The summer drought is officially over. For the first time in many months, critics started talking about movies as though they might actually be fun, challenging, and worthwhile.

Hot from the Oven

This month, director Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars) brings us a big-screen adaptation of one of Stephen King's kinder, gentler tales—Hearts in Atlantis. It's a nostalgic, inspiring story about youth and courage, with just a touch of the suspense and nightmare expected from America's scariest storyteller. There's more Stand By Me than The Stand here.

Newcomer Anton Yelchin plays the young, inquisitive Bobby Garfield. Bobby's father died young, and his half-present mother Elisabeth (Hope Davis) sooths her wounds with self-absorption and profligacy. When a new tenant moves in upstairs, an aging gentleman named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), Bobby finds the mentor and father figure he needs. But this rewarding new friendship is at risk. Elisabeth suspects Ted's motives, fearing he might be a sexual predator. Ted is harmless, but hunted by some sinister characters called "the low men."

Mary Draughton at the family-friendly site Preview calls Hearts in Atlantis "intriguing and suspenseful as well as touching and uplifting … one of this year's best movies for mature viewers." Right away she addresses one aspect of the story that will concern many Christians—Ted's limited psychic powers: "Ted's supernatural powers attract suspicion and danger, making them more of a curse than a gift." Scripture rightfully warns against consulting psychic powers for wisdom. But in this sort of story, Ted's future-seeing is more of a fairy-tale element, a metaphor for power and responsibility. The "gift" afflicts him the way visions afflicted the Old Testament prophets.

Still, Ted's powers made the critic at Movieguide so uncomfortable that he accuses the film of being "loaded with occultism and New Age pagan concepts." "No one in the movie acknowledges or calls upon the One True God," complains the unnamed critic, who accuses the film of a "pessimistic, anti-innocence worldview."

But this is not a sermon. Hearts in Atlantis is a parable about how, as we mature, confront evil, and suffer loss, we have to fight to maintain courage and resist hard-heartedness. Is that pessimism? It sounds more like real life.

Bob Smithouser at Focus on the Family sees and hears in this story "great messages about friendship, kindness, responsibility to one's children, respect for elders, and the need to keep from prejudging people. It's also wonderful to see an 11-year-old boy captivated by the fond reminiscences of a man old enough to be his grandfather, rather than by the latest TV show or video game."

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"The strength of Hearts in Atlantis lies not in its plot but in the realistic treatment of its characters and their relationships," says Michael Elliott at Movie Parables. "Screenwriter William Goldman accurately captures the unique 'best friends forever' feeling that most of us have felt at one time or another in our lives. It often seems as though we spend our youth hurrying to grow up and, once done, spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture that which was lost in the process … our hopes, dreams, passions, joy of living, and our trust which enables us to believe with our whole heart."

J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth doesn't complain of pessimism or occultism. He's bothered instead by emotionalism. "When the film gets emotional or intense, as it often does, [Yelchin's] quivering lip and hang-dog expression feel phony. [The film] relies on beautiful pictures and reminiscing about first love to draw its audience in." He also observes "a lot of plot threads that were never adequately resolved." Similarly, The U.S. Catholic Conference says, "Hicks' tender film beautifully explores human frailties and vulnerabilities yet is often weighed down by its own heavy-handedness."

I'd have to agree that a few of the emotional high points melodramatically overshoot their target. Some scenes come off as glossy and idealized, but I can't complain. Like Almost Famous, this story is told as a fond flashback. A grownup Bobby is sharing precious, even glamorized, memories of adolescence. When you think back on your own youth, I would bet that some things seem glossy to you, elevated by their significance and meaning.

In my review at Looking Closer, I suggest that old Ted Brautigan can be a powerful example to believers—he shows us the difference between merely evangelizing and actually living as a Christlike example. Bobby's mother shouts at him, but Bobby listens to Ted. Brautigan listens, takes the time to get involved, and looks out for Bobby in a dangerous world.

It is also important to mention this film's fantastic cinematography, by the great Piotr Sobocinski (Three Colors: Red, The Decalogue) who died last year. If good cinematographers are "panning for gold," Sobocinski put his pan in the river here and came back with a fortune.

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One of my favorite songs is Sam Phillips' "Power World," which explores how easily the media warp our perception of things. The refrain declares, "Our ideas of perfect are so imperfect." This could have been the theme song to the new Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander, an outrageous, over-the-top spoof of the fashion industry and celebrity narcissism.

