News Analysis

News: Movies (Supplement)

 

Siskel & Ebert’s Top 10 Lists

Von Trapps’ happy ending (970715)

Left Behind: Christian film bids to convert Hollywood (Ottawa Citizen, 000231)

Revenge of the Comic-Book Nerds (Weekly Standard, 030214)

The Matrix Revolutions / *** (R)

Master & Commander: The Far Side Of The World / **** (PG-13)

The Haunted Mansion / **1/2 (PG)

Great Movies: The first 100

Kieslowski’s Fundamentals: Values in ten acts (NRO, 031223)

Finding Nemo, Losing Fear (NRO, 031230)

The Good “Dr.”: The liberal who wrote a great conservative book (NRO, 031121)

Dr. Seuss, Sadist: Oh, the torture we’ll know! (NRO, 040302)

Saved! (Christianity Today, 040528)

Troy (Christianity Today, 040514)

Shrek 2 (Christianity Today, 040519)

Raising Helen (Christianity Today, 040528)

Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Christianity Today, 040416)

Godsend (Christianity Today, 040430)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Christianity Today, 040319)

The Day After Tomorrow (Christianity Today, 040528)

Garfield: The Movie (Christianity Today, 040611)

The Stepford Wives (Christianity Today, 040611)

Hangman’s Curse (Christianity Today, 040323)

Mystic River (Christianity Today, 031016)

Peter Pan (Christianity Today, 031223)

Bruce Almighty (Christianity Today, 030529)

Bourne Again: A departure for spy fare (NRO, 040723)

Around the World in 80 Days (Christianity Today, 040617)

The Bourne Supremacy (Christianity Today, 040723)

Fahrenheit 9/11 (Christianity Today, 040625)

The Day After Tomorrow (Christianity Today, 040528)

Barbershop 2: Back in Business (Christianity Today, 040212)

Barbershop (Christianity Today, 020919)

Spiritual Insights from the Movies (Christianity Today, 040709)

Michael Wilson Loves America (National Review Online, 040921)

. . . So Be It, Jedi (Weekly Standard, 041004)

Pray He Doesn’t Alter Them Any Further . . . (Weekly Standard, 041004)

Hollywood at War: Bringing it home (NRO, 040526)

Praising Helen: Finally, a likeable pastor on film (NRO, 040528)

Chick Flick Flirts with Faith: Religion meets romance in Raising Helen (NRO, 040528)

Homosexual ‘Alexander’ on life support (WorldNetDaily, 041229)

Alexander (Christianity Today, 041124)

Wonderful ‘Winn-Dixie’ (townhall.com, 050228)

Study: Moviegoers prefer patriotic films (WorldNetDaily, 050303)

Millions of Miracles: A good movie (National Review Online, 050405)

Sin City violence (townhall.com, 050411)

Reluctant Crusader: Chivalry where you’d least expect it. (National Review Online, 050506)

Kingdom of This World (American Spectator, 050510)

Star “Wars” End: Redemption! (National Review Online, 050518)

Why run away from a ‘G’? (townhall.com, 050617)

The Culture’s Animating Values (Christian Post, 050608)

UnFantastic Box Office: Summertime blues and heroes. (National Review Online, 050715)

U.S. troops = Martians in ‘War of the Worlds’? Writer says attacks in his film represent slaughter of Iraqis (WorldNetDaily, 050722)

Tabloids Help Keep Celebs in the Closet (Foxnews, 050720)

Hollywood’s New War Effort: Terrorism Chic (Townhall.com, 050810)

The Bad Timing of The Da Vinci Code (townhall.com, 050824)

Elizabethtown: Values and Patriotism: Is Hollywood Catching On? (townhall.com, 051011)

Infiltrating Hollywood (Townhall.com, 051103)

Hollywood still leery of religion (townhall.com, 051104)

Tesseract (answers.com, 051200)

Action Jackson: King Kong returns. (National Review Online, 051219)

Hollywood moguls beat their chests as Kong takes a dive (Times Online, 051220)

Would C.S. Lewis Have Risked a Disney ‘Nightmare?’ (Christian Post, 051216)

Juvenile List: What should the kids be watching? (National Review Online, 051229)

Casanova (Christianity Today, 051223)

Pride & Prejudice (Christianity Today, 051111)

Memoirs of a Geisha (Christianity Today, 051216)

Brokeback Mountain (Christianity Today, 051216)

King Kong (Christianity Today, 051213)

Golden Globe winners spark righteous anger (Times Online, 060118)

Old Europe’s Golden Globes (townhall.com, 060120)

Heated Controversies Cast Shadows Over ‘End of the Spear’ Movie (Christian Post, 060122)

On movies (Times Online, 060201)

Hollywood values out of touch, poll says: MSNBC.com/Zogby survey shows readers think quality of movies in decline (MSNBC, 060308)

Gay-themed films riding ‘Brokeback’ coattails (WorldNetDaily, 060307)

Hollywood’s eye contact with social issues (townhall.com, 060308)

Losing hearts and minds (Washington Times, 060308)

Hollywood wouldn’t listen (Washington Times, 060310)

The Agenda Behind Brokeback Mountain (Christian Post, 060228)

Shaggy Dog—Family values, Hollywood style (townhall.com, 060314)

X-Men 3: Mutant Mayhem—An intriguing disappointment. (National Review Online, 060530)

The Da Vinci Code (Christianity Today, 060518)

X-Men: The Last Stand (Christianity Today, 060526)

Mission: Impossible III (Christianity Today, 060505)

10 Most Redeeming Films of 2006 (Christian Post, 070202)

Amazing Grace Film Gets Historical Facts ‘Mostly Right’ (Christian Post, 070104)

Sinister Garden: Pan’s Labyrinth is a fascinating, and dark, fairy tale. (National Review Online, 070122)

New Film Spoofs Ten Commandments (Christian Post, 070731)

Will Hollywood Revive Biblical Literacy? (townhall.com, 071002)

Critics Slam ‘Golden Compass’ Movie for ‘Castrating’ Anti-Church Themes (Christian Post, 071015)

Christian Groups Claim Pro-Atheist ‘Stealth Campaign’ in Nicole Kidman Fantasy Film ‘The Golden Compass’ (Foxnews, 071029)

Christian Groups Claim Religion-Purged ‘Golden Compass’ Movie Promotes Pro-Atheism Books (Christian Post, 071031)

Who’s Afraid of “The Golden Compass”? (Townhall.com, 071127)

Can a Pro-Life Film Make its Mark at the Box Office this Weekend? (townhall.com, 071023)

The Culture War’s Financial Front Heats Up in Hollywood (townhall.com, 071108)

‘Bella’ Holds Fast at Box Office Despite Competition (Christian Post, 071114)

‘Golden Compass’ Director Pledges Not to ‘Water Down’ Anti-God Sequels (Christian Post, 071122)

The Golden Compass review (Times Online, 071128)

Hollywood Movie on Jesus’ ‘Missing Years’ Draws Rebuke (Christian Post, 071129)

Anti-Christian Crusade: Beowulf is the latest installment in Hollywood’s attempt to reconfigure history. (National Review Online, 071130)

‘The Golden Compass’ goes South – way South (WorldNetDaily, 071203)

The Real Golden Compass (Christian Post, 071205)

The Devil’s Party: Philip Pullman’s bestselling fantasy series retells the story of Creation — with Satan as the hero. (Weekly Standard, 001023)

Boycott Credited for ‘Golden Compass’ Lackluster Opening (Christian Post, 071211)

Theology at the Theater (BreakPoint, 080221)

Worst Anti-Christian Films of 2007 (Christian Post, 080301)

Out of the Pew: Becoming a World Changer (BreakPoint, 080417)

“American Teen” Is Not a Pretty Picture (townhall.com, 080819)

‘A Twisted Heart’ (BreakPoint, 080821)

‘Wesley’ Movie to Join Faith-Based Fall Line-Up (Christian Post, 080910)

The Wrong Message (BreakPoint, 081003)

Christian Director Leads ‘Day the Earth Stood Still’ to $31M Debut (Christian Post, 081215)

10 Goriest Films Ever (Foxnews, 090217)

‘Revolutionary Road’: Narcissism as Virtue (Christian Post, 090222)

‘Fireproof’ Creators’ Next Film about Fatherhood (Christian Post, 091116)

Media Watchdog Draws Attention to Religious Right’s ‘Blind Side’ (Christian Post, 091230)

 

 

==============================

 

Siskel & Ebert’s Top 10 Lists

 

 

Gene Siskel

Roger Ebert

1997

 

 

1

The Ice Storm

Eve’s Bayou

2

L.A. Confidential

The Sweet Hereafter

3

Wag the Dog

Boogie Nights

4

In the Company of Men

Maborosi

5

The End of Violence

Jackie Brown

6

The Full Monty

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

7

The Sweet Hereafter

L.A. Confidential

8

Good Will Hunting

In the Company of Men

9

Mrs. Brown

Titanic

10

As Good As It Gets

Wag the Dog

1996

 

 

1

Fargo

Fargo

2

Secrets and Lies

Breaking the Waves

3

Breaking the Waves

Secrets and Lies

4

The English Patient

Lone Star

5

Lone Star

Welcome to the Dollhouse

6

Looking For Richard

Bound

7

Paradise Lost

Hamlet

8

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Everyone Says I Love You

9

Kingpin

Heidi Fleiss

10

Bound

Big Night

1995

 

 

1

Crumb

Leaving Las Vegas

2

Toy Story

Crumb

3

Nixon

Dead Man Walking

4

Babe

Nixon

5

Dead Man Walking

Casino

6

Leaving Las Vegas

Apollo 13

7

The American President

Exotica

8

Exotica

My Family

9

Apollo 13

Carrington

10

Les Miserables

A Walk in the Clouds

1994

 

 

1

Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams

2

Pulp Fiction

Three Colors: Blue, White, Red

3

Ed Wood

Pulp Fiction

4

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould

Forrest Gump

5

Quiz Show

The Last Seduction

6

Forrest Gump

Fresh

7

Vanya on 42nd Street

The Blue Kite

8

The Shawshank Redemption

Natural Born Killers

9

Red Rock West

The New Age

10

Little Women

Quiz Show

1993

 

 

1

Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List

2

Short Cuts

The Age of Innocence

3

The Piano

The Piano

4

Farewell My Concubine

The Fugitive

5

Menace II Society

The Joy Luck Club

6

The Fugitive

Kalifornia

7

The Age of Innocence

Like Water for Chocolate

8

The Joy Luck Club

Menace II Society

9

King of the Hill

What’s Love Got to Do With It

10

Map of the Human Heart

Ruby in Paradise

1992

 

 

1

One False Move

Malcolm X

2

The Player

One False Move

3

Howards End

Howards End

4

The Crying Game

Flirting

5

Malcolm X

The Crying Game

6

The Hairdresser’s Husband

Damage

7

Damage

The Hairdresser’s Husband

8

Wayne’s World

The Player

9

Mississippi Masala

Unforgiven

10

Under Seige

Bad Lieutenant

1991

 

 

1

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

JFK

2

An Angel at My Table

Boyz N the Hood

3

Boyz N the Hood

Beauty and the Beast

4

La Belle Noiseuse

Grand Canyon

5

Beauty and the Beast

My Father’s Glory/My Mother’s Castle

6

Grand Canyon

A Woman’s Tale

7

JFK

Life Is Sweet

8

Ju Dou

The Man in the Moon

9

Daddy Nostalgia

Thelma & Louise

10

Once Around

The Rapture

1990

 

 

1

Goodfellas

Goodfellas

2

After Dark, My Sweet

Monsieur Hire

3

Avalon

Dances With Wolves

4

The Plot Against Harry

The Grifters

5

Too Beautiful for You

Reversal of Fortune

6

Die Hard 2

Santa Sangre

7

Dances With Wolves

Last Exit to Brooklyn

8

Reversal of Fortune

Awakenings

9

The Freshman

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

10

The Godfather Part III

Mountains of the Moon

1989

 

 

1

Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing

2

Roger & Me

Drugstore Cowboy

3

Drugstore Cowboy

My Left Foot

4

Enemies: A Love Story

Born on the Fourth of July

5

Born on the Fourth of July

Roger & Me

6

The Little Mermaid

The Mighty Quinn

7

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Field of Dreams

8

The Fabulous Baker Boys

Crimes and Misdemeanors

9

Say Anything

Driving Miss Daisy

10

The War of the Roses

Say Anything

1988

 

 

1

The Last Temptation of Christ

Mississippi Burning

2

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

The Accidental Tourist

3

Bull Durham

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

4

Little Dorritt

Shy People

5

Midnight Run

Salaam Bombay!

6

The Thin Blue Line

A Fish Called Wanda

7

Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie

Wings of Desire

8

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

9

Working Girl

Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam

10

Funny Farm

Running on Empty

1987

 

 

1

The Last Emperor

House of Games

2

Full Metal Jacket

The Big Easy

3

House of Games

Barfly

4

Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring

The Last Emperor

5

Broadcast News

Moonstruck

6

Radio Days

Prick Up Your Ears

7

River’s Edge

Radio Days

8

Prick Up Your Ears

Broadcast News

9

Roxanne

Lethal Weapon

10

The Big Easy

Housekeeping

1986

 

 

1

Shoah

Platoon

2

Hannah and Her Sisters

Round Midnight

3

Vagabond

Hannah and Her Sisters

4

A Room With a View

Sid & Nancy

5

Mona Lisa

Lucas

6

Peggy Sue Got Married

Vagabond

7

Blue Velvet

Trouble in Mind

8

Children of a Lesser God

Down and Out in Beverly Hills

9

Round Midnight

Peggy Sue Got Married

10

The Fly

Hard Choices

1985

 

 

1

Ran

The Color Purple

2

The Color Purple

After Hours

3

Streetwise

The Falcon and the Snowman

4

Prizzi’s Honor

Prizzi’s Honor

5

The Official Story

Ran

6

Mishima

Witness

7

The Falcon and the Snowman

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

8

Back to the Future

Lost in America

9

The Purple Rose of Cairo

Streetwise

10

Wetherby

Blood Simple

1984

 

 

1

Once Upon a Time in America

Amadeus

2

Amadeus

Paris, Texas

3

The Cotton Club

Love Streams

4

Entre Nous

This Is Spinal Tap

5

Purple Rain

The Cotton Club

6

The Killing Fields

Secret Honor

7

Secret Honor

The Killing Fields

8

A Passge to India

Stranger Than Paradise

9

Micki & Maude

Choose Me

10

The Natural

Purple Rain

1983

 

 

1

The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

2

Terms of Endearment

Terms of Endearment

3

Betrayal

The Year of Living Dangerously

4

Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander

5

Star 80

Gandhi

6

The Year of Living Dangerously

El Norte

7

Silkwood

Testament

8

Pauline at the Beach

Silkwood

9

Risky Business

Say Amen, Somebody

10

The Big Chill

Risky Business

1982

 

 

1

Moonlighting

Sophie’s Choice

2

Tootsie

Diva

3

E.T.

E.T.

4

Diva

Fitzcarraldo/The Burden of Dreams

5

Mephisto

Personal Best

6

Lola

Das Boot

7

Personal Best

Mephisto

8

Das Boot

Moonlighting

9

Three Brothers

The Verdict

10

An Officer and a Gentleman

Wasn’t That a Time

1981

 

 

1

Ragtime

My Dinner With Andre

2

My Dinner With Andre

Chariots of Fire

3

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Gates of Heaven

4

Mon Oncle d’Amerique

Raiders of the Lost Ark

5

Gates of Heaven

Heartland

6

Bye Bye Brazil

Atlantic City

7

Prince of the City

Thief

8

Melvin and Howard

Body Heat

9

Body Heat

Tess

10

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Reds

1980

 

 

1

Raging Bull

The Black Stallion

2

Ordinary People

Raging Bull

3

Coal Miner’s Daughter

Kagemusha

4

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Being There

5

Kagemusha

Ordinary People

6

Being There

The Great Santini

7

The Black Stallion

The Empire Strikes Back

8

The Blues Brothers

Coal Miner’s Daughter

9

The Great Santini

American Gigolo

10

The Stunt Man

Best Boy

1979

 

 

1

Hair

Apocalypse Now

2

Kramer vs. Kramer

Breaking Away

3

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter

4

Breaking Away

The Marriage of Maria Braun

5

Manhattan

Hair

6

The Marriage of Maria Braun

Saint Jack

7

Nosferatu, the Vampyre

Kramer vs. Kramer

8

The Onion Field

The China Syndrome

9

Time After Time

Nosferatu, the Vampyre

10

The China Syndrome

10

1978

 

 

1

Straight Time

An Unmarried Woman

2

Pretty Baby

Days of Heaven

3

Days of Heaven

Heart of Glass

4

Blue Collar

Stroszek

5

Autumn Sonata

Autumn Sonata

6

The Buddy Holly Story

Interiors

7

Coming Home

Halloween

8

Halloween

National Lampoon’s Animal House

9

Magic

Kings of the Road

10

Stoszek

Superman

1977

 

 

1

Annie Hall

3 Women

2

The Late Show

Providence

3

In the Realm of the Senses

The Late Show

4

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

A Woman’s Decision

5

Saturday Night Fever

Jail Bait

6

Harlan County, U.S.A.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

7

Star Wars

Aguirre: Wrath of God

8

Oh, God!

Annie Hall

9

Pumping Iron

Sorcerer

10

Rolling Thunder

Star Wars

1976

 

 

1

All the President’s Men

Small Change

2

Network

Taxi Driver

3

Brothel No. 8

The Magic Flute

4

Small Change

The Clockmaker

5

Stay Hungry

Network

6

Cousin, Cousine

Swept Away...by an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August

7

Taxi Driver

Rocky

8

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson

All the President’s Men

9

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution

Silent Movie

10

The Man Who Would Be King

The Shootist

1975

 

 

1

Nashville

Nashville

2

The Passenger

Night Moves

3

Love and Death

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

4

Dog Day Afternoon

Farewell, My Lovely

5

Barry Lyndon

The Phantom of Liberty

6

And Now My Love

A Brief Vacation

7

Dodes’ka-den

And Now My Love

8

The Homecoming

A Woman Under the Influence

9

Antonia: Portrait of a Women

In Celebration

10

Hustle

Dog Day Afternoon

1974

 

 

1

Day for Night

Scenes from a Marriage

2

The Last Detail

Chinatown

3

Amarcord

The Mother and the Whore

4

The Conversation

Amarcord

5

Mean Streets

The Last Detail

6

Scenes from a Marriage

The Mirages

7

Lacombe, Lucien

Day for Night

8

Harry and Tonto

Mean Streets

9

The Mother and the Whore

My Uncle Antoine

10

Wedding in Blood

The Conversation

1973

 

 

1

The Emigrants/The New Land

Cries and Whispers

2

Last Tango in Paris

Last Tango in Paris

3

The Exorcist

The Emigrants/The New Land

4

Cries and Whispers

Blume in Love

5

The Day of the Jackal

The Iceman Cometh

6

The Last of Sheila

The Exorcist

7

The Day of the Dolphin

The Day of the Jackal

8

American Graffiti

American Graffiti

9

Sisters

Fellini’s Roma

10

The Long Goodbye

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

1972

 

 

1

The Godfather

The Godfather

2

The Sorrow and the Pity

Chole in the Afternoon

3

Le Boucher

Le Boucher

4

Cabaret

Murmur of the Heart

5

Two English Girls

The Green Wall

6

A Clockwork Orange

The Sorrow and the Pity

7

Chloe in the Afternoon

The Garden of Finzi-Continis

8

Frenzy

Minnie and Moskowitz

9

Sounder

Sounder

10

Ulzana’s Raid

The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid

1971

 

 

1

Claire’s Knee

The Last Picture Show

2

A New Leaf

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

3

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Claire’s Knee

4

Little Big Man

The French Connection

5

The Last Picture Show

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

6

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Taking Off

7

Bed and Board

Carnal Knowledge

8

Dirty Harry

Tristana

9

Husbands

Goin’ Down the Road

10

Taking Off

Bed and Board

1970

 

 

1

My Night at Maud’s

Five Easy Pieces

2

M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H

3

Women in Love

The Revolutionary

4

Five Easy Pieces

Patton

5

The Passion of Anna

Woodstock

6

Adalen 31

My Night at Maud’s

7

Salesman

Adalen 31

8

Woodstock

The Passion of Anna

9

Triolgy

The Wild Child

10

The Wild Child

Fellini Satyricon

1969

 

 

1

Z

Z

2

Midnight Cowboy

Medium Cool

3

Alice’s Restaurant

Weekend

4

Simon of the Desert

if....

5

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Last Summer

6

Oh! What a Lovely War

The Wild Bunch

7

The Wild Bunch

Easy Rider

8

if....

True Grit

9

Pretty Poison

Downhill Racer

10

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

War and Peace

 

 

==============================

 

Von Trapps’ happy ending (970715)

 

ALMOST 60 years after the von Trapps fled the invading Nazi jackboot, the family immortalised by The Sound of Music has been officially honoured by the Austrian Government high on a hill in Vermont with not a lonely goatherd in sight.

 

It was the first time since they escaped from their homeland that the famous singing children had gained recognition from Vienna for their father’s strident objections to Hitler’s Third Reich.

 

At the command of the Austrian Defence Minister, the graduating class of Theresianum Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt was flown to the foothills of Stowe for a special tribute to Baron Georg von Trapp, the aristocratic patriarch and former submarine commander who died 50 years ago.

 

A series of ceremonies culminated in a performance of Schubert’s German Mass and the laying of a wreath by the cadets at the grave of Baron and Baroness von Trapp, the couple portrayed by Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews in the 1965 film musical. Nearly 50 people, representing three generations of von Trapps and including the baron’s six surviving children, joined a cast of 300 in the green pastures of Vermont for a ritual steeped in symbolism.

 

Their story is familiar to the millions who have seen The Sound of Music, a film which can claim one of the widest audiences in history. As a captain in the Austrian Navy after the Anschluss in 1938, the baron refused a role in the German forces and told his family that he planned to emigrate in the face of the advancing Nazis.

 

“If one says no,” he is famously said to have told them, “then we all stay.” The family, by then a famous choral singing troupe, all answered in the affirmative as their governess and later step-mother, Maria Kutschera, plotted their escape.

 

Despite their father’s status as a national hero and the subsequent fame of the family, the von Trapps have received neither apology nor recognition from the frosty Austrian authorities. The Government in Vienna studiously failed to honour the baron after his death and for years banned the film in Austria.

 

“This was a statement of political significance,” said Walter Greinert, the Consul-General to the United States, who attended the event in Vermont. “These officers represent a new Austria. We are a new generation now putting behind us some of the troubles of the past.”

 

And it brought a happy finale to a saga which has plagued the family since the baron died five years after arriving in America. “It is a great honour to our father and our family and a statement on the part of the Austrian officers,” said Johannes von Trapp, 58, the youngest of the singing children who toured Europe and later America. “It brings that whole episode to an end.”

 

==============================

 

Left Behind: Christian film bids to convert Hollywood (Ottawa Citizen, 000231)

 

Kirk Cameron stars in Canadian thriller that stresses Christ as a personal saviour

 

A Canadian company that makes films with a Christian message is looking to take Hollywood by storm.

 

It plans to do that with Left Behind, an action thriller based on a series of best-selling novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. In the first book, based on the Book of Revelations, Jesus appears on Earth to take believers to Heaven. Those “left behind” must endure mass confusion, fires and hysteria until they accept Christ as their personal saviour.

 

Left Behind was filmed last summer in Toronto by Cloud Ten Productions, a St. Catharines-based company that has made four movies stressing Christian values and spiritualism. But it is this newest one, which stars Kirk Cameron (formerly of Growing Pains) as a TV reporter who fights the earthly regime of the new Antichrist, that is primed for the big breakthrough.

 

“We think this movie presents an extraordinary opportunity for those who want to make the kinds of films we make to really amaze Hollywood with the size of the audience that is out there, and what can be done at the box office,” said Peter Lalonde, 40, who runs Cloud Ten with his brother, Paul.

 

The company plans a Feb. 2 release of the movie, and its goal is to be the biggest box office movie of that week. As another part of its marketing plan, Cloud Ten is soliciting churches to each raise $3,000 U.S. to book screens. The company has already lined up 400 theatres to show the movie, including the Pine Grove Bible Church in Gloucester, which is sponsoring a screening at a theatre yet to be determined.

 

Paul Racine, an elder at the church, said Pine Grove decided to sponsor the movie based on a promotional video about the film. He said one person came forward with the money.

 

Mr. Lalonde says the number of screens should grow to 2,500 by the opening date, which is as large as most “wide openings” of mainstream Hollywood movies.

 

To help promote the film, however, Cloud Ten is embarking on a controversial marketing scheme that Mr. Lalonde acknowledges is backwards. The company is releasing Left Behind on video today — four months before its theatre release.

 

He calls it a way to mobilize the core community of “Christians and family-value people and people who are just looking for something new from a Hollywood film.” By giving the audience a preview look at the movie, Cloud Ten hopes to build grassroots support.

 

“The video release is really about giving people a chance to see what it is they’re going to support, and then to mobilize it for the Feb. 2 release.” Video cassettes will include coupons that give buyers a chance to buy theatre tickets for reduced prices.

 

So far the plan is working well, Mr. Lalonde says. In the U.S., the company has already presold 1.5 million videocassettes. Most of these are in the U.S., where 90 million people identify themselves as evangelical Christians. (In Canada, he said, it is more difficult to reach the core market —thought to be four or five million —where there isn’t as much Christian radio, television and publications.)

 

When the movie was being filmed in Toronto, Mr. Cameron told reporters that he loves God with all his heart, but said that you don’t have to be Christian to be thrilled and riveted by the story. He also says that it demonstrates that films can be made without bad language, nudity or violence, aspects of modern cinema that are now under attack in the U.S. by some politicians. The question, he says, is whether they can be commercially viable.

 

If Left Behind does as well as it is expected to do, it will eclipse the former Christian film champ, last year’s The Omega Code, which brought in $12.5 million U.S. at the box office.

 

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Revenge of the Comic-Book Nerds (Weekly Standard, 030214)

 

“Daredevil” delivers the first purely comics-driven movie. Is America ready to join hands with the Comic Book Guy? Plus, more Oscar malaise.

 

JUST AS THERE ARE Elvis men and Beatles men, there are DC men and Marvel men. Perhaps “men” is too strong a word, but nonetheless, among comic aficionados, there are two distinct camps. It has been a rough decade for DC lovers. The company has fallen on hard times and its properties have met with a string of failures in Hollywood: The Superman franchise petered out and the Batman franchise devolved, after a promising start, into something worse than its ‘60s Adam West incarnation. DC has spent the last few years trying to get new installments of these flagship franchises—and even a Batman vs. Superman movie—made with Warner Bros., to no avail. Several other of DC’s properties, including Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and Green Lantern, are currently stuck in development hell.

 

At the same time, Marvel has made a miraculous comeback. After being pushed into bankruptcy by billionaire-egomaniac Ron Perelman in the late 1980s (he bought Marvel shortly after acquiring Revlon), the company was saved by a pair of businessmen who ran the company Toy Biz (the fascinating corporate struggle is detailed in Dan Raviv’s excellent Comic Wars). Today under the supervision of Avi Arad, Marvel has become the dominant comic-book publisher and its dominance has extended into film. After “X-Men” in 2000, Marvel followed up with “Spider-Man” in 2002; both films were successful enough to spawn sequels and look to be solid franchises for the foreseeable future. This summer “Hulk” is positioned to be one of the top grossers. Other Marvel properties, such as Iron Man, The Avengers, and The Fantastic Four, are currently in development. And then there’s “Daredevil.”

 

“DAREDEVIL” hits theaters today with little to recommend it. It boasts only middling starpower (Ben Affleck), but more to the point, its titular superhero isn’t part of the national consciousness. Daredevil is well known to comic-book lovers, but not to the broader audience—certainly not the way Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or the X-Men were before their movie successes.

 

Our hero is Matt Murdock, a legal-aid attorney who was blinded in a freak accident as a child. He lost his sight but had his other senses heightened and developed a kind of sonar-vision, which allows him to “see” sounds.

 

If the idea of a blind superhero strikes you as silly, well, no argument here. Daredevil was launched in 1964 as Marvel’s answer to DC’s hugely popular Batman. Both lack any remarkable superpowers and are, more than any other heroes, quite mortal. Like Batman, Daredevil is a dark character, obsessed not so much with rescuing innocents as seeking justice. He’s the type of vigilante that led to the creation of Alan Moore’s 1986 “Watchmen” series. Some of the Daredevil books were interesting—Frank Miller’s “Visionaries” and “Born Again” sagas come to mind—but for the most part, Daredevil often felt like a low-rent version of Gotham’s caped crusader.

 

The movie “Daredevil” takes a lot from Miller’s work in tone, setting, and characters. The film’s story is quite engaging: Matt Murdock meets and falls in love with the beautiful and rich Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner). Elektra’s father is murdered by Bullseye (Colin Farrell), an assassin working for the criminal mastermind the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan). Elektra mistakenly believes that Daredevil killed her father and, being something of a martial-arts expert herself, takes after him for revenge.

 

But while the plot is smart, the writing, in many instances, is stupid. Superhero movies are, by their very nature, fantastical, so it is a writer’s duty to avoid unnecessary leaps. In “Daredevil,” writer (and director) Mark Steven Johnson fails here. Some of his failures are small: Murdock works as a legal-aid attorney, yet in the beginning of the film he is prosecuting a criminal rape case. Some are larger, but merely annoying: At a formal ball, Murdock is standing outside in his tuxedo with Elektra and then, moments later, is running along the rooftops in his Daredevil costume, despite the fact that he has no way of carrying his bulky leather outfit with him. Other flaws are gaping and structural: Murdock, a 30-year-old orphan and lawyer for the indigent, keeps a vast hidden lair in New York City, equipped with secret entrances and all manner of custom-made high-tech gear—how does he pay for it?

 

If this seems like picking nits, it is, but that’s because the audience is spending its allowance of disbelief-suspension on the idea of the superhero. A good script lets us run freely down the rails once we buy into the central conceit and doesn’t ask us to continually make excuses for movie logic.

 

Similarly, Johnson’s direction is unsteady. Nearly every action sequence in “Daredevil” suffers from too many cuts and jumps. In The Conversations, master film editor Walter Murch observes that most sustained action pieces have 14 cuts per minute. The fights in “Daredevil” surely double that pace.

 

As Murch observes, “After each cut it takes a few milliseconds for the audience to discover where they should be looking. If you don’t carry their focus of interest across the cut points, if you make them search at every cut, they become disoriented and annoyed, without knowing why.” The problems with the action sequences in “Daredevil” go beyond annoyance. It’s difficult to follow what is happening to whom and how characters get from one place to another. If Johnson is trying to give the overall impression of chaotic violence, he has succeeded, but as a story-telling mechanism these scenes are incoherent.

 

On the plus side, the acting in “Daredevil” is more than adequate. Ben Affleck is blessedly innocuous. Colin Farrell does fine work with the 20 or so lines allotted to him. However the movie’s real glue is Garner’s Elektra. At once vulnerable and playful, Garner doesn’t overdo the tough-chick schtick. She gives the movie sweetness and heart and while it’s not clear why Elektra would fall for a guy like Murdock, she sells the hell out of it.

 

In a sense there’s something in “Daredevil” for both Marvel and DC fans to cheer. If the movie finds broader acceptance in the general audience this weekend—and I suspect it will—then it will signal that the comic-book sensibility, not just the big-name franchises, is ready to be embraced by mainstream America.

 

A successful weekend for “Daredevil” will mean that we’re all comic-book geeks now. Worse things have happened.

 

A FEW NOTES on the Oscar nominations: Some weeks ago I wrote about the coming Oscar snub of “The Two Towers” and on Tuesday the first act of this slow-motion travesty came to pass: The Academy Award nominations were released and “The Two Towers” was nominated for just six awards and, although it got a Best Picture nomination, it won’t win.

 

The nominations themselves are a good barometer of where the voters are on a movie. “The Two Towers” was overlooked in some expected places (Best Director) but the Academy also ignored it in areas where it should have been a lock—Costume, Cinematography, and, most shockingly, Best Adapted Screenplay. If a movie that compresses a 400-page classic into a brisk, compelling 3 hours isn’t a stunning achievement in adaptation, I don’t know what is.

 

But to fixate on “The Two Towers” is to miss another minor injustice. In Hollywood the year 2002 will be remembered for many things, not least of which is Steven Spielberg’s annus mirabilis.

 

The ‘90s were an uneven period for Spielberg and his productivity was lacking: He made only six films in ten years. But in 2002 he made two very, very good movies. The double of Minority Report and “Catch Me If You Can” is as good as any in recent memory—certainly more impressive than Steven Soderbergh’s ballyhooed 2000 pair, “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic.” It has been a long time since a director accomplished what Spielberg did in 2002, yet he has been ignored by the Academy again, garnering a paltry three nominations for his work.

 

By contrast, two Miramax movies, “Chicago” and “The Hours,” received a combined 22 nominations.

 

No one is going to cry for Steven Spielberg, of course. If he feels blue about the Oscars, he can always buy Rob Marshall and force him to dance naked in the Spielberg mansion money room.

 

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

 

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The Matrix Revolutions / *** (R)

 

November 5, 2003

 

Neo: Keanu Reeves

Morpheus: Laurence Fishburne

Niobe: Jada Pinkett Smith

Trinity: Carrie-Anne Moss

The Architect: Helmut Bakaitis

Agent Smith: Hugo Weaving

The Oracle: Mary Alice

Persephone: Monica Bellucci

Lock Harry J. Lennix

 

Bane Ian Bliss

Mifune Nathaniel Lees

 

Warner Bros. presents a film written and directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Running time: 130 minutes. Rated R (for sci-fi violence and brief sexual content).

 

BY ROGER EBERT

 

My admiration for “The Matrix Revolutions” is limited only by the awkward fact that I don’t much give a damn what happens to any of the characters. If I cared more about Neo, Morpheus, Niobe and the others, there’d be more fire in my heart. But my regard is more for the technical triumph of the movie, less for the emotions it evokes. Neo is no more intended to have deep psychological realism than Indiana Jones, but the thing is, I liked Indy and hoped he got out in one piece — while my concern about Neo has been jerked around by so many layers of whether he’s real or not, and whether he’s really doing what he seems to be doing, that finally I measure my concern for him not in affection but more like the score in a video game.

 

Consider too the apocalyptic battle scene of the movie, as the vast, mechanical, all too symbolic screw of the Machines penetrates the dome of Zion and unleashes the Sentinels, nasty whiplashing octopi. The humans fight back by climbing into fearsome robotic fighting machines, so their muscles control more powerful muscles made of steel and cybernetics. Each of their surrogate arms ends in a mighty machinegun that sprays limitless streams of ammo at the enemy.

 

It’s all well done in a technical way (the computer-generated special effects are awesome), but I’m thinking: (a) The Machines use machines, so shouldn’t the humans be fighting back in a more human manner? and then (b) But it’s silly of me to think in this way, because neither the humans or Machines are really there, and what we’re seeing are avatars in a computer program. Who wins the battle wins the world, but the world is not what we see; what we see is a projection of the cyber-reality of the Matrix.

 

Or is it? See, that’s where I get confused. Do humans have a separate physical reality and did they really construct Zion, that city buried deep within the earth, and is it really there, made of molecules and elements? Because if they do and if they did, then why don’t the Machines just nuke them?

 

Why all the slithering mechanical octopi? And why, in a society that is unimaginably advanced over our own, are machineguns still used, anyway? So it would seem that the battle is a virtual battle, not a real one, and that impression is reinforced by the way the laws of physics seem to be on hold; as Niobe and Morpheus race to the rescue in their speeding ship, for example, it bounces off the walls and sheds so many vital parts that if it were a real ship, it would have crashed.

 

I am sure my information is flawed. No doubt I will get countless e-mails explaining or demonstrating my ignorance in tiresome detail. But the thing is: A movie should not depend on the answers to questions like this for its effect. The first “Matrix” was the best because it really did toy with the conflict between illusion and reality — between the world we think we inhabit, and its underlying nature. The problem of “Matrix Reloaded” and “Matrix Revolutions” is that they are action pictures that are forced to exist in a world that undercuts the reality of the action.

 

There is, to be sure, the movie’s underlying philosophy, but this grows more underwhelming as the series continues. When Neo finally sits down with the Oracle (Mary Alice) and demands the 411, what he gets is about what you’d pay 50 bucks for from a storefront Tarot reader. When the dust has settled and we all look back on the trilogy from a hype-free zone, we’ll realize that the first movie inspired its fans to imagine that astonishing philosophical revelations would be made, and the series hasn’t been able to live up to those anticipations. Maybe that would have been impossible. No matter how luridly the barker describes the wonders inside his tent, it’s always just another sideshow.

 

Still, in a basic and undeniable sense, this is a good movie, and fans who have earned their credit hours with the first two will want to see this one and graduate. To the degree that I was able to put aside my questions, forget logic, disregard continuity problems and immerse myself in the moment, “The Matrix Revolutions” is a terrific action achievement. Andy and Larry Wachowski have concluded their trilogy with all barrels blazing. Their final apocalypse in the bowels of the Earth plays like “Metropolis” on steroids. There are sights here to stir the sense of wonder, and a marriage between live action and special effects that is about as good as these things get in the movies.

 

It’s a rich irony that the story is about humans occupying a world generated by computers, and the movie consists of actors occupying a world also created by computers. Neo may or may not exist in a universe created by computers, but Keanu Reeves certainly does.

 

Note: “The Matrix Reloaded” was notable for the number of key characters who are black; this time, what we notice is how many strong women there are. Two women operate a bazooka team, Niobe flies the ship, the women have muscles, they kick ass, and this isn’t your grandmother’s Second Sex anymore.

 

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Master & Commander: The Far Side Of The World / **** (PG-13)

 

November 14, 2003

 

Capt. Jack Aubrey: Russell Crowe

Dr. Stephen Maturin: Paul Bettany

Lord Blakeney: Max Pirkis

Barrett Bonden: Billy Boyd

Lt. Thomas Pullings: James D’Arcy

Mr. Hogg: Mark Lewis Jones

Marine Capt. Howard: Chris Larkin

Mr. Higgins: Richard McCabe

Mr. Allen Robert Pugh

 

Twentieth Century Fox/Universal/Miramax presents a film directed by Peter Weir. Written by Weir and John Collee. Based on the novels by Patrick O’Brian. Running time: 139 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense battle sequences, related images and brief language).

 

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BY ROGER EBERT

 

Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is an exuberant sea adventure told with uncommon intelligence; we’re reminded of well-crafted classics before the soulless age of computerized action. Based on the beloved novels of Patrick O’Brian, it re-creates the world of the British navy circa 1805 with such detail and intensity that the sea battles become stages for personality and character. They’re not simply swashbuckling — although they’re that, too, with brutal and intimate violence.

 

The film centers on the spirits of two men, Capt. Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin. Readers of O’Brian’s 20 novels know them as friends and opposites — Aubrey, the realist, the man of action; Maturin, more intellectual and pensive. Each shares some of the other’s qualities, and their lifelong debate represents two sides of human nature. There’s a moment in “Master and Commander” when Maturin’s hopes of collecting rare biological specimens are dashed by Aubrey’s determination to chase a French warship, and the tension between them at that moment defines their differences.

 

Aubrey, captain of HMS Surprise, is played by Russell Crowe as a strong but fair leader of men, a brilliant strategist who is also a student, but not a coddler, of his men. He doesn’t go by the books; his ability to think outside the envelope saves the Surprise at one crucial moment and wins a battle at another. Maturin is played by Paul Bettany, who you may recall as Crowe’s imaginary roommate in “A Beautiful Mind.” He’s so cool under pressure that he performs open-skull surgery on the deck of the Surprise (plugging the cranial hole with a coin), and directs the removal of a bullet from his own chest by looking in a mirror. But his passion is biology, and he is onboard primarily because the navy will take him to places where there are beetles and birds unknown to science.

 

The story takes place almost entirely onboard the Surprise, a smaller vessel outgunned by its quarry, the French warship Acheron. Using an actual ship at sea and sets in the vast tank in Baja California where scenes from “Titanic” were shot, Weir creates a place so palpable we think we could find our own way around. It is a very small ship for such a large ocean, living conditions are grim, some of the men have been shanghaied on board, and one of the junior officers is 13 years old. For risking their lives, the men are rewarded with an extra tot of grog, and feel well-paid. There are scenes at sea, including the rounding of Cape Horn, which are as good or better as any sea journey ever filmed, and the battle scenes are harrowing in their closeness and ferocity; the object is to get close enough in the face of withering cannon fire to board the enemy vessel and hack its crew to death.

 

There are only two major battle scenes in the movie (unless you count the storms of the cape as a battle with nature). This is not a movie that depends on body counts for its impact, but on the nature of life on board such a ship. Maturin and Aubrey sometimes relax by playing classical duets, the captain on violin, the doctor on cello, and this is not an affectation but a reflection of their well-rounded backgrounds; their arguments are as likely to involve philosophy as strategy.

 

The reason that O’Brian’s readers are so faithful (I am one) is because this friendship provides him with a way to voice and consider the unnatural life of a man at sea: By talking with each other, the two men talk to us about the contest between man’s need to dominate, and his desire to reflect.

 

There is time to get to know several members of the crew. Chief among them is young Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), the teenager who is actually put in command of the deck during one battle. Boys this young were often at sea, learning in action (Aubrey was not much older when he served under Nelson), and both older men try to shape him in their images. With Maturin he shares a passion for biology, and begins a journal filled with sketches of birds and beetles they encounter. Under Aubrey he learns to lead men, to think clearly in battle. Both men reveal their characters in teaching the boy, and that is how we best grow to know them.

 

There is a sense here of the long months at sea between the dangers, of loneliness and privation on “this little wooden world.” One subplot involves an officer who comes to be considered bad luck — a Jonah — by the men. Another involves the accidental shooting of the surgeon.

 

There is a visit to the far Galapagos, where Darwin would glimpse the underlying engines of life on earth. These passages are punctuation between the battles, which depend more on strategy than firepower — as they must, if the Surprise is to stand against the dangerous French ship. Aubrey’s charge is to prevent the French from controlling the waters off Brazil, and although the two-ship contest in “Master and Commander” is much scaled down from the fleets at battle in O’Brian’s original novel, The Far Side of the World, that simply brings the skills of individual men more into focus.

 

“Master and Commander” is grand and glorious, and touching in its attention to its characters. Like the work of David Lean, it achieves the epic without losing sight of the human, and to see it is to be reminded of the way great action movies can rouse and exhilarate us, can affirm life instead of simply dramatizing its destruction.

 

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The Haunted Mansion / **1/2 (PG)

 

November 26, 2003

 

Jim Evers: Eddie Murphy

Sara Evers: Marsha Thomason

Master Gracey: Nathaniel Parker

Madame Leota: Jennifer Tilly

Ramsley: Terence Stamp

Ezer: Wallace Shawn

 

Walt Disney presents a film directed by Rob Minkoff. Written by David Berenbaum. Running time: 99 minutes. Rated PG (for frightening images, thematic elements and language).

 

BY ROGER EBERT

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The surprising thing about “The Haunted Mansion” isn’t that it’s based on a Disney theme park ride, but that it has ambition. It wants to be more than a movie version of the ride. I expected an inane series of nonstop action sequences, but what I got was a fairly intriguing story and an actual plot that is actually resolved. That doesn’t make the movie good enough to recommend, but it makes it better than the ads suggest.

 

The movie stars Eddie Murphy as Jim Evers, workaholic Realtor(TM), who is headed for a weekend vacation with his family when they get sidetracked by the chance to put a vast old mansion on the market. His wife, Sara (Marsha Thomason), is his business partner, but complains, as all movie wives always complain, that her husband is spending too much time at work. Their kids are Michael and Megan (Marc John Jefferies and Aree Davis).

 

Evers (or more accurately his wife, whose photo appears on their flyers) is invited to visit the Gracey Mansion, isolated behind a forbidding iron gate and surrounded by a jungle of sinister vegetation.

 

It’s a triumph of art direction, inspired by the Disney World attraction and by every haunted house ever crept through by Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Abbott, Costello, et al. Doors bulge, curtains sway, and there’s a scenic graveyard behind the house, complete with four marble busts that perform as a barbershop quartet.

 

The visitors are greeted by the butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp), gaunt, cadaverous, with a voice that coils up from unimaginable inner caverns. Also on staff are servants Ezer (Wallace Shawn, looking his most homuncular) and Emma (Dina Waters, simpering over). On the premises but not exactly in residence is Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly), whose disembodied head floats in a crystal ball and offers timely if disturbing advice.

 

The lord of the manor is Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), who seems obsessed with Sara Evers. Flashbacks explain why. In antebellum New Orleans, Gracey was in love with a young woman who looked exactly like Sara, and when they could not marry, they both killed themselves. Which means Gracey is a ghost, of course, but leaves unanswered the question of why he could not marry the ghost of his original lover and stop haunting respectable married Realtors(TM).

 

The movie’s most intriguing element is the way it does and doesn’t deal with the buried racial theme. We learn that the sinister Ramsley sabotaged his master’s romance because if he married, the family would be destroyed. Presumably that would be because an interracial romance was dangerous in old New Orleans, but the movie never says so and indeed never refers to the races of any of its characters. That is either (a) refreshing and admirable, or (b) puzzling, since the whole plot is motivated by race.

 

The story, in any event, gives the characters a lot to deal with, which means we are not relegated to a movie full of banging doors, swinging chandeliers and other ghostly effects. There are a lot of those, of course, especially as the kids make their own way around the gloomy pile, but there is a certain poignancy about the central dilemma, and the Gracey character reflects it well, eventually answering one of the questions posed above, although I will not say which one.

 

The movie doesn’t quite work, maybe because the underlying theme is an uneasy fit with the silly surface. Murphy is not given much to do; he’s the straight man, in a story involving his wife and ghosts. If anyone steals the movie, it’s Stamp, who must have been studying Hammer horror films for years, and puts the ham back into Hammer. “The Haunted Mansion” won’t much entertain older family members, but it might be fun for kids and seems headed for a long run on home video.

 

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Great Movies: The first 100

 

May 28, 2000

 

BY ROGER EBERT

 

Every other week I visit a film classic from the past and write about it. My “Great Movies” series began in the autumn of 1996 and now reaches a landmark of 100 titles with today’s review of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” which is, appropriately, a film about a film director. I love my job, and this is the part I love the most.

 

We have completed the first century of film. Too many moviegoers are stuck in the present and recent past. When people tell me that “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or “Total Recall” are their favorite films, I wonder: Have they tasted the joys of Welles, Bunuel, Ford, Murnau, Keaton, Hitchcock, Wilder or Kurosawa? If they like Ferris Bueller, what would they think of Jacques Tati’s “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” also about a strange day of misadventures? If they like “Total Recall,” have they seen Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” also about an artificial city ruled by fear?

 

I ask not because I am a film snob. I like to sit in the dark and enjoy movies. I think of old films as a resource of treasures. Movies have been made for 100 years, in color and black and white, in sound and silence, in wide-screen and the classic frame, in English and every other language. To limit yourself to popular hits and recent years is like being Ferris Bueller but staying home all day.

 

I believe we are born with our minds open to wonderful experiences, and only slowly learn to limit ourselves to narrow tastes. We are taught to lose our curiosity by the bludgeon-blows of mass marketing, which brainwash us to see “hits,” and discourage exploration.

 

I know that many people dislike subtitled films, and that few people reading this article will have ever seen a film from Iran, for example. And yet a few weeks ago at my Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois, the free kiddie matinee was “Children of Heaven,” from Iran. It was a story about a boy who loses his sister’s sneakers through no fault of his own, and is afraid to tell his parents. So he and his sister secretly share the same pair of shoes. Then he learns of a footrace where third prize is . . . a pair of sneakers.

 

“Anyone who can read at the third-grade level can read these subtitles,” I told the audience of 1,000 kids and some parents. “If you can’t, it’s OK for your parents or older kids to read them aloud—just not too loudly.”

 

The lights went down and the movie began. I expected a lot of reading aloud. There was none. Not all of the kids were old enough to read, but apparently they were picking up the story just by watching and using their intelligence. The audience was spellbound. No noise, restlessness, punching, kicking, running down the aisles. Just eyes lifted up to a fascinating story. Afterward, we asked kids up on the stage to ask questions or talk about the film. What they said indicated how involved they had become.

 

Kids. And yet most adults will not go to a movie from Iran, Japan, France or Brazil. They will, however, go to any movie that has been plugged with a $30 million ad campaign and sanctified as a “box-office winner.” Yes, some of these big hits are good, and a few of them are great. But what happens between the time we are 8 and the time we are 20 that robs us of our curiosity? What turns movie lovers into consumers? What does it say about you if you only want to see what everybody else is seeing?

 

I don’t know. What I do know is that if you love horror movies, your life as a filmgoer is not complete until you see “Nosferatu.” I know that once you see Orson Welles appear in the doorway in “The Third Man,” you will never forget his curious little smile. And that the life and death of the old man in “Ikiru” will be an inspiration every time you remember it.

 

I have not written any of the 100 Great Movies reviews from memory. Every film has been seen fresh, right before writing. When I’m at home, I often watch them on Sunday mornings. It’s a form of prayer: The greatest films are meditations on why we are here. When I’m on the road, there’s no telling where I’ll see them. I saw “Written on the Wind” on a cold January night at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, north of London. I saw “Last Year at Marienbad” on a DVD on my PowerBook while at the Cannes Film Festival. I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 70mm at Cyberfest, the celebration of HAL 9000’s birthday, at the University of Illinois. I saw “Battleship Potemkin” projected on a sheet on the outside wall of the Vickers Theater in Three Oaks, Mich., while three young musicians played the score they had written for it. And Ozu’s “Floating Weeds” at the Hawaii Film Festival, as part of a shot-by-shot seminar that took four days.

 

When people asked me where they should begin in looking at classic films, I never knew what to say. Now I can say, “Plunge into these Great Movies, and go where they lead you.”

 

There’s a next step. If you’re really serious about the movies, get together with two or three friends who care as much as you do. Watch the film all the way through on video. Then start again at the top. Whenever anyone sees anything they want to comment on, freeze the frame. Talk about what you’re looking at. The story, the performances, the sets, the locations. The camera movement, the lighting, the composition, the special effects. The color, the shadows, the sound, the music. The themes, the tone, the mood, the style.

 

There are no right answers. The questions are the point. They make you an active movie watcher, not a passive one. You should not be a witness at a movie, but a collaborator. Directors cannot make the film without you. Together, you can accomplish amazing things. The more you learn, the quicker you’ll know when the director is not doing his share of the job. That’s the whole key to being a great moviegoer. There’s nothing else to it.

 

All 100 Great Movies are at www.suntimes.com/ebert, and on CompuServe.

 

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•           8 1/2

•           THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD

•           AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD

•           ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL

•           ALL ABOUT EVE

•           ALIEN

•           AMADEUS

•           ANNIE HALL

•           THE APARTMENT

•           APOCALYPSE NOW

•           THE APU TRILOGY

•           THE BANK DICK

•           THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN

•           BEAT THE DEVIL

•           BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

•           BEING THERE

•           BELLE DE JOUR

•           THE BICYCLE THIEF

•           THE BIG SLEEP

•           BIRTH OF A NATION (PART I)

•           BIRTH OF A NATION (PART II)

•           BLOWUP

•           THE BLUE KITE

•           BODY HEAT

•           BOB LE FLAMBEUR

•           BONNIE AND CLYDE

•           BREATHLESS

•           THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN

•           THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI

•           BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA

•           BROKEN BLOSSOMS

•           CASABLANCA

•           CHILDREN OF PARADISE

•           CHINATOWN

•           A CHRISTMAS STORY

•           CITIZEN KANE

•           CITY LIGHTS

•           THE CONVERSATION

•           CRIES AND WHISPERS

•           DAY FOR NIGHT

•           DAYS OF HEAVEN

•           THE DECALOGUE

•           DETOUR

•           THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE

•           DON’T LOOK NOW

•           DO THE RIGHT THING

•           DR. STRANGELOVE

•           DOUBLE INDEMNITY

•           DRACULA

•           DUCK SOUP

•           THE EARRINGS OF MADAME de ....

•           E.T — THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL

•           THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL

•           FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER

•           FARGO

•           FILMS OF BUSTER KEATON

•           THE FIREMEN’S BALL

•           FIVE EASY PIECES

•           FLOATING WEEDS

•           THE 400 BLOWS

•           GATES OF HEAVEN

•           THE GENERAL

•           THE GODFATHER

•           GOLDFINGER

•           GONE WITH THE WIND

•           THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

•           GOODFELLAS

•           GRAND ILLUSION

•           THE GRAPES OF WRATH

•           GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES

•           GREAT EXPECTATIONS

•           GREED

•           A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

•           HOOP DREAMS

•           HOUSE OF GAMES

•           THE HUSTLER

•           IKIRU

•           IN COLD BLOOD

•           IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

•           JAWS

•           JFK

•           JULIET OF THE SPIRITS

•           KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS

•           KING KONG

•           L’ATALANTE

•           L’AVVENTURA

•           LA DOLCE VITA

•           THE LADY EVE

•           THE LAST LAUGH

•           LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD

•           LAURA

•           LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

•           LE BOUCHER

•           LE SAMOURAI

•           THE LEOPARD

•           THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP

•           M

•           THE MALTESE FALCON

•           MANHATTAN

•           McCABE & MRS. MILLER

•           MEAN STREETS

•           METROPOLIS

•           MON ONCLE

•           MOONSTRUCK

•           MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY

•           THE MUSIC ROOM

•           MY DARLING CLEMENTINE

•           MY DINNER WITH ANDRE

•           MY LIFE TO LIVE

•           MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO

•           NASHVILLE

•           NETWORK

•           NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

•           NIGHTS OF CABIRIA

•           NOSFERATU

•           NOTORIOUS

•           ON THE WATERFRONT

•           ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST

•           ORPHEUS

•           PANDORA’S BOX

•           PARIS, TEXAS

•           THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC

•           PATTON

•           PEEPING TOM

•           PERSONA

•           PICKPOCKET

•           PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

•           PINOCCHIO

•           PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES

•           THE PRODUCERS

•           PSYCHO

•           PULP FICTION

•           RAGING BULL

•           RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK

•           RAISE THE RED LANTERN

•           RAN

•           RASHOMON

•           REAR WINDOW

•           RED RIVER

•           RIFIFI

•           THE RIGHT STUFF

•           ROMEO AND JULIET

•           SANTA SANGRE

•           SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER

•           SAY ANYTHING

•           SCARFACE

•           SCHINDLER’S LIST

•           THE SEARCHERS

•           THE SEVEN SAMURAI

•           THE SEVENTH SEAL

•           SHANE

•           THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

•           THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

•           SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

•           SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

•           SOLARIS

•           SOME LIKE IT HOT

•           STAR WARS

•           STROSZEK

•           SUNDAY IN THE COUNTRY

•           SUNSET BOULEVARD

•           SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS

•           SWING TIME

•           A TALE OF WINTER

•           TAXI DRIVER

•           THE THIN MAN

•           THE THIRD MAN

•           THIS IS SPINAL TAP

•           ‘THREE COLORS’ TRILOGY

•           TOKYO STORY

•           TOUCH OF EVIL

•           THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE

•           TROUBLE IN PARADISE

•           12 ANGRY MEN

•           2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

•           UMBERTO D

•           UN CHIEN ANDALOU

•           UNFORGIVEN

•           THE ‘UP’ DOCUMENTARIES

•           VERTIGO

•           WALKABOUT

•           THE WILD BUNCH

•           WINGS OF DESIRE

•           THE WIZARD OF OZ

•           WOMAN IN THE DUNES

•           A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE

•           WRITTEN ON THE WIND

•           YANKEE DOODLE DANDY

•           A YEAR OF THE QUIET SUN

•           YELLOW SUBMARINE

 

==============================

 

Kieslowski’s Fundamentals: Values in ten acts (NRO, 031223)

 

“An attempt to return to elementary values destroyed by communism.” That’s how famed Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski describes his effort in Decalogue, a series of ten-hour films produced for and broadcast on Polish television in 1998-1999. Kieslowski, who died in 1996, was best known for The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and his Three Colors Trilogy (1993-1994), films that exhibit artistic prowess but whose stories are often obscure to the point of inaccessibility. With Decalogue, the scripts are leaner, the stories more approachable, and the issues — regarding meaning, fidelity, and providence — more inviting. On the big issues, including religious truth, Kieslowski himself was unsettled, and he embarked on a self-described quest: “what is the true meaning of life? Why get up in the morning? Politics doesn’t answer that.” Decalogue — now available on VHS and DVD, in Polish with English subtitles — is a crowning artistic achievement, an example of what film can teach us about who we are as human beings destined for, but habitually lapsing from, transcendence.

 

Kieslowski sets the quest for meaning in the context of powerful forces of erosion in modern society, especially the obsession with comprehensive scientific explanation and the reduction of human purpose and love to mere biology. The opening film, a reflection on the prohibition against false gods, puts a boy’s questions about death and the meaning of life between his father’s scientific materialism and his aunt’s faith in God. To his son’s question, “What is death?,” the father responds, “the heart stops beating.” Dissatisfied, the son persists and urges his father that he has left out the soul. In Kieslowski’s films, the debates are more than idle discussions; they figure prominently in the action of the drama. In this case, the father’s naïve trust in mathematical reasoning leads directly to tragedy.

 

The elimination of meaning and purpose from human life occurs not just when science overreaches its explanatory grasp, but also in our reduction of love to sex and sex to the mechanical satisfaction of appetite. “Decalogue VI,” on adultery, is a profound meditation on the vice of lust and on the difference between voyeuristic pleasure and human communion. A young man uses binoculars to spy on a sexually active woman in an apartment across from his own. When the woman finally learns of his observations, she toys with his affection, mocking his claim that his interest in her has moved beyond lust to something more. She seduces him, leaves him sexually spent with the admonition, “love, there is no such thing.” When the crestfallen young man disappears amid rumors that he has done himself bodily harm, she experiences remorse, and finds herself in his former position — looking for signs of the presence of someone with whom she now desires to communicate in a human and compassionate, rather than perfunctory and cruel, manner.

 

Kieslowski depicts lust as inordinate desire, not just for pleasure, but for the possession of what is not rightly one’s own. It is interconnected with a set of vices: jealousy, wrath, and pride. A married woman who has been sleeping with another man explains that she believes it is possible to love two persons. As she begins to describe what each man provides her, she pauses, reflects, and then shifts from self-justification to self-accusation: It is not right “to wish for everything; that’s pride.”

 

In another episode, “Decalogue IX” on coveting, a husband learns he has become impotent and, in his shame, urges his wife to take a lover. Reluctant at first, she begins an affair. Unwilling to accept what he initiated, the jealous husband becomes a humiliated and angry voyeur of his wife’s only adulterous meeting. But the wife is incapable of remaining unfaithful. Without knowing that her husband knows, she cuts off the affair. A series of miscommunications, of partial and misleading glimpses, ensues; the husband becomes despondent and sets himself on a grim, despairing course of action. The film moves toward a horrifying finale, but one that, even in the midst of great misery, contains a note of hope, gratitude that all is not lost. It is as if the characters have begun to learn the lesson the wife preaches to her husband early on: “The things we have are more important than the things we don’t have.”

 

The themes of gratitude and fidelity pervade the films and are often explicitly connected to the welcoming of children. The couple featured in “Decalogue IX,” realizing that they will no longer have the option of conceiving children, wonder whether their lives, their marriage, would have been different, better, if they had had children. Another man, overjoyed at the surprise of the conception of a child, asks his doctor, “Do you know what it means...to have a child?” The old man’s eyes cloud and he nods knowingly. We know what the expectant father does not: namely, that his doctor has suffered a family tragedy.

 

The stories can be appreciated independently of one another, but their cumulative emotional impact is palpable. In part, this is because the stories have the same setting, an economically depressed apartment complex in Warsaw. Kieslowski joked, “It’s the most beautiful housing estate in Warsaw, which is why I chose it. It looks pretty awful, so you can imagine what the others are like.” Contemporary films are rarely about ordinary folks or about the poor, whose lives reflect in immediate and dramatic fashion the vulnerability of the human condition. The very ordinariness of the lives in this particular setting lends a universal dimension to the stories in Decalogue. The multiple stories provide glimpses of the richness and depth that lie just beneath the surface of every human life. Kieslowski once said: “I believe the life of every person is worthy of scrutiny, containing its own secrets and dramas.”

 

Since at least the time of The Double Life of Veronique, Kieslowski has been preoccupied with doubleness, expressed artistically in the frequent use of reflections, in mirrors or windows, and images of individuals, blurred and refracted through glass. He also shows individuals looking through windows, through slits in closets, and through rain-soaked windows. Doubling symbolizes the divisions and conflicts within a character, the choice between two paths. It also represents the difficulty each of us encounters in trying to gain an adequate vision or knowledge of persons — the opaqueness of human motives and intentions. It also signifies the partial reflection of one life in another, the chance intersections, and parallel routes of different human stories. Here Kieslowski is at his most self-conscious, reflecting both on the art of filmmaking and on the experience of the viewer of films. He invites the audience to reflect upon its own experience of the lives presented in the Decalogue. Like the characters in the films — who watch one another with various degrees of insight and with emotional responses that range from malign indifference to sympathy — viewers themselves are capable of degrees of insight and sympathy. Kieslowski’s films offer a kind of pedagogy in the proper viewing of films.

 

Critics have noted that Kieslowski does not tie each episode tightly to an explicit commandment; some critics go so far as to describe the films as “sardonic riffs” on the Commandments. It’s hard to know whether that reveals a greater misunderstanding of the Commandments or of Kieslowski’s films. Kieslowski’s own comments about this topic are considerably more interesting: “The relationship between the films and the individual commandments is a tentative one. The films should be influenced by the individual commandments to the same degree that the Commandments influence our daily lives.” This suggests that there are layers to these films, and that deeper understanding will come not just from careful viewing but from living a certain way of life. Characters in these films are caught in what the current (Polish) Pope has described as a struggle between the cultures of death and of life. It is striking that pictures of the Pope figure prominently, and he is the only person identified as knowing what the meaning of human life is.

 

Critics also see the films in terms of complex moral dilemmas. This is true, but superficial. Choices are crucial, but they are not the sole determinants of the contours of the drama. The shape of things involves a mysterious confluence of what’s within our control and what lies beyond it. The orchestration of events in a benevolent, if still obscure, direction suggests a providential structure to human life. At their best, these films are about the mediation of the divine in and through sensible realities, and about the sacramental bonds of human community, especially in marriage and the rearing of children. These themes crystallize in the remarkable ending of the first film, in which familial loss drives a man to rage, despair, and church. There he vents his anger at God and then collapses in sobs before an icon of the Virgin Mary, an icon that weeps tears of sorrow and mercy.

 

— Thomas Hibbs is author of Shows About Nothing.

 

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Finding Nemo, Losing Fear (NRO, 031230)

 

2003’s best movie vs. the precautionary principle.

 

Many thousands of children and their parents were entranced this year by Pixar’s excellent movie Finding Nemo, whose combination of inventiveness, comedy, and emotion made it an early candidate for the Best Picture Oscar (though given last year’s precedent, Best Documentary should not be beyond its grasp). Yet it contributed something to the world besides making so many people happy. It is one of the most powerful statements in a long time against a pernicious and retrograde idea that has enthused regulators and nanny statists all over the world.

 

That idea is the so-called “precautionary principle,” which, broadly speaking, says that no new technology should come into use unless we are certain that it will do no harm to life or the environment. The European Union is so enthusiastic about this idea that it is not only looking to enshrine the principle in its proposed constitution, but is even thinking of applying it retroactively, by testing chemicals that have been in everyday use for centuries to see whether they are safe enough by today’s standards. A moment’s thought reveals the precautionary principle to be an insidious idea: If applied throughout history, it would have left us trapped in caves, without tools or fire. It is a worldview that sees any risk as unacceptable, even if this condemnation costs us the chance to progress.

 

It was therefore delightful to see this view challenged constantly throughout Finding Nemo. The story is about a clownfish, Marlin, and his son, Nemo, the only survivor of a barracuda attack that killed Nemo’s mother and siblings. As a result of the tragedy, Marlin has become overprotective of his son. But when Nemo is captured by an Australian diver on his first day at school, Marlin must leave the safety of his anemone and brave the vastness of the ocean — with its sharks, currents, and fearsome anglerfish — to rescue his son. In the course of his adventures, he meets Dory, a kindly blue tang with short-term memory loss, whose boundless optimism ultimately gives him the strength to get to Sydney and be reunited with his son.

 

Dory’s optimism provides many of the film’s funniest and most poignant moments. In a pivotal scene, she and Marlin are taken into a whale’s mouth, and when the whale prepares to blow them out, the water level decreases. Marlin exclaims in fear, “It’s already half-empty,” to which Dory replies, “Really? It looks half-full to me.” These conflicting viewpoints are clearly reflected in many real-world debates, including the one over global warming. The Marlins of the world are terrified that carbon dioxide will cause an apocalyptic temperature rise that will create droughts, floods, and deserts. The world’s Dories, however, see the rewards that modest temperature increases could bring, such as warmer winters in colder climes, and the already-demonstrated benefits of increased vegetation and reduced desert areas.

 

Later on, as the whale raises its tongue out of the water, Marlin clings on for dear life while Dory urges him to let go so the whale can blow them out. Marlin fears the whale intends to eat them and asks Dory, “How do you know something bad won’t happen?” “I don’t,” she replies, letting go. Marlin realizes the wisdom in her words, and lets go too.

 

When presented with an opportunity that entails risks, we don’t know whether something bad might happen. The precautionary, Marlinesque approach, however, presumes that something bad will happen, so nothing ever gets done. During the same whale scene, Marlin tells Dory that he promised Nemo that he would never let anything bad happen to him. Dory comments, “What a funny thing to promise. Then, nothing will ever happen to him.” Once again, Dory’s wisdom illuminates many current issues in science, technology, and the environment. If we do not take risks, we cannot advance. Sometimes we need to leap into the dark. The fact that it is dark does not mean the leap may not be worth it.

 

In the DVD edition, the film’s director, Andrew Stanton, comments that “the movie is about the battle of hope versus fear, optimism over pessimism; it’s half-full versus half-empty.... You can either hide in life or you can enter it, take your chances and engage.” The philosophies of Finding Nemo and the precautionary principle stand in stark opposition to each other — which makes the movie’s popularity very good news.

 

Iain Murray is a senior fellow in the International Policy Group at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

 

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The Good “Dr.”: The liberal who wrote a great conservative book (NRO, 031121)

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: March 2, 2004, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man who would become known as “Dr. Seuss.” John J. Miller originally wrote about The Cat in the Hat for NRO on November 21, 2003.

 

Hey moms and dads: Bet you don’t know what Dr. Seuss really thought about his most famous book, The Cat in the Hat — the basis for this weekend’s big movie opening. “I’m subversive as hell,” Seuss once said. “The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority. ... It’s revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kerensky, and then stops. It doesn’t go quite as far as Lenin.”

 

Russian-history refresher: Alexander Kerensky was an ineffective revolutionary dictator who preceded Lenin. He wasn’t a Commie, but he was a man of the far Left — and not exactly a champion of freedom.

 

Happily, America’s most celebrated children’s author was exaggerating. The only thing that’s even arguably “subversive” about The Cat in the Hat appears on its final two pages, following the raucous performance of the book’s title character, who has just cleaned up an extravagant mess and taken his leave.

 

Then our mother came in And she said to us two, “Did you have any fun? Tell me. What did you do?”

 

And Sally and I did not know

What to say.

Should we tell her

The things that went on there that day?

 

Perhaps keeping parents in the dark really is “a revolt against authority,” as Seuss claims. It probably depends on what children are hiding. I’ve always chosen to read those lines — dozens of times to my own kids, by the way — as suggesting a child doesn’t need to share every detail of his imagination with grown-ups. I’m perfectly comfortable with that, and any reasonable parent would be.

 

Yet Dr. Seuss — the pen name of Theodore Seuss Geisel, a non-doctor who died in 1991 — had politics in his bones. He came from a family of Republicans, but turned into an FDR Democrat in the 1930s and never looked back. He infused his books with liberal messages on everything from environmentalism to arms control, especially during the last quarter century of his life — though one of his lesser-known books is also deeply conservative and deserving of a revival.

 

Seuss’s first public foray into politics came as a cartoonist for PM, a left-wing daily newspaper in New York, during the Second World War. He savaged all the right people: Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. His caricatures of Hirohito — slit-eyed and buck-toothed — probably would be called racist today by the grievance industry; they are certainly forceful. More than 200 of his cartoons from this era were published several years ago in a collection called Dr. Seuss Goes to War. All of them are recognizably Seussian — the “art” in his children’s books are really just zany cartoons — and many of them have a kind of relevance today. My favorite ran a few months before Pearl Harbor. A bright-eyed nincompoop labeled “The Appeaser” stands on a rock holding four lollypops. Sea monsters wearing swastika tattoos surround him. “Remember,” says the man with a dumb smile, “One More Lollypop, and Then You All Go Home!” The picture is rooted in its time, but remains pertinent today because the problem of appeasement is ever with us.

 

Seuss held a special animus for the America First crowd of antiwar isolationists, and especially for Charles Lindbergh. He once drew a “Lindbergh Quarter” — it’s an ostrich jabbing its head in the sand. He also wrote a bit of verse, which was not published but appears in a 1995 biography, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, by Judith and Neil Morgan:

 

The Lone Eagle had flown The Atlantic alone With fortitude and a ham sandwich. Great courage that took. But he shivered and shook At the sound of the gruff German landgwich.

 

If this is liberalism, it’s a liberalism many of us modern-day conservatives can embrace. The same goes for a few of Seuss’s better-known children’s books. Yertle the Turtle (1958) is an anti-authoritarian parable. Its final lines apply as much to Saddam Hussein as they once did to the European fascists:

 

And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he, Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see. And the turtles, of course ... all turtles are free As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

 

Another book, The Sneetches and Other Stories (1961), contains four tales. Each one is a plea for racial tolerance, continuing a theme Seuss explored during the war with cartoons urging full use of “colored labor” and railing against anti-Semitism. The stories are also amusing, with their meaning embedded inside a delightfully breezy anapestic tetrameter verse (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one, with four beats to the line) that Seuss employed to such wonderful effect throughout his career.

 

But that is not all. Oh no, that is not all (as the Cat in the Hat might say).

 

Over time, Seuss’s stories became more strident. One of his most famous books, The Lorax (1971), remains a favorite of liberal environmentalists. In the tale, the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees,” delivers a stern lecture to the Once-ler, a greedy industrialist:

 

Your machinery chugs on, day and night without stop making Gluppity-Glupp. Also Schloppity-Schlopp. And what do you do with this leftover goo? I’ll show you. You dirty old Once-ler man you! You’re glumping the pond where the Humming-fish hummed! No more can they hum, for their gills are all gummed.

 

And so on. Now, I happen to love these lines — “Schloppity-Schlopp” is a bit of doggerel genius. At bottom, however, the book is a not-so-subtle attack on capitalism. (Go here to learn from Seuss’s publisher how you can “Celebrate Earth Day with the Lorax.”)

 

The next year, Seuss published Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! Like The Cat in the Hat, it’s an early-reader book meant for kids who are just getting started:

 

The time has come. The time is now. Just go. Go. GO! I don’t care how. ... Marvin K. Mooney, I don’t care how. Marvin K. Mooney, will you please GO NOW!

 

Here’s how the Morgans describe the book’s political legacy in their biography: “In the spring of 1974, as the Watergate scandal neared its climax, Ted met the satirist Art Buchwald at the San Diego Zoo, and they became mutually admiring friends.” Soon after, Buchwald dared Seuss to write a political book. Eager to comply, Seuss “grabbed a copy of Marvin K. Mooney and, with a few strokes of a pen, deleted each mention of that name and substituted the name of the president.” On July 30, Buchwald’s syndicated column was based on Seuss’s revisions: “Richard M. Nixon, will you please go now!” Nine days later, Nixon really did go — he resigned — and Seuss was delighted. “We should have collaborated sooner,” he wrote to Buchwald.

 

His most political book of all, however, was yet to come. Again, let’s let the Morgans set the scene: “[Seuss] was brooding over the mounting cold war with the Soviet Union and believed that under Ronald Reagan the nuclear arms race was beyond control. Over dinner at La Valencia, he wondered out loud how a democratic government could impose ‘such deadly stupidity’ on people like him who were so opposed to nuclear proliferation.” Then he wrote The Butter Battle Book (1984), which his publicists earnestly declared to be “probably the most important book Dr. Seuss has ever created.” Seuss himself called it “the best book I’ve ever written.”

 

The story describes a conflict between the blue-suited Yooks, who prefer to eat their bread with the “butter side up,” and orange-suited Zooks, who eat their bread with the “butter side down.” The Yooks and Zooks then embark on a perilous arms race. They build ever more menacing weapons, from the Triple-Sling Jigger to the Eight-Nozzled, Elephant-Toted Boom-Blitz, and finally the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, which is basically a pea-sized weapon of mass destruction. At the ambiguous conclusion, which recalls “The Lady or the Tiger,” both the Yooks and Zooks have the boomeroo and look ready to use it.

 

All of Seuss’s other books, including The Lorax, end on a hopeful note. The Butter Battle Book, alone, does not. It is also a perfect emblem of the moral equivalence that neutered so many liberals during the Cold War: It assumes that the half-century conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was based on nothing more meaningful than a dispute over how people prefer to butter their bread — as if Communism weren’t a threat to liberty, but an eating preference.

 

(Seuss did meet Reagan once, when he and his wife were guests at a state dinner. The story, as related by the Morgans, is wonderful because it is vintage Reagan: “[Seuss] was recalling with the president and television anchorman Tom Brokaw how he had rejected Lieutenant Ronald Reagan forty years earlier as narrator for the wartime film Your Job in Germany. Reagan had not forgotten. ‘But you were right,’ the president said with an engaging smile. ‘John Beal did have a better voice.’”)

 

So what are conservatives to do with Seuss? I say read him, because most of his books are incredible fun — but also choose wisely. My favorite Seuss book is one that many people don’t know about: I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (1965). Seuss may not have realized it, but the theme of Solla Sollew is powerfully conservative.

 

Unfortunately, it was not Seuss’s most commercially successful book — sales were disappointing, even though it was written and issued during his heyday. The Morgan’s describe the book this way: “a somber morality tale, a Seussian Pilgrim’s Progress with the message that one can’t run away from trouble.” Yet it’s far deeper than that. In truth, Solla Sollew is a warning against what Eric Voegelin called immanentizing the eschaton. Put in plain English: Don’t seek heaven on earth.

 

The unnamed narrator — one of Seuss’s typical cat-like creatures — joins an odd fellow on his way to the City of Solla Sollew, which is

 

On the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo, Where they never have troubles! At least, very few.

 

It is, in short, Utopia. Trying to reach this impossible place, the narrator embarks on a series of misadventures, including an encounter with a loony knight who bellows, “I’m General Genghis Kahn Schmitz.” (“The finest line I have ever written,” Seuss once said.) Ultimately, he arrives at the outskirts of Solla Sollew — but he can’t get inside. It seems that a key has been lost. Everybody’s locked out. Frustrated, the city’s gatekeeper declares that he’s had enough:

 

And I’m off to the city of Boola Boo Ball On the banks of the beautiful River Woo-Wall, Where they never have troubles! No troubles at all!

 

Ah, yes: a place that’s even better than Utopia. By this time, of course, the narrator has caught on. He goes back home to confront his troubles rather than avoid them.

 

It’s a wonderful book with a beautiful message — and in Seuss’s liberal universe, perhaps even a subversive one.

 

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Dr. Seuss, Sadist: Oh, the torture we’ll know! (NRO, 040302)

 

While many of you will spend Tuesday eating green eggs and ham and wearing tall, striped hats — this being the 100th birthday of the legendary Dr. Seuss — I will not be joining in the merriment. The reason: I hate Dr. Seuss.

 

I realize this puts me in limited company. I can hold my Mothers Against Seuss annual meeting in Colin Farrell’s bullet-riddled phone booth, along with another membership-challenged group, Republicans for Kucinich.

 

It’s just not a popular stance. But really, you should join us, if you love the English language, read a thesaurus for fun, and believe the King James Version is beautiful as is and shouldn’t be dumbed down in special editions for children.

 

My problem with Seuss (rest his soul) can be summed up in this sentence:

 

That mind of yours, I heard him say, Is frightfully ga-fluppted. Your mind is murky-mooshy!

 

Now, I have a pretty good dictionary by Webster, but ga-fluppted isn’t in there. And I can’t recommend that my 11-year-old son, upon hearing me read this story to his younger siblings, incorporate the term into his next essay on self-governance in Iraq. (Although frightfully ga-fluppted does seem to be an accurate description at this point in time.)

 

I always thought the point of reading to children was to teach them about language. How does Dr. Seuss help? Heck, he knew so few words that he had to make most of his up.

 

And so I sit on the couch, surrounded by trusting children whose brains (I fervently pray) are still developing, and try to be cheerful about the latest Seuss book that came home from the library. My audience of four — only three of whom can speak — has a question about every page.

 

“Mommy, what’s a wocket?”

 

“What’s a ziff?” “What’s a zuff?” “What’s a nerkle?”

 

I maintain a pleasant demeanor for a few pages, but when someone asks if we have a truffula tree, I lose it.

 

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT A TRUFFULA TREE IS!” I shriek. “I don’t know what any of this stuff is! Just let me finish the stinkin’ book!”

 

A few years into motherhood, I became increasingly suspicious about this Seuss fellow. A quick search of the Internet proved my dark hunch to be true: This exalted man, this icon of American childhood, had no children of his own!

 

So, of course, he could write phrases like “In my yellow socks, I box my Gox, I box in yellow, Gox box socks” and expect us to read it to our kids each night while he lounged about at the corner café. He didn’t have to do it himself!

 

Oh, how he must have laughed at us.

 

I think I know why he did it. Seuss — Theodor Geisel in reality — was a failed novelist, and we failed novelists are a bitter lot. Geisel’s first book, To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, was rejected 43 times (by some pretty smart editors, I would say) before a friend took pity on him and published it.

 

In high school, Geisel drew cartoons under the pen name “Pete the Pessimist.”

 

Furthermore, Dr. Seuss was no doctor. To make a living during the Depression, he wrote jokes and drew cartoons. Once, he wrote a spoof on scientific developments, and as part of the joke, gave himself a doctorate using his middle name.

 

Oh, the deceit.

 

To be truthful (unlike Geisel), I must confess: I don’t hate all of his work. I like the Grinch. I can pronounce Grinch.

 

And Green Eggs and Ham has some literary merit.

 

Unfortunately, he didn’t stop there, inflicting 44 other books on us. And he wasn’t particularly nice about it, either. Here is a quote: “Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.”

 

See? He hated us!

 

Dr. Seuss’s real value, I believe, is in the realm of parody. Pick a topic, any topic, and you can find a Seuss-like parody of it on the web. (These courtesy of Seuss.org.)

 

If Dr. Seuss wrote computer training manuals:

 

If the address of the memory Makes your floppy disk abort, Then the socket packet pocket Has an error to abort!

 

If Dr. Seuss wrote E.R.:

 

Shep: This little boy has just been shot! His pulse is faint, his breath is weak, We did all we could to stop the leak! Riley: And this woman here, she has a broken hip.. Carol: How did she fall? How did she trip? Shep: This kid’s mom was getting in my hair So I shoved her — lightly — down some stairs!

 

If Dr. Seuss knew Al Gore:

 

Can we change these numbers here? Can we change them, calm my fears? What do you mean, George Dubya won? This is not fair, this is not fun! Let’s count them upside down this time! Let’s count them until the state is mine! I will not let this vote count stand! I do not like it! Gore I am!

 

There is Dr. Seuss on weddings. Dr. Seuss on Star Trek. Dr. Seuss on spam. There’s even Dr. Seuss on the Crucifixion (the Passion narrative voted most unlikely to be made into a movie.)

 

It inspires me to write my own:

 

Hey, maybe, I can put up with this nonsensical trash, Maybe Dr. Seuss I should not bash! I’ll stop the whining, I have avowed, Just please don’t make me read aloud!

 

— Jennifer Graham is a writer in Virginia. Complaints are welcome via Jennifergraham.com.

 

==============================

 

Saved! (Christianity Today, 040528)

 

review by Todd Hertz | posted 05/28/04

 

For over a year, evangelicals have feared Saved! would harshly attack them all as hypocritical, judgmental, and intolerant. The truth is, the movie is ultimately pro-faith and does make some perceptive criticisms of evangelicals. But not all is well.

 

The problem is a lack of balance between hypocritical, judgmental Christians and loving, accepting Christians. In fact, the movie almost exclusively shows two kinds of people—hypocritical, judgmental Christians who cause problems, and loving, accepting non-Christians who make things right.

 

The film is set at a Midwestern Baptist high school and centers on Mary (Jena Malone), a devoted Christian who says Jesus is the center of her life. When her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), reveals he’s gay, Mary is so shocked she bumps her head. In a daze, she has a vision of Jesus telling her, “Dean needs you now. Do everything you can to help him.” Mary chooses to do this by sleeping with him.

 

Before Mary finds out whether her therapy worked, Dean’s parents learn of his sexual preference and sends him to Mercy House, a Christian rehab center specializing in “de-gayification.” Soon after, Mary discovers she’s pregnant and goes into a crisis of faith. How could God do this?

 

When other students find out her secret, they pour on the judgment and spite—especially the hypocritical holy-roller Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). Mary finds support and compassion from the school’s only non-Christians: the Jewish Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and Hilary Faye’s wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin), who points out early on that he is not a Christian. The only Christian—although we don’t hear much about his faith—who shows any acceptance to the lost and disgruntled Mary is her cardboard love interest, Patrick (Patrick Fugit), the principal’s son.

 

For the most part, the basic idea behind Saved! is not all that offensive to Christians. It tries to document the journey of believers as they question faith, figure out its real meaning, and make it their own. The movie tries hard not to go after all Christians but instead points out that immature believers can easily miss Christ’s message entirely.

 

In doing this, the movie explores—and satires—the sometimes hateful and hypocritical ways some Christians treat homosexuals and anyone with apparent sin. In addition, Saved! pokes fun at the Christian bubble evangelicals can live in—presenting their own awards like “Best Christian Interior Decorator.” These criticisms are valid and could make some of us think about our behaviors—and that “bubble.”

 

In fact, a few of the film’s arguments will make Christians nod in agreement. When Dean is confronted by prejudice for being gay, he says, “I know in my heart Jesus still loves me.” Similarly, when Hilary Faye realizes she’s been hypocritical, she asks, “Do you think Jesus still loves me?” She’s told, yeah, he does.

 

The movie even ends on a faith-affirming note when Mary, surrounded by loved ones, admits she may have misunderstood what God wanted when it came to helping Dean. But she asks: “So what would Jesus do? I don’t know. But in the meantime, we’ll figure it out together.” Very well said.

 

The problem, though, is in the satire’s messiness, mostly resulting from poor filmmaking. It is pro-faith, but three miscues confuse things and undermine its messages.

 

First of all, it’s the non-Christians who exclusively provide all the lessons. For example, Cassandra’s the only person to lovingly embrace Mary when discovering her pregnancy; Hilary Faye just abducts her and performs a forced exorcism. And when Hilary Faye eventually learns her lesson, it is Roland—a non-Christian—who tells her Jesus still loves her.

 

Second, Hilary Faye is so exaggerated—without an equal foil—that the unintended message is, “All evangelicals are like this.” The point of the character is to show someone who doesn’t get true Christianity, but when she comically throws the Bible at someone and yells, “I’m full of Christ’s love,” it doesn’t say, “See, she doesn’t get it.” Instead, because there’s no alternative, it communicates that Christians are crazy. Saved! needs a strongly positive, level-headed, loving Christian—firm in his or her faith—in order to counteract Hilary Faye’s damage.

 

The third problem is that while spoofing Christians for not being tolerant enough, the movie’s alternative is simply this: If God let it happen or if you are happy, then how can it be wrong? This doesn’t translate well to a world that, as Saved! even tries to argue, isn’t black and white. It’s also dangerously confusing for believers in the Bible, a book that does specifically draw lines regarding moral behavior.

 

All this messiness is caused not only by poor filmmaking but also a general resentment. Several easy jokes and absurd stereotypes seem to stem purely from bitterness. Hilary Faye and Mary—inexplicably—fire guns at a shooting range. Scenes in the Christian school’s sex ed class are groan-worthy. And the movie’s Christians are almost universally naïve and cheesy. These jokes suggest someone behind Saved! was burned by the church, and this is their revenge—not purely an attempt to explore.

 

Any legitimate satire and social commentary in Saved! is blunted by this bitter malice and the messy connotations. But that’s fitting for a poorly made movie. It is rarely genuinely funny, the characters are wooden, and the isn’t clever or unique. The bright spot is the acting of Jena Malone who, in films like this and Life as a House, has shown real talent.

 

It is unfortunate the rest of the movie isn’t handled with as much talent or care, because Saved! could have been a gently-challenging but affirming movie about the evangelical subculture—if handled with the same love, acceptance and tolerance it preaches.

 

Talk About It   Discussion starters

 

1. How do the Christians in this film resemble or differ from Christians you know? How does the model of Christianity you see in your family, church and school stack up against how the Bible instructs Christians to live? How about the model of faith depicted in Saved!?

 

2. What direct criticisms or arguments about Christians in this movie made you angry? Which challenged you or made you think?

 

3. According to the movie, what does it mean to be saved? What does it mean to you? What does the Bible say?

 

4. The movie contends Christians need to be more accepting and tolerant of others. One character says, “If God meant us to be the same, why did he make us different?” Can you balance love and acceptance while standing against sin? How?

 

5. Mary has a crisis of faith. Is it understandable? What good comes of it? Should we raise questions about God? Why or why not?

 

The film’s distributor also has released its own Bible Study for youth groups based on the movie.

 

Related Elsewhere:

A ready-to-download, Bible-based discussion guide is available for this movie at ChristianBibleStudies.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

 

The movie is harsh on Christian teens. There’s a lot of swearing and discussions and jokes about sex. Sexual content includes Dean fondling Mary’s breasts (covered by a swimsuit). When they have sex, the camera focuses on the rocking bedside table. There’s also a weird Passion play scene where the boy playing Jesus is barely clothed and is overtly made to look sexy on the cross.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 09/19/02

Speaking of films that will potentially provoke strong reactions from Christian moviegoers, there’s a film in the works called Saved mentioned in the September 14 issue of The Vancouver Sun. It begins filming in Vancouver soon, with a cast that includes A Walk to Remember’s Mandy Moore, Home Alone’s Macaulay Culkin, Almost Famous’s Patrick Fugit, Jena Malone, Heather Matarazzo, Mary-Louise Parker, and other familiar faces. It’s being described as a “dark teen comedy” about a pregnant teenager suffering peer pressure from fellow Christian students at a Baptist high school. The film is produced by Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who described it as a sort of “monster vampire high school” movie, in which the monsters are “Jesus-freak teenagers.”

 

from Film Forum, 12/05/02

In other movie news, Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity), reports that a few Christian rock bands have turned down the invitation to have their work appear in a new movie called Saved. Their reason? The film seems designed to ridicule Christians as evangelical zombies hunting down saveable prey. The movie, produced by rock star Michael Stipe, stars Jena Malone (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) and Mandy Moore (A Walk to Remember.) Chattaway offers a plot summary and comments from the cast.

 

from Film Forum, 01/08/04

The film most likely to cause an outcry in the Christian press is called Saved. A satire about religious legalism, Saved takes place in the corridors of a Christian high school. The students are portrayed as something akin to zombies as they surround and try to redeem one of their fellow students who has become pregnant out of wedlock. Their condemnation and judgmentalism become the stuff of horror films. Mandy Moore (A Walk to Remember) plays the persecuted youth.

 

from Film Forum, 02/05/04

Mary (Jena Malone of Donnie Darko and Cold Mountain) is a senior at American Eagle Christian High School who finds herself stuck in a difficult circumstance. She believes passionately in Jesus. But now it seems her savior might have betrayed her.

 

Mary believes that she had a visitation from Jesus himself, and that he told her to “convert” her homosexual friend Dean (Chad Faust) into a heterosexual. The way she decides to do this is to seduce him and give up her virginity. Shockingly, this ploy fails. Mary gets pregnant, and Dean is shipped off to a camp where they will try to force the homosexuality out of him. Back in the corridors of the Christian high school, Mary now must face the persecution of her “righteous” classmates—a cruel, judgmental, and gay-hating crowd.

 

The worst of her persecutors, the prima donna of the school’s popular crowd, is Hilary Faye, a ruthlessly manipulative senior played by A Walk to Remember’s Mandy Moore. Hilary Faye is the lead singer of the school’s popular pop group—the Christian Jewels—and now she has turned against Mary, who is one of her backup singers. Meanwhile, the pop-singing egomaniac’s brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin of Home Alone and Party Monster), a cynic confined to a wheelchair, is taking a different path, pairing up with a disliked Jewish girl named Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and looking to rebel against his Christian community.

 

The situation is made worse by the fact that Mary’s mother (Mary-Louise Parker of TV’s The West Wing), reportedly the number one Christian interior decorator, has a crush on one of the teachers, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan of Amateur). But Pastor Skip’s son Patrick (Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous) has designs on winning Mary’s heart.

 

Directed by Brian Dannelly from a script he wrote with Michael Urban, Saved! is certain to raise eyebrows and stoke the fires of moviegoer debate. The film reportedly ends up affirming the existence of a benevolent deity, but ends up suggesting that God wants Christians to give up any divisive convictions about sexual orientation and just become a more tolerant community that embraces everybody’s differences.

 

The film itself was embraced by audiences at the Sundance Film Festival. There is no word yet on when it will be distributed to a larger audience.

 

Mainstream film critics are already giving the film some applause. David Rooney (Variety) says the film “appears bound to ruffle the feathers of religious conservatives—and may have exhausted its Utah audience at Sundance. However, the spirited comedy ultimately kneels before an all-embracing deity, which could appease the God squad provided they get through all the wickedly funny zealot-bashing that comes first.”

 

Duane Byrge (Hollywood Reporter) calls it “an irreverent, punchy jab at the more hideous transgressions of fundamentalist Christianity. Its larkish style, combined with its anti-authoritarian bent should win some enthusiastic teen followers, as well as the Babble-onians of the Upper West Side and Hollywoodland. [But] this comedic jape delivers some sharp jabs at obvious targets, namely the boosterish excesses of American religiosity. Like the best of teen-set comedies, it lashes out at the ruling authority figures conspiring against the kids in this case, the most dominant influence at the Christian high school are the religious leaders. In Saved! … the adults are all idiots.”

 

Don R. Lewis (Film Threat) shows an appetite for religion-bashing satire in his review. He describes Saved as “a sweet and funny movie that starts off with bite but settles into an honest feeling of happiness and acceptance for all types of people and their choices.”

 

He explains that the film offers “a gentle exploration of why the judgments of the Catholic Church are so screwed up. Mary’s journey and decisions … make great food for thought … especially for those who feel the need to adhere to many antiquated Christian philosophies. I mean, wasn’t Jesus all about loving one another and not judging?”

 

But Mr. Lewis, haven’t you just gone and judged the Catholic Church? If you’re going to preach the embrace of everything and everybody, you’d better start practicing it.

 

He concludes, “[The movie] could change the attitudes of families who feel the need to be good Christians in this world that has drastically changed from when the guidebook was written.” (Perhaps Lewis believes that Scripture’s instruction— “Speak the truth in love.”—has become outdated. Perhaps he would prefer it be revised to say, “Conceal the truth so as not to offend anyone or to imply that some paths might be wiser than others.”)

 

Surely Christian communities have earned some of the jokes made at their expense. Clearly, the church is not entirely innocent on charges of judgmentalism and hypocrisy. But is the world really ready for the consequences of telling the church to surrender God’s wisdom—which Christ affirmed—about right and wrong?

 

Religious press critics have yet to see and review Saved! You can expect a volatile and heated discussion when the film eventually finds a larger audience either on the big screen or on DVD.

from Film Forum, 06/03/04

Almost exactly a year ago, Film Forum featured a survey of critics and readers regarding portrayals of Christians in film. Which were the most profound examples of Christians onscreen? Which were the most lamentable?

 

It is likely that Brian Dannelly’s satire Saved! could end up on both lists, depending on which viewer you ask.

 

Saved! portrays the Christian students of a strictly evangelical Christian high school. These Jesus-praising students have embraced a superficial, judgmental, legalistic form of Christianity that leads them to treat unbelievers and troubled peers with condescension, arrogance, and “intolerance.” When Mary (Jena Malone), one of the popular, outwardly pious Christian girls, finds herself pregnant after making a big mistake, she becomes a social outcast. Thus, she learns to sympathize with the other spiritual exiles in the corridors of the school—the wheelchair-bound cynic (Macaulay Culkin) and the Jewish girl (Eva Ammuri), who rejects this peer-pressure form of faith.

 

Most Christian film critics are appalled by the film, offended by the portrayal of Christians as judgmental, aggressively propagandistic, and condescending. Granted, Dannelly does tend to paint all Christians this way, betraying an unfortunate prejudice. But then again, the film does accurately reflect the un-Christlike behavior of certain sections of the church. Some Christians are speaking up that the film does reflect parts of Christian culture that they have personally experienced.

 

My full review is at Looking Closer.

 

Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) writes, “The truth is, the movie is ultimately pro-faith and does make some perceptive criticisms of evangelicals. But not all is well. The problem is a lack of balance between hypocritical, judgmental Christians and loving, accepting Christians. In fact, the movie almost exclusively shows two kinds of people—hypocritical, judgmental Christians who cause problems, and loving, accepting non-Christians who make things right.”

 

“While the film’s mocking tone and unflattering wall-to-wall stereotyping of fundamentalists will leave evangelicals feeling anything but enraptured, much of what passes as humor should leave an equally bad taste in the mouths of mainline Protestants and Catholics as well,” says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). “But turning the critical cheek, Saved! does seem sincere in trying to remind viewers that religion can be twisted into something divisive rather than unifying, and can be used as an excuse for intolerance. The film also deserves credit for showing a young, unwed mother taking responsibility for her actions, rather than opting for the easy abortion route.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, “The script has an obvious axe to grind regarding institutional Christianity and the actors are hamstrung into stereotypical behavior as a result.” He also looks at Mandy Moore’s character of Hilary Faye, concluding, “With a holier-than-thou attitude and a mind narrowed by pride and smugness, she represents what happens when love is removed from religion.” In conclusion, he admits, “I would be hypocritical myself to say that hypocrisy does not exist in the church. It does and it is fair game for satire and sarcasm. But Dannelly paints such a one-sided picture that his points, even if valid, lose their emphasis.”

 

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, “Dannelly claims that Saved! presents ‘authentic Christian teens who make poor choices, have a crisis of faith, seek answers, and ultimately emerge with a genuine faith made strong through the fire of life.’ But what Dannelly considers ‘genuine faith’ is expressed onscreen as nothing more than feel-good, wishy-washy pluralism.”

 

Jeremy Landes (Christian Spotlight) strictly criticizes the film in his review. In answer, Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) answered him point for point:

 

Landes: “Christians are depicted as notorious gossips.”

 

Wright: “As a former church elder, I can vouch for the veracity of this charge.”

 

Landes: “Pastor Skip begins an affair with Mary’s mother, who also professes to be a believer.”

 

Wright: “I can provide first-hand accounts of plenty of church-wrecking affairs by pastors. I mean, really, this is no secret, is it?”

 

Landes: “Christians, especially leaders, are depicted as liars, adulterers, and hypocrites.”

 

Wright: “We’re certainly not exempt from those failings.”

 

Landes: “Based on this movie, one could easily get the idea that calling yourself an evangelical Christian puts you in the categories of judgmental, rude, violent, and stupid.”

 

Wright concludes: “Why should we be surprised when satires like this—based, yes, on very justified stereotypes—come along? And why get worked up about it? The world will know we are Christ’s disciples by our love, not by nice, clean little movies that depict Christian High Schoolers and teachers like the plastic little saints that we know they’re not. In my book, the church has got a lot more to account for than films like Saved! Can’t we save our harshest judgment for ourselves? God knows we deserve it.”

 

Chris Utley (Hollywood Jesus) says the movie is making fun of hypocrisy, not mocking Christianity. “There are people who have walked away from the Lord because of girls (and boys and even men and women) who behave like Hilary Faye.”Addressing” holier-than-thou evangelicals” (and he includes himself among them), he says, “Close your Bibles, get off your knees, and get out to the theatre. See this movie when it hits your town. When and if you feel ashamed and disgusted by the film, go to the nearest mirror and let that shame and disgust fall upon yourselves. May we repent as we drive home in our cars.”

 

Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) says, “Those who have gone to Christian schools or grown up in the evangelical youth culture may find that the film hits a few bullseyes along the way. Full disclosure: I attended Christian schools myself, and I recognize much of the absurdity on display in this film, from the pastor who uses juvenile buzzwords and catchphrases … in an earnest attempt to sound relevant to teens, to the parallel universe we Christians have formed for ourselves, with its own skateboarding associations and interior-decorator awards.”

 

Chattaway adds that some aspects of the movie “do not ring so true. Most significantly, the film tends to divide the characters into two camps: those who are overly pious and judgmental … and those who shrug off moral concerns with a sort of I’m-okay-you’re-okay indifference. The film ends on a preachy note of its own, rejecting just about any belief or moral standard that might get in the way of letting people do their thing.”

 

Just as Christianity Today Movies’ Stefan & Jeanne Ulstein interviewed Brian Dannelly here a few weeks ago, Chattaway questioned Dannelly about the research he did for the film. The writer/director responded, “I would … go so far as to say that everything in the film is something I experienced or researched. I didn’t try to make up stuff.” The filmmaker does admit, however, that he could have done a better job representing “the middle-road Christian. [The Patrick character is] very kind and he never denounces his faith.”

 

While I agree with Greg Wright, that the film’s critique of Christians is well-deserved, I also agree that the kind of Christianity Brian Dannelly ends up recommending is a variety that all-too-easily excuses notions of right and wrong. While we are all loved by the God that made us, we are also encouraged to show love to each other, and that includes having the conviction to help others understand the difference between behavior that glorifies God and behavior that offends him. God makes it clear that he loves sinners, but he also tells us that he hates sin. Thus, Saved! is right about the problem, but wrong about the answer.

 

Many mainstream critics have also made the distinction that the film is reprimanding Christian hypocrites, not attacking the Christian faith.

 

MaryAnn Johanson (The Flick Filosopher) says, “The Automatons for Jesus who really, really need to see this movie will avoid it because they’ll have been told it’s anti-Christian, and Automatons for Jesus do what they’re told. Saved! isn’t anti anything, except perhaps intolerance. And self-righteousness. And the idea that slapping a ‘Christian’ label on anything makes it holy.”

 

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) also praises Saved! He says the movie is “arguing not against fundamentalism but against intolerance; it argues that Jesus would have embraced the cast-outs and the misfits, and might have leaned toward situational ethics instead of rigid morality. Saved! is an important film as well as an entertaining one. Jesus counseled more acceptance and tolerance than some of his followers think. By the end of the movie, mainstream Christian values have not been overthrown, but demonstrated and embraced. Those who think Christianity is just a matter of enforcing their rulebook have been, well, enlightened. And that all of this takes place in a sassy and smart teenage comedy is, well, a miracle.”

from Film Forum, 06/10/04

Reviewing Brian Dannelly’s satire of life in a Christian high school, J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, “The problem with Saved! is that it thinks it’s making a realistic film, one that has something to say about contemporary teen culture and specifically evangelical culture. But with everyone but Mary a simple two-dimensional character, it’s hard to take any of this seriously. It’s just rehashing old clichés. And in the end, the only evangelicals we root for are the ones who largely abandon any pretense of being evangelical. If those sort of movies were made about other religious groups, people would howl in protest.”

 

==============================

 

Troy (Christianity Today, 040514)

review by Peter T. Chattaway | posted 05/14/04

 

Gladiator gave us a nasty, brutish vision of the world, but it compensated somewhat with a soothing and vaguely pagan belief in the afterlife. The Passion of The Christ gave us the suffering and execution of the Jewish Messiah, but it concluded with a brief glimpse of the resurrection by which he conquered death. Now comes Troy, the biggest Greco-Roman epic of them all—so far—and its theology is of a more agnostic sort.

 

Ironically enough, the warriors of this film spend a lot of time killing each other partly because they see no hope for a meaningful life beyond this world; for them, the gods and goddesses are mostly rumors at best, their wills impossible to discern, and the afterlife is a vague, shadowy realm that provides no comfort. For these men, the best kind of immortality they can hope for is to have their names live on the lips of their fellow men for ages to come—and the surest way to ensure their fame seems to be to kill as many people in battle as possible.

 

Troy, then, is about the quest for personal glory in a heartless and indifferent world, and the unfortunate thing about Wolfgang Petersen’s mega-budgeted, star-studded film is that it, too, lacks heart and comes across like a hollow quest for Hollywood glory. Early on in the film, Agamemnon (Brian Cox), king of all Greece, reluctantly concedes that if he is going to embark on the most ambitious military invasion of all time, he will need Achilles (Brad Pitt), the greatest but also one of the most uncontrollable warriors who has ever lived, on his side. So he sends the smooth-talking Odysseus (Sean Bean) to lure Achilles with the promise that this war will be his greatest opportunity to boost his own fame—and it is not too hard to imagine similar deal-making discussions taking place behind the scenes between moguls, agents, and actors. But while warriors might get away with a blunt display of force, resources, and technical skill, filmmakers must stir the heart and soul. While Troy boasts a stalwart cast and is fairly impressive on a technical level, it falters on nearly every level that might be called artistic or creative.

 

Let’s start with the screenplay and give writer David Benioff (25th Hour) his due for trying to be relatively faithful to Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, which, despite being essentially the first great work of Western literature, has never fared all that well on the big or small screen. Earlier movies about the Trojan War have borrowed a few elements from Homer, but have tended to focus more on the doomed romance between the Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) and the Spartan queen Helen (Diane Kruger), whose politically disastrous affair gives Helen’s brother-in-law Agamemnon the excuse he needs to launch his war. Troy, however, puts the emphasis back where it belongs—on the pouting, sulking, hot-tempered and seemingly indestructible warrior Achilles. His seething rage at the start of the poem, and his tearful recognition of his own mortality at the end of it, provide the arc that holds The Iliad together.

 

Still, despite Benioff’s fidelity to the material—fans of ancient myth may especially enjoy the brief cameo appearances by characters like Aeneas and Anchises—he also heavily demythologizes the story and makes some major changes to its basic narrative contours. (Suffice to say that at least one major character who is still alive in Homer’s sequel, The Odyssey, bites the dust here.) The gods, who wade into the thick of battle in The Iliad, are virtually absent from this film. A scene of Achilles’s mother Thetis (Julie Christie) predicting his death if he goes to Troy is the closest we get to any hint that the gods may be active in this world, and even this scene is open to interpretation. Achilles himself has been softened into a more romantic and sympathetic character; the Trojan slave girl he claimed as his property in the myth, he now treats more or less like a genuine lover. (The fact that she was committed to celibacy in the service of Apollo before Achilles’s men captured her—in effect, Achilles is sleeping with a nun—is quickly glossed over.)

 

All these changes would not be so bad if the film had breathed some life into its characters, but the actors do little more than fill the gaps between battle scenes with rote dialogue about glory, honor, seeking the will of the gods, the fact that there is nothing glorious about seeing men die, and so on. Pitt famously worked out for the role, but he still somehow lacks the presence that a formidable character like Achilles requires. Eric Bana (Hulk) is more successful as Hector, the tragic Trojan prince who wants nothing more than to protect his family, but goes to war because that is his duty and his talent. Peter O’Toole, as the Trojan king Priam, is restrained to some degree by his regal bearing, but he, too, expresses a love for his family that turns especially poignant in one of the film’s final scenes.

 

Hanging over everything is the film’s deeply ambivalent inquiry into the nature of religious faith. The nobler characters often talk about honoring the gods, but how does one do that when the gods themselves, according to Greek myth, don’t even honor one another? Achilles, the one person who actually claims to have seen the gods, also commits some of the most sacrilegious acts in the film. Neither honoring nor dishonoring the gods makes any difference to his fate, in the end, because in his world, all mortal humans will end up in Hades.

 

It is difficult to tell whether Troy feels like a hollow exercise in epic filmmaking because its characters lack any sense of their own purpose, or because Petersen’s direction is so pedestrian and derivative of earlier films. Indeed, Troy fails to offer anything that might compare to the operatic heights of Peter Jackson’s recent Lord of the Rings trilogy. This comparison might seem unfair, but is inevitable when the film features so many digitally generated aerial clashing-army shots, and when two of the film’s co-stars are former members of the Fellowship. These impressions are deepened by James Horner’s unimaginative score, which shamelessly apes the exotic vocalizations of Gladiator whenever it strives to sound mournful and sounds like the perfunctory rush job that it was. Homer’s poem begins with a call for the Muse to sing of Achilles’s rage, but Troy, the film, does not sing the way a movie should.

Talk About It    Discussion starters

1. Is glory a good thing? Can anyone apart from God ever receive it? If so, how? How should we regard “heroes” of the faith, from biblical times to the early church to today?

 

2. Is immortality something to be grasped, or pursued? How do we perceive immortality, as Christians? What does it mean that Christ has conquered death? If death were not conquered, then how should we regard this life?

 

3. How do we discern the will of God? What role should “signs” or “omens” play? How do we distinguish between those decisions we are free to make for ourselves, on our own instincts, and those decisions for which we might need a little more divine input?

 

Related Elsewhere:

 

A ready-to-download, Bible-based discussion guide is available for this movie at ChristianBibleStudies.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

Troy is full of stabbings, impalings, and other battlefield wounds, though it does not linger on them so much as acknowledge what happens in warfare. The film also features several scenes of Achilles in the nude, sometimes with his various lovers—the first time we see him, he is in bed with two women—plus it depicts the adulterous affair between Paris and Helen, though not in a graphic way.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 05/20/04

In Troy, thousands of soldiers put their lives on the line so an angry king can bring his brother’s adulterous wife Helen (Diane Kruger) back home from the city of Troy where she’s hiding with Paris (Orlando Bloom), her lover.

 

But wait … no, that’s just a front. The Mycenean king Agamemnon (X2’s Bryan Cox) is only using Helen (Diane Kruger) as an excuse. In truth, he’s marching so he can claim Troy and expand his empire. The city of Troy, ruled by King Priam (Peter O’Toole), is defended by Prince Hector (Hulk’s Eric Bana). He and a host of warriors are forced to defend their home because of local boy Paris’s affection for his lover, the cheating Queen of Sparta. Troy is a citadel that has proven impervious to attack. But one soldier, Achilles (Brad Pitt), who cares only about his own glory, sees an opportunity for fame and fortune. And so he joins the attack, ready to run his spear through anyone who will meet his challenge.

 

While the film boasts an impressive cast and epic animated battles a la The Return of the King, the studio has promoted the film’s other selling point. Apparently Pitt’s exposed, muscular torso is the real attraction for many people, just as his long flowing hair seemed the focus of Legends of the Fall. The emphasis on brawny smackdown demands so much screentime that the Greek gods, the major players in Homer’s famous literary epic The Iliad, are only mentioned in passing references. Those hoping for a detailed translation of the book will have to complain to director Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm, Das Boot) and writer David Benioff (The 25th Hour).

 

Critics agree that the film delivers some dazzling duels, but many also agree that the film’s as meaningless and superficial as Pitt’s well-oiled exhibitionism.

 

Troy “is about the quest for personal glory in a heartless and indifferent world, and the unfortunate thing about Wolfgang Petersen’s mega-budgeted, star-studded film is that it, too, lacks heart and comes across like a hollow quest for Hollywood glory,” says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). “It is difficult to tell whether Troy feels like a hollow exercise in epic filmmaking because its characters lack any sense of their own purpose, or because Petersen’s direction is so pedestrian and derivative of earlier films.”

 

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, “Petersen has crafted a bold portrait of war, which is both epic in scope and intimate in its emotional poignancy. While the pre-Christian world of Troy is fueled by a toxic stew of tribal nationalism, revenge and rabid chauvinism, it also celebrates virtues such as honor, courage and loyalty.”

 

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says the film “skews basically negative on religion,” but concludes, “As a retelling of a classic war tale Troy does a more than respectable job. Many of the battle scenes are riveting, especially a dramatic early scene involving a spectacular stunt and the bravura showdown between Achilles and Hector, one of the best duels I’ve ever seen. The drama is engaging; unlike Gladiator, which expected us to root for the hero, Troy asks us only to appreciate the characters’ conflicts and situations. And Peter O’Toole as the Trojan king Priam steals the entire film with one single scene.”

 

Nevertheless, Brad Pitt’s performance bothers Greydanus. “[He’s] poetry in motion on the battlefield … but is unconvincing in quiet moments and does nothing to make the gratuitous bedroom scenes less laughable.”

 

Marvin Olasky (World) says, “Parents should keep in mind bloody fighting scenes and two bed scenes in which private parts are barely kept private and illicit sex is made to look good: Troy is rated R. But the language is clean, and those who like summer epics and can tolerate Hollywood’s typical spices will probably enjoy this one.”

 

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) compares Troy to another famous war film—Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which he says “magically gave personality to its legions of soldiers. The depiction of death on the battlefield in that remarkable film honors those who gave their lives for their country. [In Troy] Petersen does not accomplish this reverence for the sanctity of life. His dying warriors are merely pawns to liven up the lopsided script. The battle sequences serve only to entertain us, much like the goings-on in the Coliseum did for the citizens of Rome. You may get an adrenalin rush from the epic grandness that a $150-million budget can bring to a special effects department, but I don’t think you’ll feel much emotion.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees. “We never become emotionally connected to the events being enacted for us. We are always aware of the actors behind the characters and the CGI effects behind the action.”

 

Films like this usually draw men more than women. What will women think? Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, “Troy is a beautiful film full of special effects, dramatic war scenes … and enough testosterone to power Sparta’s ships. Women will be drawn by the history, the costumes and the romance—if not Pitt’s buff body, which is seen naked from above the groin and the side in several scenes.” She says, “The film fails to convey the drama and excitement of Gladiator and feels more like the dated Ben Hur. Not all the details match the original work, so students of the book will be disappointed. The biggest flaw is the characterization, which remains underdeveloped.”

 

Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) writes, “For a viewer desiring a pure hero to root for, there’s a scarcity of choices here.” He adds, “I was amazed that the script was carefully written to avoid any explicit teaching that the Greek gods were ‘real.’”

 

To explore the authenticity of Petersen’s Troy, check out Archaeology.org’s examination of the film’s décor and battlefield “re-enactments.” To read the ho-hum responses of mainstream critics to the year’s first major blockbuster, click here.

from Film Forum, 05/20/04

Having seen Troy, Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) call the movie “a Hollywood spectacular that succeeds in entertainment value. When it comes to the heart, it only shows what destruction comes from selfish desire.”

 

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Shrek 2 (Christianity Today, 040519)

review by Jeffrey Overstreet | posted 05/19/04

 

When we bade farewell to the happily honeymooning ogres Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz), it seemed like a “happily ever after” ending. True love had saved Fiona from the curse that bound her in the guise of a human being during the daylight. At last she was free to be her ogre-ly self, 24-7. She had learned to accept who she was, and she had discovered someone who loved her that way. Shrek had overcome his antisocial attitude and become a local hero. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) seemed happy to have found friends who would tolerate his nonstop talk.

 

Viewers cheered for Shrek’s triumph, but it was Donkey who stole the show. So, sure enough, we get an extra helping of donkey’s braying nonsense in Shrek 2. We also get more of everything we liked about the first film, and less of the things that didn’t work.

 

In Shrek 2, Shrek begrudgingly accepts an invitation to travel with Fiona to the land of Far Far Away. Fiona’s parents (John Cleese and Julie Andrews) are expecting to meet a charming new son-in-law … literally. They think Fiona’s rescuer was Prince Charming himself.

 

But Charming (Rupert Everett), who was indeed dispatched to rescue Fiona from captivity in a dragon cave, got there too late. Shrek had already done the job. Apparently, Shrek never played theatres in the land of Far Far Away-the king and queen know nothing of Fiona’s marriage to the jolly green giant from the swamp. Thus, it’s not just Shrek that will surprise them. They’ll be shocked to see their daughter looking ogre-ish in the daylight.

 

When Charming learns that Fiona’s already made her marital vows, he returns home to plot Plan B with his mother, the infamous Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders). While Far Far Away is governed by royalty, Godmother’s the one who really runs the show, ruling the kingdom with a dangerous magic wand and a pantry full o’ potions.

 

Shrek and Fiona are welcomed to the castle by a crowd of astonished and appalled locals. The people of Far Far Away, like their reigning monarchs, judge others by their appearance—and Shrek’s not their idea of admirable. For a while, it looks like a storybook retelling of Meet the Parents—when Shrek and the king trade insults over dinner, he looks likely to “Hulk out.” While Fiona consoles her fuming husband behind closed doors, the king becomes an easy subject for the manipulative Godmother. He determines to take Shrek out of the picture—first, by the hiring of a notorious assassin, and then by the influence of enchanted beverages that promise more than your daily dose of antioxidants.

 

The first threat, a feisty feline in famous footwear, is played by Antonio Banderas with panache and personality—Puss-in-Boots nearly steals the show. If there’s a Shrek 3, there will be at least as much expectation of more Puss as there is of more Donkey. And the way things look, we may as well speculate about Shrek 4, 5 and 6. Banderas’ exuberant contributions and some animation brilliance make this one of the all-time great cartoon cats. He deserves his own franchise.

 

Director Andrew Adamson and his team of co-writers keep the story moving at a quick clip, packing the screen with cleverness that will reward repeated viewings. He also guides the characters with more confidence; Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey interact as comfortably as if they’d starred in a sitcom together for decades. The DreamWorks animation team serves up another dazzling show of animation that raises the bar yet again for Pixar and Disney studios, but there’s no “showoff” factor this time. The look of the film supports the story instead of drawing attention to itself.

 

Although Harry Gregson-Williams’s pitch-perfect soundtrack is again punctuated by somewhat intrusive pop songs (I still wince when I remember the appalling abuse of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in the first film), this time the selections are better suited to the material. Even such superlative artists such as Tom Waits and Nick Cave fit right in. While I prefer the pure storytelling style of Finding Nemo and The Iron Giant, Shrek 2’s relentless parodies of other movies work better here than they did last time. Spoofs of Mission: Impossible and TV’s “COPs” earn big laughs while buoying the characters along toward an adrenalin-rush conclusion, one of the fastest and most frenzied action climaxes ever.

 

Shrek 2 ends up not so much an extension of Shrek’s story as an improved retelling. The theme remains the same—we should not judge a book by its cover, even if that cover is lime green and covered in warts. The first Shrek declared open season on Disney clichés, throwing not-so-subtle jabs at the way Mickey Mouse’s house has become preoccupied with stories of characters who long to be something they’re not.

 

In defense of those “transformation stories,” such fairy tales as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella speak to our deep suspicion that we are not what we were meant to be. It’s no accident that such stories recur throughout history and cultures. They strike chords that resonate within us because we are, indeed, flawed, “asleep,” incomplete. On some level, we’re waiting for the day that our Creator will redeem us from our “cursed” state, purge us of our sins, save us from a wicked world, and raise us up to the ideal existence he intended.

 

Nevertheless, Disney deserved a critique. It’s not Disney’s focus on fairy tales that is the problem; it’s the way their versions of fairy tales eliminate the complexity of the source material, and the way they have inclined generations toward the idea that a true happy ending involves the blessing of Barbie-like good looks.

