This Is Where I Leave You
By John P. McCarthy
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — Billed as a dramatic comedy, “This is Where I Leave You” (Warner Bros.) tries, unsuccessfully, to wring laughs and sentiment from one suburban family’s dysfunction.

A tagline reads, “Welcome Home. Get Uncomfortable.” And when four adult siblings gather for their father’s funeral, they quickly get under one another’s skin. But their tendency to over-share is also likely to make viewers squirm, which undercuts the aim of being funny and insightful. Many audience members will be discomfited by the coarse language and litany of tawdry, juvenile behaviours.

Adding to the disappointment, the project boasts an appealing ensemble — likable performers who, in most cases, are asked to play unlikable characters. Few are able to keep their mouths or libidos in check. Actions meant to be outrageous and irreverent are predictable and insufficiently entertaining.

Adapted from a novel by Jonathan Tropper, the story focuses on one member of the Altman clan, Judd (Jason Bateman), who discovers his wife is having an affair with his boss, the host of a radio program called “Man Up.” Despondent over the break-up of his marriage and the loss of his job, he then learns his father has died. Judd returns to his childhood home, joining stolid older brother Paul (Corey Stoll), sarcastic, unhappily married sister Wendy (Tina Fey), and spoiled younger brother Phillip (Adam Driver).

Their outspoken mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda), is a child psychologist who 25 years earlier penned a best-seller entitled “Cradle and All” that revealed intimate details about her offspring. Now, claiming it was her husband’s last wish, she insists they all sit Shiva — the Jewish custom of a weeklong mourning period for the decedent’s closest kin.

Over the course of the following week, in addition to the squabbling and ribbing, Judd reconnects with Penny (Rose Byrne), his free-spirited high-school crush. Wendy finds she still has feelings for the boy across the street she grew up with, who has sustained a traumatic brain injury. Paul and his wife grapple with their inability to conceive a child, and Phillip introduces his much-older fiance, who was formerly his therapist.

Regarding the tenor of the humour, siblings do tend to regress under such circumstances, sharing private jokes and cracking themselves up by recalling youthful shenanigans. So a certain degree of immaturity is to be expected. Moreover, irreverent jocularity and dark, gallows humour is a common response to painful events.

Yet when Hillary yanks a breathing tube from her husband’s corpse in the hospital, it’s more macabre than funny. A running gag about Wendy’s son’s potty training, while underscoring the rampant infantilism on display, fails to amuse. Likewise, the attention paid to Hillary’s surgically enhanced cleavage. And the glee the Altmans take in addressing their rabbi, a longtime family friend, by his crude childhood nickname borders on cruelty.

Novelist Tropper wrote the screenplay and presumably kept what he believes are the best bits from his book. Director Shawn Levy is best known for the “Night at the Museum” franchise and his excitement at the chance to helm a smaller-scale, fantasy-free piece is palpable. You suspect, however, this is one of those movies that was more fun to make than it is to watch.

Hearing these entitled characters complain about their problems soon becomes tiresome. Wendy has a line emblematic of the film’s pose of world-weary cynicism. She tells Judd, “Love causes cancer, like everything else, but it has its moments.” Unfortunately, “This is Where I Leave You” has precious few.

The film contains frequent rough, crude and crass language, much profanity and sexual banter, a number of sexual encounters — one featuring rear male nudity and most involving marital infidelity, drug use, an approvingly depicted same-sex relationship, and a glib attitude toward religious faith. 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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McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

The Maze Runner
By Joseph McAleer
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — Cross “The Hunger Games” with “Divergent” and you’ll get “The Maze Runner” (Fox), the latest angst-ridden drama about teenagers fighting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.

This go-round, there’s a boys-only twist, based on the 2009 novel by James Dashner (and borrowing heavily from William Golding’s 1954 classic, “Lord of the Flies”). The inhabitants of “The Glade,” a walled-in expanse of grass and trees, are all teenage boys, wiped of their memories. They must work together and build a community from scratch, all the while looking for a means to escape.

Think bonfires, cliques and macho displays of wrestling, and you won’t be far off.

How the boys got there is unknown. Every 30 days, a new recruit arrives via a mysterious underground elevator.

Enter Thomas (Dylan O’Brien). There’s something different about him, and his curiosity and daring threaten to upset the fragile world order built by the boys’ leader, Gally (Will Poulter).

The only way out is through the Maze, an ever-changing labyrinth that surrounds The Glade. Once a day, the entrance opens, and chosen boys called Runners enter, combing every nook and cranny for an exit.

Runners who don’t return in time before the doors close face certain death from the Grievers, spiderlike monsters that roam the Maze at night.

If this all sounds confusing, even a tad pointless, it is. And when the elevator deposits the first-ever girl, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) — to the amazement of all those boys — things really get complicated.

