Hot from the Oven

Most grownups would say that puberty was a part of their lives they'd rather not revisit. But the filmmakers responsible for American Pie seem paralyzed in a sophomoric state, unable to tear themselves away from cocky, naïve, amoral, and irresponsible behavior.

They're back with a sequel, American Pie 2, in which the same sexually reckless teenagers, now college age, continue to indulge in promiscuous and shameless adolescent antics. And there's not isn't a dignified grownup in sight. What is left of this tattered envelope to push? What boundaries haven't been crossed? Most moviegoers don't care: the movie set a box office record this week.

Phil Boatwright at The Dove Foundation is among the many dismayed (and apparently unheeded) critics: "When the cast is not indulging in sexual activity, they spend the rest of the screen time discussing how much they wish they were. Every single laugh is based on crudity, humiliation or shock value. Most of the characters are either high-school age or college freshmen, yet they drink and carouse with all the amoral fortitude of a buccaneer."

The U.S. Catholic Conference's critic reports, "Director J.B. Rogers' plodding, pathetic effort recycles plot points from the first film while again presenting sex as raunchy sport devoid of responsibility or consequences." And Preview's Mary Draughon confirms, "Inedible filling such as 57 obscenities, disgusting bathroom humor, breast nudity, group sex, a teenager having sex with his friend's mother, and teenage drinking complete this nasty mud pie." Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser shakes his head: "We may still see a more bankrupt film released this year, but it will be hard-pressed to undermine as many teens' value systems as this second helping of American Pie." Movie Parables' Michael Elliott adds: "Many of the returning actors are given relatively no reason for reappearing. They are as gratuitous as many of the sexual jokes and references."

Elliott does, however, see these popular fools fumbling their way toward some unexpected shreds of wisdom. "The relationship which showed the most promise was the one developing between Jim and Michelle. As she helps him improve upon his obviously lousy sexual technique, we can see his growing awareness that the 'girl of his dreams' might not necessarily be the one with the largest breasts and lowest IQ. It is a lesson that more young men could stand to learn."

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While Pie's teenagers violate the rules of decency, the characters in The Others have crossed a very different boundary. They've stirred up some rather temperamental spirits. Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar gives Nicole Kidman the starring role as the protective governess of two children who have an allergy to sunlight, and as she "keeps them in the dark," she gives them rigorous religious lessons to rid them of their notion that the house is haunted.

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Religious media critics are, for the most part, critical of the supernatural world portrayed here, but some found wisdom in the shadows. The U.S. Catholic Conference calls The Others "a chilling tale of isolation … well-written, deftly building tension until its startling conclusion while prompting questions about faith and the mysteries of life after death."

Focus on the Family's Lindy Beam denounces the basic message of the story: "The Others takes direct ideological aim at Christianity. Beginning with a naturalistic worldview, the film sets out to prove that this world is all that really exists and that religion is merely a man-made crutch. A more basic representation of the lies of this age is hard to find." But she also suggests we might be able to contend with the film's arguments by highlighting scriptural truths within the film that subvert its premise. "It's crucial to remember that what's being attacked is someone's perception of Christianity, which is clearly not the same as the living faith described in the Bible. And, ironically, some of the images and techniques used in The Others underscore vital Christian precepts. Most notable are the played-up visual contrasts between light and dark and the repeated theme that abiding in the light, fully facing reality and accepting the truth, is the best way to live."

Mainstream critics had some minor gripes, but seemed sufficiently spooked. Mr. Showbiz's Kevin Maynard recommends that you "bring a sweater to The Others—even though it's the middle of summer, you'll still feel the chill. Lifting a page from the Henry James classic The Turn of the Screw, Amenábar 's first English-language effort is a nifty nail-biter, all bumps in the night and Freudian female hysteria." Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman reports that "the movie has a busy, throttling intensity that takes off from the elegant fury of Kidman, her hair styled into a chaste postwar curl that gives her the aura of a Grace Kelly suffering from repressed hysteria. The character's name is, in fact, Grace." Gleiberman is impressed, but complains of too many clichés: "The gimmicks, in the end, are too arbitrary to tie together in a memorably haunting fashion, though they do culminate in a Big Twist, a nifty one that almost—but not quite—makes you want to see the movie again."

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Roger Ebert of the The Chicago Sun-Times writes, "Amenábar has the patience to create a languorous, dreamy atmosphere. But in drawing out his effects, [he] is a little too confident that style can substitute for substance. As our suspense was supposed to be building, our impatience was outstripping it." While David Denby of The New Yorker admits that the film becomes "monotonous" near the end, he praises the director's distinct gifts: "Amenábar … works by suggestion much of the time; he favors ambiguity over outright horror. I have limited patience for movies in which beautiful women run around big houses in a state of terror, but The Others is extremely skillful. There's nothing cheap in it, as there was in What Lies Beneath, where the real problem was what lay behind—the heroine kept backing into things."