 

This time around, it’s not Disney that’s the butt of the joke (although there are few more unmistakable potshots taken at the studio giant along the way). Shrek 2 has the “beauties” of Beverly Hills in its sights. With a red carpet welcome party hosted by a Joan Rivers look-alike, the filmmakers make a mockery of Oscar glitz and glamour. Through the Fairy Godmother’s exultation in the power of her potions, we see a media-wise perspective on the culture of cosmetic surgery.

 

Celebrity culture has polluted popular imaginations with poor definitions of beauty. On “reality” TV, women and men give up their natural appearances for artificial beauty in order to gain acceptance and temporary happiness. One such show is called The Swan, a reference to the famous fairy tale of the ugly duckling. These shows only reinforce the insecurities of viewers who have been sold a lie. They tell us that we have to change our exterior in order to be truly satisfied. The Shrek movies remind us that it is not our appearance that needs changing, but our hearts. Further, it affirms that no matter what we look like, we all have value, gifts, and the potential to truly make a difference.

 

But the implications go as far as viewers care to take them. Shrek 2’s critique applies to any culture that has its codes of behavior and appearance. The land of Far Far Away might be reflecting playground ethics or high school culture. But it might also be your political party. It might be your health club. It could be your neighborhood, or your nation. It might sometimes even be the church.

 

Yes, even Christian “culture” has its prejudices, tending to jump to unflattering conclusions about unusual visitors. They may not be green-skinned or smelly. But they might have colorful language, an audacious sense of jewelry, or some ideas about love, politics, sexuality, or even diet that is dissonant with our own. How often do we wish we could change a stranger’s vocabulary, appearance, or manners so that we can feel more comfortable with them? Certainly we have room to be concerned about inappropriate behavior, because choices can lead to serious consequences. But if we approach others with an aim to change them rather than an aim to know them, to love them, and to exemplify a better life for them, we make ourselves ugly with arrogance in the process.

Will Shrek give in to the pressure, and conform to the Far Far Away idea of beautiful? Will he and Donkey succumb to Fairy Godmother’s tempting offer of an extreme makeover? Moviegoers can rest easy. A saint is known by his response to temptations, and in the land of fairy tales, Shrek and Fiona are holy fools.

 

Talk About It    Discussion starters

1. The people of Far Far Away think ogres are ugly and assume the worst. Have you ever known or seen people—perhaps even yourself or your church—pre-judge those who don’t “fit in”? Have you ever had your first impressions of someone changed for the better?

 

2. What is popular culture’s idea of beauty? Why is cosmetic surgery so popular? What do people assume will happen if they change their outward appearance?

 

3. What do TV commercials say about our “needs”? What cultural shortcuts promise us satisfaction and happiness? What is the real outcome of taking those shortcuts? Have you ever taken a shortcut to satisfaction and suffered for it? What are the better routes to satisfaction and fulfillment? Why aren’t those things advertised?

 

4. Not everyone in Hollywood buys into the culture of superficiality and exterior beauty. Can you think of any current celebrities who might feel this way?

 

5. What does Scripture say about God’s measure of beauty and integrity?

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

Shrek 2 has a few flatulence jokes and other off-color punchlines, a few winks at the grownups regarding sexual flirtations, and some comical violence that is more likely to make kids laugh than wince. If you’re unsure whether to take your kids or not, rent Shrek 1 and preview it for yourself. They’re similar in that sense.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 05/20/04

Shrek stands as one of the most successful family films of all time. When it was released, it boasted standard-setting animation. It wove fairy tales together with a wicked wit, turning the genre on its head and mercilessly spoofing the often-superficial, saccharine storytelling of Disney animation studios. But it also damaged its own credibility by relying far too heavily on cheap punch lines, flatulence jokes, and pop culture references, as if the filmmakers did not trust their own story to hold the attention of both children and grownups.

 

Shrek 2 serves up a lot more of the good stuff and finds a better balance. While it tells basically the same story in a new context, it’s funnier, digs deeper, and provides a fast and frenzied finale. The relentless references to other films, television shows, and pop culture personalities are brilliantly employed so that they do not detract from the storytelling, which remains simple but strong. In fact, by turning Hollywood—and the cosmetic surgery culture it has spawned—into the target of its sharpened comedy arrows, Shrek 2 is a much more resonant tale of integrity and authenticity versus the forces of conformity and superficiality.

 

My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

 

“Shrek 2, in many ways, is an improvement over the original film,” says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). “The satire on popular culture seems sharper; the crude humor has been softened; the characters are both familiar and fresh; and the computer generated artwork seems more technologically advanced. Bottom line: the film is a winner for all concerned.”

 

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) enthuses, “Really good films are oh-so-rare these days, so when one combines top-notch writing, excellent acting, a positive message and brilliant satire about pop culture, I can’t help but rave. I’ve also never been a fan of animation, but I am now.”

 

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, “Shrek 2 echoes both the wit and charm, if not the freshness, of the original—a rare achievement in the world of sequels. The wall-to-wall humor will keep young viewers laughing, with the bawdier zingers ricocheting off their funny bones and above their heads. Adults will also have fun spotting the parodies of both current and classic Hollywood fare. And while the follow-up’s message of self-acceptance is somewhat recycled from the earlier installment, it is one well worth repeating, especially in our superficial society which puts such a premium on surface appearance at the exclusion of inner worth.”

from Film Forum, 06/03/04

A few reviews for previously released films appeared in the religious press these past two weeks.

 

Reviewing Shrek 2, Andrew Coffin (World) says, “The sequel to the phenomenally successful 2001 hit features even more impressive computer animation, some great gags, and an engaging storyline. And it’s not quite as offensive as the first film. Despite a balance shift for the better, though, Shrek 2 still contains enough inappropriate material to be disturbing to parents.”

 

Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) writes, “Shrek 2 lacks much of the charm of the first movie. It has too much intrigue and not enough whimsy.” But he calls it “a good movie. Shrek 2 will entertain you, but it lacks the warmth and the grossness of the original. That may not be your cup of tea, but the child in your life will be the one who misses it most.”

 

Josh Hurst (Reveal), on the other hand, says it’s “one of those rare sequels that outshines its predecessor in every way, and, in the process, gets in a few good jabs at the excesses of Hollywood. … While not a flawless film, Shrek 2 finds the franchise growing up a bit, gaining more mature storytelling and finding a stronger moral compass.”

 

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Raising Helen (Christianity Today, 040528)

review by Agnieszka Tennant | posted 05/28/04

 

As far as heartwarming comedies go, this one has all the parts necessary: the heart, the warmth, and the comedy. At the outset, the storytellers get the heart commiserating with three grieving children—Audrey (Hayden Panettiere), Henry (Spencer Breslin), and Sarah (Abigail Breslin)—when their parents are killed in a car accident. The heart warms as the kids’ supercool young aunt gives up her exciting career, and the perks that come with it, to take on the uncool role of the orphaned kids’ guardian. The chuckles come easily, even in the predictable moments, as you watch dazzling Helen Harris (Kate Hudson) grow into her new skin.

 

Helen’s choice to take the journey from self-centeredness to selflessness is what distinguishes this film’s heroine from those in director Gary Marshall’s other romantic comedies, Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries, where the focus is on the leading lady’s needs and wants.

 

Two God-sent cheerleaders come to Helen’s aid as she undergoes her drastic makeover. Those raising Helen are her oldest sister and supermom Jenny (Joan Cusack), who has no problem raising anyone, even her unborn child, and a hunky Lutheran pastor played by John Corbett in the same way he played the hunky fiancé in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

 

Although predictable in places, the romantic dramedy represents Hollywood’s refreshingly realistic correction of the 20th century feminism: It is possible for unexpected, ill-timed motherhood, with all its emotional and financial hassles, to gratify a woman in a way unsurpassed even by a successful career in the fashion industry, a Manhattan zip code, and lenient sex life. Helen soon learns—as all people raising children do—that she can’t have it all. Manhattan gives way to Queens; sleeping with men to sleeping with three children (sometimes literally, in the same bed); nightclub hopping to teaching Sarah how to tie her shoes and shooing teenage boys away from Audrey. The party girl persona must decrease, the Mom persona must increase—and that not without growing pains.

 

Soon after she gets custody of the children, Helen scrambles to remain the go-getter at her job as assistant to Dominique (Helen Mirren), a high-maintenance head of a modeling agency. Sure enough, she fails. Often delayed or otherwise distracted by her nieces and nephew, she cannot fulfill the caprices of Dominique, in whose brief appearances Mirren is an evil delight. “Fashion and family don’t mix,” the fashion maven dryly declares. So the kids win. Helen flashes her easy, winsome smile, and gets a much less demanding, but also much less paying, job at a car dealership.

 

But not all mothering decisions are so easy for Helen. When it comes to disciplining teenager Audrey, Helen just can’t bring herself to act or look like a party-pooping parent. That’s when she calls her oldest sister Jenny, an obsessively in-charge stay-at-home mother, in which role Cusack showcases her comedic flair. Jenny is openly perplexed, and secretly jealous, at the deceased sister’s designation of Helen—the freewheeling anti-Mom who doesn’t tell on teenage Audrey after she gets a fake ID—instead of her, as the children’s caretaker.

 

As sisterly rivalry surfaces in the sometimes-charged interactions between Helen and Jenny, the movie gains a convincing emotional texture. But when the mystery of their sister’s choice is revealed in letters she had written to the sisters, Jenny, too, will grow as a result.

 

Pastor Dan seems to be another God-sent helper for Helen in an answer to a prayer she sighs as she’s driving in Queens in search for a decent school. But no, scratch it. God would have sent her a pastor who’s a little less desperate to prove that not all pastors are pontificators with stained-window voices. Played insipidly by Corbett, the minister is principal of the private school that ends up enrolling the children. Unlike the actor—who told Christianity Today Movies that he’s a born-again Christian—Pastor Dan is not forthcoming about his faith. Just the opposite.

 

The director and script writers (Patrick Clifton, Beth Rigazio, Jack Amiel, and Michael Begler) have done ministers everywhere a favor by daring to portray a pastor as a potential object of female desire, and not the butt of jokes.

 

“I’m a sexy man of God, and I know it,” announces Pastor Dan at one cute point, and the moment is instantly ripe for a passionate kiss. It’s only too bad that the script is so intent on making the man of God so with-it that whatever it is that drove him to become a pastor in the first place gets crowded out by his played-up hunkiness and hipness. He even watches—or just jokes about watching—dirty movies, and then tries to use this asset in trying to get Helen to go out with him. True, he is there for her in times of trouble, as is the pastoral thing to do. But the man’s soul is nowhere to be found. We never really glimpse the Spirit—any spirit, really—inside this minister. Nor do we learn if there’s anything besides Helen’s looks that attracts him to the woman who is not a churchgoer.

 

But when the two evoke laughs, you forgive such character-development omissions. When Helen lies to Pastor Dan that she and the children are Lutherans, thinking that it’s a requirement for the students at the Lutheran school, he deadpans. “We’ll have to take a blood test to make sure.” “All three of them are hemophiliacs,” she’s quick to fib.

 

In this scene, and in others, she’ll do anything for the kids. When a woman’s right to choose is guided by her concern for the well being of a child—however inconvenient the consequences—it yields freedom and peace of conscience. This is Helen’s lib. A call for altruism conveyed not in a truism, but in a heartwarming comedy—now, that’s Hollywood at its stealthiest.

Talk About It    Discussion starters

1. Helen gave up her career ambitions in order to become a guardian of three children. What biblical examples of people giving up their dreams or making sacrifices for the sake of others inspire you? Why? (Examples: Mary, Jacob, Hosea.)

 

2. Has a needy person—a child, an ill or bedridden person, or an elderly relative—ever depended on you? What sacrifices did you make in order to be there for them?

 

3. How does it feel to deny your own wants or dreams in order to put others first? Does such altruism always come with rewards?

 

4. What’s the popular culture’s message to young women and men just starting promising careers? Do they tend to see the unexpected appearance of children in their lives—via pregnancy, custody, or some other way—as a blessing or an inconvenience?

 

5. How would you react if someone gave you custody of their children?

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

This fairly clean movie has just a few lines that are below par. At one point, we see teenagers smoking at a party. In another scene, it’s implied that two of them are about to have sex; they are broken up by the supermom, though. The parents’ death in a car crash is not shown.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 06/03/04

In Raising Helen, a career girl played by Kate Hudson (Almost Famous) suddenly finds herself responsible for her sister’s three children. The responsibilities and challenges cause a serious disturbance in her professional life, but they also open a romantic opportunity with a Lutheran minister (John Corbett of My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

 

Religious press critics are divided as to whether the film treats religion in an admirable manner. They’re also split over whether the movie is any good.

 

Agnieszka Tennant (Christianity Today Movies) writes, “Although predictable in places, the romantic dramedy represents Hollywood’s refreshingly realistic correction of the 20th century feminism: It is possible for unexpected, ill-timed motherhood, with all its emotional and financial hassles, to gratify a woman in a way unsurpassed even by a successful career in the fashion industry, a Manhattan zip code, and lenient sex life.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, “What humor exists in this film plays flat and the drama is of the maudlin variety. The tone is off, the pacing is slow, and the characters are uninteresting. Kate Hudson is certainly cute enough but isn’t able to establish a sympathetic connection with the audience. The wonderful Joan Cusack gamely gives her best effort in playing a one dimensional character and John Corbett has trouble reaching even that one dimension.”

 

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, “This film is very playful, yet coherent, and tells a sweet kind of uplifting story. It upholds good morals and even carries with it some touching moments. Seeing this movie is an easy-going way to raise your spirits.”

 

Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) points out some “imperfections,” and then concludes, “This is an enduring story of lives changed by selfless choices and the intangible return of investing in others. It’s also the story of one cool mom!”

 

Gene Edward Veith (World) says, “The best part of the movie is how it portrays a pastor. Pastor Dan is strong and wise, ministering both to Helen, the rookie mom, and to the still-grieving children, including rescuing the teenage girl from some bad company. This so-called ‘sexy man of God’ is in refreshing contrast to Hollywood’s usual portrayal of ministers, who are usually presented as either evil hypocrites or ineffectual wimps. Pastor Dan is clearly a man of faith, though not a lot of the content of that faith is articulated in the movie. Critics are saying that the movie is cloying and has various other faults. Though they may have a point, the movie is enjoyable and positive (though not for children), representing a post-Passion Hollywood.”

 

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) has a very different opinion of Pastor Dan. She’s troubled by the idea that a good pastor would date an unbeliever. She also criticizes the portrayal of a Lutheran pastor who claims to believe in purgatory.

 

Finally, Robertson observes, “On the surface, the message of Raising Helen is that mothering is more important than anything else we could pursue in life, including career. Dig a little deeper, however, and a second message about motherhood emerges—one that contradicts the first. Ultimately, according to the film, the best mom is the one who can somehow manage career and home. The film clearly implies that single mothers are far better than couples (even happily married, loving, experienced parents).”

 

Mainstream critics are less than enthusiastic about the film.

 

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Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Christianity Today, 040416)

review by Russ Breimeier | posted 04/16/04

 

When we last left The Bride (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (now on video and DVD), she had exacted bloody vengeance on two of her former assassin partners (not to mention a seemingly endless horde of Yakuza gang members) on her quest to take out her ex-boss/ex-lover, Bill (David Carradine). Think of this as Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) directing a film with kung fu action about Charlie’s Angels—except that they’re not really the good guys, there are five of them, one of them is a man, and the protagonist wants to kill Charlie for destroying her life. Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to combine the exploitation B-movies of the ‘70s with spaghetti westerns, kung fu, and pop-culture ridden dialogue that plays like modern day Shakespeare.

 

Kill Bill Vol. 2 picks up where Vol. 1 left off, beginning with that campy movie trailer of The Bride in a convertible, telling the audience that she will have her revenge. From there, the film delivers the final chapters of the story, beginning with a recount of The Bride’s wedding day massacre—well, wedding rehearsal massacre anyway. We also see a flashback of her intense training in martial arts under the “cruel tutelage” of Kung Fu master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu). And oh yes, we see her confront the two remaining assassins (Michael Madsen and Daryl Hannah) before getting the chance to kill Bill.

 

How exactly does one go about reviewing a film like this for a Christian website? Some Christians will watch anything Hollywood has to offer, while others avoid movies and theaters like the plague. And there are plenty between those extremes. Suffice to say that if you’re offended by bad language, by less-than-scrupulous characters, and/or by scenes of strong violence—regardless of whether it’s hyper-realistic like The Passion or comic book-styled like The Matrix—this film is definitely not for you.

 

Actually, the biggest surprise about Kill Bill Vol. 2 is that it’s not the bloody orgy of violence that marked Vol. 1. Sure, it has its moments—one fight sequence ends in an especially grotesque manner, and you’re not likely to find a more horrifying snake attack in film any time soon. But for the most part, the action is stylized kung fu, no worse than your average superhero movie or Lord of the Rings battle sequence. The aforementioned wedding rehearsal massacre isn’t even shown on screen.

 

Stranger yet, Vol. 2 is a love story at heart, albeit love gone wrong. This is an unexpectedly talky film, and therein lies its charm. Director, writer, and producer Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) is a master storyteller, and I wholeheartedly agree with critics who have noted that Tarantino absolutely loves his characters. Complex in motivation, vividly imagined, and richly versed, every one of them gives a worthy monologue to help flesh them out and remain unforgettable. The exchanges between Bill and The Bride are terrific, speaking volumes of a twisted romance that has since run its course with equal doses of sweetness, melancholy, and menace. There’s an additional level of sweetness to the story as The Bride gradually uncovers the truth about her mysterious motherhood.

 

These monologues give the characters a level of depth rarely seen in films today. The extended sequences of dialogue demonstrate that even villains like Bill and Budd (Madsden) have their charm, making their evils all the more shocking and giving the film’s action and deaths more resonance. I found myself hanging on Bill’s every word as he retold the legend of Pai Mei to a younger Bride before sending her off to study with him; it wouldn’t be at all surprising if David Carradine earns a Best Supporting Actor nomination. And the beard-twirling Pai Mei is likely to endure as one of the most beloved characters in recent cinematic history—chauvinistic, cranky, yet charming, he makes Master Yoda look like a sissy.

 

Every character is given a chance to shine, no matter how small the role—from the minister and his wife at the wedding chapel to Bill’s suave surrogate father Esteban (played by Michael Parks like a Hispanic Jack Nicholson). And that’s why Vol. 2 shines that much more than Vol. 1. It relies on the strength of its storytelling instead of extreme shock value, as the first largely did. Both movies do succeed (in different ways), adding up to a satisfying three-and-a-half hour experience. Those wishing to avoid the extreme violence and nastiness of the first film can still enjoy the second by itself, though you’ll lose some character development in the process.

 

Tarantino uses more than writing to tell his tale effectively. There are visual shots that are framed like film noir or graphic novels, often allowing the images to communicate at least as much as words. He often switches between black & white, color, and faded color to place scenes in chronological context. There’s also a brilliant scene in which The Bride is buried alive, filmed in darkness from her perspective with nothing but sound to envelope the audience—it’s a chilling and suspenseful experience.

 

Of course there’s also the action as choreographed by the great Gordon Liu, far more satisfying than that found in the last two Matrix movies. Some of the stunts will blow your mind because they’re so fast and unexpected. On top of all that, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is consistently funny. With past films, Tarantino had a tendency to make audiences laugh at sick and uncomfortable things. Here the humor is rather dark, but generally more appropriate—akin to Monty Python in some cases. Again, Pai Mei steals the show in his crazed-but-wise belittlements. There’s also Budd’s conversation with his boss at the roadhouse bar, in which we can relate to both sides of the argument. Tarantino is also increasingly comfortable working with kids, and there’s a scene between parent and child that is absolutely precious in the way it captures both shyness and playfulness.

 

Still, it is typical Tarantino in many ways, and Christians must decide for themselves if the violence, language, and overall subject matter are tolerable or offensive. Much like the classic spaghetti Westerns and kung fu flicks, Tarantino paradoxically manages to glorify and condemn the violence of his characters. It’s entertaining, but not edifying. Does a movie have to be both? If so, I’d recommend skipping it—although Kill Bill Vol. 2 is undeniably enjoyable filmmaking, unpredictable in its storytelling and wholly original in its characterizations.

 

Talk About It   Discussion starters

1. What does the Bible have to say about vengeance and justice? What’s the difference between the two? Is The Bride justified in her quest for vengeance? How else might she have sought justice?

 

2. There’s a scene where a child shows an understanding of the difference between pretend and “for real” violence. Can we make such a distinction in the real world? Does pretend violence (movies, video games) beget real violence?

 

3. In both films, The Bride is portrayed as the model of focus and perseverance, taking seemingly infinitesimal steps towards her goal. What drives those qualities? What are our goals and how do we similarly persevere?

 

4. There’s a brilliant monologue about comic book superheroes and their alter egos. Do we live similar lives of duality, in our faith, our work life, our home life? If so, which is the real you? Which are you more inclined to?

 

5. What causes The Bride to retire from her life as an assassin? Metaphorically speaking (not spiritually), do you think she’s on the way to redeeming her past at the end of the film?

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

Kill Bill Vol. 2 is unquestionably an R film and definitely not suitable for children. But in contrast with the first film, the violence is pretty sparse. Most of it is comic-book kung fu action, though it does get pretty extreme with one of the most vicious snake attacks ever staged on film and an especially gross ending to one of the key fights. There’s more than a fair share of offensive language. Regarding the “sexual content,” I suppose the MPAA is referring to a discussion about prostitution in one scene; I’d be more concerned with the brief drug use shown earlier in the film.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 04/22/04

The Bride (Uma Thurman) is back in Kill Bill Vol. 2, this week’s box office champ. In this episode, we learn her name and a whole lot more. We learn why her fiancé and her wedding party were slaughtered by a killer named Bill (David Carradine). We learn what happened to the Bride’s daughter, who was revealed to be alive at the end of Vol. 1. We also meet her trainer, an indignant, impish martial arts master named Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), and we learn the extent to which she has mastered murderous maneuvers. These deadly talents then assist her in her desperate quest to find and destroy her malevolent nemesis.

 

While the film certainly serves up the graphic violence you’d expect from a Quentin Tarantino film, it also delivers far more character development, dialogue, and storytelling than Vol. 1. This is catching many critics by surprise, impressing some of them, discouraging others. It is worth noting that the Bride is fighting in order to break free from “the life” of a criminal, just as Samuel L. Jackson’s character did in Pulp Fiction. But her methods for doing so are not as level-headed. She’s on “a roaring rampage of revenge.”

 

Mainstream critics, who condemned The Passion for its onscreen violence, suddenly seem to have decided that there’s nothing wrong with R-rated brutality whatsoever. Most of them give KB2 high praise. Those who object primarily complain about Tarantino’s preoccupation with referencing other movies.

 

The majority of religious press critics, on the other hand, continue to reject Tarantino’s work due to the excessive violence.

 

In doing so, some of them fall short of giving Tarantino credit for his remarkable achievements—the stellar performances he draws from his actors, the surprising moral conflict that is revealed at the heart of the story in this episode, and the technical achievement of his filmmaking. These movies are indulgent and flawed, but they should be recognized as a mix of strengths and weaknesses. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

 

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, “If you’re offended by bad language, by less-than-scrupulous characters, and/or by scenes of strong violence—regardless of whether it’s hyper-realistic like The Passion or comic book-styled like The Matrix—this film is definitely not for you.” But he adds, “Kill Bill Vol. 2 is undeniably enjoyable filmmaking, unpredictable in its storytelling and wholly original in its characterizations.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, “I have to admit, I liked Vol. 2 much more than its predecessor simply because of the focus on the characters instead of on the ways they killed each other.” He does confirm that “vengeance remains the central theme of the film.”

 

He finds a spiritual message in the film, however: “Believing is the most important key there is to achieving success. Rarely do we see success if we don’t believe that it is possible. God continues to exhort us to believe in Him and in the Word that He has given us because He knows that as we do, we will see the signs, miracles, and wonders that He is ready and willing to send our way.”

 

(At one point in the movie, the Bride looks skyward and says, “Thank you!” repeatedly. Viewers might wonder who she’s addressing.)

 

Maurice Broaddus (Hollywood Jesus) praises the “great action, wonderfully acted characters, and brilliant direction.” He describes it as “a revenge movie with a heart. The movie becomes about … a killer trying to leave her old life behind to start anew … for the sake of her child. But to do that, she has to put to death the ‘old man’ and by proxy, her old nature. The Bride finds her true calling, her self-salvation scheme, in the love she has for her child.”

 

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) writes, “Though the story never veers away from its motive for revenge, it was a little affecting to see this Terminatoresque female lead tap into sensitive facets of her feminine nature. I was taken aback to find myself moved by these qualities that she expresses.”

 

Others focus on the film’s failings. J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) is frustrated by inconsistencies. “The first movie sets us up for one kind of film: highly stylized action pastiche. For Vol. 2 to give us a completely different movie—one that focuses on the deficiencies of Vol. 1—is both misguided and frustrating. We’re offered two movies that have nothing in common with each other besides the actors and characters’ names.”

 

“Sparer in tone and much more dialogue-heavy than its predecessor, it’s no less eager to glory in gore,” says Steven Isaac (Plugged In). He acknowledges that the Bride makes a decision to leave her job as an assassin in order to settle down, get married, and raise her child. But he adds that her “passionate love for her daughter is used as leverage to excuse her recent acts of revenge.”

 

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the movie is “as morally vacuous as its more overtly gory predecessor. Tarantino is obviously a filmmaker in love with cinema, a passion that translates onto the screen. Kill Bill is laced with flashes of visual brilliance and juicy dialogue, but it is also weighed down by a propensity for self-indulgent, showoffy camera work. The film’s underlying theme of revenge is incompatible with the Christian understanding of justice and forgiveness.”

from Film Forum, 05/13/04

Andrew Coffin (World) saw Kill Bill, Volume Two and says, “I like director Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic inventiveness, but ever since Pulp Fiction I’ve respected his brain yet questioned his heart. Kill Bill 2 adds to those concerns. Does Tarantino showing off his cleverness make for a great movie? Not without heart.”

 

Mark T. Conrad (Metaphilm) also explores the film, offering a remarkable new interpretation. It’s therapy for Quentin Tarantino’s broken childhood! It’s all about his mom taking revenge on the dad who left them! And Conrad digs much deeper than that:

 

Remember: When Nietzsche said that God is dead, he didn’t mean that an actual being, the Almighty, the First Cause, an omniscient, omnipotent creator had actually been killed. Rather, he meant that the idea, the institution of God ceased to have any meaning or relevance because we now view God as fictional and can no longer believe. Similarly, killing the father means killing the father’s power over us, and that means that we have to stop viewing him as God, we have to reject that fiction, that misinterpretation.

 

This is exactly what Tarantino does to the father in Volume 2. Bill, the father, God, is completely humanized. In the first film we barely saw him, and never saw his face; he existed merely as an omnipresent threat …. Now … he’s locally and physically present as a man, a mere mortal. This is that transforming moment when, as an adult, you recognize your old man’s frailties and his shortcomings.

 

==============================

 

Godsend (Christianity Today, 040430)

review by Stefan Ulstein | posted 04/30/04

 

Godsend suffers from bad editing. In one pivotal scene, the action changes place and time so dramatically, it seems that an entire chapter was accidentally left at a bus stop. Nonetheless, the basic story, and the issues it raises, make Godsend a thoughtful, if not fully realized, example of bio-future science fiction. It also works pretty well as a gothic thriller.

 

Paul and Jessie Duncan share a rich life with their young son, Adam. Paul is a dedicated teacher, Jessie a respected photographer. They dote on Adam, who loves them and basks in their care. In a freak accident, Adam is killed and his parents are plunged into unendurable despair. Seemingly out of nowhere, Dr. Richard Wells, a research physician who was once Jessie’s professor, approaches them with a Faustian bargain. What he proposes is illegal, unethical and perhaps immoral. He will bring their son back to them via human cloning. He has never actually done the procedure on a human but he is positive that it will work. Against all odds, he convinces Paul and Jessie to take a chance with their dead son’s legacy.

 

A science-fiction thriller only works if it has one foot planted firmly in the real and the possible. If it can be reasonably imagined, it is science-fiction in the best sense: a film that helps explore the technical, ethical and spiritual frontiers of the future. If not, it becomes fluff and nonsense. A treatment of human cloning, and the ethical questions it raises, is certainly timely. Recently a company called Genetic Savings and Clone (Gene Banking and Cloning of Exceptional Pets) publicly offered to clone a favorite cat or dog for a mere $50 thousand. Can children be far behind? Today Lassie, tomorrow a real lassie.

 

Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of President Bush’s newly created Council on Bioethics, articulates the dilemma of technology that moves faster than morality. Kass told the Council, “[I]n the realm of bioethics, the evils we face, if indeed they are evils, are intertwined with the goods we so keenly seek: cures for disease, relief of suffering, preservation of life. Distinguishing good and bad thus intermixed is often extremely difficult.”

 

It is this intertwining of good and evil that provides the central themes of Godsend. The ethical catalyst is the time factor. While Adam’s DNA can be preserved almost indefinitely, his cells will remain viable for only seventy-two hours. Paul and Jessie must make a moral decision with no time for reflection. Dr. Wells insists that the entire procedure be kept secret, so they are unable to solicit any advice from friends or clergy. They must act while they are incapacitated with grief.

 

What keeps the plot viable is the fact that most recent medical advances have been debated on moral grounds. Cardiovascular surgeons were denounced for playing God when they began to transplant whole hearts. Likewise, in vitro fertilization was widely derided at first and is now commonly accepted. Those who cry foul over stem cell research and human cloning may one day be dismissed as anachronistic relics. But maybe not. We only discover the moral implications of new science when we try it out. One is reminded of the 1960s when “enlightened” thinkers encouraged us to experiment with mind-altering drugs. Don’t worry, they assured us. Chemistry is the next frontier for human progress. Those of us who took their advice found out that our old-fashioned parents and their quaint morals were right after all. Oops! The “experts” were incompetent at best and devilish at worst.

 

Thus, bioethics must also imagine the possibility of human treachery. Several years ago women who had contracted with a sperm bank received a shocking surprise. They had listed the physical characteristics they wanted in their offspring: height, coloring, etc. as well as intellect, and artistic and musical ability. Anonymity was protected by a double-blind security protocol. They were then impregnated with sperm guaranteed to closely match their genetic shopping list. Later they found out that a director of the sperm bank had fathered their children, along with scores of others. Was it a sneaky semi-ethical trick, was it polygamy or was it rape?

 

The possibilities for human treachery in something as morally delicate as human cloning make one shudder. What if some researcher wants to play an egotistical trick, or use his subject for covert research? Such are the issues addressed in Godsend.

 

To his credit, director Nick Hamm forgoes the usual computer generated tricks, and the lightning fast editing that now pass for cinematography. Instead he relies on atmosphere and craftsmanship. Godsend provides plenty of made-you-jump moments, but Hamm has deliberately steered clear of the splatter genre.

 

Despite its laudable intentions, Godsend is less than equal to its challenges. Greg Kinnear is believable as the father, and Cameron Bright makes a frightening clone-gone-wrong son. But former model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is unable to evoke the range of emotions called for in this horrifying scenario. Robert DiNiro sadly lacks his usual range. As soon as he appears on screen, one’s heart cries, BAD GUY ON DECK! The script is long on the Big Issues, but comes up short in compelling dialogue. It needed a couple more drafts.

 

While it is not in the same league artistically, Godsend joins the canon of bio-future films like Gattica and Alien Resurrection. It accepts that the human race will continue to reach for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We will build our Tower of Babel—and deal with the outcome later.

 

Talk About It   Discussion starters

1. Why do we develop technology faster than our ability to use it ethically?

 

2. What are some other examples of technology that was developed for good but has been used for evil purposes?

 

3. Is human cloning simply an extension of fertility drugs and in vitro fertilization or is it something altogether different?

 

4. As with many modern ethical dilemmas, the Bible does not specifically address human cloning—or insect cloning for that matter. How do we learn from Scripture when it’s not explicit on a question?

 

5. What would you have done in Paul and Jessie Duncan shoes, given that choice? Why?

 

Related Elsewhere:

A ready-to-download, Bible-based discussion guide is available for this movie at ChristianBibleStudies.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

Godsend is psychologically frightening. Because it deals with the death of a young boy, and imagines his cloned rebirth fraught with horror, it is inappropriate for younger children. A lovemaking scene between the parents is sensual though not explicit.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 05/06/04

What would you do if you were given an opportunity to bring back a loved one from the dead? In Godsend, Paul and Jessie (Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a couple traumatized by the loss of their eight-year-old son, are given an opportunity to restore their child to life. Their hope lies in the hands of a secretive doctor (Robert DeNiro) who meddles in the technology of cloning. Entangled in troubling questions of morality, legality, and spirituality, Paul and Jessie make a choice that leads to devastating consequences.

 

The consequences are also devastating for the audience, according to mainstream critics. Religious press critics agree.

 

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, “While the questions raised are thought-provoking, the only thing the movie itself provokes in viewers is the urge to check their watches. Unfortunately, after an intelligent setup, the story’s philosophical pretensions quickly give way to spooky atmospherics and standard ghost-story devices which detract from the central moral dilemma posed.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, “It is hard to pinpoint exactly where this film begins to fall apart, but fall apart it does. By the end of the film, the story has gotten so ludicrous it is hard to muster any interest over what the outcome might be. And even then, we’re still disappointed.”

 

Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) says, “Despite its laudable intentions, Godsend is less than equal to its challenges. The script is long on the Big Issues, but comes up short in compelling dialogue. It needed a couple more drafts.”

 

Tom Neven (Plugged In) agrees, calling it “a tense, if slightly derivative, thriller. Unfortunately, it bears all the earmarks of having been focus-grouped into inferiority. About 10 minutes from the end it swerves in a direction not warranted by what has preceded, and it feels as if an entire chapter has been ripped from a book.” He adds, “Godsend cheats when it comes to answering the overarching moral question. Based on previews, I originally feared that it might trivialize the morality of human cloning by having the result be a monster, thus relieving the filmmakers of having to address whether human cloning is evil in and of itself. But they did worse: such moral questions are made irrelevant.”

 

Michael Karounos (Christian Spotlight) says, “If you are interested in idea-movies, then Godsend is worth seeing. With a line here and a supernatural deletion everywhere else, it could easily have been made into an interesting Christian movie highlighting the moral and spiritual questions that cloning raises. With the recent success of The Passion, you wonder how long it will take Hollywood to catch on that Christians will go in droves to see genuinely Christian films.”

from Film Forum, 05/13/04

The paranormal thriller Godsend deals with the strange behavior of a cloned child. Andrew Coffin (World) writes, “The first part of the film, showing the family and how they react to the tragedy, is promising, raising important questions about the ethics and the possibilities of cloning. But after the movie’s second birthday party, it becomes just another horror movie. And an inept one at that, with two major cop-outs in the story line, including one that erases the movie’s very premise.”

 

Kevin Miller (Relevant) says, “If Godsend had been made 50 years ago in black and white, it would be exactly the kind of thing I enjoy watching late on Saturday nights when there’s nothing else on TV. However, viewers today are a lot more sophisticated than they were in the 1950s. They’re not as apt to buy in to the faulty premises and dubious science that make those old films so laughable today.”

 

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Christianity Today, 040319)

 

If you could, what memories would you delete?

 

Recently, I set up shop in a new office on the campus of the university I attended several years ago. I don’t believe in ghosts, but the ol’ alma mater is haunted with memories. Over there—the classrooms in which I tried to comprehend Donne, Dostoyevsky, and Derrida. And there—the cafeteria where I consumed mass quantities of grilled peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. And there—a sprawling lawn where my first rock band survived a disastrous performance. It’s a joy to have this mini-tour of the past every day.

 

But the place is also crowded with painful memories of a failed friendship, broken trust, and humiliation. The prospect of revisiting those memories again made me pause before relocating to this place. I did not want to be reminded. But what a blessing awaited me! Several places of personal significance had been demolished and replaced with strange new structures that mean nothing to me at all! This has had an interesting effect—I never dwell on those memories anymore. It is as if those memories have been deleted. I have to work hard to recover them.

 

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the characters have that option—they can have their unwanted memories erased. Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) supplies this service through Lacuna, an obscure company promising to improve your life by sifting out signs of things you wish you had not experienced. Mierzwiak and his irresponsible, pot-smoking staff (Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and trainee Elijah Wood) schedule consultations with customers to target bad memories. They box up all tangible evidence of the memories (photos, gifts, mementos, diary entries), file them away, and then get into the customer’s brain for “memory surgery.” Cards are sent out to any related individuals, informing them that they have been deleted from the customer’s memory: Would they please, out of courtesy, refrain from contacting that person again?

 

That is exactly what Joel (Jim Carrey) decides to do with memories of his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). He’s upset about the breakup, which occurred when Clementine decided to axe Joel from her own memory.

 

Most films about technological breakthroughs tend to dwell on what would happen if something went wrong. So, of course, as Joel undergoes Clementine-erasure, something goes terribly wrong. While technicians fuss over 3-D brain schematics, he is stranded, unconscious, wandering in a dream-state of confused memories. As he staggers through overlapping episodes of his past, he encounters Clementine for the first time … again. He remembers his infatuation and all of the things that first caught his attention. It makes him reconsider his decision. But what can he do?

 

As he falls into panic, details of this memory world begin to disappear. Memories are being sent to the Trash Bin Folder of the doctor’s computer. Frantic, Joel grabs Clementine—or at least the memory of her—and starts heading for the dark alleys and bomb shelters of his mind. The chase is one of the most exhilarating and original scenes in the history of chase scenes.

 

Anybody who saw Being John Malkovich or the Academy-award-winning Adaptation will quickly recognize the signature surrealism of writer Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman seems obsessed with exploring his characters’ psychological makeup, and Sunshine feels like the fruition of ideas that were beginning to grow in his previous scripts.

 

While Kaufman’s previous scripts seemed tailor-made for the quirky talents of director Spike Jonze, this story seems a perfect fit for Michel Gondry, who makes Eternal Sunshine a memorably zany rollercoaster ride through a wonderland of bizarre landscapes and shifting reality. Gondry’s first feature collaboration with Kaufman, Human Nature, received discouraging reviews and vanished from theatres. But Eternal Sunshine plays to his strengths. Gondry’s most memorable works have been his brilliantly designed music videos for artists like Bjork, and Radiohead. This great feature-length work is sure to earn him even grander projects.

 

Gondry maps out Joel’s past with breathtaking imagination and sleight-of-hand, creating a visual collage from Joel’s memories that is a masterpiece of editing and aligning entirely different times and places. It’s not a new idea; the great Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece The Mirror is a surreal and profound poem sewn from the threads of his memory. But Gondry’s a more playful, puckish storyteller. He cannot resist the wild possibilities presented by Kaufman’s script. Sometimes it’s as if Joel’s past has been disassembled like a LEGO project and haphazardly pieced together into something frightening and new. I’ve never seen something so true to the experience of dreaming, from the way people’s faces morph from one thing to another to the way events take place against incongruous backdrops. These imaginative tangents are enough to show up most Hollywood productions as creatively bankrupt. Gondry joins a short list of directors—alongside Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Richard Kelly, Sofia Coppola and David O. Russell—who will inspire a new generation of inventive artists.

 

Gondry gets great work from his lead actors. For the first time, Jim Carrey seems less like a maniac and more like the kind of guy you’d like to talk with over coffee. It’s his most mature performance, something we caught glimpses of in The Truman Show. On the other hand, Kate Winslet has spent far too long in stuffy, stifling roles, and here she lets her explosive energy break through. She makes Clementine an irresistibly attractive flibbertigibbet whose whims are as surprising as the changing color of her hair (which shifts from “Tangerine” to a color stolen from a Tom Waits lyric—”Blue Ruin.”) She’s the highlight of the film, and the first appealing female character Kaufman has devised.

 

The supporting cast is also surprising. Wilkinson is properly preoccupied with his technology, so that we sense he is driven by something he himself would rather forget. His assistants are a baffling bunch—amusing, entertaining, but hardly compelling. Ruffalo seems to squint at life through a thick fog in spite of his thick glasses. Elijah Wood, in his first significant post-Frodo role, plays a likeable trainee until we see what a fiend he is at heart. Kirsten Dunst turns her role as a foolish secretary into something complicated and broken. But their part of the story feels too frivolous to pull off the emotional and dramatic turn that takes place in the final act.

 

Eternal Sunshine is unique in the Kaufman canon for other significant reasons. Being John Malkovich portrayed human beings as irredeemably depraved and selfishly opportunistic. Adaptation’s characters, in their desire for personal satisfaction, descended into base behavior as well. Eternal Sunshine’s characters may have damaged their lives beyond repair, but they are fumbling toward wisdom that should be clearer to the viewer than it is to them.

 

Most importantly, the film offers powerful insights about relationships. Joel and Clementine have a chance of enduring if they refuse to forget the things they love about each other in the midst of trial and tribulation. Memory erasure, like most break-ups and divorces, is just a flight from the fact that love is hard. Even though Joel and Clementine are not married, viewers may come away with a deeper understanding of marriage, about submitting to each other at great personal cost for a higher reward.

 

Kaufman also emphasizes our neediness as human beings. Most Hollywood films tell us we have everything we need within ourselves. Eternal Sunshine indicates that we need each other, even in those times when togetherness disrupts happiness. Happiness is based on temporal, unstable things, but joy comes from transcending the temporal and holding on through all the waves of infatuation and falling out, lust and letdown, delight and disappointment.

 

Great art reflects the truth in a way we could not have seen by any other means. Kaufman’s chronologically confused comedy makes me glad that I cannot delete bad memories in moments of weakness. Those unpleasant echoes of failure and betrayal inform my decisions every day. They keep my ego in check and help me steer clear of similar pitfalls. They also remind me that God’s grace has lifted me up out of that pit and set me in a higher, better place.

 

Talk About It   Discussion starters

1. Do you have memories you wish you could delete? What purpose do you think those memories serve? What trials and traumas in your life have been important in your development as a person?

 

2. In friendships, relationships and marriages, how do you respond to betrayal and disappointment? How would you hope a friend or a family member would respond to mistakes you make? How does God respond to those who fail him?

 

3. We may not be able to erase memories (yet), but what sorts of things does our culture offer us to help us avoid coping with the hard things in our lives?

 

4. Read Philippians 4:13 and Isaiah 43:18-19. What do these verses teach us about what we should do with our memories? Is it really possible to “forget the former things”? What’s that really mean?

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

This film is about a boyfriend and girlfriend who behave recklessly, selfishly, hastily, and irresponsibly in their relationship. While the movie offers good lessons from their mistakes, it does reflect elements of their behavior that make the film inappropriate for younger or less discerning viewers. There is harsh language, drug use, profanity and frank talk about sexual behavior.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 03/25/04

Writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry brought their formidable imaginations together for this year’s most challenging and original comedy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in excellent performances, and features an impressive supporting cast that includes Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, The Patriot), Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man), Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me), and Elijah Wood in his first post-Frodo performance.

 

Carrey plays Joel, the ex-boyfriend of a flirtatious flibbertigibbet. Broken-hearted, Joel seeks help from a doctor who promises to delete all painful memories of the failed relationship from his mind. But during the process, Joel has second thoughts, and ends up fleeing through his own memories in an attempt to salvage what he can of his precious past before the deletion is complete.

 

Eternal Sunshine has more heart than Kaufman’s previous works, and while its characters are reckless, misguided, and lost, they seem to be finding their way toward a healthy understanding of unconditional love by the conclusion. My full review of the film is at Christianity Today Movies.

 

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) finds this film far more satisfying than Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, both written by Kaufman. “In this film, Kaufman’s characters finally lift their heads out of the fog and dare to hope—to move beyond narcissism and solipsism and actually try to make contact with one another. It’s not a film that everyone will care to see, but I think it’s ultimately humanistic and hopeful rather than nihilistic and misanthropic, and that’s something.”

 

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it’s “one of the most original, cleverly crafted, and emotionally resonant movies to come down the pike in a long time. The screenplay by Charlie Kaufman echoes the self-conscious quirkiness of Adaptation and Being John Malkovich … but is by far the most developed in terms of character and human drama. Despite some unnecessary crassness, the film makes some poignant reflections about the centrality of memories in defining our personalities.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, “This may be [Carrey’s] finest dramatic performance to date.”

 

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) describes it as “a confusing but exhilarating ride. The film’s playful and disorienting attitude toward time is both a marvelous commentary on the transitory nature of memory and a spectacular narrative trick. Gondry’s use of focus (or lack of) and disjointed sound perfectly captures the disorienting nature of moving between reality and memories. His special effects … provoke tremendous emotion.”

 

“I’d like to nominate this film for the Lost in Translation Award,” says Josh Hurst (Rebel Base), “as it gives us a relationship story that is more complex and memorable than any we’re likely to see all year. The film’s ending … brings up all kinds of interesting questions that should make for highly rewarding post-viewing discussion. … Ironically, this film about erasing your memories is one movie that will prove difficult to forget.”

 

A few religious press critics, uncomfortable with the characters’ reckless behavior, give the film mixed reviews.

 

Sheri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) says, “The outcome is basically positive, although getting to that point is a grueling yet thought provoking experience for the audience. It is the type of movie one must stay focused on or else something will be missed.” (Art that asks us to focus on it? What’s the world coming to?) McMurray concludes, “I must admit, I was greatly moved at the ending.”

 

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, “It could’ve been the set-up for a great lesson about romantic pitfalls and how to build a healthy, lasting marriage. But no, the existential worldview driving the film is more fatalistic and amoral than that. In the closing moments, Joel and Clem seem resigned to the fact that their union is doomed. They’re considered noble for their willingness to pursue whatever fun they can (including sex) before the whole thing goes down the toilet.”

 

Frederica Mathewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) praises Winslet’s performance and the “extraordinary effects.” But she concludes, “The movie ends … without much having happened. Joel has not changed, and neither has Clementine, and there is still no reason for them to be together.”

 

I must respectfully disagree with both Smithouser and Matthewes-Green. First, to Matthewes-Green: The characters did not go unchanged. By the film’s conclusion, they were beginning to learn hard lessons about weathering the trials of relationships, forgiving each other’s flaws, and valuing their memories—good and bad.

 

Smithouser is mistaken to write off Joel and Clementine as mere hedonists indulging while they can. They lack maturity and the patience to build a relationship wisely, yes, but they are learning. They may have lost most of their past, but they seem to be developing a healthier perspective of longsuffering and forgiveness. Thus, while the film reflects that our rash decisions can carry crippling consequences, it also suggests that there is hope for these misguided lovers.

 

Mainstream critics are generally celebrating the film as a brilliant achievement.

from Film Forum, 04/01/04

Catching up with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) call the film “enlightening. Love is something deeper than the memories of our times together with someone. The only true path toward ‘eternal sunshine’ is a path that cherishes the memory of the sorrows and the joys, the loves and the disappointments of life.”

 

Brent McCracken (Relevant) says, “It would take numerous viewings (as with any Kaufman film) to truly appreciate it all. The film seems to decry the supermarket mentality of convenient, self-serving love in favor of a more hands-in-the-dirt/make-it-work philosophy. Though hard times will come and memories made will not always be fondly remembered, true love will find a way to endure.”

 

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) says, “The book of Revelation mentions that every deed is recorded in ‘the books,’ and that on the Day of Judgment each person would give an account of all their deeds done in this life. In the film these books are confidential tape recordings that are discovered and played back after the memories were erased. Ultimately the characters have to deal with their own agendas and past relationships with others. This is what true mind-altering repentance is all about. A fresh start, renewal, always begins with dealing with the past. After that, healing and rebirth can take place.”

 

Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, “Faith, like love, depends on remembering. As with Joel and Clementine’s love, to lose those memories is to lose something too dear to lose, even if it seems not to be working. Like other relationships, our relationship with God has times in which it may not seem to be working. If our memories of what God has meant to us and of what God has done fade away, we are truly left alone. Sometimes our memories are all that we have to keep us together.”

from Film Forum, 04/22/04

Charlie Kaufman’s latest script, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed with vigor and cleverness by Michel Gondry, drew mixed reviews from religious press critics when it first opened.

 

This week, Michael Leary (The Matthew’s House Project) joins the ranks of those who find profound insight in this bewildering love story. He says, “Of all of his scripts to date, Eternal Sunshine is Kaufman’s most direct. It is difficult to miss the series of moments in the script that point outside of themselves, beyond the screen, and right into the heart of the audience. Joel and Clementine channel the unspeakable mix of hope and regret that few directors have been able to lay their finger on. Don’t watch this film if you have a few memories you can only revisit with a heartsick smile, it will only reacquaint you with their potency. But all of this radical sentimentality is put into play to service a vision of love and relationships that we rarely see in film. This is brave stuff for Hollywood.”

 

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The Day After Tomorrow (Christianity Today, 040528)

review by Peter T. Chattaway | posted 05/28/04

 

For a German expatriate, Roland Emmerich sure has a knack for making politically charged—and very cheesy—movies that coincide with American election campaigns. In 1996, as alleged draft dodger Bill Clinton ran for a second term against war veteran Bob Dole, Emmerich released Independence Day, in which aliens blow up the White House and the instinctively peace-minded President hops aboard a fighter plane to kick some serious butt. In 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush vied for the soul of the nation, Emmerich put out The Patriot, a B-grade revenge movie masquerading as a Revolutionary War epic. And now, as Bush defends his presidency against charges of short-sighted unilateralism, here comes The Day After Tomorrow—yet another disaster movie, but this time one that emphasizes international cooperation, rather than American triumphalism.

 

The film also has something to do with the environment, of course. The story, written by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff, concerns a sudden, instant ice age that sweeps over the Northern Hemisphere as a result of global warming, and this freezing of the planet is preceded by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and sundry other catastrophes. The one man who sees it coming, though not quite so soon, is workaholic climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), who theorizes the Ice Age of 10,000 years ago began very abruptly, and therefore the planet could be in for another flash freeze in the near future. But of course, the government will not heed his warnings. Vice President Becker (Kenneth Welsh) is especially skeptical, and says new environmental measures would be bad for the economy.

 

But never mind. The debate is cut short when the world’s weather turns apocalyptic—snow falls in New Delhi, giant hailstones crush pedestrians and traffic in Asia, multiple tornadoes destroy downtown Los Angeles, helicopters freeze in mid-air over the British isles, and a rising ocean floods Manhattan, coming up to the Statue of Liberty’s waist and sending tankers drifting between half-submerged skyscrapers. Among the many victims stranded by these storms is Hall’s son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is in New York with a couple of high school classmates for an academic competition; fittingly, they hide with other New Yorkers inside the public library. There, they cope with wounds, a lack of food, flashes of cold temperature so sudden and extreme the frost seems to chase them down the halls, and even a pack of wolves that have escaped from the city zoo.

 

However successfully these survivors may flee the special effects, they cannot dodge the lame writing or direction. Hall, who has been so busy with work his whole life he has never had all that much time for his son, braves the cold and heads north to find Sam. His credentials as a movie hero are established in his very first scene, when he leaps across a fresh new rift in an Antarctic ice shelf to retrieve his team’s ice core samples. The film builds up to this moment with a breathtaking aerial shot, no doubt digitally enhanced, that suggests a spectacular sense of scale; Hall’s base seems even smaller than you expect, against the incredibly vast frozen landscape. But after the crack in the ice shelf appears, and after Hall rescues his samples, and after the camera pulls back up for one last aerial shot, you cannot help but be struck by how ridiculously coincidental it is that this one fault line, which runs for miles, should happen to pass right through the middle of Hall’s base.

 

The triteness of that scene surfaces in other moments where Emmerich tries to juxtapose the earth-shattering events of his film with its smaller, more personal dramatic moments. In one scene, Hall tells a colleague he hopes the nations of the earth will learn from their mistakes, to which he then adds, “I’d sure as hell like a chance to learn from mine.” It takes Hall’s colleague a moment to realize he is no longer talking politics or science, but has abruptly changed the subject to his own family, and his own track record as a mostly absentee dad. Emmerich might have thought this was a clever segue, but it just comes off as stiff and contrived, instead. The cast, which also includes Ian Holm as a British professor and Jay O. Sanders as Hall’s partner in science, is certainly capable of better things, but they are never given much more to do than kill time between the money shots.

 

The movie’s most amusing moments come from seeing conventional wisdom turned on its head. Americans fleeing the invasion of frost from the north are stopped at the Mexican border, and so begin illegally crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico; finally the American President earns the support of Latin American countries by cancelling their debt. And much to the shock of the resident librarian, Sam tells those hiding in the library to keep warm by burning books; his friend suggests starting with the massive tax volumes.

 

Alas, the film does not exploit as many opportunities for irony as it could have. One of the library survivors, an atheist, professes a love of Nietzsche, but is never compelled to re-think that philosopher’s nihilism; the only retort anyone can muster is to mock Nietzsche’s sexual preferences. This same atheist later clings to a copy of the Gutenberg Bible and refuses to allow anyone to burn it, not out of any respect for sacred scripture, but because, as the first book to be printed on a printing press, it represents the dawn of the Age of Reason; he goes on to say the written word is mankind’s greatest achievement.

 

This marks an interesting departure from earlier disaster movies, such as Daylight, Deep Impact and Armageddon, which went out of their way to include religious symbols, however superficial, that signified salvation in the midst of suffering. But the disaster movies released since September 11—and yes, the studios do hope audiences will pay to see even more national landmarks destroyed at the multiplex, even though these monuments might very well be terrorist targets in real life—are of a more skeptical, humanistic breed. Last year’s The Core also included a single reference to God, mainly to emphasize that no one should bring him up; now The Day After Tomorrow follows a similar path. Between this, the dull writing, and the hypocritical message—it waves an anti-consumerist flag, yet the disaster genre is itself all about the spectacle of consumption—this is one film viewers might want to put off until some time long, long after the day after tomorrow.

 

Talk About It   Discussion starters

1. Do you think God would allow—or even cause—a disaster of this magnitude? Why or why not? If disasters like this happen, are they just accidents? Or do they sometimes mean something more? (See Isaiah 45:7, Luke 13:1-5, and the biblical accounts of the Flood, etc.)

 

2. If you knew your world would come to an end tomorrow, what would you do differently? What would you do the same? How attached are you to this world? How attached should you be?

 

3. What do you think is mankind’s greatest achievement? What significance should the Age of Reason have? Is mankind’s trust in its own reason perhaps responsible for the sorts of problems on display in this film? What role does reason have in our faith? How does faith inform our reason?

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

The violence in the film is pretty much all of the accidental or natural variety—wolves chasing people, people falling through holes in the ground, people and so on. In one scene, a teenaged girl huddles close to a boy to share her body heat with him, but nothing sexual transpires. There is also a four-letter word or two, but remarkably few for a film of this genre and rating.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 06/03/04

The environmentalists were right. The President and his administration were wrong. That is the premise of The Day After Tomorrow. But Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster action movie is much more a special-effects extravaganza than it is a scientific argument. And in spite of the participation of such fine actors as Dennis Quaid (The Rookie), Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), and Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings films), most critics say the movie is just a frail echo of Independence Day, with bad weather taking the place of the aliens in the role of wreaking devastation upon historical landmarks.

 

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, “Last year’s The Core also included a single reference to God, mainly to emphasize that no one should bring him up; now The Day After Tomorrow follows a similar path. Between this, the dull writing, and the hypocritical message—it waves an anti-consumerist flag, yet the disaster genre is itself all about the spectacle of consumption—this is one film viewers might want to put off until some time long, long after the day after tomorrow.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, “While the actors gamely give it their all … [they are] eventually swept aside by the overwhelming sensory overload that Emmerich dumps upon us. The film’s major flaw is in its overt politicizing of the environmental issues that supposedly lie at the heart of this film. The movie’s depiction of the political administration is a blatant condemnation of the Bush presidency and its arguments devolve into an overly simplistic ‘I told you so’ rationalization unsupported by scientific fact.”

 

“In more than one way, this is the ultimate comeuppance movie for big bad Republicans,” reports Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). “There’s also a strong nihilistic message about the end of the world, with nothing to do but listen to environmentalists for our salvation.” But is the movie worth seeing? “I didn’t expect more than a few visual thrills—and I wasn’t disappointed. We need to respect the environment, but this movie will only make people hang onto their SUVs. After all, four-wheel drives can be very handy in the snow.”

 

Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) says it “may be the summer’s biggest letdown. The one thing this movie forgets is that we as an audience want to care more about people than we do special effects. We see so many characters in this movie that we would like to know more about, but, unfortunately, only get brief glimpses of them.”

 

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) catalogs the film’s illogical events. “Men trekking into the teeth of a subzero blizzard walk from Philadelphia to New York City in just a day or two. There are a few other plot holes large enough to drive a snowplow through.” And yet, he concludes, “Implausibility aside, The Day After Tomorrow is an exciting, morally grounded summer thrill ride full of noble characters that knows how to balance spectacle with virtue and restraint.”

 

But Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) implies that the film is meant to influence the political convictions of the viewers. “In addition to the lasting effects of the scariness, impressionable teens and preteens will of course carry away the implied belief system, and those issues should be discussed. Even some ‘post-teens’ will be swayed by the message, and could be influenced at the ballot box in November. I wonder if this film’s budget needs to be counted in the campaign spending limits set by the Federal Election Commission?”

 

Mainstream critics are classifying it as yet another empty and forgettable summer movie.

 

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Garfield: The Movie (Christianity Today, 040611)

review by Stefan Ulstein | posted 06/11/04

 

Parents and kids will find a lot to like in this charming film adaptation of Jim Davis’s cross-generational comic strip. The cinema version of Garfield remains true to his lazy, fat-cat persona, lounging around the house, eating lasagna and generally slacking off. The physical comedy of the lethargic feline is faithfully transferred to the screen, with the overweight Garfield squeezing through openings and taking long breaks when he has to walk more than fifty feet. Jon’s house is Garfield’s domain. The cul de sac is the ragged edge of his universe

 

Garfield: The Movie is something of a prequel in that we meet Odie for the first time. Garfield’s owner, Jon (Breckin Meyer), has a huge crush on the veterinarian, Liz Wilson (Jennifer Love Hewett). When she asks him to adopt the slow-on-the-draw pup, he gladly agrees, much to Garfield’s dismay. Garfield is aghast when, on the way home from the vet, he finds a dog in his car seat. This must be a mistake! When they arrive home, Garfield uses poor Odie as a straight man for endless put-downs and jokes. While Garfield reclines on the chair, musing about this new pretender to the throne, we see the intellectually challenged Odie chasing his tail.

