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Movie review: 'Annabelle: Creation'

Most of the mayhem wreaked by the figurine-haunting demon at the center of the horror prequel "Annabelle: Creation" (Warner Bros.) is restrained. Yet, as the film progresses, director David F. Sandberg and his collaborators allow their imagery to become briefly but disturbingly graphic.
 
Accordingly, only those grown moviegoers willing to brave flashes of intense gore should say hello to this particular dolly.
 
This also is not a good fit for those insistent on strict logic or those who expect the characters on screen to behave rationally. As for Catholic viewers, they will likely be both annoyed and distracted by the wildly inaccurate, albeit incidental, portrayal of their faith incorporated into the proceedings.
 
In 1950s California, a group of female orphans shepherded by kindly nun Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) have somehow -- by circumstances not specified in returning screenwriter Gary Dauberman's script -- been displaced from their former dwelling. They've been offered refuge, of a sort, at the rambling, spooky home of dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his invalid wife, Esther (Miranda Otto).
 
The Mullins are still overcome by grief following the death of their young daughter, Bee (Samara Lee), in a tragic car accident a dozen years before. So their hospitality is extended in an effort to brighten the tone of their funereal household. The outcome, of course, is quite the opposite.
 
No sooner has polio-afflicted Janice (Talitha Bateman) been warned by her brooding host to steer clear of Bee's perpetually locked bedroom than she somehow finds herself inside that very chamber, mucking about and stirring up trouble.
Discovering a hidden key to the closet in which the toy of the title has until now been confined, Janice unleashes her, much in the manner of Pandora opening her ill-fated box. Cue a reign of terror for nosy Janice, her BFF, Linda (Lulu Wilson), and the rest.
 
Darwin has clearly had no place in these girls' education. No matter how hair-raising the terrors to which Annabelle and her guiding fiend subject them, they always move toward danger, never away from it. Even allowing for youthful curiosity, this stubborn refusal to learn from experience becomes a tiresome trait.
Even more taxing, however, is a scene in which Sister Charlotte hears Janice's confession of her disastrous trespass, not in the context of a confidential conversation but in what is clearly meant to be a formal sacramental encounter.
 
Thus Janice kicks things off by requesting, "Bless me, Sister, for I have sinned," and Sister Charlotte wraps things up by imposing a penance, though no absolution intervenes.
 
The fact that only bishops and priests can administer the sacrament of reconciliation is hardly a bit of inside-baseball religious arcana. And the mistake is all the more glaring in a movie that clearly wants to position itself, in some vague way at least, as faith-friendly. Equally out of place in that proposed context is the counter-scriptural concept that infernal beings can somehow "steal" human souls.
 
There are some old-fashioned shivers awaiting the restricted audience for which this follow-up to the 2014 original -- itself a spinoff of "The Conjuring" franchise -- can be labeled appropriate. But lapses in reason, believability and even the most rudimentary knowledge of Catholicism may inspire more frowns than frissons.
 
The film contains a distorted presentation of Catholic faith practices, mostly stylized but briefly very bloody violence, numerous gruesome images and at last one mild oath. 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.
 
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: 'The Emoji Movie'

Tech savvy viewers will especially enjoy the wacky proceedings of "The Emoji Movie" (Columbia). But patrons of all stripes will appreciate the film's themes of loyal friendship and faithful romance.
 
Set within the smartphone of high school freshman Alex (voice of Jake T. Austin), this lighthearted animated comedy tracks the adventures of a trio of misfits on their quest to reach the internet Cloud.
 
Gene (voice of T.J. Miller) is a "Meh" icon meant to express only indifference. But the first time Alex makes use of him, the native enthusiasm of his personality, together with nervousness at making his professional debut, causes him to register a strange mix of emotions instead of the bland apathy he was supposed to convey.
 
This malfunction immediately makes Gene an outcast and draws the ire of the chief emoji, maniacally cheerful Smiler (voice of Maya Rudolph). She condemns Gene to be deleted. So he goes on the run and joins forces with upbeat hand symbol Hi-5 (voiced by James Corden) and rebellious codebreaker Jailbreak (voice of Anna Faris).
 
