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Movie review: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

Despite the high price of a movie ticket these days, patrons are unlikely to come away from a showing of the engrossing sci-fi epic "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" (Disney) feeling shortchanged.
 
Vast in scale and operatic in intensity, this 152-minute visit to that galaxy far, far away is both satisfying and, for the most part, family-friendly.
 
With the mayhem inevitable in a movie about a war kept gore-free and only minor blemishes on the dialogue, parents may be more concerned about the nonscriptural notions centering on the famous Force that are here collectively referred to as the "Jedi religion." Teens able to take this fictional faith, a sort of dime-store Taoism, as just one more element in a fantasy world will benefit from lessons about the value of hope and the true nature of heroism.
 
The "Star Wars" saga has often been characterized as the Iliad of contemporary culture. So perhaps it's fitting that the opening of writer-director Rian Johnson's eighth episode of the narrative initiated by George Lucas in 1977 finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) imitating Homer's Achilles by holding aloof from the great struggle in which he once took an active part.
 
Rather than sulking in his tent, as Achilles did, Luke is leading a solitary life of self-imposed exile among the small stone huts of a distant planet. (These scenes were shot on the Irish island of Skellig Michael, site of a medieval monastery.) His isolation is interrupted by the arrival of Rey (Daisy Ridley) who has come as a messenger from Luke's twin sister, Leia (the late Carrie Fisher).
 
As the leading general of the embattled Resistance -- the latter-day version of the Rebel Alliance for which Luke once fought -- Leia urgently needs her brother's famed skills as a warrior if the struggle against the fascistic First Order (successor to the evil Galactic Empire), and its malignant leader, Snoke (Andy Serkis), is to continue.
 
Luke refuses to join the conflict. But he does agree to train Rey in the ways of the Force. Rey will need the power of this mysterious spiritual energy, the source of Luke's own prowess, when she eventually confronts Leia's son, Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
 
Originally a good person, Ben has gone over to the side of darkness and now serves as Snoke's chief lieutenant. Even so, he still has some elements of good remaining in him, and his ongoing moral struggle has the potential to sway the outcome of the intergalactic battle.
 
Though it gets off to a slow start, once it hits its stride "The Last Jedi" sweeps viewers along with stirring action and audience-pleasing plot twists. While not as taut as last year's "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," this sprawling installment of the great franchise makes, in the end, for a more memorable experience.
 
The script's portrayal of the Force as capable of endowing those who cultivate it either with goodness or iniquity may strike moviegoers of faith as establishing a false equivalence of power between these two poles of morality. Some may even see in this an implicit denial of the rule of divine providence and God's ultimate supremacy over sin.
 
Yet, in keeping with a Christian worldview, characters do make their ethical choices more or less freely. And the idea that a change in basic identity should be reflected by a change of name echoes a recurring trope in Scripture -- and in the Church's sacramental practice.
 
Audience members young or old are unlikely to spend much time meditating on these aspects of the picture, however. Instead, they'll be content to ride this cinematic whirlwind while it lasts and leave its mythos behind them like so much popcorn on the theater floor.
 
The film contains frequent but bloodless combat violence, a scene of torture, a couple of mild oaths and a few crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
 

Movie review: 'Let There be Light'

 
"Let There Be Light" (Atlas) is an evangelical Christian drama with a familiar plot: A wayward sinner, in this case a famous atheist, experiences a change of heart.
 
The film is being marketed as a family-friendly event for church groups. The promotion tools include not only a teaching guide with Scripture references but also suggested outlines for sermons. And, in truth, the movie feels as if it had more to do with a religious studies curriculum than with entertainment.
 
Reflecting a small budget, its pacing is torpid, although Kevin Sorbo, the star and director, brings all his charisma to bear as Sol Harkens, a divorced, hard-drinking father bitter about the cancer death of his young son, Davey (Ethan Jones).
 
Sol says he no longer believes in prayer, because "that would mean praying to the very God that killed (Davey)." He's turned his atheism into a best-selling book.
 
Several twists and turns in the dialogue, presumably aimed at conveying cultural and political relevance to a wide audience, come out sounding odd instead.
 
