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Movie review: 'The Man Who Invented Christmas'

Its rather ill-chosen title notwithstanding, "The Man Who Invented Christmas" (Bleecker Street) involves no denial of the Nativity.
 
Instead, this charming fact-based historical drama tells the origin story of Victorian author Charles Dickens' beloved 1843 novella, "A Christmas Carol."
 
Dan Stevens brings brio to his portrayal of the complex writer, whose humanitarian instincts seem, initially, to benefit all but those closest to him. And the film as a whole shares much of the warmth of the slender volume whose creation it chronicles.
 
With his last three titles having failed to sell, Dickens fears falling into debt if his next production is equally unpopular. But, having struck on the idea of a holiday-themed narrative, he struggles with writer's block and with the endless distractions of his burgeoning family's domestic life.
 
A visit from his feckless father, John (Jonathan Pryce), whom Dickens blames for the sufferings of his childhood -- flashbacks show us his grim life as an apprentice in a shoe polish factory -- is a particular source of worry and conflict. Dickens, who fancifully summons up, and interacts with, his own characters, also spars with dour miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) who here serves as a naysaying critic of Dickens' work.
 
When his publishers, Chapman (Ian McNeice) and Hall (David McSavage), turn the prospective volume down, Dickens resolves to publish it himself, thus raising the financial stakes still further. He does at least enjoy the steady encouragement of his patient wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark), and of his friend and unpaid literary agent, John Forster (Justin Edwards).
 
The conversion story Dickens' eventually pens finds a real-life counterpart in the amendment of his own behavior. So director Bharat Nalluri's adaptation of Les Standiford's 2008 book has some positive moral lessons to convey about consideration and forgiveness.
 
Since it's also family-friendly in most respects -- a solitary instance of mild bedroom humor is based entirely on inference -- "The Man Who Invented Christmas" will likely prove a winner with a broad range of age groups.
 
The film contains a very vague sexual joke and a single mild oath. 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: '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.
 
  • Published in Reviews

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.
 
  • Published in Reviews

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.
  • Published in Reviews

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.
 
  • Published in Reviews

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.
 
  • Published in Reviews

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.
 
  • Published in Reviews

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."
 
  • Published in Reviews
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