 

Writers Jim Davis, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow have captured the essence of the Garfield comic strip and distilled it into a movie. While some adaptations of comic characters end up scaring the children or offending the parents, Davis, Cohen and Sokolow have chosen to retain the charm and gentle wit of the strip. There is nothing in Garfield: The Movie to cause parents to shudder. Like the best comics, Garfield reaches across generations, and the film version does too. Those old enough to remember Rocky and Bullwinkle will recall laughing at the physical humor while Dad chuckled over puns and allusions that the kids didn’t get. Garfield: The Movie is not terribly sophisticated, but there is enough to keep parents from squirming in their seats with boredom.

 

The central theme is an appropriate one for young families: sibling rivalry when the new baby comes home from the hospital. In this case it’s the pet hospital. Garfield, like a pampered first son, has carved out a comfortable niche with Jon, who feeds him and provides for his every need. Enter Odie, and the whole family dynamic changes forever. Where Garfield is smug and satisfied, Odie, like a new baby, is oblivious to everything, including Garfield’s resentful teasing. Those of us who were firstborns will recall conducting various behavioral experiments on our new rivals: “Will he eat this?” But like the jealous poutings of human older siblings, Garfield’s tormenting of Odie is done out of vulnerability rather than cruelty.

 

Because this is a movie and not a comic strip, a narrative with a resolvable conflict was needed. A sleazy television host kidnaps poor Odie to be a prop in his new TV show. Odie is hauled from his comfortable Midwestern home to the big scary city of New York. Garfield finds that he misses Odie and sets out to save him. Traffic, flights of stairs and rats stand in his way, and while Garfield would prefer the lazy way out, he perseveres for Odie’s sake.

 

Just as we eventually learn to enjoy and cherish our siblings, Garfield eventually comes to love and accept Odie into the family. Their adventures bond them just as our backyard adventures bonded us. But as with human families, a certain level of jealousy and hazing still remain.

 

Technically, Garfield: The Movie is a treat. Garfield’s cat pals Nermal and Arlene show up as live cats with computer generated mouths. Some of the talking cat commercials on television are so weird and over-emphasized that they look downright creepy; they’ve been known to frighten little children. Nermal and Arlene speak softly, as real cats might if they had voices. Luca, the big dog on the chain is a scary looking Doberman, but he never snarls or looks like he’s about to rip anyone apart. Kids will see him as the Big Dog, but in a humorous, not a terrifying way.

 

The filmmakers use the computer imagery sparingly. Garfield is the only animatron in the movie, which accentuates his stardom. He’s also the only orange object in the movie. The filmmakers considered using a real cat to play Garfield, but to find one who was orange, fat and a great actor was difficult. Cats are notoriously difficult to film. Dogs like to please people and will do tricks for Kibbles. Cats, on the other hand, like to remain completely aloof. The world must come to them. The wranglers (trainers) were able to use the real cats that play Nermal and Arlene in the stunts, but they had trouble getting them to sit still and stare. They just got bored and wandered off. Anyone who has tried to get a cat to do anything, including eat, knows about this.

 

Tyler, the dog who plays Odie, did not need special effects. His repertoire of tricks includes being able to hop on his hind legs and twirl like a mad polka king. He can look confused, happy or sad. By relying on flesh-and-blood animals wherever possible, the filmmakers have made the movie comfortably familiar to lovers of the simply-drawn comic strip. It doesn’t come across as an overproduced computer game, but as a movie about characters we love.

 

Finding a voice for Garfield was tricky. He had to be lively and engaging, jaded and world-wise, a bit nave and fundamentally vulnerable. Bill Murray is a natural. Murray’s character in the recent Lost in Translation is a lot like Garfield: He’s a pampered star taken out of his comfortable existence and dropped into an unfamiliar world. Murray is reserved and nuanced as the voice of Garfield. He’s not Bill Murray the big-time movie star; he’s a big fat cat.

 

Garfield: The Movie is geared toward kids, but lovers of the comic strip will find it familiar and charming. People who love cats will see their own felines in Garfield. Parents who love neither Garfield nor cats will have a good time nonetheless.

 

Talk About It   Discussion starters

1. Why do older siblings get jealous when a new baby comes home from the hospital?

 

2. What kinds of things make siblings bond to one another and learn to enjoy one another?

 

3. Why do some people enjoy dogs, who like to please people, while others like cats, who are so independent as to be downright snobs?

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

Garfield: The Movie is rated PG, although it might easily have been rated G. There’s nothing to offend sensitive parents and nothing to scare most children.

 

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The Stepford Wives (Christianity Today, 040611)

review by Peter T. Chattaway | posted 06/11/04

 

There has always been something a tad absurd about The Stepford Wives, even once you accept its science-fiction premise, but the new film pushes the concept way, way over the top. The original novella by thriller writer Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil) tapped into feminist fears that men would gladly exchange their flesh-and-blood wives for domesticated, hyper-sexual robots if they could, and the 1975 film directed by Bryan Forbes went on to emphasize the even deeper horror that takes place within the men themselves: it is one thing to be killed and replaced by a machine, but it is quite another to allow your own soul to be twisted against your conscience. These days, however, it seems the battle of the sexes is either so complicated or so pass—take your pick—that the only thing a mainstream film can do with the subject is to make fun of it all. So, in the hands of Frank Oz—the Muppeteer who gave life to Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and Yoda, and the director of the campy musical version of Little Shop of Horrors—The Stepford Wives has become an out-and-out comedy.

 

And as comedies go these days, it’s actually fairly funny, albeit in a light, superficial way which either hides or exposes the fact that the plot is a thick tangle of mutual contradictions and the social commentary is pretty much all over the place. No doubt the incoherence on display can be blamed on the reshoots that reportedly plagued this production, but one does have to wonder how much of the credit, if that’s the word, should go to screenwriter Paul Rudnick (In & Out), whose work in the past has shown a similar preference for zingers over narrative logic.

 

The first sign that the new film has pretty much nothing to do with the real world comes in the opening scene, in which Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman), now no longer a freelance photographer but the ultra-successful president of a top-rated television network, promotes a new batch of reality-TV shows that all hinge on female empowerment. (In real life, of course, shows that explicitly pursue the gender angle—like Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? and The Swan—have taken the exact opposite tack and perpetuated the very stereotypes that feminists fought thirty years ago.) Joanna’s plans are brought to a crashing halt when a man who appeared on one of her shows turns up, brandishing a gun and crying, “Let’s kill all the women!” Fearing lawsuits, the network cancels all of Joanna’s shows and lets her go—much to her shock.

 

Looking for a change of pace, Joanna and her doting husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) move with their family to Connecticut, and to the gated community of Stepford. At first, Joanna is weirded out by the buxom, blissed-out women in the floral-print dresses, but then she tries to fit in, baking cupcakes and knitting and performing various other tasks while Walter spends his time at the Men’s Association, a club whose leader, Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken), offers Walter the chance to give his wife a mechanical upgrade. Earlier versions of this story kept Walter’s activities at the club an ominous secret, and one that left him shaking; but in this film, he watches a man withdraw money from a woman’s mouth as though she were an ATM, and his eyes go wide with appreciative wonder. Later, when his son is playing and idly remarks that robots are cool, Walter grins with anticipation. Ha, ha, ha.

 

Joanna does not entirely conform to the Stepford way of life, thanks to two other relatively new arrivals in town—Bobbi Markowitz (Bette Midler), a sassy Jewish author, and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), a flamboyantly gay man—who bring a bit of spice to her life and keep it unpredictable. But one by one, Joanna’s friends are Stepford-ized. Roger, who says there has been trouble in his relationship with his partner Jerry (David Marshall Grant) ever since the latter became a “gay Republican” (which Roger likens to being “gay with bad hair”), even becomes that rarest of specimens, a conservative politician who is both proudly gay and religious. And ultimately, Joanna too comes face-to-face with what her hubby has planned for her.

 

This is the point where earlier versions of the story pretty much came to their eerie end. But the new film gets to this point awfully quickly, and it keeps right on moving, into a new act that takes all the assumptions and premises of the earlier scenes and earlier versions of this story and blows them all right out of the water. You think the story is all about the subjugation of women by men? Think again. And as much as the new denouement may contradict the premises set down by the rest of the film, it does hark back, thematically, to those opening scenes at the network, where the only executives we see all happen to be female. The world of plastic smiles and simulated perfection, the film seems to be saying, may ultimately be something women impose on each other.

 

The film does touch on other current trends, such as the quest for spiritual stability through pharmaceuticals and medical treatments, all of which may tend to reduce human beings to the equivalent of machines that need fixing, as well as the growing interest in robotic pets and automated devices that talk back to us, which raises interesting questions about the kinds of attachments that are developing between humans and machines—and the effect these attachments may have on our human relationships. But it touches on these things very, very lightly. In the end, the film is much more interested in lampooning traditional gender roles, and the debates around them, than in worrying about such things.

 

Talk About It   Discussion starters

 

1. Is there such a thing as “perfection”? If so, define it. If you could make yourself or anyone you know perfect, would you? Are all of our “flaws” really flaws, or do you think the real flaw is sometimes in our standards of “perfection”?

 

2. Joanna makes a distinction between saying you love someone (which the robots can do) and meaning it (which the robots presumably cannot do). How is this distinction important? Do you always mean it when you tell someone you love them? Should you ever tell someone you love them even if you don’t feel it? What is love? Is it a feeling, or something else? (See 1 Cor. 13, John 15:13, Romans 5:8.)

 

3. Do you think the film encourages stereotypes (of men, women, gays, Republicans, Jews, Christians, etc.), or does it challenge them? Both? What role do you think men and women have in society today? What role do you think they should have? How have things changed since the original film came out in 1975?

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

 

The Stepford Wives is rated PG-13 for “sexual content, thematic material and language.” The characters often talk about sex and on one occasion they overhear a couple having sex. Some of the humor also revolves around the physical endowment of the robot wives. One of the main characters is a gay man who keeps pictures of Lord of the Rings co-stars Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen; he later runs for political office, touting the “power of prayer” and thanking his gay “partner in life, and partner in the Lord.” Except for the opening scene in which a man tries to assassinate Joanna, there is little violence, and most of it is directed against the robots, one of which loses its head, while another sticks its hand in a fire without noticing.

 

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The Chronicles of Riddick (Christianity Today, 040611)

review by Todd Hertz | posted 06/11/04

 

Halfway through The Chronicles of Riddick, the title character (Vin Diesel) leads a ragtag group of convicts across the surface of the planet Crematoria where the daylight temperature is 700 degrees. (Get it? Crematoria!)

 

As they make their dash, sunrise hits (which seems to happen about every seven minutes on Crematoria). Sunlight rolls across the planet and nips at the group’s heels as they run. It’s an impressive sight. However, the suspense is deadened because, it turns out, the heroes can avoid the 700-degree heat by ducking in the shade. In fact, when a character is trapped in the sunlight on a cliffside, all Riddick has to do is swing down on a rope and pull her under a rocky outcropping. In the safety of the shade, the hero poses as smoke rises from his shirt. All you can think—besides sunscreen jokes—is: Wow, isn’t Riddick cool?

 

The race against the sun typifies this sci-fi actioner: it’s big, pretty to look at, and doesn’t make much sense. But it also proves the major selling point of both The Chronicles of Riddick and its predecessor, Pitch Black. When the original space thriller was released in 2000, the general consensus was: “Eh. Average action film, but wow, isn’t Riddick cool?” Obviously, writer and director David Twohy and producer Diesel thought the same thing. In this first of three planned sequels—especially in one key scene—you realize they want to turn Riddick into a Conan the Barbarian hero: epic and larger than life with grand mythos and a destiny.

 

As the movie begins, the murderous convict Riddick has been hiding from bounty hunters since surviving the events of Pitch Black. But the law isn’t the only group that wants him. He is also in demand because he could be the man prophesized to stop the deadly Necromongers.

 

Chronicles owes a tremendous debt to The Matrix. It includes prophecy, a chosen one, a reluctant anti-hero, and more. In fact, instead of an oracle, it has an “elemental” (which the movie explains doesn’t tell the future but just calculates the odds of it) and instead of a super-fast unbeatable Agent Smith, it has a super-fast unbeatable Lord Marshal. Most of the time, Chronicles feels like a film student’s attempt to make his own Matrix. The only differences come from things Twohy pulls from sci-fi staples like Star Wars, Dune, and Flash Gordon.

 

The $120-million budget makes the film stand above Pitch Black in special effects and landscapes. The action is constant but rarely ground-breaking. In fact, in one major battle, the action is so passive it feels like a music video. All in all, this is a slightly above-average action flick with a solid ending that alone makes another sequel—and what Riddick could do in it—intriguing.

 

But as Twohy and Diesel know, their bread and butter is Riddick himself. He really is the classic bigger-than-life hero you can’t take your eyes of off. But, in the lead role now, he does get old after a while. Even Vin Diesel can bark only so many badly written one-liners before it gets tiring.

 

But Riddick is intriguing not just because of his toughness and Schwarzenegger presence. He is also a study in reluctant anti-heroes. He’s a killer. But there’s also a caring side and a sense of mystery that draws you in. After two movies, it is still hard to peg down exactly what makes this guy tick. The movies tease you to think that Riddick may be guiltily wrestling with who he is. But is he? In the first film, he says he believes in God but hates him because of the tough life he’s had. And then, after learning a lesson in personal sacrifice, he tells a character that the old Riddick is now dead: “He died somewhere on that planet.”

 

But in the sequel, the character doesn’t go much deeper than that. It’s hard to tell which Riddick he is here, the old one who “died on that planet” or a new reformed one. There just isn’t much character development and no substantial discussion of Riddick’s beliefs or convictions.

 

Therefore, all of Chronicles’ religious content pretty much belongs to the Necromongers. Opening narration describes them as a religion making a dark pilgrimage to their promised land. On their way, they destroy planets one-by-one to increase their numbers by conversion. In truth, the massive army seems to more resemble Star Wars’ evil Empire or Star Trek’s Borg than a religion. The Necromongers rule with fear and they seemingly brainwash their victims in a forced conversion.

 

Still, the movie does try to comment on religious free choice and the nature of evil. But, like the heat on Crematoria, little is fleshed out. But I suppose it really doesn’t matter because … wow, isn’t Riddick cool?

 

Talk About It   Discussion starters

1. Beginning narration says: “In normal times, evil should be fought by good but in times like these, it should be fought by another evil.” In what ways is this true in the universe of the movie? How is that applicable to our world?

 

2. Do you think Riddick is really evil? Why or why not?

 

3. What does the movie say about free choice of religion?

 

4. In what ways are or aren’t the Necromongers a religion? Are they in any way comparable to anything in a Christian worldview? Who is the film’s most honestly religious character?

 

5. What do you think happens after this film? What do you think Riddick—based on his character thus far—will now do?

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

 

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action and offensive language, the main concerns are with a lot of hand-to-hand combat resulting in plenty of stabbings, decapitations, and death. There’s also a bizarrely sexual scene where women under sheets writhe and moan while reading Riddick’s mind.

 

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Hangman’s Curse (Christianity Today, 040323)

review by Todd Hertz

 

The film version of Hangman’s Curse is so different from the Christian teen thriller by Frank Peretti that fans might assume Peretti didn’t have much say in its development. The surprise is that Peretti not only serves as a co-producer of the film—he also acts in it.

 

Of course, it’s always easy to criticize films for not being as effective as the books they’re based on. But most of the problems with Hangman’s Curse seem to be directly related to its screenwriting. The movie is at its best in scenes taken from the book, but the story becomes clumsy and almost incoherent in changed plotlines and added scenes.

 

Both the book (the first in Peretti’s Veritas Project teen series) and the movie follow a family of super-spies who investigate troubling crimes. In this case, they arrive at Rogers High School, where something is leaving popular football players delusional and on the edge of death.

 

Gossip in the school halls attributes the illnesses to the ghost of a bullied student named Abel Frye, who committed suicide 10 years before the current goings-on. But the ghost appears to be working under the commands of a persecuted Goth kid, Ian Snyder. Is witchcraft really leading to the illnesses? Or is there a rational, Earth-bound answer to the crimes? These are the questions that the Springfield Mom, Dad, and twins Elijah and Elisha are out to answer.

 

The movie veers from the book in added subplots (like a silly love story for Elisha) and, most puzzlingly, a different explanation of what’s going on at Rogers High. The entire premise of the Abel Frye plot is changed, as is the motivation of the criminal mastermind. Peretti’s original story told what happens when ridicule pushes someone to the brink—and included a godly solution. But in the movie, an out-of-place revenge plot blurs the message.

 

In fact, the movie contradicts its own message about being different. It tries to say that everyone—despite social role or hair color—has worth. But what we see is a resolution in which two Goths finally fit in not because of their unique identities but because they conform. They trade in their black makeup for bright-colored T-shirts! Also troubling is that teen groups are horribly stereotyped. The geeks wear glasses and are good in science and math. You know who the jocks are because they wear letter jackets and girls love them—even Elisha.

 

The script also deletes most of the book’s overt discussion of weighty issues and a strong conclusion relating to redemption and trust. As a film, Hangman’s Curse doesn’t offer all that much in terms of moral lessons. The movie does depict realistic teen issues like self-esteem, bullying, suicide, and being different, but doesn’t offer many direct lessons or commentary on them. It just shows them.

 

The movie, unlike the book, fails to mention that the Springfields are Christians assigned to use their moral backgrounds as a type of faith-based initiative against crime. Instead, there’s no faith discussion at all until Elisha gets in trouble in the movie’s climax and sings “Jesus Loves Me.” After that, the movie ends with a family prayer. The trouble is that by only showing two spiritual acts, the faith of the characters doesn’t color the events of the movie. Recent mainstream movies like Bruce Almighty, Signs, and Return of the King integrate faith lessons into the story better than this—and provide more teaching moments and illustrations.

 

There are more problems with the screenwriting. Because the plot is watered down, it’s hard to tell exactly what is going on at times. I thought two characters had died, only to see them pop up at the end. This ambiguity is just part of a general sloppiness that takes big leaps, finds easy outs, and uses stilted and laughable “teen” dialogue.

 

Other than the screenwriting flaws, Hangman’s Curse does have many pluses. The production values are very good, benefiting from experienced producers like Ralph Winter (X2: X-Men United). The movie looks and sounds great. The opening credits are legitimately creepy as are a few other parts of the film. But this is not a scary or gruesome movie; it’s more X-Files than Scream (although its one semi-scary scene might as well be borrowed from that horror series).

 

The acting is also strong—most notably that of Jake Richardson (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) as Ian. The only sore spot is, frankly, Peretti. Playing an eccentric professor, Peretti uses every over-acting trick in of the book: fake lisp, goofy glances, and Barney Fife bumbling. He’s obviously designed to be comic relief, but feels like Christopher Lloyd’s Back to the Future character crammed into an X-Files episode.

 

In the end, the film does keep viewers’ attention, has some shining scenes, and will interest young teens. But it might also leave readers wondering how a pretty good book ended up as a not-so-great movie.

 

Talk About It   Discussion starters

(May contain plot spoilers)

1. In what ways does Rogers High remind you of your own school? In what ways is it different?

 

2. Do you identify with any of the characters? Who and why? How did the movie make you feel about relating to that character?

 

3. What does the film tell you about accepting others and respecting differences? Do you agree with that?

4. Do you think the kind of judging and bullying shown in the movie occurs in adulthood outside high school?

5. How did you see God present in the lives of any characters?

 

The Family Corner   For parents to consider

Violence is limited to the hanging of Abel Frye (although the camera pans away and shows only a shadow); three instances of bullying; an undercover cop scene where a character holds a shotgun to someone’s face; and a scary scene in which a masked bad guy surprises then chases a girl. There’s also an undercover sting operation when a kid gets busted for methylamines, but no drug use is shown. There are also depictions of witchcraft (including pagan symbols and skulls).

 

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Mystic River (Christianity Today, 031016)

Christianity Today Movies did not review this film, but here’s what other critics are saying …

compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 10/16/03

An icon of gunslinger revenge epics himself, Clint Eastwood returns to the screen this week with a drama that explores the darker side of vigilante justice. Winning raves and early Oscar-buzz from critics, Mystic River is a dark, moody journey through grief to anger and, eventually, a mission of violent revenge. The story examines the different perspectives and responses of three men to a grisly murder, and how a traumatizing event from their childhoods influences their behavior as adults.

 

A troublemaker as a child, Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) has grown up into a bitter, dangerous man who is accustomed to settling scores with violence below the radar of the Boston police. Thus, when someone close to him is killed, he sets out to find the killer and bring about justice on his own. While we see him, his picture-perfect wife (Laura Linney), and his beautiful daughters dressed in their Sunday best at the local church, we know that Markum’s subversive plans are being carried out behind the scenes.

 

Sean (Kevin Bacon), Markum’s childhood friend, has become a cop, and now he must return to “the neighborhood” to investigate the crime and revisit his old friends, old haunts. He and his contrarian partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) trudge along the trail of clues, trying to get to the truth before Jimmy does.

 

Meanwhile, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), who suffered a traumatizing period of sexual abuse as a child, stumbles through his days with weighty emotional baggage, a tendency towards alcohol, and a feeble grip on his marriage. The murder of his friend Jimmy’s loved one, 30 years later, only intensifies the pain of his old wounds, especially when suspicion falls on him. When Dave’s wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) comes to believe he is guilty, it comes as a shattering blow to his psyche.

 

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) calls the movie “suspenseful and sobering. Eastwood seems to have come full circle, from once having … glamorized violence to directing more mature films such as Unforgiven and this gritty drama. [He] has a taut narrative to work with and gets some remarkable performances from his cast. Hands down, Penn steals the movie.”

 

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) calls it a “sophisticated portrait of a Boston neighborhood … supported with some sparkling performances and a compelling tale. If you’re in the mood for a mature film, you won’t go wrong here.” And yet he struggles with the film’s split-personality as a murder mystery and a psychological drama: “The desire to keep the audience guessing ends up undermining the narrative itself.”

 

While River is drawing many raves, I found it to be an uneven work that grows tiresome in the sullen, pessimistic tone imposed upon it. Penn and Robbins do some impressive work, but when the movie shifts away from them to focus on Bacon and Fishburne, the movie loses momentum and feels like a forgettable episode of NYPD Blue. Women are all portrayed as either fractured and feeble or malevolent and manipulative. Making matters worse, Eastwood’s melodramatic soundtrack is too intrusive, too abrupt, and his scene changes are often awkward and jarring.

 

The neighborhood church is a backdrop for a central scene, opening up possibilities for spiritual exploration within the story. Alas, Eastwood can’t find more to say than “evil begets evil,” and he can’t seem to do more than sigh heavily over his drowning characters. In the world of this story, the men are downcast, the women fractured, the truth is lost, and redemption, joy, and humor are nowhere to be found. In spite of its melodrama, Mystic River is not the profound work of artistry many have declared. Eastwood’s Unforgiven remains his masterwork.

 

Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project) says the movie is loaded with “all the stuff of great contemporary American film. But unfortunately, even though it all is a great idea, Mystic River doesn’t quite pan out. Somehow, without any warning at all, everything seems to just fall together in the end in a way that is supposed to register shock. But the lackluster ending really isn’t able to muster up more than a stifled yawn.”

 

“The acting is very good,” says Tom Snyder (Movieguide), “but the story … takes some predictable and not-so-predictable turns and twists that are too typical of the type of medium-level mystery thriller lurking around too many bookstalls in American airports.” He argues that the film leads to a good lesson: “Sin has real consequences in the story of these people’s lives.”

 

Most mainstream critics are heralding the film as a masterpiece, and many are calling for Oscar nominations.

 

from Film Forum, 10/23/03

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) calls Mystic River “an adult murder mystery that is dark, depressing and probably not for everyone. While the ending is understandable, I found it to be … disturbing, leaving me with mixed emotions at how justice was served.”

 

“Eastwood’s biggest error is in not ending the film once the murder is solved,” says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). “Instead, he drags out the story for another 20 minutes where it takes such an implausible turn that we have no choice but to utterly dismiss it as ludicrous.”

 

D. J. Williams (Christian Spotlight) disagrees, finding it “a real jewel of a movie. Eastwood has put together a fantastic piece of work. It may be a difficult swim, but this is one River certainly worth seeing.”

 

from Film Forum, 11/06/03

Reviewing Mystic River, Barbara Nicolosi, Director of the Christian film writing program Act One: Writing for Hollywood, says in her blog that critics and Christian friends have exhorted her to see the film because it is “important,” “thoughtful,” and “provocative.” After finally seeing the film, she responds: “I’m sitting here shaking my head wondering, has everybody lost their minds?!?! It is a sad squandering of an incredibly talented cast, in a project that ultimately comes down to the thesis: bad things that happen can screw you up. Mystic River … will add nothing to your spiritual journey on the plus side. On the minus side, it will make you more scared of your neighbor and more paranoid for your kids.”

 

from Film Forum, 11/13/03

Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, which took some hits from religious press critics a few weeks back, earns a rave review this week from Carole McDonnell (The Film Forum). She writes, “The slow dissection of the grief and pain surrounding a murder is heart-wrenching under the hand of director Clint Eastwood. The film has many themes: guilt and expiation, ancestral sins, community and belonging. But it is only at the end that the film’s major theme is apparent. And that theme is what gives the movie its last good punch. The mystic river is the emotional river of human rationalizations, especially the rationalizations made by Christians who take grace for granted and who create their own ways of atoning for their sins.”

 

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Peter Pan (Christianity Today, 031223)

Christianity Today Movies did not review this film, but here’s what other critics are saying …

compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 12/23/03

 

But if you would like to read some early first impressions, check out the review by Frederica Mathews-Green (Our Sunday Visitor). “The film itself is wise and treats the topic with appropriate delicacy,” she writes. “You couldn’t ask for more. In a culture which generally presents young women with the worst possible advice about how to understand their sexuality, this film stands out like an antidote. Where conservatives don’t know what to say beyond negatives, Peter Pan dares to present a positive view, expressing the loveliness of guarded, chaste, yet warm desire. So, for once, sex is the reason you should see a film rather than avoid it.”

 

from Film Forum, 01/02/04

Religious press film critics seem impressed with director P.J. Hogan’s new adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s tale, Peter Pan.

 

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) compares Hogan’s adaptation to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien. He says that, like Jackson, Hogan emphasizes “hyped-up action, effects, and production values. His Neverland combines an endearingly storybook quality with a modern action aesthetic. But … Hogan seems awkward and uncomfortable with the early scenes in London and the nursery. What keeps this Peter Pan from being a great adaptation of Barrie’s story is that it is, finally, too self-aware. The whole point of a fairy tale is to present in imaginative form what cannot be said openly, at least not yet. A fairy tale must be about something, but it must not, in a sense, know what it is about. Hogan’s Peter Pan does know.”

 

“Peter Pan is a very tender story,” writes Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight), “and this production seems to not do any harm to it.” But he believes that Steven Spielberg’s Hook “outshines it.”

 

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) disagrees. “This movie isn’t just ‘another version’ of Peter Pan. This is the version—a classic for the next 100 years!”

 

Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) writes, “Hogan’s Peter Pan is not only a pretty good movie—and a pretty good children’s movie, to boot—it’s also perhaps the most fully-realized interpretation of Barrie’s classic work yet. This Peter Pan is darker and scarier than Pans of the past. Still, it’s hard for us to deny that our children live in dark and threatening times, just as children have done since Barrie’s time and before. The point of Hogan’s film—Barrie’s own point—is not to scare children, but to show them that in spite of their fears and insecurities, parents do love them; and that the real world can be a loving, comforting place—a better one, in fact, than Neverland.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, “While it may be a bit too intense for the very young, Peter Pan is a rousing good time for a family outing. This film is much more faithful to the original text than the Disney animated version.”

 

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, “While Barrie’s timeless fairy tale has inspired countless retellings over the years … few can rival the luminous charm and technical bravura of Hogan’s lavish interpretation. The film also imparts a valuable message about bravery, explaining in one scene how it manifests itself in many forms, some more subtle than others, including the heroism of parents who sacrifice personal ambitions for the good of their children.”

 

Ted Baehr (Movieguide), who persistently describes Harry Potter as occultic and evil because of its magical elements, seems to have no trouble with this story full of magic and pixie dust. He says it’s a “wonderfully crafted, morally uplifting movie that intentionally emphasizes the fantasy elements of the story both in dialogue and design of the film.”

 

Not everyone is so pleased. “This live-action Peter Pan is fun, action-packed and smart-looking, if a bit misguided,” says Bob Smithouser (Plugged In). “There are plenty of positive messages. Yet parents may feel it’s inappropriate for the target audience. Peter Pan is darker and more violent than many families of 5- to 10-year-olds would prefer. There’s also a subtle sexual subtext that may generate questions from little ones that force Mom and Dad to discuss issues of puberty and first love before they’re ready.”

 

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Bruce Almighty (Christianity Today, 030529)

Jim Carrey plays God with unholy flair in a movie that is Judeo-Christian to its bones.

Reviewed by Anna Waterhouse | posted 05/29/2003

 

Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) sees his life as mediocre. Self-involved and immature, he loves his longtime girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston), but has never gotten around to proposing. His job as a tv reporter in Buffalo, New York, doesn’t satisfy him. When he is denied the only thing he truly covets, an anchor spot, his simmering discontent boils over. Bruce accuses God of being negligent, even sadistic.

 

That’s when God (Morgan Freeman) challenges Bruce to do better. And so Bruce Nolan becomes God for a time—only to discover that omnipotence ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

 

I went to this screening with some trepidation. Although Jim Carrey is undeniably gifted, a commercial impetus tends to move his sort of talent beyond farce into caricature—not within my comedic tastes.

 

But Carrey won me over with his puppyish eagerness to please. He manages to be at once a consummate performer and all heart. Maybe the film works because the concept Carrey is trying to get across is larger than his larger-than-life persona. Or maybe it’s his strong desire to have us truly listen, so certain is he that if we pay attention, we’ll come away with a grain of truth. Or it could be that when someone writes a love note to Yahweh and wants so badly to share it, it’s hard to turn away.

 

Make no mistake: Bruce Almighty is Judeo-Christian to its bones. Even a gift of prayer beads from Bruce’s girlfriend can’t quite bestow on the film that glossy “all religions are one” hue. After all, with God the Father represented by the venerable Morgan Freeman; with grace embodied by the all-loving, all-forgiving, faithful-to-the-end girlfriend; and with the Holy Spirit writing on the cardboard placards of a homeless man, it would be tough to argue that the film’s foundation is skewed.

 

Granted, there is no ultimate sacrifice here, and therefore no true redemption. But that’s not the story Bruce Almighty is trying to tell. The film is more a primer on God’s existence and his active presence in our lives. Before it’s done, Bruce discovers that God is not only loving—he’s as close as our breath, and we are his feet, hands, and heart.

 

Yes, there are flaws. Carrey is such a bouncy, hyperactive soul that it’s impossible to think of him as a malcontent. It is like trying to imagine Tigger as dyspeptic. So the premise—a dissatisfied guy on whom falls the proverbial last straw—loses something in the translation. But if we can buy the notion that all of us, at one time or other, were angry enough at God to scream and yell and throw a hissy fit, the rest falls neatly into place.

 

Yes, there’s “language.” But these characters simply speak the way most people speak, and most people will find them real and sympathetic.

 

Less easily brushed aside is the sexual relationship between Bruce and Grace “without benefit of clergy.” Director Tom Shadyac, a Christian, defends this choice by underlining that, while Grace longs for marriage, Bruce has yet to grow up.

 

“I think when you get married you have to appreciate your life and the partner you’re with,” Shadyac said at a press briefing. “And Bruce wasn’t mature enough yet. That’s why the movie ended up [with the characters finally getting engaged].”

 

The creative basis for this is understandable, and one could even stretch the point—often “grace” wants a more intimate relationship with us than we are prepared to give, and the more we learn about ourselves and God, the easier this ultimate union becomes. But it’s also disingenuous to insist that the two leads are not role models. Their attractiveness and popular appeal, especially to a young audience, belies that.

 

What else? At first, Bruce experiments with his godly powers in juvenile ways. There’s some gross-out humor that thankfully manages to be more verbal than visual and will probably delight the kids without offending the adults too much. Truth is, were most of us granted godly powers for even a minute, the ensuing chaos would be far from humorous. The screenwriters do an admirable job of showing a human being’s ineptitude with omnipotence while keeping the tone light.

 

Is Bruce Almighty for everyone? Not for kids under 12. They’d get the parts you wouldn’t want them to get and miss the rest. And, strictly speaking, it wasn’t written for Christians, since anyone with a genuine relationship with God would already know the material. But who says that being reminded can’t be fun?

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 05/29/03

If you’ve seem Jim Carrey in the commercials for Bruce Almighty, you know that he plays a character who makes some self-centered choices when granted the mantle of omnipotence. In fact, due to the highly publicized, crass antics of this meddling man-deity, many Christian viewers have probably prayed for a box office disaster.

 

But there’s more to the movie than a madman with a “god complex.”

 

In fact, Bruce Almighty was directed by Tom Shadyac, a professing Christian who brought us Patch Adams and Dragonfly. The film focuses on how Bruce Nolan, a shallow and selfish man, learns to get past his adolescent desires and become more godly. God (played with dignity and authority by Morgan Freeman) is revealed as a deity who knows full well that giving temporary control to Bruce will be enough to humble and change him. Thus, several Christian film critics are urging viewers not to judge Shadyac’s new comedy too hastily.

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls Bruce “a wildly funny film … the funniest film of the year thus far.”

 

Elliott offers reassurance to suspicious moviegoers: “Bruce Almighty is very respectful of God and the relationship between God and man. Many Christians will opt not to see this film because of [objectionable] elements and that is certainly understandable. But it is a pity because the spiritual messages being delivered by the film are ones which Christians will especially recognize and support.”

 

Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) also gives the film a pass, but begrudges it a few missteps. “It takes seriously the idea of surrendering to God’s will. It depicts prayer as commendable, while debunking self-centered prayers. It also critiques the sort of passive fatalism that sits around blaming God rather than taking action to change things. Yet the movie goes to the opposite extreme from passive fatalism by suggesting that we need to look to ourselves and not to God. Bruce Almighty argues that we can’t be God, but it doesn’t seem to understand how we need God.”

 

He adds: “In addition to its theological faults, Bruce Almighty isn’t very funny or creative.”

 

Jamey Bennett (Razormouth) is surprised by the theological content of the film. “In a culture inundated by MTV, SpongeBob Squarepants, and Frappuccinos, Bruce Almighty is the closest thing to a systematic theology that most will ever lay eyes upon. Hopefully, the bits of truth in this irreverent comedy will not go unnoticed by moviegoers, and hopefully the Church will not forget to have better answers for the fewquestions that this movie has raised.”

 

Anna Waterhouse reviewed Bruce for Christianity Today. “The film is a primer on God’s existence and his active presence in our lives,” Waterhouse wrote. “Before it’s done, Bruce discovers that God is not only loving—he’s as close as our breath, and we are his feet, hands, and heart.”

 

Watching the film with younger viewers in mind, Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) observes that the film seems spiritually “ambiguous.” “Such ambiguity isn’t necessarily a reason to avoid watching Bruce Almighty with teens. On the contrary, it could stimulate great discussion. What will deter many families from seeing this movie are its coarse jokes, foul language, and sexual situations. Why did the filmmakers feel the need to go there? That material undermines what is otherwise a very funny, sweet, and profound comedy that awakens viewers to the fundamental existence of God and our need to serve one another.”

 

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, “Carrey is the weak link in an otherwise entertaining film. He is so concerned with doing his patented rubber-faced routine—a shtick that is quickly growing stale—that he never fully surrenders to the role.”

 

But is the film too irreverent? DiCerto decides, “Beneath its irreverent facade the film addresses faith issues with an unfeigned sincerity and seriousness. That’s rare in an industry which, at best, treats expressions of faith as window dressing.”

 

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) argues that Carrey is “in fine form”, and assures readers that “The movie will elicit some genuine laughs, even as it plays some sentimental notes. Some viewers may find the premise sacrilegious, but those who don’t will think a little and laugh a lot.”

 

Bobby Kim (Relevant Magazine) also approves: “Although fronting as a classic Carrey funfest, Bruce Almighty’s spiritual undertones are jarringly poignant and substantial.

 

Megan Basham (Christian Spotlight) writes, “Despite the precarious undertaking of trying to paint a picture of God using limited human minds and limited human actors, the team behind this film manages to capture some of the Lord’s compelling attributes as revealed through Scripture.” But then she expresses dismay at some of the crass comedy in the film, and says she is not satisfied with the justifications provided by the director in her interview with him.

 

But she concludes, “Like Paul with the Greeks, movies concerning God and his role in our lives give Christ’s followers an opportunity to address the world on its own terms and say, ‘You know that God that remains unnamed in this film? Well, I do know his name. It’s Jesus, and I’d like to tell you about him.’”

 

David Bruce, (Hollywood Jesus) interviewed Shadyac. He asks the director how a professing Christian could make a movie about a guy who lives with his girlfriend. Shadyac replies, “If people will not go to see Bruce Almighty, then (they) shouldn’t pick up Confessions by Saint Augustine. Because he lived a very worldly life—with all the trappings of the world. And look a St. Paul. Don’t read St. Paul, please. He killed Christians. He didn’t just sleep with someone before marriage. He killed Christians. Don’t look at St. Paul. We could go down the list—of everyone (in the Bible) that these families admire, and yet these people will hold Hollywood to a different standard.”

 

Movieguide’s critic, however, says Christians should not see Almighty because of its “unscrubbed” and objectionable content. But he argues that there is just enough theological emphasis that “a select few of the lost and frustrated masses who are desperately searching to know the love of the One True God … may find something to set them on a better, more spiritually correct path.”

 

Dick Staub’s Culture Watch reports, “The crudities and juvenile humor in the film distract from the essential goodness of it’s messages: of God’s love, the importance of gratitude, the need to find out who God has uniquely created you to be, and to ‘be a miracle’ by doing your part.”

 

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) thinks the film is worthwhile despite is objectionable aspects: “Although you may not approve of all the questionable elements that are in this movie or support the way the story is told, this movie does have the potential to reach people who would never step inside a church, listen to Christian radio or watch Christian television. It will leave you thinking about the spiritual elements long after you’ve left the theater.”

 

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, “Even devout moviegoers should acknowledge the good intentions of this clever comedy. Compared to the solemn silliness and pagan pomposity of the over-praised The Matrix Reloaded, Carrey’s Bruce looks like a work of unexpected theological integrity.”

 

Most mainstream critics admit that there are some hilarious sequences, but they are nevertheless somewhat disappointed by the comedy. You can scan their reviews here.

 

from Film Forum, 06/05/03

The week’s second most popular film caused a curious phenomenon: a flood of phone calls to God.

 

Nevertheless, there is still some grumbling amongst Christian moviegoers about the new Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty because it portrays a hero displaying disrespect for God’s power. Further, he swears, he lives with his girlfriend, and behaves rather recklessly in other ways.

 

But some Christian film critics are defending the film against such flack.

 

Frederick Davis (Hollywood Jesus) says, “I expected it to make me very angry.” But the finished product surprised him. “Some complain that this film doesn’t clearly present the Gospel of Jesus, and that’s true, it doesn’t. But it does focus on man’s weakness in contrast with God’s wisdom and love. In fact, Bruce ultimately realizes that true love for someone else comes only through seeing him or her through God’s eyes. God, as presented in this film, is loving, wise, graceful, and yes, holy.”

 

The same page offers an in-depth interview with director Tom Shadyac, who defends the main character. “We don’t start with perfect people in movies,” he argues. “We start with imperfect people, and then they have to go on a journey. Let’s read the Bible and see how many people cohabitated and did imperfect things. There is shadow in the movie, and the shadow helps the light. So we are not espousing any life style. We are not telling people, ‘Now this is how to live!’ We were telling a story.”

 

from Film Forum, 06/26/03

Sister Rose Pacatte (The Tidings) reviews Bruce Almighty. She argues, “for all its potential minus points, the scale tips to the plus side because it is a positive—and entertaining—witness to the attributes of God, who is present to creation and who cares about humanity. Morgan Freeman as God is believable and an excellent casting choice that invites reverence and faith, even when ‘God’ laughs at our human foibles.”

 

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Bourne Again: A departure for spy fare (NRO, 040723)

 

One thing’s for certain...Russian taxicabs can sure take a beating. Or at least that’s the impression you get from The Bourne Supremacy’s most heart-stopping action sequence.

 

Lest you doubt the veracity of that description, let me say, as a female critic, I do not throw the adjective “heart-stopping” around lightly. There are few things I find more irritating than the drawn-out, predictable chase scenes that pass for action these days. In fact, I usually plead with my husband to wait until the latest “thrill-a-minute” blockbuster comes to DVD, so that at least I can make a snack while the hero is endlessly leaping from European sports cars to European bullet trains.

 

So I’m happy to report that The Bourne Supremacy suffers from none of the tragically hip trappings that usually attend intrigue cinema. In one sense the film preserves all the traditional elements that make spy thrillers compelling, but it gives them a gritty new reality, dragging them into the muddy snow of Moscow, icing them up, and making us feel the shiver. Not a Computer Generated Image in sight, Supremacy offers the audience more than mere spectacle. It offers, amidst the requisite panoramas of stunning international locations swarming with double agents and clandestine alliances, a reminder that intelligence work is deadly serious business.

 

We catch up with Jason Bourne where we left him two years ago at the end of the groundbreaking sleeper hit Bourne Identity. He is still with keeping house (or shack as the case may be) with the lovely Marie (Franka Potente), hiding out on a beach in India, and trying in vain to remember who he is and why so many people want to kill him. As increasingly lurid flashes from the past continue to tax his sanity, Bourne’s former life collides with his present and he finds himself framed for a corrupt cross-agency operation that leaves two men dead.

 

Only the second film in this spy series, Supremacy reaffirms the franchise as a remarkable departure from today’s typical spy fare and Damon as a remarkable departure from today’s typical super-agent. Though they are reportedly best friends, when it comes to acting, Damon may very well be the “anti-Ben.” His performance as Jason Bourne is as taut and shrewd as Affleck’s Jack Ryan is unruly and grandstanding. Damon doesn’t need cheap, “I’m-so-dashing-couldn’t-you-just-die” swagger to fill up two hours of screen time, he has talent to do that.

 

At times startling in his agility, Damon’s physical precision with the role is matched only by the intelligent restraint he applies to the character’s emotions. He lends steel to lines lesser actors would have provided only flash. When a former co-assassin comes home to find Jason Bourne in his kitchen, gun in hand, he sighs “They told me you’d lost your memory.” Bourne replies while cocking the trigger, “Yeah, but you still should’ve moved.”

 

New director Paul Greengrass (Doug Liman stays on as executive director) captures the kinetic energy of the first Bourne film and intensifies it with his breakneck handheld style. His erratic editing acts as a nice stylistic foil to Damon’s physical discipline, allowing the audience to feel as disoriented and tense as Bourne is. It’s a bold and effective technique, but if you want to avoid motion sickness, best not sit to close to the screen.

 

Yet while the acting and direction are top notch, what really elevates this film beyond mere masculine fantasy is that it offers war-weary Americans a spy who understands the spiritual consequence of taking life. The assassinations Bourne carries out are not glamorous; they’re raw and ugly and wreak havoc on his psyche, even when he knows they’re necessary to ensure his safety and that of those he loves.

 

Unlike James Bond or Ethan Hunt, or even Vin Diesel’s laughable Triple X, Jason Bourne never experiences (nor allows the audience to vicariously experience) any satisfaction from killing an adversary. Instead, we get the feeling he is soul-sickened by what he has had to resort to in order to save his life.

 

Despite its grave themes (or perhaps because or them), The Bourne Supremacy is still supremely thrilling. Rarely does it fail to stimulate our eyes even as it speaks to our hearts. He may be the youngest member of the international spy set, but Jason Bourne is clearly the most grown-up.

 

— Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.

 

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Around the World in 80 Days (Christianity Today, 040617)

review by Mary Lasse | posted 06/17/04

 

If you want to see a great film adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in 80 Days, check out the 1956 version* starring David Niven as Phileas Fogg. If you want to see an awful adaptation of Verne’s classic novel, go to your local theater and watch this 2004 version. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

80 Days, directed by Frank Coraci, clocks in at an excruciating 120 minutes. For those two hours, I followed Phileas Fogg (British comedian Steve Coogan), Passepartout (martial arts master Jackie Chan), and Monique La Roche (Hollywood newcomer Cecile De France) through title card after title card of cities (Paris, China, San Francisco) all the while wishing that Jules Verne hadn’t included such a lengthy itinerary in his novel.

 

Cecile de France, Steve Coogan, and Jackie Chan

 

To be fair, 80 Days is not an easy story to film. Verne wrote a novel in which the story and characters traversed several continents and met a wealth of diverse people in a wealth of odd situations. Verne also incorporated his fascination with science by writing of Fogg’s great inventions and ideas—things that would be difficult to put to film convincingly, even in our high-tech world of Computer Generated Images (CGI).

 

However, this film version does maintain the book’s basic premise in that members of an elite English club challenge Fogg to travel around the world in, you guessed it, 80 days. Fogg accepts the challenge with the understanding that, if he wins, he can assume the title of Minister of Science within England’s Royal Academy. If he loses, he must forfeit his right to invent and he must steer clear of the Academy. Note here the first of many departures from the original story. In the novel, Fogg’s wager is 20,000 pounds, not necessarily his reputation and lifestyle as an inventor.

 

The second, and more glaring, departure from Verne’s novel is Jackie Chan as Passepartout, Fogg’s “French” valet (the 1956 version featured a memorable performance from Mexico native Cantinflas as the quirky sidekick). Chan’s Passepartout has stolen the Jade Buddha from the Bank of England and must return the Buddha to his small Chinese village in order to save his people. As Passepartout runs from the police, he conveniently meets up with Fogg, who takes Passepartout under his wing as his personal valet. The two then begin their adventure ‘round the world.

 

At least Jackie Chan’s

fight scenes are cool

 

And what an exhausting adventure it is. 80 Days forces you to live in a world of extremes. It would seem that each of the film’s actors resolved to create one dimensional, over-the-top caricatures. Coogan channels Robin Williams’ Flubber performance for inspiration for his distracted and idiot savant Fogg. Chan overreacts to every stimulus in the film, usually resulting in a choreographed fight scene (OK, I admit the fight scenes were pretty cool, but honestly, just go rent Rumble in the Bronx). And, De France puts on her best damsel in distress/cheerleader face to complicate matters and encourage the gang, respectively.

 

It’s precisely because I spent the entire time at the movie’s frothy surface that I found I didn’t care what happened to the characters. When a movie fails to acknowledge human relationships (and I’d like a bit more than La Roche’s “We care because we’re friends” quips), the movie fails to engage the audience. 80 Days proves that 2 hours of chaos and “eye-popping special effects” do not entertain the masses.

 

Essentially, 80 Days is a vehicle for Chan’s creative fight powers. So, Chan fans might like this movie—especially the battle between the Ten Tigers and the Black Scorpions; that scene stirred me from my 80 Days haze long enough to get me through the rest of the movie.

 

Unfortunately, this movie is also

full of hot air

 

I was amazed at how little actually happens for a movie with so much action. Sadly, the fast pace and ridiculousness of the film prevented numerous opportunities for more redemptive plotlines. I would have liked to see serious (or even normal) exchanges between Fogg and Passepartout as well as between Fogg and La Roche. Verne’s material is adventurous and witty, but it also holds great capacity for character development, and that’s exactly what this film avoided.

 

* The 1956 version includes Georges Melies’ fascinating 1902 film, Le Voyage dans la Lune (The Voyage to the Moon). This short is worth the cost of the rental/purchase alone.

Talk About It    Discussion starters

1. Did you enjoy this adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel? Have you read the novel? How might you have adapted the story? Is Hollywood “obligated” to stick to the original story?

 

2. Passepartout lied to Fogg in order to get the Jade Buddha back to his village and save his people. Was that deception acceptable? Why or why not? Does the end ever justify the means?

 

3. Fogg places a great importance on traveling, saying he’s seen great things and learned much. Do you believe that traveling is important? What are the benefits to learning about other cultures?

 

The Family Corner      For parents to consider

Around the World in 80 Days is rated PG for “action violence, some crude humor and mild language.” Jackie Chan’s choreographed fight scenes account for most of the action violence, much like other Chan films. There are several sexual undertones, including the flirting between Fogg and La Roche (at one point, Fogg stares at La Roche’s legs) and Passepartout losing his pants. A boat captain shows how a shark bit off both of his “nipples.” There’s a running gag of Fogg wearing women’s clothing.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 06/24/04

Jackie Chan’s fight scenes are once again winning cheers this week as director Frank Coraci’s adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days comes to the big screen. But only a few of those critics are willing to give their approval to the movie as a whole.

 

Fans of the Jules Verne novel of the same name may be bewildered by the movie’s lack of resemblance to it. British comedian Steve Coogan (Coffee and Cigarettes, 24 Hour Party People) plays a nutty inventor who teams up with a kung-fu-fighting sidekick to travel the world in a flying machine in order to win a wager. The film features numerous celebrity cameos, including the last big screen performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger before his metamorphosis into the governor of California.

 

But in spite of its all-star cast, as Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) notes in his review, there are some distracting holes in this version of the plot: “Without a doubt, the best thing about [the film] is the fight scenes … the best fight scenes in any Jackie Chan Hollywood buddy movie to date. They’re actually so good, it’s a shame there had to be that annoying filler about a race to circumnavigate the globe.” He concludes, “The final act, in particular, is one of the most aggressively stupid things I’ve seen in a long time. Around the World is lamer as a movie than any of Jackie’s previous U.S. films, even The Tuxedo.”

 

Mary Lasse (Christianity Today Movies) says, “If you want to see a great film adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in 80 Days, check out the 1956 version starring David Niven as Phileas Fogg. If you want to see an awful adaptation of Verne’s classic novel, go to your local theater and watch this 2004 version. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. 80 Days proves that two hours of chaos and ‘eye-popping special effects’ do not entertain the masses.”

 

Bob Waliszewski (Plugged In) writes, “It had the potential to be one of the year’s foremost films for the whole family. But it didn’t use it fully, or faithfully. It’s funny, chockfull of action, clever and engaging for all ages. It’s also sprinkled with enough problematic content to prompt me to wave a yellow flag in front of families considering making the journey.”

 

Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) criticizes it for “making fun of historical figures. Legally, you can say almost anything you want about a deceased person. But that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate.” He concludes, however, that this movie is “probably one of the ‘least bad’ choices of the summer for a family outing.”

 

A couple of critics gave the film higher marks. Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, “Unlike its predecessor, this film won’t garner any awards, and adults aren’t likely to be impressed. But, with a few exceptions, it is decent entertainment for the family.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says it’s “an enjoyable and fanciful family film. The film is well paced and certainly entertaining in a family friendly sort of way.”

 

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it “an entertaining, continent-hopping spectacle that is both campy and clever—and, as an added attraction—quite fun.”

 

Mainstream critics find it frivolous and full of hot air.

 

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The Bourne Supremacy (Christianity Today, 040723)

review by Peter T. Chattaway | posted 07/23/04

 

If we forget The Chronicles of Riddick—and odds are you had until I mentioned it just now—this is turning out to be a good summer for sequels, from big-budget blockbusters like Spider-Man 2 to small art-house films like Before Sunset. Somewhere between the sensibilities of those two flicks lies The Bourne Supremacy, an intelligent, action-packed thrill ride which also has the documentary-like feel of a European travelogue. Unlike, say, the James Bond films, which are loaded with product placements and pyrotechnics, and which gravitate toward famous tourist attractions like the Millennium Dome and the Eiffel Tower, the Jason Bourne movies are filmed in a more naturalistic style, and are grounded in more mundane yet familiar locations—train stations, hotels, and housing projects that are believable precisely because they don’t seem to have been dressed up for a movie.

 

Matt Damon and Franka Potente

on the run

 

Matt Damon returns as Jason Bourne, the amnesia victim who discovered, two years ago in The Bourne Identity, that he was, until his memory blanked out, a highly-trained assassin working for an ultra-shadowy branch of the CIA. When last we saw him, that branch had been shut down and his boss (Chris Cooper) bumped off, and Bourne himself had turned his back on his former life and settled down to a life “off the grid” with Marie (Franka Potente), the German woman who not only helped him stay one step ahead of his former colleagues but also humanized him, making him less of a killing machine and more of a person.

 

Alas, any chance of a happy-ever-after is ruined when a Russian assassin named Kirill (The Lord of the Rings’ Karl Urban) begins killing CIA operatives and leaving clues behind, including fake fingerprints, that point to Bourne. This prompts a nasty turf war between Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), the tough, focused, no-nonsense CIA director whose men were killed by Kirill, and Ward Abbott (Allen’s Manhunter co-star Brian Cox), the higher-ranking CIA boss who was once responsible for the Bourne file. Kirill also tracks Bourne down and tries to kill him, too, to keep the CIA chasing a phantom—and Bourne, who survives the attack but has no idea who Kirill is, assumes the CIA is out to get him again.

 

Thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse—or, rather, cat-and-cats—in which Bourne comes after the CIA bigwigs while they try to outwit him and quarrel amongst themselves over how to best deal with him when they find him. Landy wants to capture Bourne and take him alive, to complete the mission that Kirill interrupted. But Abbott would be quite happy to just kill Bourne and cut the Agency’s losses before any more damage is done.

 

Brian Cox as Ward Abbott

 

The film, adapted from the Robert Ludlum novel by director Paul Greengrass (whose docudrama Bloody Sunday had a similarly effective cinema verité style) and writer Tony Gilroy, is to some degree little more than a series of chase sequences and fight scenes strung together with bits of conversation that serve mostly to further the plot; this film is certainly not meant to be a penetrating character study or a thought-provoking theme piece. But the filmmakers know just how to milk the most minimal of details for effect; the dialogue crackles with good lines, while Oliver Wood’s naturalistic, hand-held camera-work gives the film a you-are-there intimacy and Christopher Rouse’s fluid editing underscores the frenetic, chaotic nature of the film’s most intense chases and fight scenes.

 

There is, indeed, something rather moral about this film’s approach to violence that puts it several notches above such gratuitously indulgent films as, oh, say, Bad Boys II. Bourne probably spends more time running away from the authorities than getting into fights, and on the rare occasion that he has to knock someone out, he does it so quickly, with moves so lightning-fast, that you’d almost miss them if you blinked; consistent with this film’s naturalistic style, there are none of the slow-motion shots that celebrate the violence in lesser movies. The only drawn-out fights are between Bourne and his equals, and there is a rough, desperate, seemingly improvised quality to their scraps that somehow never feels sensationalistic even as it gives the audience a vicarious thrill; this is true whether Bourne is fighting hand-to-hand or butting bumpers with another man’s vehicle in a crowded tunnel, a sequence so wild, so crazy, so physical, so seemingly dangerous for cast and crew alike that it puts the airy, computer-generated tunnel chase in I, Robot completely to shame.

 

Joan Allen plays Pamela Landy

 

Notably, when one of these fights ends with a man’s agonizing death at Bourne’s hands, the camera deliberately steers our attention away from the victim to Bourne himself. In context, the death is somewhat justified, since Bourne was acting in self-defense and his reflexes took over, as it were; he did not kill the man out of any deliberate homicidal intent. And yet, looking at Bourne’s face, we sense that he has lost something by returning to this former way of life; we sense that the fact that he even has those reflexes is yet another painful reminder of the fact that he once embraced a basically evil life.

 

Most amnesia movies are ultimately about redemption—someone’s slate is wiped clean so that he or she can start again. But they are also often about atonement—one has to retrieve one’s memory so that one can make right the wrongs of the past. The Bourne films fit into that pattern, and what is particularly heartening about this film is that, where it could have descended into the sort of revenge dramas that have become so popular lately (Man on Fire, The Punisher, etc.), it ultimately settles for justice instead—and not just the justice that consists of putting down one’s enemies, but the justice that calls for confession, even reconciliation. For this and many other reasons, Bourne reigns supreme among current action movies.

Talk About It    Discussion starters

1. When Bourne suspects the CIA is after him, he says he has no choice but to fight back, but Marie says he does have a choice. What does this film say about our choices and how we make them? What sort of freedom does Bourne have, and where does it come from?

 

2. Are we obliged to follow up the threats we make? Should we even make threats in the first place? Is a threat like a promise that must be kept? Is it ever a good thing to break a promise?

 

3. What is the difference between revenge and justice? Which is Bourne is pursuing, at different points in the story? Do you think he does enough to atone for his past sins? What else, if anything, should he do? How should we make amends for the wrongs we have done?

 

4. How do you think the film portrayed violence? How did the film direct our attention at various points in the fight scenes—for example, when the one man is strangled, or when the cars crash into each other, or when certain people are shot? Why do you think the film directed our attention the way it did?

 

The Family Corner      For parents to consider

The film is about current and former assassins, and they do a lot of punching, kicking, shooting, stabbing, threatening, and crashing of vehicles at high speeds; we see a few dead and wounded bodies, and one fight scene ends with a person being strangled to death, but his face is kept off-screen. The filmmakers also make a habit of putting the camera inside the various cars for the various crashes, beginning with one vehicle that drives off a bridge, splashes into a river and sinks underwater. The first time we see Bourne, he gets out of a bed that he is sharing with Marie, but there is no sexual activity. The characters utter occasional bad words, too.