Comedian Bill Maher, for instance, who has long identified as a religious skeptic, is compared to the diminutive mayor of Munchkin City in "The Wizard of Oz." What Maher's stature has to do with the validity or invalidity of his views on religion is not made clear.
 
Sol undergoes a second spiritual crisis after he's injured in a car accident and has a near-death experience during which he temporarily reunites with Davey in a tunnel of light. "Let there be light, Daddy," Davey says. Sol is mystified about this request for a very long time, but eventually figures it out.
 
Which brings us to Pastor Vinny (Michael Franzese). Explaining the Resurrection to Sol, Vinny thinks of himself as a "street guy" who did a 10-year stretch in a federal penitentiary, and "I don't believe things so easily."
 
Vinny then delivers a rough-hewn, "Sopranos"-style sermonette likely to be as quotable, down the years, as the King James Bible: "The empty tomb. What happened to the body?... Jesus gets whacked, right? They stick his body in a tomb, they seal it up tighter than a cement drum. What happens next? Bada bing! The body disappears. ...
 
"Now if he resurrected, that's a miracle. And that's not a little miracle. That's a big mother of a miracle. ...
 
"But nobody ratted out where the body was. Think about that. The disciples, not one of them broke rank. They went to their death sticking to that story. You know why? Because Christ was resurrected. There was no body."
 
Screenwriters Dan Gordon and Sorbo's wife, Sam, who also plays Sol's ex, Katy, clearly know how to put the fun in fundamentalism. Shortly after that, Sol is baptized in a creek, reunites with Katy and searches for a new direction for his life.
 
More unsettling than this straightforward conversion story is later dialogue about Islamic terrorism involving Fox News personality Sean Hannity, who is also the film's executive producer. Appearing on Hannity's radio program is shown as Sol's big break in his newfound evangelization effort.
 
"Are you guys ready for the amount of heat that will be coming your way with this?" Hannity asks. "Your intention is to proselytize. What about diversity? What right do you have to impose your religious values onto somebody else?
 
"What right does ISIS have to cut people's heads off?" Sol responds.
 
Hannity nods. "That's a powerful point."
 
The exchange speaks for itself, and indicates the uneasy blend of sincere religious sentiment and political propagandizing that is "Let There Be Light." More homiletics and less of Hannity would have helped.
 
The film contains mature themes and scenes of excessive alcohol use. 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.
 
 

Movie review: 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'

Writer-director Dan Gilroy's drama "Roman J. Israel, Esq." (Columbia) is a generally intriguing character study pitting idealism against the hard realities of contemporary life and the allure of wealth and comfort.
 
Though the film takes left-wing values for granted, even conservatives may recognize its appeal, much of which derives from an intense performance by Denzel Washington in the title role.
 
Roman is a disheveled, eccentric civil rights lawyer in Los Angeles who toils behind the scenes so that his legendary senior partner and mentor, William Henry Jackson, can perform successfully in the courtroom. As the movie starts off, Jackson -- whom the audience never sees -- is stricken by a critical illness from which he is unlikely to recover.
 
Roman tries to take over Jackson's caseload. But his uncompromising attitude soon has him at odds with prosecutors and judges alike -- he's cited for contempt in one of his first appearances.
 
Jackson's niece, Lynn (Amanda Warren), soon makes it clear that the end has come for the unprofitable partnership. Successful high-end attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of Jackson's whom Roman regards as a sellout, is brought in to supervise its dissolution.
 
Desperate for a job, Roman turns to social activist Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo). But the organization whose local office she heads is not hiring. Instead, Roman is forced to consider going mainstream when George offers him a position in his downtown firm.
 
Though Gilroy's dialogue sometimes lapses into political rhetoric, the moral shadings of the two main characters keep the proceedings from becoming dull. George is not the uncaring shyster he at first appears, while Roman turns out to be capable, under pressure, of a serious moral lapse. Once committed, his misdeed and its consequences drive the plot forward and keep tension high.
 
Roman and Maya develop a quasi-romantic friendship but one so discreet it never goes beyond the kissing stage. And the minimal violence in the movie is heard but not seen.
 
