Movie Reviews: 'Race,' 'Risen,' 'Deadpool' and 'The Witch'

  • Written by Catholic News Service
  • Published in Movies & TV
Stephan James stars in a scene from the movie "Race." Photo: CNS/Focus Features Stephan James stars in a scene from the movie "Race." Photo: CNS/Focus Features

Recently reviewed by Catholic News Service


By Joseph McAleer, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Run, don't walk, to the nearest multiplex and see "Race" (Focus), a supremely entertaining biopic about Olympic track and field legend Jesse Owens (Stephan James).

Eighty years have passed since Owens, an African-American, won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, single-handedly dealing a devastating blow to Nazism and its belief in Aryan supremacy.

Director Stephen Hopkins deftly explores the double meaning of the film's title, chronicling Owens' personal struggle against racism and bigotry while celebrating his astounding athletic achievements. What emerges is a valuable history lesson for adolescents as well as their parents, and an inspiring portrait of personal courage, determination, friendship and tolerance.

The film opens in 1933, with Owens' arrival at Ohio State University. A natural athlete, he is unstoppable on the track and a record-breaker, much to the amazement of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Snyder immediately proposes to train Owens for the 1936 Games.

In the meantime, the U.S. Olympic Committee is divided over whether to attend the event. The committee president, Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), wants the athletes to stay home to protest against the oppressive regime of Adolf Hitler (Adrian Zwicker), glorified in propaganda films directed by Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten).

Mahoney is opposed by Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), a real estate tycoon and former Olympic athlete. He agrees to fly to Berlin to meet wicked Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), who envisions the Olympics as an opportunity to legitimize Nazism on the world stage. Brundage strikes a dubious deal with the devil, and Goebbels agrees to allow Jewish and black athletes to compete.

Boycott averted, Owens trains in earnest. As his fame grows, so does the pressure to be a role model for African-Americans (as baseball's Jackie Robinson would experience, a decade later). He also pines for his fiancee back home, Ruth (Shanice Banton), who cares for their baby daughter.

Running offers a respite from segregation. "Out there ain't no black and white, there's only fast and slow," Owens says. "Nothing matters -- not color, not money -- not even hate. For those 10 seconds, you are completely free."

"Race" re-creates the 1936 Games in meticulous detail, capturing Owens' wonder at the spectacle and his surprise by the non-segregated athletes' village, where he is treated with respect.

It also portrays his unexpected friendship with a German athlete, Carl "Luz" Long (David Kross), his chief rival in the long jump. Long defied Hitler and Goebbels by congratulating Owens on his gold medal and joining him for a victory lap around the stadium. They remained friends long after the Games ended.

The film contains adult themes, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and occasional crude and profane language.

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

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton star in a scene from the movie "Risen." Photo: CNS/Columbia Pictures

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - In days of yore, Hollywood knew how to make Christian themes pay off at the box office.

Though the result was not always decorous -- risque content in 1932's "The Sign of the Cross" helped spur the formation of the National Legion of Decency -- they were sometimes spectacular.

And so there arose the biblical epic, a genre which gave us such iconic spectacles as the chariot race in 1959's "Ben-Hur" and such memorable lines as Pharaoh's imperious order in "The Ten Commandments" (1956): "So let it be written. So let it be done."

The formula behind such films blended some of Western civilization's most familiar narratives -- scriptural literacy then being a much more widespread asset than it is today -- with action sequences and, preferably, a love story. High-caliber special effects, whether they involved slave-powered sea battles or the parting of the Red Sea into towering walls of water, were another purely secular draw.

It's a recipe few were cooking up in the last third of the 20th century, however. By the 1960s, "Don't bring me down with your Bible, man" might have been the feared reaction to the serving up of such an old-fashioned cinematic dish.

Some have tried their hand at recombining the ingredients in more recent years. Yet the cultural gulf opened up by the decline of faith has made for a peculiar sort of revisionism. Witness the anti-human environmentalism of Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" from 2014. Hardly the life-affirming tale of divine mercy most readers have found in those passages of Genesis.

