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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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Behold God's glory

There is a YouTube video of a child “playing Mass” during which 3-year-old Isaiah exuberantly exclaims, “Behold!” as he holds up the “host” and “chalice.” After tinkering around on the “altar” for a bit, he seems to forget his place, so he grabs the “host” and “chalice” again, raises them in the air, and exclaims, “Behold!” with no less enthusiasm than the first time.
 
After watching Isaiah’s “Mass,” I noticed the priest at a Mass I attended paused for an uncharacteristically long time after this same part of the Eucharistic liturgy. Perhaps it was Isaiah who led me to notice this small nuance in the celebration in which I’d participated countless times. Though more subtly than the child’s shrill voice and blatant repetition, the priest was encouraging us to truly behold that which existed in our presence — to recognize Christ in our midst.
 
Aside from the occasional shuffling about in the pew and wandering thoughts, I like to think most of us are pretty good at beholding Christ’s presence during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Even when our minds sometimes stray from the sacrament, the context of Mass tends to pull us back relatively quickly. This is important. As Pope Francis says, “It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation” (“Laudato Si’”).
 
By recognizing Christ in our midst in the Eucharist, we are spurred to Christ-like action in our lives.
 
The Holy Father continues, “[The Lord] comes that we might find Him in this world of ours” (“Laudato Si’”). We humans are gifted with an incredible ability to behold the world around us with contemplation, meaningfulness and intention, to discover Christ — God — “in this world of ours” and respond appropriately. With the living Christ, Jesus, as example, we are called to recognize goodness, love, life, beauty and sacredness in the created world because it is of God and reflects God’s glory.
 
“Behold!” the indwelling of God in a mountain range ablaze with autumn colors.
 
“Behold!” the Creator Spirit igniting life in the womb.
 
“Behold!” intelligent design in the ecosystem of the forest.
 
“Behold!” the loving face of God in the stranger reaching out for a friend.
 
“Behold!” the faithful commitment of a family traveling for Mass.
 
“Behold!” the example of Christ in the volunteer selflessly serving the people.
 
We disregard the significance and power of this ability to behold when we do not respond appropriately to the presence of God in our lives. Beyond just gazing upon the world and moving through it, beholding requires us to fully be present, appreciative and receptive to God in our midst.
 
Augustine once exhorted his people, “You can read what Moses wrote [in scripture]; in order to write it, what did Moses read, a man living in time? Observe heaven and earth in a religious spirit.” I think that’s a pretty good definition of what it means to behold. If we observe heaven and earth — which is the biblical way to say “everything” — in a religious spirit, it is difficult to miss God dwelling “in this world of ours,” not only in moments of wonder and awe, but also in moments that are seemingly insignificant and trivial: a chaotic family dinner between math team, soccer practice and piano lessons; a restless night of studying for a desired degree; a mundane drive to work along the waterfront.
 
I find young Isaiah’s enthusiastic “Behold!” echoing in my mind whenever I experience a vivid scene of God’s presence. In the moments when it feels like God is absent, I look a little harder. Just like Isaiah, sometimes we forget what we’re doing and get a little lost. It is in precisely those moments that it’s most important to grasp on to Christ’s presence and truly behold.
 
--Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
 

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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Rice Memorial High School Homecoming

Eight new members were inducted in the Rice-Cathedral Athletic Hall of Fame in October. Hall of Famers from previous classes welcomed the newest members at the induction ceremony during Homecoming for Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington. There were seven different events over three days.
 
These included a Pep Rally at which Rice Memorial students gathered in anticipation of Homecoming weekend and a faculty/staff dodge ball game.
 
During a “Knight to Remember,” more than 250 alumni and parents gathered under a tent on the Rice campus to kick off Homecoming weekend and celebrate Rice's 100th birthday.
 
For the Cow Maneuver, alumni from all corners of the country purchased plots in the Return of the Great Cow Maneuver. Daisy the cow plopped in an unpurchased plot thereby awarding Rice the winnings.
 
A record number of runners and walkers participated in the fourth annual RJ Rice Run to conclude the Homecoming weekend festivities. Brian Mongeon '03 won the race.
 
Rice Memorial High School had its start with Cathedral High School in Burlington, which opened 100 years ago.
 
 

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.
 

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.
 

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."
 

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.
 
 
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