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Movie review: 'I Can Only Imagine'

Dennis Quaid brings his formidable talent to bear in the faith-driven drama "I Can Only Imagine" (Lionsgate).
His portrayal of Arthur Millard, the abusive father whose conversion to evangelical Christianity inspired his son, Bart (John Michael Finley), to write the eponymous 2001 song — an unprecedented chart topper that became popular even with nonbelievers — represents the film's principal asset.
A washed-up high school football star whose gridiron career went nowhere, the elder Millard never loses an opportunity to throw cold water on Bart's childhood dreams and nascent creativity. And his mistreatment of the lad involves wielding a belt as well as cruel words, though this is implied and discussed rather than seen.
Yet, as Quaid succeeds in conveying, Arthur also is the victim of his own painful frustrations and sense of failure. His eventual repentance, moreover, is shown to be appropriately hard-won.
Directors and brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin's movie is essentially a biography of Bart, the front man for the group MercyMe.
Besides his turbulent relationship with his dad, the script, which Jon Erwin co-wrote with Brent McCorkle, also traces amiable Bart's on-again, off-again romance with Shannon (Madeline Carroll), his childhood sweetheart. And it chronicles his struggle to achieve musical success under the guidance of his group's dedicated manager, Scott Brickell (Trace Adkins).
As its advertising tagline "The song you know. The story you don't," suggests the prime audience for "I Can Only Imagine" will be religious pop fans who, like Bart, would be star-struck on meeting genre icons Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort) and Michael W. Smith (Jake B. Miller). Indeed, the lead-up to the scene of the title song's premiere performance seems calculated to tantalize those especially devoted to it.
Still, with an inspiring real-life story to tell and a screenplay free of anything at all offensive, the picture offers uplifting entertainment that parents and teens can share without worry.
The film contains mature themes, including marital discord and the physical abuse of a child. 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: 'A Wrinkle in Time'

Director Ava DuVernay's youth-oriented fantasy film "A Wrinkle in Time" (Disney) wants to blow your mind.
Whether it succeeds will largely depend on your reaction to the sight of a giant version of Oprah Winfrey who, as a celestial guide called Mrs. Which, dispenses New Age-style bromides while dressed in an outfit suitable for a Valkyrie and sporting a makeup job the late female impersonator Divine might have found a bit garish.
As for more substantial considerations, this adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery Medal-winning 1962 novel for young adults is wholesome in some respects, problematic in others. While entirely free of the negative elements that usually debar recommendation for young viewers, the movie's underlying worldview involves an uneasy combination of secularism and magical thinking.
Standing in need of Mrs. Which's help, and that of two of her peers, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), is troubled middle-school student Meg Murry (Storm Reid). Four years after the unexplained disappearance of her father Alex (Chris Pine), a NASA scientist who, together with his physicist wife, Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), had developed an unorthodox method of time and space travel, Meg is still devastated by his absence.
So it comes as a pleasant surprise when the trio of women magi mysteriously manifest themselves to Meg, her adopted younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), an intellectual prodigy, and to her supportive would-be boyfriend Calvin (Levi Miller). With their otherworldly visitors' assistance, the kids set off on a cosmic quest to track pop down and bring him home.
Their journey is often eye-pleasing. From the start, however, Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell's screenplay tries to force or simply assume audience sympathy with the characters, rather than earning it.
The picture's ultimate message, that we should love ourselves even while acknowledging our faults, can be seen as promoting the Christian virtue of humility. And, though one scene incongruously suggests that Mrs. Whatsit, in the course of a shape-shift, engages in a bit of peek-a-boo exhibitionism, the youthful romance at the heart of the story is a model of innocence and positive, if not always convincing, emotional interaction.
Still, very young viewers or for teens who are not well grounded in their faith may lack the discretion to retain the script's acceptable takeaway while jettisoning the metaphysical gobbledygook that surrounds it. A follow-up discussion with parents may, however, help those in the latter group to do so.
