Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

05/02/2018

 

‘Bobby Kennedy for President,’ streaming, Netflix
By Chris Byrd

NEW YORK (CNS) — The first and last episodes of the four-part docuseries “Bobby Kennedy for President” may not gratify viewers as much as the middle chapters. But at its best, the film will fascinate, absorb and deeply affect viewers. Released April 27, and presented in one-hour segments, the profile is streaming on Netflix.

Given its mature themes of war, murder, violence, poverty and racism, and its inclusion of some strong language, the program is safest for adults. Yet its strong educational value may make it acceptable for mature adolescents as well.

Director Dawn Porter fuses seldom-seen archival footage that has recently been digitally restored with vivid photographs and commentary from Kennedy’s close associates and other eyewitnesses to create a richly comprehensive portrait of the late senator. She also effectively highlights his enduring impact.

Released in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination — June 5, 1968 — “Bobby Kennedy for President” begins unsteadily. The documentary feels disjointed as it flits from topic to topic. Not having a narrator generally works for the film, but a guiding voice at its start might have helped steer a seemingly rudderless ship.

The program eventually settles in, but the title may mislead viewers who may anticipate a series focused exclusively on the New York senator’s campaign to secure the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1968. Instead, Porter documents the whole arc of Kennedy’s public service, mercifully sparing viewers discussion of Kennedy’s rumoured marital infidelities.

Much of the first episode’s history will be well known to older viewers. Controversy marked Kennedy’s early career, including his role as assistant counsel to the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

As his brother John’s campaign manager during the 1960 presidential campaign, and subsequently as attorney general, Bobby became, in the words of his former aide William vanden Heuvel, “the second most powerful man in the country.” The brothers’ partnership, vanden Heuvel also says, “represented the future of the country.”

That collaboration, of course, ended tragically in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and Bobby’s future — like the nation’s — became much more uncertain. Overcoming accusations of carpetbagging as well as his evident lack of experience as a public speaker, Bobby secured one of the Empire State’s U.S. Senate seats in the election of 1964.

Ironically, given that the two men notoriously detested each other, Bobby’s success may have been due, in part at least, to the overwhelming margin by which his brother’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, captured the presidency in his own right that year.

Watching footage of Kennedy driving his own car on the day of his 1965 Senate swearing-in ceremony, viewers will sense that the series itself is now on the move. Being behind the wheel, moreover, presents an apt metaphor for the situation in which Bobby, who had so long and so willingly taken a back seat to Jack, now found himself.

Alone and in charge of his destiny, he observes, “You only get one time around.”

As a senator, Bobby displayed the capacity to “listen and learn,” as Children’s defence Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman says in the film. Wright, who later married close Kennedy aide Peter Edelman, convinced Kennedy to tour the Mississippi Delta in 1967.

The abject conditions he found there shocked and angered Bobby, who also visited Appalachian Kentucky in 1968 in an effort to relaunch, in a sense, LBJ’s War on Poverty — which had been somewhat stalled by the expense of the Vietnam War.

Kennedy’s opposition to U.S. involvement in that conflict stemmed, in part, from his belief that even a portion of the $600 million the nation spent on aid for South Vietnam each year could go a long way toward alleviating domestic poverty. That conviction formed part of the basis for his eventual entry into the 1968 presidential campaign.

“I run,” he says, while announcing his candidacy, “because I’m convinced this country is on a perilous course.”

By combining the series’ second and third episodes, the filmmakers could have produced a great stand-alone documentary, taking viewers from Kennedy’s1964 New York Senate run through his assassination.

As the filmmakers correctly point out, throughout his career, Bobby evoked extreme reactions, both of “devotion and distrust.” During his final, unfinished campaign, his electric connection to his devotees, who clamoured to shake his hand or merely touch him as he passed by, came to the fore.

Not long afterward, many of them would line the tracks between New York and Washington to salute his funeral train.

The last part of the documentary focuses on the circumstances surrounding the assassination. Did Sirhan Sirhan murder Kennedy on his own or did he have help?

