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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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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.
 
 

Movie review: 'A Question of Faith'

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

Book review: 'Little Lessons from the Saints'

Little Lessons from the Saints: 52 Simple and Surprising Ways to See the Saint in You.” By Bob Burnham. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2017. 216 pages. Paperback: $9.95; Kindle: $7.96; Nook: $8.49.
 
Over the years I have seen, read and studied many books on the saints. What piqued my interest about this one, however, was the subtitle: “52 Simple and Surprising Ways to See the Saint in You.” It’s a subtle thing, really, having to do with verb tense.  I wasn’t being invited to “become” a saint at some future time (if I just worked hard enough). Rather, I was being asked to recognize my own saintliness, here and now, in the present moment.
 
“We are called to imitate the saints because we are called to be saints,” author Bob Burnham explains. “But here’s the secret: we are already saints, albeit imperfect ones, for Christ lives in us, and we live in Christ. The saints teach us how to see that truth more clearly.”  What this book does, therefore, is invite us to become more fully who we already are.
 
The number “52” in the title is not arbitrary either; it is designed to match the number of weeks in a calendar year. Although Burnham assures us that the book can be used “any way you want,” he also provides a blueprint for how to get the most out of the stories and meditations it contains. In essence, each week the reader spends time with one saint, meditating on his or her life and how their charism is present in our own lives. For those new to meditation, the author gives some useful advice on how to proceed, step by step, and what to expect along the way. 
 
“Experience has shown me that meditation is never free from distractions,” he says.  “It is rarely a peaceful repose or an escape from reality. Rather, meditation is an exacting discipline.”
 
Perhaps because Burnham is himself a catechist, he then includes a brief section entitled “Little Lessons for Teachers,” outlining how the book can be used with students in the classroom, whether that is in a Catholic school or a CCD setting.  He notes that the saints are presented in a specific order by theme – surrender, freedom, pilgrimage, hospitality and loving knowledge -- echoing the specific lesson we can draw from each of them as our own spiritual journey unfolds.
 
The lessons, as promised, are “little” in as much as they are short, occupying only two or three pages at the most, thus making them perfect for those who may not have unlimited time to sit with a book of meditations. That does not mean, however, that they lack substance. He often relates to even the most familiar saints in a way that startles the reader into thinking something new about them. When talking about the martyr St. Charles Lwanga, for instance, he notes that for most of us, it’s the everyday martyrdoms that we need to embrace. “It’s not…persevering in faith in the face of persecution, even if it means death... as if the only way you can show your love for and dedication to Christ is if you are being persecuted…The lesson I have learned from the lives of martyrs is simpler: I should not complain.”
 
Saints, Burnham concludes, “are not superheroes with magic powers. They are not idealized versions of what people should be. They were real people who chose to take the gospel seriously.”  Whenever we do the same, we are following in their footsteps.  “Any time I show love and compassion, I am a saint,” he says. “Whenever I show patience and understanding, I am a saint. … My goal is not to be canonized someday— my goal is to live the Gospel today. If I do that, I can look in the mirror and see a saint every day!”
 
Author bio:
By his own admission, Bob Burnham is “not a scholar or a theologian, nor am I ordained. I am just a guy named ‘Bob’ who takes seriously the counsel of the Blessed Virgin Mary when she said to the servers at the wedding in Cana, ‘Do whatever He tells you’ (Jn 2:5).” A Secular Franciscan and a spiritual director, he works as a freelance editor and writes about the spirituality of commuting on his blog, mtransit.org. He lives with his wife, Cathy, in Bartlett, Ill.
 

Movie review: 'Home Again'

Genteel decorum prevails in the romantic comedy "Home Again" (Open Road). At least, it does so everywhere beyond the confines of its protagonist's bedroom. The result is a morally mixed film in which kindly characters follow the misguided marital and sexual dictates of contemporary society.
 
Although the movie opens with the aforementioned main character, Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon), in tears, her situation turns out to be more tumultuous than tragic.
 
Recently separated from her British-born, New York-based husband, Austen (Michael Sheen), Alice has returned to her hometown of Los Angeles, her two young daughters, Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield), in tow. There they've settled into the lavish house in which Alice grew up and which she inherited from her father, John (David Netto), a famous director of 1970s arthouse movies.
 
While out on a liquor-fueled spree celebrating her 40th birthday, Alice crosses paths with a trio of promising but broke filmmakers: brothers Harry (Pico Alexander) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) and their pal George (Jon Rudnitsky). Alice and Harry fall for each other at first sight, but he loses his cookies before they have the chance to get physical.
 
The morning after the night before, the lads -- homeless after being turned out of the cheap motel room they were occupying -- stick around, charming Alice's mom, Lilian (Candice Bergen), with their enthusiasm for her series of starring turns in her late husband's pictures. At Lilian's behest, and after some hesitation, Alice agrees to let her new friends take up residence, rent-free, in her guesthouse.
 
Naturally, the polite and considerate youths bond with Isabel and Rosie and, inevitably, Alice and Harry pick up where nausea had forced them to leave off. But back east, Austen, who has all along wanted to reconcile with Alice, is none too pleased to learn of this novel domestic arrangement -- even though he is still in the dark about its sexual aspect.
 
There's a gentle spirit to writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer's feature debut. In fact, the daytime interaction between Alice and her three tenants sometimes recalls that between Snow White and her seven dwarfs.
 
But the script presents marital breakup as a form of liberation. And, though it coyly avoids having the romantic leads sleep together within hours of meeting each other by sending Harry off to worship the porcelain idol, Meyers-Shyer obviously takes the duo's subsequent fling as a given.
 
Additionally, the girls' accidental exposure to the relationship -- babysitting Lilian unexpectedly shows up with them, just as Alice and Harry are emerging in the morning -- is milked for laughs.
 
Unsound but not obnoxious, "Home Again" (Open Road) will easily be parsed by grownups, for good and ill. The entertainment value of the positive residue, however, is slight at best.
 
The film contains a benign view of divorce and cohabitation, momentary semi-graphic and brief nongraphic sexual activity, comic brawling, a few uses of profanity and at least one rough and about a half-dozen crude terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
 
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