The film contains occasional peril and possible momentary off-screen immodesty. 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: 'Every Day'

It's not "Every Day" (Orion) that you run into an incorporeal spirit who inhabits the bodies of different people for 24 hours at a time. But such is the unusual nature of the love interest in this strange teen romance.
Director Michael Sucsy's screen version of David Levithan's novel sends the honorable, if less than original, message that relationships should be about more than surface attraction. But this theme entails a further subtext suggesting that gender differences are an insignificant factor where matters of the heart are concerned.
Taken together with the script's indication that physical interaction before marriage is a given, and that Christians are devil-fearing fools, that implicit agenda item makes the film unfit for its target audience of adolescents.
Angourie Rice plays Rhiannon, the sympathetic high school student who first encounters the roaming, androgynous sprite when it takes over Justin (Justice Smith), her normally self-absorbed and inattentive dopey-athlete boyfriend. While under the control of A, as the peripatetic soul calls itself, Justin is transformed into the kind of caring companion for which Rhiannon naturally longs.
As A subsequently bounces from one incarnation to another, a phenomenon over which he/she has no sway, Rhiannon falls for him/her. But screenwriter Jesse Andrews' script tries to have it both ways where A is concerned.
When Rhiannon asks if A considers him or herself a boy or a girl, the exquisitely politically correct response is, "Yes." And while A is temporarily occupying a female frame, Rhiannon and she set taboos at naught by necking in the girls' locker room.
Yet it's quite predictable that the sequence in which Rhiannon and A first consummate their bond -- during a spontaneous weekend getaway to Rhiannon's uncle's fireplace-equipped cabin in the woods -- finds A in the guise of dreamy Xavier (Colin Ford).
Equally foreseeable is the development that enables A to spend the longest time of any of his visits inside Alexander (Owen Teague), the pretty-good-looking quasi-nerd classmate we all know Rhiannon should have been dating from the start.
A subplot involving Rhiannon's parents -- nervous-breakdown-victim Nick (Michael Cram) and unwilling breadwinner Lindsey (Maria Bello) -- affirms the importance of marital fidelity. But when mainstream-Protestant Nathan wakes up after A has departed, he jumps to the conclusion that he's been possessed by the devil. Oh, those silly religious types!
While in charge of Nathan, be it noted, A pretends to be gay so that he can dance flirtatiously with Rhiannon right in front of Justin. This "not that there's anything wrong with that, but I'm just pretending" coyness is another instance of "Every Day" wanting to have its culturally au courant cake and eat it too.
The film contains a denigrating portrayal of Protestant Christianity, a benign view of homosexual acts, two off-screen premarital bedroom encounters, an adultery theme, a same-sex kiss, at least one use of profanity and several crude and 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.
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: 'Winchester'

There are many interesting things to know about the life of arms heiress Sarah Winchester (c. 1840-1922). For one, she was fabulously wealthy. For another, she believed she was cursed.
To stave off the effects of the latter condition, moreover, Sarah was apparently under the delusion that she must maintain constant construction on the San Jose, California, house in which she lived — something she proceeded to do for nearly four decades and only stopped doing because she died.
The architectural curiosity resulting from her mania, dubbed the Winchester Mystery House, has since become a popular tourist attraction. All very intriguing.
How, then, one wonders, can a horror movie riffing on these historical circumstances turn out to be such a bore — all the more so, given that the formidable Helen Mirren stars as Sarah? Yet such is the painful truth about "Winchester" (CBS Films), a dud if ever there was one.
Perhaps it's the scattershot approach adopted by co-directors and brothers Michael and Peter Spierig. Seemingly in an effort to try a little bit of everything, they mash up the haunted house, angry ghost and possessed kid subgenres, all to no avail. There's a lot going on but none of it works.
Witnessing all the mayhem is Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a man with a turbulent past of his own. Commissioned by the board of directors of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. to assess their majority shareholder's state of mental health, Eric has become one of Sarah's rare houseguests.
