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Movie review: 'The Case for Christ'

NEW YORK (CNS) -- Christian apologetics, the branch of theology devoted to proving the reasonableness of belief in Jesus, is almost as old as the faith itself. Three documents in this genre, for instance, survive from the writings of St. Justin Martyr, who died in the middle of the second century.
 
In 1998, former journalist Lee Strobel published a memoir of his spiritual odyssey from aggressive atheism to evangelical Christianity that also grounded his faith in objectively assessed evidence. Nearly 20 years later, and just in time for Easter, a screen version of Strobel's book, "The Case for Christ" (Pure Flix), arrives in theaters.
 
Set in 1980, the film charts Strobel's (Mike Vogel) effort to uses his investigative skills -- he was a rising star on the staff of the Chicago Tribune at the time -- to disprove the Resurrection and thereby debunk the faith as a whole. He was provoked to do this by wife Leslie's (Erika Christensen) recent conversion, an event that sparked discord in their previously serene marriage.
 
Strobel consults a variety of experts, from archaeologist-turned-Catholic-priest Father Jose Maria Marquez (Miguel Perez) to Purdue University professor of psychiatry Dr. Roberta Waters (Faye Dunaway). Each knocks down one of the lines of defense that Strobel has erected to bar acceptance of Christ's return from the dead, e.g., that the 500 witnesses to it mentioned in the New Testament were suffering from a form of mass hysteria.
 
It makes for an intelligent quest, though one that includes a detailed exploration of the medical effects of crucifixion that would be upsetting to many kids.
Director Jonathan M. Gunn and screenwriter Brian Bird intertwine Strobel's intellectual journey with his involvement in a headline-grabbing criminal case -- Renell Gibbs plays the defendant, James Dixon. They also work in a low-key study of Lee and Leslie's strong bond and of the problematic relationship between Strobel and his father, Walter (Robert Forster).
 
While not as heavy handed as many message movies, "The Case for Christ" -- which is acceptable for a wide audience -- succeeds more as a vindication of the rationality of belief than as entertainment. On the other hand, those looking for an informal way to bolster their religious education during the holiest of seasons could hardly find a more fitting choice.
 
The film contains graphic descriptions and images of scourging and crucifixion and a single 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.
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: 'Beauty and the Beast'

Disney's live-action adaptation of its beloved 1991 animated film "Beauty and the Beast" arrives in theaters amid a swirl of controversy over the updating of one of its characters into an openly gay man.
 
The decision of the studio, director Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls"), and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos to reimagine LeFou (Josh Gad), sidekick of the villainous Gaston (Luke Evans), as Disney's so-called "first gay character" is a regrettable one. A cherished family film has, in essence, been appropriated for an underlying agenda that is firmly at odds with Christian values.
 
Parents will have a hard time explaining to their kids -- as most know the cartoon by heart -- why LeFou has jumped on the homosexual bandwagon. His amorous advances to Gaston, proud display of a bite mark from Gaston on his stomach (due to "wrestling"), and ultimate dance in the arms of another man will raise eyebrows, to say the least.
 
Admittedly, many grown moviegoers will take LeFou's transformation in stride. "Beauty and the Beast," however, is a must-see film intended for children. Given the clear intent to make a statement with the character in question, the restrictive classification assigned below is a caution for viewers of faith, especially parents.
 
The pall cast over "Beauty and the Beast" is unfortunate, as the film is largely an imaginative and engaging work with an arresting visual style. An old-fashioned Hollywood musical at heart, it brims with familiar songs by Alan Menken and whirling dance sequences worthy of Busby Berkeley.
 
Like the cartoon, this film is loosely based on the 1740 fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. The eponymous lovely, Belle (Emma Watson), is a spirited maiden in a French village who longs for excitement.
 
"I want adventure in the great-wide somewhere," she warbles. "I want so much more than they've got planned!"
 
Be careful what you wish for, dearie. No sooner does she spurn the advances of the vain hunter Gaston than Belle winds up imprisoned in a haunted castle, having swapped places with her kidnapped father, Maurice (Kevin Kline).
 
Enter said Beast (Dan Stevens), aka The Prince. We learn in an extended prologue that this handsome royal was transferred into a horned (but infinitely more dapper) version of Chewbacca from the "Star Wars" franchise by Agathe (Hattie Morahan), a local enchantress, as punishment for his selfishness.
 
Agathe's curse extended to The Prince's staff, who became not furry creatures but household objects. These exceedingly loquacious items include Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), a stuffy mantel clock; Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), a dancing candelabra; twirling feather duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw); Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), a motherly teapot, and her cup of a son, Chip (Nathan Mack); and musical duo Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), a harspichord, and Garderobe (Audra McDonald), a wardrobe.
 
Only if Beauty grows to love the Beast will the spell be broken, which seems a very long shot for this odd couple. A courtship ensues -- with a nice lesson on looking beyond outward appearances for true love -- until a vengeful Gaston raises an angry mob to kill the Beast, casting doubt (for newcomers, at least) on a happy ending.
 
