‘Father Stu’ Goes All In on Redemption

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Father Stu (CREDIT: Karen Ballard/Columbia Pictures)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, Aaron Moten, Cody Fern, Malcolm McDowell

Director: Rosalind Ross

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: R for Not-Very-Priestly Language

Release Date: April 13, 2022 (Theaters)

Religion and certainty are a dangerous combination. That’s why my skepticism alarms go off whenever stereotypical “faith-based” films saunter in, what with their tendency to be so sure about themselves when it comes to metaphysical mysteries. But a more difficult struggle with Christianity is rife for compelling drama, which brings us to Father Stu. Based on the true story of a boxer who hangs up his gloves and heads to the seminary, it presents a complicated crossroads between these two extremes. The title character doesn’t do half-measures, so when he hears God calling, nobody can stand in his way. But within the certainty of his vocation, he recognizes and embodies the doubts that the faithful wrestle with every day.

Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) has plenty of reasons to reject the notion of a merciful deity. His brother died when they were kids, his dad (Mel Gibson) is an alcoholic deadbeat, and he’s getting a little too old for his boxing career to go anywhere promising. And when he first joins the Church, it’s not like his intentions are exactly pure, as he’s just trying to win over the woman he has a crush on (Teresa Ruiz). It’s actually tragedy that leads him to the collar, as a horrific motorcycle accident leaves him in a coma during which visions of the Virgin Mary suddenly steer him to a life of shepherding his flock. After he hustles his way into a seminary despite the skepticism of an image-conscious monsignor (Malcolm McDowell), he is felled once again, this time by a diagnosis of inclusion body myositis, a degenerative disease that will shut down his muscles just when he’s figured out what he wants to do with them.

What struck me most powerfully about Father Stu was its honesty about the contradictions inherent to a priestly life. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has certain rules and regulations, but they can easily get in the way of the message of redemption at the heart of the religion. And while priests are expected to take a vow of celibacy, that doesn’t take away their capacity for romance. They can choose not to act on these feelings, of course, but that doesn’t relieve them of the emotional fallout that remains in their past, and current, relationships. This is a thoroughly Catholic tale that will probably resonate most strongly with the already converted. Nevertheless, its plea for redemption is fully inclusive: it acknowledges the doubts worth having about religion, while remaining certain that its story needs to be told.

Father Stu is Recommended If You Like: A rousing homily

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Baptisms

‘Uncharted’ Review: I Would Have Preferred a Ferdinand Magellan Documentary

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Uncharted (CREDIT: Sony Pictures)

Starring: Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg, Sophia Ali, Tati Gabrielle, Antonio Banderas, Rudy Pankow

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Mostly Bloodless Action

Release Date: February 18, 2022 (Theaters)

The most complimentary thing I can say about Uncharted is that it made me want to fact-check its claims about Ferdinand Magellan. But actually now that I think about it, I probably would have preferred if it had just fabulated some wild, obviously false claims about that real-life explorer. For what it’s worth, some quick googling and Wikipedia referencing confirms the broad outlines of Uncharted‘s history lessons. Which is to say: despite what you may have heard, Magellan did NOT circumnavigate the globe, as he died before the expedition was complete, though the surviving members of his crew did manage to make it all the way around. Anyway, I suppose that’s meant to be thematically relevant, insofar as it has something to do with the power of second chances? But really, it’s of course just an excuse for some Indiana Jones-style globetrotting.

Tom Holland is excited to be there as up-and-coming treasure hunter Nathan Drake, while Mark Wahlberg delivers the cynicism as Victor “Sully” Sullivan, who’s happy to let everyone else do all the hard work. PlayStation devotees already know who these guys are, but it doesn’t take any special expertise to recognize that this a video game movie. I’m not just talking about how Nathan is constantly jumping from platform to platform (there are plenty of non-video game movies that feature characters escaping from tight situations!) as much as I’m calling out how this adaptation feels so beholden to its source material. I’ve never played the games, so I don’t know how close the resemblance is or isn’t, but I can tell that something’s holding this movie back from the stratosphere. Contrast that with the National Treasure flicks, which are fairly straight-down-the-middle efforts that try to please every type of audience, but they at least have the good sense to feature ludicrous premises. Meanwhile, you’ll want to join Nathan and Sully’s trip only if you’ve already booked a ticket.

Uncharted is Recommended If You Like: Watered-down versions of the classics

Grade: 2 out of 5 Treasure Maps

This Is a Movie Review: Instant Family

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CREDIT Paramount Pictures

One of the great qualities of movies is their ability to open your eyes to possibilities in your own life that you had never considered or thought possible. I have always known that I want kids someday, and now that I am 30 years old, I am within my ideal age range for starting to raise a family, and I am often conscious of making sure I do not let that opportunity pass me by. Adoption and fostering potentially make that window open for longer than it would be otherwise. Those options have crossed my mind, but I’ve never really dug into them. But after watching Instant Family, I am now almost certain that I want to take that parenting avenue.

There is an early scene in which Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg browse the kids’ profiles on a fostering agency website, and they instantly fall in love with all of them, and I felt pretty much exactly the same. So much of this film is filled with moments like that. It has the look of a broad studio comedy that has loud, dangerous set pieces (director Sean Anders definitely has experience with that genre), but in moments when it could go over-the-top, it inevitably opts for the more grounded, and more rewarding, approach, dealing seriously with both the emotional and practical consequences of the situation. If you’re planning on becoming a foster parent, or think you might, or you just love supportive families, then you need to watch this movie.

I give Instant Family 4 Million Hugs out of 5 Million Heartaches.

This Is a Movie Review: With ‘Mile 22,’ Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg Have Teamed Up for Their Most

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CREDIT: STXfilms

This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Iko Uwais, Lauren Cohan, Ronda Rousey, John Malkovich

Director: Peter Berg

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: R for A Litany of F-Bombs and Actual Bombs

Release Date: August 17, 2018

Mile 22 is the fourth collaboration between Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, and by far their worst. Their previous team-ups (Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, and Patriots Day) covered real-life tragedies and disasters with unflinching intensity. They were at times be difficult to watch, but Berg managed to remain respectful by keeping his focus fixed. Mile 22 has a similar shaky-cam, right-next-to-the-action approach. It isn’t based on a true story, but the verite style seems to suggest that it could be true. That forces Berg to construct a fictional portrait of chaos, which, devoid of any necessary real-life moments to honor, ends up just a mess.

Wahlberg is the ostensible protagonist as James Silva, the ground leader of an elite and secretive paramilitary unit within the CIA. His team is the sort that the government turns to when they have exhausted all other options and do not want the public to know what they are up to. They are tasked with transporting intelligence asset Li Noor (Iko Uwais) 22 miles to an extraction point, where he has promised he will reveal information that will prevent a bomb detonation. Uwais is best known as the star of The Raid and its sequel, and Mile 22 ends up as an excuse for him to show off his action skills in the midst of a convoluted narrative. Berg proves adept at capturing Iwais’ brand of fight choreography, but everything else is exhausting, which is shocking considering that Berg’s action filmmaking is usually reliable. But here he is so undisciplined, with numbing footage of endless gunfire and an editing style that presents way too much information for a human brain to possibly process.

The whole thing is barely an hour and a half, but it feels like forever, but then it leads to a climax that makes it feel 20 minutes too short. There is a major reveal that is far from adequately resolved, which is to say, it is not resolved at all. It is the sort of twist that makes you want to say to the screenwriter, “Don’t the characters want to take care of that?” And the apparent response is, “Oh well, they ran out of time.” Just about the entire film is that careless, but I will grant that it at least features Iwais saying to Wahlberg, “Say hello to your mother for me.”

Mile 22 is Recommended If You Like: Iko Uwais Combat, Incessant Gunfire, Hyperactive Editing, Frequent Explosions

Grade: 2 out of 5 Wristbands

This Is a Movie Review: ‘All the Money in the World’ Brings the Life-or-Death Thrills, But Could Go Deeper in the Psychology of Vast Wealth

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CREDIT: Sony/Columbia TriStar

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg, Christopher Plummer, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris

Director: Ridley Scott

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: R for Kidnapping-Related Dismemberment and the Vices of the Rich and Organized Criminals

Release Date: December 25, 2017

First off, for those of you wondering: yes, director Ridley Scott has seamlessly replaced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in the role of J. Paul Getty. No distracting editing or effects tricks appear to have been necessary, and anyone unfamiliar with the backstory should not have any reason to suspect an unusual production.

As All the Money in the World states explicitly, the Getty family’s massive fortune makes them practically an alien species living among human beings. Is it J. Paul Getty’s billions that make him see the world differently, or has he always been that way? Certainly his instinct for negotiating every possible deal is unprecedented, but his particularly uncompromising worldview goes beyond that. How else to explain a man who takes extreme measures not to ensure that his grandson is freed from kidnappers, but rather to ensure that he gets the best possible deal out of the exchange?

Ridley Scott’s knack for ruthless efficiency makes it difficult to really plumb those psychological depths. (It also means that there are moments when characters are staged partially in shadow and I am not sure if it is an artistic decision or just poor lighting.) It is impossible to avoid them entirely, because of Getty’s singularity and Plummer’s inherent understanding of the role. The audience is left to draw its own conclusions, but we are nudged towards just accepting that this man is totally inscrutable.

While this efficiency may skimp on the thematic depth, it at least ensures the satisfaction of a nail-biting thrill ride. The kidnapping victim, John Paul Petty III, who goes by Paul, (Charlie Plummer, unrelated to Christopher) is adrift by his familial station, but he has still enough of a survival instinct to give his scenes plenty of verve. Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams, with a distractingly self-aware but perhaps historically accurate Mid-Atlantic accent) is understandably constantly on the verge of an emotional breakdown, but she remains steely, surprising herself perhaps most of all. And Mark Wahlberg is unusually upright and decent as the former CIA operative assisting J. Paul and Gail. In the moment of watching, the rescue mission grips you, but in the long run, the mark of J. Paul Getty leaves you existentially disoriented.

All the Money in the World is Recommended If You Like: Films About Real Life Rescue Missions and the Most Notorious Criminal Enterprises, Attempting to Understand the Wealthiest People on the Planet

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Negotiations

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ is Amiably, Almost Transcendently Sweet, Except When Its Nasty Side Mucks Things Up

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, John Lithgow, Mel Gibson, Linda Cardellini, Alessandra Ambrosio, John Cena

Director: Sean Anders

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Alarmingly Near-Lethal Accidents and the Budding Birds and Bees

Release Date: November 10, 2017

There is a principle in improv comedy that stresses avoiding introducing conflict too quickly, as arguments can be anathema to the performative harmony required by yes-and’ing. That same advice is not as often applied to a scripted narrative, as conflict is frequently the engine that drives the plot. But for a family-centric hangout comedy like Daddy’s Home 2, which derives its most humorous moments out of character-based foibles, it might actually be best to keep conflict to a minimum. For its first 30 minutes or so, this sequel easily bests its original by allowing its blended families to be mostly harmonious. But it cannot quite quit its nasty, mean-spirited streak. Still, there are enough moments that genuinely convey the magic of the holidays and the power of choosing love over frustration for this to mostly be a success.

When we first check back in on Brad (Will Ferrell) and Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), they’re the perfect picture of co-dadding. Whenever they are told that theirs is a strange arrangement between father and stepfather, they do not care, because they genuinely get along with each other now, despite their significant differences. But all is not 100% well, as the kids are not fans of swinging back and forth between two houses, especially on Christmas. The solution: one big holiday getaway with all the kids and all the parents, with Brad’s dad Don (John Lithgow) and Dusty’s dad Kurt (Mel Gibson) joining to add a few new wrinkles.

The juxtaposition between these two patriarchs is where DH2 derives most of its laughs. Don and Brad are unabashedly close, always greeting each other with a kiss on the lips. Dusty, meanwhile, resents Kurt for rarely showing up to be an adequate father and grandfather. These stark differences could lead to a bunch of cheap gags, but instead the interplay between this quartet remains mostly palatable, thanks to the sweet treatment of Don and Brad’s closeness, Kurt not being as much of a Neanderthal as the previews implied, and the film clearly presenting his absenteeism and macho bullshit as bad things. Plus, Brad and especially Don avoid being bullied by remaining confident in their identities and playfully acknowledging Dusty and Kurt’s different personal styles.

Thus why it is too bad that DH2 cannot trust itself to maintain this bonhomie. Every little disagreement and accident gets blown way out of proportion. Sure, even people who get along get on each other’s nerves every once in a while, but generally they do not turn into completely unrecognizable assholes, as they do in this film. There are plenty of funny moments of folks just goofing off, so there is no comedic need for all the shouting and chaos.

This over-the-top-tendency does not even touch on the moments of (unintentional?) pure horror, when mishaps with heavy machinery and weaponry result in main characters just a few inches away from death. A snow blower gets stuck in Christmas lights and flies around the house! An errant chainsaw nearly impales Brad! Don gets lost and is almost left facedown in the snow overnight! A shotgun accidentally fires, and the bullet grazes Kurt’s arm! Somehow all this madness leads to a genuinely heartwarming conclusion that almost makes all these extremes almost forgivable.

One particularly insightful scene represents what Daddy’s Home 2 is at its best and for a few minutes, places it among the upper tier of 2017’s cinematic offerings. It is telling that this film understands certain improv principles, as an outing at an improv show demonstrates the danger and revelations that can happen at a live comedy performance. Don has been taking improv classes, so Brad has volunteered him as an audience participant. A prompt for the scene hits a little close to home, exposing the secrets cracking away at his endlessly chipper façade. The wrenching agony on Lithgow’s face presents an actor at the top of his game, always giving his all no matter how silly or sentimental the material.

Daddy’s Home 2 is Recommended If You Like: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Other Guys, Anything with John Lithgow

Grade: 3 out of 5 Loaded Guns (Literal and Metaphorical)

This Is a Movie Review: Patriots Day

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This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan

Director: Peter Berg

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: R for a Graphic Recreation and the Explicit Language Reacting to It

Release Date: December 21, 2016 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide January 13, 2017

Films about real-life terrorist attacks are tough beasts. Even with the best of intentions, the results can be sensationalistic. And even if the end product is as respectful as possible, survivors and witnesses may be too traumatized to relive that day in any capacity, which begs the question: is it even worth it? It is a conundrum whose scope goes beyond any simple answer, but it is important to keep in mind.

Then on pure storytelling terms, there is the matter of where to even place the focus. Patriots Day, which retells the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent capture of its perpetrators, chooses to spread its character reach far and wide, which works surprisingly well. The implications and motivations behind a terrorist act can be too massive to capture completely, but this particular event actually lends itself well to the real-life recreations that director Peter Berg (Lone SurvivorDeepwater Horizon) has recently excelled at.

A frequently reiterated theme is that Bostonians have each others’ backs, and that is borne out through how interlinked the main characters are to each other. That connection is heightened through crisis, but the glue is already there. Even the terrorists themselves (chillingly and matter-of-factly played by Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff), classmates and neighbors to many, are part of the Boston milieu.

Following the bombing, Patriots Day turns into a chase movie, with the urgency of the best of that genre already baked in. Armed forces, intelligence agencies, and civilians join together for an inspiring display of coordinated decision-making and action. The actors playing them summon their best reserves of basic decency to pull it off. The entire cinematic effort makes for a mix of emotions, often uncomfortable, frequently awe-inspiring, never without honor, even through the cathartic bursts of laughter.

Patriots Day is Recommended If You LikeLone SurvivorWorld Trade Center, Credits Scenes with the Real-Life People Portrayed in the Movie

Grade: 4 out of 5 Acts of Bravery