Catholic Movie Reviews - Brave, Rock of Ages, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter & more

By  Catholic News Service
  • June 22, 2012

This week sees the release of the new Pixar movie Brave and a new fun take on the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.




By Joseph McAleer, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Hell hath no fury like a Scottish princess scorned in "Brave" (Disney). This 3-D animated adventure carries a worthy reminder for rambunctious teens: Evil actions have dire consequences.

Directed by Brenda Chapman ("The Prince of Egypt") and newcomer Mark Andrews, "Brave" is Pixar's first fairy tale and its darkest film to date, which suits the atmosphere of myths and legends. Parents should be warned that the action sequences may be too intense for young children.

"Brave" also marks a number of other, rather unwelcome firsts for Pixar: Much of the slapstick humor is bawdy and ample jiggling cartoon cleavage is on display, as are bare buttocks when the menfolk remove their kilts.

The setting is medieval Scotland, with its lush landscapes and mighty castles rendered in colorful detail. King Fergus (voice of Billy Connolly) leads a peaceable kingdom with his devoted wife, Queen Elinor (voice of Emma Thompson), at his side. They have four children: a set of mischievous young triplets named Harris, Hubert and Hamish, and a teenage daughter, Merida (voice of Kelly Macdonald).

With unruly red hair to match her wild nature, Merida longs to be free from the customs and conventions expected of a royal princess. A tomboy at heart, she prefers using her bow and arrow to preening and bowing in royal robes.

Mother and daughter clash frequently. "A princess strives for perfection," Queen Elinor reminds Merida. "You can't just run away from who you are." But thoroughly modern Merida wants to decide her own fate, whatever the cost.

When three suitors are presented for her hand in marriage, it's the last straw. Merida breaks with her mother and flees to the forest. There she encounters will o' the wisps -- fairy spirits which, legend holds, light the path to your destiny.

In her case, Merida is led to the cottage of the (wisecracking) Wise Woman (voice of Julie Walters). She's a woodcarver with a particular obsession: bears, rendered in every shape, size and situation -- including an unfortunate imitation of Michelangelo's "Creation of Man" from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

In truth, the Wise Woman is the local witch, and Merida, seeking revenge, buys a spell to change her mother's mind about the arranged marriage. She winds up changing a whole lot more, wreaking havoc on the entire kingdom.

As she tries to undo the spell (a take on Disney's 2003 animated film "Brother Bear"), Merida learns the hard way that selfishness and revenge are wrong, and family, duty and honor are paramount. Still, she insists, "Our fate lies within us. We control our own destiny."

"Brave" is meticulous in its period detail, with one key exception: There's no place for Christianity, which was the dominant religious and philosophical force in medieval Scotland.

Merida's insistence that destiny is self-controlled, moreover, ignores the role of divine providence. We are meant to look to God for guidance in all our actions, not rely simply on our own moods and desires, nor are we ever to do anything contrary to his will, such as breaking the Fifth Commandment.

Preceding "Brave" is a charming short film, "La Luna," directed by Enrico Casarosa, about a young boy's adventures on the moon.

The film contains intense action and scenes of peril, the use of sorcery, brief rear animated nudity, and some rude humor. 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.



Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

By Joseph McAleer, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - The 16th president of the United States uses his trusty ax to split a lot more than rails in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" (Fox).

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted") from a screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith (based on his 2010 novel), this goofy mash-up of American history is not for the squeamish, as the Great Emancipator -- recast as our country's first superhero -- slashes his way toward truth, justice and the American way.

The narrative begins with the young Lincoln (Lux Haney-Jardine) in the shelter of his trademark log cabin, watching as his mother Nancy (Robin McLeavy) dies from a mysterious illness. Mummy was bitten -- not by a deadly bug but by a vampire. (History is more prosaic, attributing Ma Lincoln's demise to a malady called milk sickness.)

Years pass, and Lincoln (Benjamin Walker), consumed by a thirst for revenge, crosses paths with equally bloodsucker-averse mystery man Henry (Dominic Cooper). Henry becomes Abe's mentor, training him in the art of vampire hunting. For the uninitiated, this involves a good deal of stabbing and shooting, as well as the lopping off of undead heads.

The most effective weapon, we are told, is silver. Ever since Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of it, the metal has been cursed. Lincoln's ax is given a silver blade, and soon we're on our way to Vampire Central: New Orleans.

According to Grahame-Smith's back story, vampires have been around for some 5,000 years, wandering the earth in search of a place they can call home. Seems they've found one in the American South, where they own the plantations and keep the slaves. This gives Lincoln another motive for their eradication.

Not so fast, Henry tells his protege. "Real power comes not from hate but from truth," he says. "If vengeance is all you seek, you will never be able to save mankind. Fight this war with me, not for one man but for the whole world."

And so Lincoln puts his ax aside, takes up the law and enters politics. He vanquishes his rival, Stephen A. Douglas (Alan Tudyk), and steals the heart of Douglas' fiancee, Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Mary is a feisty lady and handy with a rifle. (The latter quality, at least, is presumably quite untrue to the real-life Mrs. Lincoln, who was the refined, if not always stable, scion of an aristocratic Kentucky clan).

Before long we're in the White House, and the Civil War erupts. Adam (Rufus Sewell), the chief vein-drainer, strikes a deal with Confederate President Jefferson Davis (John Rothman) to defeat the Union Army at Gettysburg. Lincoln, however, has other ideas: He rearms himself, rounds up as much silver as he can, and faces his destiny.

The tone of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is, for the most part, so serious that viewers ignorant of American history might easily be lulled into thinking this is how it all really happened, were it not for the occult overlay. A certain levity does creep in now and then, though -- as when Mary calls to the president from her carriage window, "Hurry up, Abe, or we'll be late for the theater."

The film contains relentless bloody violence, fleeting upper female nudity, and the occasional use of profanity and 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.



Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Taken on its own humanist terms, the apocalyptic drama "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" (Focus) is an essentially honorable film that celebrates the overarching importance of personal connectedness.

But the circumscribed nature of its outlook -- amid the ultimate crisis, faith in God or in an afterlife is entirely absent -- means that viewers will need to sift its heterogeneous moral content with careful discernment.

In her feature debut, writer-director Lorene Scafaria -- who penned the 2008 screen version of "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist" -- presents us with Steve Carell as an Everyman observer of the End of Days.

Carell's character, Dodge, is a soft-spoken conformist so risk-averse himself that his career selling insurance seems a natural fit. So he's not especially well-equipped to hear the news that a 70-mile-wide asteroid is on course to obliterate all life on Earth within a few weeks, and that a space mission that offered the only hope of diverting it has failed. As for Dodge's wife, she reacts to this turn of events by instantly deserting him.

Isolated and brooding, Dodge watches as the people around him respond to their doom in a range of predictable ways. Some -- Dodge's Hispanic housekeeper Elsa, (Tonita Castro), most prominent among them -- insist on going about their daily routines as though nothing had changed. Others embark on alcohol- and narcotics-fuelled binges or seek solace in meaningless sex. Suicide becomes another out.

Thus the first part of Scafaria's picture registers as a deeply cynical examination of how a secularized society, which normally ignores the inevitability of individual death, would react to the certainty of mass extinction.

Like Dodge himself, Penny (Keira Knightley), his free-spirited, British-born neighbor, is just plain scared. After Dodge, whose previous interaction with Penny has been marginal, comforts her one night, the two newfound friends set off on a road trip.

Dodge wants to reconnect with his high-school sweetheart. Penny hopes to find transport back to England (all airline flights have been discontinued) so she can devote her remaining time to repairing frayed ties with her semi-estranged family.

The tone of Scafaria's script warms as its focus shifts to the deepening bond between this opposites-attract duo. (Dodge becomes increasingly conflicted between the search for his old flame and his kindling feelings for Penny.)

But the welcome affirmation of their increasing mutual affection is offset by less acceptable elements. One is Penny's resolute insistence that the physical expression of love be treated casually in all circumstances. Another, of more sweeping concern, is the implicit message that, in a world without God, romance is the only source of salvation.

