A thinking person's road movie, "The Way" (Producers Distribution Agency /ARC) follows a quartet of central characters along the ancient pilgrimage route from France to the Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela, even as it conducts viewers through a reflective, and ultimately rewarding, exploration of elemental themes.

Writer-director Emilio Estevez's drama challenges materialistic values and treats faith with refreshing respect. But its focus --- like the varied motivations of the contemporary pilgrims it portrays --- is more broadly spiritual than specifically religious. Thus Catholicism is treated as something the onscreen travelers encounter rather than fully embrace. 

So moviegoers on the lookout for a full-blown conversion story will be disappointed. And parents will want to keep in mind that some aspects of the dialogue and behavior on display, including one character's fondness for marijuana, make this meditative offering unsuitable for kids. 

In an echo of reality, Estevez and his real-life dad, Martin Sheen, play a father and son. The fictional duo's temperamental differences, however, have left them semi-estranged. Estevez's Daniel is hungry for experience and fond of globetrotting, while Sheen's Tom, a prosperous California ophthalmologist and widower, is content to divide his time between his office and the golf course. 

It's out on the links that Tom gets the shocking news that Daniel has been killed in a freak storm while pursuing his latest adventure --- hiking the mountainous path to Santiago first blazed by medieval pilgrims. After claiming Daniel's body and effects, Tom resolves to complete the journey Daniel had only just begun as a means of honoring the lad's memory. 

As he follows the Camino through the lush landscape of the Basque Country, Tom meets, and bonds with, three of his fellow sojourners: Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a tart-tongued Canadian divorcee out to quit smoking, Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a merrily gormandizing Dutchman who hopes to lose weight, and Jack (James Nesbitt) a garrulous Irish author struggling with writer's block. 

Despite some initial resistance, Tom's newfound friends gradually break down both his self-imposed isolation and the mild orneriness by which he enforces it. A kindly priest, meanwhile, gives Tom, a self-identified lapsed Catholic, a set of rosary beads. A later scene shows Tom acknowledging that the use of them has proved helpful. 

The privations they all endure --- long days of walking are followed by nights in primitive dormitories --- and the simple but pleasant hospitality offered by the locals drive home the point that happiness and meaning are not to be found in the blind pursuit of wealth. 

"The Way" most closely approaches an explicit endorsement of faith during a climactic scene at the shrine itself. Catholic viewers will especially appreciate the influence that ancient structure exerts on Jack, whose previous sense of alienation from the church he attributes to the clerical scandals in his homeland. 

Less welcome is the recurring sight of Tom leaving portions of Daniel's ashes at various spots along the trail; Christian reverence for the body of a departed person --- and the faithful expectation of that body's resurrection --- require, rather, that cremated remains be buried together. 

Still, the underlying message of "The Way" is one that audiences of faith will find congenial, if not as robustly satisfying as less caution might have made it. 

The film contains brief partial rear nudity, drug use, a couple of instances of profanity and of crass language as well as references to abortion and sexuality. 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. 

The Big Year (Fox 2000)Warm-hearted seriocomedy in which a business tycoon (Steve Martin), a rudderless nuclear power plant worker (Jack Black) and a home contractor (Owen Wilson) vie to win the titular bird-watching competition by spotting the greatest number of different species over the course of a calendar year. As the builder obsessively tries to defend his seemingly insurmountable previous record, the executive and the slacker form an unlikely friendship as well as an alliance intended to best their sometimes unscrupulous rival. Director David Frankel's mostly agreeable film --- inspired by Mark Obmascik's book of the same name --- affirms the primacy of family life and personal relationships over materialistic or ego-driven goals. Brief nongraphic marital lovemaking, possible cohabitation, a fertility treatment theme, adultery references, at least one use of profanity, an obscene gesture, a few crude and crass terms. (A-III, PG) 

Courageous (TriStar)After the tragic death of his young daughter, a devoutly Christian police officer (Alex Kendrick) convinces a group of his friends (Ken Bevel, Ben Davies, Kevin Downes and Robert Amaya) to join him in subscribing to a Bible-based resolution designed to make them better, more dedicated fathers. But a variety of circumstances, including a couple of illustrative moral quandaries, quickly put each dad's resolve to the test. Though occasionally heavy-handed, Kendrick, who also directed and co-wrote, crafts an uplifting message movie about the dire consequences of paternal neglect and the scriptural principles of sound parenting. Some gun violence and mature themes, including drug trafficking. (A-II, PG-13) 

Dream House (Universal)Psychological thriller about a couple (Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz) who ditch the big city for the countryside and the perfect house in which to raise their two small daughters. But they soon discover that five years ago the previous owner gunned down his wife and two daughters in cold blood. As the new occupants investigate what happened, the line between reality and the world of dreams becomes blurred. Though intriguing in some respects, director Jim Sheridan's traditional Gothic horror film features a level of gory mayhem that severely restricts its appropriate audience. Scenes of bloody violence and terror, brief nongraphic marital lovemaking, some profanity. (L, PG-13)

Footloose (Paramount)After a night of dirty dancing by five hard-drinking, drug-taking high school seniors from a small Southern town ends with a fatal car crash, one victim's father (Dennis Quaid), the local Presbyterian minister, spearheads legislation to ban public dancing. But his daughter (Julianne Hough) supports an underground teen revolt, which gains steam with the arrival from Boston of a James Dean-like pouting rebel (Kenny Wormald). Director Craig Brewer's remake of the 1984 film of the same title retains --- and ramps up --- the problematic message of the original, namely, that teenagers must disobey their parents, break all the rules and follow their dreams no matter the consequences. Negative portrayal of religion; acceptance of teenage drinking, drug use, sexual activity and reckless driving; a brutal assault; and a few instances of crude and crass language. (O, PG-13) 

The Ides of March (Columbia)Savvy but raw political drama about an up-and-coming press spokesman (Ryan Gosling) whose fling with an intern (Evan Rachel Wood) during a crucial Democratic presidential primary leads him to discover that the campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for whom he works and the candidate (George Clooney) in whom he deeply believes are not all they seem. With a sharp script and a powerful cast, Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote, turns in a slick adaptation of Beau Willimon's play, "Farragut North." While fundamentally moral in most respects, however, this study in the corrupting effects of power is studded with mature subject matter and machismo-driven vulgarities, making it inappropriate fare for all but the gamest adults. Brief semigraphic nonmarital --- and possibly underage --- sexual activity, abortion and adultery themes, a suicide, an instance of blasphemy, about a half-dozen uses of profanity and pervasive rough and crude language. (L, R)

Real Steel (Disney)Director Shawn Levy delivers an action-packed drama -- driven by computer-generated special effects and set in the not-too-distant future -- about robots who box and the dysfunctional humans who train and fix them. One of the latter (Hugh Jackman) is a washed-up fighter who finds his world turned upside down by the arrival of his estranged 11-year-old son (Dakota Goyo). Before long, the two bond over an unusual 'bot named Atom, a pugilistic underdog who, rather predictably, gets his shot at challenging the champ. Probably acceptable for older adolescents. Cartoonish action violence, references to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a bit of crude language and some mild oaths. (A-III, PG-13)

The Thing (Universal)Billed as a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 movie of the same name, itself a remake of a 1951 horror classic, this passable creature feature follows a paleontologist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to Antarctica where Norwegian researchers have discovered a parasitic alien buried inside a glacier. Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen makes little attempt to deepen the story's thematic subtext or exploit the inherently menacing atmosphere. The shortcomings of his adequate but unnecessary homage don't amount to an egregious crime against cinema, good taste or decency. But his focus on the forensic clarity of the visual effects will unsettle many. Frequent intense, gory creature violence, an implied suicide, some profanity, much rough, crude and crass language, a lewd reference to incest. (L, R)


Catholic News Service 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.

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