 

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Fahrenheit 9/11 (Christianity Today, 040625)

review by Peter T. Chattaway | posted 06/25/04

 

Controversy gave box-office success and cultural clout to Mel Gibson and The Passion of The Christ. Now Michael Moore is hoping it will do the same for Fahrenheit 9/11, his heavily sarcastic, rather entertaining, and somewhat incoherent screed against the presidency of George W. Bush. In this film, Moore, who has made a career out of stalking corporate executives and ambushing conservative celebrities like Charlton Heston, focuses his political indignation and his weakness for the cheap laugh on the White House, and he certainly finds ample material. There is very little here that anyone who has followed the politics of the past four years would consider new or revealing; for the most part, Moore’s film is a merry, occasionally sentimental summary of every anti-Bush opinion column ever written.

 

It all begins with a flashback to the election of 2000, when, as Moore would have it, the big three networks and the Democratic Party all folded under the withering glare of Fox News and allowed Bush to snatch the presidency away from Al Gore. Moore glides past the possibility that there may have been genuine confusion on election night, and he omits any reference to the legal fight that Gore did put up. What’s more, he never even attempts to explore why not one senator joined certain congresspeople in protesting the alleged disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida. If curiosity is an essential characteristic of a good documentary—or any other film, for that matter—then it is notably lacking here. Moore is much less interested in plumbing the ambiguities and ironies of American political life than in doing whatever it takes to manipulate his audience’s sympathies.

 

Indeed, despite the occasional intriguing revelation—such as the fact that one of Bush’s buddies in the National Guard, one James R. Bath, went on to be a financial advisor for the bin Laden family—the most striking thing about Fahrenheit 9/11 is not what Moore puts into the film, but what he leaves out. For example, in a montage mocking the various useless countries that joined the “coalition of the willing,” such as Iceland and Morocco, Moore never mentions England or Australia. Moore also gives his viewers the impression that Iraq was a happy paradise in which children flew kites and dictators danced with their people, until that awful day when the Americans attacked; he never acknowledges the hundreds of thousands of civilians that human rights groups say were killed under Saddam Hussein’s regime, nor does he address Hussein’s sponsorship of terrorism in Israel or his sheltering of a key figure in the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. In fact, Moore seems to want his audience to think that Hussein posed no threat whatsoever, and in one of his more astoundingly bizarre insinuations, Moore suggests Bush attacked Iraq as a favor to his Saudi friends—but if this is so, then why did Saudi Arabia oppose the war?

 

With some justification, Moore criticizes the Bush administration for sending “mixed messages” to the American people—orange terror alerts one day, assurances that it’s okay to keep on shopping the next—but Moore sends out some of his own, too. After telling us, in effect, that the Democrats bear some of the blame for letting Bush rise to power, Moore then interviews wounded troops who, in a scene that has had some audience members cheering, tell him they will be switching their votes to the Democratic Party. (Come to think of it, Moore neglects to mention that he, too, may have been complicit in Gore’s defeat—and Bush’s victory—since he threw his considerable weight behind Ralph Nader.) In another scene, Moore dwells on the unsettling fact that some soldiers feel a “rush” when they listen to heavy metal and go into bloodthirsty combat, but then he ends the film on an “up with soldiers” note.

 

Moore has often played the race card and pandered to other demographics whenever it suits his agenda—what Canadian can forget how lovely Toronto’s “slums” looked in Bowling for Columbine? Now he plucks religious strings, too. One scene focuses on an Iraqi woman who asks where God is after her house is bombed, while other scenes focus on an American woman who wears a cross, prays to Jesus, and sends a Bible to her son, who dies fighting in Iraq. Given the way he slaps together nearly every anti-Bush argument on the books, no matter how mutually contradictory they might be, it is interesting that Moore avoids the theory, popular in some circles, that born-again theology has taken over the White House. Moore is certainly not above indulging in gratuitous caricatures (as evidenced by his performance as a perverted Christian in Nora Ephron’s Lucky Numbers) but within this film’s rhetoric, he seems to think faith is on his side. That’s progress of a sort, I guess.

 

In some ways, Fahrenheit 9/11 is the least egocentric of Moore’s films to date—there are fewer of those famous publicity stunts in which Moore himself is the star of his own show—yet he still cannot help interrupting his interviewees and stealing their punchlines. Some have complained that his films cannot be “documentaries” because they are not “objective,” but pure objectivity is impossible and perhaps even undesirable; every film reflects some sort of perspective, and there is something to be said for films that take a clear side on any given issue.

 

The problem with Fahrenheit 9/11 is not that it is one-sided, per se; it is that Moore barely acknowledges there even is another side. The problem is not that he fails to give the other side equal time or equal validity; it is that he shows virtually no interest in what that other side might be, and in how he might best deal with it. Inevitably, this weakens Moore’s own arguments—or it would, if he was all that concerned about making any. Moore’s appeal is more emotional and visceral than intellectual; in his own way, Moore is a fearmonger, and preying on the ignorance of his audience just as he accuses Bush of doing.

Talk About It    Discussion starters

1. What is the connection between faith and politics? Some people say politics is the art of compromise—do you agree? Is political compromise possible if one is committed to one’s faith?

 

2. How should Christians engage in debate, whether over political or spiritual matters? How much space should we gave to alternative points of view? How much effort should we put into understanding another side to any given issue? Is “propaganda” ever justified, and if so, when, and why?

 

3. Who is responsible for a soldier’s actions? The soldier, or people higher up the chain of command? How much responsibility does a person have for his own actions after he has sworn to obey his orders? Is it possible to go into a combat zone, knowing you will kill people, while still somehow being “moral” about it?

 

The Family Corner      For parents to consider

Fahrenheit 9/11 is rated R for “some violent and disturbing images, and for language.” Some characters use profane language and listen to profanity-laden music, and the film includes images of combat wounds, public beheadings, and humiliated prisoners.

 

Photos © Copyright Lions Gate Films

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 07/01/04

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 set a box office record for a documentary, out-grossing Moore’s own Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine in its very first weekend.

 

It also started the biggest movie-related debate since tempers flared over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ. Some are even challenging Moore’s definition of “documentary,” saying the content of this film amounts to nothing more than anti-George Bush propaganda.

 

While some of Moore’s information is factual (some would say all of it, some would say very little), many religious press critics take issue with what he leaves out, and even more are upset about the tone with which Moore delivers his diatribe. Much of Moore’s visual presentation consists of quotes taken out of context and embarrassing video footage of the President caught in awkward moments.

 

Yet, despite the controversies, some industry analysts are already speculating that Fahrenheit 9/11 stands a good chance of earning an Oscar nomination—not just for Best Documentary, but maybe even Best Picture.

 

My review is at Looking Closer.

 

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, “The problem with Fahrenheit 9/11 is not that it is one-sided, per se; it is that Moore barely acknowledges there even is another side. The problem is not that he fails to give the other side equal time or equal validity; it is that he shows virtually no interest in what that other side might be, and in how he might best deal with it. Inevitably, this weakens Moore’s own arguments—or it would, if he was all that concerned about making any. Moore’s appeal is more emotional and visceral than intellectual; in his own way, Moore is a fearmonger, and preying on the ignorance of his audience just as he accuses Bush of doing.”

 

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, “[Moore] weaves a self-contradictory web of half-connections, coincidences and sinister music to imply, among other things, that (take a deep breath) the war in Afghanistan was not a retaliatory attack for that country’s harboring of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda but because the Unocal Oil Company, which just happens to have headquarters in Texas, the same state where George W. Bush was governor, wanted to build a natural gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, so the U.S. had to first conquer Afghanistan before moving on to Iraq to facilitate this profit-making venture (whew!). What he doesn’t reveal is that Unocal pulled out of that deal before 9/11 ever happened. He also doesn’t tell us that the bin Laden family denounced and disowned black sheep Osama. (Sure, we can be suspicious of those claims, too, but Moore never gives us that chance.)”

 

J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) says, “It provides the unusual combination of being both entertaining and thought-provoking. But it also feels like a missed opportunity, with too many digressions and an over-reliance on funny musical interludes. The problem with Fahrenheit 9/11 is that it finds conspiracies in every nook and cranny of the Bush administration. Some of those conspiracies are flimsy at best. These conspiratorial digressions detract from what should be the real meat of the film—the Bush administration’s persistent and outrageous lies regarding Iraq and national security.”

 

“Moore raises important points that need to be part of the political discussion,” writes Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). “There are issues raised that need to be addressed and questions asked that should be answered. But let us not make the mistake of being emotionally manipulated into accepting his accusations blindly. Moore has made an effective piece of propaganda. It can’t be mindlessly dismissed but neither should it be mindlessly embraced.”

 

“Fahrenheit 9/11 is by turns outrageous, inflammatory, extremely emotional, at times compelling and occasionally quite funny,” says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). But he concludes it is “unabashedly biased in its inflammatory assertions. In mounting such a one-sided ad hominem attack, director Moore walks a perilous line between investigative journalism and partisan propaganda. And, though artfully packaged and engagingly entertaining, as a political polemic the case made by Moore ultimately falls short of convincing.”

 

Mainstream critics are divided over the film. Some embrace it as visionary, while others—even some who admit they don’t like George W. Bush—find Moore’s argument shoddy and arrogant.

from Film Forum, 07/08/04

Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 continues to draw intense discussion and debate among critics, journalists, politicians, and moviegoers this week.

 

In the religious press, opinions continued to vary. Dick Staub (Culture Watch) calls it “a terribly executed, one-sided, emotional slop of half-truths and innuendo, and takes its place among similar products on the right—we should seek the truth, but truth seekers know, it is difficult to find.”

 

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) give it three stars. “Like a prosecuting attorney who cunningly weaves the ‘facts’ of the case together in order to ‘win his case’ rather than present both sides to find out the truth, Moore’s case is a masterpiece of partisan documentary skill. Presenting a case which Moore himself acknowledges reflects his own beliefs and biases, his case against President George W. Bush seems right until one looks more closely at the ‘facts’ which are left out and the statements which are removed from their original context.”

 

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, “Moore presents the information at a pretty rapid pace and doesn’t really allow the audience time to think them over. He uses facts, but also exaggerates them, and relies heavily on conjecture. If you already agree with his ideas, then it will clearly be entertaining and affirming. If you don’t know the details already, don’t expect an objective presentation from his spin on them. This film is presented entertainingly, but more than anything incites animosity and contempt for our President.”

from Film Forum, 07/15/04

Andrew Coffin (World) has rather strong feelings about Michael Moore’s latest film. “Fahrenheit 9/11 … is a disgusting, pathetic piece of propaganda without the slightest shred of integrity. This doesn’t mean that there are no reasonable arguments to be made against the war in Iraq, in its timing, execution, or justifications, or certain aspects of U.S. response to 9/11. On the contrary, reasonable criticism—criticism worth debating, anyway—has come from both the left and the right. But none of it is to be found in this unbalanced (in every sense of the word) screed.”

 

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The Day After Tomorrow (Christianity Today, 040528)

review by Peter T. Chattaway | posted 05/28/04

 

For a German expatriate, Roland Emmerich sure has a knack for making politically charged—and very cheesy—movies that coincide with American election campaigns. In 1996, as alleged draft dodger Bill Clinton ran for a second term against war veteran Bob Dole, Emmerich released Independence Day, in which aliens blow up the White House and the instinctively peace-minded President hops aboard a fighter plane to kick some serious butt. In 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush vied for the soul of the nation, Emmerich put out The Patriot, a B-grade revenge movie masquerading as a Revolutionary War epic. And now, as Bush defends his presidency against charges of short-sighted unilateralism, here comes The Day After Tomorrow—yet another disaster movie, but this time one that emphasizes international cooperation, rather than American triumphalism.

 

The film also has something to do with the environment, of course. The story, written by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff, concerns a sudden, instant ice age that sweeps over the Northern Hemisphere as a result of global warming, and this freezing of the planet is preceded by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and sundry other catastrophes. The one man who sees it coming, though not quite so soon, is workaholic climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), who theorizes the Ice Age of 10,000 years ago began very abruptly, and therefore the planet could be in for another flash freeze in the near future. But of course, the government will not heed his warnings. Vice President Becker (Kenneth Welsh) is especially skeptical, and says new environmental measures would be bad for the economy.

 

But never mind. The debate is cut short when the world’s weather turns apocalyptic—snow falls in New Delhi, giant hailstones crush pedestrians and traffic in Asia, multiple tornadoes destroy downtown Los Angeles, helicopters freeze in mid-air over the British isles, and a rising ocean floods Manhattan, coming up to the Statue of Liberty’s waist and sending tankers drifting between half-submerged skyscrapers. Among the many victims stranded by these storms is Hall’s son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is in New York with a couple of high school classmates for an academic competition; fittingly, they hide with other New Yorkers inside the public library. There, they cope with wounds, a lack of food, flashes of cold temperature so sudden and extreme the frost seems to chase them down the halls, and even a pack of wolves that have escaped from the city zoo.

 

However successfully these survivors may flee the special effects, they cannot dodge the lame writing or direction. Hall, who has been so busy with work his whole life he has never had all that much time for his son, braves the cold and heads north to find Sam. His credentials as a movie hero are established in his very first scene, when he leaps across a fresh new rift in an Antarctic ice shelf to retrieve his team’s ice core samples. The film builds up to this moment with a breathtaking aerial shot, no doubt digitally enhanced, that suggests a spectacular sense of scale; Hall’s base seems even smaller than you expect, against the incredibly vast frozen landscape. But after the crack in the ice shelf appears, and after Hall rescues his samples, and after the camera pulls back up for one last aerial shot, you cannot help but be struck by how ridiculously coincidental it is that this one fault line, which runs for miles, should happen to pass right through the middle of Hall’s base.

 

The triteness of that scene surfaces in other moments where Emmerich tries to juxtapose the earth-shattering events of his film with its smaller, more personal dramatic moments. In one scene, Hall tells a colleague he hopes the nations of the earth will learn from their mistakes, to which he then adds, “I’d sure as hell like a chance to learn from mine.” It takes Hall’s colleague a moment to realize he is no longer talking politics or science, but has abruptly changed the subject to his own family, and his own track record as a mostly absentee dad. Emmerich might have thought this was a clever segue, but it just comes off as stiff and contrived, instead. The cast, which also includes Ian Holm as a British professor and Jay O. Sanders as Hall’s partner in science, is certainly capable of better things, but they are never given much more to do than kill time between the money shots.

 

The movie’s most amusing moments come from seeing conventional wisdom turned on its head. Americans fleeing the invasion of frost from the north are stopped at the Mexican border, and so begin illegally crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico; finally the American President earns the support of Latin American countries by cancelling their debt. And much to the shock of the resident librarian, Sam tells those hiding in the library to keep warm by burning books; his friend suggests starting with the massive tax volumes.

 

Alas, the film does not exploit as many opportunities for irony as it could have. One of the library survivors, an atheist, professes a love of Nietzsche, but is never compelled to re-think that philosopher’s nihilism; the only retort anyone can muster is to mock Nietzsche’s sexual preferences. This same atheist later clings to a copy of the Gutenberg Bible and refuses to allow anyone to burn it, not out of any respect for sacred scripture, but because, as the first book to be printed on a printing press, it represents the dawn of the Age of Reason; he goes on to say the written word is mankind’s greatest achievement.

 

This marks an interesting departure from earlier disaster movies, such as Daylight, Deep Impact and Armageddon, which went out of their way to include religious symbols, however superficial, that signified salvation in the midst of suffering. But the disaster movies released since September 11—and yes, the studios do hope audiences will pay to see even more national landmarks destroyed at the multiplex, even though these monuments might very well be terrorist targets in real life—are of a more skeptical, humanistic breed. Last year’s The Core also included a single reference to God, mainly to emphasize that no one should bring him up; now The Day After Tomorrow follows a similar path. Between this, the dull writing, and the hypocritical message—it waves an anti-consumerist flag, yet the disaster genre is itself all about the spectacle of consumption—this is one film viewers might want to put off until some time long, long after the day after tomorrow.

Talk About It    Discussion starters

1. Do you think God would allow—or even cause—a disaster of this magnitude? Why or why not? If disasters like this happen, are they just accidents? Or do they sometimes mean something more? (See Isaiah 45:7, Luke 13:1-5, and the biblical accounts of the Flood, etc.)

 

2. If you knew your world would come to an end tomorrow, what would you do differently? What would you do the same? How attached are you to this world? How attached should you be?

 

3. What do you think is mankind’s greatest achievement? What significance should the Age of Reason have? Is mankind’s trust in its own reason perhaps responsible for the sorts of problems on display in this film? What role does reason have in our faith? How does faith inform our reason?

 

The Family Corner      For parents to consider

The violence in the film is pretty much all of the accidental or natural variety—wolves chasing people, people falling through holes in the ground, people and so on. In one scene, a teenaged girl huddles close to a boy to share her body heat with him, but nothing sexual transpires. There is also a four-letter word or two, but remarkably few for a film of this genre and rating.

 

Photos © Copyright 20th Century Fox

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 06/03/04

The environmentalists were right. The President and his administration were wrong. That is the premise of The Day After Tomorrow. But Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster action movie is much more a special-effects extravaganza than it is a scientific argument. And in spite of the participation of such fine actors as Dennis Quaid (The Rookie), Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), and Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings films), most critics say the movie is just a frail echo of Independence Day, with bad weather taking the place of the aliens in the role of wreaking devastation upon historical landmarks.

 

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, “Last year’s The Core also included a single reference to God, mainly to emphasize that no one should bring him up; now The Day After Tomorrow follows a similar path. Between this, the dull writing, and the hypocritical message—it waves an anti-consumerist flag, yet the disaster genre is itself all about the spectacle of consumption—this is one film viewers might want to put off until some time long, long after the day after tomorrow.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, “While the actors gamely give it their all … [they are] eventually swept aside by the overwhelming sensory overload that Emmerich dumps upon us. The film’s major flaw is in its overt politicizing of the environmental issues that supposedly lie at the heart of this film. The movie’s depiction of the political administration is a blatant condemnation of the Bush presidency and its arguments devolve into an overly simplistic ‘I told you so’ rationalization unsupported by scientific fact.”

 

“In more than one way, this is the ultimate comeuppance movie for big bad Republicans,” reports Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). “There’s also a strong nihilistic message about the end of the world, with nothing to do but listen to environmentalists for our salvation.” But is the movie worth seeing? “I didn’t expect more than a few visual thrills—and I wasn’t disappointed. We need to respect the environment, but this movie will only make people hang onto their SUVs. After all, four-wheel drives can be very handy in the snow.”

 

Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) says it “may be the summer’s biggest letdown. The one thing this movie forgets is that we as an audience want to care more about people than we do special effects. We see so many characters in this movie that we would like to know more about, but, unfortunately, only get brief glimpses of them.”

 

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) catalogs the film’s illogical events. “Men trekking into the teeth of a subzero blizzard walk from Philadelphia to New York City in just a day or two. There are a few other plot holes large enough to drive a snowplow through.” And yet, he concludes, “Implausibility aside, The Day After Tomorrow is an exciting, morally grounded summer thrill ride full of noble characters that knows how to balance spectacle with virtue and restraint.”

 

But Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) implies that the film is meant to influence the political convictions of the viewers. “In addition to the lasting effects of the scariness, impressionable teens and preteens will of course carry away the implied belief system, and those issues should be discussed. Even some ‘post-teens’ will be swayed by the message, and could be influenced at the ballot box in November. I wonder if this film’s budget needs to be counted in the campaign spending limits set by the Federal Election Commission?”

 

Mainstream critics are classifying it as yet another empty and forgettable summer movie.

 

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Barbershop 2: Back in Business (Christianity Today, 040212)

Christianity Today Movies did not review this film, but here’s what other critics are saying …

compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 02/12/04

“I was one of those looking forward to part two,” admits critic J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) in his review of Barbershop 2: Back in Business. “I’m happy to say [it] does not disappoint.”

 

The sequel chronicles the continuing conversational capers of Calvin (Ice Cube), who inherited a barbershop in the first film and discovered its important role in the community as a place of civilized debate over all sorts of volatile issues. In fact, the debates of the first film were more than just funny—they were provocative and controversial, setting off a highly publicized debate about humor and propriety. (You can revisit critics’ impressions of the first Barbershop here.)

 

While this episode steers clear of controversy, Parks argues that it has its virtues. “One of the things I like about the Barbershop franchise is how it focuses on the little aspects of life. Calvin isn’t trying to save the world; he’s just trying to carve out a place for him, his wife, and his new baby. Does he sell the shop while he still can get some money for it? Does he try to ride out the competition? These are real questions, and the film treats them as worthy of portrayal.” He concludes that he’d like to see this become a television series where these characters could develop over time.

 

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is also somewhat impressed. “While some might find the raw repartee off-putting, it is refreshing to see a depiction of an ethnically diverse group not only co-existing peacefully but thoroughly enjoying each other’s company.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, “The filmmakers … focus on what made the first film so successful—the camaraderie that existed within the shop itself.” He also cautions parents about “profanity and plenty of sexual references.”

 

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says the jokes “seem more carefully selected this time around. The targets are generally safer ones … and the implications more politically correct. But this film doesn’t wield as much positivity, either. Nor is it as effective with its political and cultural satire.”

 

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) agrees that it contains “very little that could be considered biting satire. Forced and often silly, the subjects and characterizations have all the subtlety of a barber’s joke.”

 

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) calls it “a very funny, charming, heartwarming movie with a strong, positive reference to Jesus Christ and the New Testament. That’s why it’s doubly regrettable that the filmmakers included so much foul language and too many sexual innuendoes and references.”

 

Mainstream critics, while generally impressed by the movie, still find this to be the lesser of the two ‘shops.

from Film Forum, 02/26/04

After seeing Barbershop 2: Back in Business, Kevin Miller (Relevant) calls it “muddled, directionless and rehashed.”

 

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Barbershop (Christianity Today, 020919)

Christianity Today Movies did not review this film, but here’s what other critics are saying …

compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 09/19/02

In Barbershop, his directorial debut, Tim Story appeals to our desire for a community and a place “where everybody knows your name.” Many Film Forum readers have seen favorite friendly neighborhood hangouts replaced by impersonal, corporate-run, cookie-cutter establishments. The disappearance of such warm, human enterprises makes Barbershop an attractive setting. This strategy has worked well for such successful television sitcoms as Friends and Cheers. More recently, the hit comedy fable Chocolat focused on a small community and its favorite hangout. This approach seems to be working for Story and his talented cast, which includes Ice Cube, Cedrick the Entertainer, Sean Patrick Thomas, Anthony Anderson, and Troy Garity.

 

The film’s story develops on Chicago’s South Side. Calvin (Cube) inherits a barbershop from his father, but lacks enthusiasm for the work. After he sells the business, he struggles with guilt and an increasing understanding of what the place meant to his father and to the neighborhood. There’s more to it than cutting hair. The shop just might be a sort of cornerstone of their community. A team of talkative barbers shoots the breeze while they wait for customers, covering all manner of community scandals and dramas. Their conversation is like an art form. Their personalities are big and expressive. Humor lightens every heavy subject. There, folks can find counsel, friendship, and even a second chance.

 

Religious media critics respond to this week’s box office champ in a variety of ways. Some are pleased by the lessons and delight in spending time with these comic personalities. Others (Preview, for example) disregard the film due to the vulgar language of the characters, even though such speech reflects the way many real people express themselves.

 

But Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says that the film’s portrayal of various immoral behaviors is important to the point of the story. “A large amount of the negative material serves to illustrate positive messages. Crime doesn’t pay. Respect is a great equalizer. Racial pride should never eclipse truth and justice. Families mean everything. Hard work is the best — and only way — to truly get ahead. And tradition means far more than your average 20-year-old thinks it does.” Isaac concludes by affirming that the film contains “themes of social responsibility, cultural heritage, love for family and respect for self.”

 

“Despite the excessive, mostly light foul language, this movie is not nearly as offensive as other African American movies of late,” says Lisa A. Rice (Movieguide). “The protagonist is a good, honest, family man on a genuine search for the purpose to his life. Though there is anti-white racial talk among the men, there is also a great deal of balance amid all of their humor.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) is similarly pleased: “This is no silly, sex-minded comedy to be seen, experienced, and immediately forgotten. It is laugh-out-loud funny to be sure, but with the jokes comes something to stimulate both heart and mind. It’s the biggest pleasant surprise I’ve come across in the theater this year.”

 

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) agrees that Barbershop has much to offer: “The film gives an incisive look at how blacks feel about living in America, which can open doors to positive discussions on how to improve life in our country.” But he adds, “Please don’t mistake this film as some sort of profound essay on black life. Forced and often silly, the subjects and characterizations have all the subtlety of barber’s joke.”

 

Likewise, Anne Navarro (Catholic News) says it is “flawed by silly stereotypes and predictability, yet manages to be endearing as it touches on racism, fellowship, and the black man’s place in society.”

 

Mainstream critics are divided over whether the film is worthwhile or forgettable. Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) writes, “The barbers … seem like TV stereotypes waiting for more than one note to play. Final verdict: You’ve seen it all before.” But Mary Ann Johanson (Flick Filosopher) calls it “a lovely little film about family and community pride and friendship, one that pokes gentle fun at stereotypes while never forgetting the real people behind a seeming cliché. All of them are perfectly attuned to what makes their characters more than what they appear on the surface, and all of them effortlessly make us love them, flaws and all.”

 

from Film Forum, 09/26/02

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) is cheering this week’s box office champion, Barbershop. He writes, “The movie has been marketed as a comedy, and it is genuinely funny. But much of Barbershop’s humor comes from the situation instead of one-liners. It’s the laughter of recognition, as we see ourselves portrayed on screen. It’s a humor that builds community, as opposed to the insult—or humiliation—driven comedy we typically see. The movie is also surprisingly clean. With any movie that might be successful, there’s already talk of a sequel. That’s something I would welcome. These are wonderful characters with interesting stories. Let’s have more of that.”

 

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Spiritual Insights from the Movies (Christianity Today, 040709)

The Pianist: A Song in the Middle of the Lion’s Den

from PreachingToday.com

posted 07/09/04

 

Concepts: Adversity; Attitude; Difficulty; Encouragement; Hope; Joy; Trials; Suffering

Scriptures: Psalm 5:11; Psalm 30:5-12; Psalm 90:14-15; Psalm 108:1; Acts 16:25

The Scene: 00:33:31 to 00:36:50, DVD chapter 11

 

The Pianist portrays the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish musician who survived the horrors of World War II, including the execution of his family, to become a leading concert pianist of the 20th century.

 

For a time, Szpilman is living underground, hidden by friends, and shuttled from place to place to avoid detection by the Nazis. In one scene he is ushered into a small apartment by a friend, who cautions him to “keep as quiet as possible.” The hiding place is in an apartment next door to the head of police and across the street from a hospital caring for wounded German soldiers.

 

“You are now living in the heart of the lion’s den,” says his friend. “Keep as quiet as possible.”

 

When the friend leaves, Szpilman eyes the piano in the corner of the room. Having not played piano for many months, he is drawn to open its keyboard and lift the felt cover off the keys.

 

A symphony orchestra begins to play, and we see Szpilman lost in the music as we hear the piano enter on cue, playing a victorious theme. The camera cuts to a shot of Szpilman’s hands, revealing that his fingers are not touching the keyboard, and the music he hears is all in his head and his heart.

 

What can sustain a person through tragedy, starvation, and the horrors of war? Even in the middle of the lion’s den, the heart can hear rapturous melodies of grace that sustain us.

 

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Michael Wilson Loves America (National Review Online, 040921)

 

A new documentary counters Michael Moore’s view of the world.

 

When word first got out about the upcoming documentary Michael Moore Hates America, many were thrilled that finally somebody was doing unto Michael Moore as he has done to so many others. But some weren’t too thrilled with the title. It evokes an over-the-top, spittle-flecked invective filled with, well, hate.

 

I recently met with the 28-year-old director, Michael Wilson, at a trendily retro Los Angeles hotel. And I didn’t detect a single fleck of spittle anywhere. With his baggy jeans, pooka-shell necklace, goatee, and frosted hair, he didn’t look like the stereotypical conservative. Not a blue blazer or rep tie in sight. Despite residing in Minneapolis, he could easily pass for any of the legions of struggling Hollywood filmmakers who haunt the Starbucks and Coffee Beans of L.A.

 

It turns out that Wilson doesn’t consider himself a conservative. He told me, “I’m more of a small-l libertarian.” But he was deeply upset at what he perceived as Moore’s attacks on the American spirit of self-reliance.

 

He’d been considering making this movie for some time. But the final kick in the seat was Moore’s notorious acceptance speech at the 2003 Academy Awards. Wilson vowed to start making his film the next day.

 

A year and a half later, here I was in a hotel room with Wilson, watching his completed project on a twelve-inch laptop screen. (Plan A, to view it on the television set, fell through when the DVD player refused to cooperate. Perhaps it’s a Michael Moore fan.)

 

What’s Hate Got to Do With It?

And now I’ve got a new bone to pick with Wilson: The title is nearly as misleading as one of Moore’s deceptively spliced-and-diced scenes. It’s not a hateful film at all. In fact, in parts it’s downright sweet.

 

Viewers looking for nasty jokes, blind rage, and cheap shots (such as, ahem, showing people unguardedly preparing for a TV appearance, for no other reason than to get some easy laughs at their expense) are going to be disappointed. This isn’t that kind of film. In other words, it isn’t a Michael Moore movie.

 

Okay, so what’s with that title, then?

 

Wilson said it’s meant to be both ironic and provocative. Whenever he read a polemic attacking Moore’s movies, he noticed that the author would invariably end with something like, “The truth is, Michael Moore hates America.”

 

Even though Wilson agreed with the specific criticisms of Moore’s films, he was turned off by the venomous, ad hominem tone that permeated many anti-Moore rants.

 

“How does that advance the dialogue?” Wilson said. “People end up just talking past each other.”

 

Wilson says he hopes that people of all persuasions come to see his film. His crew was politically eclectic, including Democrats and Republicans (Wilson is a registered independent); the editor worked on campaign ads for Ralph Nader.”

 

Wilson’s interview subjects reflect a similar ideological diversity. There are conservatives: Dinesh D’Souza, Andrew Breitbart, David Horowitz; and liberals: the editors of a leftist Flint-based magazine, famed documentarian Albert Mayles.

 

And then there is the unclassifiable Penn Jillette, the (very) vocal half of punk-magic act Penn and Teller. Penn is also a small-l libertarian. He and his silent partner host Bulls***, a political-correctness-busting program on Showtime.

 

With his trademark exuberance, Penn declares what is likely to garner the biggest laugh: “If the majority of the [American] people had their say on Michael Moore, it would be, ‘Shut the [bleep] up!’” (Only the word isn’t bleeped out in the movie.)

 

Michael Wilson Loves America

Let me answer the chief question on your minds up front: MMHA is a good movie. And considering the $250,000 budget, tight timeframe, and the fact this is Wilson’s first full-length feature, it’s an extraordinary achievement.

 

What few stabs at independent moviemaking conservatives have made in recent years (with the notable exception of The Passion of the Christ, if that can be considered a conservative film) have generally had the production quality and entertainment value of a kindergartener’s drawing. You ooh and aah over it, because after all it’s your baby, but deep down you know it’s excrement. In the case of MMHA, however, I don’t think you’ll be faking it.

 

Wilson is remarkably ambitious, cramming far more into his one-and-a-half-hour film than a mere point-by-point debunking of Moore’s movies (though there is a fair share of that). He covers everything from the American dream to the tenor of contemporary political discourse to the ethics of documentary filmmaking.

 

It’s a surfeit of territory to cover in such a short time, like trying to tour Western Europe in five days. The film suffers a little for it, as it occasionally wanders out of focus, and some of the transitions seem a bit awkward. Of course, that’s true of Moore’s work as well.

 

Comparisons to Moore’s movies are inevitable, so let’s address them now. MMHA isn’t as slick as a Michael Moore film — which is a good thing to anybody whose notion of depth transcends MTV’s The Real World.

 

Michael Moore overpowers the thinking part of his audience with rapid cuts and loud rock music. Of course, that’s an essential element of his technique: He keeps things moving so fast that he doesn’t leave you time to think through the implications of one point before he’s moving on to the next, which oftentimes directly contradicts the “logic” behind his earlier contentions.

 

Wilson’s pace is more deliberate, more thoughtful. He actually gives his interviewees time to complete a sentence, to finish a thought — which may consternate some of the more fidgety members of his audience.

 

The “plot,” if MMHA has one, loosely parallels Moore’s now-classic debut, Roger and Me, where Moore uses his attempts to nail down an interview with Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors at the time who was closing a plant in Flint, Michigan, as a frame story for his vignettes of the economic downturn in that town.

 

Some scenes showcase Wilson’s thwarted attempts, sometimes comical, to land an interview with the elusive egalitarian. Indeed, as word got out about Wilson’s work in progress, a TV journalist asks Moore why he won’t talk to Wilson. Moore replies, “I don’t appear in anybody else’s movies but my own.” Wilson then rapidly scrolls a lengthy list of other people’s movies that Moore, yes, appeared in.

 

Wilson treads some of the same turf as Roger and Me, both thematically and physically, when he takes his camera to Flint. But Wilson spotlights the hope and promise in Flint’s people, which he argues more truthfully reflects the spirit of America than Moore’s wallowing in despair and powerlessness.

 

Instead of finding a crumbling, blighted city, Wilson sees hopeful signs of urban revival. Wilson juxtaposes these scenes of economic vitality with a shot of Moore from just about a year ago, sadly shaking his head as he writes off Flint: “It’s a dead city.”

 

According to Wilson, Moore’s message to America is that if success doesn’t come easily to you — if you can’t make it — it isn’t your fault. It’s the fault of those fat-cat corporations and the politicians in their pocket. You are helplessly trapped by the grip of forces beyond your control. Moore’s is a self-defeating message that doesn’t empower people, but hobbles them.

 

Wilson couldn’t disagree with that message more. Through interviews and examples (including his own Midwestern blue-collar background), he illustrates his belief that in America, through hard work and optimism, you can achieve anything. Ironically, nothing makes that point clearer than the careers of Michael Moore and, hopefully, Michael Wilson.

 

An intriguing sub-theme pops up throughout MMHA concerning the ethics of making documentaries. Wilson interviews Albert Maysles, co-director of such classic documentaries as Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens. Maysles, no Bush supporter, nevertheless rebukes Moore for deceiving his audiences. “People say it’s okay for Moore to tell half-truths and be mean to people...because they want to get rid of Bush,” Maysles says. “I don’t go for that.”‘

 

Wilson isn’t afraid to question his own choices. For instance, he fears that if he tells interview subjects the title of the movie he’s making, they’ll clam up. So he tells the city manager of the town Michael Moore actually grew up in (it ain’t Flint, but Davison) he’s doing a documentary about small towns.

 

Afterward, producer Chris Ohlsen admonishes Wilson for using false pretenses — indeed, Wilson is in danger of becoming another Michael Moore. Ohlsen threatens to pull out of the project unless he rights things. So Wilson writes the manager and fesses up. The manager thanks Wilson for his honesty and gives his consent to use the footage anyway.

 

MEETING DAMON

Because it covers so much ground, it’s difficult to sum up this movie in a few paragraphs. But easily the most powerful sequence is a visit with Peter Damon, a soldier who lost both arms in the Iraq war. In a transparent attempt to elicit pity, Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 included footage (taken from an NBC News report about a new painkiller) of Damon in the hospital while he was recuperating from his grievous wounds.

 

In MMHA we see a recovered Damon at home with his family, enjoying life, proud of his service. Damon has no patience for those who feel sorry for him. The only anger he feels is at Moore for exploiting him.

 

Asked by Wilson what he would like to say to Moore, Damon addresses the camera: “I don’t want any part of your propaganda. I don’t agree with what you’re doing.”

 

At the movie’s recent premiere at the American Film Renaissance in Dallas, Wilson said, the audience grew really quiet during this scene: “You could hear a pin drop.” But that changed when Wilson asks Damon if Moore had the right to make his movie.

 

Despite his obvious distaste for Moore’s film, Damon says without hesitation, “That’s the reason we go off to fight — to defend his right to make a movie.”

 

At that, Wilson said, the audience erupted into the loudest cheers of the evening.

 

As of this writing, Wilson is still hammering out the final details of a distribution deal, but he is optimistic that the film will be in theaters by early October.

 

— Andrew Leigh is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.

 

==============================

 

. . . So Be It, Jedi (Weekly Standard, 041004)

 

Why George Lucas has every right to alter his films, and why we have every right to be mad at him for doing so.

 

THERE MUST BE A NAME for people like me, people who are caught in a terrible, interminable inbetween. We were too young to see the original Star Wars trilogy when it first came out in movie theaters, but not quite old enough to escape its spell. I didn’t exist when Star Wars opened in 1977, nor when the evil Empire struck back in 1980, and was too small to go to the movies when Return of the Jedi opened in 1983. Yet I wasn’t so small as to be immune to marketing. After Jedi’s release, I soon had dozens of action figures and model ships and playsets. My third birthday party had an Ewok theme. Looking back, I realize now that at the time, the films were only an afterthought; if I saw them at all, it was on television or BETA cassettes or early VHS tapes. What was important were the toys and the Happy Meals and other souvenirs. I was caught, in other words, in a cultural backwash.

 

That changed. Years passed, and one lost interest in the toys, but never the movies, which you could watch over and over again, and which always seemed epic, even on the small screen. And they were always on the small screen: George Lucas didn’t rerelease his original trilogy in movie theaters until 1997, by which time I was well into adolescence, and by which time, of course, he had also changed the films irrevocably.

 

But did that really matter? Did the fact that Lucas toyed with his creations somehow diminish the originals? Certainly I thought so in 1997. Seeing the movies for the first time in a dark and crowded theater, I raised a weary eyebrow and snickered at Lucas’s alterations: These aren’t the films I know, I thought. And yet, settling in my couch last week to watch the Star Wars trilogy on DVD, I found I wasn’t bothered by Lucas’s 1997 revisions, nor his further revisions. In fact, I liked a few of them. Sort of.

 

What occurred to me was that I had never seen the films in their “original” versions. So why complain? When I first saw the movies, after all, they were on videotape. This meant that I saw the “Pan & Scan” versions, which meant, in turn, that I saw only a small corner of each original frame. It meant, too, that the images were dulled; it meant that the (monophonic) sound quality varied; it meant that you could pause in the middle of the story and rewind and fast forward. Already Lucas’s trilogy had been altered—mostly for the worse.

 

But no longer. These new Star Wars DVDs are in letterbox. You see the actual images that Lucas shot. They are in THX, so the sound and picture quality are outstanding. They are in stereo, which means that if you have the right equipment (I don’t), you can have theater-quality sound in your living room. All of which are alterations performed on the original movies. But clearly they are alterations for the better.

 

AREN’T THEY? Not to Lucas’s critics, who focus intensely on the special-effects “improvements” he’s made. He has added scenes in Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, for example, and has played with the backgrounds in all three films. Originally these backgrounds were matte paintings or small outdoor sets in Tunisia or indoor soundstages in London backlots. Technology has advanced so far in the twenty-seven years since the first film was released, however, that Lucas says now he can produce the effects he had always wanted. There is no question that such changes make the films look different. What Lucas is doing is giving twentieth-century films a twenty-first century veneer.

 

And in some cases it works. In Star Wars, for example, there is a scene in which Han Solo, trying to escape from the Death Star, chases down a column of Storm Troopers, turns a corner, finds even more bad guys waiting for him—and promptly turns around and flees for his life. It’s a funny scene. In the film’s original version, Solo turns the corner and sees maybe 10 Storm Troopers before scurrying away. In the new version, Solo turns the corner and sees hundreds of Storm Troopers and regular Imperial troops, all training their blasters at him. He has even more reason to run for his life, screaming.

 

Here is another example: In The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, and C-3PO travel to Cloud City, a huge, bustling gas-mining colony. Except that in the 1980 version, Cloud City isn’t bustling at all. Most of the streets are empty. So are most of the skyways. Nothing seems to be going on. Watching the 1980 version, you begin to think the only citizens of Cloud City are Lando Calrissian and that bald guy with the piece of metal wrapped around his head who follows Lando all over the place. In the new version, however, Lucas and his special effects teams have gone in and added new life to what once seemed like a necropolis. There are trams and crowds and space ships. The result: Cloud City’s pearl white corridors feel less like a movie set, and more like an actual, lived-in space.

 

Such alterations only enhance what were already classic films. And yet, as much as I want to defend these new DVDs, I find I can do so only up to a point. That’s the point at which Lucas changes things in order to forge continuities between his original Star Wars movies and the three “prequels” he’s spent the better part of the last decade creating. You reach this point, for example, when Lucas moves all-CGI characters into the already-crowded Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi—characters that recall the crime against humanity named Jar-Jar Binks.

 

And you reach this point at the end of Jedi, when Luke Skywalker, having just redeemed his father and defeated the malevolent Emperor, having just seen many of his friends perish, looks upon the ghostly faces of his teachers, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. In the original version, Anakin is a middle-aged man played by Sebastian Shaw. In the new version, Luke sees Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi and . . . Hayden Christensen.

 

CHRISTENSEN, of course, is the teen hearthrob who plays Anakin Skywalker in Lucas’s prequels. But here he sticks out like a sore thumb. When you see him, the only reasonable reaction is to laugh and think: What the hell is he doing here? It’s an egregious, silly alteration—why is Darth Vader’s ghost only 20 years old?—and one that only reminds you of things you’d rather forget.

 

It is a painful reminder. With the original Star Wars trilogy, caught in a cultural backwash, I loved the films even though I never saw them in the theater. As for the prequels (The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones)—well, I saw them in the theater—and what I saw was crap. Twenty years ago, when it came to liking Star Wars, I wasn’t old enough to know better. And that’s the way I felt as I watched these new DVDs, right until Hayden Christensen showed up in Jedi, and I realized that when it comes to George Lucas’s latest films, I do know better. Sorry, George. You had me right until the end.

 

Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

 

==============================

 

Pray He Doesn’t Alter Them Any Further . . . (Weekly Standard, 041004)

 

Why the Star Wars DVDs are bunk and George Lucas has destroyed his own mythology.

 

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

—Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, various Star Wars films

 

THERE ARE many substantive reasons to dislike the new Star Wars trilogy DVD set. Despite boasting of a total remastering of the original movies, the color timing is off during the opening scenes on Tatooine in Episode IV. In spots, the dialogue is not perfectly clean. And, as sound obsessive John Takis noted recently, the rear-channel music score is flipped throughout A New Hope, resulting in what Takis observes is “essentially a 124-minute audio glitch.”

 

Yet these are mere quibbles beside the terrible narrative and symbolic failures of the Star Wars DVDs. More than anything else in the last 30 years, this four-disc set is a sign that George Lucas hates you.

 

Let’s begin with the Star Wars DVDs’ raison d’être. Why has Lucas decided that now is the moment to bring the original trilogy to DVD? He has avoided bringing these movies to the digital platform for years, often citing piracy concerns. DVD piracy hasn’t gone away. And, with the final installment of his prequels due in theaters next summer, this isn’t an obvious moment for a look back at the originals. It would have made more sense to release these movies on DVD in 2006, after the final prequel had come to disc.

 

The problem with that, however, is DVD technology. The first high-definition DVDs will rollout next fall. By putting out the Star Wars DVDs now, Lucas gets two bites at the apple: He’ll sell a boatload of conventional DVDs now, and then will be able to resell them to the same consumers in a couple years as the HD DVD standard takes hold.

 

If that sounds like a paranoid distrust of the Lucasfilm commercial juggernaut, consider this: Today, “ewok” is a household word, is synonymous with Star Wars, and is part of the national consciousness. Yet, as Film Threat notes, the word “ewok” is never uttered even once in any of the Star Wars movies. We know it not because of the film, but because of the toys, the t-shirts, the cookies, and all the other claptrap Lucas used Star Wars to sell.

 

No, these new DVDs are nothing more than a chance for Lucas to make a fast buck from the old digital format before it’s put out to pasture.

 

OF COURSE, the movies now out on DVD are most likely not the Star Wars movies you remember. They have been edited and altered into a special-edition-director’s-cut amalgam that weakens the originals in almost every way.

 

The catalogue of changes Lucas has imposed on his original Star Wars movies is exhaustive, and shall not be reproduced here. It is enough to note that the changes range in scale from altering how a villain is affected when shot by a laser-blaster, to music cues, to the changing of looped dialogue, to the insertion of entirely new scenes. These revisions demonstrate no consistency of purpose: Some were made to compensate for technological shortfalls. Some were made to alter the narrative structure. Others were made just because.

 

For purposes of understanding George Lucas, it is worth considering two of these changes in some depth: The introduction of Jabba the Hut in Episode IV and the treatment of Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.

 

THE 1997 SPECIAL EDITION release of Star Wars included a new scene where Han Solo encounters Jabba the Hut on Tatooine. Solo owes Jabba money, and has just killed a bounty hunter sent after him by the Hut. Running into one another in a hangar, Solo and Jabba banter and eventually reach an agreement whereby Jabba lets him go on the condition that Solo repay him with hefty interest.

 

This seems like a small change, but it sets off a chain reaction which undermines the basic arc of Han Solo’s character: Throughout the Star Wars series, Solo is on the run from an implacable gangster who wants him dead. This deathmark influences his decisions and is what makes him a skittish, mercenary scoundrel. Solo is the type of guy who has to look around every corner. But now that he has a deal with Jabba the Hut, none of that makes sense. Han isn’t being chased by bounty hunters and can go square with Jabba any time he likes. As a result, his character loses a good bit of danger and romance.

 

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that this new scene also manages to confuse the character of Jabba himself. When the great Hut made his first appearance in 1983 in Return of the Jedi, he is a crass, stupid bully. In the Special Edition scene grafted onto the original Star Wars, he’s a smooth-talking, genial Mafioso. Will the real Jabba please stand up?)

 

INFINITELY WORSE is the end of the new DVD version of Return of the Jedi, which has been altered so that when Luke looks over at the ghosts of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker, the actor who played Anakin in the original trilogy, Sebastian Shaw, has been replaced by Hayden Christiansen, the actor who portrays Anakin in the prequels.

 

Again this seems a small matter, but on closer inspection it nearly unravels the entire Star Wars universe:

 

(1) Hayden Christiansen is 23 years old. When he filmed Return of the Jedi, Shaw was 78.

 

(2) This creates a timeline problem for Lucas: If Anakin Skywalker is in his early twenties when he becomes Darth Vader, and Star Wars introduces us to a Luke Skywalker who is also in his twenties, that means that (a) When Darth Vader dies, he’s only in his forties; and (b) the reign of the evil Empire has been barely 20 years—not nearly long enough for all the drastic changes we’re led to believe have happened since the Emperor took over. For example, after only 20 years, would people already be regarding Jedi knights and the Force as “old wizards” who practice a “hokey religion”?

 

(3) Making Anakin Skywalker younger runs counter to everything Star Wars had told us about his character. In Episode IV, Obi Wan tells Luke that Anakin was “the best star fighter pilot in the galaxy and a cunning warrior.” In Jedi, Obi Wan says that Anakin was “a good man” before he turned to the Dark Side. To hear Obi Wan tell it, Anakin was a grown man when he suddenly turned evil, which is dramatically interesting. Now, Lucas is saying that Anakin was simply an adolescent who went bad. Not a particularly epic theme. After all, when people are young and irresponsible, they’re young and irresponsible.

 

(4) Forget the epistemology: At the end of Jedi, Mark Hamill is 32 years old, so he’s now looking on beatifically at his 23-year-old father. Even worse: At the end of Jedi, Luke removes Vader’s mask and sees the face of his father for the first time. This face belongs to actor Sebastian Shaw. So when Hayden Christiansen appears as Anakin’s young ghost, Luke wouldn’t have any idea that this kid is his father.

 

(5) By inserting an actor from the prequels, Lucas has made it philosophically impossible to separate the original trilogy from his weaker and less interesting work. After seeing The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, some Star Wars fans believed that they would be able to stick their heads in the sand and continue to enjoy the originals by pretending that the new installments never happened. George Lucas has now denied them even that cold comfort.

 

THERE IS MORE, if you care. Much more. Originally, Han Solo shot Greedo first in the Creature Cantina. In the 1997 release, Lucas made Greedo shoot first. Now the two of them now fire at the same time. Vader has been made to appear as if he didn’t know he had a son. After the Emperor has been assassinated, we see scenes of celebration on several planets, including one quick cut to Naboo, where a Gungan shouts, “Weesa free!”

 

These changes, counterproductive as they are, should be endurable. After all, George Lucas created these movies. He has the right to wreck them if he wants. But Lucas isn’t just putting out newer, flawed versions. He is embarked on a campaign to create The One True Version of the Star Wars mythology. You see, every time Lucas tinkers with one of his movies, the changes becomes the official version. The older versions are then quietly and efficiently erased from the public record.

 

If you want to see the Star Wars movies as they once were, tough luck. You’ll need to go to eBay or the black market and pay hundreds of dollars for the 1993 laserdisc set, or find a bootlegged DVD of the same. The early, unscarred VHS editions are all aging and deteriorating and besides which, were mostly in pan-and-scan full screen.

 

In a few years the original versions of the Star Wars trilogy will be vanished completely. Many filmmakers put out director’s cuts of their movies, which are sold alongside the theatrical versions. George Lucas, on the other hand, is so obsessed with airbrushing history that at the end of the day, only Jar-Jar Binks will be left seated on the couch with Lenin.

 

IS ALL OF THIS complaining missing the forest for the trees? Perhaps so. DVD Journal’s always reliable Alexandra DuPont calls the overall presentation of the films “unimpeachably great.” Which is true—the Star Wars trilogy has never looked better.

 

But it is a measure of the deleterious effects of Lucas’s tinkering (and the awfulness of the prequels) that it is difficult to care about Star Wars anymore.

 

Twenty years ago that would have sounded like heresy. People growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s committed Star Wars to memory and developed a cult around the movies (for instance, the band which performs the theme song to Buffy the Vampire Slayer is called “Nerf Herder,” an epithet Leia uses to describe Han in Empire). Strangely enough, the cultural space Star Wars occupies has shrunk in recent years. People who were weaned on the originals have become disenchanted, and Lucas’s revised versions aren’t minting many new fans.

 

It is a bizarre relationship Lucas has with his audience. He is the sole keeper of the gospel and he goes to great pains to show that he, and not his audience, is the arbiter of what is or isn’t changed in the Star Wars universe. But like any high priest, he has need of his lowly followers. Maybe some day, when enough of his audience has checked out, George Lucas will have the good sense to change his movies back.

 

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard. In 2002 he wrote The Case for the Empire defending the integrity of Darth Vader’s Galactic Empire.

 

==============================

 

Hollywood at War: Bringing it home (NRO, 040526)

 

As D-Day’s 60th-anniversary approaches, I’m reminded why I was so irritated by Saving Private Ryan, the 1998 Steven Spielberg film that began with 20 minutes of dramatized Normandy casualties in bloody, skillfully shot close-up. You may recall that Spielberg was much lauded for bringing home the gruesome reality of the World War II battlefield to a naïve populace used to ‘40s propaganda films. But released as it was during our comfortable vacation-from-history years, how could a movie about a long-ago battle compare in shock value to a World War II film watched by World War II audiences?

 

Certainly many movies from this era were glossed-over, glamorized takes on reality. But not all. Around the same time Saving Private Ryan came out, I happened to see on TV the 1943 So Proudly We Hail, whose riveting scenes of the fall of Corregidor (based on actual war-photographer footage) manage to convey something of the terror and confusion of battle even from the safe distance of more than half-a-century later.

 

Unlike Saving Private Ryan, however, So Proudly We Hail was watched by a homefront audience uncomforted by the knowledge that even though the dramatized battles onscreen were lost, we would eventually win the war. Not to mention that these audiences were people with sons and brothers overseas at the time. (And daughters and sisters; So Proudly We Hail is about Army nurses in the Philippines.) If you consider all this for even a few minutes, the notion that Saving Private Ryan was in any way revelatory is sickening.

 

ON THE FRONTLINES WITH IKE

In contrast, the new A&E docudrama Ike: Countdown to D-Day (it premieres on Memorial Day, May 31, in honor of the Normandy invasion’s 60th anniversary) doesn’t pretend to be a seminal World War II film. Ike has none of Spielberg’s cinematic brilliance, nor, since it ends just before the landings, even one depicted casualty. But I think it conveys more about the ultimate importance of this battle, and the heroism involved, than all of Saving Private Ryan’s special effects with exploded brains and ripped-off limbs.

 

Which isn’t to say that Ike ignores the terrible losses of June 6, 1944. There is a heartbreaking scene near the end in which General Eisenhower (Tom Selleck, in a quietly powerful performance) pays a cheerful, morale-boosting visit to the 101st Airborne just before the invasion. The Allies were expecting paratrooper losses of up to 70%, a sacrifice considered necessary in giving ground forces every advantage to make the world safe for democracy. (You can imagine the yelps of protest from the Left today, were an American leader to use that phrase in planning a D-Day-scale battle against Islamofascists.)

 

Because of some luck with the weather — which turned bad enough to convince the Germans that the invasion would be delayed (Rommel even felt confident enough to run home for his wife’s birthday), but not so bad as to actually delay it — the casualties were not as huge as they might have been. But they still numbered in the thousands, and Eisenhower never minimized the loss. “Twenty percent is so much better than 70,” says Selleck as Ike in a voiceover. “But if the person killed is you or the one you love, then the odds are 100% in that case.”

 

SO NOT HOLLYWOOD

Some background to this project, which illustrates the prevailing culture here in Hollywood: When he was 17, Ike’s screenwriter and co-executive producer Lionel Chetwynd joined the 3rd Battalion Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), spending two years in the Canadian peacetime military. During that time he met some veterans of Dieppe, a bloody but necessary dress rehearsal to D-Day that established the futility of invading a fortified European port.

 

Now in his early 60s, Chetwynd is a longtime naturalized American citizen who was born in England and raised in Montreal. He’d remembered from Canadian regimental history that of the 4,400-odd Canadians sent to Dieppe, about 3,600 were killed. Although they knew it was basically a suicide mission, not one man failed to report for duty. Chetwynd asked one of the old soldiers in his regiment, Sgt. Gordon Betts, why.

 

“My generation had to figure out what we were ready to die for,” Chetwynd recalled Betts telling him. “You kids don’t even know what to live for.”

 

Many years later, when Chetwynd was a successful Hollywood writer specializing in historical dramas, he told the Dieppe story during a Malibu dinner party — as a sort of tribute to the men who died there so people could sit around debating politics at Malibu dinner parties. One of the guests was a network head who asked Chetwynd to come in and pitch the story.

 

“So I went in,” Chetwynd told me, “and someone there said, ‘So these bloodthirsty generals sent these men to a certain death?’

 

“And I said, ‘Well, they weren’t bloodthirsty; they wept. But how else were we to know how Hitler could be toppled from Europe?’ And she said, ‘Well, who’s the enemy?’ I said, ‘Hitler. The Nazis.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I mean, who’s the real enemy?’”

 

“It was the first time I realized,” Chetwynd continued, “that for many people evil such as Nazism can only be understood as a cipher for evil within ourselves. They’ve become so persuaded of the essential ugliness of our society and its military, that to tell a war story is to tell the story of evil people.”

 

The Dieppe project never got made. But Chetwynd considers Ike “at this point probably a better vehicle for trying to understand the nature of sacrifice in the face of perceived evil.”

 

“Eisenhower was very humble,” he added. “He used to say that anyone can accomplish anything if they don’t care who gets the credit.” The other element of the general’s character emphasized in the script is his insistence on shouldering full responsibility in the event of failure. Just before D-Day, Eisenhower wrote in a letter that “if there is any blame or fault in the attempt, it is my own,” and not that of the men who fought on the beaches.

 

As a Hollywood conservative, Chetwynd has long had a touchy relationship with the press. During a news conference last year for his previous docudrama — Showtime’s DC 9/11, about how the White House handled that terrible day — the murmurs of disapproval I’d been hearing from colleagues about Chetwynd’s pro-Bush sympathies came to a head during one remarkable exchange:

 

Question: “You did contribute to [Bush’s] campaign?”

 

Chetwynd: “Yeah, the limit was $1,000... Would it make a better film if I’d given $1,000 to Gore?”

 

Question: “Yes.”

 

Chetwynd: “Why?”

 

Question: “Because it would show less potential bias.”

 

My fellow hack was absolutely serious; if you’d donated money to Bush, you are therefore biased toward Bush, but if you’d donated money to Gore you are not therefore biased against Bush. Supporting Gore was just the normal default position, as everyone knows. Chaw!

 

Critics generally didn’t like DC 9/11. But as Chetwynd pointed out during a press conference later for Ike, “Even the New York Times and the L.A. Times — two more liberal papers don’t exist — did not fault the last film for accuracy, and I promise you that this film will not be faulted for accuracy. It is drawn from the letters and diaries of Dwight David Eisenhower. I’m not Oliver Stone.”

 

As he sat on the set while Ike was in production, Chetwynd often found himself wondering how Eisenhower would have handled the current war on terror. “In the film where you see Eisenhower say, ‘I don’t want to talk to the press’; can you imagine a military leader saying that today, in the era of the 24-hour news cycle?” he asked.

 

“The parallel today is not about Democrat or Republican,” Chetwynd noted. “Without leadership that clearly understands what it must do, and is willing to take responsibility for that, you don’t win. In war, there is little nuance. You win or you lose.”

 

“All through the ‘30s and into the first part of the war, particularly during the Battle of Britain, there was a position that if we just sit down with that nice Mr. Hitler and talk to him, everything would go away,” Chetwynd continued. “And there’s some of that now — we just sit down with those nice people, just give them a bit of money and some food, everything will be fine. Well, you know, Eisenhower had a bigger picture than that.”

 

— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

 

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Praising Helen: Finally, a likeable pastor on film (NRO, 040528)

 

When it comes to portraying pastors on film, Hollywood sticks to a handful of flattering and slightly-less-than-flattering stereotypes. On the flattering side, we have the bygone days of red-cheeked inner-city scrappers like Spencer Tracy and Bing Crosby in Boys Town and Going My Way. Today we have the sweet but slightly ineffective dullards in films like Chocolat and Italian for Beginners. These are nice guys, sure, but not too compelling — certainly not clergy that are going to get anyone hot under the collar, if you know what I mean.

