Gobs of films opened in the last two weeks, and a weary nation ran to the cinema to take a brief break from bad news. There's nothing like street crime, stalkers, and surrealistic despair to take your mind off of current events. A few early fall releases did big box office, including Training Day, Joy Ride, and Serendipity.

But David Lynch's Mulholland Drive isn't bound for blockbusting. It's for those who want a challenge, and especially for those who enjoy David Lynch's maze-like, nonlinear storytelling, which is usually rife with villainy and unhappy surprises. Lynch developed Mulholland Drive as a television series, but the studio pulled the plug. Lynch fans feared the work would be buried forever, until the director announced he would re-edit it, condense it, film a new ending, and release it as a movie. How could he condense 13 hours into two and have it make sense? Lynch's characteristic response would be, Who says it needs to make sense?

Drive seems right in step with the director's repeated exploration of evils that reside beneath the surface of America's shiny, happy goodness. Lynch may well be on a mission to prove there is no such thing as an incorruptible American dream. While his stories tend to unearth sights too grisly for most moviegoers, Lynch, like Dante with his Divine Comedy, illustrates various levels of hell to point to the flaws in our human nature. He takes the celebrated American dreams and peels them open to show the ugly base appetites that "drive" them.

Mulholland Drive is a dream. I'm not spoiling the surprise: the film opens by zooming in slowly on a big red pillow. What follows seems a traditional linear story, at first. Betty (Naomi Watts), a young perky blonde, follows her dreams to Hollywood. She says she wants to be a serious actress, but the monster behind her Barbie grin slowly emerges—she's willing to compromise more than just her integrity in order to be a star. Her appetite for fame is voracious, and when she loses a big leading role to another actress, jealousy rushes her down the slippery slope toward hate and madness.

This is only clear in retrospect. Along the way, Betty finds a brunette bombshell (Laura Elena Harring) hiding in the shower in her apartment. This bruised, bloodied beauty has lost her memory and her name in a terrible car accident. She borrows the name "Rita" and accepts Betty's help in a search for her lost identity. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane describes these two heroines perfectly: "To see Betty … gasp with girlish anticipation at the treasures of Hollywood is like watching Fay Wray setting off for an island vacation," but meanwhile, "All [Rita] has left, like Mulholland Drive, is a full set of curves."

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In the traumatic events that follow, Betty and Rita are transformed from determined Nancy Drews into desperate lovers. What draws them into this rash and reckless affair? Perhaps Betty envies Rita's Hollywood connections. Perhaps Rita yearns for Betty's naiveté and "innocence." The further they descend into the maddeningly surreal hell of Hollywood, the more Betty loses her grip on herself, giving way to selfish, wicked desires. Suddenly, the story itself loses its identity, and its name changes from Mulholland Drive (the avenue) to Mulholland Drive (a dangerous compulsion). Scenes blur and get mixed up. Flashbacks begin—sometimes the same, sometimes different. And some characters morph—there's no better way to say it—into other characters. At the end, we're in territory as symbolic and irrational as a Fellini film (which Lynch clearly knows and even references).

Many religious media critics disregard this big-screen nightmare as immoral and ultimately frustrating. Others are more determined to unearth what it means.

The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks is exasperated by the story's disintegration. "The film's last half-hour can only be described as a total mind-bleep. It's really just a re-hash of Lost Highway and Twin Peaks. If you enjoy that sort of mess, well, here's more vomit for you."

The U.S. Catholic Conference's critic sees it as a failed attempt: "[Drive]maintains a pervasive sense of dread and emotional intensity up to a point, then the intentionally inscrutable conclusion renders the film both depressing and hollow."

"There may be a moral point to this movie," admits a critic at Movieguide. "Don't be naïve and follow your dreams into the movie industry … you will get lost. However, the point gets lost in the convoluted storyline."

These join a host of critics who can't make heads or tails of the film's bizarre dénouement. But I would suggest that Lynch is continuing to refine his development of a new visual language for the conflict of good and evil, and I am convinced the movie does make sense. (My detailed interpretation of the film is posted at Looking Closer.) Its symbols tell a story similar to that of poor dead Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks): It's the tragedy of a human being who strikes a compromise with the devil and then pays the price, devoured by her own wicked appetites.

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I'm not suggesting we should embrace Mulholland Drive. Regardless of whether the film makes sense, viewers should be heavily cautioned: Lynch falls victim to the same sins as his characters—he takes time out to indulge his own baser appetites with unnecessary sex scenes and grisly details. These excesses derail the film. Thus, Mulholland Drive, like Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Lost Highway, tries to have its cake and eat it too. It tries to expose evil and indulge it at the same time. As art, its strengths are as admirable as its missteps are reprehensible. But it is not for general audiences merely seeking entertainment, and parents should make sure this one is off-limits for younger viewers.

Anthony Lane offers his perspective of Lynch's purpose: "If … you come out of the theatre feeling half as secure as you went in, then the mission has been accomplished. This film is a record of a journey, and it leaves us with the dreadful possibility that all highways are lost." Indeed. Sometimes we let our sins lead us beyond the point of no return, and this time Lynch offers no evidence that God's grace might be available to his despairing characters.

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While Hollywood's evils lurked on Mulholland Drive, bad cops were the center of attention in the box office champ Training Day. Ethan Hawke plays a rookie taken under the wing of Alonzo (Denzel Washington), a narcotics officer with questionable and violent methods of "street justice." Does the end justify Alonzo's wicked means?

Critics in the religious media were divided over the film. Some pointed out the film's strong moral compass, but others didn't like seeing the immoral means. Preview's Paul Bicking writes, "Along with sometimes extremely graphic violence, vulgarities and obscenities dominate the dialogue and rap soundtrack. This Training Day is one to miss."

Carole McDonnell of Christian Spotlight on the Movies disagreed: "I liked Training Day. It showed us how good people can become bad when we lean on our own understanding and are overwhelmed by the evils in the world." She does add a warning for parents: "I wouldn't be surprised if some children walk out of the theater imitating Alonzo's attitude and language."

Movie Parables' Michael Elliott praises "a searing performance by Denzel Washington, who makes us all but forget his familiar nice guy image." But he adds, "The story that unfolds is not quite as substantial. Relying on clichés and coincidences to drive the tale forward, it is the performances that keep us involved in the movie rather than the movie itself."

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Movieguide's response is to praise Washington for being "charismatic, ruthless, funny, infuriating, angry, cocky, caring, professional, smart, sassy, and cunning. He may deserve an Oscar for this performance." This critic calls the film "a blistering, thoroughly captivating work of cinema." Yet, "despite an ultimately moral worldview, Training Day contains an excessive amount of strong foul language and strong violence. It also has some moral ambiguity that isn't resolved in an uplifting, satisfactory manner."

Mainstream critics lined up to praise Denzel Washington's transitional performance.

Village Voice's Amy Taubin calls it a "propulsive, elegantly written police thriller," and says that Washington's "movie-star charisma rules from beginning to end. You have to admire the risk he takes in turning his star image upside down; nevertheless, it's creepy to think that the hero you believed in for so many movies may be just as much a fiction as the villain."

That's not enough, though, for Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman: "There's no denying that Washington can play a villain … but I fervently wish he were doing it in a movie that paid more than lip service to the real world." He adds, "You'd think that Hispanics in this country might have grown a little tired of seeing Hollywood reduce them to tattooed beer swillers in tank tops calling each other 'homes.' About the only thing tawdrier than the violence … is the series of jaw-dropping plot coincidences. The audience, drawn by the chance to see Denzel Washington in a new (dark) light, may have given up on a movie that is hardly worthy of his efforts."

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Parents looking for a family-friendly movie may have noticed the arrival of Disney's latest kids' comedy—Max Keeble's Big Move.

"The Disney team has mounted a handsome production with a clever idea at its core," says Michael Elliott of Movie Parables. "Geared for the pre-teenage set, Max Keeble's Big Move delivers laughs to young and old alike. The children will like the cafeteria food fight and embarrassing the principal. Parents will appreciate the gentle humor and the moral lessons that the characters learn."

Ted Baehr's Movieguide posits that the film meets standards of movie morality, and hands out a rare recommendation. "It delivers some good laughs and great lessons about loyalty, returning good for evil and facing one's fears with wisdom."

But Focus on the Family's Loren Eaton doesn't like what youngsters might learn from young Max's blurred ethics. "Most of the adults in Max's life are either passive fixtures, idiotic dweebs or unjust dictators," she observes. She criticizes Max's tactic of breaking the rules in order to teach lessons to authority figures—like his teacher. "In the real world, Max would have told his parents about his teacher's unfairness, and they would have called a conference. But … he decides that the 'rules' have to end. After kicking the aforementioned teacher's globe off of her desk and cutting her telephone cord so she can't call the principal, he wreaks havoc for the next hour of the film under the guise of 'justice.' According to this logic, the fact that [another student] is a cheating jerk warrants breaking and entering, destruction of property, theft, assault and all sorts of malicious pranks."

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Douglas Downs's response to this kids film is to turn nostalgic for another recent film: "I am now completely convinced that Spy Kids should be required viewing … for anyone who desires to make a movie for children. That film had children who acted like children, and adults who acted like adults. How hard can that be?" He registers several complaints against director Tim Hill's mad Max movie. "Big Day contains the following: teenage girl viewed as a sex object … students lusting after their science teacher … students breaking into the principal's office, students sabotaging the ice cream truck and framing someone else … strong themes of revenge without consequences, and the idea that vigilante justice means always outweighs the unfortunate ends. Several recent Disney disappointments have gotten me to screen Disney fare before taking my own children, and in this case I'm glad my 10-year-old son wasn't in the audience."

At The Dove Foundation, Paul Bicking writes, "Good messages abound, but parents may worry about such behaviors. … However, Max learns the true meaning of friendship and the rewards of helping others, which makes [the movie] a step in the right direction."

The USCC's critic found it a "disappointing children's comedy. With laughs falling flat and a theme of revenge that is only weakly rectified at the end … Hill's tired tale has little to recommend it."

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Okay, so most of these titles give you pause. Can Bruce Willis save the day? Banditsis directed by Barry Levinson, who has given us reason to cheer (Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, Avalon) and reason to grumble (Sphere, Toys). In a setup that resembles Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis play burglars who find themselves bothered by a woman who comes between them.

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This one's not so bad, according to Douglas Downs at Christian Spotlight on the Movies: "If you like well-written dramas that don't insult your intelligence—then Bandits is a decent outing. My main moral objection is the storyline surrounding the love triangle. Kate (Cate Blanchett) sleeps with both guys and is married to neither. They take the story one step further and imply that she may not have to choose between one or the other—Joe (Willis) and Terry (Thornton) together make up the perfect man. Fortunately, this triangle does not become a major part of the film."

But on that same Web page, an 18-year-old moviegoer responds in stark disagreement: "Bandits is a film about sin, and how fun sin can be. The film is immensely entertaining, but as a Christian, you have to stop and wonder if a film like this should be something to feed to our attention."

Other critics in the religious media take the same critical stance. The USCC doesn't let Bandits off the hook. "In director Barry Levinson's inconsistent, meandering narrative, not only does crime pay, the selfish trio carry on a three-way relationship that disregards morality."

"Bandits glamorizes crime and disappoints with foul language and immoral behavior," complains Mary Draughon of Preview.

Movieguide says the movie "has many hilarious parts [but] the story is not true to the rules of real life. Bandits portrays one confused woman, who considers her lust interests as 'outlaws' literally, but refers to herself as an 'outlaw,' figuratively. Indeed, she has rewritten the law of love!"

"I hate feeling manipulated into rooting for bad people," declares Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser. "Bandits does a very good job of making ignoble characters sympathetic. Audiences also get that time-honored denouement suggesting that crime pays. Let's just hope those who check it out aren't taken hostage by the moral ambiguity and dubious rationalization that runs through the picture."

Michael Elliott says it "lacks the detail and precision that marks a quality heist picture and yet doesn't have a truly sympathetic character needed for an effective romantic comedy. Bandits is just one in a long line of films that present bad guys as 'heroes.'"

Mainstream critics tended to argue that the film fails because it wants to be too many things at once. Roger Ebert reports, "Bandits is a movie so determined to be clever and whimsical that it neglects to be anything else. That decision wouldn't be fatal if the movie had caved in and admitted it was a comedy, but, no, it also wants to contain moments of pathos, suspense and insight, and it's too flimsy to support them. If the movie won't commit, why should we?"

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Since Bandits doesn't sound like it measures up, you might be tempted to buy a ticket to Corky Romano, the latest in the long mediocre line of Saturday Night Live spinoffs. Comedian Chris Kattan plays a clumsy veterinarian who happens to be the black sheep in a family of mobsters. Corky's dad (Peter Falk) calls on him to play an important part in a mob job, in spite of complaints from the grumbling gangster brothers (including Reservoir Dogs' Chris Penn.)

The USCC reports, "Director Rob Pritts' tired fish-out-of-water premise garners a few chuckles from the silly circumstances and Kattan's shameless lunacy, but the comedy trudges along, feebly throwing in a lesson about family acceptance at the end."

Focus on the Family praises Kattan, but shoots down the movie: "Like an enthusiastic tour guide who has ingested too many triple lattes, Kattan injects the title character with manic energy. If only the captivating chaos didn't degenerate so quickly into profane exchanges, sexual innuendo, and nasty slapstick. Also, Pops and his gay son learn to embrace his sexual identity, implying that viewers should, too. Nothing funny about that."

Preview's Paul Bicking says, "Although it tries to have a good heart, Corky has a mob of problems."

Michael Elliott sees where the film might have worked, but didn't. "Because the film's premise is so silly, I can't imagine that the filmmakers were reaching for poignancy at any moment. If they were, the point they might have been trying to make is that each of us is unique in some way and that we shouldn't suppress that."

Mainstream critics didn't even get as far as arguing about the film's ethics. Ebert, for example, is displeased with the film on every level. "Corky Romano is like a dead zone of comedy. The concept is exhausted, the ideas are tired, the physical gags are routine, the story is labored, the actors look like they can barely contain their doubts about the project."

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Can we take refuge in a sentimental romance? Serendipityis the latest romantic comedy from director Peter Chelsom, who gave us the widely panned Town & Country earlier this year.The movie stars John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale as lovers directed together by fate, but not until they've confronted a variety of seemingly impossible obstacles.

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Serendipity, says the USCC, is a "leaden romantic comedy. Poorly directed by Peter Chelsom, the contrived plot is stretched beyond its feeble limits to produce a lethargic film accompanied by mostly flat performances."

The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks offers a list of complaints: "Though the film is billed as a romantic comedy, it is neither romantic nor a comedy. … The two characters are so utterly wrong for each other, only a marriage counselor in need of work would hope they'd end up together. … I only laughed twice and one of those was in disgust."

Michael Elliott calls it "a movie where the laughs may not be deep or sustained, but they are consistent." Addressing the film's theme of lives being guided by fate, Elliott muses, "The problem with depending upon 'signs' to determine a course of action is that we then make ourselves a prime target for deception. Signs can be feigned and lead us to places we'd rather not visit."

Douglas Downs notes moments of insight: "Sara at her greatest moment of desperation cries out to God and Jonathan at his lowest point of discouragement is reminded, 'When God closes a door, He opens a window.'" He recommends it to grownups as "a nice, fairly clean, romantic comedy."

Movieguide's critic disagrees: "Although there are a couple important references to God, Serendipity places the idea of Fate and Destiny squarely in a pagan context. This movie isn't a classic, but many people may be attracted to this kind of story, especially in these tragic times in which we live."

But Holly McClure (The Dove Foundation) doesn't think the 'fate' element should be taken too seriously. "This is a cleverly written, modern day love story using funny scenarios, interesting characters and a storyline that relies on the premise of fate to create fairy tale romance magic. There is no faith or heavenly intercession in this story; instead it strictly relies on quirky serendipitous situations to create the happy ending."

Preview's Mary Draughon finds it a mixed bag: "Serendipity disappoints in many respects. Hollywood continues to present role models who acknowledge the need for someone to love, but can't commit to marriage. On the plus side, Jonathan and Sara each have loyal friends willing to go to extremes, to help them find their lost loves. Serendipity may not be so much a fortunate accident, as it is a lighthearted romantic comedy that strays into objectionable territory."

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Focus on the Family's Lindy Beam says, "If Serendipity would just substitute 'God' for the generic and not-quite-satisfying 'Fate,' many of its assertions would be true. Actually, they'd become even more encouraging and substantial."

The Film Forum's Steve Lansingh manages to draw something meaningful from the movie, but he admits it requires looking at the supporting characters played by Molly Shannon and Jeremy Piven, rather than the central "fated" lovers. "The movie tells us [Jon and Sara] are right for each other, but we have no evidence of it," he writes. "A destiny that asks us to step on others and act selfishly is hardly a clarion call. Given the skeptic role, Shannon has some intriguing things to say in defense of taking action rather than waiting for destiny. There's a difference, to be sure, between loosening your grip on your life and pretending you have no influence on it. And Piven's character … is inspired by the spark he sees in Cusack. He's not inspired to pursue his own mystery woman, like his buddy, but rather to pursue his wife with such zeal. While most of the film preaches that the right partner makes love work, this one corner of the story says you have to want it, have to nurture it, have to pay it attention."

Ebert gets frustrated as the screenplay "bounces them through so many amazing coincidences and serendipitous parallels and cosmic concordances that Fate is not merely knocking on the door, it has entered with a SWAT team and is banging their heads together and administering poppers."

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Got an itch for an action flick? Consider Joy Ride, the latest thriller from director John Dahl, who hit the scene with a small wonder called Red Rock West a decade ago. It's a case of pranksters whose troublemaking comes back to haunt them—in a 16-wheeler trailer truck.

The Dove Foundation's John Adair says, "Joy Ride provides a few surprises, but more than enough bad dialogue and ridiculous coincidences for any one movie. While it appears that [the main characters] learn their lesson about playing pranks on people, plenty of objectionable content fills the film. The objectionable elements take any pleasure right out of Joy Ride."

Bob Smithouser at Focus on the Family says, "Give this nail-biter credit for creating an eerie sense of dread and making the audience care about the people in peril. Joy Ride's variations in emotional pitch (creepy one second, funny the next) keep viewers off guard. In short, it's a thriller that actually thrills." So is that a recommendation? Wait, there's more: "The movie's 96 minutes are rife with obscenities … inappropriate language … violence … tequila and beer … rear male nudity. Hence, Joy Ride breaks down, stranding viewers—morally—in the middle of nowhere."

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According to the USCC, "Though the territory is familiar, John Dahl's direction produces briskly paced suspense and a few goose bumps, but the narrative's mean-spirited tone is as disturbing as the actual terror."

Many mainstream critics found themselves pleasantly surprised. Anthony Lane casts Joy Ride in contrast to the other "noir of the week," Mulholland Falls: "Dahl has no intention to baffle or obscure; his objective is to scare the living daylights out of you, or, more pertinently, the dying headlights. To someone as buffish as Dahl, the antique shocks, like the old jokes, are still the best … although we may squirm as the movie tightens the noose, it is nothing we haven't felt before. That doesn't lessen the pressure, but it may explain why we keep going back for more."

And Ebert says, "Joy Ride is a first-rate pure thriller, an exercise that depends on believable characters and the director's skill in putting the pieces together. You want to be scared and have a few laughs and not have your intelligence insulted? Here you go."

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If none of these fit the bill, perhaps you'll go for the superhuman antics of martial-arts combatants. Iron Monkey—a movie that has already been released on video—is making a late visit to theatres, capitalizing on the popularity of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's a good-versus-evil comic book brought to life, sheer fantasy escapism. But are the heroes admirable? Or is this just sensationalized violence?

A reviewer at The Dove Foundation says Iron Monkey "combines elements of good and bad. Although battling corrupt leaders, the hero must hide his identity and break laws. Despite the more positive aspects of this story, the frequent battles and graphic violence make Iron Monkey hard to recommend."

And Movieguide's critic draws this grim conclusion: "As with all Kung Fu movies … the big caution, besides violence, is that it showcases great power without revealing the source of that power. Clearly, the source is a false religion, or a false god. Many of the Kung Fu participants end up betrayed or dead, and thus, there is no lasting victory. Such is the dark end of all whose life purpose is outside the realm of the One True God."

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But the critic at USCC doesn't complain: "The action is fantastic with several amazing stunts, while the film is sprinkled with humor and slapstick which lend a lighthearted air to the proceedings."

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Looks like we're still waiting for the arrival of the crowd-pleasers that usually pack the house at this time of year. And the wait for a meaningful, edifying work may be even longer. Perhaps it's time to open a good book.

Next Week:2001, From Hell, Riding in Cars with Boys, and The Last Castle

Related Elsewhere:

Film Forum appears Thursdays at ChristianityToday.com.