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Movie review: 'Only the Brave'

The heartbreaking true story of an elite Arizona firefighting team comes to the big screen in "Only the Brave" (Columbia).
 
In 2013, the Granite Mountain Hotshots -- as the group was known -- risked their lives and raced into a raging inferno to save a neighboring town from destruction. Given more recent fire calamities, their striking example of heroism, brotherhood and self-sacrifice is both timely and inspiring.
 
Only the country's top wildland firefighters earn the designation "hotshots." These squads, the Navy SEALS of firefighting, are deployed throughout the country, wherever the need is most extreme.
 
In Prescott, Ariz., Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) has dreamed for years of earning hotshot status for his 20-member crew. With Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale) as his right-hand man, Marsh has honed them into a well-oiled firefighting machine.
 
The diverse bunch includes Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), a ladies' man and prankster, and Clayton Whitted (Scott Haze), a youth minister who keeps his Bible handy. Most are young, newly married, and have children, which injects additional drama and poignancy into the saga. Marsh's wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), epitomizes the lonely existence of the spouses, constantly anxious for their husbands' safety.
 
"It's not easy sharing your man with a fire," says Marvel Steinbrink (Andie MacDowell), wife of Duane (Jeff Bridges), the local fire chief.
 
During a recruitment drive, an unlikely candidate appears: Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller). He has led a dissolute life of drugs and crime and, after a one-night stand, is now a father.
 
This has turned out to be a major wake-up call. Before long, McDonough is running drills with Marsh's crew, learning to clear brush, dig trenches and create controlled burns, which contain a fire by taking away its source of fuel.
 
When all else fails, the men crawl inside makeshift shelters, large reflective bags which -- they hope -- let the fire pass safely over them. "It's gonna feel like the end of the world," Marsh warns. "As long as you can breathe, you can survive."
 
In adapting a magazine article by Sean Flynn, director Joseph Kosinski ("Tron: Legacy") deftly juggles the intimate stories of the men's personal lives with grand set pieces which evoke the sheer terror and destructive force of the flames they battle. Although the ending is well known, its impact is no less profound on screen.
 
So the movie's tagline, "It's not what stands in front of you. It's who stands beside you," feels well earned.
 
The film contains scenes of extreme peril, mature themes, drug use, brief rear male nudity, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, several uses of profanity, pervasive crude language, some sexual banter and obscene gestures. 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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Movie review: 'My Little Pony: The Movie'

Looking for an instant sugar rush but don't want all those empty calories? Saddle up and lasso "My Little Pony: The Movie" (Lionsgate), a super-sweet animated musical featuring those candy-colored Hasbro toys.
 
Amid relentless prancing and preening, smiles and squeals and some toe-tapping tunes, these magical quadrupeds have an important message to convey to their young fans: Friendship is paramount.
 
For the uninitiated, the mythical land of Equestria is home not only to ponies but unicorns and alicorns, or unicorns with wings. Twilight Sparkle (voice of Tara Strong) is the resident Princess of Friendship, one of four princesses who govern with sweetness and benevolence. She's busy organizing a gala festival featuring the "mane" event, a musical performance by pop star Serenade (voice of Sia).
 
Twilight is assisted by her very best friends: Applejack and Rainbow Dash (both voice of Ashleigh Bell), Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy (both voice of Andrea Libman) and Rarity (voice of Tabitha St. Germain).
 
Everything is sunshine and rainbows until a menacing airship disgorges the dark unicorn Tempest Shadow (voice of Emily Blunt). Tempest has a broken horn -- a very bad sign -- and a major ax to grind. Bullied as a colt, she now seeks revenge, making a pact with the evil Storm King (voice of Liev Schreiber) to crush Equestria and steal the princesses' powers.
 
Twilight and her posse -- code name "Mane 6" -- manage to escape Tempest's wrath, and hatch a plan to restore Equestria to its blissful state. Coming to their aid are parrot pirates, sea ponies and a con artist cat named Capper (voice of Taye Diggs).
Along the way, to reinforce the central message, our heroes warble tunes like "We Got This Together," "I'm the Friend You Need" and "Time to Be Awesome."
 
Director Jayson Thiessen deserves a great big hug for keeping the adventure moving and juggling multiple characters and personalities. Some of the action scenes may be a bit intense for the youngest of viewers, but not to worry -- there's always a rainbow and a smile just around the corner.
 
Preceding "My Little Pony: The Movie" is a short film, "Hanazuki: Full of Treasures," featuring more Hasbro toys as they encounter a friendly monster.
 