 

The unflattering end of the scale features a host of compelling preachers. Problem is, half of them are the sadistic, hypocritical killjoys found in films like The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, and Heathers. And the other half embodies the latest clergy-on-film trend, the earnest-to-the-point-of-being-imbalanced set, a la The Exorcist, The Apostle, Signs, and Frailty. They may be interesting, but they’re a bit on the intense side, and you probably wouldn’t want to have them over for dinner.

 

What you won’t find in any of these stereotypes are pastors that even remotely resemble the men who minister to the kind of large, community-minded churches thousands of Americans attend. Men who head up sports ministries and play in basketball leagues. Men who organize heavy-duty work days to clean up derelict neighborhoods. Men who came from a variety of successful corporate backgrounds, but couldn’t resist the call to serve a higher purpose.

 

These are athletic, business-savvy, attractive young ministers. But despite their proliferation in churches of all denominations, American audiences have never seen anything like them on film. Until now.

 

In Kate Hudson’s latest charm vehicle, Raising Helen, Tinsel Town unveils a new pastor, a realistic pastor. And there’s only one adjective to describe him: Sexy!

 

After her sister and brother-in-law die in a car accident, glamorous modeling agent Helen (Hudson) finds herself taking on a new, decidedly unglamorous job, that of “mom” to her nieces and nephew.

 

It doesn’t take Helen long to realize that her ultra-hip Manhattan life isn’t appropriate (or affordable) for three kids, so she leaves her chic address behind and moves across the bridge to Queens. Unfortunately, Queens doesn’t boast the safest schools in the country, leading Helen to enroll the kids in a private Lutheran school near their home.

 

Here’s where we (and Helen) meet Pastor Dan (John Corbett, who is just as charming as he was in My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The antithesis of the metrosexual party boys Helen’s used to dating, Dan’s entire persona points out how selfish, shallow, and empty her life has been up to this point. Still, Helen doesn’t see him for the catch he is right away, and her reticence allows Dan to seduce us right along with Helen.

 

In one scene, shortly after they meet, Dan asks Helen if she’d like to go out sometime. When she shakes her head no, he starts to leave. But then, realizing how blind she is, he turns back and glowers, “It’s because I’m not one of those model, club-hoppin’ guys right? So you don’t think I’m sexy?” Embarrassed and not knowing how to respond, Helen stands frozen until Dan marches back toward her, leans in, and growls, “Let me tell you something little lady, I am sexy. I’m a sexy man of God, and I know it.”

 

Finally, Helen recognizes what the audience has known all along: “Holy can be hot!”

 

From there, the relationship blossoms and we are treated to a new portrait of a moral, Christian man. As we see Dan hold Helen up through her struggles with parenthood, as we see him tenderly minister to three children who’ve lost their parents, and as we see him aggressively protect a young girl’s innocence against adolescent punks, we realize what modern cinema has been missing — real men. A real man who cares about others and is strong enough to lead those he loves to do the right thing.

 

All this is not to say that Raising Helen presents a model of the theologically perfect pastor. Though Dan doesn’t engage in premarital sex with Helen, he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about pursuing a relationship with her even though she doesn’t profess any serious religious faith. Still, compared to the parade of horrors and simps we’re used to seeing, Helen’s Dan is definitely a step in the realistic direction.

 

John Corbett, who apparently understands Christian men about as well as Hollywood does, commented at the film’s press junket about his character, “I thought I could make him a little different than your typical pastor...I thought I could make him more likeable.” What Corbett must not realize is that audiences will fall for Pastor Dan specifically because he is just like a typical pastor — likeable. Likeable, and strong, and funny, and, yes, sexy. A sexy man who loves God. A man, well, like a lot of our husbands.

 

— Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.

 

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Chick Flick Flirts with Faith: Religion meets romance in Raising Helen (NRO, 040528)

 

It is not everyday that you see a Hollywood movie featuring a well-adjusted and humorous Lutheran clergyman as the lead romantic interest. While that is not the main point of Raising Helen, it does make for an oddly refreshing aspect to the film. This dramatic comedy follows the struggles of a trendy and successful party girl who is suddenly confronted with the responsibility of raising three kids after the death of her sister and brother-in-law.

 

Kate Hudson (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) plays Helen Harris who gets invited to all the right parties as she juggles her ultra-cool career at a Manhattan modeling agency. When tragedy strikes her family, she must learn to make the adjustment from a hip aunt to a mom who must lay down the law.

 

During her venture into instant motherhood, Helen meets Pastor Dan Parker (played by John Corbett, My Big Fat Greek Wedding), the principal at the children’s Lutheran school. He helps Helen sort through the priorities in her life, even encouraging her to take a chance at dating a clergyman. The sparkling and awkward chemistry between the two develops into a romantic relationship.

 

Although there are many other relational twists within this feel-good movie, the portrayal of a non-neurotic and self-confident clergyman proved most interesting. Ask most clergy and they will tell you that they hate the way they get cast in films or television — droning on in sermons, lackluster personalities spouting clichés, or authoritarian hypocrites. Very rarely are you able to see a normal minister who likes watching football after preaching on Sunday.

 

Too often the portrayal of the clergy — from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal — range from overly pious to overly perverted, with few nuanced or realistic human elements found in their characters. While critics can point out that Pastor Dan never quotes Bible verses to this flustered single mom, I actually found that to be realistic. Besides, nothing hampers romance like a good chat about eschatology or Saint Paul’s use of run-on sentences in the Book of Romans.

 

Director Garry Marshall was more than willing to talk about the unique religious aspect of the movie. “It was one of the reasons that I took the picture,” he tells me. “I thought it was an interesting spin on the love story. We usually don’t do that,” says Marshall, who has been at the helm of movies such as Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Princess Diaries, and the TV hit Happy Days.

 

Despite being Italian, Marshall was not raised Roman Catholic. “I was actually Lutheran for a while, and I was Episcopalian, I was baptized Presbyterian, and so I covered most of the bases,” he says.

 

Aside from being a good story with an interesting twist, Marshall said that there was an additional motivating factor involved. “To be very honest, with some of the religious things going on in the news — everything in the Catholic Church — I thought that somewhere there should be a positive statement that religion has a good place, and it has its good people,” he says.

 

Marshall ran into a roadblock when he found out that John Corbett, who was playing the minister, was really tired of playing nice guy roles. “But slowly this intrigued him,” says Marshall. “That it was a different kind of love interest.”

 

For his part, Corbett, who forthrightly describes himself as a non-church-going, born-again Christian who is intrigued by the Book of Revelation, said that he didn’t need to do any kind of research for his role as a clergyman since he spent twelve years in Catholic school.

 

Marshall said that he was “startled that Disney would take a shot” with a movie with such an overt religious undertone. “The first draft was filled with religious jokes. We didn’t need them all,” says Marshall. There is one scene where a little girl says to Pastor Dan, “Shoes are hard to tie,” and he deadpans, “That’s why Jesus wore sandals.” The gags are tasteful and humorous religious double entendres.

 

Marshall has seen a real shift in Hollywood’s willingness to grapple with religious themes and imagery. “In television they wouldn’t let you do a show about a religious person unless they flew like the ‘Flying Nun,’” he says. Television executives believed that audiences would perceive that nothing tragic or out of the ordinary could happen to priests or ministers, thereby cutting clergy characters off from dramatic interaction. “In the 1970s and 1960s that was truly a big reason why you didn’t do religious shows in comedy, in the sitcom business. But now I think it has changed and it can be done,” Marshall observes. “It can be done with humor.”

 

Marshall discovered that Raising Helen audiences were far less concerned about a subtle nod to religion as they were about the welfare of the parentless kids in the movie. Viewers were reassured that Kate Hudson and the children were being cared for by a man in a clerical collar.

 

“It kind of built the case better than if she would have been running around with a bartender — nothing wrong with bartenders — or a band singer or something. This man was going to give solidity to that family,” Marshall says. (Yes, it is an ironic observation, considering that Kate Hudson is a brand new mother in real life and married to Chris Robinson, the former singer for the Black Crowes.)

 

While Raising Helen is not intended to be a religious movie, Marshall has been gratified to hear of the good response from people of faith who have pre-screened the film. “Can’t compete with Mel Gibson,” he said, “but we figured we will do our part.”

 

[Raising Helen is rated PG-13 for thematic issues involving teens.]

 

— Steve Beard is the editor of Good News and the creator of Thunderstruck.org.

 

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Homosexual ‘Alexander’ on life support (WorldNetDaily, 041229)

 

Warner about to pull plug on $200 million ‘gigantic fiasco’

 

Warner Brothers is about to give up on its $200 million epic depicting Alexander the Great as a homosexual.

 

Fox News entertainment columnist Roger Friedman says “Alexander,” starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer, has become a “gigantic fiasco,” the company’s biggest since Kevin Costner’s “The Postman” earned just $17 million.

 

“Alexander” grossed just $41,000 on only 232 screens over the Christmas holiday weekend, translating into $177 per show.

 

With a total gross of $33.9 million in its sixth week, the film likely will be dumped soon, Friedman says.

 

“Warner Brothers must be scratching its collective head right now,” said Friedman.

 

Reviewer Jeffery Westfoff of the Northwest Herald in Crystal Lake, Ill., wrote “‘Alexander’ often seems a couple of heartbeats away from turning into a gay porno film.”

 

Philip Wuntch of the Dallas Morning News said, “‘Alexander’ has aspirations of greatness, hoping to be christened an intellectual super-spectacle for brainy moviegoers. The sad truth is that it will probably numb more brain cells than it will stimulate.”

 

Wuntch notes that in the film, “Alexander prefers the after-hours company of men, considering women to be necessary primarily for reproductive reasons. His true soul mate is boyhood companion Hephaistion [Jared Leto], to whom he says softly, ‘I’m nothing without you.’ They never exchange an onscreen kiss, but their eyes constantly caress each other.”

 

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Alexander (Christianity Today, 041124)

 

review by Peter T. Chattaway | posted 11/24/04

 

Years ago, when I was a teenager obsessed with history, I began to wonder why Christ had come to Earth at the particular time that he did. Why not a century or two earlier or later? I eventually settled on the idea that he had come at the time that would have been most opportune for spreading the gospel—a time after the Greeks had unified many of the world’s cultures and bestowed on them a common language, and a time after the Romans had unified many of the world’s governments. It seemed unfair, then, that the Bible had almost nothing to say about the Greek empire; the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and Roman empires all had major roles to play, but apart from an obscurely-written prophetic passage or two, the Greeks fell into that gap between the Testaments.

 

Likewise, there have been very few films about Alexander the Great and his conquests; the genre of the ancient epic is so dominated by biblical stories that, traditionally, even films that concern themselves with pagan history have been obliged to at least refer to the looming arrival of Christianity in their narration. The last major film about Alexander, which starred Richard Burton and came out in 1956, even tweaked the dialogue in places so that it sounded kind of biblical, and concluded with Alexander becoming a monotheist. But thanks to Gladiator, unapologetically pagan epics are now in vogue, and thus Oliver Stone has finally fulfilled his years-old ambition to commit the life of Alexander to celluloid.

 

It’s a good thing Troy, another thoroughly pagan Greek story, came out just a few months ago and revived the myth of Achilles for modern audiences, since the historical Alexander evidently fancied himself a descendant of Achilles, and he lived by the same basic principles: live fast, die young, and be famous forever for your glorious deeds in battle. Stone’s film is probably better than Troy, which suffered from pedestrian direction, stilted performances, and a hack musical score that sounded like it was written in a weekend; in place of those things, Stone gives us some truly stirring visuals, music that soars and charges more often than not, and, um, performances that … Well, um, okay, about those performances …

 

Framing devices aside, the film begins when Alexander is a boy, growing up within a highly dysfunctional royal family. His father, King Philip (Val Kilmer), is prone to drunken rages, and the sight of guests raping slaves of either gender is a not uncommon feature at official banquets. One night, Philip even storms into the bedroom of his wife, Queen Olympias (Angelina Jolie), and tries to force himself on her, oblivious to the fact that their son is right there in the room with them. Olympias, who claims to be descended from Achilles, drives a wedge between father and son by telling Alexander his real father is not Philip, but one of the gods themselves; and although he seems to believe it, the adult Alexander (Colin Farrell) still objects when his father takes another wife and the new in-laws insinuate that Alexander is illegitimate and therefore not fit to inherit his father’s throne.

 

Here the story lurches ahead rather awkwardly. The story of Alexander is told through the eyes of Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), a general of his who went on to become Pharaoh in Alexandria, and who is now dictating the story of their conquests some 40 years later to a scribe in that city’s famous library. This device allows Stone, who wrote the screenplay with Christopher Kyle (K-19: The Widowmaker) and Laeta Kalogridis (TV’s Birds of Prey), to stitch the dramatic episodes together with scenes of long exposition, but at times you scratch your head and wonder just how Stone selected which scenes to dramatize.

 

In a single speech, Ptolemy casually refers to Philip’s assassination, Alexander’s invasion of modern-day Turkey, his butchering and enslaving of select cities, and his visit to an Egyptian oracle who proclaimed him divine. How did Alexander and his mother react to Philip’s death? Indeed, what role might they have played in it? And what about Alexander’s fateful crossing of the river into Asia—the last time he ever saw European shores? Surely moments like these need a bit of fleshing out; and indeed, Stone does return to one of these events, but in a flashback that appears at an odd moment much later in the film.

 

The Ptolemy-as-narrator device also allows Stone to glide past the references to Alexander’s more massive acts of brutality, in order that the rest of his film can dwell on that side of Alexander which appreciated foreign cultures. And here his reasons for casting Colin Farrell become clear. Unlike Richard Burton, who, no surprise, had the belligerent drunken arrogance thing down pat, Farrell—who, despite his bad-boy persona, has never really made much of an impression onscreen—has relatively few moments of pointed anger. His Alexander is a much more sensitive character, who spends much of his time either making goo-goo eyes at his male lovers, or trembling and whining about his victimization at the hands of his abusive, negligent father and his domineering, manipulative mother.

 

Historians aren’t in agreement about Alexander’s sexuality, but Stone has chosen to portray him as bisexual—and at least some historians would agree with that picture. The film depicts a love relationship between Alexander and his best friend, Hephaistion (Jared Leto), but there are no actual love scenes; as noted above, there’s some mushy eye contact and talking about their love, but that’s it. (There is a scene where Alexander kisses a man, though it’s not Hephaistion.)

 

Alexander’s sexual preferences aside, he’s also depicted as a sensitive warrior. Even his two big battle scenes—one against Persia, the other against India—are portrayed as personal, emotional defeats, even though his army itself was never defeated.

 

Ah, but those battle scenes are something to behold. The battle against the Persians, full of chariots rushing by and units marching in formation through great clouds of dust, is one of the finer setpieces of its kind, and Stone wisely restrains himself from using the sort of swooping computer-animated aerial shots that have become a cliché since The Lord of the Rings. Rather than show off by bringing us down right into the hand-to-hand combat, Stone uses the technology to give us a sense of scale and a sense of where things are; he even makes significant symbolic use of an eagle that soars over the combat, so that we literally get a bird’s-eye-view of the terrain. Stone also undermines another cliché—the rousing speech delivered by a commander on horseback—by pointing his camera and microphone away from Alexander at times; whether this signifies Stone’s inspired refusal to rouse our bloodthirst the way Alexander rouses that of his troops, or whether it signifies a cynical belief that we don’t need to hear the rationalizations for the bloodshed, just so long as we get blood and guts and plenty of it, the viewer may decide for him or her self.

 

Alas, the women don’t come out of this film looking all that good. Jolie, faking a sort of east-European accent—which is kind of pointless, since Farrell doesn’t quite tame his Irish brogue, and at least one of Alexander’s generals sounds distinctly Scottish—is constantly seen playing with her snakes, and because it’s the certifiably freaky Jolie playing the role, you may wonder if this was written in the script or if the snakes are just pets that she brought to the set straight from her trailer. Then there is Rosario Dawson, who fakes a sort of South Asian accent as Alexander’s first wife, Roxanne; while Alexander seems to prefer the company of men, he does realize a woman might be useful for producing a son and heir. But despite Stone’s efforts to make Roxanne look “feisty,” and thus strong or powerful or whatever the times demand, Dawson has little to do but expose her body for the film’s wedding-night scene. The high dramatic point for both actresses comes when their characters grab some open doors, fall to their knees, and scream really loud.

 

The strangest thing about this film is its presumably unintended political overtones; Stone, a liberal who has spent the past few years making documentaries about Fidel Castro, has produced a story that reads like a defense of the Bush administration. Think about it: Alexander swiftly defeats a Middle Eastern army, takes Babylon (or, as we now call that region, Iraq) while the local leader is still in hiding (in a spiderhole, perhaps?), spreads civilization around the globe through force of arms, copes with squabbling generals, and claims to fight for the side of “freedom” while his underlings suggest he is becoming a “tyrant.” He is even motivated by a competitive desire to outdo his father’s rule.

 

The film tells us, repeatedly, that Alexander will suffer while pursuing his utopian goal of uniting the world, yet it seems to say, through Ptolemy, that Alexander’s loss was everyone else’s gain. Is Stone trying to make a similar point about today’s empires? Maybe, maybe not—and it’s difficult to tell, when the film itself is a bit of a mess. Near the end, Ptolemy says Alexander’s failures towered over other men’s successes, and it’s not too hard to imagine that Oliver Stone might hope that his films will find a similar mixed legacy.

 

Talk About It    Discussion starters

 

1. Philip tells Alexander that people are slaves to Fate and that the gods laugh at us. What would it have been like to grow up with that belief system? How do these myths affect the decisions Alexander makes?

 

2. Aristotle tells his students that Greek culture is superior to that of the Persians because the East does everything “excessively,” whereas Greeks do things in “moderation.” Is moderation always a good thing? Do you think Alexander and his generals are moderate? What about their treatment of slaves and women?

 

3. What do you make of Alexander’s attempts to accommodate Eastern cultures? Is it possible to spread “freedom” and civilization through warfare and bloodshed?

 

4. Alexander says, “Conquer your fear, and I promise you, you will conquer death.” Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not? Is it possible to conquer fear, and if so, how? Do you think Alexander achieves this?

 

5. Is it possible to see God’s hand in historical events such as the spread of the Greek empire? Hebrew prophets such as Jeremiah and Habakkuk talk about God working through the pagan armies of their day. What do you think Christianity would be like if the Greeks had not filled the world with Greek philosophy and the Greek language?

 

The Family Corner      For parents to consider

 

Alexander is rated R for violence and some sexuality/nudity. The battle scenes are full of stabbings, impalings, spearings, severed limbs, people being shot with arrows and gored on elephants’ tusks and trampled under elephants’ feet, and so on. There are also scenes of people being executed and assassinated apart from battle scenes. Alexander’s bisexuality is frequently hinted at, going back to his teenage years as a student under Aristotle (who preaches the virtues of certain kinds of homosexual relationships), but apart from a kiss and some eye contact, his affairs with men are never really fleshed out; however, there is full female nudity in his wedding-night scene with Roxanne. There are also many references to the gods and myths of pagan Greek religion.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffery Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 12/02/04

Director Oliver Stone is a sometimes-brilliant troublemaker. Underline “sometimes.”

 

He’s riled up critics, politicians, and even Christians to both protest and praise his work. He’s made films about controversial wars (Platoon), controversial leaders (JFK, Nixon), and reckless visionaries (The Doors). In Alexander, he has all three interests wrapped up in one movie, starring Colin Farrell as the famous conqueror, Angelina Jolie as his mother, Val Kilmer as his father, and Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy.

 

Nevertheless, mainstream critics are almost unanimously sending Stone the same message—in spite of Farrell’s drastic new hairdo, Alexander has failed to conquer the big screen. Religious press critics are similarly disappointed.

 

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, “Stone’s film is probably better than Troy, which suffered from pedestrian direction, stilted performances, and a hack musical score that sounded like it was written in a weekend; in place of those things, Stone gives us some truly stirring visuals, music that soars and charges more often than not, and, um, performances that … Well, um, okay, about those performances … “ He goes on to talk about how the film is flawed, about its dismaying depictions of women, the historical chapters it overlooks, and a surprisingly timely political subtext.

 

Gene Edward Veith (World) begins his review by posing “leftist filmmaker” Oliver Stone a question: “If it’s OK for Alexander the Great to conquer Iraq, why is it wrong for George W. Bush?” He goes on to explain: “In his movie Alexander … Mr. Stone praises the conqueror of the known world for his multiculturalism and for promoting a one-world government!”

 

Veith goes on to say that Stone’s Alexander “displays no charisma or any reason why soldiers would follow him halfway around the world. The movie skips the most interesting parts of his story, jumping from his adolescence to his final victory over the Persians, leaving out everything in between. This is not Alexander the Great. This is Alexander the Awful.”

 

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it “bold. Stone has crafted an audacious film, dazzling viewers with epic battle scenes and eye-filling re-creations of splendiferous antiquity, while making sure that the movie’s sweeping scope and din of charging chariots don’t drown out the human drama at its heart. Though Christian viewers may find the film’s brutalities and hedonism (not to mention Alexander’s omnivorous sexual appetites) repelling, they must take into account the pre-Christian historical context of the world in which the events takes place.”

 

DiCerto also mentions some “epic flaws,” including “interminable pacing, a disjointed script, one-dimensional characters, scene-chewing performances, risibly campy dialogue delivered in an odd assortment of accents … and an overly florid score.”

 

“Alexander could have been a fascinating historical and social study for both adults and teens,” writes Tom Neven (Plugged In). “But the relative restraint Stone showed in dealing with Alexander’s bisexuality is nowhere in evidence in his handling of rape and battle scenes.”

 

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) reports that Stone’s version of Alexander “isn’t nearly as good, or remotely as interesting, as the real one.A disappointment, to be sure.”

 

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, “It was surprisingly difficult to find much entertaining here. The fact that it was extremely difficult to sympathize with the characters made it all the more disengaging.”

 

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the movie “may do more to destroy the conqueror’s legend than all the armies he once opposed. There isn’t much that I can find to recommend about this nearly three-hour debacle.”

 

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Wonderful ‘Winn-Dixie’ (townhall.com, 050228)

 

Brent Bozell

 

Hollywood has long defended the production of what many find offensive, dark and twisted programming by insisting it is providing only that which is demanded by the “market.” The reverse is also proclaimed: Movies with positive, life-affirming messages are rarely made because the public isn’t interested.

 

Dr. Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian Film and Television Commission, has delivered a devastating indictment on what is, pure and simple, Tinseltown mythology.

 

Last year, Hollywood released 28 movies with explicit sexual content, nine movies with very strong homosexual content, 10 movies with very strong politically correct content and 15 movies with very strong humanist, anti-religious worldviews, including “Kinsey.” Baehr reported: “The movies with explicit sex earned less than $6.3 million on average. The movies with a very strong homosexual content earned even less than that, averaging about $1.2 million. The movies with very strong politically correct content averaged only $15.7 million, and the movies with very strong humanist worldviews averaged only $11.5 million.”

 

Baehr found these numbers “are in stark contrast to the average earnings of movies having strong Christian worldviews, with strong biblical conservative values, such as ‘The Passion,’ ‘Ladder 49’ and ‘The Incredibles,’ which averaged more than $106.8 million!” You can disagree with Baehr’s worldview if you’d like, or quibble about his methodology if you want, but his conclusion still hits the bull’s-eye: “It pays to distribute good, moral Christian movies with positive biblical values.”

 

The new moviemaking kid on the block, Walden Films, understands this truth — and opportunity — and is striking it big, once again, with its newest release, “Because of Winn-Dixie.”

 

You might think that the plot of this film is too formulaic for critics to tolerate — rascally stray dog brings warmth to kid starting over in a new small town. But to children, the world of movies is brand new, and they should all be given warm childhood memories of seeing family films with a good heart, movies that didn’t make them hide under their coats in fear or quiz Mom about the meaning of erectile-dysfunction jokes.

 

Despite the fear of formula or saccharine-sweetness, the critics have been fairly positive. Premiere magazine’s critic wrote about the dog: “Winn-Dixie is actually a great deal more special than you’d expect, a fitting analogy for a film no parent should be too quick to dismiss.” With a strong number of theaters displaying the film, the first weekend box office results put the film in a strong third.

 

The film’s odd title comes from the scene when the main character, 10-year-old India Opal Buloni (just Opal for short) finds a stray dog in a Winn-Dixie supermarket and names the dog for the store in a moment of desperation. Opal and her dad have just moved to the little town of Naomi, Fla., leaving her friendless and still missing her mother, who left when she was only three.

 

While her Baptist-minister dad, whom she calls “The Preacher,” loves Opal, he is more focused on his preaching in the town’s abandoned convenience store and the persistent pain of his wife’s departure.

 

As the film’s title suggests, because of her companion Winn-Dixie, Opal meets new and somewhat withdrawn townsfolk at the library, the pet shop and a secluded house in the woods. Opal’s engagement brings them out of their shells, and new friendships are made. In the end, Opal discovers more about her mother and finds a more open, more rewarding relationship with her father.

 

Director Wayne Wang coaxes great performances out of actors who haven’t been seen much at the movies lately (including Eva Marie Saint, Cicely Tyson and the surprising acting debut of rock star Dave Matthews). The actors were delighted to work on a film that sends a message of getting beyond preconceived notions of people we don’t know and building a feeling of community.

 

But Walden Media is looking to create more than a profitable picture. As a company, it is committed to creating quality movies that are “inherently educational. ... We connect entertainment and education to engage and inspire.”

 

For her part, “Winn-Dixie” author Kate DiCamillo is hoping the movie will take children to her book, and then on to many other books. How many parents dare to think of inspiring their children to read as they drive to the multiplex?

 

Walden’s next project is a big one, a live-action adaptation of the beloved children’s classic “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” part of the “Chronicles of Narnia” series by C.S. Lewis.

 

Hollywood has made a mint and driven people into the books of J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien and now, perhaps, Lewis. Parents ought to be buying more tickets for filmmakers who bring us stories that educate and inspire, and offering a little less to those storytellers who only terrify or titillate.

 

Brent Bozell is President of Media Research Center, a Townhall.com member group.

 

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Study: Moviegoers prefer patriotic films (WorldNetDaily, 050303)

 

6-year analysis finds Americans reject left-wing, PC offerings

 

A six-year study of the habits of U.S. moviegoers has found they prefer films with patriotic, pro-American themes that uphold Judeo-Christian values over those that push a left-wing or socialist agenda.

 

The analysis, done by Movieguide, a family entertainment guide, compared the box-office take of major films to the themes and worldviews those films present.

 

“Movies that support capitalist ideals, traditional Judeo-Christian values and patriotism do much better at the box office than movies promoting socialism, communism, radical feminism, left-wing political correctness, atheism and homosexuality,” said Dr. Ted Baehr, publisher of Movieguide and chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, a Christian advocacy group in Hollywood.

 

Baehr points out that in 2004, films like “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Incredibles,” “National Treasure,” “America’s Heart and Soul,” “Spider-man 2,” “The Aviator” and “In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed,” made much more money on average than movies like “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Kinsey,” “The Corporation,” “A Day Without a Mexican,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Super-size Me,” “Vera Drake,” “Saved!” and Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me.”

 

An analysis of 2004 films found those with “very strong Judeo-Christian morality” averaged $107.7 million at the box office. Those films said to have “anti-patriotic/anti-American” themes brought in an average of $47.3 million. Similarly, 2004 films that included “communist content” brought in just $28.9 million on average, and those pushing homosexuality saw $1.2 million in average ticket sales.

 

Said a statement from Movieguide: “[The data] clearly prove our point that, if a filmmaker or studio wants to be successful at theaters in North America, he or she should film a story with pro-capitalist, patriotic and pro-American content reflecting very strong traditional moral values. Radical, left-wing politics, atheist humanism and strong homosexual content offend the average moviegoer.”

 

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Millions of Miracles: A good movie (National Review Online, 050405)

 

You’d be excused for thinking that the storyline of Millions, while appealing, is not all that exceptional. A pair of brothers have recently lost their mom, and moved with their dad to a home in a brand-new development. The younger boy, Damian (Alexander Etel), a charmer with a freckled, open face, is playing in a grassy field near his home when a gym bag thrown from a passing train crashes through his cardboard fort. The bag contains a lot of lot of cash.

 

Damian shows it to his older brother, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), who’s a shrewd kid. Anthony knows that if they turn it in, the government will take 40% in taxes. “Do you know how much that is?” he says to his brother. “Almost all of it.” Anthony favors hiding the money and spending it on themselves, perhaps investing in real estate. There’s one hitch (well, in addition to the fact that realtors are hesitant to sell expensive condos to 12-year-olds): The cash is in British pound notes, and the nation will be switching over to the Euro in a couple of weeks. The cash was part of a trainload on its way to the incinerator and, after Christmas Day, all this grand old paper money will be worthless.

 

A pretty good story so far, and as you can imagine, there’s also a threatening bad guy who comes looking for his misplaced loot, a budding love interest for the widowered dad, and plenty of countdown suspense as the date the cash’s value will evaporate draws near. You can picture Spielberg making this movie, and if he had, you would have taken the kids and had a good time, enjoying both the teary-eyed and the edge-of-your-seat moments, and walked out feeling satisfied. So what if your sentiments had been manipulated? It would be a good movie.

 

But two things make Millions different from what you expect — make it a better movie, but at the same time, complicate its ability to succeed in its goal. The first is the intriguing addition of an unusually strong religious theme. The young boy, Damian, is a child who loves the saints, and talks about them enthusiastically, annoying his older brother, and confusing his teacher and schoolmates. But Damian also sees the saints. They’re apt to appear suddenly and casually, and begin chatting with him as if resuming a conversation. Damian is sitting in his fort in the field when suddenly a woman in a nun’s habit, with a lined face and a down-to-earth manner, appears next to him. He recognizes her immediately: “Clare of Assisi, 1193-1253!” Clare talks with him in a friendly way, puffing on a cigarette and sending up smoke rings. These aren’t woo-woo apparitions; the saints aren’t gauzy and incandescent. Their modest halos hover like springy berets.

 

Little Damian is something of a saint trainee himself, and unlike his venal brother, he wants to give the money to the poor. He doesn’t know how to do this; he doesn’t know how to locate any poor people, but does his best. A Latin-speaking St. Nicholas helps him stuffs bills into the mail bin of a household of excessively Aryan Mormon missionaries down the street. As he sits in his room filling envelopes for various charities, St. Peter appears and cautions him not to check the little box that asks permission to pass his name on to other charities, because he’ll be swamped.

 

These saints aren’t add-ons to the plot, or figments of Damian’s imagination; they’re actual characters who affect the course of the story. When Damian must abandon his role as St. Joseph in the school Nativity play in order to flee the bad guy, the real St. Joseph takes his place, pulling his cloak well around his face and trying to speak in the high voice of a little boy. (A little earlier we had seen Damian at rehearsal disagree with the teacher about how Joseph would deliver a line. The teacher says he would have been tired; Damian argues that he would have been excited; the teacher suggests a compromise of “nervous.” As Damian steps backstage we see St. Joseph was listening in. “I wouldn’t have said ‘nervous,’” he says. “I would have said... ‘focused.’”)

 

In an entertainment culture that generally mocks religion and ridicules the supernatural, this kind of warm, positive presentation of what Christians call “the communion of the saints” is a delight. And that’s why the second unusual thing about this film is a complication. Danny Boyle is a gifted director, but not the kind that lets a simple story tell itself. He’s an artsy, tricksy guy who enjoys showing us clever visual effects — for example, when the brothers lie on the plot of earth marked out for their new home, and the house builds itself around them in rapid motion, right down to the roof tiles clicking into place.

 

Sequences like that are a lot of fun to watch, but the whole point is that they’re fantastic; it’s the kind of thing you can’t see in real life, but which the magic of cinema can provide. And yet, for the movie to work, we need to forget that we’re watching a magic trick. The film’s surprising charm depends on our buying the proposition that Damian’s saints are real. That’s already a stretch. While it’s a kick to watch the flighty, exuberant style, it also reminds us continually that we’re watching a movie, and that keeps undermining our simple trust in the story. I think it’s due to this uncertainty about what to trust as “real” in the film that viewers don’t know what conclusions to draw; some critics assume Damian is just doing some grief-work projection, some complain that the film is treacly, and one online critic says that the film has no message at all. A more subdued, less distracting style might have made it easier to follow what the film was trying to do. Talented people need to know when to stop.

 

That’s a small complaint, aimed at making a really good film one step closer to perfect. Personally, I was surprised, then delighted, then honestly moved by this film. I’m a Christian, and I believe the saints are present around us in a way very much like what Damian experiences (in my case, invisibly, natch), but I sure never thought I’d see someone make the case on a movie screen. I’m grateful. And, yes, I think the movie does have a message. It’s that we should give to the poor, and that our gifts do good, sometimes a great deal of good even with small amounts of money. It sounds sappy stated that way, but the film builds the case effectively, by storytelling rather than lecturing, and arrives at a climax that brought tears to my eyes. I walked out of the theater calculating ways to increase my charitable giving by 50%. If only a few people out of each audience do the same, it will make a big difference. Miracles do happen; people make them happen; Danny Boyle starts them happening by making a movie like Millions.

 

— Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.

 

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Sin City violence (townhall.com, 050411)

 

Brent Bozell

 

Violence in the movies is something that’s usually well-advertised. Whether it’s “Saving Private Ryan” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the ticket-buyer usually knows what’s in store. The title of the latest weekend box-office champ, “Sin City,” might give you a clue (as would the R rating), but viewers are leaving the theater shocked at the gratuitous level of violence and sexual depravity in the film.

 

One stunned friend guessed that if the filmmakers didn’t reduce the shock a little by filming in black and white, “there’s no way it would be an R-rated movie instead of an NC-17.” They even change the color of blood, making it black, white or yellow to “suit the mood.”

 

On one Web site where average Joes rate the flicks, you can sense the revulsion. One wrote, “It relishes in the violence to the point that it becomes sadistic mayhem for the sake of sadistic mayhem.” But the show’s target audience had a different, disgusting reaction: “I laughed when I should have been gasping in horror — sicko that I am — two severed limbs up for me.”

 

It’s depressing to think of Hollywood executives in a business meeting trying to calculate how to please people like this, when they should be hustling them off to therapy.

 

“Gore City” might be a better title if advertising were the only goal. The film is hailed as a faithful recreation of the dark comic-book series “Sin City” by Frank Miller. Since there’s nothing comical about mass murder, the purveyors prefer the more serious-sounding term “graphic novel,” with the emphasis here on “graphic.” The director at the helm of this boat, steering his way through the blood flood, is Robert Rodriguez, who leads a whiplash-inducing double life, creating gory adult movies as well as the wildly popular “Spy Kids” trilogy.

 

The list of violent acts goes on and on: in addition to many fatal shootings, including the crooked priest shot in the confessional, there’s people struck in the head with sledgehammers and hatchets, decapitations with a head that is used like a ball, a dog chewing on a corpse, corpses cut into pieces for disposal, an electrocution. Did I forget the cannibal who keeps chopped-off heads on his wall? Or the pedophile who gets his penis ripped off?

 

Even some movie critics — who have a habit of praising to the skies the whirling-dervish decapitations of your average Quentin Tarantino gorefest — are choking on this spectacle. Joe MacLeod of Baltimore’s City Paper weekly warned that “there’s so much blood flying around Sin City you’re gonna feel like donning lab goggles and a raincoat.” He concluded that once you’ve seen it, “you’ll never, never get the stain out of your soul.”

 

William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer argued the film’s “pornography of brutality” suggests we’re sitting “like Romans at the Coliseum, watching people being decapitated, disemboweled, dismembered, castrated and humiliated.” Lawrence Toppman of the Charlotte Observer even protested that the movie shows the failure of the movie ratings system: “Talking bluntly about sex for five minutes will earn an NC-17. Showing it frankly for one minute will do the same. Maiming and slaying people in close-up for two hours — and delighting in it — will get you only an R.”

 

But from the Two Severed Limbs Up school of film criticism, there’s always David Edelstein of Slate.com, who found “the most relentless display of torture and sadism I’ve encountered in a mainstream movie. ... I loved it. Or, to put it another way, I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I loved every gorgeous, sick, disgusting, ravishing, overbaked, blood-spurting, artificial frame of it.” He concluded the review: “It seems pointless to tut-tut over the depravity. ‘Sin City’ is like a must-have coffee-table book for your interior torture chamber.”

 

Slate.com should never be allowed to lecture anyone ever again about morality of any kind.

 

Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post bluntly declared the film “a pure product of the American death cult ... and damn, it’s really good. So do you say: This film is perverse and should be banned for it will fascinate all too many of the impressionable young with its aggressive nihilism? Or do you say: It’s so gorgeous and seductive and such a mesmerizing experience, you just have to let it be what it is and not apply the laws of taste and society to it. ... I have no idea.”

 

There’s one huge problem with film critics. It’s fine to appreciate the art of something, but not to the utter exclusion of a social conscience. Film is not just entertaining, it can be intoxicating. It can be a very malignant influence. Can you sit on the fence as this cinematic disease spreads? Just wait until the “Sin City” DVD starts traveling around in teenager backpacks.

 

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Reluctant Crusader: Chivalry where you’d least expect it. (National Review Online, 050506)

 

Deceit vs. valor, murder vs. mercy, courage vs. cowardice, faith vs. uncertainty. Throw in a horrendous case of leprosy, brutal sword fights, the cross of Christianity, and the crescent moon of Islam, and you have a glimpse into Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven — a 130-million-dollar epic about the Crusades.

 

Set in 1184, between the second and third of eight crusades, the film focuses on a time of uneasy truce in Jerusalem when Christians, Muslims, and Jews were able to worship and pray at their holy sites. Not intending to be a documentary, Kingdom of Heaven is an elegant drama drawn from real-life characters and historical events.

 

The story follows the remarkable ascent of Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith who becomes a reluctant Crusader and valiant defender of Jerusalem. Through the gut-wrenching loss of his family, Balian set off to the Holy Land in search of forgiveness and redemption “to erase my sins and those of my wife,” he says.

 

According to historians, there were many reasons that men and women went on the Crusades. There were those who went for deeply devout reasons — forgiveness of sin, defending their brothers and sisters in the faith, and protecting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that was built where Christ is said to have been buried and then resurrected. “Remission of sins will be granted to those going,” Crusaders heard from their priests.

 

Famous Christian leaders of the time such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Catherine of Siena, and Thomas Aquinas were very supportive of the Crusades. Although he is most well known for writing On Loving God, Bernard was passionate about defending Jerusalem: “Evil men have begun to occupy this land of the new promise, and unless someone resists them, they will be feasting their eyes upon the sanctuary of our religion and will try to stain that very bed, on which for our sake slept our life in death; they will profane the Holy Places — the places, I say, purpled with the blood of the immaculate Lamb.”

 

There were other reasons that people traveled thousands of miles to face uncertainty and possible death in the Holy Land. Sometimes, the idle rich had nothing else to do. They went on a crusade like wealthy New Yorkers head to the Hamptons. The number-two son of a castle may go in order to prove his manhood. Others simply went in search of land, riches, and adventure.

 

But for our story, “Balian is on a spiritual journey to actually reinforce — or not — his doubts about the existence of God,” observes Ridley Scott. It does not appear that Balian is as uncertain of the existence of God as much as he is worried about his status with Him. “God, what is it that you want of me?” he asks. “I am outside God’s grace,” he says in a fit of desperation. “God does not know me,” he later confesses.

 

Balian discovers that it is nearly impossible to find a relationship with God on such a bloody sectarian battlefield. Instead, he finds a vast supply of pompous and bloodthirsty warriors (“I am what I am. Someone has to be,” says one), religious zealots (“To kill an infidel is not murder, it is the path to heaven,” says another), and underhanded political wrangling (“There will be a day when you will wish you had done a little evil to gain a greater good,” says yet another).

 

As if that were not enough, he is enticed by the charms and beauty of Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), King Baldwin’s sister. Of course, things become more complicated when he discovers that she was given away in marriage at a tender age to Baron Guy do Lusignan, an all-around despicable ignoramus.

 

Some may attempt to fault Ridley Scott and screenwriter William Monahan for portraying Muslim characters with distinct chivalry and humanity while portraying some of the more zealous Christian Crusaders (such as the Knights Templar) in a less favorable light. However, the balance of the story portrays power-grubbing imperialists and religious nutcases on both sides of the battlefield, as well as honorable and virtuous Muslims and Christians.

 

Viewers will be justifiably intrigued by Saladin, a Saracen (Crusader word for Muslim) general of considerable military ingenuity and uncommon civility — sometimes brutal, other times merciful. This role is masterfully portrayed by the Syrian actor and director Ghassan Massoud.

 

Whether you believe the Crusades were justified or not, the movie seems to promote the need for interfaith tolerance and respect, especially in a place like Jerusalem — namely that we should be able to agree that it is not God’s will for us to kill one another over “God’s will.”

 

“It celebrates goodness, the chivalry of human beings,” said French actress Eva Green about the film. “It’s about people finding love and understanding for one another, no matter what the race or the religion is. It is more about being tolerant and listening to each other....People use religion as an excuse for bad behavior.”

 

Regrettably, too often that is true. The film actually goes to great lengths to make a distinction between heart-felt faith and institutional religion. There are those who use Balian’s leadership skills to press forward with a political agenda and there are others who genuinely care for the welfare of his soul.

 

He has lost his wife and unborn son — a true dark night of the soul. “I know that anyone in that situation would ask, ‘Who is this God?’” observed Orlando Bloom. Balian actually climbs the hill of Golgotha in order to find peace. “God does not speak to me on the hill where Christ died,” he tells the Hospitaler (David Thewlis), a monastic military priest who cared for religious pilgrims, the sick, and needy.

 

“I haven’t heard that,” the Hospitaler replies. “I have seen rage and madness in the eyes of many men who are religious. Godliness is what is here [pointing to the head] and here [pointing to the heart]. It is about what you do each day to your fellow man.”

 

So much has changed and so much has stayed the same since that era. Nations still go to war over the region and tensions never seem to relax in the Holy Land. On another level, however, I was reminded how different things have become. The screening I attended of Kingdom of Heaven was shown on the night before the funeral for Pope John Paul II.

 

In May of 2001, he became the first leader of the Catholic Church to set foot inside a mosque. Although no one doubted his profound theological differences with Islam, the pope visited the Ummayad Mosque — one of the oldest mosques in the world — in Damascus, Syria. The site holds special significance to both Muslims and Christians because it is believed to contain the tomb of John the Baptist (Prophet Yahya to Muslims).

 

While in Damascus, Pope John Paul II said, “It is my ardent hope that Muslim and Christian religious leaders will present our two great religious communities in respectful dialogue, never more as communities in conflict.” In some ways, that is the message of this movie.

 

With the current political-socio-religious tensions between the West and the Islamic world, making a film about killing one’s enemies in the name of God can be carelessly incendiary or politically correct mush. This movie fell into neither trap. Instead, Kingdom of Heaven is a majestic triumph in portraying the passionate fanaticism, religious zealotry, and uncommon chivalry that marked the dark and fascinating era of the Crusades.

 

— Steve Beard is the creator of www.Thunderstruck.org — a website devoted to faith and pop culture.

 

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Kingdom of This World (American Spectator, 050510)

 

By George Neumayr

 

The gravitation of liberals to illiberal ideologies is uncanny. The more illiberal the ideology, the more likely liberals will endeavor to understand and defend it. Militant Islam enjoys the benefits of this phenomenon in this century, just as the totalitarians of the Soviet Union benefited from it in the last. Militant Islam’s most powerful propagandists are not Muslims but self-hating Westerners who interpret militant Islam’s history and doctrines with a sympathy they never extend to Western religion.

 

The latest illustration of this self-hatred is Kingdom of Heaven, an anti-crusader movie that contains Hollywood’s idea of a happy ending — Christians in retreat and Islam on the march. Owing to this species of death-wish liberalism, Islamic conquerors against the West don’t even need to rewrite history. Defeated Westerners will rewrite it for them, making their imperialism by the sword look harmless.

 

A few years ago PBS, making a great effort to refurbish Islam in the wake of 9/11, produced a documentary depicting the early Muslim warriors as 7th-century Alan Aldas. Kingdom of Heaven keeps this propaganda rolling, which director Sir Ridley Scott’s spokesman didn’t even bother to hide prior to the movie’s release. He told the London press last year that the movie is designed to please Muslims. “We hope that the Muslim world sees the rectification of history,” Scott’s spokesman said.

 

What’s meant by rectification of history here is the rewriting of history according to politically correct exigencies in the liberal mind. This need produces a ludicrous movie that looks as if it was assembled by a committee at the U.N. The movie’s portrayals break down as: Believing Christians bad, Muslims and de-Christianized Knights good.

 

Just as 9/11 inspired liberals to rework the concept of jihad to mean innocuous self-improvement, so in Kingdom of Heaven liberalism is trying to rework the concept of Knighthood, defining its true manifestation as a commitment to secularized social justice. The true knights, in other words, didn’t risk life and limb to liberate the Holy Land from four centuries of brutal jihad but to oversee the building of wells and other public works projects.

 

The good Knights, you see, didn’t care a whit that Muslims armies had been assaulting Eastern Christianity in Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and had seized Jerusalem in a power grab that left the Christian Patriarch Sophronius, according to Edward Gibbon, mumbling in sorrow, “Behold the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet.” No, the good knights sought political rather than religious salvation in the Holy Land. They just wanted to form a kingdom of this world in which all peoples could live in syncretistic harmony.

 

Ridley Scott’s absurdly anachronistic, U.N.-style vision put considerable pressure on him to make stuff up in the movie. For example, he cobbles together a council of properly liberalized Muslims, Christians, and Jews to try and save Jerusalem from wild-eyed, primitive fundamentalists. Professor Riley-Smith of Cambridge University calls this part of the movie “utter nonsense.” No such “confraternity” existed.

 

The movie’s so amateurish it wouldn’t even be worth examining were it not a window on a mindset that will bedevil the West for a long time to come. The movie contains Big Lies, pervasive in the culture, that will make the preservation of what is left of Western civilization very difficult.

 

Imagine if the attitude that informs the movie were present at the time of Islam’s advances through the centuries on Spain, France, Italy, and Austria. Would Europe exist? Nope, and perhaps the Ridley Scotts would consider that a good thing. The people of Vienna in the late 1600s should have said to the Muslim armies, “Thank you for conquering us.” That Europe is now internally disintegrating as it is Islamized is due to the disappearance of the Christian consensus that movies like Kingdom of Heaven applaud.

 

The Christianity without Christ that liberalism extols is a Christianity with no interest in Jerusalem. It is no wonder that CAIR and other Muslim groups are cheering this movie: it vindicates the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land, which even the very cautious historian Bernard Lewis has described as a polemical power grab that was designed to announce to the world that Islam had supplanted Judaism and Christianity. Jerusalem is not mentioned a single time in the Koran. But Islam, in order to supersede Judeo-Christianity, had to occupy Jerusalem and build a Dome of the Rock to overshadow the dome over Jesus Christ’s tomb. The inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock, which predict ruin for Jews and Christians if they do not submit to Islam, make Islam’s use of Jerusalem clear.

 

Militant Islam was the new world order, the Dome of the Rock announced — a message its Western dupes centuries later still don’t not grasp and won’t until they live under it.

 

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Star “Wars” End: Redemption! (National Review Online, 050518)

 

Well, that’s a relief. This last of six films in the Star Wars saga, that monument of American myth-making, is finished — and it is good. There was danger that things would turn out differently, and the tale of these characters would have been eclipsed by the tale of their maker: a young man who started out brilliantly, then hesitated, then fumbled, and wound up being an object-lesson himself. Instead, the applause George Lucas receives for Revenge of the Sith will be genuine and sincere. That’s got to be gratifying to him, and a relief to us.

 

Readers who have a vague sense that there have been some movies called Star Wars (or is it Star Trek? Maybe that’s on TV) should prepare to get further confused. The first of the series, usually called simply Star Wars, came out in 1977. But, brace yourself, this first movie was Episode Four in an intended series of nine movies. Episode Five, The Empire Strikes Back, appeared in 1980. Connoisseurs agree that, while Star Wars is the popular favorite, Empire is the better movie, in fact the best of the whole series. Episode Six, Return of the Jedi, appeared in 1983.

 

And that was it, for awhile. Rumors kept circulating that George Lucas was going to start work on new episodes, any day now. But it wasn’t until 1999 that Episode One, The Phantom Menace, appeared, and immediately flopped. A fan of the series told me how he and a friend attended a different movie just in order to catch a trailer for Phantom Menace. They were stunned; “We just couldn’t believe how bad it was,” he said. It was a bad sign. Just about everybody hated Phantom Menace. It seemed shallow and silly, and squandered the capital previous films had built up.

 

Episode Two, Attack of the Clones, appeared in 2002, and while a little better than Phantom it was still nobody’s favorite. Extravagant sets didn’t make up for stilted dialogue and poor acting (and since these were excellent actors — Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor — blame pointed toward the director). Plans to complete the series with Episodes Seven, Eight, and Nine were abandoned. Episode Three, Revenge of the Sith, would be the last one. Could Lucas redeem himself, or would this series slide down from the peak of goodwill to the valley of disappointment?

 

As I watched Revenge of the Sith I kept thinking that this might be the film Lucas wanted to make all along. It’s the emotional hinge of the series, the most powerful in that sense; the other five provide the platform it needed to step into the light. Yet for all the noise and space-battle trickery, the drama is largely an internal one. Series fans know that this piece of the puzzle must accomplish one thing: young, idealistic, hot-headed Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) must be turned into that monument of darkness, Darth Vader.

 

So, although there are plenty of noisy battles, between zippy spaceships and between light saber-wielding Jedi and Sith, the real story is told in close-ups as Anakin winces, storms, and pleads, working out his fate. Christensen is great at this. He has a sullen, sensuous quality; he’s an intergalactic James Dean. This contrasts well with his prim British mentor, Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Though Anakin is a Jedi knight, the Jedi council holds him at a distance, correctly sensing the anger and fear below the surface. But their very lack of affirmation leaves him more isolated, thrown back on his own unstable resources. When a life-or-death situation arises that touches his heart, he responds in desperate frenzy, and the result is a great deal of death. The outline of this story is Shakespearean, and Lucas handles it to satisfaction.

 

This film comes as the third in a series of six, and it is a melancholy moment in the overall story. In a way it’s a quiet movie — a small film that focuses closely on one man’s fall. That’s where it’s excellent. From many other angles, it’s not so great: It lacks the color and energy of the first few films, doesn’t have the range of interesting characters, and the love interest is utterly flat. The gifted Natalie Portman portrays Padme Amidala, Anakin’s wife and mother of Luke and Leia Skywalker, but even she can’t do anything with whiny wifey lines like “How long will it be till we start being honest with each other?” Lucas seems to have deep insight into the complexity of father-son relationships, but his attempts to write young romance are just flat.

 

Other flaws persist from earlier films. The Force is perceived by tuning into one’s “feelings.” But does this mean a person’s emotions? Or some other kind of feelings? Anakin often has “feelings” of anger and fear: Should he consult these for guidance? What’s the difference?

 

Another inconsistency. As the chief Sith baddie tempts Anakin he murmurs that the Jedi are limited because they only use the good side of the Force. He urges Anakin to also use the dark side, “not just the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi. Embrace a broader view.” Yet later, when Anakin challenges Obi-wan “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy,” Obi-wan replies, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” But aren’t the Jedi the ones who absolutely reject evil?

 

I could name other problems (when Yoda goes flying through the air, he looks like a throw pillow), but overall Revenge of the Sith is a very satisfying film. It had one thing to do — move Anakin from the light to the dark — and it does it admirably. Another person at the screening remarked that his only complaint was that, at the end of the movie, they brought up the house lights too fast; he had not had time to dry his eyes.

 

— Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.

 

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Why run away from a ‘G’? (townhall.com, 050617)

 

Brent Bozell

 

A new study by the Dove Foundation demonstrated that Hollywood may not love money as much as it loves its “adult” themes of sexual perversion, violent death and ear-bending profanity. The foundation’s founder and chairman, Dick Rolfe, reported: “While the movie industry produced nearly 12 times more R-rated films than G-rated films from 1989 to 2003, the average G-rated film produced 11 times greater profit than its R-rated counterpart.” Wow.

 

Defenders of Tinseltown’s antics might argue that there’s a lot more R-rated movies around to flop and ruin the averages. The Dove Foundation does note that R-rated films are declining and G-movies are increasing. In recent years, the average number of R-rated films released each year dropped from 105 to 93. G-rated films increased from seven to 10. PG-rated films decreased from 36 to 21, and PG-13-rated films rose from 50 to 75.

 

For those who might argue the numbers are stilted, since the pool of G movies is so small — and whose fault is that? — consider the foundation’s calculations of profit don’t include profits from merchandising spin-offs. Those are often a cash cow for family films, while we won’t yet expect an R-rated Happy Meal toy.

 

Once again, as schools let out for the summer, it’s obvious that creative, original and clean films focused on entertaining children are a big moneymaker. Last week’s top five included the zippy computer-animated “Madagascar” in second place with a gross of $17 million, and after just three weeks, an accumulated gross of $128 million. (So far, it’s the No. 3 highest-grossing film of 2005.) Fresh from his extremely harsh and violent film “Sin City,” Robert “Spy Kids” Rodriguez has created another kiddie-action 3-D film called “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” which came in fifth with a gross of $12 million. Earlier this year, the computer-animated film “Robots” grossed $127 million, which is the fourth highest-grossing movie so far this year.

 

These films are rated PG, which is the rating it seems any studio release seeking the eyeballs of youngsters over 10 wants to receive. When even Nickelodeon cartoon movies like “Rugrats Go Wild” receive a PG, you wonder what on earth gets a G anymore. Too often, in the public mind, the G rating stands for cinematic baby food instead of movies directed for a general, family audience. Take for example “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie,” which many older children would dismiss as a movie directed at kindergarteners. It grossed only $18 million this spring.

 

But some of this new century’s biggest commercial blockbusters were rated G. “The Polar Express” from last Christmas is one of the newest ones, with a gross of $162 million. “Finding Nemo,” rated G, was the No. 2 film of 2003 with $339 million in revenues. “The Santa Clause 2,” rated G, grossed $139 million in 2002. “Monsters Inc.” was the G-rated sensation of 2001, the fourth highest-grossing movie of that year with $255 million.

 

One thing Dove research points out is how some studios are quite allergic to the G rating. Consider this listing of major studios and precisely how many R movies compared to G movies they have made from 2000 to 2004: Columbia/Tristar/Screen Gems, 40 to 1. Dreamworks SKG, 11 to 2. Fox, 18 to 1. MGM/UA, 16 to zero. Miramax/Dimension, 51 to 4. New Line/Fine Line, 39 to 1. Paramount, 27 to 2. Universal, 19 to zip. And Warner, 50 to 4. Just for comparison, note that Buena Vista/Disney’s ratio is 12 to 23.

 

This doesn’t even consider the problem of “ratings creep,” where movies that used to get an R now get a PG-13 as movies get cruder and coarser. Nobody’s suggesting the movie studios stop making R-rated films. But it should also seem impossible to argue that Hollywood could do a better, more balanced job for its audience than making nine R-rated movies for every G film. They would claim that R-rated films are needed for intense and creative storytelling from “real life.” But are they really so deprived of creativity that they can’t also find some winning drama or comedy without heading for the gutter?

 

Will we see a change in studio economics, or will they fail to take the hint? Failing to make a change, with this information out there for the public to see, would clearly signal that Hollywood studios are not in the business of making a profit and pleasing stockholders, but they are in the business of polluting and corrupting the culture.

 

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The Culture’s Animating Values (Christian Post, 050608)

 

The conventional Hollywood wisdom has long held that religious and family-friendly movies are not high earners. But this wisdom is beginning to wane in the face of recent theater trends. The five top-grossing movies so far this year are rated either PG or PG-13, and all of them have surpassed the $100 million mark. Two of last year’s top 5, Shrek 2 and The Incredibles, were PG-rated animated films.

 

This kind of success is causing executives to rethink their standard fare. Family-friendly movies, especially animated ones, have brought people to the movies who haven’t gone in years. And they will be more inclined to return for more—provided there is something for them to see.

 

In the past, religion writers have pointed the movie industry to the link between ratings and profits. And a study released this week by the Dove Foundation came to some important conclusions confirming this relationship.

 

Since 2000, R-rated movie production has dropped by 12% per year, while G-rated film production is up by 38% over the same period. This reflects the market reaction to the fact that between 2000 and 2003, the average profit for an R-rated film was a comparatively paltry $17 million when contrasted to the average G movie, which brought in a $92 million profit.

 

One comes away from the Dove report with a sense that the movie industry is beginning to recognize a profit opportunity in producing more morally robust movies.

 

In 1999, following an initial Dove study, Joe Roth of Disney made a pledge to change the ratio of adult action films to family-friendly films from 4:1 to 1:1. And the company is quite close to keeping that promise, as 48% of their releases since 2000 are rated either G or PG.

 

One of the much-anticipated Disney releases for later this year is the first installment of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lewis was one of the most popular Christian theologians and apologists of the 20th century, and his fiction books are imbued with a deep sense of Christian morality.

 

This kind of religiously informed storytelling, along with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, has the potential not only to be enormously profitable but also to be morally salutary.

 

Disney stands in a long line of entrepreneurs and capitalists who had a unique insight—gained in part from looking at the surprising success of wholesome fare and a certain intuition—and then profited from it.

 

Just as Hollywood has traditionally been reluctant to back films that tap into the religious interests of the buying public, organized Christian denominations have been too suspicious of the film industry.

 

The religious right has decried Hollywood for many years without understanding the core motivation behind film making, which is not to corrupt but to make movies people want to see. This drive is neither moral nor immoral: It only means that the film market is a moral blank slate.

 

Today, the message has been sent. Handsome profits draw new producers and new products into the field. This is the result one would expect whether a movie promotes God or the Devil. And it is a sad commentary that many businesses would serve either depending on where the profits are.

 

For now, it seems that the smart money is with faith and family, which is all to the good. May we appreciate the moment and all that it will do to channel the tremendous talents of Hollywood toward the kind treatment of religion.