Once one of Alex's favorites, Hi-5 has fallen into disuse and longs to regain his former popularity. Jailbreak resents the regulated life she is forced to lead on the phone and hopes to enjoy much greater freedom by transferring herself permanently to the Cloud.
 
As the three newfound friends bond, and something more than friendship blossoms between Gene and Jailbreak, the challenges of their journey force them to prove their mutual devotion. Messages about teamwork and putting the interests of others ahead of your own goals balance the emphasis on Gene's right to break the mold and be himself.
 
The presence of a minor character named Poop -- voiced, amusingly, by no less a personage than Sir Patrick Stewart -- typifies the predictable potty humor running through director and co-writer Tony Leondis' script, penned with Eric Siegel and Mike White. Together with episodes of peril, these jokes may make "The Emoji Movie" a less than ideal choice for the youngest film fans.
 
The feature is preceded by an eccentric, enjoyable short called "Puppy!" which involves a young lad, a giant, disruptive dog named Tinkles and the boy's indulgent grandfather -- who just happens to be Count Dracula.
 
The film contains characters in jeopardy, mild scatological humor, a suppressed crude expression and a slightly 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.
 
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Movie review: 'Dunkirk'

“Wars are not won by evacuations," British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously observed. As writer-director Christopher Nolan's compelling historical drama "Dunkirk" (Warner Bros.) demonstrates, however, fine films can be made about them.
 
May and June 1940 were indeed, in Mel Brooks' sarcastic phrase, "Springtime for Hitler." Using blitzkrieg tactics and a surprise attack through the supposedly impassible Ardennes Forest, his forces rapidly defeated and encircled the British Expeditionary Force and its French allies. Eventually hundreds of thousands of troops were left trapped in a small pocket centered on the English Channel port of the title.
 
Though the Fuhrer called a halt on the land assault and assigned the Luftwaffe the task of finishing off the Allies from the air, the prospects for Britain remained dire. Were the vast bulk of its army to be taken prisoner in France, the outlook for defending against a Nazi invasion of Britain itself would be virtually hopeless.
 
In picking up the story at this point, Nolan takes an Everyman's view of the situation. Dividing the action into events on land, sea and air, he apportions story lines among an ensemble cast, with sometimes confusing and dramatically diffuse results.
 
Representing the cornered forces on the beach is a trio of ordinary soldiers, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles). Among the few officers portrayed in the film are the senior naval representative on the scene, Cmdr. Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and his army counterpart, Col. Winnant (James D'Arcy).
 
Embodying the many hundreds of British seafaring civilians who answered the call for fishing and pleasure craft to join in the rescue is small yacht owner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). Dawson is accompanied by his teen son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and by Peter's equally youthful friend, George (Barry Keoghan).
 
In the middle of the channel, they rescue an unnamed soldier, played by Cillian Murphy, whose shell-shocked condition and frantic determination not to return, however temporarily, to Dunkirk pose a fresh and distracting challenge for them, with ultimately grim results.
 
Up in the skies, a duo of RAF Spitfire pilots -- Collins (Jack Lowden) and his higher-ranking comrade, Farrier (Tom Hardy) -- battle the German fighters and bombers seeking to wreak havoc on both the hapless soldiers and the shipping below.
 
The perils of the desperate, against-the-odds operation are fully exploited for dramatic tension, with near-death experiences awaiting almost every character. The measures resorted to by some of them in their efforts to survive seem questionable -- at least as viewed from a comfortable theater seat.
 
Yet these ethical lapses are balanced by a general sense of heroic pluck and by incidents in which humane justice and generosity of spirit are upheld. The altruism motivating Dawson and others to risk life and limb for the sake of strangers also elevates the moral tone.
 
While "Dunkirk" is not for the fainthearted of any age, the movie's educational value and relative freedom from objectionable content makes it probably acceptable for older teens.
 
The film contains intense, stylized combat violence, brief gore, a couple of uses of profanity and at least one instance each of rough, 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.
 