Of course, his initial outlook on the situation is one of resolute scientific skepticism. But, by the time he finds himself barricaded in an attic trying to protect Sarah from the rampaging specter of a Confederate soldier who has been dead for 20 years, he seems to have changed his point of view.
Sarah's claim about that curse, which also takes in her family — here represented by her niece (Sarah Snook) and young grandnephew (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey) — now appears, to Eric at least, well-founded in eerie fact.
The script's peaceable theme — the spirits bugging Sarah were all killed by Winchester guns, and she tries to calm them by communicating her sincere remorse — is certainly in keeping with Gospel values. Aspects of Eric's lifestyle, by contrast, though only hinted at, are clearly contrary to Scriptural norms of behavior.
A troubled widower, he has developed a laudanum addiction and enjoys consorting with ladies of the evening. Precisely what he gets up to with the streetwalkers we see hanging around his house in one scene — either individually or collectively — is, thankfully, kept decently obscure.
Such potentially sordid details, however, together with some of the elements listed below, makes "Winchester" strictly grownup fare.
The film contains occult themes, gunplay and other stylized violence with little gore, drug use, implications of promiscuity and possible group sex involving prostitutes, a couple of profanities, a milder oath 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: 'Black Panther'

Step aside, Huey Newton, there's a new "Black Panther" (Disney) in town.
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler's adaptation of a series of Marvel Comics — Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first launched the character of the title in 1966 — is sprawling, energetic, lightened by some clever humor but, ultimately, overlong.
Though the mayhem on screen, which ranges from hand-to-hand combat to a high-flying, high-tech dogfight, is treated with restraint, touches of vulgarity may give some parents of older teens pause. Weighing on the other side of the scale, however, is the racial empowerment that drives the narrative and the significant themes the film tackles in a thoughtful way.
The primary setting of "Black Panther" is the imaginary — and secret — African kingdom of Wakanda. As straightforward exposition at the start of the movie explains, Wakanda's inhabitants have, over the centuries, made use of a super-powerful mineral, vibranium, to achieve both prosperity and a range of technological wonders unknown to the outside world.
When Wakanda's young prince, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assumes the throne, and thereby becomes the Black Panther, he intends to continue the policy of his late father, King T'Chaka (John Kani), by keeping Wakanda concealed from foreigners. But he faces two principal challenges.
One involves South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). Klaue has managed to infiltrate Wakanda and steal a stock of vibranium, which he aims to sell to the highest bidder.
The other concerns the ongoing consequences of a long-ago family conflict (involving Michael B. Jordan) that has the potential to dethrone T'Challa and destabilize Wakanda.
In tackling these problems, T'Challa is aided by his tech-savvy sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), the woman he would like to make his queen, Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of his army's band of fierce female warriors, and, eventually, by Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA agent out to foil Klaue.
Real-world preoccupations are incorporated into this sci-fi-tinged action adventure. The Wakandans, for instance, debate whether they should put their own security at risk in order to assist downtrodden people of color in other nations.
Plot developments also present characters with moral choices. Faced with the kind of evil embodied by Klaue — an unreconstructed apartheid-era Afrikaans of the nastiest stripe — should one pursue vengeance or accept justice? The divergent paths of violent revolution and peaceful reform are also contrasted.
Ceremonies and customs drawn, however indirectly, from indigenous African religions are showcased. But they are contained within the picture's framework of fantasy and will probably not cause mature adolescents any spiritual confusion.
The film contains nonscriptural religious ideas and practices, much stylized violence with minimal gore, several crude and at least one crass term and an obscene gesture. 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: 'Peter Rabbit'

That rustling sound you hear is famed children's author Beatrix Potter spinning in her grave, distressed at what has been done to her beloved characters in "Peter Rabbit" (Columbia).
Potter (1866-1943) wrote gentle morality fables about anthropomorphic animals, which she illustrated herself. Her 23 pocket-sized books, starting with "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" (1902), have become one of the top-selling series of all time.
Now her most famous character, the mischievous Peter Rabbit, has been transformed into a fast-talking juvenile delinquent, a hipster dude rather too fond of rude jokes and possessing a nasty murderous streak.
Director Will Gluck ("Annie"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Ron Lieber, mixes live-action with animation for this adventure comedy. While the interplay of human actors with CGI critters is remarkable, the film's manic pace and reliance on cheap gags set a discordant tone at odds with Potter's elegant style.
The film picks up where Potter's first volume leaves off. Peter (voice of James Corden) is now the leader of his family, which includes his younger sisters, triplets Flopsy (voice of Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voice of Elizabeth Debicki), and Cottontail (voice of Daisy Ridley).
We know from Potter's story how their father died. Deep in the verdant English countryside, he wandered into a fenced-in garden and was caught by the owner, Mr. McGregor, who turned him into a pie supper.
Let that be a lesson to you, Mother warns her brood. But Peter disobeys and barely escapes with his life.
In the movie, their mother also has died, and Peter is obsessed with Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), seeking revenge and his vegetables. He enlists his sisters and his cousin, Benjamin Bunny (voice of Colin Moody), on daily raids into the garden.
During one ambush, Mr. McGregor has a fatal heart attack, collapsing in front of Peter. The young bunny is elated, as are his family and friends. All are invited to overrun the garden and Mr. McGregor's cottage, both of which are thoroughly trashed.
Fans of the Potter books will spot Pigling Bland (voice of Ewen Leslie), Jemima Puddle-Duck (voice of Rose Byrne), and Miss Tiggy-Winkle (voice of Sia), among other familiar characters.
The animals' idyll is short-lived, as soon a new McGregor arrives, great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson). He's a city boy from London who hates the country (and all four-legged creatures) and plans to put the homestead up for sale.
Until, that is, he meets his comely neighbor, Bea (Rose Byrne). She's a kind and sweet friend to Peter and his family, whom she paints in her spare time (for Bea read Beatrix, of course). She tries to soften Thomas' strong feelings and eventually captures his heart.
Peter will have none of this, and plots Thomas' murder as the bunnies declare war.
Thankfully, the film's resolution does impart some of the lessons of Potter's books, including the importance of family, honesty and forgiveness. But the filmmakers cannot resist the ill-mannered behavior, low-brow jokes, and noisy eruptions that seem to be staples in children's films today.
Suffice it to say, Potter would recoil at Peter's attempt to thrust a carrot up Mr. McGregor's bare buttocks, not to mention a comic remark about Benjamin Bunny's nipples.
The film contains a vengeance theme, a glimpse of partial rear nudity, some rude humor and action sequences. 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: 'Darkest Hour'

The spotlight shines brightly on British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in "Darkest Hour" (Focus), a historical drama about political leadership and backroom intrigue during a pivotal moment of World War II.
Churchill (1874-1965) was 65 years old and, it was thought, in the twilight of his political career when he was tapped to lead a wartime coalition government in May 1940. The war was going badly for the Allies, and Nazi Germany was marching into Belgium and France, threatening an invasion of Britain.
It was truly the country's darkest hour, and director Joe Wright ("Atonement"), working from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, offers a thrilling take on Churchill's first three weeks in power.
The film is in some respects a companion piece to the 2017 film "Dunkirk," taking place at the same time. While "Dunkirk" neglected politics in favor of personal stories, "Darkest Hour" goes behind the scenes, revealing how Churchill rallied a skeptical cabinet to fight the enemy rather than sue for peace and arranged the miraculous evacuation of nearly 350,000 soldiers stranded on the French beach.
Beneath some remarkable facial prosthetics and layers of padding, Gary Oldman disappears into the role of Churchill, capturing the gait, cadence and charisma of the man. This is a warts-and-all portrayal of a decidedly quirky individual who loved his cigars and booze, was often rude and sarcastic but who in private had moments of self-doubt.
