Recently reviewed by Catholic News Service
Beauty and the Beast
By Joseph McAleer, Catholic News Service
NEW YORK - Disney's live-action adaptation of its beloved 1991 animated film "Beauty and the Beast" arrives in theaters amid a swirl of controversy over the updating of one of its characters into an openly gay man.
The decision of the studio, director Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls"), and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos to reimagine LeFou (Josh Gad), sidekick of the villainous Gaston (Luke Evans), as Disney's so-called "first gay character" is a regrettable one. A cherished family film has, in essence, been appropriated for an underlying agenda that is firmly at odds with Christian values.
Parents will have a hard time explaining to their kids -- as most know the cartoon by heart -- why LeFou has jumped on the homosexual bandwagon. His amorous advances to Gaston, proud display of a bite mark from Gaston on his stomach (due to "wrestling"), and ultimate dance in the arms of another man will raise eyebrows, to say the least.
Admittedly, many grown moviegoers will take LeFou's transformation in stride. "Beauty and the Beast," however, is a must-see film intended for children. Given the clear intent to make a statement with the character in question, the restrictive classification assigned below is a caution for viewers of faith, especially parents.
The pall cast over "Beauty and the Beast" is unfortunate, as the film is largely an imaginative and engaging work with an arresting visual style. An old-fashioned Hollywood musical at heart, it brims with familiar songs by Alan Menken and whirling dance sequences worthy of Busby Berkeley.
Like the cartoon, this film is loosely based on the 1740 fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. The eponymous lovely, Belle (Emma Watson), is a spirited maiden in a French village who longs for excitement.
"I want adventure in the great-wide somewhere," she warbles. "I want so much more than they've got planned!"
Be careful what you wish for, dearie. No sooner does she spurn the advances of the vain hunter Gaston than Belle winds up imprisoned in a haunted castle, having swapped places with her kidnapped father, Maurice (Kevin Kline).
Enter said Beast (Dan Stevens), aka The Prince. We learn in an extended prologue that this handsome royal was transferred into a horned (but infinitely more dapper) version of Chewbacca from the "Star Wars" franchise by Agathe (Hattie Morahan), a local enchantress, as punishment for his selfishness.
Agathe's curse extended to The Prince's staff, who became not furry creatures but household objects. These exceedingly loquacious items include Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), a stuffy mantel clock; Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), a dancing candelabra; twirling feather duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw); Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), a motherly teapot, and her cup of a son, Chip (Nathan Mack); and musical duo Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), a harspichord, and Garderobe (Audra McDonald), a wardrobe.
Only if Beauty grows to love the Beast will the spell be broken, which seems a very long shot for this odd couple. A courtship ensues -- with a nice lesson on looking beyond outward appearances for true love -- until a vengeful Gaston raises an angry mob to kill the Beast, casting doubt (for newcomers, at least) on a happy ending.
Even in the absence of the hot-button issue already discussed, young children might be frightened by several dark moments in the movie, including attacks by wolves and Gaston's violent assault on the Beast's castle.
The film contains a few scenes of peril and action violence, a benign view of homosexual activity, and some sexual innuendo.
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 PG.
McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
Rosamund Pike, Madison Manowe and David Oyelowo star in a scene from the movie "A United Kingdom." Photo: CNS/Fox
A United Kingdom
By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service
NEW YORK - The historical drama "A United Kingdom" (Fox Searchlight) tells the story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), an African royal who faced down mid-20th-century racial prejudice to marry Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white office worker he met in post-World War II London.
Seretse and Ruth cross paths at a dance where they discover a mutual love of jazz. She subsequently learns that he's a prince of what was then called Bechuanaland, a British protectorate (the future Botswana). Their romance proceeds at a rapid clip despite occasional encounters with racist street punks.
Political considerations pose a much larger obstacle, however. The British government has to deal with Bechuanaland's neighbor, South Africa, which is on the verge of installing apartheid as official -- and violently enforced -- government policy and is outraged by the high-profile marriage.
The match also runs into considerable resistance from Seretse's uncle, Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who has long been the protectorate's acting regent. It draws the scorn of many native women as well.
The generic portrayal of this last group reveals the basic flaw hobbling director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert's film: Virtually everyone on screen is an archetype.
Although dealing in generalities can be an efficient way to boil down episodes of the past that are likely unfamiliar to modern audiences, it also hinders the storytelling.
Sometimes, an epic, in-your-face treatment, such as that seen in 1982's "Gandhi" or 2014's "Selma" is the best way to go with stories of bigotry, since such an approach gets facts across in an easily comprehensible way. Without it, they can become difficult to follow, as in last year's "Loving."
But there are obvious budgetary constraints at work here. As a result, members of Seretse's tribe have little to do except chant and sing in crowd sequences.
Similarly, the perfidy of British politicians, including Prime Minister Clement Attlee (Anton Lesser), is mostly kept off-screen, except for sneering appearances by diplomat Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport). Canning opposes Seretse's union to such an extent, he forces the prince into exile.
Despite its narrative shortcomings, "A United Kingdom" does boast a strong moral component.
Ultimately, for example, official acceptance of a marriage that threatened to undermine Britain's fragile postwar remnants of empire depended not on a court ruling, but on the conscience of the British people. It was they who finally persuaded their political representatives that this couple was no menace to international relations.
Yet, except for the core romance and Ruth's struggles for acceptance, little of this complicated saga -- in addition to everything else, the machinations of an American diamond-mining company get thrown into the mix -- comes across clearly. There is inspiration to be found here. But it requires quite a bit of patience on the viewer's part to locate it.
The film contains brief sensuality and some racial slurs.
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.
The Belko Experiment
By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service
NEW YORK - Faceless executives at corporate headquarters are never crueler to the field office than in "The Belko Experiment" (Orion), a poorly conceived drama that was probably intended as an allegory before wallowing in meaningless gore.
It's simplicity itself, at least. It's terror, set in the Colombian field office of the Belko Corporation, a nonprofit with a vague mission of helping other companies hire American workers.
One morning, there are armed guards who send certain employees away. Right after that, thick metal screens cover the windows, all doors to the outside are locked, and an announcement on the public-address system proclaims that the staff must kill two of its own in the next half-hour, or others will die.
And they do, since the little computer chip embedded in everyone's scalp -- supposedly a deterrent to kidnapping -- can explode, enabling push-button slaughter with extra splatter.
After that, another announcement orders the staff to kill 30 of their own in order for the rest to survive, and full-scale panic and treachery set in. Conveniently for the plot, the building holds a weapons cache, and Barry Norris, the boss (Tony Goldwyn) turns out to be more than willing to rank everyone in terms of value to the company.
Director Greg McLean and screenwriter James Gunn orchestrate a swift descent into screaming, shouting and the kill-or-be-killed ethos after that, with no real moral in place. Caged humans behave like caged animals, but this is hardly revelatory.
The film contains gun and physical violence, continuous gore, and pervasive rough language.
The Catholic News Service classification is O -- morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R.
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.