion story.

Moviegoers, accordingly, would do well not to lose one minute of sleeping worrying about this unstable combination of wild shoot-’em-up and emotional melodrama.

The film contains a vengeance theme, much stylized gunplay with fleeting but nasty gore, a scene of torture, brief partial nudity, several uses of profanity, about a half-dozen milder oaths as well as a couple of rough and numerous crude and crass terms. 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.

 

Batman and Harley Quinn
By Mark Judge

NEW YORK (CNS) — Is there a more ridiculous character in all of comics than Harley Quinn?

The madcap former psychiatrist and sidekick to the Joker has no superpowers, has an annoying New Jersey accent and dresses like a court jester. She’s not exactly the first one you’d call if Darkseid or some other major galactic threat appeared.

Harley also is the irksome centre of attention in “Batman and Harley Quinn” (Warner Bros.), a poorly conceived and morally obtuse straight-to-video animated film from DC Comics. Inappropriate fare for youngsters, discerning adults, too, will want to leave this movie aside.

The proceedings do start with a good premise. Frustrated with increasing environmental devastation caused by humans, eco-terrorist Poison Ivy (voice of Paget Brewster) and man-plant hybrid the Floronic Man (voice of Kevin Michael Richardson) team up to transform all animal life, human and otherwise, into plants.

To accomplish this, they use research that Louisiana scientist Alec Holland conducted — before Holland became the beastly green monster known as the Swamp Thing, that is. Holland’s work is stored in a high-security lab in Gotham City, and when Ivy and the Floronic Man attempt a hack to get the formula, Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) and his former Robin, aka Dick Grayson, now the adult vigilante known as Nightwing (voice of Loren Lester), try to stop them.

The criminals get away, but Batman and Nightwing suspect that Poison Ivy is behind the plot. The two heroes turn to Harley Quinn (voice of Melissa Rauch), a friend of Ivy’s, for help tracking her pal down.

If developed properly, “Batman and Harley Quinn” could have been an interesting meditation on the importance of environmentalism that does not degenerate into fanaticism or earth worship. But the picture is overcome by awkward and offensive situations and jokes — as well as harsh punch-outs.

After besting Nightwing in a fight — something fairly inconceivable, considering Nightwing was trained by Batman and that Harley is a ditz who weighs about 90 pounds — Harley ties him up with duct tape and then seduces him. Again, we’re talking Nightwing here, a man who has gone toe-to-toe with the Joker but is apparently helpless against adhesives.

That’s not the end of the poor taste. On a ride to Louisiana to stop Poison Ivy and the Floronic Man, who have gone there to drop a toxin into the water of the Gulf Stream and thus spread it to humanity, Harley experiences noisy intestinal gas. If that slide into Adam Sandlerville isn’t bad enough, there’s also a scene that includes Two-Face’s twin henchmen assuming an unmistakably sexual position.

Legendary Batman writer and producer Bruce Timm, his co-writer James Krieg and director Sam Liu have all done much better work.

The film contains frequent cartoon combat violence, two suggestive sexual situations, one instance of scatological humour and occasional profane, 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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Judge is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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