Reel Reviews

‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’

Audience:
A-II – adults and adolescents

 

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A story of Dickens

Its rather ill-chosen title notwithstanding, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (Bleecker Street) involves no denial of the Nativity.

Instead, this charming fact-based historical drama tells the origin story of Victorian author Charles Dickens’ beloved 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol.

Dan Stevens brings brio to his portrayal of the complex writer, whose humanitarian instincts seem, initially, to benefit all but those closest to him. And the film as a whole shares much of the warmth of the slender volume whose creation it chronicles.

With his last three titles having failed to sell, Dickens fears falling into debt if his next production is equally unpopular. But having struck on the idea of a holiday-themed narrative, he struggles with writer’s block and with the endless distractions of his burgeoning family’s domestic life.

A visit from his feckless father, John (Jonathan Pryce), whom Dickens blames for the sufferings of his childhood – flashbacks show us his grim life as an apprentice is a shoe polish factory – is a particular source of worry and conflict. Dickens, who fancifully summons up, and interacts with, his own characters, also spars with dour miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) who here serves as a naysaying critic of Dickens’ work.

When his publishers, Chapman (Ian McNeice) and Hall (David McSavage), turn the prospective volume down, Dickens resolves to publish it himself, thus raising the financial stakes still further. He does at least enjoy the steady encouragement of his patient wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark), and of his friend and unpaid literary agent, John Forster (Justin Edwards).

The conversion story Dickens’ eventually pens finds a real-life counterpart in the amendment of his own behavior, providing some positive moral lessons about consideration and forgiveness.

Since it’s also family-friendly in most respects – a solitary instance of mild bedroom humor is based entirely on inference – “The Man Who Invented Christmas” will likely prove a winner with a broad range of age groups.

The film contains a very vague sexual joke and a single mild oath. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II – adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG – parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

Audience:
Audience: A-III – adults

 

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Life in wartime

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 bestseller, 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 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

Monthly List of Recent Film Ratings (June 2015)

CNS classifications: A-I: general patronage; A-II: adults and adolescents; A-III: adults; L: limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling; O: morally offensive.
MPAA ratings: G: general audiences. All ages admitted; PG: parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children; PG-13: parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13; R: restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian; NC-17: no one 17 and under admitted.

A
The Age of Adaline, A-III (PG-13)
Aloha, A-II (PG-13)
Avengers: Age of Ultron, A-III (PG-13)
The Awakening, A-III (R)
B
Begin Again, A-III (R)
C
Chappie, L (R)
Child 44, A-III (R)
Cinderella, A-I (PG)
D
The D Train, O (R)
Danny Collins, A-III (R)
The Divergent Series: Insurgent, A-III (PG-13)
Do You Believe?, A-II (PG-13)
Dream House, L (PG-13)
The DUFF, A-III (PG-13)
E
Ex Machina, O (R)
F
Far from the Madding Crowd, A-II (PG-13)
Focus, L (R)
Furious 7, A-III (PG-13)
G
Get Hard, O (R)
The Gunman, L (R)
Home, A-I (PG)
Hot Pursuit, A-III (PG-13)
I
It Follows, O (R)
J
Jupiter Ascending, A-III (PG-13)
K
Kingsman: The Secret Service, A-III (R)
L
The Last Exorcism Part II, L (PG-13)
The Lazarus Effect, A-III (PG-13)
Little Boy, A-II (PG-13)
The Longest Ride, A-III (PG-13)
M
Mad Max: Fury Road, L (R)
Marie's Story, A-II (not rated)
McFarland, USA, A-II (PG)
Monkey Kingdom, A-I (G)
P
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, A-I (PG)
Pitch Perfect 2, A-III (PG-13)
Poltergeist, A-III (PG-13)
Project Almanac, A-III (PG-13)
The Pyramid, A-III (R)
R
Run All Night, L (R)
S
San Andreas, A-III (PG-13)
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, A-III (PG)
Seventh Son, A-II (PG-13)
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, A-I (PG)
T
Tomorrowland, A-II (PG)
The Trip to Italy, A-III (not rated)
True Story, A-III (R)
U
Unfinished Business, O (R)
Unfriended, O (R)
W
The Water Diviner, A-III (R)
Woman in Gold, A-II (PG-13)

Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops