As a season of Oscar hopefuls gets into full swing, we're sure to be bombarded by movies claiming to be of great substance. Most likely, what we'll get is a great deal of style and self-importance.

Hot from the Oven

Jack the Ripper's grisly London crimes caused such a circus of news, mythmaking, and conspiracy theories that he remains one of the most famous serial killers. Numerous novels and films have told his story, but he has remained enigmatic and troubling. Adapted from a grim graphic novel, From Hell (named for the return address used by the killer) is a spectacular, stylish film from the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society). Brooding, opium-addicted detective Frederick George Abberline (Johnny Depp) tries to track down the killer, whose exploits he has foreseen in his drug-induced dreams. The targets are prostitutes in London's East End, and viewers are brought into this haunted, hunted circle. When Abberline convinces one of these desperate, impoverished women, Mary (Heather Graham), to help him, "only in Hollywood" romance begins.

Sometimes studying the methods of evil can help well-intentioned viewers understand their enemy. Or it can act as a cautionary tale about steps that lead to devastating wickedness. From Hell, according to most religious media critics, falls far short of these possible merits.

"From Hell is a suitable description of this film," says Preview's John Adair. He warns viewers away due to "graphic descriptions of what the killer has done." He also complains of too much onscreen skin in the scenes involving the prostitutes.

But Carole McDonnell at Christian Spotlight on the Movies sees an important theme threading through the plot: "The film speaks against prejudice. Those who happen to be rich because of an accident of birth believe themselves to be more moral than the minority or the disenfranchised. In Victorian London … no one wants to believe that a gentleman might be responsible for any of these crimes." Still, the film disappoints her: "The love story is weak. The story is slow and there are gaping holes in the plot. For instance, why doesn't [the inspector] tell the girls that the killer snares his victims with grapes?"

The U.S. Catholic Conference's critic was thoroughly dissatisfied: "Substituting gruesome visuals for suspenseful drama, [this] conventional film is revolting in its imagery, with one-note characters, sloppy narrative and lackluster performances."

I appreciated the way the film raised questions about how our social and racial prejudices affect the way we interpret "the news," such as the Whitechapel killings of 1888. It reminded me of the Oklahoma City bombing, which immediately drove the media and the public (myself included) into speculating which Middle Eastern terrorist group might be responsible.

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Unfortunately, the questions raised in From Hell are quickly knocked aside by the urgency of style and suspense. (If the historical context of these events intrigues you, the graphic novel on which the film is based is loaded with research.) Intelligent dialogue gives way to adrenaline-rush action, flurries of special effects and rapid-cut editing, and far more gore than is necessary. Long after we've been informed of the killer's methods, we're forced to watch gratuitous scenes depicting them. It's easier to turn a viewer's stomach with the sight of blood than it is to develop a moral objection to the thinking that leads to such butchery.

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Riding in Cars with Boys is based on the best-selling memoirs of writer Beverly Donofrio, starring Drew Barrymore in her first attempt at a demanding dramatic lead role. Barrymore plays Donofrio from girl to grownup, portraying how her promiscuous behavior as a youth led to exhausting and exasperating trials as a woman and a mother.

Movie Parables' Michael Elliott finds the movie "a brave and bittersweet look at a life which is full of disappointments, mistakes, and … sacrifices." As usual, he finds sermon illustrations: "It shows us that consequences to our actions can have long-reaching effects. Unwanted teenage pregnancies are neither easy nor fun, and Bev's experiences serve as a warning to young girls that sex can lead to responsibilities for which they may not be ready."

Movieguide reports, "Beverly's self-absorbed, romantic view of the world … is overcome by the moral premise in the movie—that parental love overcomes selfishness. The critic praises the acting, but concludes that "the moral premise and redemptive elements" are diluted by a "romantic, feminist worldview. … Instead of focusing on God and her Divine Savior, Jesus Christ, Beverly centers her life on trying to go to college and becoming a writer."

Preview's Mary Draughon appreciates the film's "brutal honesty about the author's faults as well as her strengths." But she worries that "teenagers may think the messages about the consequences of immoral behavior … are no longer relevant."

The USCC calls it an "uneven drama" that "succeeds as a cautionary tale and in presenting realistic characters with warts and flaws, but the film's sentimental streak culminates in a cloying conclusion."

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Annette Wierstra of Hollywood Jesus observes, "The film is loaded with characters that teeter at the edge of stereotypical, from the domineering father, to the no good junkie husband, to the struggling teenage mom. But instead of toppling over into flat characters, they remain full of personality and shades of gray." The story, for her, had the ring of truth. "Beverly balances poor judgment and immaturity with determination and love. We are all like Beverly. We form our lives by the choices we make, good or bad."

Focus on the Family's Lindy Beam likes what she sees: "Actions have consequences. Period. You can't escape them. What's more, foisting your problems off on someone else is not a good way to deal with those consequences. The movie exposes a lot of wounds. But it also leaves them open for healing." Nevertheless, the film worries her: "My fear is that, for teens with no adult support system, Riding in Cars will encourage them to wallow in their misery, rather than providing direction out of it. But for loving and involved parents of older teens, it could provide opportunities to discuss some hard issues. And it could give moms and dads a chance to talk to their daughters and make sure they're riding in cars with the right boys."

The Dove Foundation's Holly McClure, writes in The Orange County Register, "Director Penny Marshall is great at delivering positive messages in her films, often about characters overcoming obstacles, which lets the audience leave the theater with a smile. This movie teaches a good life-lesson for sexually active teens. It's a sobering reality check to seeing the harsh reality of getting married at a young age because of pregnancy and living in an unequal partnership that holds you back and makes you miserable."

The director was forthcoming about her hopes for the film in a discussion published in Premiere. In short, the movie is intended "to do for teen pregnancy what Jaws did for swimming—except 'you can actually see the shark coming.'" This is rather a change of pace for mainstream big screens, where the consequences of teen sex are rarely portrayed.

The film's rare, even conservative honesty did not drive off mainstream critics. David Hunter at The Hollywood Reporter praises "a well-crafted screenplay" and Barrymore's "finest screen role." He is also pleased that the film "doesn't try to solve everyone's problems in a phony, too-tidy fashion."

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Roger Ebert says, "A film like this is refreshing and startling in the way it cuts loose from formula and shows us confused lives we recognize. Hollywood tends to reduce stories like this to simplified redemption parables in which the noble woman emerges triumphant after a lifetime of surviving loser men. This movie is closer to the truth."

But some critics weren't so willing to go along for the ride. Rita Kempley in The Washington Post comments that the movie "is hardly out of the driveway before director Marshall loses control. The vehicle sputters along as if somebody'd put sugar in its tank and finally stalls out in the middle of one of … Barrymore's many crying jags." And Gary Thompson of The Philadelphia Daily Newssays it's "the first four-hankie movie—two to plug up the ears, two to cover the eyes."

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Robert Redford returns to the screen with a good-guy/bad-guy tale that capitalizes on the new wave of American patriotism, emphasizing its pro-America sentiments in its commercials. But does The Last Castle have something new to say about America? Or is it merely pushing our buttons, expecting us to cheer?

Many will probably disregard these questions and go to the movie just to see the great Redford act opposite the increasingly popular James Gandolfini of The Sopranos. Redford plays General Eugene Irwin, an imprisoned military hero. The prison warden, a power-happy colonel named Winter, is physically abusive of prisoners and increasingly suspicious of Irwin's good behavior. Before long, the film has us rooting for criminals as they break the rules, and hating the authority figure as he acts out of fear, arrogance, and paranoia.

Rod Lurie, who directed The Contender, loves to show flawed heroes lashing out at self-righteous—and conservative—bad guys. (Right-wingers, in Lurie's world, are all hypocrites and powermongers. The Contender argued that it is invasive and prudish to expect our leaders to act honorably in their personal relationships.) Judging from critical responses to The Last Castle, Lurie may have reined himself in a bit, but the film romanticizes criminals and defends their disobedience.

Tom Neven, editor of Focus on the Family magazine, declares it "yet another one of those movies where you find yourself rooting for the 'bad' guys. Even though we find out the criminal offense of only a few of the prisoners, they all clearly did something to be where they are, but still they are the only sympathetic characters. Sure, Irwin is a selfless, noble man, but still he encourages disobedience."