I have often heard Christians condemn ghost stories like The Others and The Sixth Sense due to their warped portrayals of the afterlife described in Scripture. This is a rash and unfortunate judgment. It's true, some spooky movies exist merely to trouble us or even damage us. But there is a long tradition of ghost stories that make little or no claim to realism; they are metaphor-heavy fairy tales, in which the ghosts are clearly fictions invented to serve the story and provoke questions about true phenomena. They might warn us that the past can return to haunt us if we have not acted responsibly. They can exhort us to respect the memory of the departed. The Sixth Sense had something to say about facing your fears, and about how we tend to run from the very people we should be listening to and helping out. Surely you have a "ghost" or two, someone or something that you have lost or left behind who returns to your thoughts from time to time. What better way to explore the implications than with some playful and imaginative fiction?

And besides, why are so many Christians positive that there is no truth in stories about ghosts? Scripture does not clearly spell out the science of the spirit world and the afterlife. I am always bewildered by such scriptural stories as Saul mustering up the ghost of Samuel through the witch of Endor, or the reappearance of Elijah in the company of Jesus and his disciples. While unhealthy curiosity about such mysteries can lead to sin, so can rash assumptions that we know more than we do about the unseen worlds. We are, after all, assured by Scripture that there is a war going on all around us, and we partake in only party of it.

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Michael Elliott thinks the portrayal of the stubbornly religious governess in The Others has something to say about "a delicate issue, but one which should be addressed. God has given us truth in the form of his written Word. Man, in his attempt to give himself a structure by which to learn and live God's Word, has given himself religion. The fact that so many Christian denominations exist and are frequently contradicting one another on how to 'interpret' God's truth should be an indication that there are flaws or errors which have been inserted into religious doctrine. Two contradictory positions on the same matter cannot both be true. The danger we face, and one which is evidenced in The Others, is that we erroneously equate the infallibility of God's Word with the fallibility of man's interpretation of that Word, and doubt both. God has handed down his Word as the standard of truth. What we must do, as 'workmen of the Word,' is to take all we see, hear, and learn of men and man's teaching and hold it against the standard of truth. This includes what we learn at school, at work, and yes. … at church."

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"Although some of the humor is strongly questionable," writes Paul Bicking at Preview, "Osmosis Jones can be a fun and educational outing for pre-teens and older viewers." Fun and educational? A summer movie? From the makers of There's Something About Mary?

Apparently it's all true. Half-animated, half-real, Osmosis Jones follows the adventures of a white blood cell journeying throughout a man's body to valiantly fight the evil forces of infection. In the live-action part of the movie, Bill Murray stars as Frank, whose body reacts in all manner of gross and disgusting ways while his immune system wages war within him. Inside, an animated world portrays the conflict in vivid Loony Toons style. Chris Rock provides the voice of the heroic Jones who voyages through various organs and arteries.

The Dove Foundation's Holly McClure raves, "The cast is excellent, the story's creative and the combination of animation and live-action is certainly unique. [Osmosis Jones] educates its younger audience about the internal workings of the human body (in a creative way) while they are being entertained." But she too concludes the movie is "too crude for kids and too juvenile for adults. Strangely enough, in this movie I found myself covering my eyes several times and resisting the urge to perform a bodily function I'd just learned about on the screen."

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Similarly, The U.S. Catholic Conference draws a distinction, praising "zany animated characterizations" but concluding that "the film's live-action comedy is anemic." And Michael Elliott has the same mixed reaction: "The animated sections of the film are lively, colorful, and entertaining. Even with all of its gleeful playfulness, the film nevertheless reminds us of the awesome intricacy of the human body which God designed. Osmosis Jones could have been a delightful, engaging, and relatively decent tale of microscopic derring-do but it is tainted by sight gags involving vomit, festering pimples, gas emissions, and infected ingrown toenails. Come to think of it, the kids will probably love it."

Steven Issac at Focus on the Family agrees that the movie is "violent", but then raises interesting questions about whether this violence should concern parents. "Should one classify as violent content scenes in which white blood cells attack viral agents? What about when a cold capsule douses germs with toxic chemicals? If so, Osmosis Jones fairly reeks with violence. All of it, though, is cartoonish and could never be defined by anyone as explicit." He also testifies to clear but clever alterations of common vulgarities: "One cell blurts, 'Son of a botulist.' Another exclaims, 'Holy Spit.' Inside Frank's body, the cells prefer taking Frank's name in vain, rather than God's." While these good-humored twists on common human failings may raise some eyebrows, Issac gives it an enthusiastic recommendation. "Zits notwithstanding, Osmosis Jones is truly imaginative, innovative and fun." Even Movieguide's critic tells us that "Jones is not as disgusting as one might expect."