Avoiding alienation from the sacred source material without, on the other hand, declining into a lazy stance of believers-versus-the-world piety can be a tricky business. But the makers of the Resurrection-themed drama "Risen" (Columbia) have pulled it off to splendid effect.

Wisely, writer-director Kevin Reynolds begins by giving us a hard-bitten, cynical protagonist -- a figure as little disposed to believe in miracles as his worldly minded modern counterpart, Charles Ryder, the religion-averse narrator of Evelyn Waugh's classic 1945 novel "Brideshead Revisited."

Where Ryder, an artist, is impeded by his pleasure-loving sophistication, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), the Roman tribune at the heart of "Risen," is too battle-weary and blood-soaked to entertain any easy hopes for the world. So the execution of Jesus (Cliff Curtis), which he witnesses almost accidentally, makes little impression on him.

Similarly, when his superior and patron, Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), orders Clavius, a few days later, to investigate the disappearance of the crucified man's body, it strikes the jaded officer as just one more task in the endless work of maintaining Roman sovereignty over a religion-crazed populace. As Caiaphas (Stephen Greif) explains, Jesus' fanatic followers are spreading wild rumors of his return from the dead, so physical proof is needed to contradict their crazy fable.

Assisted by Lucius (Tom Felton), an ambitious, though untested, junior officer whose major qualification for serving as Clavius' aide-de-camp lies in the fact that he's a family friend of Pilate's, Clavius sets out on what he imagines will be a straightforward hunt for a corpse. Instead, of course, the pursuit turns out to have life-altering consequences for him.

Fine acting, lavish settings and the sense of humor frequently evident in Reynolds' script all add up to an unusually effective big-screen treatment of the origins of Christianity. Fiennes is especially impressive as the solitary, combat-haunted warrior whose relentlessly practical outlook offers nonbelievers a ready path into the story of the Resurrection. And Maria Botto brings transcendent joy to the character of Mary Magdalene.

Despite grim scenes of armed conflict and crucifixion, the faith-bolstering benefits of "Risen" will likely sway the parents of mature teens in its favor.

The film contains some harsh but mostly bloodless violence and a few disturbing images.

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.

Deadpool movie still
Ryan Reynolds and Morena Baccarin star in a scene from the movie "Deadpool." Photo: CNS/Fox

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - There's punk in the fancy, cultural, Johnny Rotten sense of the term, and then there's the plain old meaning of the word before it went all meta on us.

The latter perfectly captures the character who lends his name to the vengeance-driven Marvel Comics adaptation "Deadpool" (Fox).

Sarcasm and splatter predominate in director Tim Miller's profile of a smart-alecky antihero (Ryan Reynolds) whose machine-gun patter, while undeniably clever at a certain level, reveals a profoundly distorted view of the world. His debased witticisms drag viewers down rather than enlightening them.

These baleful bon mots are delivered along the course of a nasty odyssey marked by relentless grittiness and a series of unpleasant experiences. In fact, as conjured up by screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick -- as well as Deadpool's creators in print, Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld -- the protagonist's biography is, for the most part, a machismo-saturated adolescent fantasy.

Thus, Wade Wilson, as he's originally known, is a former Special Forces operative -- what else would he be? -- whose combat experiences, though merely hinted at, have left him as jaded as any existentialist philosopher sipping coffee in a Left Bank cafe. And when he finds true love, wouldn't you know, it's with a hooker, Vanessa Carlysle by name (Morena Baccarin).

Wade and Vanessa connect emotionally based on their shared status as damaged goods -- if only the world understood us! But their carnal bond is such that we're shown (all too explicitly) a yearlong round of bedroom romps celebrating the passing holidays. No time for midnight Mass in this pair's Yule.

Even an antihero needs his quest, though, and must be tested by adversity. So Wade takes a bathroom break from Vanessa's charms, collapses, and is promptly diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Cue a mysterious, unnamed stranger from central casting (Jed Rees) who offers Wade an unorthodox but complete cure. The "treatment" that follows not only heals Wade but transforms him into a superhero with a self-regenerating body. Yet the process involves a series of horrific tortures -- something to do with stress unlocking mutant genes -- and also winds up horribly disfiguring him.

More than a little teed off by his descent from Ryan Reynolds to the Elephant Man, Deadpool, as he's now known -- please don't ask why -- resolves to catch up with and kill his principal tormentor, a British sounding sadist who goes by the moniker Ajax (Ed Skrein). As if to befuddle Homer fans everywhere, Ajax has an Achilles heel, to wit, his given name is Francis.

Francis, can you imagine? Oh, the lack of testosterone! Wade/Deadpool teases him with a degree of cruelty not to be found this side of your local schoolyard.

So far so good for the ordinary fanboy. But undiluted masculinity is rather politically incorrect.

So, apparently in keeping with his comic-book antecedents, the screen version of Deadpool's persona comes complete with vague hints of bisexuality. These carry over to his relationship with Vanessa, who experiments with a deviant inversion of gender roles that should have no place in a mainstream movie whatever its rating.

Like the battered prize at the bottom of a box of rancid Cracker Jacks, there are some traces of morality to be found here. Before his illness, Wade puts his thuggish services at the disposal of the vulnerable, scaring off a teen girl's stalker, for instance. And he does seem poised to forsake his womanizing ways for marriage with Vanessa, though the manner of his proposal is tinged with queasy scatological details meant to be laughably unromantic.

Yet any rewards that might be gained by digging down for such positive fragments are thoroughly canceled out by an ethics-empty conclusion blatantly denying the inherent value of human life.

The film contains skewed values, including a benign view of violent revenge, constant mayhem with extreme gore, strong sexual content including graphic premarital and aberrant activity as well as full nudity, a few uses of profanity and pervasive 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.

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Anya Taylor-Joy stars in a scene from the movie "The Witch." Photo: CNS/A24 Films
The Witch

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Let's get this much out of the way first: "The Witch" (A24) is not an instructional film for Satanic practices. So whatever ballyhoo moviegoers may have come across in that regard is best ignored.

The picture is instead a slim, disturbing, darkly lit mood piece about 17th-century New England. Notably, however, it's set some 60 years before the famous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts.

That series of events, rooted in Puritan religious belief and casting a long literary shadow, has, of course, been used ever since as the American prototype of mass hysteria and the triumph of wild accusations over rational evidence.

In lieu of showing panic within an entire community, writer-director Robert Eggers opts to study -- not, alas, to especially good effect -- eerie occurrences within a single family.

Exiled from their communal plantation for some apostasy which is neither shown nor explained, the unnamed clan in question is forced to scratch out an existence, without the help of neighbors, on the edge of a forest.

These woods may or may not contain a shape-shifting witch who is alternately a cackling hag, a voluptuous temptress, and the soul of the family's goat, Black Philip. Oh, and that's not to mention her ability to manifest as a glaring rabbit.

So the old tropes abound. But Eggers is better on style than substance.

As a result, although the parents, William and Katherine (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie), cite Scripture frequently, the role of faith in this family's life is not explained. Nor are the hints Eggers drops ever developed that suggest the group's travails may be the result of their all being driven mad by poverty and a ruined harvest.

In the first tragedy to befall them, infant Samuel instantly disappears while oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peekaboo with him. A shadowy figure is seen carrying the baby through the woods, and there are glimpses of a blood rite involving his murder.

Is this reality, or just a fever dream of Katherine's?

We're reminded often that the boy was not baptized and that his parents therefore believe he was damned. That would have been an unlikely conclusion for real-life Puritans to draw, since they took a narrow view of the sacraments generally and their theology of baptism was unsettled. Be that as it may, there's no search for the babe.

As gory events beset other family members, including brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), they become convinced that Thomasin is in league with the Evil One.

Thomasin eventually believes the accusations herself. By now, though, the plot has long since left reality behind -- and that, in turn, leaves Eggers free to concentrate on behinds of a different sort.

All that's lacking, as the unclothed but shadowy spell-casters cavort, is Van Morrison singing his cover of King Harvest's "Dancing in the Moonlight." The scene makes for something less than "a fine and natural sight," however.

The film contains occult themes, fleeting rear nudity and some bloody physical violence.

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.