Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

01/10/2018

The Post

By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The oddest scenes in “The Post” (Fox), a nostalgic account of The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, involve Meryl Streep as that newspaper’s owner, Katharine Graham, hovering about its press and linotype rooms.

The publisher’s matriarchal beam shines over articles being prepared for publication in a process that takes hours. Letter by letter and word by word, production thunders along on now-obsolete equipment that relied on melted lead bars, barrels of ink and massive rolls of newsprint.

In what seems, by current standards, a sepia-tinted era of journalism, the paper would then be delivered by trucks to newsstands, coin boxes and front stoops in Washington. News, in those days, arrived just once a day in print (twice, if the community also had an afternoon newspaper), to be supplemented each evening by network TV anchors, and again weekly in magazines.

Four years later, under pressure from shareholders focused on profits after the Post’s public stock offering, Graham would be locked in mortal combat in an ultimately successful effort to break the unions that controlled production.

Looking back on that crisis, Graham would eventually sneer, in her 1998 memoir, Personal History, that Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) — the paper’s national editor who heroically retrieved the Pentagon Papers from Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) — had “made a cottage industry of criticizing us.” But in 1971, such bitterness had yet to arise.

Director Steven Spielberg, working from a script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, aims to make a rouser along the lines of 1952’s “Deadline U.S.A.” And, according to that film’s formula of a crusading newspaper in financial peril triumphing over government secrets and crooked politicians, he succeeds.

It’s a quaint age of rotary phones, clacking newswires and typewriters, toxic clouds of cigarette smoke and the familiar tones of CBS News stalwart Walter Cronkite. Graham hosts lavish parties at her estate where humorist Art Buchwald (David Costabile) is a kind of court jester. She also counts former defence secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) among her close friends.

Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) still basks in the memory of his friendship with President John F. Kennedy, and keeps what he knew of Kennedy’s extramarital peccadilloes to himself. But The New York Times has come across the biggest story of the period (until the Watergate scandal), and this annoys Bradlee greatly since he’s devoted to making the Post a truly national, respected publication.

A lengthy study of the Vietnam War, popularly known as the Pentagon Papers and commissioned by McNamara, makes it clear that the conflict was never, despite public pronouncements, considered winnable. It shows, moreover, the degree to which the U.S. effort in the conflict was burdened by corrupt South Vietnamese leadership.

Young American men were being drafted into a struggle with no reasonable prospect of victory, rendering their sacrifices, and ultimately their lost lives, seemingly pointless.

The Nixon administration obtains a court order blocking the Papers’ publication, and in the interregnum that follows Bradlee and his staff have to find a way to get their own copies. President Richard Nixon was already so hostile to the Post over its social coverage that he had recently banned the paper from sending a reporter to cover daughter Tricia’s White House wedding.

Publication risks the Post’s very existence since court action could sabotage the paper’s stability on the eve of the stock offering. Ultimately, the Supreme Court has to decide on the documents’ release as other publications rally around constitutional guarantees of press freedom. But before that, Bradlee and his reporters have to piece the documents together into a narrative.

The big decision comes down to Graham, who has been the publisher since her husband’s suicide years before. She falls short of being a feminist and often defers to Bradlee. But she’s devoted to doing what’s right for the truth, even if it damages old friendships.

The film contains scenes of military combat and fleeting rough language. 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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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

Paddington 2
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — 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 followup 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 neighbours 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 neighbourhood 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 humour. 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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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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Insidious: The Last Key

By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The easiest way to judge the quality of an “Insidious” film is to gauge how quickly the actors get into a poltergeist-haunted house. On that score, “Insidious: The Last Key” (Universal), the fourth instalment in the franchise, does not disappoint, since it opens in one.

A low budget, however, confines the plot to just a few spectral, gloomy creatures who inhabit this series’ signature imaginary locale: To wit, the astral plane, somewhere between here and the hereafter, known as The Further.

There’s not even a smoke machine to mist up the proceedings. And, since there’s essentially only one way for a wraith to leap out of the dark to frighten someone, that reliable trope is dispensed with in the opening minutes.

The rest of the story can be aptly summarized by the classic Second World War-era lyric “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.”

Working from a script by returning screenwriter Leigh Whannell, who’s back in the frame as well as ghost-hunter Specs, director Adam Robitel does the best he can with tired material. As always, Lin Shaye plays Elise, a compassionate parapsychologist who uses her gift to help others — or at the least, shoo those pesky spirits out of their houses, with the help of Specs and colleague Tucker (Angus Sampson).

This time, the dwelling is the one — on the grounds of an abandoned New Mexico state prison, no less — where Elise spent most of her childhood with her brother, Christian (Bruce Davison), and their physically abusive father, who beat her whenever she saw troubled spirits. Executions next door provided a ready supply of troubled souls zooming around.

The structure has a new resident, but the same sprite who has lived there since the 1950s.

Her return to this fraught spot enables Elise to embrace the cliche of dealing with her own personal demons. Along the way, she has to reconcile with Christian, from whom she’s become estranged. By fortuitous circumstance, he has a daughter, Melissa (Spencer Locke), who shares Elise’s ability to poke about in the Stygian netherworld.

There are many locked doors, dusty keys and furnishings, creaking floors, the occasional spirit with an ulterior motive and, late in the proceedings, a King James Bible becomes a prop. There’s also a crucifix on one wall that, as sharp-eyed audience members will notice, serves no purpose other than to augment the decor.