Accordingly, parents may wish to consider whether the ethical resonances of this serious-minded picture outweigh the swearing that sometimes crops up in the script -- most often, unfortunately, in the form of the Lord's name being taken in vain -- making it acceptable for older teens.
 
The film contains fleeting off-screen violence, several uses of profanity and a milder oath, a single rough term and occasional 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.
 
 

Movie review: 'The Man Who Invented Christmas'

Its rather ill-chosen title notwithstanding, "The Man Who Invented Christmas" (Bleecker Street) involves no denial of the Nativity.
 
Instead, this charming fact-based historical drama tells the origin story of Victorian author Charles Dickens' beloved 1843 novella, "A Christmas Carol."
 
Dan Stevens brings brio to his portrayal of the complex writer, whose humanitarian instincts seem, initially, to benefit all but those closest to him. And the film as a whole shares much of the warmth of the slender volume whose creation it chronicles.
 
With his last three titles having failed to sell, Dickens fears falling into debt if his next production is equally unpopular. But, having struck on the idea of a holiday-themed narrative, he struggles with writer's block and with the endless distractions of his burgeoning family's domestic life.
 
A visit from his feckless father, John (Jonathan Pryce), whom Dickens blames for the sufferings of his childhood -- flashbacks show us his grim life as an apprentice in a shoe polish factory -- is a particular source of worry and conflict. Dickens, who fancifully summons up, and interacts with, his own characters, also spars with dour miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) who here serves as a naysaying critic of Dickens' work.
 
When his publishers, Chapman (Ian McNeice) and Hall (David McSavage), turn the prospective volume down, Dickens resolves to publish it himself, thus raising the financial stakes still further. He does at least enjoy the steady encouragement of his patient wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark), and of his friend and unpaid literary agent, John Forster (Justin Edwards).
 
The conversion story Dickens' eventually pens finds a real-life counterpart in the amendment of his own behavior. So director Bharat Nalluri's adaptation of Les Standiford's 2008 book has some positive moral lessons to convey about consideration and forgiveness.
 
Since it's also family-friendly in most respects -- a solitary instance of mild bedroom humor is based entirely on inference -- "The Man Who Invented Christmas" will likely prove a winner with a broad range of age groups.
 
The film contains a very vague sexual joke and a single mild oath. 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.
 
 

Children's books for Christmas giving

reviewed by Regina Lordan

"The Watcher" by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2017). 42 pp., $17.
"The Watcher" is a rare treasure in the world of children's books: The verse is poetic, the illustrations are a compelling blend of photographs and drawings, and the story is a gripping tale of bully and victim ... or is it? The narration unfolds and reveals that the instigator is really just a lonely child desperate for a friend. Influenced by Psalm 121, which attributes all help to God's loving protection and care, it is written in "golden shovel" form, in which the last word of each verse is a word from the psalm. "The Watcher" is a story that holds onto you as it slowly reveals understanding, compassion and innocent faith in God's love and protection. After it is read, its lyrical tale will not be soon forgotten. Ages 6-10.
 
"Be Yourself: A Journal for Catholic Girls" by Amy Brooks. Gracewatch Media (Winona, Minnesota, 2017) 100 pp., $20.
"Be Yourself" is a place for Catholic girls and young women to indeed learn how to be themselves, just the way God intended them to be. Colorful, interactive and brimming with saint spotlights, prayers and biblical quotes, "Be Yourself" will encourage Catholic girls to, as author Amy Brooks writes, nourish their relationship with God to better know his will for them and to use the journal to "navigate that relationship -- on good days and bad days." Ages 9 and up.
 
"Look! A Child's Guide to Advent and Christmas" by Laura Alary, illustrated by Ann Boyajian. Paraclete Press (Brewster, Massachusetts, 2017) 32 pp., $16.99.
Advent is a time of anticipation and waiting, but it can also be a time for reflection and mindfulness of today … if we take the time to look. Author Laura Alary welcomes children to be aware, appreciate and change during Advent within a biblical and present-day context. She tells the story of Jesus' birth within the framework of children's daily lives, and she encourages children to anticipate Christmas by preparing to say "yes" to God with simple, practical activities and works of service. Ages 5-10.
 
"Anointed: Gifts of the Holy Spirit" by Pope Francis. Pauline Books and Media (Boston, 2017) 120 pp., $18.95.
Intended for young men and women preparing to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of confirmation, but appropriate for all teens, "Anointed" is a compilation of the teachings of Pope Francis brightly illustrated with graphics and photos, Bible verses and prayers. "Anointed" makes the pope's teachings accessible and engaging, and invites readers to openly receive the gifts that God has given us. Ages 12-18.
 
"That Baby in the Manger" by Anne E. Neuberger, illustrated by Chloe E. Pitkoff. Paraclete Press (Brewster, Massachusetts, 2017) 31 pp., $15.99.
Father Prak was puzzled: A group of curious children, beautiful in their multicultural diversity, were preparing for Christmas Mass when they started asking questions about the statue of the baby Jesus. Why didn't he look like many of them, and why didn't he look like Jesus most likely did, with dark skin, hair and eyes? The priest turned to God for help while an innocent parishioner in the church overheard the discussion. Answering Father Prak's prayers through the eavesdropper's clever idea, the children discovered that through the gift of Christmas, Jesus has come to save each and every one of them, no matter what they look like. A perfect Christmas gift for children, this book celebrates the truth of Christmas while highlighting the mystery of God's interactions with us through prayer and each other. Ages 4-10.
 
"Angel Stories from the Bible" by Charlotte Grossetete, illustrated by Madeleine Brunelet, Sibylle Delacroix and Eric Puybaret. Magnificat (New York, 2017) 47 pp., $15.99.
Beginning with Jacob's ladder and ending with the angel appearing at Jesus' tomb, author Charlotte Grossetete adapts biblical passages of God's celestial messengers into children's short stories. Children will enjoy the illustrations of the five stories, created by three artists with varying styles, and the narratives of God intervening in human lives with his angels out of love and care. Particularly appropriate for Christmas, "Angels Stories from the Bible" includes St. Gabriel the Archangel visiting Mary to announce Jesus' impending arrival. Ages 5 and up.
 
"The Secret of the Santa Box" by Christopher Fenoglio, illustrated by Elena K. Makansi. Treehouse Publishing Group (St. Louis, 2017). 32 pp., $16.95.
There comes a time in every parent's life when a child anxiously asks them, "Is Santa real?" Many parents struggle with this answer, knowing that with the loss of belief in the jolly old man comes the loss of a part of childhood. But fear not, the Catholic faith shows us that the real joy of Christmas is Jesus' birth itself and the joy of the mystery of Christmas comes not from Santa but from everyone but Jesus himself. "The Secret of the Santa Box" is a needed book for curious children ready to move past the secular stories of Christmas and into a deeper relationship with the true meaning of Christmas. It gently explains the sometimes sensitive topic in cheerful and thoughtful rhymes and illustrations. Ages 7-10.
 
"Contemplating Scripture in Color" by Sybil MacBeth. Paraclete Press (Brewster, Mass., 2017) 64 pp., $11.99
Ever find yourself at a loss of words when trying to pray? Sometimes the actual effort to find the right thing to say is so distracting that prayer is lost in frustration. Author Sybil MacBeth found her words trivial and trite compared to the magnitude of her prayer intentions, so she created a doodle book to encourage focus, creativity and a space to pray. Guided by a relaxed formula, older children can practice this version of "lectio divina." "Pray for Others in Color" and "Count Your Blessings in Color," also by Sybil MacBeth, offer similar avenues for intercessory prayers and prayers of gratitude. Ages 12-18.
 
"Molly McBride and the Plaid Jumper" by Jean Schoonover-Egolf. Gracewatch Media (Winona, Minnesota, 2017) 32 pp., $11.
One in a series, "Molly McBride" helps normalize discussions about religious vocations through its cheerful and accessible narratives about a young girl and her women religious friends. Molly wants to be one of the "Purple Nuns," and she wears her purple habit everywhere. But she will be attending Catholic school soon and will have to wear a school uniform. Thankfully, a fun-loving priest and her parents help Molly understand that Jesus' love is much deeper than the clothes she wears. Children will love Molly and her cute wolf pet named Francis. Ages 4-8.
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Lordan, a mother of three, has master's degrees in education and political science and is a former assistant international editor of Catholic News Service.
 