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: 'Despicable Me 3'

Director Pierre Coffin's animated comedy "Despicable Me 3" (Universal) -- the second direct follow-up to the 2010 original -- turns out to be something of a disappointment, falling short when compared to its predecessors.
 
There is good news about the film, though, because its weak central plot is offset not only by amusing side stories but by strong values as well.
 
This time out, Gru (voice of Steve Carell), the once slightly wicked villain who turned good guy over the course of the first two films, is up against an unlikely opponent. Balthazar Bratt -- an ex-child actor whose 1980s TV show, "Evil Bratt," was abruptly canceled when his voice began cracking and he developed acne -- is out to wreak delayed vengeance by destroying Hollywood.
 
As Gru battles to thwart this plan, he also discovers that he has a brother named Dru (also voiced by Carell) that his unnamed mother (voice of Julie Andrews) never told him about. Predictably, the siblings quickly bond, though Dru tries to convince Gru to return to the dark side, citing their father's career as a criminal as precedent for a family tradition.
 
Along with the newfound brothers' mutual affection, clan closeness is celebrated through scenes of Gru's interaction with his supportive wife and crime-fighting partner, Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig), and their shared nurturing of their trio of adopted daughters, Margo (voice of Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (voice of Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel).
 
Jokes riffing on Reagan-era fads and fashions -- shoulder pads and the like -- generally fall flat. But Agnes' determination to find and take in a live unicorn -- and Gru's reluctance to tell her the truth about her favorite creatures -- are endearing. So too is her bedtime prayer on the subject.
 
Additionally, the pixilated minions (voiced by director Pierre Coffin) who once carried out Gru's bidding -- and who featured in their own 2015 film -- are on hand to get things back on track.
 
The references to puberty involved in Bratt's show biz downfall might provoke some uncomfortable questions from young children. Beyond that, Gru winds up in an embarrassing state of undress at one point and there's some bathroom and body-parts humor.
 
Since there's also some danger portrayed along the way, parents of the smallest, most easily scared tykes may not find this a good cinematic choice. For everyone else, it makes acceptable if not outstanding summer entertainment.
 
The film contains characters in peril, brief partial nudity played for laughs, mild scatological and anatomical humor and a couple of vaguely crass slang terms.
 
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: 'Cars 3'

Fasten your seatbelts and start your engines for a wild (and often ear-splitting) ride in "Cars 3" (Disney), the latest installment of the family-friendly animated franchise.
 
Six years after the initial sequel and 11 since the series began with "Cars," the anthropomorphic autos are back with a vengeance. Director Brian Fee ramps up the racing action (and the roar of the engines) while introducing a fleet of new characters sure to please young viewers -- not to mention toy manufacturers.
 
Happily, there's much more than the dizzying blur of NASCAR-like action.
 
Screenwriters Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich inject a nice amount of heart and pathos into the comedic plot and add winning messages about second chances and the value of mentoring.
 
The years have been kind to ace racer Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson). He's still at the top of his game. But just over his shoulder is a new generation of faster vehicles, like the brash rookie Jackson Storm (voice of Armie Hammer).
 
"Enjoy your retirement," Jackson tells Lightning as he whizzes past.
 
In a flash, Lightning is sidelined by an accident. Disillusioned and depressed, he retreats to his adopted home of Radiator Springs. There he draws on the support of his loyal tow-truck sidekick, Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy), and comely Porsche sweetheart, Sally (voice of Bonnie Hunt).
 
Sally knows Lightning must look to the future. "Don't fear failure," she insists. "Take a chance. Try something new."
 
A spiffy fresh paint job by Ramone (voice of Cheech Marin) helps. "It's so beautiful," Ramone says of his own work, "it's like the Sistine Chapel!"
 
With his spirits buoyed, Lightning heads to the training center run by his sponsor, Rust-Eze, and its new owner, the "businesscar" Sterling (voice of Nathan Fillion). His eager young coach, Cruz Ramirez (voice of Cristela Alonzo), is thrilled with her new, if elderly, charge.
 
"You're my senior project!" she gushes.
 
