Movie Reviews: 'Arrival,' 'Trolls,' 'Almost Christmas' and 'Shut In'

  • Written by Catholic News Service
  • Published in Movies & TV
Forest Whitaker stars in a scene from the movie "Arrival." Photo: CNS/Paramount Pictures Forest Whitaker stars in a scene from the movie "Arrival." Photo: CNS/Paramount Pictures

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By John P. McCarthy, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Mankind has an extended encounter with aliens from outer space in "Arrival" (Paramount). 

This unusually intimate science-fiction drama finds profundity on a human scale as well as in the cosmos. Hypnotic and melancholy, the trenchant film probes the human capacity for awe and the benefits of being vulnerable and brave at the same time.

Based on a Ted Chiang short story entitled "Story of Your Life," "Arrival" is both vividly realistic and mesmerizingly dreamlike. At its center is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist mourning a personal loss, who is enlisted to communicate with extraterrestrials that have descended upon Earth in a dozen ovoid spacecraft.

One of these charcoal-hued vessels hovers above a Montana field and the U.S. government, represented by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) of Military Intelligence, enlists Banks and a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to determine what its occupants want and, most urgently, whether they pose an existential threat to mankind.

Step one is to find a means of communication and somehow decipher their language -- either the sounds they make or, more probably, the symbols they produce. Basically it's a code-breaking exercise, albeit one that requires Banks and Donnelly to enter the spaceship and come face-to-face with their potential interlocutors.

Although we're only privy to the American efforts, experts from the 11 other countries where the ships have alighted attempt similar projects. Not surprisingly, the advent of the otherworldly visitors has triggered panic and significant geopolitical instability. Eventually, several nations led by China abandon the slow process of establishing meaningful contact and, fearing annihilation, threaten to attack the aliens pre-emptively.

Interlaced throughout the film are snippets of Banks' personal life -- ethereal flashbacks to moments when she's conversing with her young daughter.

These transfixing scenes evoke the recent films of director Terrence Malick, especially "The Tree of Life." And because they ultimately dovetail with Banks' interaction with the aliens on both a material and metaphysical plane, they give "Arrival" a pronounced mystical quality.

Revealing anything more about the plot or the aliens could spoil viewing. But the film deploys elements commonly found in science-fiction tales in a novel and ultimately uplifting -- if decidedly somber -- way.

Director Denis Villeneuve and his cohort of designers and craftsmen do a splendid job of generating an alternately frazzled and eerily calm atmosphere. Without diminishing any of their technical, behind-the-scenes work however, Amy Adams' performance leaves the most lasting impression.

Tough, tender and intelligent, she translates the dramatic cadences of the story in gripping fashion and will surely win accolades, including, quite possibly, her first Oscar after five previous nominations.

It's difficult to assess whether the science underlying the narrative holds water or makes complete sense from a logical point of view. What's clear is that the film coheres artistically and emotionally.

The same can be said about whether the science meshes with Christianity and Catholic thought. Certain aspects, particularly with regard to the concept of time, seem to conflict with a theological understanding of the universe. Yet in vital respects the values evinced by "Arrival" are consonant with a Catholic worldview.

Specifically, the movie proffers a message about the necessity of accepting pain and sorrow in order to enter a more enlightened state of being. And it highlights the wisdom of not succumbing to fear by letting our bellicose instincts override our capacity for open communication and acceptance.

As a bonus, there's no sexuality or violence -- and only one lapse into vulgar language -- in "Arrival." Accordingly, most parents will probably consider this fundamentally moral work acceptable for mature adolescents.

The film contains some potentially frightening scenes and a single instance of rough language.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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Animated characters Poppy, voiced by Anna Kendrick. and Branch, voiced by Justin Timberlake, appear in the movie "Trolls." Photo: CNS/DreamWorks


By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service 

NEW YORK - Parents trolling for family fare at the multiplex need look no further than "Trolls" (Fox).

This loopy but charming animated comedy -- which, happily, has nothing whatever to do with bad behavior on the internet -- makes enjoyable viewing for a wide range of age groups, excluding only the very youngest.

Though its originates with a product line of plastic dolls, directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn's infectiously fun 3-D fable feels more like a party than a commercial. In fact, the best way to gauge the sensibility underlying their brightly hued, music-laden celebration might be to imagine a preteen girl taking over a 1970s discotheque.

Said lass would no doubt identify immediately with our heroine, an irrepressibly sunny optimist named Poppy (voice of Anna Kendrick). But she would likely feel far less kinship with Poppy's companion on the quest to which most of "Trolls" is devoted, Woody Allen-like perpetual worrier Branch (voice of Justin Timberlake).

This odd couple is thrown together and forced to hit the road after several of their friends are kidnapped by an evil -- and otherwise unnamed -- Chef (voice of Christine Baranski) from a race of Troll-eating giants called Bergens. Bergens, so we're informed, believe that their only source of happiness lies in a tummy full of Trolls.

So it's up to Poppy and Branch to save an ensemble of their pals -- including Biggie (voice of James Corden), the community's unofficial leader, and DJ Suki (voice of Gwen Stefani), its top tune spinner -- from being served up in a stew or a casserole.

In true storybook fashion, the success of their enterprise turns out to depend on the secret, seemingly hopeless love harbored by Chef's sensitive -- and much put-upon -- scullery maid, Bridget (voice of Zooey Deschanel), for the young ruler of the Bergens, King Gristle (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

As the titular creatures sing, dance and group-hug their way through the proceedings, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger promote loyalty and teamwork. They also showcase the transformative power of romance -- the spell of which is cast, predictably enough, over others besides Bridget.

Only the looming threat of one set of characters consuming another, along with touches of slightly naughty humor, indicate that "Trolls" is not a good choice for the smallest moviegoers.

The film contains a flash of rear nudity, brief scatological humor and wordplay and a few very mild oaths.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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Danny Glover stars in a scene from the movie "Almost Christmas." Photo: CNS/Universal

Almost Christmas

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Writer-director David E. Talbert's ensemble comedy "Almost Christmas" (Universal) is clearly meant to be a crowd-pleasing holiday treat.

While its fundamental values are savory enough, however, dialogue larded with vulgarity taints the familiar recipe Talbert employs. Along with some mature themes and references, that makes the resulting dish unfit fare for kids.

As yuletide approaches and his combative relatives gather at his Birmingham, Alabama, home, recently widowed family patriarch Walter Meyers (Danny Glover) has only one goal in mind: keeping the peace. The principal challenge to his desire for harmony comes from the longstanding rivalry between his two daughters, successful dentist Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) and cash-strapped, newly divorced single mom Rachel (Gabrielle Union).

The roving eye of Cheryl's husband, Lonnie (JB Smoove), as well as the unresolved grief and consequent prescription-drug addiction of Walter's youngest child, college athlete Evan (Jessie T. Usher), also threaten to cause disruption. So, too, does the sassy tongue of Walter's good-hearted sister-in-law, May (Mo'Nique), a globetrotting backup singer.

As the dysfunction-driven proceedings follow their predictable path, the mood ranges from raucous to sentimental. Talbert uses flashbacks to showcase the model marriage Walter shared with Grace (played in youth by Rachel Kylian and in maturity by A. Sabrena Farmer). His script also sends the whole clan to an upbeat church service and some of its members to help out at a homeless shelter.

Despite Walter's long-standing attachment to it, the latter institution is endangered by the political ambitions of his elder son, would-be congressman Christian (Romany Malco). At the behest of his scheming campaign manager, Alan Brooks (John Michael Higgins), Christian agrees to seek the backing of real estate developers who want to gentrify the area around the shelter, forcing it to shutter or relocate.

Cue more conflict -- and some heavy-handed moralizing.

The sadness caused by Grace's absence receives more skillful treatment than the machinations. On the whole, though, "Almost Christmas" fails to make much of a lasting impression. In fact, it's likely to have dropped from viewers' memories by the time this year's crop of indoor evergreens hits the mulcher.

The film contains off-screen adultery, drug use, some sexual humor, a few instances of profanity, a handful of milder oaths and frequent crude and crass language.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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Naomi Watts and Charlie Heaton star in a scene from the movie "Shut In." Photo: CNS/EuropaCorp

Shut In

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - When a film's dramatic highlight is the wonderful line "Just put the ax down so we can talk," and it's not, say, a drama about Canadian lumberjacks, the story may be in a little trouble.

Such is the case with "Shut In" (EuropaCorp), a weak and sometimes confusing psychological thriller that unfortunately blurs the line between mental illness and murderous activity, reviving a stereotype that should have expired decades ago.

Naomi Watts plays Mary Portman, a widowed psychologist with a home practice in rural Maine. Her husband died in a car wreck while taking Stephen (Charlie Heaton), his troubled son from a previous marriage, to a boarding/reform school.

Stephen survived as a nonverbal quadriplegic. So now Mary takes care of him -- inexplicably, by herself. In reality, of course, this highly unlikely situation is demanded by, and complies with, an all-too-familiar formula for the genre.

Being the sole caretaker is stressful, naturally, and there comes a time when Mary dreams about drowning Stephen in the bathtub. Less desperately, she also has discussions about moving him into full-time nursing care.

As though she didn't have enough to cope with already, Mary decides to take in Tom (Jacob Tremblay), a deaf boy with psychological issues of his own. Tom goes missing one night and is presumed to have died of exposure. In short order, Mary starts having elaborately terrifying dreams -- and thinks she's seeing Tom's ghost.

Director Farran Blackburn and screenwriter Christina Hodson try to give the story a fresh twist. But their ideas are all as cold as the movie's snowy setting.

The film contains brief partial nudity and fleeting rough and crude language.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.