Overall, the fright factor is low and originality is long gone. Yet the moral compass in this good-natured series remains as dependable as ever.

The film contains an occult theme, fleeting gore and a single scene of physical child abuse. 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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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

All the Money in the World
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — By turns suspenseful, darkly comic and stridently moral, “All the Money in the World” (Sony), a slightly fictionalized account of a famous kidnapping, 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’s an outstanding example of multilayered, mature filmmaking from director Ridley Scott.

Occasionally some leaden dialogue, meant to underline a point, slows down the proceedings. But overall, Scott lays out the story so carefully, he doesn’t miss a nuance in all the ways that riches can cloud judgments and warp the soul.

The film is based on the 1973 abduction, in Rome, of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer). The victim was the feckless 16-year-old grandson of J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), an oil tycoon who was, at that time, the world’s only billionaire. The teen muses in a voiceover, “It’s like we’re from another planet where the force of gravity is so strong, it bends the light.”

Unlike Howard Hughes, Getty wasn’t a recluse. But his notion of interpersonal relations went far beyond mere eccentricity.

He ensconced himself in baronial splendour outside London, imagined himself the reincarnation of the Roman emperor Hadrian, and was so miserly that he had a phone booth installed for the use of his houseguests. He also collected ancient art, reasoning that artworks, unlike people, contain a kind of creative soul that might give him comfort — or at the least, wouldn’t annoy him about his wealth.

“Everything has a price,” he grumbles. “The great struggle in life is coming to grips with what that price is.”

In another moment of clarity, he concedes that wealth of his scope always “ruins the children.”

So when his grandson is kidnapped and a demand of $17 million follows, the old man refuses to even consider it on the excuse that, by co-operating, he would subject his 14 other grandchildren to a similar risk.

This puts him into immediate conflict with his former daughter-in-law, Gail (Michelle Williams), the lone moral force of the story. Gail had refused alimony when she and Getty’s alcoholic son, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), divorced. In exchange, she asked for full custody of their son.

Gail has since gotten by without the old man’s money. She’s immune to the blandishments of riches. But now she has to deal with the kidnappers — who occasionally get in touch via non-traceable pay-phone calls — with the help of ex-CIA agent Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg).

The captors, including John Paul’s “minder,” Cinquanta (Romain Duris), are confused to find that they’re dealing with a dysfunctional family. Their expectations of reasonable, “moral” decisions from Getty are confounded at every turn.

They eventually sell the boy to another, more violent, group who finally get the world’s attention months later when, in another famous moment, they slice off a portion of his right ear and mail it to a newspaper.

Most of the plot is taken up with Gail and Fletcher devising strategies to out-negotiate both the old man and the kidnappers without descending into panic. The result is a complex exploration of large questions about human behaviour that never veers into pedantry and that many grown viewers will find compelling.

The film contains 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.
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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — More than a few parents have, no doubt, had occasion to be alarmed at how easily — and how often — kids become absorbed by gadgetry these days.

Perhaps they can take comfort in the fact that such preoccupation is nothing compared to what transpires in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” (Columbia).

This amusing comic adventure finds a quartet of teens magically transported into an old video game where they inhabit the avatars they chose before the start of play.

Most of the laughs come from the contrast between the characters’ real-life personas and the bodies and personalities they take on within their new environment. Thus nervous nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff) becomes muscle-bound he-man archaeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson).

Football star “Fridge” (Ser’Darius Blain) dwindles into diminutive zoologist Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart). Self-absorbed cheerleader-type Bethany (Madison Iseman) mutates, to her horror, into dumpy cartographer Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black). And good-hearted but shy Martha (Morgan Turner) blossoms into fierce babe Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), a specialist in “dance fighting.”

As the group faces and overcomes a series of challenges in their quest to win the game — the only means of re-emerging from it — they learn familiar Hollywood lessons about the value of teamwork and the courage required to pursue cherished dreams.

The various transformations the cast undergoes recall, at times, those of Dorothy’s companions along the Yellow Brick Road. At other points, the personal conversions and belated camaraderie experienced by the adolescent denizens of John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” seem to be summoned up from way back when (1985, to be precise).

All this might be fine for the initial ensemble’s peers in the audience. Especially since, in crafting a film that is more a variant on than a sequel to 1995’s “Jumanji” — though it’s based, like its predecessor, on Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book — director Jake Kasdan keeps his picture’s conflicts almost completely bloodless.

In the end, however, some off-colour gags and a considerable amount of vulgarity in the dialogue render this strictly grownup fare. Much is made, for instance, of Bethany’s fascination with a certain addition to her inventory of body parts while her flirtatious romance with Alex (Nick Jonas), a longtime captive in the game the newcomers run across, plays on the gay subtext of her male avatar falling for the lad.

Similarly, set-pieces showcasing Ruby’s fighting skills, while theoretically empowering, are in reality merely exploitative.

Still, for mature viewers there is fun to be had from this trek through the jungle. But its undergrowth is too thick for the tread of kids.

The film contains gunplay and other combat violence, some of it harsh but with minimal gore, at least one use of profanity and a couple of milder oaths, sexual and anatomical humour, a single rough term as well as a few crude and numerous crass words. 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.
 
 

Father Figures
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — 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 chair 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 humour, 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.

Copyright (c) 2018 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops