Movie Reviews: 'Ben-Hur,' 'The Innocents,' 'Kubo and the Two Strings' and 'War Dogs'

  • Written by Catholic News Service
  • Published in Movies & TV
Jack Huston stars in a scene from the movie " Ben-Hur." Photo: CNS/Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc Jack Huston stars in a scene from the movie " Ben-Hur." Photo: CNS/Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc

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John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Few films come to the screen with the kind of storied pedigree that lies behind "Ben-Hur" (Paramount).

Subtitled "A Tale of the Christ," Civil War Gen. Lew Wallace's best-selling 1880 novel, which had previously been made into a wildly successful stage play, first reached audiences of the newfangled cinema way back in 1907. Since that adaptation was completely unauthorized, however, a lawsuit resulted that still stands as a landmark in the development of copyright protection.

Flash-forward nearly two decades and an epic-scale 1925 production starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman becomes, reputedly, the most expensive silent film ever made. This version struck critical gold and won popular favor, though the financial outcome -- given that outsized budget -- was murkier.

The popularity of biblical themes and swords-and-sandals derring-do in the Hollywood of the 1950s made an update of "Ben-Hur" almost inevitable. And so the last year of that decade saw the release of director William Wyler's 212-minute extravaganza in which Charlton Heston, in the title role, stepped into a chariot and made movie history at breakneck speed.

All that represents quite a historical and cultural burden for director Timur Bekmambetov and his collaborators -- including executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey -- to bear in bringing his "re-imagining" to the screen. Which is a shame, since, considered strictly on its own terms, his iteration of Wallace's classic story makes for a reasonably satisfying action picture.

The bad news for believers -- whose hopes may have been raised by the participation of Burnett and Downey, fixtures in the world of Christian-oriented media projects -- is that, primarily because of a poorly written script, this "Ben-Hur" fails to convince when Wallace's religious theme comes to the fore.

It arrives by way of what must still be a familiar plot to many, at least in its initial setup: First-century Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) lives a prosperous life in Jerusalem, where he carries on a friendly rivalry with his Roman adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), and finds happiness through marriage to his true love, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi).

After Judah gives shelter to Dismas (Moises Arias), a young zealot who was wounded fighting against foreign rule, however, disaster strikes the House of Hur. So, too, does betrayal since Messala, now an influential army officer on the staff of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), refuses to risk his career by helping the family that took him in as a child.

Consigned to the miserable existence of a galley slave, and certain that the other members of his clan -- including his mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), and sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia), for whom Messala once carried a torch -- have all been executed, Judah thirsts for revenge against his foster sibling. Until, that is, multiple encounters with Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) open his eyes to the value of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Although the role of Dismas, whose subversive activities substitute for those loose roof tiles that got Heston in trouble, is an innovation, the epic sea battle and that trademark chariot race remain. Aficionados of the 1959 version may find these lacking, but they're serviceable enough when weighed in isolation.

The real trouble arises when screenwriters Keith Clarke and John Ridley turn from mere diversion to something deeper. By skimping on the careful and time-consuming character development that would have been needed to make Judah's ultimate conversion believable, they doom the religious dimension of "Ben-Hur" as surely as Dismas does its protagonist and his household.

What viewers are left with is the cinematic equivalent of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's cheap grace, a redemption unjustified and unpersuasive precisely because it's unearned.

Though the causalities that litter the arena as the movie's most famous sequence progresses would normally suggest recommendation for mature viewers only, other elements are discreet enough that attendance by older teens would probably not be out of place.

The film contains generally stylized but harsh violence with several grisly deaths and some gore as well as a nongraphic marital bedroom scene.

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.

The Innocents movie still
This is a scene from the movie "The Innocents." Photo: CNS/Music Box Films

The Innocents

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Luminescent, unflinchingly honest and respectful of belief, director Anne Fontaine's drama "The Innocents" (Music Box) is a fictional story about a convent of Benedictine nuns in mid-20th-century Poland.