The film contains mild cartoonish action and brief bathroom humor. 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.
 
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Movie review: 'The Stray'

For a lot of people, surviving getting struck by lightning might be enough to change their life.
 
Hollywood writer and director Mitch Davis lived through such an ordeal, but in the mind of Davis and his family, that's not what turned their life around.
 
It was a stray dog named Pluto, who is immortalized in a movie that opened Oct. 6, "The Stray."
 
"This movie actually tells a true story from my own family's life of a period when I was working at a major film studio. Our life was crazy hectic, our marriage and family were suffering and a stray dog adopted us," Davis said in an interview for the radio show "Catholic Baltimore."
 
"We took in that stray dog against all logic. And that stray dog ended up sort of saving our family, saving our marriage, helping us prioritize and then ended up saving my life when I was struck by lightning on a backpacking trip."
 
He said that for many families, stress takes its toll early on in a marriage with financial concerns, career crises, marriage difficulties and dealing with young children.
 
At one point. he suggested getting a dog, to help the children. His wife, Michelle, was not in favor of it, but she had read an article that said strays are the best kind of dog for a family. Shortly thereafter, a stray followed their son, Christian, home.
 
He would not say that adopting a stray dog will help every family. "I just know that in our case, we were in all kinds of in trouble; we were all praying for help. And in answer to our prayers, God sent a dog. I can't say that it's always positive for everybody. But in our case, it certainly was a blessing."
 
Davis and his wife, played in the movie by Michael Cassidy and Sarah Lancaster, are seen leading their family in prayer and making faith a priority for them. The movie became a family project of sorts, with Davis' son Parker, co-writing the script; music by son Christian; and other Davises behind the scenes.
 
"The Stray" is a tribute to the dog who pulled together a family, and shows how families work through the good and bad times.
 
"Pluto was a fantastic healer," Davis said. "He just had this knack for knowing who was stressed, who was in pain, who needed to have his head in their lap."
 
Pluto would be waiting on the front porch with a ball when Davis came home from work at 3 a.m., "so that's what we would do. He just kind of taught us all to slow down and smell the roses a little bit. And then he taught us even more when things got really dramatic on the mountainside."
 
Davis said he hopes that families that see the movie will be reminded there is a God who loves us no matter where we are, no matter our circumstances.
 
"We might be on a mountainside in Colorado having been struck by lightning -- paralyzed and dying; we might be a single mom in our city trying to make the rent every month. God knows us and loves us and will help us reach out to him. He might send us a stray dog. He might send an angel in a surprising form," he said.
 
The final lesson he hopes families impart from "The Stray" is that "making families work is the single most important thing you can do on the planet regardless of how our family is composed. ... They are the most important thing we can invest our time and care."
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: 'The Lego Ninjago Movie'

Third time lucky? Not for the Lego screen franchise, alas.
 
In following up on 2014's "The Lego Movie" and "The Lego Batman Movie" from earlier this year, directors Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan -- the latter two also co-writers, along with four others -- attempt to blend a children's feature and an action film. The result, "The Lego Ninjago Movie" (Warner Bros.), is awkward, noisy and tedious, though the boredom is occasionally relieved by the odd flash of wit.
 
Bookended by live-action sequences featuring martial-arts icon Jackie Chan as a curio shop owner who becomes the story's narrator, the cartoon follows the exploits of a schoolboy named Lloyd (voice of Dave Franco), a resident of far-off Ninjago City.
 
With his hometown constantly under attack by his villainous father, Garmadon (voice of Justin Theroux), Lloyd is an object of scorn and derision to many of his peers. Yet, unbeknown to them or to Garmadon, Lloyd leads a double life, battling his bad dad in the guise of a ninja warrior.
 
He's backed up by a quintet of pals and fellow fighters: Cole (voice of Fred Armisen), Nya (voice of Abbi Jacobson), Jay (voice of Kumail Nanjiani), Kai (voice of Michael Pena) and Zane (voice of Zach Woods). Like Lloyd himself, all of them have trained under the tutelage of Master Wu (voiced by Chan), Lloyd's wise and virtuous uncle (and Garmadon's estranged brother).
 
The forgettable series of explosions and other disturbances that follow from this set-up drown out the script's listless pursuit of themes like the possibility of personal conversion and the value of family reconciliation. A few of the jokes will likely raise a smile. Garmadon, for instance, insists on pronouncing both the L's in Lloyd. But the demolition quickly recommences.
 
