With little change in the top ten this weekend, it's time to take a look beyond the blockbusters to some of the independent fare from the last several weeks, including a sensitive portrayal of religious life and a trio of movies about overcoming promiscuity.

Saving Grace

The U.K. hit Saving Grace has made its way to America, capitalizing on comparisons to Waking Ned Devine and The Full Monty to haul in a robust $2.9 million this weekend alone. While the film's title might imply some spiritual content, it's actually a quite pedestrian reference to Grace Trevethyn (Brenda Blethyn) being saved from eviction. Grace, a gifted horticulturist, tries growing marijuana in her greenhouse to pay off the debts left on her house by her late husband. "Much of the humor comes from seeing this proper English lady delve into a line of business not characteristically connected with the upper crust of society," writes Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com. "It is ironic that in a summer filled with foul and offensive films, a breath of fresh air can be found in a movie which reeks of marijuana smoke." Elliott disagreed with other Christian critics about how supportive of crime the movie was. Preview's Mary Draughon says the film "promotes the idea that marijuana should be just as legal as alcoholic drinks," while Elliott concludes that "none of this is meant to legitimize marijuana use." The Dove Foundation refuses to recommend the film because it depicts an "attempt to profit off an illegal substance," but Elliott notes that "a poignant statement [is] made by a supporting character … 'If you have to commit a crime to get what you want, perhaps you were not meant to have it.'" All three critics agreed, though, that the comedy was topnotch. Draughon calls it "94 minutes of light-hearted fun," and the Dove Foundation says "Blethyn gives a humorous and dignified performance."

Mad About Mambo

Another comedy from the British Isles, Mad About Mambo stars Keri Russell as an upper-class dancer in Belfast who falls for a working-class soccer player who's enrolled in her mambo class to perfect his footwork. Movieguide calls it "a lighthearted, funny romantic comedy with lots of originality," and praises the actors for "fine performances in both the dramatic and comedic stretches of their roles," but found unnecessary the "alcohol use, drunkenness, and coarse language about religious differences." The film's treatment of religious differences also rankled mainstream critic Robert Koehler of Variety. "A potentially interesting development, in which the traditionally Protestant Belfast United team has signed Brazilian (and Catholic) star Carlos and thereby offers hope to aspiring Catholic lads like Danny, is pursued only superficially. The issue would seem to present strong dramatic possibilities, and certainly a more interesting story than the one in pic's foreground."

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God's Army

God's Army, on the other hand, has built its reputation on putting religious issues in the foreground. Released half a year ago on a few screens in Utah, this film by Mormon writer/director/actor Richard Dutcher has played continuously and has expanded to other markets. The fictional story focuses on a young band of Mormon missionaries performing their two-year commitment of evangelism in Los Angeles. "This very believable, engrossing drama … is well written and has strong emotional impact," says John Evans of Preview. But he fears the movie is more an attempt to proselytize than just a reflection of Mormon culture. "[It] is obviously meant to win sympathy and support for Mormonism," Evans says. "Preview has a great deal of respect for the Church of Latter-day Saints, … [and] we certainly feel that they have the right to promote their beliefs in films. [But] we are not able to recommend God's Army for its strong endorsement of Mormonism." Mainstream critic Sean P. Means of the Salt Lake Tribune agreed that the movie too obviously crams in its lessons. "The central weakness of God's Army is a desire to cover too much ground. It's as if Dutcher was afraid nobody would ever get another chance to make a Mormon-themed movie, so he crammed in every missionary experience he could." Other mainstream sources, though, have been apt to see the characters as humans first and foremost. Benjamin Kelsey of the Internet Movie Database says, "God's Army isn't so much about missionary work as it is about attaining a testimony of personal convictions one's never been forced to question before." Beliefnet quotes the film's composer, Miriam Cutler (who is not Mormon), as saying, "If people can get past their own prejudices, they will quickly forget that these are Mormon missionaries and just see them as young people struggling with big questions."

