Movie Reviews: 'The Case for Christ,' 'Smurfs: The Lost Village,' 'The Blackcoat's Daughter,' 'The Zookeeper's Wife' and 'Going in Style'

  • Written by Catholic News Service
  • Published in Movies & TV
Mike Vogel stars in a scene from the movie "The Case for Christ." Photo: CNS/Pure Flix Mike Vogel stars in a scene from the movie "The Case for Christ." Photo: CNS/Pure Flix

Recently reviewed by Catholic News Service

The Case for Christ

By John Mulderig Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Christian apologetics, the branch of theology devoted to proving the reasonableness of belief in Jesus, is almost as old as the faith itself. Three documents in this genre, for instance, survive from the writings of St. Justin Martyr, who died in the middle of the second century.

In 1998, former journalist Lee Strobel published a memoir of his spiritual odyssey from aggressive atheism to evangelical Christianity that also grounded his faith in objectively assessed evidence. Nearly 20 years later, and just in time for Easter, a screen version of Strobel's book, "The Case for Christ" (Pure Flix), arrives in theaters.

Set in 1980, the film charts Strobel's (Mike Vogel) effort to uses his investigative skills -- he was a rising star on the staff of the Chicago Tribune at the time -- to disprove the Resurrection and thereby debunk the faith as a whole. He was provoked to do this by wife Leslie's (Erika Christensen) recent conversion, an event that sparked discord in their previously serene marriage.

Strobel consults a variety of experts, from archaeologist-turned-Catholic-priest Father Jose Maria Marquez (Miguel Perez) to Purdue University professor of psychiatry Dr. Roberta Waters (Faye Dunaway). Each knocks down one of the lines of defense that Strobel has erected to bar acceptance of Christ's return from the dead, e.g., that the 500 witnesses to it mentioned in the New Testament were suffering from a form of mass hysteria.

It makes for an intelligent quest, though one that includes a detailed exploration of the medical effects of crucifixion that would be upsetting to many kids.

Director Jonathan M. Gunn and screenwriter Brian Bird intertwine Strobel's intellectual journey with his involvement in a headline-grabbing criminal case -- Renell Gibbs plays the defendant, James Dixon. They also work in a low-key study of Lee and Leslie's strong bond and of the problematic relationship between Strobel and his father, Walter (Robert Forster).

While not as heavy handed as many message movies, "The Case for Christ" -- which is acceptable for a wide audience -- succeeds more as a vindication of the rationality of belief than as entertainment. On the other hand, those looking for an informal way to bolster their religious education during the holiest of seasons could hardly find a more fitting choice.

The film contains graphic descriptions and images of scourging and crucifixion and a single crass term.

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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Papa Smurf, voiced by Mandy Patinkin, and Smurfwillow, voiced by Julia Roberts, appear in the animated movie "Smurfs: The Lost Village." Photo: CNS/Sonys

Smurfs: The Lost Village

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - If you've always wondered, "Just what is a Smurfette?" then "Smurfs: The Lost Village" (Columbia) may be the film for you.

Moviegoers not consumed by curiosity about that question, on the other hand, are likely to find this children's cartoon colorful but less than engaging.

Those familiar with the lore surrounding the blue-skinned, white-capped elves of the title will know that luxuriantly coiffed but vaguely enigmatic Smurfette (voiced by Demi Lovato) is the sole female in their community. They will also remember that she was originally created by the evil human wizard Gargamel (voice of Rainn Wilson).

He planned to use Smurfette as an infiltrator to entrap the male Smurfs -- whose youth-restoring, power-bestowing "essence" he has long sought to extract and make his own. But, as flashbacks show, the kindness of Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) converted the newcomer into a cheerful and dedicated ally.

Now, however, Smurfette is suffering an identity crisis. Neither she nor anyone around her seems able to answer the query cited above.

Smurfette's restlessness turns out to have positive consequences, though, since it leads -- indirectly, at least -- to a journey of discovery. She's joined on this quest by a trio of her male counterparts: vain bodybuilder Hefty (voice of Joe Manganiello), good-hearted but uncoordinated Clumsy (voiced by Jack McBrayer) and book-smart nerd Brainy (voice of Danny Pudi).

Feminists put off by Smurfette's origin story and the gender imbalance in Smurf world will be pleased with what this quartet of travelers uncovers when they venture beyond their usual confines.

In helming the third in a series of feature-length outings for the creatures first dreamed up by Belgian cartoonist Peyo (Pierre Culliford, 1928-1992) in the 1950s, director Kelly Asbury eschews the mix of animation and live action used in the two previous films. The result is visually pleasing but lacking in substance.

Screenwriters Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon's script does promote teamwork and good moral choices while avoiding the use of the word Smurf to mask adult terms and downplaying potty gags. But the story they tell will likely satisfy only the least demanding youngsters.

Adults nostalgic for the Hanna-Barbera produced TV series that aired on NBC in the 1980s -- and first made the Smurfs a hit in this country -- may also be willing to settle for what's on offer in a movie that hovers at the level of a Saturday morning kids' show. They shouldn't expect more than a single episode's worth of plot or action, though.

The film contains occasional peril and some mild scatological humor.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-I -- general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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Kiernan Shipka stars in a scene from the movie "The Blackcoat's Daughter." Photo: CNS/A24

The Blackcoat's Daughter

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - This year's crop of demon-possession plots -- that hardy stalwart of horror -- kicks off in high style with the very adult "The Blackcoat's Daughter" (A24).

Although this story gives unusually short shrift to the rite of exorcism, which is portrayed even more casually and inaccurately than is usually the case in such dramas, the filmmakers have at least taken care to show an actual demon. That's rare these days.

This one has two horns, inhabits a glowing basement coal furnace and -- in another retro touch -- calls his new best friend through a hallway pay phone. So the film is entrancing for quite a while before the stabbing victims begin to pile up.

Still, writer-director Oz Perkins keeps the gore factor comparatively low, emphasizing instead slow-building psychological horror, spooled out slowly through interlocking, time-shifting plot lines, all centered on a Catholic boarding school in upstate New York in the dead of winter.

There's a trick ending, which Perkins tips in advance. But, since there's a generous helping of the demon, that's no more than an acknowledgment of the audience's intelligence.

Gloomy freshman Kat (Kiernan Shipka) has had a vision of her parents' death in a car crash on their way to pick her up for the school's winter break. Rose (Lucy Boynton), an older student, fears she might be pregnant, and has arranged for her folks to pick her up on the wrong day so she'll have time to tell her boyfriend.

These two are supposed to look after each other before the expected parental arrivals. Meanwhile, Kat starts getting and making calls, but not to her parents -- she has a new pal in residence, who demands murderous sacrifices. The cutlery flashes and heads roll.

In a third subplot, Joan (Emma Roberts), who has broken out of an asylum, desperately tries to return to the campus, utilizing a clueless but well-meaning couple, Bill and Linda (James Remar, Lauren Holly). They turn out to be Rose's parents.

It eventually falls to kindly Father Brian (Greg Ellwand) to bring some clarity to the mayhem, although the movie is so vested in its deceptive ending, Catholic belief is only pro forma. But hey, at least someone knows how to recognize a demon.

The film contains an occult theme, knife violence with some gore, occasional profanities and fleeting crass language.

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

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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Jessica Chastain stars in a scene from the movie "The Zookeeper's Wife." Photo: CNS/Focus Features

The Zookeeper's Wife

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Moviegoers of goodwill may ask themselves, while watching the fact-based historical drama "The Zookeeper's Wife" (Focus), why they aren't enjoying themselves more. The story the film tells is undeniably inspiring. But the manner in which it's told is dramatically thin.

That's certainly not the fault of Jessica Chastain, who brings brio to her portrayal of the spouse of the title, Antonina Zabinski. Together with her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), Russian-born Antonina enjoys an idyllic life in Poland peacefully presiding over the Warsaw Zoo where her unusual affinity for animals proves a valuable asset.

All that changes Sept. 1, 1939, with the Wehrmacht pouring across the Germany-Poland border, and the Luftwaffe raining down bombs from the sky. What remains of the devastated zoo is eventually put under the supervision of Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Zabinskis' counterpart in Berlin -- a colleague and acquaintance before the outbreak of war.