 

The real challenge comes when the profits dry up and capitalists again face the temptation to profit from people’s desire to flee the good. The market is a remarkable institution that serves society precisely what it wants. Love or hate what Disney and others have done, the success of family films reflects the values that animate our culture.

 

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Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute.

 

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UnFantastic Box Office: Summertime blues and heroes. (National Review Online, 050715)

 

Last weekend’s release of The Fantastic Four, yet another summer film based on a famous comic book, helped propel the Hollywood box office out of a long-lasting slide but only barely. The weekend’s tally of 148.9 million just eclipsed the 148.2 million take of a year ago; and the year-to-date numbers remain far behind the totals for this time a year ago. With a slender plot, even by comic-book standards, F4 is a mediocre film, quickly forgotten. It is, nonetheless, a good bit of fun, with a couple of entertaining characters, and sufficient energy and humor to captivate audiences.

 

As is often the case, popular taste runs athwart critical appraisal. While film critics panned the film, audiences seem to enjoy the action sequences and the good-natured camaraderie of these comic-book heroes. The film is more Ghostbusters than Batman Begins or even Spider-Man. Although it is rated PG-13, it provides the sort of action and humor that can be honestly enjoyed by an entire family, except perhaps the youngest of children.

 

The plot is standard comic-book, sci-fi fare; a well-intentioned scientist, who holds to the theory that a powerful solar storm triggered the start of elementary life on earth, anticipates that an upcoming solar storm could yield valuable information about DNA, information that could be put to use for the good of humanity. Having miscalculated the arrival time of the storm, a crew of five is subject to unusually high amounts of radiation which alters their DNA and gives them superhuman powers.

 

Only four of the five realize their powers immediately. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffurd) becomes elastic man. Johnny (Chris Evans) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are transformed, respectively, into the Human Torch and Invisible Girl. Subject to the most sustained and direct blast of radiation, Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis in a fine performance) is enlarged and hardened into a human rock, called The Thing. By far the best characters in the film are Ben and Johnny. The most endearing character is The Thing, a cross between an internally troubled Hulk and a cuddly Shrek. Abandoned by his fiancé and a laughingstock whenever he appears in public, Ben is desperate to return to normal, as are Sue and Reed. The only exception to the reluctance is Johnny, who embraces his gift of bodily flame and his newfound celebrity with gusto. When he learns that his DNA has been altered to turn him into combustible flesh, he exclaims, “Cool!” Johnny is reminiscent of the Bill Murray character in Ghostbusters, an individual eager to capitalize on his fame to gain money and women. As Johnny deadpans in response to Sue’s criticism of his motives, “what else is there?”

 

The remaining member of the five is Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon). Ambitious and supercilious, Doom is Reed’s chief competitor for the heart of Sue. But Doom, whom the radiation blesses with an invulnerable titanium shield, does not come to see his secret power until very late in the film. The bulk of the film thus has little to do with the evil protagonist. Instead, it is preoccupied with the media circus surrounding the Four and the internal, quasi-familial dynamics of the group of reluctant super-heroes. The love triangle among Sue, Doom, and Reed is mind-numbingly stupid. The relationship dialogue falls flat on every occasion. Moreover, the internal bickering among the four is tedious. The best scenes are comedic, as when Johnny plays practical jokes on The Thing. When Doom finally arrives as a nemesis, he is laughably shallow. Hitchcock once said, the better the villain, the better the film. On this score, comic-book villains are a serious weakness and one reason comic books will never make great and memorable films. Even by the standards of the genre, Doom is unusually feeble.

 

The best action sequences in the film call to mind scenes in disaster films. But here the disasters are typically provoked by the reactions of citizens to the presence of the superheroes, as is the case when the four team up to rescue lots of innocent civilians after a pileup on a N.Y. bridge, a pileup caused by the shock of The Thing’s first public appearance.

 

Despite its many flaws, Fantastic Four has been credited with rescuing a dormant box office, if barely and only momentarily. Some cultural observers attribute declining box office to Hollywood’s political alienation from mainstream America. There is undoubtedly something to this, although it’s hard to tell how much. In the wake of the success of films such as Gladiator, Braveheart, Spider-Man, LOTR, and The Passion, Hollywood has in the past few years offered more in the way of uplifting stories of heroism. Others simply see market forces at work — the greater availability of video games, cable TV options, and the alacrity with which films make it from the big screen to DVD. Good points, all. But there has not been a huge difference in availability between last year and this.

 

One reasonable answer to the question of box-office decline is that the quality of the films is down this year. One of the little noticed features of this year’s decline is the post-opening week dive that so many big films are enduring. Just last week, for example, War of the Worlds in its second weekend in release dropped about 60% from its opening. That’s a sign that, while advertising and stars can create a big opening week, only solid word of mouth can maintain a film’s popularity. (As a means of comparing quality with hype, consider that a documentary, not yet in wide release, about migratory penguins, The March of Penguins, ranked 13th last week but took in more money per screen than did F4.)

 

F4’s opening week numbers were much better than expected; it made 50 million, while predictions were in the 30 million range. But F4’s opening draw was significantly below that of The Incredibles (76.5 million opening weekend), last year’s film about a family of individuals with superpowers that many have called a rip-off F4. If that is the case, then we need more rip-offs like it. The big difference between the two films is that The Incredibles has a much better plot and much richer characters. Indeed, F4 needed a lot of help in turning the box-office numbers around; the reasonably strong opening for F4 combined with continued modest success for a number of films: War of the Worlds, Batman Begins, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, and Madagascar. In addition to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Hitch, War, Batman and Madagascar currently constitute the top five box-office films thus far in 2005. By comparison, last year had already witnessed the big-time box office hits Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2, The Passion, and the third Harry Potter film. This year, only Sith’s numbers can compete with the kind of success all four of those films enjoyed.

 

The bad news for Hollywood is that it’s unlikely that a remake of Willy Wonka or the Bad News Bears or a film version of the Dukes of Hazzard is going to turn things around anytime soon.

 

— Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.

 

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U.S. troops = Martians in ‘War of the Worlds’? Writer says attacks in his film represent slaughter of Iraqis (WorldNetDaily, 050722)

 

A screenwriter for the blockbuster film “War of the Worlds” says the malevolent Martian attackers represent the American military randomly slaughtering Iraqi civilians.

 

Dave Koepp voiced his controversial explanation of the movie script to an obscure Canadian horror magazine titled Rue Morgue, “apparently thinking no one would notice,” writes U.S. News columnist John Leo.

 

Meanwhile, the screenwriter gave the same jarring analysis to USA Weekend, noting that “the Martians in our movie represent American military forces invading the Iraqis, and the futility of the occupation of a faraway land is again the subtext.”

 

Leo, for his part, said he thinks the Martians “symbolize normal Americans, while those being attacked are the numbskulls who run Hollywood.”

 

The film, directed by Steven Spielberg, is an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel.

 

The columnist noted that Hollywood has grown so “eye-poppingly angry with the rest of the country, mostly over Bush and Iraq” that even “mild-mannered nonpropagandists” like George Lucas of Star Wars fame “have come under pressure to display their lefty credentials with silly political touches.”

 

His final Star Wars epic, “Revenge of the Sith,” has at least two anti-Bush lines: “Only a Sith [a dark lord] thinks in absolutes” and “If you’re not with me, you are my enemy.”

 

Lucas insisted the “enemy” sentence had been written before Bush’s similar words after 9-11.

 

“Maybe so,” Leo says, “but Lucas had three years or so to figure out the political impact of the line but left it in anyway.”

 

Last May, at the Cannes Film Festival in France, Lucas characterized his recent film, featuring the rise of the sinister empire, as a wake-up call to Americans about the erosion of freedoms under President Bush.

 

In Ridley Scott’s recent release about the Crusades, “Kingdom of Heaven,” a Crusader is shown beheading a hostage, “thus establishing moral equivalence with the monstrous terrorist tactics of today,” Leo said.

 

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Tabloids Help Keep Celebs in the Closet (Foxnews, 050720)

 

Rock Hudson. Cary Grant. James Dean. Laurence Olivier. Danny Kaye.

 

They were all leading men during some of the golden years of Hollywood, and they often played dashing, romantic men over whom women swooned.

 

The celebrity press fawned over their every relationship with young starlets, sophisticated beauties and Tinseltown actresses, and dedicated reams of paper to hinting at what kinds of lovers they’d be to the bored housewives who lapped up the gossip.

 

Yet the gossip sheets somehow managed not to mention that these star actors were gay or bisexual, or at least that they were rumored to be.

 

Fast forward to the present day, and things are a lot different — or are they?

 

The rumor mill’s churning out more stories about supposedly closeted celebrities than ever before, but the tabloids seem even more ginger about the subject than they were back in the glamour days of Hollywood.

 

Aside from the occasional snide, wink-wink caption under a photograph of a star and his or her same-sex “companion” or “personal assistant,” the celebrity press is increasingly careful not to name names.

 

Star magazine, known for its sometimes questionable inside scoop on celebrities’ personal lives, even went out and made it official when Editor Bonnie Fuller recently said that the periodical would no longer out closeted homosexuals.

 

“I don’t believe there’s still an appetite out there for that kind of information,” American Media spokesman Stu Zakim said in response to a call to Fuller. “It’s something we’re not doing. I think there’s been a mass change in acceptance of people’s sexuality, so that it’s really irrelevant to their celebrity status.

 

“People come to pick up Star magazine because they want the latest in celebrity news in who’s going out with whom — whether boy or girl — who’s wearing what to the events. Star presents breaking news first, and we do not consider people’s sexual preference news. It’s private, period.”

 

Naturally, the fear of losing media access is a large concern. In addition, publications want to avoid costly lawsuits. Now, highly paid actors can afford to bankroll powerful lawyers to safeguard their privacy instead of relying on the kind of “gentlemen’s agreement” that kept the press from revealing too much about certain open secrets, like politicians’ or celebrities’ sex lives or, as with Franklin D. Roosevelt, handicaps.

 

Today, big-name celebrities who have been the subject of homosexuality rumors, such as Tom Cruise, have been aggressive in pursuing legal remedies or, as with Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford, in even buying up advertising space in national newspapers to counter allegations of sham marriages.

 

Fuller’s decision to nix the tattle-telling on stars’ homosexual behavior may have been influenced by the fact that Star has been forced to apologize for a September 2004 article in which the magazine claimed that a British pop-music star had sex with another man in a dance club.

 

“It’s very legally tricky to call someone a homosexual in a periodical,” Radar magazine Associate Editor Danielle Stein said. “It’s still very easy to win a lawsuit for something that’s considered defamatory.”

 

Several thorny issues crop up when respecting a celebrity’s privacy in regard to his or her homosexuality, but not in regard to other aspects of his or her private life.

 

Why should a gay celebrity get to enjoy a tryst with a same-sex lover in private, when a heterosexual celebrity can’t enjoy the same protection? Why are miscarriages, health issues and other intimate details of a person’s life considered fair game, but others not? And are all closeted homosexuals equal in the eyes of the tabloid press or the public?

 

“I don’t think a tabloid forcing someone out is a good thing. I view coming out as a personal choice,” said Howard Bragman, a Los Angeles-based public-relations specialist, University of Southern California professor and gay-rights activist.

 

Stein, who hasn’t taken a side in the to-out-or-not-to-out debate, points out that treating gays and lesbians with kid gloves could actually be helping to stigmatize them.

 

“Journalists always debate things like naming rape victims, and I think some ways it’s akin to that. Some say that by not naming the rape victim we are maintaining the stigma that attaches to the rape victim — being raped isn’t the victim’s fault, but it’s a bad thing. And being gay isn’t a bad thing but we treat it like it is.”

 

Whether or not Star or other magazines publish details about a gay star’s sex life, there will always be a market for them, many say.

 

Paul Cunningham, a New York-based photographer who’s taken many candid pictures of celebrities but prefers not to use the term “paparazzo,” said that while he respects the privacy of anyone’s sex life, business is business for many photographers.

 

“If one magazine’s not going to run it, someone else will,” he said.

 

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Hollywood’s New War Effort: Terrorism Chic (Townhall.com, 050810)

 

Jason Apuzzo

 

Slow to awaken after the 9/11 attacks, Hollywood has finally come around to contributing what it can in the War on Terror: namely, glossy, star-studded movies that sympathize with the enemy.

 

Hard to believe? Here’s the pitch: with box-office numbers trending down, studio executives are suddenly greenlighting movies they can describe to shareholders as ‘controversial’ or ‘timely.’ Whether the films are anti-American or otherwise demoralizing to the war effort is apparently immaterial. Its appetite whetted by “Fahrenheit 9/11’s $222 million worldwide gross, Hollywood thinks it’s found a formula for both financial security and critical plaudits: noxious anti-American storylines, bathed in the warm glow of star power.

 

Here are just a few films already in the pipeline:

 

-  “V For Vendetta.” From Warner Brothers and the creators of “The Matrix” comes this film about a futuristic Great Britain that’s become a ‘fascist state.’ A masked ‘freedom fighter’ named V uses terror tactics (including bombing the London Underground) to undermine the government - leading to a climax in which the British Parliament is blown up. Natalie Portman stars as a skinhead who turns to ‘the revolution’ after doing time as a Guantanamo-style prisoner.

 

-  “Munich.” Steven Spielberg directs this film about the aftermath of the 1972 Olympic terror attacks that killed eleven Israeli athletes. “Munich’s screenplay is written by playwrite Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”), [Kwing Hung: liberal TV movies] who has been quoted as saying: “I think the founding of the state of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity ... I wish modern Israel hadn’t been born.” The film focuses on the crisis of conscience undergone by Israeli commandos tasked with killing PLO terrorists - rather than on the barbarity of the terrorists themselves.

 

- “Untitled Oliver Stone 9/11 Project.” Paramount will distribute Oliver Stone’s new film recounting the rescue of two Port Authority officers after the 9/11 attacks. The film will star Nicholas Cage and Maggie Gyllenhaal - who recently suggested that America was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

 

As for Stone, he had this to say only a month after 9/11: “This attack was pure chaos, and chaos is energy. All great changes have come from people or events that were initially misunderstood, and seemed frightening, like madmen.”

 

“Syriana.” Starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, this Warner Brothers film - set during the first Bush administration - features a plot by American oil companies and the U.S. government to redraw Middle East borders for greater oil profiteering. The film even depicts a handsome, ‘tragic’ suicide bomber driven to jihad after being fired by an American oil company! The film’s climax comes with the jihadist launching an explosive device into an oil tanker as American oil barons and Saudi officials look on.

 

“The Scorpion’s Gate.” Sony has optioned former terrorism-czar Richard Clarke’s novel about oil companies and Washington politicians colluding to reshape the map of the Middle East for greater oil profiteering - this time by launching a global nuclear war.

 

“The Chancellor Manuscript.” Paramount reworks Robert Ludlum’s 1977 thriller into an anti-Patriot Act star vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio. Here’s the film’s screenwriter, Michael Seitzman: “We live in this crazy post-Patriot Act environment where Benjamin Franklin’s warning that ‘those that give up essential liberties for temporary security don’t deserve either one’ are being ignored, so the subject matter seemed ripe.”

 

“No True Glory: The Battle for Fallujah.” Universal has attached Harrison Ford to star as real-life General Jim Mattis - in this story blaming the White House for the deaths of fifty Marines in one of the Iraq war’s deadliest battles. Based on the book of the same name by Bing West.

 

“American Dreamz.” This ‘satire’ from Universal Pictures deals with Pakistani suicide bombers out to kill the US president. The film stars Hugh Grant, Richard Dreyfuss, Willem Dafoe and Mandy Moore. According to writer-director Paul Weitz (“American Pie”), “The film is a comic examination of ... cultural obsessions” like the War on Terror “and how they can anaesthetise us to the actual issues of our day.”

 

“Terminus.” Set in the Middle East of the future, this Warner Brothers film depicts a ‘disillusioned’ war correspondent covering an ‘insurgency’ he decides he must support. The producer, Basil Iwanyk, says: “It deals head on with what some call insurgency, what some call guerilla warfare and what some call freedom fighting.”

 

“Jarhead.” This Universal release, starring Jamie Foxx and Jake Gyllenhaal, deals with the ‘dehumanization’ of Marine trainees prior to and during the 1991 Gulf War. Based on Andrew Swofford’s notorious and questionable memoirs of the same name.

 

The above list, incidentally, should not be taken as comprehensive. For example, Paramount also has projects in the works about a ‘reformed’ al-Qaeda operative, and about the victim of an Iraqi suicide bomber. Little about these projects has been made public.

 

One thing should be obvious from this list: left-wing agitprop filmmaking is no longer the purview of desperate, ‘indie’ filmmakers with shaky camcorders and maxed-out credit cards. The films listed above are being made by large, multi-national corporations - and will feature sophisticated, expensive marketing campaigns with A-list stars. Imagine Leni Riefenstahl cross-promoting “Triumph of the Will” with People Magazine covers and E! Channel specials. That’s more or less what Hollywood has in mind.

 

Hollywood has shifted strategies in its opposition to the War on Terror. No longer content to let clumsy, uncouth documentarians like Michael Moore or Robert Greenwald conduct its foreign policy, Tinseltown is rolling out big guns like Harrison Ford and Leo DiCaprio and George Clooney - complete with their p.r. firms, dazzling smiles, and easy charm.

 

It’s imperative for conservatives to shift strategies, as well. It will no longer be sufficient for outraged conservatives to storm talk radio, the Internet or Fox News with the idea of verbally ‘rebutting’ these movies like dour lawyers in a courtroom. When these films arrive, with their star-power, swelling soundtracks and digital effects, they’ll hit the public with the force of a hurricane - and there’ll be no obvious butt of derision like Michael Moore for talking-head conservatives to target. These filmmakers and their movies will be much more polished, subtle - and insidious. And these films will be more dangerous than “Fahrenheit 9/11” because their strategy will be to entertain.

 

The proper ‘response’ for this sort of thing is simple, if complex in execution. At some point conservatives need to raise capital, pick up cameras and start making movies of their own - much like Mel Gibson did with “The Passion.” And conservatives should do this not simply to ‘rebut’ the other side, but to add depth and imagination to what has become a wasteland of popular entertainment. Most Hollywood insiders - even liberals - agree that Hollywood is in a creative depression. More conservative voices can only help what has become a bleak situation for the town, both artistically and financially.

 

Movies are a powerful force in shaping the imagination of our culture, and in defining how history is remembered. It will be a great shame if all we leave behind from this vital period in American history is a shoddy trail of “Syriana”s, “V For Vendetta”s or “American Dreamz” - rather than a “Casablanca” or a “Notorious.” But conservatives obviously can’t wait for Hollywood to do that for them - they’re going to have to do it themselves.

 

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The Bad Timing of The Da Vinci Code (townhall.com, 050824)

 

Jason Apuzzo

 

HOLLYWOOD – It is often said that timing is everything - and in Hollywood, this axiom may have more meaning than anywhere else.  Open an Oscar-caliber film like Cinderella Man in the thick of a crowded summer movie calendar, and the film will disappear faster than a phone flies from Russell Crowe’s hand.  Then again, open a turkey like The 40 Year-Old Virgin on a slow weekend in August - and it might rise to #1 at the domestic box office.

 

Timing, indeed, is everything. And that’s why Sony is taking a huge risk in its big-screen adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, set for a 2006 release. What’s the risk, one might ask, in adapting a book that sold 25 million copies in a film directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks?

 

The answer, of course, lies in the content of The Da Vinci Code - a crackling, brisk thriller with an extraordinary hypothesis: that Jesus Christ fell in earthly love with Mary Magdalene - who was not actually a prostitute - and that Magdalene bore Christ’s children.  Furthermore, the novel suggests that the Catholic Church has perpetuated a ‘cover-up’ of this relationship in order to discourage pagan veneration of a “feminine principle” at odds with the Church’s patriarchy.

 

Setting aside questions about the validity of The Da Vinci Code, its storyline raises a serious question: Is now the best time for Hollywood to release this sort of film?

 

One might argue it’s always best to strike while the iron is hot, and no novel has been hotter over the past two years than The Da Vinci Code.  But the qualities that make a book ‘hot’ do not always make for a ‘hot’ film.

 

Here’s the problem: Red-state America already disdains Hollywood. Still, conservatives make up more than fifty-percent of a potential audience. And there is a strong possibility that conservative church-goers will not take kindly to Brown’s theories about Christ’s romantic life, however meticulously Brown may argue these theories in his book.

 

Thus, The Da Vinci Code may emerge as a sort of anti-The Passion of The Christ and ultimately enrage conservatives ala Fahrenheit 9/11.

 

This kind of thing is slow poison for the industry.  With each passing year, Hollywood is making movies for a smaller and smaller demographic.  That demographic is now limited to secular, big city, video-game addled males aged 18-34.  But the industry cannot experience financial or artistic growth if these are the only people going to theaters.

 

Hollywood is in the midst of a public relations crisis the likes of which it hasn’t seen since the late 1960s.  The consensus is that Hollywood has been producing junk - remakes, sequels and left-wing lifestyle propaganda of one sort or another.  Now the junk isn’t making any money - and the primary storyline out of Hollywood each week is how desperate the studios are for a hit.

 

Hollywood should have taken a cue from The Passion and produced films that reached out to a Christian audience, a group that was swooning after a positive experience with Mel Gibson’s film.  Instead, Hollywood insulted that audience with inane, anti-Christian propaganda like Kingdom of Heaven, and Paramount has now even optioned the satire, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Obey the Bible as Literally as Possible for Brad Pitt’s company.

 

These kinds of projects don’t expand Hollywood’s audience - they contract it.  And The Da Vinci Code, despite its potential success, may ultimately close the door on an audience Hollywood desperately needs to secure to emerge from its decades-long slump.

 

If Hollywood had a recent track record of projects respectful of Christianity, the bold historical assertions of The Da Vinci Code might pass with limited controversy.  As things stand however, the movie is likely to feel like another punch to the gut of American church-goers.

 

It’s said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results.  By this definition Hollywood has truly gone insane, as it continues to tread mightily on the sensibilities of people the town relies on to pay its bills.  Whatever its novelistic merits, The Da Vinci Code will continue this trend - just as post-Passion Christian audiences were starting to warm back up to Hollywood.

 

Sony should remember that old axiom: timing is everything.

 

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Elizabethtown: Values and Patriotism: Is Hollywood Catching On? (townhall.com, 051011)

 

by Megan Basham (bio | archive)

 

Much has been made lately of Hollywood’s ongoing slump.  Theories for it have ranged from the technological (DVDs and high definition television create home theaters that rival big screens) to the qualitative (for the first time, studios are openly considering the idea that bad scripts, bad directing, and bad acting might have something to do with audiences staying away).

 

While both are valid arguments, screenwriter Craig Titley pointed out on this site that history reveals another culprit: political hubris.  Titley suggests that the film industry’s blue state machinations have turned 51% (the red-state percent) of the ticket-buying market off by insulting their values and mocking their patriotism.

 

He seems to have a point.  Forgetting propaganda dressed up to look like movies like this summer’s The Constant Gardner, even those films that aren’t particularly political are hurt by association with actors who make anti-Bush statements in the wake of natural disasters and anti-American statements in the wake of their morning coffee.

 

But the junket I recently attended for Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown indicates that filmmakers may finally be getting the message that if they want to sell movies to the “right” half of the country, they can’t make America the bad guy.  In fact, if the Elizabethtown marketing machine is any indication, Hollywood’s new movie-selling mantra may very well be, “We love the U.S. of A!”

 

During Townhall.com’s interview with the cast and crew, Brit Orlando Bloom returned consistently to the idea that Elizabethtown highlights the best part—the flyover part—of America:

 

“[This film] is a journey through an America that I think the whole world needs to see right now:  the heartland of America.  I never understood that phrase before.  I never understood southern hospitality until I was there… I mean, I’d experienced New York and Los Angeles and other big cities around the world, but I hadn’t experienced the heartland of America and I think that’s what’s portrayed in this movie.”

 

Of course, film buffs could argue that the heartland gets portrayed plenty in films.  It gets portrayed as the place where people lead desperately unhappy, colorless lives filled with racism, oppression and chauvinism (Pleasantville, American Beauty, and Far from Heaven come to mind).   But Bloom quiets any concern that this is where Elizabethtown is headed.

 

“When you go outside any big city, you find community, family, friends, but it doesn’t get portrayed in the way that it is in this movie…Cameron’s not laughing at these people.”

 

Bloom even said of his experience filming in various small towns in the South, “I just had a whole new understanding, respect, and appreciation for this country that I hadn’t had before.”  This may not sound like an earth-shattering admission to us, but coming from an A-list actor who isn’t an out-of-the-closet Republican like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Clint Eastwood, it’s tantamount to a public conversion.

 

Paula Wagner, Tom Cruise’s partner in the production company responsible for Elizabethtown, echoed enough of Bloom’s statements to make it clear that love of country now makes for a good promotional strategy.

 

Said Wagner, “[Elizabethtown] is about this journey through the heartland, and we haven’t seen movies like that…I don’t know, I think that people are ready to have a film that gives them some love and embraces them and says let’s talk about what we all have in common as opposed to the differences…[This movie] was done with a lot of love and a lot of respect and hopefully it offers something to people who want to go to a movie and laugh and feel embraced…it kind of transcends the disagreements that have been going on in this country.”

 

Wagner also makes it clear the patriotism on display in Elizabethtown is no accident: “Cameron [Crowe] was very specific from day one, this movie has been designed to respect and give love to the people, to the metaphor, of all the Elizabethtowns all over the country.”

 

True-to-form for someone who started life as a rock journalist, Cameron Crowe seemed primarily interested in talking about the music that features prominently in the film.  But he did describe his work as a labor of love, saying, “The script was a love letter to my dad and to Kentucky, to that part of the country.  I thought, let’s really celebrate it.”

 

But don’t start imagining that affection for middle America has become Hollywood’s unilateral position. There will always be those who aren’t interested in putting political differences aside.  I looked forward to sharing what one of the nation’s most recognized and outspoken liberals had to say on the subject.  But, for her part, Susan Sarandon, who costars as Orlando Bloom’s mother, chose not to grant interviews to any of conservative or religious journalists present.

 

See, even in Tinsel Town, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

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Infiltrating Hollywood (Townhall.com, 051103)

 

by Ryan Zempel

 

You know the struggle.

 

You work hard to raise your kids in a moral environment, only to catch them singing the latest Eminem lyrics they heard on the radio.

 

You switch on the TV at 8pm, only to quickly switch it off again after the first few sexual jokes, wondering whatever happened to “family-friendly TV.”

 

And when not deluged with immorality, you instead get liberal politics shoved down your throat on sitcoms, in movies, and on supposedly unbiased newscasts.

 

Doesn’t it often feel like an uphill battle?

 

We’re fighting hard to lead our lives and raise our children according to our own values, but it seems like the culture is fighting us every step of the way.

 

Here at Townhall.com, we’ve discovered that while we toil away at influencing the lawmakers here in Washington DC, the culture-shapers in Hollywood are actively undermining anything we accomplish.

 

Much of what Hollywood produces is morally bankrupt and ideologically liberal.  And it’s shaping our culture in a profound way.

 

So what can we do?

 

Conservatives have tried going the boycott route, but have met with limited success.  It’s past time to try a more pro-active, positive approach.

 

Conservatives need to engage Hollywood, not from across battle lines, but on their own territory.  Infiltration, if you will.

 

Conservatives with artistic talent need to harness that talent to create art and entertainment that is informed by our worldview.  And those of us who lack artistic talent need to support and encourage conservatives who are actively engaged in influencing Hollywood from within.

 

I recently attended the Liberty Film Festival out in Hollywood, where I discovered a group of conservative filmmakers committed to making great films rooted in their conservative worldview.

 

The conservative movement needs to be working to support such filmmakers, rather than focusing solely on the political battles in Washington, DC.

 

At Townhall.com, we’re determined to do our part.  For starters, in conjunction with our recent redesign, we’ve launched an expanded Books & Entertainment section, highlighting the best and criticizing the worst of what Hollywood produces.

 

We’ve started a new feature — B&E columns — highlighting what’s going on in Hollywood and what conservatives everywhere can do to improve the situation.

 

Liberty Film Festival cofounder Jason Apuzzo has come on board as a regular B&E columnist, while conservative screenwriter Craig Titley (Cheaper by the Dozen, Scooby-Doo), conservative actress Cheryl Felicia Rhoads and others have also contributed articles.  And we’ve got lots more in store.

 

We’ve hired Megan Basham and other freelancers to write movie reviews and we’ve enlisted a legion of book reviewers to critique the latest books.

 

We helped conservative bloggers get admitted as press members to movie screenings across the country, and hosted our own movie screening here in DC.

 

And incidentally, you’ll be able to find some of the best films from the Liberty Film Festival on our site soon.

 

It’s an exciting time at Townhall.com, but we need your support to continue making a difference.

 

What we’ve done so far is a good start, but not enough.  We have even more exciting plans for the future, but without your support, it will be impossible to make those plans a reality.

 

Centuries ago, Damon of Athens declared, “Give me the songs of a nation, and it matters not who writes its laws.”

 

Help us influence our nation’s songs.  Donate today.

 

Ryan Zempel is the News & Politics Editor of Townhall.com.

 

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Hollywood still leery of religion (townhall.com, 051104)

 

by Brent Bozell

 

After the last election, a Newsweek poll found 67% of Americans believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, and 82% believe Jesus is the Son of God. Exit polls also found the No. 1 issue for Americans is “moral values.” Hollywood declares (boasts?) it is delivering to the marketplace products demanded by the market. If that is so, why is the entertainment industry so incapable of looking at numbers like that as an opportunity to mine a vastly untapped source of riches?

 

The massive turnout for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ” was supposed to change Hollywood’s resistance, even hostility, to religion, but there isn’t a whole lot of change in sight. The big Christian movie event of the year is the forthcoming release of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” a $150 million production based on the beloved Narnia series of C.S. Lewis.

 

The film was made by Walden Media, the family-friendly producer that recently delivered the acclaimed family movie “Because of Winn-Dixie.” Walden’s big-studio partner in the Narnia effort is Disney. They’ve hired Motive Entertainment, the same firm that promoted buzz for “The Passion” among Christians. The Narnia story, for the uninitiated, is the Passion story: Aslan the lion dies for the transgressions of others and is resurrected to defeat evil. Churches across the country are building enthusiasm for the movie, purported to be a much better cinematic presentation of the Lewis books than previous movie-making attempts.

 

So why are some at Disney so uncomfortable with the religious theme in their own movie, a message embraced by 82% of Americans?

 

“We believe we have not made a religious movie,” Dennis Rice, Disney’s senior vice president of publicity, told the Washington Times. “It’s just a great piece of cinema that is true to a great piece of literature.” The message in that is clear: Don’t think this is a Christian film, because that is box-office death. Why not: “This is a fabulous story that also has a glorious message about faith and redemption”?

 

The reason for this unease is simple. There are people who are disturbed by the promotion of religion in the culture. Gov. Jeb Bush found this out when he promoted the first Narnia book for Florida schoolchildren in his “Just Read, Florida” program. Barry Lynn of the perpetually annoying group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State objected to this as a governmental encouragement of children’s literature with Christian overtones. You can have school teachers assign students to read books about rape, drug addiction, and accepting homosexuality as normal, but there better not be a Christian metaphor on the reading list.

 

Governor Bush’s Just Read campaign is funded by Walden Media, so there is a commercial tie-in. But the program also promoted Carl Hiaasen’s book “Hoot” (also being made into a Walden movie), which pits owl-loving environmentalist kids against greedy developers. The anti-religion crowd had no problem with that book’s promotion.

 

This is not to say, however, that a book with a Christian message is going to be a guaranteed hit at the theater. The “Left Behind” series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have sold an astronomical 70 million copies, but when the first two books were turned into movies, they bombed at the theater. Hollywood is now trying a radical innovation with “Left Behind: World at War,” the third movie attempt. It is releasing the film exclusively in churches — specifically, on screens in 3,200 churches, 1,200 of which can seat more than 2,000 viewers. Between this and future DVD sales, Hollywood sees this Christian underground as a potential marketing bonanza, as well it should: According to the Washington Post, the Christian Booksellers Association claims sales of Christian books, music, DVDs, apparel and gifts now exceed $4 billion annually. Why not insert appropriate Hollywood programming into this marketplace?

 

It’s an interesting marketing plan, but disturbing as well. As Peter Lalonde, a co-producer of the “Left Behind” series, puts it, “They are selling Hollywood films to the Christian marketplace, not making genuinely Christian films in Hollywood.”

 

And in that rare moment of clarity, when Hollywood does do something spectacular — and I assure you “The Chronicles of Narnia” will be a spectacular success — there are those within the industry who are still uncomfortable. After all the darkness in today’s entertainment, all the mass distribution of gore and horror and evil, why is it so hard to see an emerging market for a little inspirational light — and embrace it?

 

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Tesseract (answers.com, 051200)

 

Pros: action, interesting story, unique

Cons: no sci-fi, the title doesn’t fit

 

The bottom line: The bottom line feels deceived by the title, but is glad she decided to watch!

 

Full review

 

First i should mention that I didn’t know until AFTER watching the movie that it was made in Hong Kong. [KH: It was made in Bangkok.] This is not an American movie, and would probably be one of the first time I watched a subtitled movie. Subtitles were in English for all the chinese speaking, but even so 40-50% of the movie was spoken in English.

 

Short Review

For those of you with short attention spans:

 

When I saw the Tesseract under Free Movies on my On Demand, I instantly thought of the book “A Wrinkle in Time”. After all (according to the book) a wrinkle in time is a Tesseract. I had to watch this movie!

 

I was looking forward to sci-fi, fantasy, time travel, the works... I was not given any of that. Instead I was given Action, Adventure, and Chinese. Although slightly disappointed, I still give this movie 4 stars. It was worth the watch and I may even watch it again! If you want to know why, read the long review!

 

Plot

“The tesseract is a hypercube unraveled. When a square unravels to a line, two dimensions become one. When a cube unravels to a cross, three dimensions become two. When a hypercube unravels to a tesseract, four dimensions become three”

 

Strange things are happening as the movie begins. Our main character is sitting on a bed watching faded figures shoot at him from the wall. The bullets are going directly towards him, but nothing hits him. Has he gone nuts? Appears so! He paces all around the room, seems to be having a freak-out, then he leaves the hotel.

 

Next he’s in a chinese strip-club. Apparantly he’s in Asia somewhere (sorry to be non-PC but I just don’t know where) He’s English (as in from England), but he says it’s been a long time since he’s been back to his home country.

 

Another scene - A chinese man tells a young chinese woman that she has to get the “stuff” back from “him”. What stuff? It appears they are talking about the English guy. Hmmm... All I know is that she is staying at the same Hotel as the English guy. Coincidence?

 

An English woman comes to the hotel next. She’s a psychologist, Rosa. She’s making a film about the kids in Asia. She’s particularly interested in their dreams, especially whether or not they are in color.

 

So we’ve got 3 pretty standard characters here, but what do they have to do with each other? Sean, the English guy, turns out the be transporting some kind of “product” for some chinese mafia-like men. The chinese girl is after this product to steal it from him. The English woman really has nothing to do with said product, but instead is focused on a young boy at the hotel, Wit.

 

As the story goes on it quickly turns into an action-adventure as the Sean, who is already somewhat nuts, becomes even nuttier. He’s real worried about this product. The chinese girl has problems of her own, and the English woman and young chinese boy will soon get sucked into the drama. I’m not gonna tell you how! You’ll have to watch and see :)

 

Actors

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Sean, the English man. He was great for the part. Nervousness, shaky, sweaty, seemed to come easily from him. It was as if he was actually on drugs during the making of this! Assuming he wasn’t, he did a great job. (As seen in the 2005 Miniseries Elvis, as Elvis. To be seen in Mission Impossible III)

 

Saskia Reeves plays Rosa, the English psychologist. She was a little strange, a little unique, and that made her good for the part. Who else would go all the way to Asia just to study dreams. We learn through flashbacks that she’s got some hidden pain, and up until the flashbacks she did get you wondering “what’s wrong? why is she sad?” (As seen in A Christmas Carol, and lots of stuff I haven’t heard of)

 

Alexander Rendel plays Wit, the young boy. He was cute. He was supposed to be a bellboy, desperate for money, and he also seemed to have some hidden secrets. Why does he act so bad? Why does he steal? You’ll find out, but you won’t guess it all! (As seen in 2 other non-English movies I can’t even spell)

 

I didn’t mention the Chinese girl who tried to convince Wit not to steal. I never caught her name throughout the whole movie, so I couldn’t look her up. She had a small part overall, although quite crucial! (As seen in - how should I know, I don’t know her name!)

 

Film Style

The true meat of this movie is the film style. This is what made it interesting, this is what made it intriguing! Certain scenes are shown, and then we are taken back to see events leading up to the scene OR to see it from a new perspective. This is best compared to Wicker Park.

 

The fact that scenes are not shown in chronological order may confuse people who prefer movies to have a strict timeline, but if you like the mental challenge as much as I do, you’ll like this. It helps you see things from the POV of one person (say Sean) then later see it a little differently to see how coincidently Rosa was in the scene somewhere too.

 

Another interesting aspect is the pausing style of the action scenes. Instead of going full force, running and jumping, chasing and shooting, they are kind of in slow motion, with little pauses when a bullet hits someone, or when the most dramatic stuff is happening. Think Matrix with this effect.

 

The style is what makes the movie suspensful.

 

Genre

The sci-fi is not all that apparant as the title would have me believe. Except for the first scene of the movie, there is really no sci-fi. Instead, it seems to be about coincidence, and luck. People happen to cross paths, people happen to come together. Coincidence? or a tesseract breaking through time? You decide.

 

Otherwise it is Action/Suspense. I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen at some points! Not because of any chase scenes, but because of the “mental” and “emotional” suspense. You could feel the heat coming on, but you didn’t know when or where everything was gonna go nuts.

 

Music

I took a moment to listen to the music, because I generally forget to when I write about a movie. It was mostly just beats, drum sounds, intense sounds to increase the suspense factor and make your heart beat harder. Sometimes there was soft singing, like hymn music, to increase the drama.

 

Visuals

Besides the film style, the scenes are mostly brown/gray with only a few real colorful parts. I feel this was meant to show the intensity and seriousness of the situation. Subtitles sometimes went a little bit fast, don’t blink! You’ll miss something.

 

For Who?

Not for Kids! There are bullets, blood, and violent scenes. Watch with adults only. If you like suspense, and the plot sounds interesting, then you know whether or not you would watch this, just keep your kids away!

 

Conclusion

Twists? Yes

Suspense? Yes

Perdictable ending? Yes

Satisfying ending? Yes

Did I get it? Not completely.

 

I did not completely understand the movie, because I was expecting something completely different. After reading about it, and working on my review, I do understand the plot was much simpler than the title made it sound. Simply coincidence, and cause and effect, that is what the movie is about. Sort of like a lesson in Fate.

 

On Demand says “In the spirit of the Matrix and Memento, the Tesseract - from Hong Kong filmmaker Oxide Pang - is a mind-bending and stylish thriller which challenges conventional notions of time and reality”. That is not entirely true. It is a teeny bit like Matrix in the film style, and a teeny bit like Memento in the going backwards and forwards, but it didn’t challenge my notions of time and reality because it all seemed very realistic to me!

 

Good movie, if you aren’t looking for sci-fi! Give it a try :) I wrote enough, you should know by now if you want to see it :)

 

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Action Jackson: King Kong returns. (National Review Online, 051219)

 

Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a lavish and long (187 minutes) remake of King Kong is at once deeply flawed and a must-see. Unlike last summer’s pointless series of cynical remakes, culminating in Johnny Depp’s heartless and bizarre turn as Willy Wonka channeling Michael Jackson, the new Kong is both respectful of, almost reverent toward, the original, and yet impressively goes beyond it. Jackson’s visually arresting film contains some of the most memorable scenes in recent film, yet his attempt to turn every subplot and every character into epic material too fails.

 

Just as in the original, so too in Jackson’s version the opening introduces us to Depression-era New York where a struggling vaudeville actress, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) — eager to be the sort of actress who might be featured in the Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) plays she admires — chances upon the opportunistic producer Carl Denham (Jack Black), just as Carl is about to set off to film a location picture with a script from none other than Jack Driscoll. Well over half the film is consumed in New York and then on the boat as the crew heads toward the uncharted Skull Island. By drawing out these introductory sections, Jackson wants to deepen our appreciation of the characters and to establish certain themes.

 

The most prominent theme is supplied by the repeated references to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a copy of which one character reads and discusses on the boat. On Skull Island, vicious and filthy natives welcome Denham’s crew by killing and wounding many; they also kidnap Darrow, hook her up to some sort of catapulting contraption, and offer her to Kong. After focusing in great detail on the natives in the opening island section of the film, Jackson simply drops them. It is as if they have vanished from the island and taken Conrad’s heart-of-darkness theme with them. Another problem with the allusions to Conrad’s tale is the book’s blistering critique of the naively romanticized view of the wild, uncivilized world. While Skull Island is a violent, terrifying place, the ultimate lesson of the film is that the island’s most terrifying monster has a heart of gold and a deep love of beauty. Indeed, the final scenes in New York indict civilization for its blindness to see true goodness and beauty. Of course, the film is not entirely coherent on this score (romanticism never is), since Kong’s island dwelling, littered with bones of natives, indicates that he is no gentle herbivore. But what’s a few native carcasses in the face of a giant ape romance with a lithe blonde?

 

Through much of the middle section, the film looks and feels like a cross between LOTR and Jurassic Park, with the crew being chased and attacked by one sort of dinosaur or giant insect after another. Of course, the plot structure here and the major scenes are all derived directly from the original 1933 version, but it has the feel of what was perhaps the only defect in Jackson’s LOTR, the occasional sense that the fellowship was just running from one battle to the next.

 

Kong has neither the dramatic complexity nor depth of character of LOTR. The dramatic core of Kong is all about the big ape with a heart and the petite blonde who wins it. This is not to say that Jackson diminishes the significance of that relationship or misunderstands it. On the contrary, the scenes featuring Kong and Darrow, especially those in the final segments in New York, are stunning and heart wrenching. Watts is flawless and captivating in her part; and, since the original Kong is a computer-generated monster, constructed with the limited technology of the 1930s, this is a remake that profits from updated technology. We believe in the humanity of Kong by the end of this film. That of course is a crucial element in the tragedy of the ending of King Kong. In the final sequences, Jackson expertly and convincingly moves the audience, by turns, to joy, fear, anger, hope, and sorrow. The conclusion here makes the finale of E.T. seem emotionally tepid by contrast.

 

But Jackson is not content to elaborate on the central plot line. He expands each section and each part, hoping to create a film of epic scale that might rival LOTR. His failures here are consistent and multiple.

 

We have already mentioned the heavy-handed and improbable use of Conrad’s heart of darkness theme. Another palpable weakness in the film is the character of Denham, played with whimsical, amoral glee by Jack Black. That approach to the part works for much of the film, as Denham amusingly stays one step ahead of production companies and the law. Each time one of the crew is killed and others urge that they must return home, Denham responds, “No. We stay and make the film. He didn’t die in vain. We’ll give the proceeds to his wife and children.”

 

But beyond his insouciant humor, the film wants, indeed needs, Denham to have something of the grandeur of a tragic figure. When Driscoll observes sadly and gravely toward the end of the film that Denham always destroys what he loves, the line falls flat because Denham’s loves are all frivolous, petty, and narcissistic. There’s not even any evidence that he has any talent as a filmmaker. So Black’s Denham is hardly up to the task of effectively delivering the film’s famous concluding line, “It was beauty killed the beast.”

 

Jackson of course has all the gifts and sense of grandeur that Denham lacks. In this case, his inordinate epic-making ambition doesn’t quite kill the beast, but it does mar King Kong. The result is not exactly tragic but it is a missed opportunity for what might have been a truly great film.

 

— Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.

 

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Hollywood moguls beat their chests as Kong takes a dive (Times Online, 051220)

 

IT SEEMED to have everything: a 25ft gorilla, a distressed Hollywood starlet, an exotic location and a storyline that has fascinated cinemagoers for more than 70 years.

 

But King Kong, the updated tale of thwarted gorilla-on-blonde love, and the most expensive film ever made, suffered a beastly opening weekend at the American box office, taking about a third less than Hollywood expected, at $66.2 million (£37.5 million). The worldwide takings came to about $140 million. It was enough to make Peter Jackson, who made his name with the Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy, beat his chest.

 

Kong’s lacklustre takings cap a miserable year for Hollywood, which has suffered the biggest decline in attendance in 20 years. Ticket sales for 2005 are expected to be about 6 per cent down on last year, the biggest nosedive since admissions dropped by 12 per cent in 1985, the year of the Rocky and Rambo sequels.

 

Kong took £6.94 million at the British box office last weekend, an average of £14,438 per cinema, having opened at 481 cinemas last Thursday. The average in the US was just $14,055 (£7,930). But the three-day opening record set last month for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was £14.9 million.

 

The disappointment of King Kong came in spite of rapturous notices, some of which suggested that Jackson’s remake of the 1933 original (said to be the favourite film of Adolf Hitler) could be one of the greatest productions brought to the big screen. Audiences were put off by the three-hour running time. The film’s length also limits the number of times it can be shown by cinema chains, reducing daily ticket sales.

 

“It was, realistically, a tough sell, despite the industry and media hype,” said Brandon Gray, the president and publisher of boxofficemojo.com. “It’s incredibly tricky to get audiences excited about a movie that doesn’t have a strong human character.”

 

Kong featured no safe A-list stars, relying instead on the British-born Naomi Watts as a starving Depression-era actress who joins an expedition to find and film on Skull Island — which Kong shares with brawling dinosaurs, killer insects and some scary natives.

 

Watts, 37, was nominated for an Oscar in 2004 for her performance in 21 Grams. Her co-star in Kong is Jack Black, 36, who is better known for lowbudget comedies such as The School of Rock (2003). The biggest star of the movie, however, is a giant computerised ape.

 

Analysts say that Kong was held back in part by its release during a week of Christmas shopping and when most children were still at school. Predicting demand for Kong was also made difficult by its lack of a track record: unlike Harry Potter, or Spider-Man 2, it is not part of an established franchise.

 

News of Kong’s bellyflop had spread through Hollywood as early as Thursday lunchtime, a day after the film’s release. That was when figures were published showing opening-night takings at $9.8 million, less than a quarter of the first-night gross of Spider-Man 2 and behind even Pokémon: The First Movie (1999), which had a $30 million budget. In contrast, Kong’s budget has been put at $207 million — at least $50 million more than expected.

 

Mr Jackson reportedly contributed some of his own money to the overdraft but it is thought that the studio, Universal, spent another $50 million on marketing. According to analysts, King Kong must take $250 million in the US to break even — not easy, when up against The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which has been popular with church groups.

 

Adjusted for inflation, King Kong is still only the sixth most expensive film in Hollywood history. The list is topped by Cleopatra (1963), which cost the equivalent of $286million and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. It is followed by Titanic (1997) and the disastrous Waterworld (1995).

 

Studios and critics are now asking why Americans still want to go the cinema.

 

Richard Roeper, the Chicago Sun-Times film critic and America’s answer to Barry Norman, said: “If someone’s waiting through 20 minutes of commercials, you’ve got people behind you kicking your seat and talking on cell phones, do you think a lot of people might say, ‘You know what? I’ve got a great sound system, I’ve got a 50-inch plasma screen. I’m just going to wait three months until the DVD comes out’?”

 

TOP OF THE FLOPS

 

# XXX: State of the Union: expected to a summer blockbuster, but, despite heavy marketing, failed to hit the top of the US film charts in the weekend of its release. Cost $87million, but sequel grossed less in its opening weekend than the original did on its opening day

 

# The Island: cost $124 million but took only $12.1 million in its first three days in US cinemas

 

# Stealth: sci-fi film by Sony cost $138 million but made $13.5 million on its opening weekend; critics blamed lack of big names

 

# In Her Shoes: starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette, thought likely to be popular among female audiences, but grossed only $33 million at the US box office

 

# Kingdom of Heaven: this epic about the Crusaders was expected to be a summer hit. Cost $130 million and made a mediocre $20 milliion in its opening weekend

 

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Would C.S. Lewis Have Risked a Disney ‘Nightmare?’ (Christian Post, 051216)

 

A newly published letter by C.S. Lewis shows how clearly he would have objected to a live-action version of his Chronicles of Narnia story, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lewis writes in the letter dated Dec. 18, 1959, “I am absolutely opposed … to a TV version. Anthropomorphic animals, when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare.”

 

The Christian apologist was primarily concerned with the depiction of Aslan, the lion character who functions as an allegory of Jesus Christ: “A human, pantomime, Aslan [would] be to me blasphemy.” He further comments that an animated version would be acceptable, but laments that Walt Disney combines “so much vulgarity with his genius.” The letter raises a critical question for devotees of Lewis’s work: Should we be opposed to this past weekend’s live-action release?

 

On one level, the answer might be simple. Lewis explicitly says he is adamantly opposed to a live-action version. Therefore we should be, too. But on further inspection, the basis for Lewis’s opposition was the propriety of human pantomime of talking animals, particularly that of the lion Aslan. But the just-released Disney version answers this concern to a large extent, because Aslan is a CGI (computer graphics imaging) creation, much like The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, a 21st century version of Lewis-era animation.

 

And since Lewis approves of this kind of depiction of Aslan, his major complaint seems to be answered. But his comment about the “vulgarity” of the work of Walt Disney raises a somewhat more complex question. Is there something about the medium of motion pictures (animation included) that is morally questionable?

 

One way to get at answering this question is to briefly review how a particular American denomination tackled the issue in the last century. The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) is a small, historically ethnic denomination founded by immigrants from the Netherlands. In the first generations of immigration, these Dutch settlers were concerned about accommodation of their church to American culture. One of the salient points of concern was the so-called “film arts.”

 

In 1928, the governing assembly of the denomination, the CRC Synod, put forth its first official position on the Reformed Christian attitude toward movie-going, issuing a warning against theater attendance. The 1928 decision held that such “worldly amusements” as theater attendance were not inherently evil, but that their actual institutionalization in America was corrupt. Hollywood was seen as a haven for anti-Christian messages. Indeed, the temptation to worldliness in a medium renowned for its depictions and glorification of violence, lust, and depravity made it clear that Christians ought to avoid such practices.

 

In the ensuing decades, debate about the synodical decision grew, and the church’s position was clarified and modified to the current position: “film is a legitimate cultural medium to be used by Christians,” who “must exercise responsible, Spirit-guided, and enlightened discrimination in the use of the film arts.” The emphasis now is that the Christian should “engage in constructive critique of the film arts with the help of specialists, and cooperate with others to produce Christian films, videos, and television.”

 

So which of these positions does Lewis’s concern about Disney’s “vulgarity” agree with? And are these positions mutually exclusive? It’s clear that both Lewis’ opinion and the contention of the 1928 decision have in mind the proclivity of secular movies to be rife with themes that run contrary to the tenets of biblical Christianity. The situation in 1928 was such that the prudent course of action appeared to be complete withdrawal from the medium.

 

The wisdom of this course has been questioned in the following years, and the consensus is that rather than a complete withdrawal, the best course for Christians to take is a discriminating stance towards secular movies, and to actively participate in the creation of films consistent with biblical standards. Groups like The Dove Foundation have been created “to encourage and promote the creation, production and distribution of wholesome family entertainment.”

 

The Narnia phenomenon illustrates the rather striking reversal of the 1928 decision. Of the film’s $180 million budget, nearly $80 million has been spent on marketing, with primary focus on the use of churches and Christian groups in the marketing strategy. This past Sunday, at least one CRC congregation showed the complete 9-minute movie trailer during the actual worship service. While we should wonder whether churches’ embrace of movie marketing has taken us a bit too far in the opposite direction, we can agree with Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham, that “the Enemy has been running the cinema. It’s time we took it back from him.”

_________________________________________________

 

Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids , Mich.

 

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Juvenile List: What should the kids be watching? (National Review Online, 051229)

 

“What do they teach children in school these days?” wonders the genial professor in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Well, the august British Film Institute has some interesting suggestions for which films children ought to be watching. Last summer, the BFI put out a top-ten (and then 50) list that includes a Danish film (Show Me Love, released in some countries as F***ing Amal) featuring experimental lesbian teen sex and an American noir thriller (The Night of the Hunter) about children fleeing a murderous, psychotic preacher. The list does include popular American family films such as (The Wizard of Oz, E.T., and Toy Story, as well as the splendid Japanese animated film Spirited Away, but the dominant themes in the list focus on the evils of the adult world, while the dominant mood is despair.

 

Top-ten lists, part of the ephemera of our culture, appropriately coincide with our most meaningless holiday, New Year’s Day. Something a bit more significant is going on with the BFI list, released earlier this year, after consultation with some 80 experts in film and education and backed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which monitors the national curriculum.

 

Given the adult themes and dour tone of these films, some have wondered whether the BFI was not confusing films about kids with films for kids. Alas, not only is that not the case but the BFI actually advises that these are films that children should see by the age of 14. Note well — the BFI offers no minimum age for the viewing of any of the films, just a maximum age by which they should have seen the films. Cary Bazalgette, head of education at the BFI, admits the top ten was “ quite a controversial list that’s likely to provoke continuing debate.” “But that’s the idea,” she added. “We want people to discuss what children should see - rather than what they shouldn’t see.”

 

Well, the debate should likely begin with the question of whether even a majority of these films would be appropriate for pre-teens and whether some of them are the best educational choices even for early teens. Indeed, one might wonder whether the list is not designed to render young viewers disaffected, cynical, and suicidal.

 

A number of the films, for example, The Bicycle Thief and The 400 Blows, would likely make any list of, say, top 100 international films, but it’s not clear these are the best pedagogical films for children. Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief is a gripping, minimalist production, a story of Rome’s post-World War II depression as seen through the eyes of a child who is gradually stripped of every illusion about his father and is finally forced to witness his father’s public humiliation. An equally bleak film, François Truffaut’s first feature film, The 400 Blows, stars Jean-Pierre Léaud as 13-year-old Antoine Doinel, a character upon whom Truffaut based a series of films, a runaway who ends up as a petty thief as he strives to come to terms with the brutal indifference of life on the streets of Paris.

 

The vast majority of the films, including an Iranian entry Where is the Friend’s House?, offer artistically sophisticated versions of what has in recent years become a Hollywood cliché: the arbitrariness of conventional adult power. Except for Night of the Hunter, the American films do not fit so neatly into this mold or at least they are not as bleak. It’s not clear, however, that any of the American films would necessarily make a top-ten list of American films for children. For the BFI list, Dead Poets’ Society might have been a more apt choice.

 

Unfortunately, American teaching — where the use of film, often as nothing more than a babysitting mechanism, is increasingly prominent — is hardly immune to this sort of pseudo-sophistication. Although there are many fine high-school English teachers, far too many flatter, rather than challenge, the teen penchant for prurience and mindless, narcissistic rebellion.

 

The use of film in today’s schools makes debates about what ought to be seen, by whom, at what age, significant. And it won’t do for cultural critics to lambaste the ideological parochialism of politically correct film lists. We need to put forth positive accounts of which films children ought to be seeing and why. And we need to avoid a saccharine piety that only wants films with tidy, happy endings and no real conflict. As a tentative first shot at films that depict children facing real difficulties and overcoming them — or at least coming to see the possibilities of nobility and courage in the face of life’s struggles — how about The Miracle Worker, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Searching for Bobby Fischer? Or, more recently and in a somewhat lighter tone, The Lion King, Holes, and The Incredibles? Moreover, how about age-appropriate classics beginning with Sleeping Beauty and The Sound of Music on up to historical dramas such as Lawrence of Arabia?

 

One of the strangest omissions from the BFI list is war films. Among others, how about The Longest Day (1962), A Bridge Too Far (1977), or The Battle of Britain (1969)? I’d certainly expect older, film-literate teens, beyond the age of 14, to see Apocalypse Now or Three Kings, but we should balance these with films such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan.

 

We might also want to debate, indeed resist, the eclipse of the written word by the visual image in our schools and homes. Of course, the written word and the moving image, accompanied by sound, are distinct media, embodying divergent artistic excellences. One of our tasks no doubt is to teach students to move between the two and not to judge one by the standards of the other. But it is also significant that, when avid readers compare their beloved books with their cinematic versions, they find the latter wanting. They have the sense that film fails to capture the imaginative richness of the written word, a richness paradoxically founded on what the written word is not compelled to supply for us.

 

There are signs that certain forces in the media may actually help rather than obstruct the transition between the visual and literary world. The ambitious goal of making literate films, which might in turn create more readers, has been embraced by Walden Media, which has become famous for its current production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but whose inaugural release was Holes, based on the best-selling book from Louis Sachar.

 

A final oddity in the BFI list is the relative absence of British films, especially when one considers how many solid British films have been based on superb British dramas and novels, from Shakespeare to Austen and beyond. Perhaps in keeping with the contemporary British tendency toward self-loathing, only one English film, Ken Loach’s Kes, made the cut. Americans are now accustomed to, and welcoming of, regular cinematic version of Shakespeare and Austen and have become devotees of film versions of the British authors, J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis, and J. K. Rowling, the latter of whom is responsible for the most significant development in childhood media culture in the last 30 years — young Americans devouring Russian-length novels. Rowling may not be in the same league with Tolkien or even Lewis, but she comes much closer to appealing to the better angels of the young soul than most of what passes for dramatic excellence in the BFI list.

 

— Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.

 

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Casanova (Christianity Today, 051223)

Review by Peter T. Chattaway | posted 12/23/05

 

It’s probably unfair to compare and contrast two films just because they star the same actor and come out at the same time, but compare and contrast the two latest Heath Ledger movies I shall. Brokeback Mountain is a drama, even a tragedy, about two homosexual lovers that shows how secret affairs can inflame jealousy and destroy families. Casanova is a comedy about one of the most famous heterosexual lovers of all time, and it gleefully mocks the Catholic Church while celebrating the liberating power of brothels and the like. The former film, which shows some of the negative effects of sexual immorality, has provoked outrage among some Christians. But will the latter, also depicting illicit sex, prompt the same response?