Teresa and Thomas seem to know each other. They forge an alliance and convince the community to wage a new assault on the Maze and gain their freedom.

Naturally, someone is watching: the so-called Creators, led by Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson). The Glade and Maze are the grown-ups’ doing, for reasons that are unclear.

But who needs adults anyway? Teenagers rule in this genre, and the (regrettable) impression endures that anyone over 18 is not to be trusted — or needed, for that matter.

Wes Ball directs “The Maze Runner” at a relentless pace, and some of the action sequences may be too intense for young viewers. It all builds up to a quizzical climax that screams the word Hollywood longs to hear: sequel.

The film contains occasional intense violence, including gory images, and some crude 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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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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A Walk Among the Tombstones
By Joseph McAleer
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — When a film is called “A Walk Among the Tombstones” (Universal), you shouldn’t expect a cheery stroll through the park.

Rather, this grisly thriller traverses the seamy underbelly of New York City in the 1990s, tracking a gang of serial killers on a deadly rampage.

Writer-director Scott Frank (“The Lookout”), working from the 1992 novel by Lawrence Block, serves up a well-acted and absorbing drama, albeit not one for the squeamish. There’s also an interesting moral conundrum, as the victims themselves are criminals, thereby posing the question, “Do bad guys deserve justice?”

This conflict haunts the hero, Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson), a former NYPD cop who now works as a private investigator operating just outside the law.

He reluctantly agrees to help a prosperous heroin trafficker, Kenny (Dan Stevens, having travelled very far indeed from “Downton Abbey”). Kenny’s wife (Razane Jammal) was kidnapped, and although Kenny paid the ransom, she was found dead, dismembered, and stuffed in the trunk of a car.

Kenny wants revenge, but his privacy, too. He also fears for the lives of his fellow drug dealers, as the murderers (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) have struck again.

Scudder agrees to help, deciding that some bad guys are worse than others. As he tracks the killers, he acquires a young sidekick, T.J. (Brian Bradley), a homeless boy and comics enthusiast who dreams of being a real-life superhero.

Awash in moral ambiguity, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” injects a degree of faith into the mix. As a recovering alcoholic, Scudder tries to apply the 12-step program of perseverance, forgiveness and belief in a higher power to his personal crusade for good over evil.

He does not always succeed.

The film contains bloody violence and torture, a suicide, brief nudity, sexual references, drug use, 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.

The Boxtrolls
By Joseph McAleer
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — If Charles Dickens collaborated with Dr. Seuss, he might have produced “The Boxtrolls” (Focus), a charmingly bizarre urban fable about rich and poor and things that go bump in the night.

This 3D adventure, featuring impressive stop-motion animation, is based on the 2005 children’s book “Here Be Monsters!” by Alan Snow.

The setting is Victorian England and the quaint village of Cheesebridge, marketed as “A Gouda Place to Live.” Yes, the residents are obsessed with dairy products, and the mayor, Lord Portley-Rind (voice of Jared Harris), rules the roost from a mansion on Curds Way (get it?).

His plucky daughter, Winnie (voice of Elle Fanning), longs for attention, but her father only has eyes for brie and camembert. Her world is turned upside down when she discovers “monsters” roaming the streets at night.

These are the Boxtrolls, aptly named as they are short of stature and wear recycled cardboard boxes (which double as hiding places). Scavengers by nature, they scour the garbage heaps for junk which they transform into magical inventions in their underground world.

Fearing for his cheese, Lord Portley-Rind accepts an offer from the wicked Archibald Snatcher (voice of Ben Kingsley) to root out and eliminate the Boxtrolls. In exchange, Snatcher will be elevated to the ruling class, and obtain a seat at the hallowed cheese-tasting table.

To underscore Snatcher’s evil nature, he sidelines as the drag queen Madame Frou Frou in a desperate attempt to mingle with high society.

Moreover, Snatcher’s assistants, Mr. Trout (voice of Nick Frost) and Mr. Pickles (voice of Richard Ayoade), offer a running commentary, questioning their boss’s motives and reminding the audience of the difference between good and evil.

The Boxtrolls have a bad rap, because once they allegedly stole a baby along with the garbage. Lovingly raised underground, the boy, named Eggs (voice of Isaac Hempstead Wright) after his box outfit, is now 11 and curious about the “upper” world.

Eggs bumps into Winnie, and she discovers that Boxtrolls are benevolent creatures who value family and loyalty. She joins forces with Eggs to expose Snatcher and the truth to her father and society. To succeed, they must work together and, yes, think outside the box (which means, in part, brief Boxtroll rear “nudity”).

Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi set a manic pace suitable to the absurdity of the material, which is served well by stunning animation and a first-rate voice cast. But parents beware: the overall tone is darker and scarier, which may be unsuitable for younger viewers.

The film contains scary moments, brief rear “nudity,” and some bathroom humor. 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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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Copyright (c) 2014 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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