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Don't go looking for a plausible story; this one's as preposterous as they come. Derek Zoolander (Stiller) is supposedly the world's greatest male model. He's so empty-headed that he makes the guys in Dumb and Dumber look normal. Thus, he becomes the patsy for some wicked fashion moguls who brainwash him into an assassination ploy against the prime minister of Malaysia. But why would fashion moguls want to commit a political murder? This new prime minister is threatening their whole livelihood, because he plans to eliminate the child labor forces that manufacture most of their glitzy fashion lines.

Sound ridiculous? While the movie grossly exaggerates, we come away unlikely to ever look at a fashion ad the same way again. What Stiller has done with Zoolander is skewer this world of the rich, famous, and arrogant, while at the same time expressing affection for the people within in. In a time when most comedies are mean-spirited and devoid of any valuable social commentary, I find that admirable. (My review is at Looking Closer.)

I'm not alone. Impressed, Steven Issac of Focus on the Family writes, "From A to Zoo, Zoolander picks apart our cultural fixation with fashion, thinness, celebrity, money, lust, sex, and power. A high bar for a spoof comedy, but Stiller seems up for the task. A few more obvious plusses are the film's savage jabs at eating disorders, fashion obsessions, sweatshops and child labor, and many celebrities' philanthropic apathy. What amazes me is that Stiller took the time to aim so many spears at cultural idols, all of which deserve skewering."

Steve Lansingh at The Film Forum writes, "To me [Derek] is a seeker. He [becomes aware of] how empty his life is. 'Who am I?' he asks. 'What do I live for? Parties? Money? Admiration? Family? Love? Helping others?' Sure, he's a bit too dense to get everything right on the first try. But it's this kind of hopefulness—as well as the laughter—that I appreciate."

Movie Parables' Michael Elliott finds another reason to cheer: "After the last few weeks through which we've all lived, there's something to be said for the humorous distraction of something so non-threateningly stupid. Quite frankly, it was good to hear people laugh. Certainly, Zoolander is not going to be the cure-all for what ails us. But if it can help us on our road to recovery by giving us a silly little reason to smile, if even for just 90 minutes, then I'm more than willing to give it a thumbs-up."

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Dick Rolfe at The Dove Foundation also finds the film timely: "Zoolander is coming out at a time when we as a nation are readjusting our priorities. Today, decadent obsessions like fashions, frills, and other self-absorbing activities are considered trivial and meaningless when compared with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In light of the recent terrorist acts … Zoolander is more than just a funny film; it is a very unlikely movie with a very relevant message as we follow Derek Zoolander, male model, through various stages of reflection in his own life."

Zoolander's satire is effective because it exaggerates the misbehaviors of self-important media icons to a laughable degree. Although it ridicules such behavior, some religious critics are upset the behaviors are portrayed at all. John Adair of Preview condemns the film as "morally unfashionable," citing it for scenes of suggested sexual activity (there is no nudity) and for crass humor. Similarly, Movieguide calls the movie immoral and even accuses it of having "homosexual subtext." (A few supporting characters may be homosexual, but does that constitute a subtext?)

Of the dozens of reviewers I read this week, it seems the critic most offended was Douglas Downs at Christian Spotlight on the Movies. He calls Zoolander "a sad commentary on how tainted the medicine for laughter has become. Most of the movie is one dumb joke after another. … [The film is] one of the most offensive I have ever seen. Space doesn't even allow me to list all the negatives."

There is indeed a lot of unnecessarily crass humor in Zoolander. But it would have been difficult to do a proper satire about the industry without addressing the indulgence prevalent in those circles. I applaud Stiller's guts in criticizing the sins without degrading the sinners. His hilarious exaggeration works the way a fun-house mirror stretches a reflection and makes us laugh—it's a playful lie that shows the truth. If you see it, you might pause during the next fashion advertisement and see more clearly just how much ego, attitude, and emptiness are on display. It might make you ask yourself whether the shoes you're wearing were made at the cost of suffering somewhere else. It might also make you question where your idea of physical beauty comes from in the first place.

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Don't Say a Word stars Michael Douglas as psychiatrist Nathan Conrad. Nathan tries to spend Thanksgiving with his injured, bedridden wife and his daughter, but is urgently called away to see a patient. This deeply disturbed, terrified woman might be faking her hysteria out of a need to protect herself. But it's up to Nathan to pry information from her broken mind—an especially urgent task after criminals who want the information kidnap his daughter.