The film gently explores the conflicts between duty to the living and the shattered faith that can result from acts of depravity.

The screenplay by Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial is loosely based on the real-life exploits of Madeleine Pauliac, a French Red Cross doctor who worked in Poland in the months following the end of World War II.

Fontaine unspools the story slowly and somewhat in the manner of a fable. That compels at least an uplifting, if not a happy, ending.

This approach is at odds with the harsh reality of the movie's grim subject matter. But Fontaine, a strong moralist, lays out a case about the constrictions of faith when it's separated from the world around it.

Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage), the stand-in for Pauliac, is not religious. The product of a working-class communist family, she's compassionate, practical and tenderly leads the sisters toward solutions as they learn to trust her.

In December 1945, Mathilde is first summoned to the convent, where she delivers, by C-section, the baby of a young nun. Her training doesn't allow her to make a detailed inquiry about how this has come about, but she's told the horrible story anyway.

Invading Soviet soldiers, several months earlier, broke into the convent and, believing it to be their right, raped the sisters, leaving at least seven of them pregnant and the abbess (Agata Kulesza) infected with syphilis.

Their isolation and fear are appalling. They have no priest, and so can't attend Mass or add nuns to their community; they can only pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Now, the degradation to which they've been subjected has crushed their faith or left them fearing hell for violating their vow of chastity.

Further complicating matters, if a new political regime shutters the community for ideological reasons, these nuns will become a source of scandal, lose their spiritual authority, and be left with no place where they can expect a welcome.

And what to do with the infants? The first to be born is quickly spirited away to adoptive parents. But Mathilde realizes that this will do nothing to restore the mothers. She reminds one, "It's your duty to protect this child's life."

Mathilde finally wins the sisters' confidence when she frightens away the returning soldiers by telling them the convent is under quarantine for typhus. As the frequency of the births pick up, she enlists the assistance of her sometimes-lover, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a Jewish doctor in her Red Cross unit who is dealing with survivor's guilt in the wake of the Holocaust.

The eventual solution to the nuns' dilemma is provoked by a tragic death. The story wraps up a little too neatly considering the circumstances. But the script's ruminations on how believers respond to awful times are superb.

Thus Mathilde's conduit to the workings of the convent, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), who spent some time out in the world before taking her vows, describes her faith as "24 hours of doubt for one minute of hope."

Though never tawdry, "The Innocents" is obviously a solidly adult picture, and not one for those in search of casual fare.

In Polish and French with subtitles.

The film contains mature themes, including rape and venereal disease, a nonmarital bedroom scene and several nongraphic depictions of childbirth.

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.

Kubo and the Two Strings movie still
Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson, is seen in the animated movie "Kubo and the Two Strings." Photo: CNS/Focus Features

Kubo and the Two Strings

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - While it uses animation to recount the fantastical adventures of a young boy, "Kubo and the Two Strings" (Focus) is not really suitable for the most youthful moviegoers.

Adolescents and grownups, on the other hand, will likely have no difficulty appreciating the artistic achievement of director Travis Knight's feature debut while simultaneously placing in their proper context those elements within it that are at odds with Christian belief.

Set in Japan at an unspecified period, this captivating fable follows Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), a street urchin, as his troubled -- indeed, literally haunted -- family history launches him on a quest for a magical set of armor. He's accompanied, and protected, on the journey by a prudent monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and a courageous but accursed samurai (voice of Matthew McConaughey) whose body a spell has transformed into that of a beetle.

Rich visuals along Kubo's odyssey are matched by the deep emotional appeal of the interaction among the characters. And melancholy alternates with touches of wit in Marc Haimes and Chris Butler's well-crafted screenplay.

But conflicted familial relationships -- Kubo's principal adversary is his own grandfather, the Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes) -- make this too serious, and potentially upsetting, for kids. Equally, an outlook on death suggesting that the departed survive only in the memory of the living would probably confuse impressionable viewers.

Most teens, however, will recognize that the story is obviously far removed from real life and that plot ingredients borrowed from the Land of the Rising Sun's native mythology need not be taken to heart.