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Movie Parables' Michael Elliott says Lurie "stacks the deck in Irwin's favor from the very beginning. Winter may have the weaponry, the authority, and all the power on his side but it is all too clear that he is terribly outmatched by the intellect and righteousness of Irwin." Still, he doesn't come away from the film empty-handed. "Fortunately, the underlying patriotism and love of country demonstrated by these flawed and fallen men more than cover the film's minor weaknesses."

Preview's Paul Bicking observes some wisdom in the hero's perspective: "Irwin demonstrates that leadership is not based on rank, but earned by action." But he would prefer the villains be portrayed without as much bad language and violence. "Unfortunately, this inspiring story features many obscenities and crude terms. Although much of the violence is not lethal, graphic injuries are shown as men are hit with batons, kicked and shot with rubber bullets." Of these behaviors, it is the language that turns his thumb down on the film: "Without the foul language, The Last Castle could be a positive experience for older teens and adults."

Movieguide's critic claims "a rousing, action-packed ending with a patriotic finish overcomes some predictable plot points. Although … Lurie does not completely get rid of his humanist worldview here, he holds it in check to deliver a powerful prison drama that exalts honor, duty, integrity, and country." The writer seems surprised to find himself recommending a Lurie film. "At least … he avoids the Christian bashing of his last movie."'s reviewers offer notes for discussion of the film: "Winter believes in the value of each prisoner and appeals to the better part of their nature, much as Jesus perceived the downtrodden as being in God's image. Contrasting leadership styles are drawn. … Servanthood results in loyalty and respect, while punishment results only in fear. Irwin engages both the hearts and minds of the prisoners, much as Jesus commands us to love God with our full heart and mind. These men understand they deserve imprisonment for their wrongdoing, but they also believe that even a prisoner deserves some basic human respect."

Mainstream critics, even those who championed The Contender, were suspicious of Castle's simplified moral conflicts. The Flick Filosopher says Irwin's rehabilitation of the prisoners is highly implausible. "[The filmmakers] simplistically answer for us all the questions they raise. Instead of letting us come to our own conclusions about whether, for example, prison should be more rehabilitation than retribution, they go the further step of having heroic, all-American Robert Redford rehabilitate the inmates to within an inch of their spiritual lives, turning them, literally, into flag-waving examples of ideal manhood: strong, upright paragons of the American fight for justice. But you'll be cheering on, for the most part, the dregs of humanity cloaked in a temporary glow of nobility."

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Roger Ebert also finds fault: "The Last Castle falls short of the film it could have been. It relies too much on a conflict between colorful characters, and a thrilling finish. On those levels it works—I enjoyed watching this movie. It could have been more, could have been a triumph and a classic, instead of simply an effective entertainment."

The New Yorker's David Denby also finds the film guilty of sentimentalism: "The conclusion of the movie—the unfurling of an American flag—couldn't be better timed to raise a lump in the national throat. Lurie could not have predicted that, but, even so, he's a shameless, if skilled, manipulator of easy emotions."

Table Talk

Looking for a way to provoke interesting discussions about contemporary entertainment at church? This month, Worship Leader magazine features several articles about faith and the movies, including an article by Christian songwriter Terry Scott Taylor (Daniel Amos) on how Bambi, My Dinner with Andre, and other films affected his faith. The Web site features excerpts from the articles.

Another resource that could provide a rewarding text for small-group discussion is William D. Romanowski's book Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture. Romanowski takes readers on an informative journey through the development of contemporary Christian attitudes toward movies, television, and music, and teaches readers to develop as Christian thinkers and arts patrons. I've found it to be an ambitious, thorough, and excellent work that has enriched my own experiences at the movies and in conversation with people in church and at the corner coffee shop.

Still Cooking

At Cornerstone, Mike Hertenstein offers an in-depth review of Ghost World. The movie has probably disappeared from theatres, but should reach video soon. Hertenstein considers the film's portrayal of contemporary cynicism and the hopelessness and ineffectiveness to which it leads. He also ponders whether the film ends on a hopeful note or a despairing sigh.

Next week: Halloween film 13 Ghosts tries to scare viewers, and K-Paxcasts Kevin Spacey as a Christlike stranger. What Christ-figures in the movies have made the strongest impression on you? Let me know at

Related Elsewhere:

Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: Training Day, Bandits, Serendipity, Corky Romano, Don't Say a Word, Iron Monkey, and Zoolander.