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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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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.
 
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