Movie review: 'Coco'

Will "Coco" (Disney) be your cup of tea? That largely depends on how well equipped you are to interpret this visually rich animated fantasy's presentation of the afterlife, one which owes little to Christianity and much to the pre-Columbian beliefs associated with Mexico's Day of the Dead.
 
Sadly, this means that the film cannot be recommended for the youthful audience at which it seems primarily aimed. Teens and grownups, however, can safely appreciate it.
 
Viewers travel to the other world in the company of Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), an endearing preteen from South of the Border. Miguel is on a quest to follow in the footsteps of his hometown's most famous son, Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt), by becoming a world-renowned musician.
 
His aspirations have so far been stymied by the fact that his family has a long-standing aversion to all things musical. This unusual distaste first arose when one of Miguel's ancestors deserted his wife and child in favor of a career singing and playing the guitar -- with devastating emotional consequences. The tiny daughter thus abandoned is now Mama Coco (voice of Ana Ofelia Murguia), Miguel's much-loved great-grandmother.
 
Desperate to make his debut at a talent night being staged as part of the Day of the Dead festivities, but lacking a guitar, Miguel sneaks into de la Cruz's mausoleum where his trademark instrument is kept. Clues have convinced Miguel that de la Cruz was, in fact, Coco's long-lost dad, so he feels justified in borrowing the guitar.

While inside the tomb, Miguel is mysteriously transported to the Land of the Dead. There he eventually gains a guide in the person of Hector Rivera (voice of Gael Garcia Bernal) a good-hearted but slippery character who, like all his ilk, is a living skeleton.
 
Miguel and Hector strike a bargain: If Hector helps the boy find de la Cruz -- Miguel needs the blessing of a relative in order to return to the normal world -- Miguel will bring Hector's photograph back with him and place it on the homemade altar (known as an "ofrenda") where the departed are honored.
 
According to the movie's mythos, that will enable Hector to visit the land of the living each year. It also will allow him to postpone the "second death," the final disintegration that awaits each person once there is no one left alive who remembers that individual.
 
While free of any age-inappropriate content and strong on the importance of clan solidarity, co-director Adrian Molina's script, penned with Matthew Aldrich, is stuffed full of such notions. Thus, despite its warm spirit and considerable aesthetic credentials, principal director Lee Unkrich's movie is unsuitable for Miguel's real-life contemporaries.
 
For those more firmly established by maturity and faith formation, on the other hand, "Coco" represents a good holiday-season option.
 
The film contains nonscriptural religious ideas. 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: 'Lady Bird'

"Lady Bird" (A24) is writer-director Greta Gerwig's sensitive autobiographical account of growing up in Sacramento, California.
 
Her recounting of the way she tested her boundaries with both her family and her parochial school is pleasing in some respects but teeth-grating in a couple of others.
As a result, some of its content, particularly a sexual encounter in which the title character is a bit shy of her 18th birthday, necessitates a restrictive classification. The scene is not lurid, but that's the point Gerwig is making: Nothing this girl does as she explores her limits as a daughter and student, however misguided, is capable of shocking anyone except herself.
 
This is particularly true at the all-girls parochial school Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) -- who insists that everyone call her Lady Bird -- attends. It's headed by the compassionate, good-humored Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), who tries to help Christine identify her talents.
 
When Sister Sarah Joan suggests Lady Bird has "a performative streak," she lands a part in the school musical and thinks she's found a caring boyfriend in fellow actor Danny O'Neill (Lucas Hedges). But their relationship ends abruptly when, in another uncomfortable passage of the film, she sees him kissing another boy at the cast party.
 
She then pursues Kyle Scheible (Timothee Chalamet) all the way to a discreetly handled carnal moment that does not conclude the way Christine was expecting.
 
It's 2002, and Lady Bird is eager to get out of her dull hometown, which she compares to "the Midwest of California." And she hasn't set her sights on the kind of state-subsidized university her cash-strapped family can afford, aiming instead at somewhere she imagines will be more cultured.
 
