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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.
 
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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.
 
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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

Movie review: 'Hostiles'

"Hostiles" (Entertainment Studios) works from the premise that not only were white soldiers in the 1890s aware of their complicity in the decades-long genocide of Native Americans, they could feel immense, paralyzing guilt about their actions.
 
The end result is more than a bit anachronistic -- white supremacist beliefs at the time were the norm, and the all-consuming energy required for daily life in the untamed American West allowed little time for reflection -- but director-writer Scott Cooper wishes to make a strong moral case.
 
So he opens with a quote from British novelist T.H. Lawrence, who wrote in 1923 about James Fenimore Cooper's 19th-century novel "The Deerslayer:” "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted."
 
Times were tough, hearts were hard and disputes were settled at the point of a gun. Sounds like the opening of most episodes of the TV western "Gunsmoke."
 
Except that there's no Marshal Dillon here to set matters right. Cooper's protagonist, taciturn Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), is wracked with anguish about the slaughter he's undertaken as well as the violence inflicted on virtually anyone he's worked with during his Army postings. He's killed, and seen his men killed by, the Native Americans they've been separating from their ancestral lands and way of life and putting them on impoverished reservations in the name of manifest destiny.
 
Blocker, despite his emotional damage, is an educated sort who reads Julius Caesar's writings in the original Latin. He thinks of his task as somehow noble, but nearly rebels when he's ordered to escort a dying Native American chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to Montana.
 
Along the way, he picks up Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) the lone survivor from a massacre of her family by rampaging Comanches. She's catatonic from losing her husband and young children but somehow restores her bearings to regard Yellow Hawk's family with compassion. At another stop, they pick up convicted criminal Philip (Ben Foster), who will face a military execution at the end of the journey.
 
Master Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) brags of having made his first kill at age 14 during the Civil War, but he, too, succumbs to the accumulation of grief.
 
To survive on this sad, loping journey requires everyone to find common ground so they can repel the ongoing threat of Comanche raiders. This dips into the ancient racial trope of "good" and "bad" Native Americans, and also creates, as the lone form of suspense, the question of who will die along the way.
 
The story would undoubtedly have worked better if only a couple of the principal characters were deeply depressed. But Cooper gives everyone an overwhelmingly sensitive conscience and a sense of how they'll be regarded by history. The result is an unrelentingly unsentimental road trip that can be appreciated by an adult audience aware of how many times Cooper wants to just wear them down.
 
The violence and racism are matter-of-factly and realistically portrayed. There's no mythology here, and also no joy. Any character, if exceedingly fortunate, becomes merely a survivor.
 
The film contains gun and physical violence, fleeting gore and some racist dialogue. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: 'Paddington 2'

Unlikely as it seems, "Paddington 2" (Warner Bros.), an endearing blend of animation and live action, sends the much-loved bear of its title (voice of Ben Whishaw) to the slammer. More predictably, once imprisoned — in a grim Victorian fortress of a jail — he still manages to exert his trademark charm on all around him.
 
The warm goodness and jaunty joking that pervade writer-director Paul King's follow-up to his 2015 original are only slightly marred by some ridiculous wordplay that may have a few parents frowning momentarily. And the smallest members of the family may be scared by a few action scenes. Otherwise, however, this is an appealing adventure for a broad range of moviegoers.
 
Once again based on the series of books by recently deceased author Michael Bond, to whom the film is dedicated, the proceedings initially find Paddington far from his roots in the Peruvian jungle, having settled into a cozy domestic life with the Browns, the very British human family that adopted him in the first screen outing.
 
Led by dad Hugh Bonneville and mom Sally Hawkins, the Brown household is rounded out by daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris), an aspiring journalist, son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), who fears his love of steam trains is not cool, and housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julia Walters). With their affection to bolster him, Paddington leads a contented existence munching on marmalade sandwiches and helping his neighbors in small but thoughtful ways.
 
His happy routine is rudely interrupted, however, when he is accused and convicted of stealing an antique book. Far from purloining the volume, Paddington had earlier taken a job in order to save up enough money to purchase it as a gift for his cherished Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton).
 
None-too-subtle clues point to neighborhood fixture Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), an egotistical actor who has recently been reduced to making dog-food commercials, as the real culprit. While Paddington makes friends with his fellow inmates, including the jail's initially ferocious hardened criminal of a cook, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), the Browns work to clear his name.
 
Lessons about family loyalty and the importance of looking for the good in everyone are served up along with heavy doses of cartoonish but very enjoyable comedy. The result is a treat as soothing as a good cup of tea on a foggy day in London town.
 
The film contains perilous situations and brief childish anatomical 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.
 
 
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: All the Money in the World

By turns suspenseful, darkly comic and stridently moral, this slightly fictionalized account of the famous 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), the grandson of his billionaire namesake (Christopher Plummer), makes a strong case that immense wealth not only can't buy happiness, it also imposes depths of misery that few ever know. As scripted by David Scarpa from John Pearson's 1995 book "Painfully Rich," it traces the efforts of the victim's divorced mother (Michelle Williams) and the ex-CIA agent (Mark Wahlberg) aiding her to out-negotiate both the miserly oil tycoon — who refuses to pay the $17 million ransom — and the lad's captors.

The film has mature themes, fleeting gore and frequent rough language.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
 
  • Published in Reviews

Movie review: 'Father Figures'

About the funniest joke in the threadbare comedy "Father Figures" (Warner Bros.) concerns the fact that, in childhood, its two main characters -- now-grown and estranged fraternal twins Kyle (Owen Wilson) and Peter (Ed Helms) Reynolds -- had a pet cat named Chairman Meow.
 
That historical pun aside, though, there's precious little that's revolutionary about the film that surrounds this duo.
 
Reluctantly reunited by the second wedding of their supposedly widowed mother, Helen (Glenn Close), bored-with-his-life proctologist Peter and carefree beach bum Kyle are in for a surprise. The man Helen long ago told them was their deceased father was, it seems, just a friend of hers.
 
So their real dad may, in fact, still be alive -- though Helen's promiscuous past makes it impossible for her to identify for sure which of many candidates he might be. This discovery launches the siblings on a road trip during which they visit a series of contenders, the first being famed football star Terry Bradshaw, playing himself.
 
As Terry and the lads toss the old pigskin around on a Florida beach, director Lawrence Sher's formulaic feature debut quickly sinks into a stupor from which only an energetic turn from Katt Williams as a hitchhiker can it briefly emerge.
 
Predictable developments include, most obviously, the gradual repair of the breach between the temperamentally diverse brothers. But subplots concerning Kyle's money troubles and divorced Peter's efforts to get back on track romantically are equally easy to anticipate.
 
Kyle's interest in serving as Peter's "wingman" by facilitating a casual encounter is symptomatic of the fact that the movie's distasteful premise is matched by a worm's-eye view of human sexuality throughout. The resolving plot twist can, however, be seen as vaguely pro-life.
 
The film contains pervasive sexual and some scatological humor, an incest theme, a premarital bedroom scene, about a dozen uses of profanity, a couple of milder oaths and constant rough and crude 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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