 

Not that outrage would be a proper response. On closer examination, it turns out there is more to Casanova than a celebration of promiscuity—though there isn’t less. Giacomo Casanova (Ledger) is a notorious libertine who lives in Venice and, in one early scene, flees a convent full of admiring nuns because officers from the Inquisition have come to arrest him. “Eternal damnation for one night with Casanova,” says one official to a novice when he finds evidence that Casanova has been in her chamber. “Seems fair,” she shrugs.

 

Thanks to the intervention of the Doge (Tim McInnerney), or local magistrate, Casanova is spared a hanging, but the Doge tells Casanova he has become increasingly difficult to protect, so he can no longer stay in Venice—unless he marries and becomes a respectable citizen. Oh, and he has to do this before Carnivale, which takes place in just a few days. Casanova rises to the challenge and soon seems to be well on the way to beating this arbitrary deadline; he visits the pious Signor Donato (Stephen Greif) and asks for the hand of his daughter Victoria (Natalie Dormer), and since she is a frustrated virgin who really, really, really wants to have sex—she’s so full of pent-up energy, objects shatter in her hands—she persuades her father to allow her to be betrothed to Casanova.

 

But then, through a complex set of circumstances I won’t bother to get into here, Casanova meets Francesca Bruni (Alfie’s Sienna Miller), a smart feminist centuries ahead of her time, who mistakes Casanova for another man and tells him how much she loathes men who sleep around and the women who think so little of themselves that they let themselves be used by such men. Casanova is intrigued, even smitten, by her fierce independence, and so he begins to track down whatever information he can find about her, and to woo her in a way that she might like—though his efforts seem to backfire, at least at first.

 

And so, this is the story of a promiscuous man who falls in love with a woman—precisely because of her insistence that promiscuity is a negative thing—and thus implicitly commits himself to her. Thus, for all its bucking of traditional morality, the film is actually quite conventional, at its narrative core. Occasionally, the characters walk past plays or puppet shows that have bawdy fun with the Casanova legend, and the film itself has that same don’t-take-it-too-seriously feel. For the most part, this film supports the idea that a happy ending is one in which a man and a woman come together in a partnership for life.

 

Things are complicated even further when it is revealed that Francesca herself has a fiancé, though she has never met him; her father arranged the marriage before he died, and now Lord Papprizzio (Oliver Platt), a rotund lard merchant, is coming to Venice to claim his bride and to save the Bruni family from financial distress. Casanova intercepts him at the dock and takes him to his apartment before Papprizzio has had a chance to see Francesca for himself; at first, Papprizzio seems like little more than a fat fool, just another of the figures held up for our ridicule, though Platt soon allows us to see his sympathetic side. What follows is a complicated series of farcical plot twists and assumed and mistaken identities, and it’s all fairly entertaining, even if there are some plot holes here and there.

 

Nevertheless, the movie needs a villain, and director Lasse Hallström—who previously made the pro-abortion film The Cider House Rules and the anti-Lent film Chocolat—finds it in the Church. The fiendish Bishop Pucci (Jeremy Irons), incensed that Casanova has not yet been punished for his sins, arrives in Venice and banishes the Inquisition’s ineffectual local officers to a mission for cannibals, after which he embarks on his own plot to arrest and execute Casanova. Pucci is also mighty ticked at the writings of a local “heretic” named Bernardo Guardi (Phil Davies), though the only example of this “heresy” that we ever hear is the belief that women should have the right to full equality with men. Pucci cynically declares heresy is “whatever I say it is,” yet his beliefs do seem genuine; when he sees a hot-air balloon rise for the first time, he looks shocked and calls it “witchcraft.”

 

Some Christians will object to this caricature; others, perhaps especially non-Catholics, will find it easy to take in stride a character who clearly embodies the attitudes of another denomination and another era. I must confess I enjoyed Irons’s hamminess, and the fact that he never opposes any real heresies made it easier to laugh. (Composer Alexandre Desplat’s elegant adaptation of baroque music is also a delight.) On the other hand, the film does want to have its cake and eat it too, presenting permanent commitment as the happy ideal to which couples ought to aspire, while also keeping some randy lothario around simply to show the Christians how wrong they are about sexual propriety. Casanova is just a farce, true, but there’s a smugness to the proceedings that leaves a bad aftertaste.

 

Talk About It    Discussion starters

 

1. Casanova describes his philandering as “the perfection of experience.” Does this make any sense? How can you “perfect an experience” such as sex if you are with a different partner every time? Is it possible to have a “perfect” experience?

 

2. Casanova says all love is “true” love because, “To say I love falsely is as contradictory as to say I believe falsely.” Do you agree with this statement? Is he confusing love and sex? Do love and belief ever change? How do you prevent them from changing? Should you?

 

3. Francesca says that what Casanova calls love “is self-love, and self-love is self-doubt,” and she says love does not “grow” with repeated conquests but “wastes away.” Do you agree? Is this a sufficient basis on which to oppose promiscuity? What do you make of the fact that the film portrays Francesca (and, implicitly, her beliefs) positively, while also portraying brothels and other forms of promiscuity positively?

 

4. Francesca’s mother says, “Marriage is a safe haven … Love is something else.” What is the relationship between marriage and love? Would it be wrong for Francesca to marry a man she’d never met, for financial security?

 

5. Francesca asks how Bishop Pucci defines heresy, and he says heresy is “whatever I say it is.” What do you think of this portrayal of church leadership? How do you define heresy? When can there be legitimate disagreements?

 

The Family Corner      For parents to consider

 

Casanova is rated R for some sexual content, including a few bed scenes and an act of oral sex performed under a table, though there is no nudity. Much of the story revolves around the Church’s opposition to feminism and fornication, with the Church and its Inquisition clearly portrayed as the bad guys. One or two mildly naughty words escape people’s lips, too.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 01/05/06

Heath Ledger may be the year’s most celebrated “gay cowboy” in Brokeback Mountain, but he’s a seducer extraordinaire—of women—in Lasse Hallström’s romantic comedy Casanova.

 

Christian critics find that the film gives mixed signals.

 

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, “There are moments that suggest the value of monogamous commitment. But the value of chastity is never really taken seriously. Sexual purity born of religious conviction is derided as something that no one in Venice (or, by extension, our society today) is actually able to attain—a message we’re already drowning in.”

 

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Pride & Prejudice (Christianity Today, 051111)

Review by Camerin Courtney | posted 11/11/05

 

Why? That’s the question many have asked when they heard that a new version of Jane Austen’s classic Pride & Prejudice was being released. Why, when the 1995 A&E/BBC version is considered the gold standard? Why, when Colin Firth simply is Mr. Darcy? In other words, if it ain’t broke, why try to fix it?

 

Thankfully, director Joe Wright doesn’t try to fix anything. Think of it this way: The A&E/BBC version is like a family portrait—a stunningly lit, artistically framed photograph that captures the family so true to life. This new 2005 version is more like an impressionist painting of the family—less detail and depth, but when you look at it from different angles, various shadings and nuance catch your eye. It’s the same lovely story, just a different artistic rendering.

 

Of course, the family in this portrait is the Bennets—endearingly henpecked Mr. (Donald Sutherland) and annoyingly fussy Mrs. (Brenda Blethyn) and their five daughters, whose main hope for any sort of future is to marry well. After all, this is 18th century Britain, the family’s experiencing some financial distress, and money and estates are passed through sons. So when one single and rich Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) moves into town, the Bennet house becomes a twittering, giggling mess.

 

At a local ball soon after his arrival, Bingley spends most of the evening dancing with the eldest Bennet, Jane (Rosamund Pike). She’s the prettiest of the sisters by far, and therefore holds the brunt of the burden of marrying well and elevating the family to financial security. Bingley is accompanied by his conniving sister, Caroline (Kelly Reilly), and his long-faced friend Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), who second-oldest daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) overhears insulting her later the night of the ball. Lizzie thinks Darcy a big boor, and soon Bingley begins to question shy Jane’s affections. As with any good Austen story, wrong impressions are made, bad people lie about good people, good people fall for bad people, and everything gets untwisted most pleasantly by the end.

 

But this is familiar information for many moviegoers who will flock to this flick. What’s new, however, is the subtle symbolism throughout the film. Especially in the form of birds, which we see running wild on the Bennet property and sitting primly in cages—and each of those scenes is directly related to what’s happening to the girls just before or after. For example, in one scene, Lady Catherine (played by the definitively regal Judi Dench) demands that Lizzie play something on the piano for their dinner guests. When Lizzie assures her she’s not very good on the piano, Lady Catherine persists. Just behind our Lizzie in this awkward exchange are big cages of birds—mirroring what she must feel at the moment: caged by her society’s expectations of what makes a proper woman, by her social standing and gender. Toward the end of the film when our girls are getting happily paired off, pay attention to the swans on the lake—their number and their apparent attitude.

 

There are similar recurring scenes of spinning—especially when Lizzie’s notions about people and love are challenged and this young woman with a strong sense of self is thrown off-kilter. And several times we see women caught in fierce rains and winds because they have no shelter, an apt picture indeed of unmarried women in this time period.

 

If the aforementioned question of why a new Pride & Prejudice is answered satisfactorily, what about the issue of how on earth you can cram hundreds of pages of Jane Austen brilliance—which took the A&E/BBC version five hours to do justice—into one two-hour flick? Wouldn’t that be like sending our beloved heroines Elizabeth and Jane Bennet to a modern-day speed-dating event?

 

While the plot does move along at a brisk pace, from the opening scenes the movie is mercifully allowed to breathe. Time is taken to catch the sun’s rays shining through the trees onto our Lizzie, who’s walking and reading at a leisurely pace. In one of the rollicking ball scenes, we get to see a whole dance’s worth of cat and mouse between Elizabeth and Darcy. Later, when a manor is shut up for the season, the camera lingers on two servants billowing out a sheet to cover the furniture. In fact, the whole film is a visual feast of textures (brocade, silk, animal fur, stone pillars, marble statues, fire) and breathtaking English countryside, often accessorized by early morning mist.

 

And roaming through this countryside is the lovely and long-necked Keira Knightley. In recent years we’ve seen her do sporty in Bend It Like Beckham, damsely in Pirates of the Caribbean, and deadly in Domino. She’s like all the Spice Girls rolled into one multi-talented actress-to-watch. As Lizzie Bennet, she’s just the right balance of self-assured and anguished—an island of sanity in a family of loons and a society caught up in gender and class expectations. Rosamund Pike is poised and pretty as sister Jane, though she’s not as obviously reticent as Austen purists would probably like her to be. Matthew MacFadyen seemed all wrong as Mr. Darcy in the opening scenes (at least Colin Firth was cute under all that stoicism), but by an ending shot when he crosses a fog-filled meadow to get to Lizzie, I’ve never been more attracted to a sturdy, stodgy Englishman. The supporting cast is highlighted by Donald Sutherland, who delivers a wonderful father-daughter exchange with Lizzie toward the end of the film. And Judi Dench just elevates any movie she graces.

 

The film certainly stands well on its own merit, and will most likely find the harshest critics in ardent Austen and A&E fans (or husbands who get dragged to the film, for whom this genre simply isn’t their cup of tea). Sure, the film can’t go as deep on issues of class and gender in a mere two hours. But what it lacks in depth of plot and character development (at least to the degree that Austen fleshed these out in her book), it more than makes up for in luminous visuals, subtle thematic statements, and fine acting. And those die-hard Austen aficionados need only to remember one of Jane’s recurring literary themes of not jumping to hasty, prejudiced conclusions (did we learn nothing from Lizzie?). In other words, keep an open mind, judge the film on its own merit, pay attention to the details (especially the birds!), and you’ll find a lovely period piece that surely will stand the test of time.

Talk About It    Discussion starters

 

1. Make a list of who’s prideful and who’s prejudiced in the film. How do these character traits affect their relationships? How do they change these attitudes throughout the course of the movie? How do pride or prejudice affect your relationships?

 

2. How are shyer or more introverted characters misunderstood in the film?

 

3. After Charlotte gets engaged, she tells Lizzie she’s a burden to her parents and says, “Not all of us have the luxury of romance.” Do you think she was wise or foolish to accept the proposal? Why? What role should things such as need and romance play in choosing a mate?

 

4. After Jane makes an agreeable match, her mother says, “I knew she couldn’t be so beautiful for nothing.” In what ways has the role of beauty as currency for women changed over the years, and in what ways is it still the same? 5. In what ways do the presence of birds, spinning, storms, veiled faces or other visual elements mirror the plot? What do these visual devices underscore or communicate?

 

The Family Corner      For parents to consider

As the PG rating suggests, this is a safe bet for the whole family. Whether your kids can sit still for a two-hour period piece/romance/drama is your call.

 

Photos © Copyright Focus Features

 

© Camerin Courtney 2005, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 11/17/05

Jane Austen fans—beware.

 

If you don’t like to see the prose of world’s most beloved romance novelist altered, you may find reason to complain about the way director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach have abridged Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. But if you’re content to see classics abbreviated so you can escape the movie theater in less than three hours, well, you may join the chorus of critics raving about this film.

 

But critics aren’t just comparing this version of Pride & Prejudice to its literary source. Wright’s film, version, which stars Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen, is being held up against what is considered the gold standard of Jane Austen adaptations—the popular, highly-praised, five-hour BBC adaptation of the same book.

 

“The MGM and BBC renderings were fine indeed, but the latest [version] is yet another splendid dramatization,” says Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service). He praises the performances and direction, and concludes, “Apart from a subplot involving a rakish character who elopes with one of the daughters with dishonorable intent, there is nothing to preclude recommendation for all ages.”

 

Michael Karounos (Christian Spotlight) says that non-Austen fans will enjoy the movie “because it is a good love story, with believable character development, interesting settings, and a brisk pace which makes the film’s length seem shorter than its satisfying 127 minutes.” Austen fans, meanwhile, will “concede that it’s better than the 1940 Lawrence Olivier/Greer Garson, if not quite as satisfying as the fuzzy-lens romanticism of the 1995 BBC mini-series … that is everyone’s favorite.”

 

Mainstream critics are swooning.

from Film Forum, 11/23/05

Pride & Prejudice: “This is no mere chick flick,” writes Gene Edward Veith (World). “Guys will like it too, if only to gaze upon the intensely beautiful Ms. Knightley. But men will especially appreciate the movie if they use it as a learning opportunity. … [Women] … resonate with a specific kind of masculine character: the forceful, honorable ‘gentleman’ that 21st-century guys would do well to emulate.”

 

from Film Forum, 12/01/05

The only real problem with Keira Knightley in this film is the way that, no matter how hard the rain and the wrongdoing pound on her, her makeup is always picture-perfect, and that taints an otherwise winning performance. But that’s a minor quibble about what it otherwise a surprisingly energetic, graceful, and delightful adaptation of a richly rewarding novel. In this season of overhyped disappointments, Pride & Prejudice is one of the few that is really worth the full ticket price. Director Joe Wright has made an auspicious debut, and I look forward to whatever he does next. My full review is up at Looking Closer.

 

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) sum it up as “a wholesome film and an insightful exploration of social forces. … The power of the arts to help transition necessary social change is clearly seen in the works of Jane Austen. This film carries on this helpful gift as it takes the prideful prejudices of the past and shines a light on their presence today. It also shows that the power which can overcome both is love.”

from Film Forum, 12/15/05

Josh Hurst (Reveal) poses the questions that had Austen fans worried: “Staging yet another remake of a Jane Austen novel? One that has already won the love of so many through its five-hour BBC adaptation? One that stars Keira Knightley? Madness! It seems like the kind of film that should have failed before it even got off the ground. But it didn’t. On the contrary—it’s one of 2005’s best films.”

 

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Memoirs of a Geisha (Christianity Today, 051216)

Review by Camerin Courtney | posted 12/16/05

 

Chiyo’s eyes have seen much heartache: Her mother on her deathbed. Her penniless and grieving father brokering a deal to sell his children. Her screaming sister being suddenly ripped from her arms because she’s not deemed worth the investment. And this is all before Chiyo celebrates her 10th birthday. Despite the pain they’ve witnessed and wept, these eyes—with their rare grey-blue intensity—are Chiyo’s only hope for the future. They give her a unique, stunning beauty and make two women who run one of the countless okiyas (homes for geishas) in Kyoto see her as a wise investment. Perhaps she could one day bring their house money. Perhaps, with the right training, she could become a geisha.

 

Soon Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) attends classes to learn how to dance, play instruments, sing, and pour tea, all with the flair and exactness of the geisha tradition. Though this new world is fascinating and colorful, Chiyo is dogged by thoughts of her sister and by Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the reigning geisha of their humble okiya. Hatsumomo is one of the most beautiful geishas in Kyoto, but her actions toward Chiyo are anything but pretty. She torments the young girl with false accusations that bring Chiyo brutal punishment from Mother (Kaori Momoi), the merciless woman who runs the okiya. Still, it’s Hatsumomo’s earnings that support all those in the house.

 

Mother finally tolerates Chiyo’s seemingly bad behavior no longer when her attempt to run away with her sister, who’s been forced into prostitution, fails. Mother pulls her out of geisha classes and forces Chiyo to be the okiya’s servant. A life that has gotten darker and darker finally seems pitch black as Chiyo faces long grueling days of physically demanding chores and no hope of ever seeing her family again. But one day when she’s out in the bustling streets of Kyoto, a handsome stranger treats her with rare kindness. And soon after, one of Hatsumomo’s rivals, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), the premier geisha in the district, takes Chiyo under her wing. Finally Chiyo has that rare and essential gift: hope.

 

As Chiyo transforms into a geisha in this new chapter of her life, she’s also given a new name: Sayuri. The rest of the film centers on the politics and intrigue of Sayuri’s introduction into the geisha world—including trying to land a good danna (patron) and get a lucrative bid for her mizuage (virginity). These will help pay off the debt she owes to Mother and win Mameha’s bet with Mother that she could transform Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) into a successful geisha. But Hatsumomo is bent on thwarting Mameha’s plans, and Sayuri finds herself perhaps being promised to the coworker and good friend of the man she secretly loves—The Chairman (Ken Watanabe). Even though she meets The Chairman at the young age of nine, working herself into his life becomes her driving goal. And in a world where so much that happens to her is out of her control, even having a dream that is all her own is powerful.

 

Those who have read Arthur Golden’s book by the same name will notice subtle differences in the plot and characters. Of course elements of this 400-page bestseller have to be left out, but the most striking difference I noticed was the shift in several main characters. Mother doesn’t seem as gnarled and mean, Nobu (Koji Yakusho) isn’t as deformed and gruff, Sayuri doesn’t seem as utterly hopeless and then lovelorn, Hatsumomo seems more like a caricature than a cunning and calculating opponent. Basically, they’ve taken some of the bite out of the story.

 

The scenery, staging, lighting, and costuming here—the film is set in the late 1920s—are all so dazzling and colorful, you almost forget this is basically a story of human trafficking. Unlike director Rob Marshall’s last theatric masterpiece, Chicago, this film is based on events that really happened. No, Sayuri isn’t inspired by a real woman, but there were countless Sayuris who lived some rendition of her simultaneously bleak and beautiful existence. Somehow that staggering fact gets lost somewhere in the beautiful imagery. And while all these masterful sights and sounds work well with a campy, vampy flick like Chicago, they seem somehow out of place here. I would have liked to see a little less dazzle and a little more grit. A less rushed pace, especially as Mameha teaches Sayuri all the ways of the geisha, and more time taken to let the characters feel their disappointments and longings. A little less wide-eyed wonder and a little more fleshing out of Mameha’s warning to Sayuri: “We do not become geisha to pursue our own destinies.”

 

The politics in the movie have been mirrored by some controversy about the movie. The three lead actresses for this Japanese story are Chinese—though, international issues aside, no one can argue that the acting in the film is anything but superb. The movie was filmed mostly on a created set in California with dialogue almost completely in English with Japanese accents. And there’s an American ring to Sayuri’s life-absorbing desire to find love, as most geisha simply wanted to find a reliable danna, and preferably one who was good and kind. It will be interesting to see how the film fares in Asian countries.

 

Most American audiences won’t notice or be distracted by these subtleties. Most simply will be drawn to a lavishly spun tale of friendship and rivalry, hope and despair, choice and duty, love and lust, traditional custom and forbidden emotion. While the film is a visual feast of colors, the final product would have been even more intriguing and accurate if a few more of the darker hues were included. But the overall effect is not so unlike Mameha’s description of geisha themselves: a moving work of art.

 

Talk About It    Discussion starters

 

1. At the outset of the movie, we hear Sayuri’s voice saying a story like hers should never be told. Why do you think she says this? What does she mean?

 

2. Chiyo’s name is changed to Sayuri when she becomes an apprentice geisha. Think about instances in the Bible when people are given new names (Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul, etc.). What parallels do you see? Why do you think a new name is necessary?

 

3. Sayuri talks about the life of a geisha being agony and beauty side by side. List the ways this life is agony and the ways it is beauty. Does one of these sides weigh heavier than the other? In what ways are our own lives both agony and beauty?

 

4. At one point Nobu tells Sayuri, “Victory doesn’t always belong to the powerful.” In what ways is this true in the movie? In life?

 

5. List the ways women in the movie are dependent on men. What resources and power of their own do the women have? In what ways do they use them wisely and in what ways do they use them poorly? In what ways do you use your resources and power wisely and poorly? How could you use these things to help those who are still powerless and unhealthily dependent on others for their livelihood?

 

The Family Corner      For parents to consider

Though the sexual side of a geisha’s life is largely unexplored here, there are some references to it and some overall themes that wouldn’t be appropriate for young children. Mature teens might find this an entertaining peek at a fascinating period of world history, one worth discussing afterward.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 12/22/05

Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) turns Arthur Golden’s poetic novel Memoirs of a Geisha into another elaborate display of razzle-dazzle, and in doing so, he’s won himself a controversy. After all, the novel is about Japanese characters, and Marshall’s film is packed with well-known Chinese actresses. To complicate matters further, they’re speaking English … a distracting, halting form of English.

 

Will the film be an Oscar contender? Perhaps in some categories for its flamboyant style. But most critics agree that Zhang Ziyi delivered a far more complex and engaging performance in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 earlier this year. And they’re dismayed at how the film, despite its enthralling source material, has come to feel rather like a Hollywood melodrama.

 

Christianity Today Movies is the only religious press site to publish a review since the film’s opening. Camerin Cortney calls it “a moving work of art” and says “no one can argue that the acting in the film is anything but superb.” She concludes that the film is “a lavishly spun tale of friendship and rivalry, hope and despair, choice and duty, love and lust, traditional custom and forbidden emotion.”

 

Most mainstream film critics are unhappy with it, saying the makeup doesn’t disguise the missteps.

from Film Forum, 01/05/06

(Plugged In) says, “Memoirs offers little explicit commentary on how men treat these alluring women. But I believe it does illustrate how deeply demeaning the objectification of the geisha ultimately is. … Whatever beauty the geisha culture may appear to have on the surface, the reality for these women is an ugly one. Perhaps that’s why this story left me feeling so cold in the end.”

 

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says the film “is lovely to look at, with its natural scenery matched only by the beauty of its three lead actresses (none of whom are Japanese). But the film suffers from problematic pacing. It bogs down early and feels inert during much of the first hour. When things start to heat up, they go too far, too fast, propelled by a combination of sex, lies and jealousy not overly different from any number of other films that mix romance and professional politics.”

 

Kenneth R. Morefield (Christian Spotlight) acknowledges that this is “a lushly shot, skillfully acted, and competently directed film.” But he concludes, “For all the film’s insistence that geisha are not courtesans nor prostitutes, for all the underlining that Sayuri’s prayers and choices are the product of the absence of choice, the film ultimately celebrates the institution of geishahood for providing an escape from poverty and never seriously gives much thought to the price that it extracts. When Sayuri’s virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder, we are invited to linger over her triumph in extracting the highest price in history while the cost of the earnings is only hinted at as she lies down to a discreet fadeout.”

from Film Forum, 01/12/06

Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, “Leaving the theater after seeing Memoirs of a Geisha, I wasn’t quite sure what it was that left me unsatisfied. To be sure, it is a visual pleasure of the highest order. Director Rob Marshall and cinematographer Dion Beebe made almost every frame a work of art. Add to this a wonderful John Williams score incorporating both Western and Eastern music and including gifted musicians Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. On the aesthetic level, this is a film that may be without peer this year. … But in the end, I was disappointed, I think, because the film never picked which themes it wanted to focus on. Instead it gave us bits and pieces of many themes, but not enough to fill out any of them.”

 

==============================

 

Brokeback Mountain (Christianity Today, 051216)

Review by Lisa Ann Cockrel | posted 12/16/05

 

Editor’s note: This film depicts a homosexual relationship, and includes a graphic sex scene between the two men. After much discussion, Christianity Today Movies has decided to review the film despite its controversial subject matter. It has been nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards and will certainly be an Oscar contender. The film is a hot topic of conversation around the nation, and we’d be remiss to simply ignore it. Part of our mission statement is “to inform and equip Christian moviegoers to make discerning choices” about what films you’ll watch—or won’t watch. And this review, just like all of our reviews, certainly accomplishes that. As for the 3-star rating, that is only in reference to the quality of the filmmaking, the acting, the cinematography, etc. It is not a “recommendation” to see the film, nor is it a rating of the “moral acceptability” of the subject matter.

 

It took eight years for Brokeback Mountain to make its way from the pages of The New Yorker to the big screen. Larry McMurty (Lonesome Dove) adapted the script from what was originally conceived as a short story by Annie Proulx, and Ang Lee finally took over the directorial reins after a couple of other helmers (Gus Van Sant and Joel Schumacher) took a pass. And while it’s not unusual for a script to get stymied in production, it’s undoubtedly true that, in this case, the central characters played a role in the delay—two cowboys who fall in love … with each other.

 

Spanning 20 years, the relationship between Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) begins in 1963 when the two are given the job of watching sheep during a summer up on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. They’re both gangly young Marlboro Men in the making—Jack with a boyish energy that belies his rodeo dreams and Ennis with a set jaw that rarely moves. Together they tend the sheep and make dinner and fall into the rhythms of life on the mountain. Loosened up by camaraderie and whiskey, Ennis becomes, if not exactly talkative, open. And he and Jack sit around the fire late into the night talking about their histories and hopes for their futures.

 

When a cold night prompts the two to share a small tent, the physical intimacy that ensues is at first awkward and then almost desperate in its drive to be experienced. As an extension of their growing relationship, this first sexual encounter seems less than romantic. And, as they both assert the morning after, certainly neither man is “queer.”

 

But they’re still drawn to each other. And where the romance was perhaps lacking at first, it begins to build steam as Jack and Ennis begin to look each other in the eyes—and want what they see. The men seem to be fumbling for each other, for any meaningful connection with one another—at turns kissing and hitting; tenderly caressing and drawing blood; loving and hating. It’s a dance they would repeat for years to come.

 

Ang Lee’s varied body of work (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Sense and Sensibility; The Ice Storm; Hulk) remains cohesive largely in its reverence for landscapes. And here he adds the American West to his visual repertoire, reflecting the contours of the relationship between Jack and Ennis in the harsh brilliance of the natural world in which it takes place. Rodrigo Prieto’s beautiful cinematography frames majestic but treacherous mountains rimmed with snow. Expansive blue skies that can rain down golf-ball sized hail. Pristine lakes that ward off would-be swimmers with their chill.

 

And as their summer on the mountain ends, the scenery, and the world, closes in on the men. They go their separate ways. Four years pass before they see each other again, and in that time both marry and become fathers. Ennis swaps vows with Alma (Michelle Williams) and has two daughters. Jack gets roped by Lureen (Anne Hathaway), a Texas rodeo queen. Once the men do reunite, it’s clear that Jack is simply biding time, hoping for a future with Ennis. Ennis, on the other hand, is resigned to his life with Alma. He’s haunted by a childhood memory: the specter of a man he saw beaten to death for living with another man. He sees no viable scenario in which he and Jack can be together.

 

“If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it,” says Ennis. He and Jack accomplish that by meeting up for “fishing trips” during which no fishing takes place. Over the course of these years, Jack is feeling perpetually jilted on his drives back home to Texas, while Ennis’ efforts to resist his love for Jack turn him into an angry, bitter drunk who’s always looking for a fight. Years fly by in which neither man is fully engaged with his family, while pining for a person he only sees sporadically. Their furtive love isolates them and makes their worlds smaller until they see no one but each other.

 

But despite the intimacy these two want to share, there’s a certain formalism between Jack and Ennis that stems from their seeming inability to admit, even to each other, who each of them is. A conversation late in the movie includes Jack referencing an affair he’s supposedly having with a ranch foreman’s wife when the audience knows that the affair is actually with the foreman himself. Ennis, in return, goes into a homophobic rage when Jack lets on that he goes down to Mexico for gay sex. It’s likely the result of a number of factors, but both men are deeply unsettled by their homosexuality.

 

The narrative’s focus on Jack and Ennis means that the audience is left largely to guess at the painful ramifications the men’s infidelities have on their families. It’s the movie’s greatest weakness that it never fully develops the wives’ characters, and they’re often relegated to clichés. After a big splash, Lureen becomes little more than a peroxide blonde prop whose true feelings about her husband are inscrutable. Michelle Williams is, thankfully, given more screen time, and her quivering heartbreak and eventual rage are among the most resonant emotions of the movie.

 

But for all the potential messiness of a story about two married men who carry on an affair with each other, the movie maintains an emotional distance from its subject by focusing almost exclusively on the men involved, both of whom are characters trying to stuff their emotions to one extent or another. Brokeback Mountain creates vast plains of space for the audience to interpret Jack and Ennis’ actions and the hopes and fears that motivate them. It’s quite possible that no matter what the viewer believes about homosexuality, he or she will be able to read their own stance on the issue into this story.

 

The film has already earned seven nominations for the Golden Globes, and multiple Oscar nominations are all but certain to follow. Ledger and Williams—who both earned Globes noms—especially stand out, both conveying reams of emotion with dialogue that probably only covers a few pages. But as much as Brokeback Mountain is being touted as a groundbreaking movie for its depictions of homosexuality, it is populated with people with conventional attitudes about homosexuality. And though it’s presented as a story of thwarted love—of ache and longing and regrets—it’s also ultimately a story about the relationships that shape us … for better and for worse.

Talk About It    Discussion starters

 

1. The tagline for Brokeback Mountain is, “Love is a force of nature.” Do you agree? Do we get to choose whom we fall in love with? Do we get to choose our sexual orientation? Why or why not?

 

2. Scripture says homosexual sex is sinful (Lev. 18:22, 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11). How should the church engage those who hold different beliefs about homosexuality? Should Christians expect all people to be heterosexuals? Why or why not? What does this mean for how Christians should treat gays?

 

3. Ennis’ parents died when he was young. Do you think the loneliness he experienced as a child played into his attraction to Jack? If yes, how so? When he got married, why didn’t Alma’s love satisfy his need for companionship?

 

4. Do Ennis and Jack love each other because they’re gay, or are they gay because they love each other? Explain. Had they never met, do you think one or both of them would have happily lived a heterosexual life? Why or why not? What does that say about the nature of sexual orientation?

 

5. Ennis and Jack determine that their bond is no one else’s business. Can love—gay or straight—stay secret and be and/or remain healthy? Why or why not?

 

6. How should Christians approach films that depict gay relationships? What, if anything, can we learn from such movies? About the gay culture? About ourselves?

 

The Family Corner      For parents to consider

Brokeback Mountain is rated R for sexuality, nudity, language and some violence. There’s a graphic gay sex scene, and female nudity (showing breasts) in two other scenes. There are also brief but graphic scenes of violence. There’s also plenty of coarse language.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 12/22/05

Director Ang Lee (Hulk, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm) has stirred up the year’s biggest big screen controversy. He’s made a film full of technical excellence—strong performances, enthralling scenery, delicate scripting. Thus, many film critics are praising Brokeback Mountain for its strengths. But Lee has also focused on a story in which two cowboys fall in love—and have sex—with each other, even after they go on to have wives and families. That, as you can imagine, is furrowing a few brows.

 

Christian film critics are approaching their reviews in different ways. Most acknowledge that homosexuality is considered a sin. And they also acknowledge that Ang Lee portrays those who reject homosexuality as old-fashioned, naïve, and oppressive. Some Christian critics respond by completely condemning the film. Some even stoop to labeling it with derogatory nicknames; one Christian critic even called the Golden Globe Awards, which gave Brokeback several nominations, the “Golden Gropes.” Some seek to sift through it, acknowledging what is well done, and questioning what is faulty. And others think it’s a sin to consider the film at all.

 

Some of this wide range of opinions is evidenced in the feedback coming in for the review at Christianity Today Movies. And some of it is evidenced in the controversy over the review from the Catholic News Service. As readers protested the CNS’s initial classification of the film, the pressure caused the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops to revise their rating from “L” to “O.”

 

Here is a sampling of the Christian press reviews of the film:

 

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) stirred things up, saying, “Lee tells the story with a sure sense of time and place, and presents the narrative in a way that is more palatable than would have been thought possible. … The performances are superb. Australian Ledger may be the one to beat at Oscar time, as his repressed manly stoicism masking great vulnerability is heartbreaking, and his Western accent sounds wonderfully authentic. Gyllenhaal is no less accomplished as the more demonstrative of the pair, while Williams and Hathaway … are very fine.”

 

Forbes concludes, “Looked at from the point of view of the need for love which everyone feels but few people can articulate, the plight of these guys is easy to understand while their way of dealing with it is likely to surprise and shock an audience. … While the actions taken by Ennis and Jack cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true.”

 

Digging much deeper into how the film works, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, “Brokeback Mountain is a work of art, more concerned with telling a story about characters than with making sure that the viewer feels a certain way about a moral issue.”

 

He continues, “That’s not to say that Brokeback Mountain doesn’t have a point of view. It does have a point of view—a profoundly problematic one, one that makes it potentially far more insidious than mere propaganda. All the same, it doesn’t commit the artistic fraud of shaping every single element in its story to move the viewer’s sympathies in one and only one direction. That sort of one-sidedness is increasingly the single thing that I find most quickly sabotages a film’s persuasiveness; nothing else so glaringly announces that the filmmaker himself hasn’t really put his own point of view to the test, and doesn’t trust the audience to see things his way unless he stacks the deck in his own favor.”

 

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, “Taiwanese director Ang Lee … certainly doesn’t soft-sell the damage done by the choices Jack and Ennis make. But you don’t walk away from Brokeback Mountain thinking about the destructiveness of acting on homosexual temptations. Rather, you’re left with the idea that these cowboy-lovers would have experienced none of this pain if only social and moral norms had allowed them to pursue their passion from the get-go.”

 

He points out that the obstacles to Jack and Ennis’s relationship are, in fact, good things. “Usually it’s a negative thing when people give in to the societal norms around them and give up on their dreams, refuse to step across racial divides, etc. But here, Ennis’ reluctance to live with Jack is a good example of how established—biblical—morality within a culture can help people make right decisions. (It isn’t a pressure so strong that it keeps him from repeatedly having sex with Jack, though.)”

 

J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) says, “If Brokeback’s last 90 minutes were as good as its first 45, I’d agree that it’s one of the best films of the year. But the last two-thirds … are genuinely disappointing. The biggest problem is that the narrative shifts from covering a summer in almost an hour to traversing 20 years in just an hour and a half. It’s like a rock skipping across a pond, hitting the high points of the relationship and then dribbling out at the end.”

 

Mainstream critics hail it as a landmark film, one of the year’s best. It appears to be the current front-runner for the Best Picture award at the Oscars.

from Film Forum, 01/05/06

My full review of Ang Lee’s film is online at Looking Closer, along with some reflections on the way that other Christians have received the film.

 

from Film Forum, 01/12/06

Andrew Coffin (World) says, “Pundits are hailing Brokeback Mountain … as having the potential to do for homosexuality what Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner did for race. The love story it presents is so sympathetic, goes the conventional wisdom, that even denizens of red states will be won over to accept gay love. But the movie is too condescending to ordinary Americans and too anti-marriage to make such an impact.”

 

He adds, “Life with their families is all crying babies, demanding wives, and hard, frustrating work. Gay sex with a kindred spirit in the glorious outdoors is portrayed as so much better. But the symbolism is all wrong. The movie associates homosexuality with nature—magnificent mountains, big sky, clear blue water, teeming forests—as contrasted with the constraints of a tacky, empty civilization.”

 

==============================

 

King Kong (Christianity Today, 051213)

Review by Russ Breimeier | posted 12/13/05

 

If it wasn’t obvious after his successful adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson has quickly established himself as the modern king of cinematic spectacle. Like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron before him, merely attaching his name to a project is now enough to draw millions into the movie theaters. So it seems only fitting that he attempt to remake the movie that inspired him to become a filmmaker, as throngs of people flock to the cineplex to see his vision of King Kong.

 

It’s not as if the classic wasn’t due for a remake. The original 1933 version was a spectacle for its time and remains a cinematic landmark to this day. The contemporized 1976 version was also a spectacle for its time, though it’s become far less memorable thirty years later. If Jackson’s goal was simply to reinvent Kong with revolutionary special effects for a new generation, then mission accomplished.

 

You probably already know the basic details of the story. Movie director meets actress. Crew finds island and meets natives. Actress meets giant monkey. Crew captures monkey with ambitions for Broadway. Monkey meets theater critics and renovates New York. Squadron of aircraft meet monkey on top of the Empire State Building. Monkey meets demise.

 

What’s new is the level of detail, which almost doubles the original’s 100-minute running time to more than 3 hours. The audience is introduced to a beautifully rendered Depression-era New York—not exactly the best time for a struggling vaudeville entertainer like Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts of The Ring) to find her big break as an actress. But a chance encounter leads her to struggling film director Carl Denham (Jack Black of School of Rock), who’s desperate to find a leading lady for his doomed cinematic masterpiece, which he wants to film at the mysterious and uncharted Skull Island. Also along for the trip is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody of The Pianist), the playwright writing Carl’s screenplay who falls in love with Ann during their long oceanic journey.

 

Therein lies Kong’s chief problem. After making a trio of 3-hour pictures that worked well, Jackson and his co-writers (wife Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) have over-indulged themselves this time. It takes nearly 30 minutes for our heroes to even get on the boat, and an hour before they reach the island. Character development is lacking in too many films these days, but here, it’s not compelling character development. We learn that Ann is a selfless, caring girl and that Carl is a delusional creep with a vision for a movie that no studio would support. Jack nevertheless remains underdeveloped as the film spends more time introducing us to select members of the ship’s crew, most notably a clichéd paternal relationship between first officer Hayes (Evan Parke) and cabin boy Jimmy (Jamie Bell).

 

Even when we get to the island, Jackson is too keen on repetitive lingering shots. There’s an effective sense of dread as the ship moves cautiously through the fog to Skull Island, but it soon grows tiresome watching them avoid rocks like the Titanic. When the film crew hits land, Jackson relentlessly bombards viewers with images of skulls in the rocks and in remnants from the natives, as if he felt the audience needed constant reminder of where they are. The natives themselves are extremely savage and frightening, but are hindered somewhat by Jackson’s insistence for stop-motion camera work (overly used in The Fellowship of the Ring) that makes it all look like a music video.

 

Ah, but things finally pick up 75 minutes into the film, when our giant misunderstood monkey finally hits the screen. Jackson rightly captures Ann’s terror as she’s offered as a sacrifice to Kong and viciously carried away. And then he wisely makes their unusual bond the heart of the film. Unsure of how to placate the beast, and in effort to keep from being killed, she uses her stage routine to entertain, and the sight of Kong laughing at her antics is a joy to behold. Later, beauty and beast share a moment together that’s sure to become a scene as signature as E.T. and Elliot flying past the moon.

 

Most of the effects are stunning, none more so than Kong himself. The WETA special effects team again collaborated with Andy Serkis (doubling as Lumpy the ship’s cook) to capture Kong’s movements as believably as they did with Gollum in Lord of the Rings. But Jackson goes one step further than motion, capturing the emotions and facial expressions of a temperamental alpha-male gorilla with more accuracy than just about any other CGI creation to this point.

 

I vaguely remember people marveling over the award-winning effects for the 1976 film, but this new one will leave audiences even more stunned, repeatedly asking, “How on earth did they do that?” In particular, there’s a sequence in which Kong takes on a trio of T-Rexes that is figuratively and literally jaw-dropping, bound to become one of the most revered movie action sequences of the decade—in the same class as The Matrix and Indiana Jones. As you might imagine, the skyscraper finale is also glorious in scope—if a 25-foot gorilla really did climb the Empire State Building early one morning, this is surely what it would look like.

 

Not every action sequence and special effect is as believable. One of the film’s other action centerpieces involves a stampeding herd of brontosauruses that was probably inspired by The Running of the Bulls in Spain, but ends up as implausible and cartoonish as the massive police car pile-up in The Blues Brothers. Jackson’s Skull Island is indeed a Lost World-styled home to a wide array of prehistoric creatures. This is first and foremost a monster movie, after all, and Jackson never lets you forget it—or that he started out as a horror filmmaker. But as amazing as these creature effects are, it eventually becomes one effect too many as characters relentlessly encounter one danger after another—to the point where you don’t believe that this crew would have risked so much to save one woman they just met, and whom they’ve little reason to assume is still alive.

 

It’s also hard to figure out the tone to this Kong, which generally takes itself a little too seriously. There are some funny moments here and there, but most of it is delivered with epic drama and high intensity—the emotions vary so wildly, it feels like the movie is suffering mood swings. One minute we’re watching a charming and old-fashioned period piece, next we’re watching a wild action thriller, and then it becomes something like a romantic drama because of Ann and Kong. I couldn’t decide whether or not the scene where the two of them are skating in Central Park (seriously!) was touching or trite. Ditto when Kong begins to express minimal sign language like Koko the gorilla.

 

Part of the film’s unevenness is due to the casting. Jackson and company were probably hoping to portray Carl as Orson Welles, but Black doesn’t carry enough acting weight for the role. The character is ill defined—you’re not sure whether he’s supposed to be funny or creepy (probably both)—and the film would have been better served with someone more believably smarmy and charming like Robert Downey, Jr. Brody is merely fine as Jack, a role that almost any leading man could have carried out. Only Watts distinguishes herself in a luminous, star-making turn as Ann—warm, funny, charismatic, and far more than you’d expect from the damsel in distress.

 

King Kong ultimately makes you consider whether or not it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Do we need every action sequence, every scene of character development, every self-indulgent camera shot to establish mood? Viewers may disagree on the answer to that question, but most will agree it is worth seeing. There are some truly stunning sights to behold here, none more so than “the eighth wonder of the world” himself, but you’ll have to endure a lot of tedium and repetition to get to them.

Talk About It    Discussion starters

 

1. What do you make of Carl Denham’s character? Is he sympathetic or delusional and selfish? What is the film saying about the price of fame and its relation to happiness?

 

2. The primary theme driving the character of Jack Driscoll in this movie seems to involve the difference between saying it and showing it when declaring love. How do he and other characters in the film (Kong included) courageously demonstrate love for others?

 

3. Do you believe this movie has a pro-environmental message? What do you think is being expressed concerning man’s exploitation of the world’s natural treasures?

 

4. In the end, Kong is described as “just another dumb animal.” Do you agree? How intelligent are animals? Do they have souls? How do they fit in God’s kingdom in relation to man?

 

The Family Corner      For parents to consider

Because of the frightening adventure violence and disturbing images, parents should treat this as a hard PG-13 along the lines of Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Though there’s very little blood, the creature carnage is considerable and many humans are killed along the way. A scene involving hordes of giant bugs and swamp slugs could be especially disturbing to children and sensitive adults. And the island natives themselves are particularly creepy in their savagery and pagan ritual. The film also includes several uses of the Lord’s name in vain. Also, keep in mind the movie’s length; at over three hours, children (and some parents!) will likely need a bathroom break.

 

What Other Critics Are Saying

compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

 

from Film Forum, 12/22/05

Many people have noticed the rather impressive transformation of director Peter Jackson. In his frequent appearances affiliated with his Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings films, he was, let’s say, a man befitting the big screen. But now, thanks to what must be an effective diet, he’s hardly the man he used to be.

 

According to many film critics, Jackson’s newest film—King Kong—could stand to lose a few pounds as well.

 

Jackson’s lifelong dream of remaking King Kong has finally been fulfilled, and as you might expect, critics are celebrating it as a triumph of special effects. The San Diego Film Critics even honored King Kong as the Best Picture of 2005. But in spite of Andy Serkis’ incredible collaboration with the special effects team, the reunion of the Lord of the Rings screenwriting team, the extraordinary talents of Adrien Brody and Naomi Watts, and the popularity of Jack Black, Christian film critics have some reservations about this season’s 100-pound-gorilla.

 

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) has mixed feelings about the result: “Lacking even a loose idea to organize the story around, King Kong ultimately boils down to escapist action-adventure spectacle, Kong and Ann’s oddly touching relationship, and not much else. And even the escapist action-adventure spectacle is really only thrilling when it’s about Kong and Ann.” But he concludes, “Still, when it is about Kong and Ann, it’s a mighty thing, and I cared about this beast and his beauty right up to the end.”

 

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says the movie will “cement Jackson’s status as a 21st century Steven Spielberg, a master at creating heartfelt, effects-filled blockbusters at a time when been-there, seen-that audiences aren’t easily impressed. But what would’ve made this escapist adventure even better is a little old-fashioned restraint.”

 

Josh Hurst (Reveal) calls it “a thrilling, mostly pleasant holiday blockbuster that almost makes its three-hour running time worth it. … It’s a mighty large time investment, and not all of it pays off. But there’s ultimately a lot to love about Jackson’s rendering of Kong.”

 

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says, “King Kong does deliver plenty of thrills. However, as a promised emotional tour-de-force, it falls short. … For all of the technical prowess on display in Jackson’s film, the original, running a relatively lean 100 minutes, remains a model of efficient storytelling, with at least as much emotional resonance as Jackson’s bloated, but still effective, remake.”

 

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) disagrees: “Jackson’s greatest achievement isn’t stampeding brontosauruses or eye-filling re-creations of Depression-era New York—astounding though they are—but his strong sense of storytelling and sure-handedness (for the most part) in making the special effects serve the narrative, never losing sight of the fable’s emotional core.”

 

Todd Patrick (Christian Spotlight) is enthusiastic. “It is everything that George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy should have been, but wasn’t. Is it a bit overindulgent? Yes, it is. It takes its time setting up and expanding on all its characters, then plunges us into two hours of nonstop action-adventure, reminiscent of the Indiana Jones trilogy or the first Star Wars trilogy. … Jackson is, in my opinion, the undisputed king of the blockbuster, dethroning Spielberg and early Lucas, and kicking to the curb the shoddy work of Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, John Woo, and all the other modern-day blockbuster posers out there who are all flash and no depth.”

 

As a Tolkien fan grateful to Jackson for his brilliant Lord of the Rings series, I walked into Kong with great anticipation. And I was mostly blown away by the special effects. But the first hour drags, uninspired and populated by a bland batch of characters. The second and third hour indulge in too much spectacle and too little character development. Some sequences make the time slow to a crawl. By the time Kong makes his fateful climb up the Empire State Building, if you’re like me you’ll already be checking your watch.

 

My full review is at Looking Closer.

 

Mainstream critics are so impressed by the spectacle that they’re rating the film quite highly.

from Film Forum, 01/05/06

Peter Suderman (Relevant) says, “After a mildly shaky start, Jackson once again proves to [be] an outrageously thrilling, explosively passionate filmmaker. His King Kong is a heartbreaking, spectacular, celluloid romp, a declaration of Jackson’s blissfully sincere love for all things cinema.” He adds, “More than anything, King Kong is an exercise in glorious cinematic excess. Every frame seems to demand a cinema that is more expansive and over the top than anything previous.”

 

from Film Forum, 01/12/06

Andrew Coffin (World) writes, “Peter Jackson knows how to produce a spectacle—and no word better describes King Kong than spectacle. But this surprisingly violent film is not for young children—the action is graphic and contains profanity.”

 

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Golden Globe winners spark righteous anger (Times Online, 060118)

 

CHRISTIAN groups led a furious campaign against Hollywood yesterday, accusing the Golden Globe Awards of promoting films with gay or “leftist” themes to serve a political agenda.

 

The criticism was made after Brokeback Mountain, a film about the forbidden love between gay Wyoming cowboys, won four awards. Other winners included Philip Seymour Hoffman, named Best Actor for his portrayal of the homosexual writer Truman Capote; and Felicity Huffman, the Desperate Housewives actress who played a transsexual with a gay prostitute son in Transamerica.

 

“Once again, the media elites are proving that their pet projects are more important than profit,” Janice Crouse, of Concerned Women for America, said. “None of the three movies — Capote, Transamerica or Brokeback Mountain — is a box office hit. Brokeback Mountain has barely topped $25 million (£14.2 million) in ticket sales. If America isn’t watching these films, why are they winning the awards?”

 

The criticism from the American heartland carried more weight than usual this year because Hollywood suffered the biggest decline in attendance in two decades last year. Some of the few box office hits of the year were films such as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which appealed strongly to Christian audiences.

 

Oscar pundits are now questioning whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will also reward Brokeback Mountain, potentially souring Hollywood’s relationship with the American ticketbuying public even further. Members of the Academy must hand in their nomination forms by Saturday. The shortlist will be announced on January 31 and the ceremony will be held on March 5.

 

Religious groups also pointed to the alleged political agenda of winners including George Clooney, who won for his supporting role in Syriana, a film about the ethical pitfalls of the oil business; and Mary Louise Parker, who was rewarded for her performance in Weeds, a television comedy about a suburban mother turned marijuana dealer.

 

Much of the anger was directed at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the group of 92 journalists from non-American publications who hand out the Golden Globe Awards. The Times, along with many other large overseas publications, is not represented at the HFPA.

 

The non-profit HFPA collects as much as $5.7 million from selling the broadcast rights to the ceremony, which is consistently one of the three highest-rated awards shows in the United States, along with the Academy Awards and the Grammys. However, reports alleging cronyism at the HFPA were thought to contribute to a 40 per cent decline in viewership last year.

 

Right-wing radio talk show hosts also took pot shots at the Globes yesterday. Stephen Bennett, of Straight Talk Radio, said: “When Hollywood is pumping out anti-family movies with sexually explicit, twisted and perverse themes that glorify homosexuality, transsexuality and every other kind of sexual immorality — then awarding itself for doing so — Middle America better take note.

 

“Last night Hollywood exposed its own corrupt agenda. [It] is no doubt out on a mission to homosexualise America.” The British winners at the Globes were some of the most conventional, with Hugh Laurie, 47, winning Best Actor in a Television Series for House. The other big British winner of the night was Rachel Weisz, 35, who collected the award for Best Supporting Dramatic Actress for The Constant Gardener, an adaptation of the bestselling John le Carr é novel.

 

Britons who failed to win their categories included Polly Walker, 40, a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who starred in the BBC/HBO joint venture Rome. She lost the Best Actress in a TV Drama award to Geena Davis, who played a female US president in Commander in Chief.

 

Reese Witherspoon’s performance as June Carter in Walk the Line won her the Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical award, for which Keira Knightley, 21, had been nominated for her role as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice.

 

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Old Europe’s Golden Globes (townhall.com, 060120)

 

by Brent Bozell

 

It’s become a cliche to note that the Golden Globe Awards voter pool is an extremely small clique for such a big-buzz awards show. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) boasts “about 90” members, many of them Europeans. But their influence over the Oscars, and then the culture, is enormous. And what they are asking us to celebrate, with increasing regularity, are standards that echo the decadent culture of Old Europe, in love with illicit sex, drugs, dysfunctionality — and even anti-Western political weirdness.

 

In addition to George Clooney’s supporting actor award for his conspiracy-theorizing, anti-war-for-oil flick “Syriana,” the Best Foreign Movie award went to “Paradise Now,” a lyrical German-funded film about “heroic,” yet conflicted . . . Palestinian terrorists blowing up buses. The HFPA even officially claimed the film was from “Palestine,” as if Israel had already been wiped off the map.

 

Look no further for the European sexual decadence than the movie acting categories. The best-actor contest for a drama was a neck-and-neck race between Heath Ledger, playing the gay sheepherder in “Brokeback Mountain,” and Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the gay writer Truman Capote in “Capote.” The best-actress nod went to Felicity Huffman for playing a male-to-female transgendered person in “TransAmerica,” a film presently in nine — count ‘em, nine — theatres in these United States. Or should she be in the best actor category? Perhaps in the future, we’ll have a best Transgendered Performance category.

 

A delighted Michael Musto of the Village Voice summed it up on MSNBC: “It was gayer than an Ikea on Super Bowl Sunday.”

 

People who’ve actually seen these movies are a better judge of whether these actors deserved the acting honors. I am told that Hoffman was superb. But is that all that’s going on here? Allow me to suggest that part of the allure of voting for these performances is to promote the “daring” or “subversive” cinema they represent. Major, box-office-booming cinema was completely overlooked: No one acting in “Star Wars,” “War of the Worlds,”“King Kong,” or Aslan forbid, the “Chronicles of Narnia” was even noticed by the Golden Globes clique. (Don’t think it’s an end-of-year thing. Movies have to show for seven days before the end of the year in Los Angeles, and these movies met that standard.)

 

These movies now have the awards to help them get more ticket buyers and be shown in more theatres, if not make a bushel of money. I suspect cultural influence is more important to these movie producers than profit would ever be.

 

“Brokeback Mountain” has made a profit now, grossing $30 million for Universal Studios largely in large blue-state metropolitan areas with devoted gay audiences. It is, in one sense, an event for gays like “The Passion of the Christ” was for Christians. You don’t just see it. You see it repeatedly. You’re in a sense “voting” for it, for Hollywood to make more of it. Gay activists called it their “Gone With the Wind.”

 

The big difference is that there are many more Christians at the box office, and many more “Brokeback” promoters among the movie-critic elite. The critics have whistled and screamed and demanded Oscars for this movie for months now. If “Brokeback” wins nominations or even Oscars that “Passion” never received, you will know with 100% certainty that these awards are not based on merit as much as on decadent cultural politics.

 

The truly classic moment of the Golden Globes on the television side was the Best Actress in a “Musical or Comedy,” which somehow should have been named a best “Dramedy” category, since none of the five nominated actresses work on a true giggle-fest. The HFPA selected for this category four of the featured females on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” and Mary-Louise Parker for her role as a pot-dealing desperate housewife on a show nobody sees, Showtime’s “Weeds.”

 

While our young people are being increasingly convinced not to start down the illegal-drug road by using marijuana, Parker and the people at Showtime have been all too thrilled with the thought of producing the “edgy” show to promote marijuana as “so in the zeitgeist.”

 

Comedian Chris Rock came to the podium to present the Globe, and made endless fun of Parker playing the “drug dealer.” Of course, she was the winner. She looked embarrassed for a minute, but then grabbed the Globe, and told her male and female “Weeds” co-workers she loves them so much she’d like to “make out with all of you.” Parker knows how to polish the apple of the HFPA.

 

It’s sad that these foreign reporters are helping define the so-called “best” in our culture for people to remember. Let’s hope that when our children look back on the classic movies and TV of their youth, they won’t be influenced by which ones won the Golden Globes. I’m already eager to forget who just won.

 

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Heated Controversies Cast Shadows Over ‘End of the Spear’ Movie (Christian Post, 060122)

 

“End of the Spear” opened in 1,200 theaters nationwide on Friday amid heated debates over whether the Gospel is explicit enough in the film and why the leading roles of the missionary, Nate Saint, and son, Steve Saint, went to Chad Allen, a practicing homosexual.

 

The latest Christian-made film, End of the Spear is a true story of five missionaries who were speared to death by the most violent known tribe on earth – the Waodani. The story, publicized at the time by Life Magazine, had a reverberating effect on the world and inspired countless Americans to become missionaries. However, controversies cast shadows over the opening of the story-turned-film.

 

Some Christians are appalled that the film’s leading role went to a homosexual “activist” – someone who pours money and time into advocating that the homosexual lifestyle be accepted in society.

 

“Not only is Allen a gay movie actor who also produces gay films, he is an activist for gay causes. According to Out magazine’s January 2006 article, Chad tours the country with gay outreach programs,” stated Jason Jantz on his blog, Sharper Iron. Jantz’s post received over 2,000 hits and his website gained 100 pastors signature on a letter protesting the casting. Jantz appeared on FOX last night to discuss the film.

 

“Put bluntly, I believe that the makers of this movie made a very reckless decision in casting Chad Allen as Nate and Steve Saint,” stated Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in a column published on Friday.

 

“Given the publicity of Chad Allen’s activism and the intensity of his mission to normalize homosexuality – a mission clearly articulated on his website – it is hard, if not impossible, to suspend belief and see him as a missionary martyr for the Gospel.”

Filmmaker Mart Green, however, contends that Allen was the best man for the part. “I knew that if I had 200 people down there, they weren’t always going to be Christian, so I gotta live my faith out,” said Green. Green explained, “Our challenge to the team was to hire the best people. We didn’t ask what their religious preference was, their sexual preference, etc. [Chad Allen] raised the bar for us.”

 

Another issue, one which Mohler noted as being more important, is whether the Gospel message is clear. Critics have pointed out that the film and the documentary do not state the name, “Jesus,” although one tribeswoman in the film did acknowledge that “Waengongi (the name by which the Waodani refer to God) had a Son who was speared so we could live well.”

 

“The average believer should be embarrassed at the dumbing down of the Gospel or anything Christian for that matter,” stated Jantz.

 

One comment in the Jantz’s forum posted by a “Brian Nichols,” however, argued that “the secular audience doesn’t want to be bashed over the head with the Gospel.” “These films aren’t made to preach to the choir,” Nichols railed. “I am amazed you all failed to realize this. None of you are the audience that NEEDS to be reached, and none of you understand what it takes to reach them.”

 

While many secular reviewers faulted the cinematography, some have stated the film’s deep impact on them.

 

Robert W. Butler from the Kansas City Star said End of the Spear leaves one “wondering at the human heart’s capacity for love, forgiveness and change.”