The film contains nonscriptural religious beliefs and stylized combat with minimal gore.

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. 

War Dogs movie still
Miles Teller and Jonah Hill star in scene from the movie "War Dogs." Photo: CNS/Warner Bros.

War Dogs

By John P. McCarthy, Catholic News Service 

NEW YORK - Two young Florida men become improbable arms merchants in "War Dogs" (Warner Bros.), a fact-based movie that hovers uneasily between raucous comedy and serious expose.

At issue is the respective blameworthiness of the duo, the pitfalls of the Pentagon's procurement system and -- assuming every armed conflict is fueled by the profit motive as the film suggests -- the moral legitimacy of the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2005, Miami native and college dropout David Packouz (Miles Teller) is living with his girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas), and working as a licensed massage therapist. Seeking a better career, he tries selling bed linens to retirement homes with no success. Then he runs into Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), his childhood pal from yeshiva school whom he hasn't seen for years.

A colorfully outsized, alternately obnoxious and charming figure, Efraim is a born hustler who has recently returned to the Sunshine State after a stint in Los Angeles hawking guns and ammo on the Internet. His latest scheme entails bidding on Defense Department contracts through an initiative designed to let small businesses get a slice of the military-spending pie.

He invites David to join his one-man operation, AEY Inc. They proceed to get rich by engaging in fraud and otherwise circumventing laws and regulations pertaining to the poorly administered program. To close their first major deal, they drive a truckload of guns from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad's Green Zone in Iraq.

Their success, and the sensitive nature of their business, does nothing to curtail their shared pot-smoking habit or Efraim's appetite for cocaine and nightclubs. Iz, who gets pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl, is opposed to the war as well as to guns in general. So David lies to her about the nature of their work. (The wedding ring on David's hand late in the film suggests they marry somewhere along the line, off-screen).

Eventually, Efraim and David join forces with a fugitive arms dealer named Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), which enables them to bid on a $300 million contract to supply munitions to Afghanistan. The project requires spending considerable time in Albania and does not end well.

Director Todd Phillips, known for "The Hangover" and other comedies featuring crude male bonding, wrote the screenplay along with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic. Basing it on a 2011 article published in Rolling Stone magazine, they take considerable creative license, not least in their attempt to imbue the story with antic humor via Efraim, who has much in common with Donnie Azoff, the character Hill played in "The Wolf of Wall Street."

Hill's talents as a comedic and dramatic actor are evident. But the performance feels derivative.

Phillips and his co-writers exhibit their lack of artistic resources not only by resorting to an abundance of cursing in the dialogue but by their reliance on screen titles, voice-over narration and the blasting of middling rock-and-roll songs to punctuate key moments.

The decision to make David the hero of the story -- he's far less culpable and morally corrupt than Efraim -- is understandable and may even be justified by the real-life facts. But it hobbles the movie from an entertainment perspective since Teller is an amiable yet rather bland actor. Moreover, painting David as a victim of Efraim's machinations lets him off the hook far too easily.

While offering limited insights into what enabled its scenario, "War Dogs" is content to blame the system as opposed to the choices individuals made. Phillips and company aren't blind to the ethical consequences of their story. Yet they downplay the fact that both men were crooks and scammers, in addition to being monumentally stupid.

Declining to pass judgment is one thing. Depicting the duo as underdogs or outsiders with a penchant for stirring up trouble and defying the odds is a cop-out. So too is the film's abrupt, cliffhanger ending, which refuses to reveal what David has learned, what he truly values, and what he's got in the way of moral fiber.

It's too bad "War Dogs" can't settle on a tone and find a satisfactory balance between men-behaving-badly humor and relevant social commentary. Bent on illustrating the idea that war boils down to money, the filmmakers forget that comedy is also serious business, and can carry its own moral import.

The film contains several scenes of violence and gunplay, cohabitation, frequent drug use, pervasive rough and crude language and some sexual banter.

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 .

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