Even then, Sister Sarah Joan is onto her, though. Reading one of her college-application essays, she remarks, "It's clear how much you love Sacramento."
"I guess I pay attention," Lady Bird responds.
 
To this, the nun asks, "Don't you think they're the same thing?"
 
Lady Bird isn't rebellious enough to roll her skirt, but she enjoys exploring taboos. She nonchalantly snacks on Communion wafers, for instance, while gossiping with a friend in the back room of a chapel. When another student expresses understandable shock, Lady Bird assures her that the hosts are unconsecrated.
 
But Immaculate Heart High School does have a nonnegotiable code of deportment. So when Lady Bird interrupts a pro-life lecture with "Just because something is ugly doesn't mean it's morally wrong," she earns a brief suspension. The point isn't explored further. This is depicted as just another expression of Lady Bird's adolescent -- and, so the script's tone suggests, largely unjustified -- discontent.
Gerwig herself is not Catholic but attended a Catholic high school, and Lady Bird, although it's not made explicit, is in the same situation. She's not rebelling against Church teachings, though, as much as life in general and her place in it.
 
Lady Bird's mother, the perpetually stressed Marion (Laurie Metcalf), with whom she bickers, works double shifts as a psychiatric nurse because husband Larry (Tracy Letts) is out of work.
 
Gerwig takes care to show that Lady Bird is capable of rapid emotional shifts while willing to accept her mother's point of view. She ends one argument with Marion early in the film by hurling herself out of the car they're driving in. Later, she stops another by cooing over a prom dress at a thrift store.
 
It's no spoiler to point out that the movie's conclusion, during which Lady Bird has finally achieved her dream of college in New York, shows a very strong old-school moral compass at work. It's a redeeming wrap-up. But the problematic material that precedes it requires thoughtful discernment by grown viewers well grounded in their faith.
 
The film contains underage nonmarital sexual activity, mature themes, a same-sex kiss, a scene of marijuana use and frequent coarse 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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Movie review: 'Murder on the Orient Express'

A formidable list of actors, including Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet, have taken on the role of Agatha Christie's famed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

Now Kenneth Branagh makes the possessor of the celebrated "little gray cells" his own in the sleek ensemble whodunit "Murder on the Orient Express" (Fox). He also helms the project as director.

Viewers not too mesmerized by the magnificent Guy Fawkes-style goatee with which Branagh has armed himself -- "Geraldo Rivera, eat your heart out," his elaborate mustaches seem to shout as they flaunt their baroque splendor -- will note that religious undertones are interwoven into the narrative, which also raises significant moral issues, at least in the abstract.

Like the crime at the heart of the story, and an earlier tragedy to which it seems to be tied, these ethical questions are unsuitable for kids. But Branagh's take on this classic tale, made into a 1974 film by Sidney Lumet, is sufficiently restrained in other respects as to be possibly acceptable for older adolescents.

References to God and faith in screenwriter Michael Green's script will come as less of a surprise to those who recall that Christie repeatedly has Poirot identify himself as "bon Catholique" (a good Catholic). While his behavior in this chapter of his annals falls short of strict conformity with the moral principles upheld by the church, it's hard not to sympathize with his viewpoint in a set of unique circumstances.

Hard cases, so the legal maxim has it, make bad law. Moviegoers of any persuasion, moreover, are hardly likely to have either the opportunity or the inclination to imitate the unacceptable actions that are excused on screen. This is simply not the kind of film from which real-life conclusions are drawn.

Turning the conventions of her genre upside down, in a sense, Christie's narrative, pegged here to the year of her book's publication, 1934, presents Poirot with, if anything, too many clues and an array of plausible suspects in the grisly murder of gangster Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp).

With the luxurious train of the title temporarily derailed by an avalanche that occurs almost simultaneously with the crime, Poirot has the opportunity to question everyone under suspicion. The possible killers include Ratchett's morose secretary, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and very proper British butler, Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), as well as the full complement of the deceased's fellow passengers.

Prominent among the latter are chatterbox and floozy Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), joylessly religious missionary Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz) and professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), a Nazi ideologue straight from central casting. To go along with the art-deco paneling and Lalique light fixtures, a fussy Russian princess in exile, Natalia Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), also gets thrown into the mix.

