All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

THE GOOD CATHOLIC

Producer: John Robert Armstrong, Graham Sheldon and Zachary Spicer
Director: Paul Shoulberg
Writer: Paul Shoulberg
Stars: Zachary Spicer, Wrenn Schmidt, Danny Glover and John C. McGinley
Studio: Broad Green Films

C

A young Catholic priest questions his vocation in Paul Shoulberg’s earnest but overly schematic and ultimately ineffectual comedy-drama. Though designed as a tribute of sorts to his father, who left the priesthood and married, Shoulberg’s film never really rings true, either in its central plot device or the secondary elements surrounding it.

The picture is set at a parish in Bloomington, Indiana, where Father Daniel (Zachary Spicer) serves as assistant to the pastor, Father Victor (Danny Glover). Also resident in the rectory, rather bewilderingly, is Brother Ollie (John C. McGinley), a Franciscan friar who also serves as an assistant to Father Victor. The very set-up undermines credibility; at a time of a severe priest shortage, it’s highly unlikely that any parish would be so generously staffed. (The screenplay also seems unaware that Bloomington is part of the archdiocese of Indianapolis, since it refers to “the bishop” at several points.)

The unusual staffing arrangement is necessary to Shoulberg’s plot, however, because Victor and Ollie represent the extremes of opinion that Daniel is constantly hearing from. They’re like Fathers Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) and O’Malley (Bing Crosby) in “Going My Way,” with the former representing the tradition-bound “old school” priesthood and the latter the newer, looser one. (Ollie is a Franciscan, presumably, so that he can remind people of the current pope, a bobble-head of whom he keeps on the dashboard of his car.) While Victor is the stern dogmatist, Ollie opts for ultra-gregarious relevance, as demonstrated in his “with it” leadership of the parish choir.

Daniel is caught between these two poles of priestly conduct, but he can cope with that. His real problem comes when Jane (Warren Schmidt) walks in on the Friday-evening confession period “the bishop” has mandated and Daniel, low man on the roster, is assigned. She’s a sharp-tongued thing, a singer-slash-waitress at a local coffee house who claims to be dying and, unaccustomed to the whole sacrament business, just needs somebody to vent to. Daniel listens, and as she visits him repeatedly, she begins prodding him to talk about his feelings, too. Among them, we sense, is a growing interest in her—and not one of a purely spiritual sort.

Thus begins Daniel’s search within himself. Did he enter the priesthood merely to please his late father, an old friend of Victor’s? Did he ever really have a vocation at all? Certainly these questions would have been thrashed out over the many years he would have spent in seminary, but Jane’s intervention seems to have raised in his mind, for the very first time, the question of whether he is “seeing God” as Victor inelegantly puts it, and sends him into emotional turmoil.

Spicer registers a great deal of suffering as Daniel confronts his personal demons, waking up in night sweats and grimacing during his morning jog, and neither the legalism of Victor nor the camaraderie of Ollie provides a sufficient answer. A particularly poisonous moment occurs when Daniel invites Jane for dinner at the rectory and Victor peppers her with uncomfortable questions while Ollie interrupts with inane remarks apparently designed to defuse the tension. By this time Victor is obviously concerned with the change in Daniel’s attitude and anxious to address his issues. In the end, though, it will be Daniel who has to make the decision about his future.

Spicer certainly brings commitment to the young priest, though he does tend to wear his heart on his sleeve. Glover is severe and intense, though he does loosen up a bit at the end, while McGinley, not known for restraint under the best of circumstances, goes the manic route with mixed effect. The really weak link, however, is Schmidt. Her character isn’t well developed in any event, but the actress’ shrill delivery makes her much less sympathetic a figure than was apparently intended. The production is of modest indie quality, with the cinematography (by Justin Montgomery) and editing (Kevin Weaver) only average.

“The Good Catholic” doesn’t really fit into the “faith-based” category, but it isn’t sufficiently compelling to please mainstream audiences either. It may have been a labor of love for Shoulberg—perhaps a plea to reconsider the issue of clerical celibacy—but most viewers probably won’t be moved to much affection for it.

