Reel Reviews

‘Last Days in the Desert’

A-III – adults


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Another confused Messiah movie

“Who do you say that I am?” As has often been pointed out, this question -- originally posed by Jesus to the 12 Apostles -- is in fact a decisive inquiry directed by the Savior at each and every human being.

In crafting his thoughtful, but ultimately unsatisfying, religious drama “Last Days in the Desert” (Broad Green), writer-director Rodrigo Garcia attempts to sidestep this crucial issue of identity. His respectful ambivalence toward his possibly divine -- but possibly merely human -- protagonist not only undercuts the film’s appeal for believers, it creates some aesthetic confusion as well.

The script embroiders on the biblical story of Jesus’ 40 days spent fasting and praying in the desert. Toward the end of that period, Garcia imagines an encounter between the Lord – here called by his Hebrew name, Yeshua, and played by Ewan McGregor -- and a family of wilderness dwellers.

Oppressed by prolonged solitude and by God’s apparent absence – the first line of dialogue is his plaintive cry, “Father, where are you?” – Yeshua, though initially wary of human contact, finds temporary relief in his interaction with the clan. Yet, as he becomes emotionally invested in their problems, the situation grows more complicated and the tone darker.

The unnamed trio of relatives faces difficulties both spiritual and physical. The Father (Ciaran Hinds) and his teen son (Tye Sheridan) are in conflict over the lad’s future, while the Mother (Ayelet Zurer) is beset by an unidentified illness that seems certain to prove fatal.

Yeshua tries to reconcile the uncommunicative dad with his ambitious child. The latter’s longing to immerse himself in the wonders of urban life by leaving the wasteland behind and moving to Jerusalem clouds his genuine love for his affectionate but controlling father.

The parallels between this oedipal face-off and Yeshua’s unstable relations with his heavenly Father are one of the movie’s more obvious themes. Issues of mortality and loss, meanwhile, are highlighted as Mom’s strong personality struggles to shine through her failing frame – and as her husband contemplates his future without her.

Watching all of this with mocking spite, and doing his best to sow doubt in Yeshua’s mind concerning his fitness for his impending mission, is the Devil (also McGregor) who manifests himself as his adversary’s double.

Moviegoers well versed in the Scriptures will find Garcia’s bobbing and weaving, as he struggles to avoid taking a definitive stand on his lead’s true nature, both confusing and frustrating. Yeshua stoutly upholds his unique status as Son of God in the face of Satan’s challenge on that score. Yet, in glaring contrast with the Jesus of the Gospels, he fails to contradict the Father’s weary denial of an afterlife.

Similarly, a moment of compelling, if unspoken, epiphany during which a character seems to perceive Yeshua’s divinity is followed by a crucifixion and burial sequence that remains mute on the pivotal subject of the Resurrection.

While few of the usual red-flag elements are present, this unsettled outlook on one of the most vital tenets of the Christian faith makes “Last Days in the Desert” inappropriate fare for all but well-catechized grownups.

They’ll find the picture’s striking cinematography and its cast’s high level of artistic commitment offset by a sluggishly paced plot that fails to evoke as much interest in viewers as it does in the central figure about whom its primary creator remains so resolutely irresolute.

The film contains religious themes requiring mature discernment, brief partial nudity and momentary scatological humor. 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

‘Captain America: Civil War’

Audience: A-III – adults


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When good guys clash

Newcomers to the Marvel Comics universe may find themselves bewildered by the turbulent adventure ‘Captain America: Civil War’ (Disney).

In part, that’s because the film is more an ensemble piece featuring the whole Avengers crew of superheroes than an outing primarily focused on Captain Rogers, played by Chris Evans. Additionally, the script does little to bring the uninitiated up to speed. At times, the old hawkers’ cry “You can’t tell the players without a program!” springs to mind.

As for parents, they’ll have to consider carefully before allowing even older teens to view material best suited, in terms of combat scenes and vocabulary, to grown-ups.

If Captain America’s place in the title seems somewhat doubtful, the phrase Civil War certainly does belong there. The plot turns on a split that develops among the “enhanced” warriors who make up the Avengers’ roster as to whether or not the group should submit to United Nations supervision. They’re under considerable pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) to yield to the plan because of the collateral damage their crusades tend to exact. While Rogers, a World War II-era figure cryogenically frozen for 70 years, fears the restrictions that would come with outside direction, industrialist Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), accepts the need for such control – at least reluctantly.

As Team Cap squares off against Team Iron Man, moviegoers not fully absorbed in the spectacle of it all can speculate as to the possible political analogy underlying the conflict. Is Rogers’ libertarianism and American exceptionalism meant to stand in – dare we say – stark contrast to Iron Man’s internationalist bent? Is the film’s message that the former is old-fashioned and outmoded, while the latter viewpoint fits with our technology-driven, globalized future?

On the moral plane, co-directors (and brothers) Anthony and Joe Russo highlight the cost of even well-intentioned mayhem as well as the downside of pursuing vengeance. But the real point of the proceedings is to watch diversely gifted uber-beings pit their outsized powers against each other.

Will Cap’s adherents – including high-flying Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and mental manipulator Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – outdo Stark’s followers, martial arts master Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and African prince-turned-clawed-combatant Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) among them?

If you don’t much care, then this third episode in the “Captain America” franchise, following up on 2011’s “The First Avenger” and 2014’s “The Winter Soldier,” is not for you. All others – provided they’re of an age, or at least a maturity level, to handle it – should get ready to rumble.

The film contains constant strong violence, including torture, but with minimal gore, a few uses of profanity and of crude language as well as several crass terms. 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.

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)
Begin Again, A-III (R)
Chappie, L (R)
Child 44, A-III (R)
Cinderella, A-I (PG)
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)
Ex Machina, O (R)
Far from the Madding Crowd, A-II (PG-13)
Focus, L (R)
Furious 7, A-III (PG-13)
Get Hard, O (R)
The Gunman, L (R)
Home, A-I (PG)
Hot Pursuit, A-III (PG-13)
It Follows, O (R)
Jupiter Ascending, A-III (PG-13)
Kingsman: The Secret Service, A-III (R)
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)
Mad Max: Fury Road, L (R)
Marie's Story, A-II (not rated)
McFarland, USA, A-II (PG)
Monkey Kingdom, A-I (G)
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)
Run All Night, L (R)
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)
Tomorrowland, A-II (PG)
The Trip to Italy, A-III (not rated)
True Story, A-III (R)
Unfinished Business, O (R)
Unfriended, O (R)
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