Whipped, Love & Sex, and The Tao of Steve

All three of these comedies feature men and women who date merely for sex, then try to give up their promiscuous ways when they fall in love. All three were blasted by Christian critics who didn't find a single admirable relationship form in any of the films. Whipped was criticized most harshly, for wallowing in its disreputable behavior. "When sex is the only thing on someone's mind, it becomes quickly obvious how boring and uninteresting that person is. Here's a movie filled with such people," quips Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com. The film focuses on three guys who practice "scamming," using a woman only for sex, but try to give it up when they all fall for the same woman, who it turns out is scamming them. Writes Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure: "the shallow and irreverent attitude these men exhibit towards women is dehumanizing, and because they never exhibit any kind of remorse or change, the message of the movie doesn't lend any perspective into what could have been an interesting and relevant topic. … What the movie ends up delivering is a shallow exploitation message about men and women using each other purely for sex with intentions that are spiteful and damage each other's emotions. That isn't funny and neither is this shallow movie."The Tao of Steve at least gets to be called "smart and funny" by Movieguide, but again the characters' promiscuity "is only partially rebuked." In this film, Donal Logue plays Dex, a slob whose detached attitude (what he calls "the tao of Steve") makes him irresistible to woman—except the woman of his dreams, who finds him disgusting. Movieguide protests that "Dex's abandonment of his Buddhist philosophy of sex does not go far enough. … Although [the film] seems to rebuke the sins of rampant sexual promiscuity and adultery, it still accepts the sin of some premarital sex." The article also warns that "the narrative is full of references to Buddha," although a review by John Spalding of Beliefnet argues that the film "spends more time spoofing the casual adaptation of Eastern philosophy than it does teaching Zen enlightenment."Love & Sex drew praise for being the most realistic of the three; Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com says she "liked the intimate moments these two had together where conversation about their lives were real and touching." Famke Janssen plays Kate Welles, a woman who regrets her superficial sexual relationships of the past and tries to seek a deeper commitment with one of her exes. But overall, McClure says, the film falls short. "Although there are real moments with interesting conversation, there is still an emptiness that resonates in this couple. Approaching relationships from purely a sexual standpoint without any spiritual or emotional depth ultimately leaves a void in the characters, and this story suffers from that lack. … [Kate] is not [someone who] women will want to emulate or ultimately end up being." Most mainstream critics agreed it felt soulless: Ernest Hardy of Film.com says it "never really takes any emotional or psychological risks that throw us off guard or tell us anything new," and Maitland McDonagh of TV Guide gripes that "they're both selfish, immature whiners and the only reason you wish they'd get back together is that it would stop them from foisting their petty problems on other people."

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The Woman Chaser, Cecil B. DeMented, and Steal This Movie!

These three films about subversive rebels, both real and imagined, were all criticized for lead characters too uninvolving to hold our attention. In the comic satire The Woman Chaser, used-car dealer Richard Hudson (Patrick Warburton) backstabs anyone who gets in the way of his dream of making a movie. The Dove Foundation elaborates: "He steals money from his work to use for making his movie. He sleeps with any woman he encounters, including his young stepsister who has no previous sexual experience. … When he gets double-crossed by the Hollywood system, he burns down the studio he has been working with. No, Hudson is indeed not the great moral hero one would hope for." Movieguide says that while there "may be some truth in what this ultimately abhorrent movie is saying about Hollywood and the human condition," it's too nihilistic to matter.Another comic satire set in Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMented follows the title character's guerrilla efforts to bring down Big Hollywood and usher in an age of underground films. But Christian critics didn't warm enough to Cecil to find him worth paying attention to. "This film is about an hour too long," writes Jeff Diaz of The Film Forum. "They make their point and drive it home … within about 30 minutes. The rest of the time is just more fun with gross-out humor and obvious jabs at everyone and everything." The Dove Foundation says the changing medium has defanged the acerbic writer-director John Waters to the point of irrelevancy. "There was a time when John Waters was a lone wolf with his satirical and offensive scripts that skewered middle-class values. But today, he is just one of many filmmakers trying to out-crass and out-skewer one another. … Waters ceases to shock with his nauseating look at life."The life of '60s leftist Abbie Hoffman gets the big-screen treatment in Steal This Movie!, but Christian critics felt his portrayal was too glossy and reverent to see the person behind the persona. "Although the film paints him as a manic depressive with mood swings," says the Dove Foundation, "it is very clear that he and his following were the white knights who got us out of Vietnam, gave women and blacks social reform, and proved who killed Cock Robin." Movieguide also feels the film gives him too much credit for social change, calling the film "a very sketchy, uneven survey of the life and politics … [that] ultimately is a rallying cry for the revisionist history and politically correct worldview of Marxist humanism." The Dove Foundation does, however, see a silver lining for the politically apathetic culture of today: "What I most appreciated about this film was the fact that it was about something. Whether you agreed with Hoffman's politics, the film is a cautionary tale. We must be involved with those who govern our country, not just leave it to the other guy."

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Steve Lansingh is editor of thefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.

Related Elsewhere

See earlier Film Forum postings for these movies in the box-office top ten: Bring It On, The Cell, Space Cowboys, The Art of War, What Lies Beneath, The Original Kings of Comedy, The Replacements, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, and The Crew.