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM

Producer: Stephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen and Joanna Laurie
Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Writer: Jane Goldman
Stars: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, Maria Valverde, Henry Goodman, Paul Ritter, Morgan Watkins, Peter Sullivan, Eddie Marsan, Graham Hughes, Amelia Crouch and Henry Goodman
Studio: RLJ Entertainment

B-

There should always be room on your viewing calendar for some gruesomely enjoyable period pulp, and “The Limehouse Golem” will fill the bill. It’s a flamboyant piece of Grand Guignol based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, and like many of his works it mixes together historical figures (Karl Marx, novelist George Gissing and music hall comic Dan Leno are all on hand) with fictional characters, this time in a Victorian-era serial-killer melodrama redolent of the Jack the Ripper spree, but with a touch of Agatha Christie added to the mix.

The convoluted plot mixes together a variety of threads, most tinged in blood-red. One involves a series of brutal murders in the Limehouse district of fog-shrouded London, with messages left behind by the killer who identifies himself with the clay creature of Jewish legend. (One of the victims, moreover, was a Talmudic scholar.) It’s a hot potato of a case, creating such public outcry that it’s passed along to John Kildare (Bill Nighy), a Scotland Yard inspector whose career has been blighted by rumors of homosexuality and so is disposable.

Paired with Constable Flood (Daniel Mays), an ingratiating fellow eager to help him, Kildare narrows down the suspects to a list that includes Marx (Henry Goodman), Gissing (Morgan Watkins) and Leno (Douglas Booth), as well as playwright John Cree (Sam Reid). Unfortunately Cree has just been found dead in his bed, and his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) is accused of poisoning him and put on trial for murder. Kildare’s questioning of her reveals, through a succession of flashbacks, a background that makes her as much an outsider as he is.

Elizabeth, it seems, was an abused child who found escape in the music hall run by “Uncle” (Eddie Marsan) and featuring as its lead performer Leno, along with Victor, a lascivious little person (Graham Hughes) and acrobatic dancer Aveline (Maria Valverde). Elizabeth was taken on as a general gofer, but eventually took to the stage and became popular as “Little Lizzie.” She also caught the eye of Cree, who at the time was involved with Aveline, and when they became an item—and married—the dancer became envious and vindictive, especially after Elizabeth took her on as a housemaid. She was instrumental in accusing her rival of Cree’s murder, and is happy to testify about the troubled Cree household and Elizabeth’s habit of preparing John’s bedtime libation.

As he listens to her story, Kildare becomes protective of Lizzie, and works to uncover the identity of the killer to help buttress her claim of innocence. He and Flood plow through the evidence; he even tries to envision how Cree, Marx, Gissing or Leno might have committed the crimes (cue a few nightmarish recreations). As the trial draws toward a close, the detective’s search for the truth becomes more and more desperate.

“The Limehouse Golem” is the modern equivalent of a penny dreadful, but those ghoulish nineteenth-century pamphlets get a bad rap; they entertained a great many readers, and if you give this movie a chance, you might find yourself enjoying it despite your better judgment. Jane Goldman’s adaptation is crammed to the brim with incident, including a couple of final twists that are doozies, and director Juan Carlos Medina obviously had a good time plowing his way energetically through the complicated scenario, aided by Grant Montgomery’s florid production design and Claire Anderson’s colorful costumes as well as the imaginative cinematography by Simon Dennis and editing by Justin Krish; the team handily camouflages the fact that the budget was probably a tight one. John Soderqvist’s score adds to the flavorful quality.

The cast is clearly having a good time as well. Nighy is more restrained than usual, but his natural quirkiness keeps peeking through the underplaying, while Cooke, Booth, Reid, Valverde, Goodman, Hughes and Marsan all sink their teeth greedily into the succulently overripe material.

As its title indicates, “The Limehouse Golem” makes no pretense to being high art (as some other novels by Ackroyd do). It contents itself with being the movie equivalent of a carnival sideshow, complete with some really freakish exhibits. And on that very basic level, it works.

The film, incidentally, is dedicated to the late Alan Rickman, who was scheduled to play Kildare before he fell ill. It would have been a juicy swan song for him, but Nighy fills in expertly, and Rickman’s last turn in “Eye in the Sky” will serve as a fitting farewell for a fine actor.