Many of our readers, it seems, would disagree with him. Letters have come in recently arguing that R-rated films should never be seen by Christian viewers because of violence, nudity, and foul language. Some have said that abstinence from such films is called for in order to protect our hearts and minds. Others have insisted that, while such content is not for everyone, discerning believers can attend these films if they exercise their conscience and pay attention to why a film employs such strong stuff.
Nudity equals an absence of clothing and certain words are classified as "foul," but violence is, perhaps, the most complicated issue in that it is the hardest to specifically define. Disney's The Emperor's New Groove portrays goofy violence, while Atlantis: The Lost Empire portrays intense gunfire and a mass-casualty disaster. We boo the brutal villain in Gladiator, but we cheer when Maximus strikes back using similar devices. Audiences go wild when the Death Star explodes in Star Wars, when Indiana Jones guns down a Nazi, or when Neo lashes out at The Matrix's bad guys with "guns, lots of guns." Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon portrays violence that almost resembles a dance. People buy tickets to Jurassic Park 3 to watch violent prehistoric beasts—is that okay to watch? Then why not hand over eight bucks for the over-the-top violence of Hannibal the Cannibal, who tries to top himself with one indulgently gory display after another?
And none of these contain as much violence as Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List, films that pay tribute to courage and self-sacrifice while exposing the horrors of war—films so "honorable" that many people argue they should be shown to children. (If Ryan does arrive on television uncut, then undoubtedly many children will see the death, dismemberment, and other grisly consequences of war.)
Are some of these films okay for us to watch, while others are immoral? How do you distinguish between "appropriate" and "inappropriate" violence? Or are there, rather, appropriate and inappropriate audiences? Is any violence—whether it's in The Lion King or Private Ryan—a healthy sight for children? What does the Bible say about this? Should other "violent" acts—betrayal, verbal cruelty, lying, cheating, etc.—carry an R-rating?
Write to me with your own perspective on this. Next week we will share responses in part three of our Film Forum Bonus: Wrong, Right, and R-Rated.
Hot from the Oven
While it wasn't the king—or better, queen—of the box office, The Princess Diaries was probably the movie most interesting to parents who wanted their families to avoid sex, swearing, and violence this week. Diaries stands out this summer as a clean and wholesome family flick. And yet, its lack of imagination has most moviegoers saying that "wholesome" isn't the same as "entertaining."
The film presents, in a sense, the opposite ending of Shrek, which emphasized that you can find beauty in everyone, even those who don't conform to culture's glamorous and superficial ideas of beauty. The main character, played by Anne Hathaway, is portrayed as a nerdish glasses-wearing bookworm, but she is "transformed" into a fashion plate when Julie Andrews shows up to groom her into her unexpected inheritance as a princess.
The Boston Globe's Joan Anderman writes, "The transformation is, in fact, remarkable. So is the message: Inner strength is well and good, but don't forget the makeover, girls. Power without beauty still doesn't play in Hollywood fairy tales." And Francesca Chapman writes in the Philadelphia Daily News, "Its message about physical beauty is frustrating, and you might want to think twice before taking any curly-haired, eyeglass-wearing child to see it." (Keep in mind that the script comes from the same writer who gave us the sex-and-beer-drenched frat-guy-fantasy flick Coyote Ugly.)
But Movieguide's critic applauds: "The Princess Diaries is a delightful discovery. This movie has been carefully crafted. The script is coherent. The plot is intriguing. The unexpected carries viewers along, and the acting is good. In fact, the whole process of turning Mia into a princess is a process of learning how to be responsible for your actions, live a virtuous life and do the right thing in the face of adversity."
Other critics in the religious media found it filled with anything but the unexpected. The U.S. Catholic Conference describes it as a "conventional comedy": "Although mildly pleasant, Marshall's film has a pre-fab quality that even the classy Andrews cannot overcome." Preview's critic writes, "Little girls between 7 and 10 will look at Diaries as a gift, but more sophisticated viewers may feel Disney 'G'-rated films should stick to animated cartoons."
The Dove Foundation's family film reviewer Holly McClure says, "It could have been a Disney TV movie-of-the-week. Marshall failed to give this fairytale a 'magical' feel to it, and any girl knows that's the most important part of a story like this. Family movies with talent like this should look like (and be) a cut above anything you could find on television. The story is so predictable and clichéd, all it needed were commercials." Michael Elliott agrees: "I sincerely wish I could be more enthused about the end result. The film plays flat and uninspired. Using caricatures instead of characters and pratfalls instead of plot twists … Diaries never rises above the mundane quality of its script."
Mainstream critics did not criticize it for being G-rated; they panned it for being derivative. Roger Ebert writes, "Haven't I seen this movie before? Diaries is a march through the swamp of recycled ugly duckling stories, with occasional pauses in the marsh of sitcom clichés. As Diaries creeps from one painfully obvious plot destination to another, we wait impatiently for the characters onscreen to arrive at what has long been clear to the audience. If the movie is determined to be this dimwitted, couldn't it at least move a little more quickly?" Mr. Showbiz's Kevin Maynard says, "the film is broad, cute, and calculated at every turn." Salon.com's Stephanie Zacharek calls it "so aggressively bland and inoffensive that it practically recedes from the screen. Its very niceness becomes a negative virtue. Diaries is weak medicine. Sure enough, it goes down. Keeping it down is another matter."