Instead of placing erotic love at the service of that selfless spiritual love to which believers in Christ are called, "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" follows trends within contemporary culture as a whole by unduly glorifying and even idolizing it in isolation.

Yet, if the permanent death of the beloved is to be the unavoidable outcome of all such relationships, the "redemption" they offer -- by contrast with that held out to us by the message of the Gospel -- can be no more than passing, futile and ultimately unsatisfying.

The film contains fleeting blasphemous humor, brief but intense violence with gore, drug use, underage drinking, cohabitation, off-screen premarital sexual activity, a couple of uses of profanity and much 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.



Rock of Ages

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Shameless sentimentality and cheerful, consequence-free debauchery make for an unsettling mix in the heavy-metal musical romance "Rock of Ages" (Warner Bros.).

Director Adam Shankman's screen version of Chris D'Arienzo's hit Broadway paean to the glories of Reagan-era rock -- set in 1987 and penned by D'Arienzo in collaboration with Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb -- at least has the good sense never to take itself too seriously.

Such lighthearted self-deprecation may help to redeem the picture's glaring aesthetic defects -- an obvious plot arc and stick-figure characters prominent among them. But it does nothing to mitigate the skewed sexual morality or faith-averse attitude implicit in the story.

The point of it all, it seems, is to string together big-hair band standards that some viewers, at least, will remember with warm nostalgia, while also embodying some of their lyrics. A case in point of the latter motif: our heroine, Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough).

She's an aspiring singer whose opening-scene cultural hegira from the Midwest to Los Angeles (city of her dreams, natch) makes her the embodiment of the "small-town girl" celebrated by Journey in their power ballad, "Don't Stop Believin'."

The first person Sherrie encounters in Tinsel Town mugs her. The second -- literally -- comes to the now-distressed newcomer's rescue by getting her a job as a waitress at the Bourbon Room, the legendary headbangers' nightclub where he toils as a junior bartender. This good-hearted Angelino (born and raised in South Detroit) is one Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), a lad with show biz ambitions of his own.

As the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney of the Def Leppard set fall for each other -- and, as we're shown, albeit briefly and nongraphically, tumble joyously into bed together -- plot complications unfold around them.

Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), the Bourbon Room's happy-go-lucky owner, is struggling to keep the place open. His chances of doing so largely depend on a headlining appearance by debauched megastar Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise). But Jaxx, who travels with cases of Jack Daniels, an aggressive pet monkey and a stable of scantily clad groupies, has an increasingly distant relationship with reality, a fact that's being exploited by his unscrupulous manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti).

Another worry for Dupree comes in the person of Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the puritanical wife of La-La Land's crusading right-wing mayor. She's determined to clean up the Sunset Strip, beginning with the Bourbon Room, so she leads daily sign-waving protests outside Dupree's doors.

The notion of a red state-style pressure group successfully manipulating the electorate of Los Angeles is, of course, absurd. So too is the sight of Whitmore and her uptight, exclusively female followers stomping their way through Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," sung to a portrait of Jaxx.

They do this routine, however, in the setting of a church that is unmistakably Catholic (Jaxx's image is, inexplicably, propped up on the altar), while two of the figures at the barricades with Whitmore are traditionally dressed nuns. So no amount of campy ridiculousness can disguise the underlying message: As the hidden behavior of Whitmore and her husband eventually make clear, religiously motivated moral conservatives are all repressed hypocrites.

Those on the other side of debate are, to say the least, more relaxed. Our first sight of Jaxx has him in bed, gradually emerging from the pile of female bodies under which he has spent the night. And, when two male characters proclaim their love for each other -- cue REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" -- and eventually kiss, audiences are meant to laugh, but also to nod approval.

The film contains a negative treatment of religion, misguided values -- including a frivolous view of homosexuality, acceptance of premarital sex and a comic portrayal of aberrant sexual behavior -- rear and partial nudity, a couple of uses of profanity, and some crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is O -- morally offensive. 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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