The dialogue includes some vague mumbo-jumbo about humans harnessing the power of the elements. Thus one of Lloyd's comrades can deploy fire, another water, a third ice and so on. Though this aspect of the picture never amounts to much more than an excuse to include the hummable 1990 hit "The Power" on the soundtrack, it's not for the easily confused.
 
The film contains perilous situations, a bit of mild scatological humor and a couple of mature references. 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: 'A Question of Faith'

As with so many of its forerunners in the religious message movie genre, the sober drama "A Question of Faith" (Pure Flix) seems better suited to preach to the choir than to attract the indifferent or the merely curious.
 
Still, those committed to scriptural values will appreciate the film's showcasing of a strong marriage as well as its emphasis on forgiveness and interracial harmony.
 
Experienced minister David Newman (Richard T. Jones) is about to take over the leadership of the flourishing church he has previously served as an assistant pastor when a tragedy involving his young son Eric (Caleb T. Thomas) shakes his fundamental beliefs. Though spiritually disoriented by the mishap, David benefits from the steady support and guidance of his wise wife, Theresa (Kim Fields).
 
As David gradually discovers, his family's misfortune has linked their fate to those of several strangers, including restaurant owner Kate Hernandez (Jaci Velasquez), Kate's daughter Maria (Karen Valero) and cashed-strapped contractor John Danielson (C. Thomas Howell).
 
With his business facing bankruptcy and his daughter, Michelle (Amber Thompson), enduring a potentially fatal medical crisis, John is even more alienated from God than David is. But he too has a steady rudder in his patient spouse, Mary (Renee O'Connor).
 
Director Kevan Otto leavens the sometimes tearful proceedings with upbeat Gospel music. And, though the plot of his movie, as written by Ty Manns, is farfetched in some of its details, viewers to whom it appeals will likely skim over such gaps. In exploring the value of faith-motivated reconciliation, moreover, the script sets the right tone and offers a good example to its wide appropriate audience.
 
The film contains mature themes. 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: 'Home Again'

Genteel decorum prevails in the romantic comedy "Home Again" (Open Road). At least, it does so everywhere beyond the confines of its protagonist's bedroom. The result is a morally mixed film in which kindly characters follow the misguided marital and sexual dictates of contemporary society.
 
Although the movie opens with the aforementioned main character, Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon), in tears, her situation turns out to be more tumultuous than tragic.
 
Recently separated from her British-born, New York-based husband, Austen (Michael Sheen), Alice has returned to her hometown of Los Angeles, her two young daughters, Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield), in tow. There they've settled into the lavish house in which Alice grew up and which she inherited from her father, John (David Netto), a famous director of 1970s arthouse movies.
 
While out on a liquor-fueled spree celebrating her 40th birthday, Alice crosses paths with a trio of promising but broke filmmakers: brothers Harry (Pico Alexander) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) and their pal George (Jon Rudnitsky). Alice and Harry fall for each other at first sight, but he loses his cookies before they have the chance to get physical.
 
The morning after the night before, the lads -- homeless after being turned out of the cheap motel room they were occupying -- stick around, charming Alice's mom, Lilian (Candice Bergen), with their enthusiasm for her series of starring turns in her late husband's pictures. At Lilian's behest, and after some hesitation, Alice agrees to let her new friends take up residence, rent-free, in her guesthouse.
 
Naturally, the polite and considerate youths bond with Isabel and Rosie and, inevitably, Alice and Harry pick up where nausea had forced them to leave off. But back east, Austen, who has all along wanted to reconcile with Alice, is none too pleased to learn of this novel domestic arrangement -- even though he is still in the dark about its sexual aspect.
 
There's a gentle spirit to writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer's feature debut. In fact, the daytime interaction between Alice and her three tenants sometimes recalls that between Snow White and her seven dwarfs.
 
But the script presents marital breakup as a form of liberation. And, though it coyly avoids having the romantic leads sleep together within hours of meeting each other by sending Harry off to worship the porcelain idol, Meyers-Shyer obviously takes the duo's subsequent fling as a given.
 
Additionally, the girls' accidental exposure to the relationship -- babysitting Lilian unexpectedly shows up with them, just as Alice and Harry are emerging in the morning -- is milked for laughs.
 
Unsound but not obnoxious, "Home Again" (Open Road) will easily be parsed by grownups, for good and ill. The entertainment value of the positive residue, however, is slight at best.
 