It’s obviously an important subject. But absent Kennedy’s magnetism, the film stalls. In its earlier portions, however, with Bobby squarely at centre stage, Porter’s biography soars.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

Avengers: Infinity War
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Strong values are embedded in the towering, richly complex Marvel Comics-based adventure “Avengers: Infinity War” (Disney). While this often-dazzling, sometimes-dizzying epic is safest for grown-ups, its positive moral lessons may lead at least some parents to deem it acceptable for older teens as well.

The film’s ethical stance can first be read through the principal aim of its outsized villain, slaughter-loving tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin). He cherishes a long-standing scheme to bring his version of harmony to the universe by wiping out half its population, thus freeing up scarce resources for the survivors.

This maniacal goal is based on Thanos’ sincere — but obviously wildly misguided — assessment of the fate that befell his place of origin, Saturn’s moon Titan, whose civilization was destroyed, according to his account, by overpopulation. Foreseeing a similar outcome for the cosmos as a whole, Thanos believes his theoretically laudable purpose: to establish a sustainable paradise, will justify his cataclysmic methods.

Fortunately, neither the Avengers nor the Guardians of the Galaxy agree. So they team up to thwart him.

To gain the necessary power to accomplish his plan, Thanos needs to collect a set of supernatural gems called the Infinity Stones which, once assembled, will give him control over all reality. So the array of good guys — who are too numerous to name but include, perhaps most prominently, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange and Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord — make it their business to stop him.

Throughout the ensuing struggle, Thanos’ opponents consistently refuse to sacrifice anyone on their side for the sake of their larger objective, a principle embodied in the motto “We don’t trade lives.” Thus co-directors (and brothers) Anthony and Joe Russo’s mesmerizing saga drives home the message that the common good is not to be achieved at the price of any individual’s innocent life, much less those of a multitude.

Less substantial, but perhaps more surprising, than this theme of ends and means is a fleeting reference to Jesus that some will find ultimately faith-affirming, others too frivolous in tone.

On a purely aesthetic level, an outstanding cast in top form, together with clever self-parodying dialogue in Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script make the two-and-a-half-hour-plus run time pass quickly. And then there’s the unthinkable wrap-up, a denouement so shocking it will certainly draw gasps of surprise — and may even leave devoted fans of the Marvel universe beside themselves with frenzy.

The film contains much harsh but mostly bloodless violence, a couple of mild oaths as well as several crude and numerous crass terms. 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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Traffik
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — A series of onscreen statistics at the end of “Traffik” (Lionsgate) are meant to alert viewers to the extent of the very grave real-world problem of human trafficking with which the film deals. They’re also there, perhaps, to reinforce the idea that writer-director Deon Taylor has approached his dramatization of this blight with only the best and most serious intentions.

By then, however, it’s all too late because this muddled thriller has long since bogged down in weak storytelling, implausible plot developments and — Taylor’s good-guy posturing notwithstanding — sensationalism. The latter element includes not only the pretty-girls-in-captivity trope but also an invitation to the audience to exult when the gals manage to exact a certain amount of bloody revenge on their kidnappers.

Sacramento couple Brea (Paula Patton) and John (Omar Epps) — she an idealistic journalist, he a gifted auto mechanic — set off for an idyllic weekend in the California countryside during which John intends to pop the question. John’s best friend Darren (Laz Alonso), a successful sports agent, has arranged for the duo to stay at a luxurious but isolated home in the hills to which he has access.

Along the way, Brea and John stop at a roadside gas station where Brea crosses paths with glassy-eyed stranger Cara (Dawn Olivieri) who is clearly a drugged-up damsel in distress. As Brea eventually discovers, Cara is being trafficked by ruthless Brit Red (Luke Goss) and his gang of unsavory biker-types.

By surreptitiously leaving a valuable clue with Brea, Cara has endangered the reporter’s life, and it’s not long before Red and his buddies come calling at that lovely but lonely house in the woods. Since Darren and his much put-upon girlfriend Malia (Roselyn Sanchez) have meanwhile shown up for an ill-timed visit — interrupting the lovebirds is a characteristic move on selfish Darren’s part — they too are in the crosshairs.

