Movie Reviews: 'Lion,' 'Moonlight,' 'Fifty Shades Darker' and more

  • Written by Catholic News Service
  • Published in Movies & TV
Sunny Pawar and Deepti Naval star in a scene from the movie "Lion." Photo: CNS/The Weinstein Company Sunny Pawar and Deepti Naval star in a scene from the movie "Lion." Photo: CNS/The Weinstein Company

Recently reviewed by Catholic News Service


By Joseph McAleer Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - The incredible true story of one orphan's 20-year odyssey to find his way back home roars to cinematic life in "Lion" (Weinstein).

Taken from his native India as a boy, Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) grew to manhood in a loving adoptive family in Australia. But he was haunted by his lost childhood and the beloved mother (Priyanka Bose) he left behind. His 2013 memoir (written with Larry Buttrose), "A Long Way Home," inspired this poignant and uplifting film, directed by Garth Davis.

The story begins in 1986 as a lively tale of two brothers, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older sibling Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Life is hard in rural India, and they scavenge for items to resell so they can buy food for their family.

The brothers adore their mother, Kamala, who ekes out a living as a manual laborer, clearing rocks at a nearby quarry.

One night, Saroo follows Guddu to the railway station in search of work. They become separated, and Saroo, wandering into an empty train car, falls asleep.

When Saroo awakens, the train is moving, and he is locked inside. After 1,500 kilometers, the train finally comes to a stop, in the bustling metropolis of Kolkata (then still called Calcutta).

Saroo is terrified by this unknown place teeming with humanity. Unable to remember his family name and home village, he wanders the streets alone, barely escaping abduction.

Months pass before Saroo comes to the attention of the authorities. They advertise his case to locate his parents, but to no avail. So Saroo is put up for adoption, and heads to Australia in the caring embrace of Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley.

Fast-forward two decades, and Saroo (Patel) is now a well-adjusted and ambitious young man, enrolled in hotel management school along with his cute girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara).

He stands in contrast to his stepbrother, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), whom the Brierleys also adopted from India, shortly after Saroo. Mantosh suffers from mental illness and can be moody, even violent. The patience and unconditional love offered by his foster parents are inspiring.

Meanwhile, Saroo meets peers who are also of Indian descent, and begins to wonder about his earlier life. Curiosity turns to obsession, and with the help of the internet, Saroo sets out to retrace his long-ago train journey and pinpoint his native village.

"I have to find my way back home," he tells Sue, who is supportive of his quest.

A five-hankie weepie that packs an emotional wallop, "Lion" emerges as a celebration of family. It also sends a strong pro-life message by underscoring the joys and merits of adoption, and showing that a child can be shared and loved equally by two sets of parents.

Unfortunately, Saroo and Lucy's relationship is portrayed in a manner that precludes endorsement of "Lion" for younger viewers. That's a shame because teens, at least, might otherwise have profited from this touching movie.

In a postscript, "Lion" highlights the disturbing reality that more than 80,000 children go missing in India each year, with most undoubtedly denied the happy ending Saroo enjoyed.

The film contains mature themes and two brief nongraphic nonmarital sex scenes.

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

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Moonlight movie still
Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali star in a scene from "Moonlight." Photo: CNS/A24


By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Considered as an exploration of the African-American experience in contemporary society, writer-director Barry Jenkins' powerfully understated drama "Moonlight" (A24) makes a compelling statement. 

As the film chronicles three stages in the life of an inner-city Miami youth, however, aspects of its main character's personal story raise complications for viewers of faith.

As a bullied and withdrawn 10-year-old, burdened with a crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), Chiron (Alex Hibbert), derisively nicknamed Little, comes under the surprisingly positive influence of local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan's gentle girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), becomes a more predictable mentor, taking on the role of a second mom.

One of the few other bright spots in Chiron's bleak existence is his friendship with schoolmate Kevin (Jaden Piner) who proves much more accepting of Chiron than the lad's other peers.

Reaching his teens, Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) falls for Kevin (now Jharrel Jerome). Although Kevin boasts (apparently truthfully) of his prowess with women, he willingly participates in a single sexual act with Chiron. But circumstances soon set them cruelly at odds with each other.

Once grown -- and now played by Trevante Rhodes -- Chiron has himself become a pusher with a grim persona symbolized by his latest moniker, Black. He lives an isolated and shady life until an unexpected reunion opens up emotional possibilities for him.

The relationship at the heart of the film is dealt with in a restrained and thoughtful way, with spiritual affinity far outweighing eroticism and fidelity leading to sexual reserve. Yet the physical expression of the bond is presented as acceptable, making it impossible to endorse "Moonlight" for any age group.

In fact, the temptation to let sympathy blur moral borders is all the more potent here because immensely likable, terribly downtrodden Chiron has the audience rooting for him all the way. So, too, does compassionate Kevin. Yet commiseration needs to be clear-eyed where ethical truths, especially those taught both by Scripture and tradition, are at stake.

The film contains tacit endorsement of homosexual acts, mature themes, including narcotics use and prostitution, a graphic heterosexual and a semi-graphic same-sex encounter, several mild oaths, frequent rough and crude language and some vulgar sex talk.

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

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

The Comedian movie still
Robert De Niro and Danny DeVito star in a scene from the movie "The Comedian." Photo: CNS/Sony Pictures Classics

The Comedian

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - If a movie's going to be titled "The Comedian" (Sony Classics), and the phrase isn't intended ironically, since the film is about a stand-up comic, the audience has a right to expect that some mirth, at least, awaits therein.

Well, more's the pity. With Robert De Niro as insult comic Jackie Burke, this is where funny has gone to die -- cringing the entire way.

Portrayals of sad, bitter comedians chasing fading laughter and applause have been around for decades, notably with Laurence Olivier in "The Entertainer" (1960), Billy Crystal in "Mr. Saturday Night" (1992) and Adam Sandler in "Funny People" (2009).

What makes "The Comedian" unique in this pantheon is that, whenever De Niro grabs a microphone and launches into one of Jackie's caustic, profane rants, whatever pleasant storytelling flow has existed up to that point suddenly ends -- in the manner of a car crash.

Jackie's at a precipice in both his life and career. His fame comes from a starring role in a catchphrase-laden 1980s sitcom, which threatens to pigeonhole him as a nostalgia act.

He has anger issues, too, and one night he attacks a heckler, who quickly puts the assault on YouTube. Viral ignominy finally gives Jackie's career some heat, but he's too suspicious and unbending to take advantage of it.

Unable to leave New York City because of his probation and sentenced to community service at a soup kitchen following a stint in jail, Jackie tries to reconnect to humanity through his steady comic patter with the homeless. He also starts a furtive romance with Harmony (Leslie Mann), a mobster's daughter who's also doing community service and has temper problems of her own.

Everyone in Jackie's orbit suffers from his abuse, including his agent, Miller (Edie Falco), brother, Jimmy (Danny DeVito), and sister-in-law, Florence (Patti LuPone).

Director Taylor Hackford and a quartet of screenwriters capture a bickering, yet affectionate, show-business milieu, somewhat reminiscent of Woody Allen's "Broadway Danny Rose" from 1984. But in Jackie, they have too unpleasant and pointless a character to sustain a compelling narrative.

The film contains references to nonmarital sexual activity, occasional profanity and frequent 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.

 Fifty Shades Darker
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan star in a scene from the movie "50 Shades Darker." Photo: CNS/Universal

Fifty Shades Darker

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - To beat or not to beat, that is the question in the sordid sequel "Fifty Shades Darker" (Universal). Sensible people won't care a whip, er, a whit what the answer is.

Extending a franchise whose appeal seems to be that it offers armchair submissives the erotic equivalent of ordering Fra Diavolo sauce in an Italian restaurant, director James Foley pads out his adaptation of E.L. James' novel -- the second in a trilogy, heaven help us -- with nonsexual scenes that range from the boring to the ridiculous. So anyone with a higher interest than mere prurience will be disappointed.

Yearning to revive his relationship with book editor Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who doesn't share his interest in dungeon doings, sadist Seattle billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) struggles to control his urges. Whether Mr. Kinky Boots can kick the habit is one of the least compelling questions imaginable, however, and so the mind wanders to other matters.

Is it not pretentious for anyone unrelated to the Romanovs to bear the weighty name Anastasia? Why, in this film's version of the Emerald City, does it only rain when our heroine is depressed? What would Henry James make of E.L.?

The sketchy plot is founded on a dubious backstory. Christian, we are led to believe, acquired his disordered tastes from a combination of childhood physical abuse and the later tutelage of his adoptive mother Grace's (Marcia Gay Harden) friend, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger), whom Christian nicknames Mrs. Robinson. Koo-koo-ka-choo.

We will leave it to the professionals to explain how plausible it is that Christian has switched sides in the bondage game, going from taking punishment at Elena's hands to dishing it out to a succession of partners. Equally puzzling is the idea that being mistreated by a man early in life would inspire a mania for walloping women. But there it is.

As for Anastasia, presumably in order to keep things frisky, she occasionally takes a walk on the wild side. But the next minute, she's back to freaking out over Christian's 31-flavors approach to bedroom behavior.

To give the movie its due, the central duo does move toward acquiring outward respectability and lending permanence to their bond. So, if there's a moral to be drawn from Anastasia's saga, perhaps it's this: A smack on the butt may be quite continental, but diamonds are still a girl's best friend.

The film contains excessive sexual content, including aberrant acts, graphic activity and much nudity, several uses of profanity and occasional rough and crude language.

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

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Lego Batman movie still
Animated characters Batman, voiced by will Arnett, and Robin, voiced by Michael Cerea, appear in the movie "The Lego Batman Movie." Photo: CNS/Warner Bros.

The Lego Batman Movie

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - In 2014's "The Lego Movie," Will Arnett voiced an amusingly self-absorbed version of Gotham City's Dark Knight. With the entertaining spinoff "The Lego Batman Movie" (Warner Bros.), Arnett's character, together with his inflated ego, takes center stage.

Despite occupying the spotlight, however, this time out, the Caped Crusader will have to learn some important lessons in humility, teamwork and emotional openness if he's going to meet his latest challenge. That's because his longtime adversary, the Joker (voice of Zach Galifianakis), is leading an army of bad guys in a bid to prove that he is Batman's most important enemy.

Just as the isolated, relationship-shunning hero insists on working alone to fight crime, so he slaps the Joker down when the Clown Prince of Crime puts himself forward as the Cowled One's indispensable foil.

"You're nothing to me," Batman growls in a scene that cleverly inverts a familiar trope, substituting the Joker's longing to be told he's hated for the more usual goal of exacting a declaration of love. Soon the spurned villain is scheming to destroy Gotham and thus bring his rivalry with Batman to a decisive close.

To vanquish him, Batman will have to accept the help of the trio of supporters who have rallied to his side: would-be adoptive son Dick Grayson, aka Robin (voice of Michael Cera), love interest Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl (voiced by Rosario Dawson), and father figure (as well as butler) Alfred Pennyworth (voice of Ralph Fiennes).

Still burdened by the loss of his parents -- their murder is only hinted at by a childhood photo taken at a moment aficionados of chiropteran lore will recognize as laden with doom -- Bruce Wayne, and therefore his alter ego, finds it difficult to make himself vulnerable again. It will take all of Robin's irrepressible good spirits and Alfred's patriarchal concern, as well as Barbara's head-turning effect on Batman, to break through his barriers.

Fast-paced fun is the order of the day in director Chris McKay's animated treat for viewers of almost every age. Still, scenes of danger and a bit of potty humor as well as a few joking turns of phrase designed for grownups suggest that small fry would best be left at home. The wide remaining audience will find the screen chockablock with good guys, black hats and monsters -- and the dialogue enlivened by sly wit.

The film contains perilous situations, including explosions, and a couple of instances each of vaguely crass language, scatological humor and mature wordplay.

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.

John Wick 2 movie stillKeanu Reeves stars in a scene from the movie "John Wick: Chapter 2." Photo: CNS/Lionsgate

John Wick: Chapter 2

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - The stylized, nearly cartoonish nihilism and resulting high body count in "John Wick: Chapter 2" (Lionsgate) create most of the apparent appeal of this second drama about a professional assassin.

The rest, as directed by Chad Stahelski from Derek Kolstad's script, consists of small moments -- quite small, since there's nearly no dialogue -- of mordant and questionable humor.

Violently pulled out of retirement, Wick (Keanu Reeves) arrives in Rome for an assignment.

"Are you here to see the pope?" a worried-looking Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the Continental Hotel, asks. Assured that's not the case, Winston tells Wick that he has a room available to use as a base of operations.

The Continental is also the name of a secret international network of assassins of which Wick is the indisputable star, since he's acrobatic, amazingly versatile and fearless. He also, in this episode, has a bounty on his head, so when he's not shooting or committing mayhem in a muscle car, he's being shot at.

The core story has Wick unwillingly drawn into a plot to seize a seat at the High Table, a criminal enterprise. Italian playboy Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) wants the seat held by his fur-adorned sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini). To get it, he orders Wick to treat Gianna with extreme prejudice.

Since a previous life-or-death commitment to Santino leaves Wick with no choice but to accept this mission, he takes to it in the manner of James Bond being equipped by Q. He'll have to face off against Gianna's loyal bodyguard, Cassian (Common). And Santino has a large squad of goons who don't wish to see Wick get away alive.

It's not a movie that requires concentrated attention. What's needed instead is a tolerance for -- and enjoyment of -- elaborately choreographed stunts and chase sequences.

The film contains pervasive action violence with little blood, a suicide and brief full female nudity.

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.

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.