Movie Reviews: 'Jackie,' 'Passengers,' 'Assassin's Creed,' 'Sing' and 'Why Him?'

  • Written by Catholic News Service
  • Published in Movies & TV
Natalie Portman, center, stars in a scene from the movie "Jackie." Photo: CNS/Fox Natalie Portman, center, stars in a scene from the movie "Jackie." Photo: CNS/Fox

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By Kurt Jensen Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - "Jackie" (Fox Searchlight) is more of a passionate meditation on the nature of a first lady's fame than a historical drama about Jacqueline Kennedy in the weeks following the 1963 assassination of her husband.

So the mesmerizing performance by Natalie Portman in the title role -- it's one long monologue, really -- can't be measured against other biopics of presidents or their wives.

Director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim focus instead on how Jackie created her own legend by virtually dictating a story about her husband's last days to reporter and biographer Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) for Life magazine. They strengthen their drama with an expertly created mix of archival footage into which Portman is inserted.

Jackie, shown to be arch and brittle, has complete control over the article, and even commands White not to mention that she smokes. It being the early 1960s, everyone else is smoking, of course.

This feature in Life launched the Camelot legend of the Kennedy years, since Jackie mentioned that she and the president (Caspar Phillipson) used to enjoy listening to the eponymous Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical's cast album. She knew, in other words, something about myth-making -- even in the depths of her grief.

That's also where the film goes off the rails after its first hour.

Jackie is shown not listening to the record with the president, but rather alone, as she wanders in despair through the stately second-floor rooms of the White House from which she'll shortly depart.

As the title song of "Camelot" begins, Richard Burton, the original King Arthur, burbles, "It's true! It's true!" Discerning history buffs may be tempted to shout back at the screen, "It's not! It's not!"

Soon afterward, the president's brother, Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), announces, "I think you need to talk to a priest." This leads to a series of conversations about anger and suicide with a scruffy elderly cleric (John Hurt) billed only as the Priest.

Hurt's character is an amalgam of at least two real-life clergymen, Irish-born Vincentian Father Joseph Leonard, whom Jackie knew from before she was married, and Jesuit Father Richard McSorley, who taught at Georgetown University. Bishop Philip Hannan, the future archbishop of New Orleans, who was then an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, is also known to have counseled the grieving widow.

Jackie is said to have asked Father McSorley "if God would separate her from her husband if she killed herself," after which he reiterated to her the church's teaching against suicide.

Although these are quite typical exchanges to have while wrestling with grief, Catholic viewers may wonder whether they're the result of breaking the seal of confession. It turns out they're not, although Father McSorley was widely criticized years later for revealing the contents of their talks.

The dramatic thread of the film concerns Jackie's demand that everyone march in a procession from the White House to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle for the funeral. Since this eight-block walk would include foreign dignitaries, her request caused hours of frantic arguments about security concerns. Yet Jackie prevailed, and the cortege is now recalled for its calm, fearless dignity.

"Jackie" may fall short as history. But its attention to detail and its willingness to show grief honestly will make it appealing for many adults.

The film contains an explicit, gory portrayal of assassination and at least one use of rough 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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Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence star in a scene from the movie "Passengers." Photo: CNS/Columbia


By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Science fiction becomes the springboard for a study of selfishness, sin and the possibility of forgiveness in "Passengers" (Sony). While this tale about a transgression born of desperation will resonate with romantics, it may leave others cold.

Engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is one of more than 5,000 passengers on a spaceship bound for a distant colony planet. Since the journey will take 120 years, Jim -- along with everyone else on board -- has been put into suspended animation.

Instead of waking up shortly before arrival, however, Jim comes to 90 years prematurely. After discovering that there is no way to get back into hibernation, Jim faces the prospect of living out the rest of his life in solitude -- his only real companion on the vessel is Arthur (Michael Sheen), an android bartender.

Jim's loneliness eventually becomes so extreme that he awakens Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), an author whose background and writing he has studied and for whom he has fallen.

Screenwriter Jon Spaihts and director Morten Tyldum take a big risk by having their protagonist essentially ruin the life of the woman he loves, then try to keep that fact a secret. But at least some viewers will appreciate the complicated emotions to which this situation gives rise and the skill with which both leads convey them.

Suspense is thrown into the mix as well since the malfunction that victimized Jim turns out not to be an isolated incident.