Increasingly gritty and gory, what follows is unsuitable for most moviegoers and not worth the bother for those for whom it can be considered acceptable.

The film contains nasty, sometimes gory violence, drug use, scenes of sensuality with partial nudity and pervasive rough 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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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

Lego DC Comics Super Heroes: The Flash
By Mark Judge

NEW YORK (CNS) — Combine familiar comic book figures with the memorable time-warp premise of 1993’s “Groundhog Day,” and you’ve got the delightful direct-to-video feature “Lego DC Comics Super Heroes: The Flash” (Warner Brothers Home Entertainment).

The movie, which is suitable for all, teaches strong moral lessons about self-sacrifice, personal responsibility, the value of science and the need to be conscious of what’s going on around you.

“The Flash” begins with what must be the most overused trope in the comic book universe: a battle between Batman (voice of Troy Baker) and the Joker (voice of Jason Spisak). This time, however, the fight takes place in Metropolis, Superman’s gleaming home town.

Ever since Batman started hanging out with his friends at Metropolis’ Hall of Justice, the city has been on the Joker’s list of targets. His assault takes the form of a series of deadly laughing-gas bombs.

It’s up to the Justice League — here comprised of Superman (voice of Nolan North), Wonder Woman (voice of Grey DeLisle), Cyborg (voice of Khary Payton), Plastic Man (voice of Tom Kenny), Firestorm (voice of Phil LaMarr) and new recruit the Atom (voice of Eric Bauza) — to thwart the Clown Prince of Crime.

But what’s become of the Flash (voice of James Arnold Taylor), who ought to be fighting alongside them? He accidentally set his Justice League emergency beeper on vibrate, overslept, and has spent all morning zipping around different cities getting donuts, stopping the villains Captain Cold and Captain Boomerang and tossing down a milkshake.

Flash, whose alter ego in this outing is police scientist Barry Allen, does eventually show up to dispatch the Joker. He brushes off being late but is scolded by the other heroes. “Not everything can be fixed with speed,” Batman tells him. Wonder Woman stresses the importance of always being “aware of your surroundings.”

No sooner is that advice given then Flash impulsively takes off after a mysterious speedster dressed in yellow. This turns out to be Reverse-Flash (voice of Dwight Schultz), a villain from the future who can match, and even surpass, the pace of his crime-fighting counterpart.

Lured into a time loop by the newcomer, Flash ends up reliving the same day over and over while Reverse-Flash assumes his identity in the normal world. Reverse-Flash’s motive for the switch is egotism. In a bid to be worshipped, he uses his speed to solve all the crime in Metropolis in short order, and kneecaps the efforts of the Justice League.

Sensing something is off, quick-shrinking hero and brilliant scientist the Atom seeks the help of Doctor Fate (voice of Kevin Michael Richardson). In the best sequence of the movie, Fate, who’s endowed with a Barry White-like bass-baritone, prods Flash to perform a blues number bemoaning his troubles.

With Fate’s aid, Flash embarks on a quest to escape his chronological trap and regain his powers. Throughout the varied adventures that follow, the lesson for the viewer remains the same: Even if you’re the Flash, sometimes the best course of action involves slowing down, forming a plan and taking note of your environment.

That’s a refreshing piece of wisdom in a comic book universe that gets louder and more explosive every summer season. And it may prove especially helpful to young people bombarded by an excess of distracting digital stimulation.

There’s also a nod to science, as the Atom uses his knowledge of the molecular world to disperse toxic gas and solve the challenge of bringing Flash back to the League.

In addition to its positive messages, director Ethan Spaulding’s film features beautiful animation and a fun, funny script. Some of the humour is directed at grown viewers. In Barry’s apartment, for instance, there’s a painting by Dutch modernist Piet Modrian, the clean squares and rectangles of whose characteristic style resemble Legos.

Similarly, when shape-shifting Plastic Man goes on the attack in the guise of a helicopter, he hums Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” a reference to a famous scene in director Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War film “Apocalypse Now.” There’s also an inside joke about “The New 52,” an ill-advised 2011 reboot of DC Comics that has itself since been revamped.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-I — general patronage. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.
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Judge is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.


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