Hardman's racist theories as well as similar attitudes that would prematurely point the finger of blame at African-American physician Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) or at a prosperous Latino car dealer named Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) are duly squashed as the proceedings chug along to their familiar-to-many conclusion.

Even for those who know where the tracks are headed, Branagh's retracing of the journey makes an enjoyable, if rather dark, trip. As for the choices required to reach the picture's ultimate destination, they might form the basis for a valuable family discussion about the proper balance between divine and human justice.

The film contains a vengeance theme, scenes of violence, some gory images, a couple of uses of profanity, a few milder oaths and occasional sexual references. 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.

Movie review: The Snowman

Director Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of Jo Nesbo's best-selling crime novel occasionally dabbles in penny-dreadful sensationalism, then returns to plodding wearily across the frozen landscape of its unconvincing mystery story.
 
Set primarily in Oslo, Norway, the film tracks the efforts of a gifted but alcoholism-plagued police detective (Michael Fassbender) to catch a serial killer who builds a snowman at each murder site. The officer's search is complicated by the fact that his new partner (Rebecca Ferguson) seems to have a hidden agenda of her own and by his tangled relationships with his ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her son (Michael Yates) and her new live-in love interest (Jonas Karlsson).
 
Needlessly shocking visuals punctuate the stilted proceedings while the killer's motivation springs from the sordid personal lives of his victims as well as his traumatic childhood.
 
There is excessive gory violence and gruesome images, a suicide, strong sexual content, including aberrant behavior, an adulterous bedroom scene and brief upper female nudity, abortion, domestic abuse and cohabitation themes, a few uses of profanity and rough language, several crude terms.
 
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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Movie review: Victoria and Abdul

Judi Dench is no stranger to playing royalty, and she shines once again as the titular queen in "Victoria and Abdul" (Focus).
 
Beginning in 1887, director Stephen Frears' historical drama, adapted from the book by Shrabani Basu, follows the unlikely adventures of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a lowly clerk at the local prison in Agra, India. He's a tall and handsome 24-year-old, and it's these traits that cause him to be selected to present a mohur, a ceremonial gold coin, to Victoria during her golden jubilee.
 
Undertaking a four-month journey by sea together with grouchy Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), another randomly chosen native of the subcontinent, Abdul gets to England only to be trussed up in an artificial version of Indian servant clothing and instructed in the proper etiquette for the state occasion.
 
Feeling nervous and out of place, Abdul promptly violates the most important of the rules that have been laid down for him by catching the bored queen's eye and flashing a quick smile, which she returns. The next day, she requests Abdul's presence as her personal attendant.
 
Thus begins an unusual friendship. Young and naive about proper British restraint in the presence of the sovereign, Abdul engages Victoria in enthusiastic conversation, regaling her with descriptions of the Taj Mahal and the broader culture from which he springs. He progresses from servant to private secretary and finally becomes her teacher, instructing her in Urdu.
 
Abdul's innocence and lack of pretension provide a breath of fresh air for Her Majesty, surrounded as she is by pompous politicians and stuffy ladies-in-waiting always trying to curry her favor. But the closer their relationship grows, the more antagonism the royal household — led by the queen's eldest son and heir, Bertie (Eddie Izzard) — unleashes on the newcomer.
 
The platonic bond at the heart of the plot is sweet and endearing. But the film's attitude toward colonialism seems overly simplified. When Victoria refers to herself as empress of India, for instance, Abdul just smiles and nods. Mohammed is more clear-eyed in his analysis, but his resentment is kept on the sidelines.
 
"Victoria and Abdul" celebrates its main characters' loyal attachment as well as openness, tolerance and respect for those from different backgrounds. When we take the time to get to know people for who they really are, Lee Hall's script suggests, we may be surprised to find that our shared humanity means we have more in common with them than we might, at first, suspect.
 
Taken together with the movie's historical value, such ethical insights may lead at least some parents to consider "Victoria and Abdul" acceptable for older adolescents.
 
The film contains a couple of uses of profanity, at least one milder oath, about a half-dozen crude and a pair of 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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