Predictably, Jim and Aurora's relationship turns sexual long before we discover whether they will end up walking into the sunset together. And, in a scene played for laughs, Jim takes advantage of his isolation, pre-Aurora, to walk down the hallways with a towel covering him in front but not behind.

On a deeper level, though, opinions will be divided over Jim's irrevocable trespass against Aurora. While "Passengers" plays out the consequences intriguingly and warmheartedly, at least some viewers will reject its premise from the start. Moviegoers of faith will have to determine whether the principle that there is no offense too grave to be forgiven, provided the wrongdoer is genuinely repentant, applies on the big screen as well as in real life.

The film contains two premarital encounters, one of them semi-graphic, a couple of glimpses of rear nudity in a nonsexual context, a pair of mild oaths and a single crass term.

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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Michael Fassbender and James Sobol Kelly star in a scene from the movie "Assassin's Creed." Photo: CNS/Fox

Assassin's Creed

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Though the mayhem that pervades "Assassin's Creed" (Fox), director Justin Kurzel's adaptation of a popular series of video games, is mostly bloodless, other more unusual problems render it unacceptable for all. 

That becomes clear from the moment the eponymous affirmation first pops up in the dialogue. "Nothing is true," so it informs us, "everything is permitted."

Fortunately, the alternate history by which this nugget is surrounded is so outlandish -- and the action adventure those committed to it get themselves involved in so dull -- that even ethically indifferent viewers may stay away from the film in droves.

After being unexpectedly saved from execution by a secretive organization -- Marion Cotillard plays Sofia, one of its officials -- sullen Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) gets filled in, along with the audience, on the Dan Brown-like back story. It seems that there has been an age-old feud between the Knights Templar and the Assassins.

(This sounds unlikely, given that the Templars were very thoroughly suppressed as long ago as the early 1300s. But whatever.)

The power-hungry Templars aim to eradicate free will. And they're on the trail of an artifact, the Apple of Eden, that will enable them to do so.

For reasons best known to them, Sofia and her colleagues have decided that the optimal way to stop the Templars is to use a time-travel machine called the Animus to send Lynch -- or at least his consciousness -- back to 15th-century Spain. There he will control the body of an ancestor of his who was in the thick of every battle.

So Lynch gets strapped into the Animus and commences to thrash around in the manner of a sleepwalker having a post-traumatic nightmare.

Tedium turns to annoyance as Lynch pauses from his Spanish dust-ups long enough to witnesses the work of the Templar-backed Inquisition. He even manages to spoil an otherwise perfectly nice auto-da-fe presided over by none other than Torquemada himself (Javier Gutierrez).

Tainted by a dumbed-down vision of the past, and of the church, Kurzel's preposterous brew only continues to curdle from there.

The film contains false values, anti-Catholicism, sometimes harsh but rarely gory combat violence and at least one instance each of rough and crude language.

The Catholic News Service classification is O -- morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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Bryan Cranston, Megan Mullally and James Franco star in a scene from the movie "Why Him?" Photo: CNS/Fox

Why Him?

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - The makers of "Why Him?" (Fox) evidently couldn't decide whether their film should be a raunchy sex comedy or a tamer tale about the clash between established family values and the often bereft behavior of the untethered newly wealthy.

So they split the difference, resulting in an unpleasant botch that becomes an audience endurance contest.

Bryan Cranston plays family patriarch Ned, the owner of a money-losing commercial printing operation in Michigan. For Christmas, Ned, wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) go to California to visit daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch).

What the visitors don't know beforehand is that Stephanie is engaged to Laird (James Franco), an immature, nearly feral gazillionaire who makes video games and has a large estate populated by exotic animals on the outside and glassy-eyed beta-testers inside.

That's it. That's the entire pretext from director John Hamburg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonah Hill and Ian Helfer: stolid Midwestern parents meet wild-eyed, crude-talking, incredibly wealthy man-child.

Laird finds it amusing, among other antics, to teach 15-year-old Scotty how to spout filth and to get Barb high on marijuana-laced brownies. As for Ned, we're meant to be in suspense about whether Laird will eventually give him a financial bailout.

All the while Stephanie looks on beaming, because she's in love with her guy and clueless about the negative impression he creates. The blindness of her affection is of a piece with the complete absence of any moral structure in "Why Him?"

The film contains fleeting rear nudity, drug use, crude sexual banter, including references to aberrant acts, scatological humor 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.