Powerless to save many of the animals in their care, the Zabinskis turn to rescuing people. They begin on a small scale by sheltering Magda (Efrat Dor), a close Jewish friend who -- along with her husband, Maurycy (Iddo Goldberg), also an old pal -- is about to be confined in the now-infamous Warsaw Ghetto.

The Zabinskis ratchet up their defiance of the Nazis by developing a clever scheme to gain Jan access to the ghetto. He uses this entree to smuggle out groups of its oppressed residents, hiding them in the zoo's underground network of cages until the resistance can arrange their escape from the country.

Chastain forcefully conveys her character's appealing personality, while Bruhl maintains the ambiguity of Heck's persona, part ruthless army officer, part humane man of science. But, in adapting Diane Ackerman's 2007 nonfiction best-seller, director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman fall short of a compelling narrative.

In deciding whether "The Zookeeper's Wife" makes suitable fare for older teens, parents will have to weigh the uplifting nature of the tale -- having helped more than 300 potential victims of the Holocaust, the Zabinskis were eventually declared "righteous among the nations" -- against some of the grim incidents it depicts.

These include the off-screen sexual assault by a group of soldiers on Urszula (Shira Haas), a young Jewish girl, as well as the possibility that committed wife and mother Antonina may have to submit to Heck's adulterous advances. Additionally, the Zabinskis' son, Ryszard -- played first by Timothy Radford, later by Val Maloku -- finds himself imperiled by his parents' secret activities.

Honorable but hardly riveting, "The Zookeeper's Wife" feels as though it might have made a better documentary than dramatization.

The film contains considerable combat and other violence, a couple of marital bedroom scenes, a glimpse of upper female nudity and mature themes, including gang rape and adultery.

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.

Going in Style movie still
Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin star in a scene from the movie "Going in Style." Photo: CNS/Warner Bros.

Going in Style

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Despite its title, there's nothing very spiffy about "Going in Style" (Warner Bros.). In fact, this leaden caper comedy feels distinctly cut-rate.

Director Zach Braff's remake of Martin Brest's 1979 film stars Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin as former co-workers and longtime best friends driven to desperation by financial woes. The company they used to work for is moving its operations overseas, and being restructured in a way that will eliminate their hard-earned pensions.

In response, kindly granddad Joe Harding (Caine), who recently witnessed a bank robbery, cooks up an unlikely scheme. Together with secretly ailing Willie Davis (Freeman) and grouchy pessimist Albert Gardner (Arkin), he'll stage a similar heist at the same branch -- by coincidence, it belongs to the institution financing their ex-employer's reorganization.

The pals agree to take only the amount they would have been paid if their checks had continued to arrive for what each estimates to be his foreseeable remaining lifespan. Anything above that sum will be donated to charity. They also opt to use only blanks in their guns.

As the aspiring thieves get tips from experienced criminal Jesus (John Ortiz), Albert finds romance with Annie (Ann-Margret), a checkout lady at his local grocery store. The prematurely intimate nature of their relationship becomes a source of admiration and envy for Joe and Willie.

By the time Matt Dillon shows up as FBI Special Agent Arlen Hamer, it's clear that "Going in Style" amounts to a complete waste of its cast's considerable gifts.

An especially egregious instance is the squandering of Christopher Lloyd. His minor character, hopelessly senile Milton Kupchak -- a denizen of the fraternal lodge where the main trio hangs out -- is a crude caricature of Jim Ignatowski, the pixilated cabbie Lloyd memorably played on the TV series "Taxi."

While this is not a movie from which viewers are likely to draw any real-life moral conclusions, Theodore Melfi's screenplay does present the oldsters' actions as justified and ultimately harmless. The folks at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., we suspect, would beg to disagree.

The film contains a frivolous treatment of crime, including drug use, a couple of brief premarital bedroom scenes, a scatological sight gag, about a half-dozen uses of profanity, some vulgar sexual references, a single instance of rough language and considerable crude and crass talk.

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.