The film contains a benign view of divorce and cohabitation, momentary semi-graphic and brief nongraphic sexual activity, comic brawling, a few uses of profanity and at least one rough and about a half-dozen crude 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.
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: 'All Saints'

Sincere but less than slick, the low-key, fact-based drama "All Saints" (Sony) celebrates Christian faith and family life. Believers, accordingly, will likely be inclined to overlook its artistic shortcomings.
 
Director Steve Gomer and screenwriter Steve Armour recount the story of the titular Episcopal parish in Smyrna, Tenn. With its dwindling congregation down to a mere dozen, the church appears to have no future. So its new pastor, Michael Spurlock (John Corbett), arrives with orders from his superior, Bishop Thompson (Gregory Alan Williams), to shut it down and sell off its property.
 
A former salesman taking up his first assignment in ministry, Michael is not disposed to question his instructions, at least at first. But the revitalizing influence of an influx of devoutly Anglican refugees from Southeast Asia -- Nelson Lee plays their leader, Ye Win -- begins to change his outlook.
 
The newcomers are Karen people, the victims of long-standing and bloody persecution by the government of their homeland, Myanmar. Partly in order to aid them, but also with an eye to rescuing All Saints, Michael launches a scheme to transform the fields around the church into a profitable farm.
 
His plan draws the support of his dedicated wife, Aimee (Cara Buono), but the steady opposition of Forrest (Barry Corbin), an ornery veteran parishioner. Other challenges come in the form of a lack of equipment and a potential drought.
 
Through the changing fortunes that follow, Michael demonstrates determination, perseverance and solidarity with the immigrants who now make up the bulk of his flock. Gomer clearly aims to inspire his audience, and "All Saints" -- despite its necessary discussion of the ill-treatment to which the Karen have been subjected -- is generally wholesome and suitable for most age groups.
 
Considered on a purely aesthetic level, however, the picture suffers from a sluggish pace and often awkward tone. Good intentions help to make up for, but cannot entirely mask, these defects. Still, patient patrons will find positive values awaiting them under the sometimes-imperfect surface.
 
The film contains mature themes, including references to atrocities and rape, and a marital bedroom scene.
 
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: 'Leap!'

Ballet enthusiasts of all ages should jump at the chance to see the charming animated film "Leap!" (Weinstein).
 
Set in 1880s France, and originally entitled "Ballerina," this French-Canadian movie, produced by L'Atelier Animation and directed with brio by Eric Summer and Eric Warin, is a visual wonder.
 
Streetscapes of Paris are rendered in colorful detail, while precise ballet poses and movements are depicted in a fluid, almost photo-realistic manner. Nor does the inclusion of a couple of mild bathroom jokes seriously detract from a winning tale about friendship, perseverance and helping others in need.
 
The plot centers on two orphans, Felicie (voice of Elle Fanning) and Victor (voice of Nat Wolff). Inspired by a music box left in her crib by the birth mother she never knew, Felicie longs to be a dancer. Victor, on the other hand, wants to be a famous inventor.
 
The buddies plan their getaway from the orphanage. "We arrived at the same time and we'll escape at the same time," says Felicie.
 
Standing in their way are the authorities at their (presumably Catholic) orphanage: the predictably stern Mother Superior (voice of Kate McKinnon) and a gruesome caretaker, Monsieur Luteau (voice of Mel Brooks).
 
But destiny will not be denied and -- with Victor masquerading as a nun -- the merry duo absconds. They make their way to the City of Light where Victor lands a job in the workshop of Gustave Eiffel, who is busy constructing his namesake tower.
 
Meanwhile, Felicie heads to Paris' famed opera house and its ballet school. She meets Odette (voice of Carly Rae Jepsen), a cleaning woman with a secret: She was once a prima ballerina until sidelined by injury.
 
Odette takes pity on the orphan and agrees to train her so she can impress Merante (voice of Terrence Scammell), the demanding instructor of wannabe ballerinas. To succeed, Felicie must outwit Odette's mean boss, Regine Le Haut (also voiced by McKinnon), and Regine's bratty daughter, Camille (voice of Maddie Ziegler).
 
Dozens and dozens of plies and pirouettes later, Felicie faces Camille in the ultimate dance-off for a coveted starring role in "The Nutcracker." Through it all, Felicie is sustained by the voice of her birth mother (McKinnon again) saying in her head: "Don't give up on your dreams. If you never leap you'll never know what it is to fly."
 
The film contains brief scatological humor and a less than flattering representation of women religious. 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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