Director Brett Ratner might be the unexpected hero of the summer—he's the first director to serve up an action movie that has almost every critic cheering. Rush Hour 2 brings back the ever-popular odd couple from the first film and turns up the cartoony antics to gain this Rush even more applause than the original. This time, Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) returns to China, where LAPD Detective James Carter (Chris Tucker) comes to visit. Both get stuck chasing China's most dangerous gang after the U.S. embassy is bombed.
Most critics in the religious media did not share the mainstream's enthusiasm. Phil Boatwright (Crosswalk) reports that it "has some funny lines and well-choreographed martial arts battles, but Chris Tucker's shrill version of Chris Rock is an acquired taste. … He never, absolutely never, shuts up. Chan, on the other hand, has pitch-perfect timing both with a funny gag and his ballet-like karate routines."
Paul Bicking (Preview) also finds the potentially harsher elements acceptably softened: "Although the martial arts battles are frequent, the violence is mainly hits and kicks without graphic injury. Outtakes show that the stunts don't always work and sometimes real injuries occur." But, "Like the original, the dialogue, particularly from Carter, is filled with crude comments and a few obscenities." These behaviors, he says, "put the brakes on Rush Hour 2." The U.S. Catholic Conference calls it "flat"—"A few creatively choreographed action sequences cannot compensate for the forced narrative, witless comedy and no-consequences violence in director Brett Ratner's film."
But some had trouble with how the script tried to deepen Chan's character. "Nobody watches a Jackie Chan movie for its rich characterization," says Lindy Beam (Focus on the Family). "This time around, writers try to add depth to Chan's character by tugging heartstrings with the story of Lee's deceased father. It doesn't work." She does note, however, "Rush Hour 2 goes much lighter on the profanity than its predecessor, most notably cutting down uses of the s-word from 38 to six." Beam notes the difference in Chan-style violence too. "In contrast with the slow-mo violence popularized by films like The Matrix, Chan-style fight scenes don't invite viewers to dwell on gore or injury. All of the good guys' actions are indeed defensively rather than offensively motivated." And yet she still finds the violence to be a problem. "It's not that Rush Hour 2's violence is graphic or over-the-top. It's just that there's so much of it."
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) seems to have seen a different movie. "What is a huge surprise is that the movie is actually pretty good. Ratner has the good sense to keep everything moving along at a rapid pace. The couple times the movie does slow down for a big emotional moment are painful in the worst way, but fortunately they're relatively rare. Rush Hour 2 is mindless summer fare that actually delivers the goods." Movieguide's critic pays it a compliment as well: "Thankfully, Tucker's mouth and Chan's fists each fly faster and tighter than in the original comedy. What works best are the comical action scenes and the Odd Couple relationship between Lee and Carter, which the movie plays for all that it's worth."
Meanwhile in the mainstream, Mr. Showbiz's Kevin Maynard praises the director. "Ratner serves up a faster, funnier sequel to his 1998 blockbuster, another combo plate of collard greens and chop suey. So what if it ain't subtle? Chan and Tucker … bop confidently from one set-piece to the next like a non-musical Hope and Crosby." Some still don't find Tucker's motormouth entertaining. Count Roger Ebert among the nay sayers: "Tucker's scenes finally wear us down. How can a movie allow him to be so obnoxious and make no acknowledgment that his behavior is aberrant? He is the quintessential Ugly American, and that's not funny."
Rush Hour 2 sounds like Oscar material when you read responses to Michael Cristofer's Original Sins. The story follows a mail-order bride's sneaky crimes against her lover, and how a few simple lies lead to disaster. Disaster, indeed.
Religious media critics don't seem to think this film's sins are all that original, and they certainly aren't appropriate entertainment. The U.S. Catholic Conference tells us that in this "tawdry drama … the transforming power of love is undermined by cloying dialogue and predictable twists." Movieguide explains, "What doesn't quite work is the movie's frantic ending and final scenes, which are morally confused and anti-climactic."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the lovers played by Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie "are driven by the basest of emotions while the audience must settle for being driven by something a bit less feral. … something like boredom. There's relatively little point in discussing the artistic merits of a film like this. Any positive contributions are far outweighed by the sheer absurdity of it all." Still he does find some truth, however incidental, when the hero says, "Love is when you want to give and then give some more. Lust is when you want to take and then take even more." "Yes," Elliott agrees, "there is truth that lies behind that simple statement. Love is all about giving."