Even in the absence of the hot-button issue already discussed, young children might be frightened by several dark moments in the movie, including attacks by wolves and Gaston's violent assault on the Beast's castle.
 
The film contains a few scenes of peril and action violence, a benign view of homosexual activity and some sexual innuendo. 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 PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: ‘Rock Dog’

"You ain't nothin' but a hound dog," Elvis Presley famously crooned six decades ago. That pretty well describes "Rock Dog" (Summit Premiere), a feeble animated comedy about a canine with unlikely musical aspirations.
 
On Snow Mountain, high in the Himalayas, a Tibetan Mastiff named Bodi (voice of Luke Wilson) is stuck in the shadow of his stern father, Khampa (voice of J.K. Simmons). Their two-dog mission is to guard the village from marauding wolves eager to eat the resident sheep population.
 
Bodi prefers playing his guitar to sentry duty. When a passing airplane drops a radio from the sky, it's like manna from heaven. Turning the dial to a rock 'n' roll station (reception is remarkably clear), Bodi is entranced by the music of legendary rock-and-roller Angus Scattergood (voice of Eddie Izzard).
 
The village elder, fittingly named Fleetwood Yak (voice of Sam Elliott), convinces Khampa to let his son leave the village and seek his destiny in the big city.
 
"It's your life. Make it a happy one," Fleetwood tells Bodi.
 
And so Bodi hops the bus (mass transit is also surprisingly good), lands in the nearby metropolis -- filled with anthropomorphic species -- and seeks out Angus' heavily guarded compound.
 
The aging rocker, a hipster cat with a British accent and a sassy robot butler named Ozzie, invites the awestruck fan into his lair, but his motives are not sincere. Angus needs a new hit, and Bodi's fresh talent might be just the ticket.
 
Meanwhile, the big bad wolf pack, led by Linnux (voice of Lewis Black), is inspired by Bodi's departure to mount a final assault on Snow Mountain. Sporting gangster attire and driving stretch limos, these cool dudes have one goal in mind: feasting on grilled lamb chops.
 
Director and co-writer (with Kurt Voelker) Ash Bannon keeps the story moving while borrowing heavily from other animated films, including "Zootopia" and "WALL-E."
 
Despite the dangers characters occasionally face and Angus' mildly intemperate language (he says things like "stupid bloody idiot!"), "Rock Dog" is mindless fare acceptable for all -- except possibly the most easily frightened.
 
The film contains a few scenes of peril.
 
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.
 
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: 'The Lego Batman Movie'

In 2014's "The Lego Movie," Will Arnett voiced an amusingly self-absorbed version of Gotham City's Dark Knight. With the entertaining spinoff "The Lego Batman Movie" (Warner Bros.), Arnett's character, together with his inflated ego, takes center stage.
 
Despite occupying the spotlight, however, this time out, the Caped Crusader will have to learn some important lessons in humility, teamwork and emotional openness if he's going to meet his latest challenge. That's because his longtime adversary, the Joker (voice of Zach Galifianakis), is leading an army of bad guys in a bid to prove that he is Batman's most important enemy.
 
Just as the isolated, relationship-shunning hero insists on working alone to fight crime, so he slaps the Joker down when the Clown Prince of Crime puts himself forward as the Cowled One's indispensable foil.
 
"You're nothing to me," Batman growls in a scene that cleverly inverts a familiar trope, substituting the Joker's longing to be told he's hated for the more usual goal of exacting a declaration of love. Soon the spurned villain is scheming to destroy Gotham and thus bring his rivalry with Batman to a decisive close.
 
To vanquish him, Batman will have to accept the help of the trio of supporters who have rallied to his side: would-be adoptive son Dick Grayson, aka Robin (voice of Michael Cera), love interest Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl (voiced by Rosario Dawson), and father figure (as well as butler) Alfred Pennyworth (voice of Ralph Fiennes).
 
Still burdened by the loss of his parents -- their murder is only hinted at by a childhood photo taken at a moment aficionados of chiropteran lore will recognize as laden with doom -- Bruce Wayne, and therefore his alter ego, finds it difficult to make himself vulnerable again. It will take all of Robin's irrepressible good spirits and Alfred's patriarchal concern, as well as Barbara's head-turning effect on Batman, to break through his barriers.
 
Fast-paced fun is the order of the day in director Chris McKay's animated treat for viewers of almost every age. Still, scenes of danger and a bit of potty humor as well as a few joking turns of phrase designed for grownups suggest that small fry would best be left at home. The wide remaining audience will find the screen chockablock with good guys, black hats and monsters -- and the dialogue enlivened by sly wit.
 
The film contains perilous situations, including explosions, and a couple of instances each of vaguely crass language, scatological humor and mature wordplay. 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.
 
 
  • Published in Reviews
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