At his side was his stalwart wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), proud that her husband was finally getting his chance to lead, however late in life.
"When youth departs, may wisdom prove enough," Churchill says, as he accepts the offer of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) to form a government. "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."
Churchill succeeds the feckless Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), whose policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany has left Britain woefully unprepared for war. But Chamberlain enjoys the king's favor as does the politically ambitious Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane). The trio schemes to disgrace Churchill and put Halifax in power.
As Europe is overrun, Churchill is pressured to sue for peace. The idea of bowing to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis is anathema to his lifelong belief in justice and liberty.
"You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!" he roars at Halifax.
"Darkest Hour" proceeds at a breakneck pace as Churchill gradually convinces his colleagues to fight and rallies the nation. Although some liberties are taken with the facts (including a marvelous moment when Churchill interacts with ordinary people on the subway, which never happened), the film offers an important history lesson for young and old about a time when statesmanship mattered most.
Churchill's greatest asset was his voice, which he used to great effect on the radio and in Parliament to inspire the nation. As he composed his stirring speeches, Churchill was aided by his secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), and his most faithful ally, the secretary of state for war — and future prime minister — Anthony Eden (Samuel West).
"We shall never surrender!" Churchill tells his parliamentary colleagues, forcing Halifax to admit, "He just mobilized the English language and sent it into battle."
And the rest, as they say, is history.
The film contains brief scenes of wartime violence and some mature themes. 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.
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: 'Phantom Thread'

All rustling silk, organza, lace and tulle in the first half and a bizarre portrayal of marriage in the second half, "Phantom Thread" (Focus) is a bumpy trip through high fashion and passive-aggressive sniping in 1950s London.
Director-writer Paul Thomas Anderson may be trying to make a statement about necessary sacrifices to make the man-woman dynamic function property, but despite the lush, appealing visuals, he's come up with an ugly denouement straight out of a cheap horror film.
Daniel Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, sort of a Yves St. Laurent-type dressmaker in a five-story townhouse, making gowns -- elegant, structured creations of the Grace Kelly era -- for pampered wealthy ladies and the occasional European royal.
His sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), runs the business, leaving the temperamental Woodcock free to sketch designs and pursue romances -- at least that's what obliquely implied -- with a string of live-in women. He uses the devoted, priggish Cyril to cast them aside when he grows tired of their emotional neediness.
One day on a country drive and a stop at a hotel restaurant, Woodcock encounters waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), a slim young expatriate with a nonspecific European accent. After a bit of flirting, he knows he's found himself his next muse and model.
Woodcock is immensely selfish and considers his doting late mother as the lone perfect woman he'd known.
He accepts affection, but only on his own terms. His way of showing it, such as he's capable, consists of doing fittings so his designs will be realized. It's not a balanced partnership by any means.
Woodcock has a devoted staff of seamstresses and no shortage of clients attending his fashion shows, but muses are difficult to fit into his existence. Affection and sex don't mean as much to him as the power he exerts on others.
He shortly finds Alma annoying, particularly for her habit of making too much noise at breakfast and is perpetually on some sort of slow burn over slights real and imagined. Alma, who accepts this soul-deadening arrangement and eventually marries Woodcock, nonetheless develops a long-term plan to keep him for herself in spite of all the snippy abuse.
This is where the story takes a disturbing turn. Alma, who likes to cook and prepare drinks, figures out a way to add poisonous mushrooms to her cuisine. Not enough to kill, but enough to inflict severe illness, which creates Woodcock's instant dependency.
Does anyone get suspicious in the least? Nope. There's an ineffectual doctor, but anyone waiting for a police inspector to turn up is waiting in vain.
Anderson suggests that the solution to a toxic relationship is real toxins. It's a problematic, immoral turn without any indication of justice, restricting the film's audience to adults capable of mature discernment. There are no stitches in time here.
The film contains an aberrant view of marriage and frequent rough 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.
  • Published in Reviews
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