Mainstream critics were incredulous that the film made it to the big screen at all. Mike Clark (USA Today) says the film's double-crosses had him doubling over: "So many duplicities have followed duplicities that audiences—unlike the masochistic Banderas—are bound to be crying mercy. The actors have so little chemistry delivering tired dialogue that the sluggish direction by Michael Cristofer. … is merely the final insult." And Ebert writes, "There's dialogue in this movie so overwrought, it's almost literally unspeakable." Variety's Lisa Nesselson says the film looks "more like a promo reel of nostalgic coffee commercials than a full-blown noir tale of romantic obsession."
Side Dishes and Foreign Fare
Audiences are finding much more fulfilling summertime fare when they take the time to seek out movies flying below the box office Top 10 radar.
Consider the story of African freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba. The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks says Lumumba requires some knowledge of the film's historical context, but he liked the lead actor's work: "Eriq Ebouaney deserves high praise for his portrayal of Lumumba … and the movie might be worth seeing just to see his performance. He powerfully captures the heady days of independence but also the extent to which Lumumba was out of his depth."
The New Yorker's Michael Agger heralds the film as inspiring. "[Director] Raoul Peck tells the story of the African freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba with fire and grace. [He] handles all of this, including the atrocities, with refinement, and lets the drama of Lumumba's story run smoothly, free of heavy historical detail. Eriq Ebouaney is extraordinary in the lead role, the production feels emotionally true, and the speeches generate spontaneous applause."
Parks also notes Our Song: "It's not often that there's even one worthwhile teen movie in theaters, much less two. But I highly recommend both Our Song and Crazy/Beautiful. Though very different in tone, they each provide a compelling snapshot of urban teenagers, the difficulties they face, as well as a hope for the future. In lesser hands, this material would make for a banal after-school special; but writer and director Jim McKay is clearly comfortable not only with his characters but also the lower-class urban milieu they inhabit. The movie's rhythm is perfectly laid-back without ever becoming tedious. Contributing enormously are the three leads, each making their film debut. Their naturalistic style meshes nicely with the documentary-like hand-held camerawork, and their interactions will ring true to anyone who's spent time with high schoolers."
At Chiaroscuro, Doug Cummings praises The Vertical Ray of the Sun, "easily one of the most luminous and visually arresting films I've seen in years. [Director An Hung Tran] creates movies that envelop viewers with sensory overload, fully immersing them in the sights and sounds of other places. This is not a story with an easily encapsulated moral lesson, but one that simply presents troubled human beings struggling to remain in harmony with themselves and with the world they live in. The demands of a traditional plot are not solved, but the characters are prepared to continue in their journey. For its rich textures and enveloping sound, the film should be seen in a theatre rather than home video, and its tranquil mood could stay with you for days."
Or try Ghost World, which won accolades at the Seattle International Film festival and a Best Actress award for star Thora Birch (American Beauty). The movie, based on a graphic novel, is about a melancholy girl named Enid (Birch) and a depressed middle-aged man named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) who meet and struggle to find consolation in a world that seems cold and uncaring.
So far, Movieguide is the only religious media site to cover the film. Movieguide's critic describes the film as "a poignant look at the harsh reality many people face after their structured school life ends. It reminds viewers of the pain of a godless life and shows a lost world in need of a Savior." Their conclusion, however, is not complimentary: "Ghost World offers little hope … other than advising people to conform to the strains of career and existence."
But Ebert argues, "I wanted to hug this movie. It takes such a risky journey and never steps wrong. It creates specific, original, believable, lovable characters, and meanders with them through their inconsolable days, never losing its sense of humor. The movie sidesteps the happy ending Hollywood executives think lobotomized audiences need as an all-clear to leave the theater. Clowes and Zwigoff find an ending that is more poetic, more true to the tradition of the classic short story, in which a minor character finds closure that symbolizes the next step for everyone. Ghost World is smart enough to know that Enid and Seymour can't solve their lives in a week or two. But their meeting has blasted them out of lethargy, and now movement is possible. Who says that isn't a happy ending?"
Salon.com's Andrew O'Hehir calls the film "an exquisite tour of the twilight zone between high school and the so-called real world, as well as between bohemian subculture and the even stranger culture of America at large." He describes it as "a blend of cultural satire and visual poetry, along with a profound fellow feeling for obsessives, compulsives and maladjusted searchers for authenticity."
And Jonathan Rosenbaum at The Chicago Reader raves that the film "either captures with uncanny precision what it's like to be a teenage girl in this country at this moment or fooled me utterly into thinking it does. Never predictable, this movie is often hilarious as well as touching. It's been years since I've seen a movie about teenagers as good as this."
I'd have to agree that, sometimes, if a movie shows characters inching their way toward understanding, it can be much more affecting, encouraging, and realistic than those dramas that show characters completely changed and redeemed in a blink of an eye, suddenly freed from all their struggles. While God's grace may stand ready with its transforming power, the walk through life's obstacles and ills is a slow and difficult journey, and in a film like Ghost World, where the characters' role models are not providing good examples or examples of God's grace, they have to fight for every scrap of insight they can get.
Next week: What Film Forum readers and movie critics have to say about violence in the movies. Plus, reviews of new summer releases like Osmosis Jones and The Others.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies still in theaters: 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.