As the bond between veteran racer and rookie wannabe grows, Lightning recalls the wisdom of his dearly departed mentor, Doc Hudson (voice of Paul Newman). On a whim, he takes Cruz on a road trip to find Doc's original trainer -- a grizzled '51 Ford named Smokey (voice of Chris Cooper) -- to recapture some of the old magic.
 
"You'll never be the racer you once were," Smokey intones. "You can't turn back the clock, kid, but you can wind it up again."
 
"Cars 3" is full of surprises, and there's a nice twist in store well before the finish line.
 
The film contains a brief, highly stylized crash scene.
 
The Catholic News Service classification is A-I -- general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is G -- general audiences. All ages admitted.
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales'

Iconic and eccentric buccaneer Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) hoists the black flag for a fifth time in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" (Disney). The result is a flashy but ultimately unsatisfying journey for the theme park ride-based franchise that first set sail in 2003.
 
On the upside, the crowded, overlong proceedings are relatively family-friendly. So parents willing to overlook some adult punning may give mature teens the go-ahead to board.
 
This time out, Jack joins forces with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a young science scholar whose ahead-of-her-time learning has led her to be charged with witchcraft, and with Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), an equally youthful sailor. Henry is the son of Jack's old associates Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) Turner.
 
All three main characters are seeking the same magical artifact, the Trident of Poseidon, each for a different reason. They're pursued along the hunt by the British navy, by the ghost of Capt. Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), one of Jack's old adversaries, and by living but one-legged freebooter Capt. Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).
As directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, "Dead Men" is a special effects-driven adventure long on spectacle but short on human interest. The mayhem is almost all stylized, however, and the dialogue is virtually free of vulgarity.
 
One scene, played for laughs, finds an incidental character -- who subsequently turns out to be married -- in a compromising (though not directly sexual) situation with Jack.
 
The humor, such as it is, jokingly reinforces Jack reputation as a womanizer while also deflating the ego of the cheater's husband, a pompous town official on the island of St. Martin. It's a frivolous treatment of a serious subject, but the script quickly passes on to other matters.
 
On the other side of the moral ledger, late plot developments set the stage for a climactic act of self-sacrificing parental love. And Henry and Carina, who are obviously destined for each other, content themselves, once their bickering morphs into love, with kissing.
 
The film contains much action violence with little blood, brief implications of adultery, a single gruesome image, occasional mature wordplay and at least one crass term. 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.
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie Review: 'Born in China'

Forget worrisome headlines about our trade deficit with China. Instead, relax and drown your concerns in the veritable tsunami of cuteness that flows from "Born in China" (Disney), a warm and fuzzy animal documentary, narrated by John Krasinski.
 
The latest entry in the Disneynature series -- released, like several of its predecessors, in conjunction with the April 22 observance of Earth Day -- "Born in China," directed and co-written by Lu Chuan, rests on the tried-and-true premise that critters in the wild act just like us when no one is (supposedly) watching.
 
And so, animals are given names and personalities in the script, on which Chuan collaborated with David Fowler, Brian Leith and Phil Chapman. Complex family relationships are mapped, and every goofy moment highlighted for comic relief.
 
There's also plenty of life-and-death drama on display, as the documentary captures astonishing footage of the animal kingdom across the four seasons.
 
As winter approaches, "Dawa," a mother snow leopard, fears for her two cubs. She struggles to maintain their food supply atop one of China's tallest peaks.
 
Down in the forest, "Tao Tao," a golden snub-nosed monkey, resents the arrival of a baby sister, doted on by his parents. It's the perfect excuse for him to leave home and join a renegade bunch of orphaned simians nicknamed the "Lost Boys."
 
Lastly there is "Ya Ya," a mother panda, who is perfectly content to sit and eat bamboo all day with her baby son, "Mei Mei," at her side.
 
While "Born in China" may tug too hard on the heartstrings at times -- the effect is occasionally cloying -- its breathtaking cinematography, together with the total absence of anything objectionable, makes the film well worth the price of admission.
 
The Catholic News Service classification is A-I -- general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is G -- general audiences -- all ages admitted.
 
  • Published in Reviews

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
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