Dick Rolfe at Dove compares the film to a recent Mel Gibson thriller: "The suspense is just as intense as in Ransom." He adds, "The acting is also very good."

Movieguide's critic is also impressed, calling it "a taut, well-directed and well-written thriller with a strong moral worldview and a strong, compassionate hero."

But the U.S. Catholic Conference is not as easily won over: "Though the frantic pace … heightens suspense, narrative inconsistencies and shaky characterizations produce a frustrating package."

Paul Bicking at Preview doesn't mind the flaws: "This tense action-thriller may be predictable, but mystery fans will enjoy the unfolding tale." He does observe, however, that our hero "lies to police, breaks laws and resorts to violence as well. With graphic violence and dialogue laced with obscenities … Don't Say a Word can't be recommended."

Michael Elliott applauds "an accomplished cast and crew. … Thanks to their abilities, we are nicely distracted from dwelling upon the plot inconsistencies during the course of the action. It is as we reflect back upon the film that they become all too readily apparent. Still, Don't Say a Word pushes many of the right buttons for audiences seeking an uncomplicated traditional thriller."

Moviegoers made Don't Say a Word the week's top box office hit. This happened in spite of lukewarm reviews from the mainstream press. Roger Ebert for example, admits that the director "shows a poetic visual touch," but concludes, "The movie as a whole looks and occasionally plays better than it is." He criticizes the ending, in which several different implausible, outrageous things are happening at once: "There is a difference between racing through a thriller and wallowing in it."

Still Cooking

Even as worthwhile films started a promising season, a few collapsed just out of the starting gate.

In case you're curious about Glitter, that movie starring Mariah Carey, here are a few responses:

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  • Michael Elliott: "Director Vondie Curtis-Hall (Gridlock'd) tries to distract the audience from realizing the vapidity of his film by using various cinematic tricks and camera effects but it's like gluing glitter on garbage. All he's done is bring attention to the garbage."
  • Mary Draughton at Preview: "Glitter's flimsy plot will soon be forgotten. [The movie] tries to emphasize fame has its downside, [but it is] doubtful that star wannabes will be discouraged."
  • The U.S. Catholic Conference: "Along with indistinguishable original songs, a pitiful narrative and contrived camera work … Hall's leading lady has no charisma to pull off the vanity vehicle."
  • Movieguide: "Much of Glitter is silly, pretentious and corny, which had some people in the audience laughing. Carey is not well served by the obvious incompetence of the director and the screenwriter."

In other words, see something else.

"Christian" Cuisine

While the church-funded film Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 foretells the apocalypse for mostly-Christian audiences across the country, another church-funded film opened with a very different story. Extreme Days follows a group of young people on a high-spirited road trip that stops along the way for a variety of extreme sports.

Michael Elliott was surprised that the movie was not a packaged sermon: "What makes Extreme Days somewhat unique is the fact that it is being distributed by Providence Films, a group specializing in entertainment for the Christian market. There's no 'end times' story here. No apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil. There's not even any major proselytizing going on as the characters' faith in God is only directly mentioned a few times." Still, he describes it as "an uneven production at best. There are scenes that work very well, such as the diner 'spoons' challenge between Jessie and Bryan. And then there are scenes that don't work very well, such as the kung-fu spoof between two groups vying for the same campsite. Showing that bad taste knows no religious boundaries, director Hannah includes an extraneous scene wherein the boys demonstrate their level of maturity by igniting their own flatulence." Conclusion? It's "a somewhat innocuous film offering some pretty cool sports footage."

Movieguide calls it "a fun, fairly unstructured movie which looks better than many of the movies on the Disney Channel. It has strong moral messages and positive references to prayer and God. It clearly has a Christian sensibility and worldview."

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Focus on the Family's Bob Waliszewski says, "This film, while containing a few nuggets of truth, is really more about having good clean fun. And in today's climate, the idea that it's possible to have good clean fun is a message teens need to hear more often."

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Have fun at the movies. I'm on vacation next week. But when I get back: Denzel is a dirty cop in Training Day, Cusack is sweet and sappy in Serendipity, Steve Zahn runs from a mad trucker in Joy Ride, Bruce Willis and Billy Bob burgle in Bandits, Chris Kattan is cuckoo in Corky Romano, and David Lynch goes back to the dark side withMulholland Drive.

Related Elsewhere:

Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: The Others, Rush Hour 2, The Musketeer, and Rat Race.