Mainstream critics reacted with a mix of laughter and nausea. Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer raves, "Osmosis Jones has more ambition and imagination than can be comfortably contained in its brief 83 minutes. Should you take the kids? Boys 8 to 11 are the target audience for this gross-out film. A better question might be, should they take the parents? Only if the adult possesses a cast-iron stomach."

Mr. Showbiz's Kevin Maynard was more concerned about Bill Murray's stomach than his own: "It really makes you get behind the movie's message … Eat Right. Especially after watching oafish, often shirtless, pot-bellied Bill Murray stuff his face with snack chips and KFC."

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It's a corpse, not a ghost or cartoon viruses, that causes trouble for the protagonist of The Deep End, a new film directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Tilda Swinton (Orlando, The Beach) stars as Margaret, a worried mother who leaves home to confront a nightclub owner whom she believes has been sexually abusing her son, Beau. While she is away, the club owner comes hunting Beau and, in a scuffle, he is killed. When Margaret returns and discovers the body, she hides it, fearful of what will happen to her son if it is discovered. Soon, though, trouble comes anyway, in the form of people to whom the deceased owed money.

Movieguide found The Deep End discouraging because Margaret, in her efforts to escape the encroaching threats, breaks the law in the process. The writer states, "There's much good in this premise, but the problem is that the movie resolves it in ways that don't make sense and demand criminal behavior. In all, The Deep End is a mixed bag."

On the other hand, mainstream critics point out that the movie goes against the current trend of subverting family values, portraying the family as a precious thing worth defending. They argue that Margaret acts out of a strong love for family, even though her methods are imperfect; this distinguishes her from the others in the conflict. Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times offers higher praise for The Deep End than he has for anything all year. "Plunge into The Deep End and be rewarded with one of the most invigorating experiences of the summer. This noir thriller is so thought-provoking, visually stunning and emotionally resonant that it could emerge as one of the best films of the year. Swinton's … work is magnificent, an actress burrowing inside herself to play a woman doing the most horrible thing in the world to restore order to her life. The sadness is sealed by the recognition in her eyes that her life will never be orderly and clean again; her love for her family will have to be enough. It's her best and most memorable performance."

David Denby of The New Yorker is also impressed. "The Deep End is propelled by sex and violence, but family life is the source of the movie's strength. [The filmmakers] are very smart fellows, and they trust the camera. They have put the movie together not in big Hollywood style as a series of sensations exploding everywhere and nowhere but as a moment-by-moment immersion in the physical life of the drama. We stay completely involved. The Deep End is heartfelt and beautifully made … the best American movie of 2001."

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I haven't yet caught this film, but I'll be interested to see if it actually glorifies Margaret's lawbreaking, or if it merely portrays it. How many heroes would we have if we demand that they never make a well-intentioned mistake? How many Bible stories must we reject because of characters who occasionally make a wrong move?

Side Dishes

Last week, a few critics offered Ghost World as one of the summer's best-kept secrets, a sad and touching story about the plight of disillusioned teenagers. Some critics in the religious media found the film too bleak for their liking. But Doug Cummings at Chiaroscuro grabbed hold of some meaningful threads woven through this unconventional story: "By the film's end, [the central characters] will have encountered various life choices and rejected them all for something they can barely perceive—a search for significance the world cannot offer. The movie ends on a mysterious note, suggesting faith and hope is perhaps all we have to cherish. While the characters' perpetual indecision can be grating at times, for social critique and intergenerational confusion, I'd take this over the insulting self-righteousness of American Beauty any day. The film rings far more true to the spiritual condition of American society at the beginning of the 21st century than most films in this genre."

Sneak Preview: Might the summer be saving the best for last? Phil Boatwright seems to think so. The Zucker Brothers, who brought us such sight-gag comedies as Airplane!, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun, return with Rat Race, a loose retelling of the classic farce It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. And Phil Boatwright of The Dove Foundation calls it "the funniest movie I've seen since Mad World. How surprised and pleased I was that I finally found a comedy that made me laugh so hard, I nearly doubled over. I simply can't remember the last time a comedy consisted of so much hilarity."

We'll offer a full critical overview of this, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and American Outlaws next week.

Related Elsewhere

Earlier Film Forum postings include these other summer movies: Princess Diaries, Rush Hour 2, Original Sin, Planet of the Apes, Jurassic Park 3, America's Sweethearts, Legally Blonde, The Score, Cats & Dogs, The Fast and the Furious, Scary Movie 2, Dr. Dolittle 2, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Kiss of the Dragon, and Shrek.