What exactly is a "Christian movie review"? When the word becomes an adjective, things get blurry. Some treat a Christian movie review as a sort of sermon-essay that draws on examples from movies. Others say a Christian film journalist should primarily review, promote, and applaud films that spell out the gospel in plain language. Still others write reviews as a discipline of renewing our mind, as Scripture exhorts us to do, leading us to "dwell on" what is "excellent … worthy of praise … of good repute" (Philippians 4:8) in all the art culture has to offer.

One film opened across the country this week that made it very clear just how many different uses there are for a Christian movie review.

Monster's Ball is a drama directed by Marc Forster, filmed with quiet grace and a naturalistic style, like Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. It stars the fantastic Billy Bob Thornton as Hank, a corrections officer carrying intense racial prejudice in one hand and a sidearm in the other. Hank's aging father Buck (Peter Doyle) constantly reinforces the family's race-hate. For example, he calls his grandson, Sonny, "weak" because he befriends black neighbors. Halle Berry plays Leticia, the wife of a convicted killer, who is trying to raise her son right and survive as a black single mother in the middle of the South's racial tensions. Hank is deeply shaken after a confrontation with Sonny (Heath Ledger of The Patriot), and his raw emotional wounds open the door for a new and unlikely friendship. When Leticia gets a job pouring coffee at Hank's favorite late-night diner, they become friends against all odds.

Make no mistake: This is a story about unbelievers, behaving in sinful, reckless, dangerous ways as they nurse their particular needs for love, understanding, and intimacy. People are killed. Men lash out in racist hate. Father and son use prostitutes to find fleeting satisfaction. A mother beats her son. Lovers fall into hasty sex while under the influence of alcohol. It is not a pretty picture, and definitely not a film for younger viewers.

But the story's theme comes across loud and clear: love and compassion can overcome hate, even hardened racism. Hank is growing into a healthier perspective in the way that a toddler learns to walk—by making every variety of mistake, fumbling his way through hard lessons of love and loss, gaining wisdom inch by inch. His errors are clearly portrayed as missteps. (Hank's interaction with a prostitute is not glamorized, but shown as the joyless, empty, and contemptible exchange that it is.) Thus, when he finds true love, the revelation is all the more meaningful. The Bible itself tells us stories of men more evil than Hank who learned about love the hard way. Hank's evil is hard to look at, but his slow awakening to acceptance and love is quite beautiful.

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Mainstream critics are highlighting the movie's strengths, and some are quite moved by its portrayal of love's power. A. O. Scott (The New York Times) raves, "The characters and the bond that develops between them are too complex for words, and the writers use very few. Their economy and the eloquence of Mr. Forster's unshowily beautiful images give Monster's Ball the density and strangeness of real life." And Moira Macdonald (The Seattle Times) writes that it gives us "a low-key gift of redemption and love."

But in his Chicago Sun-Times review, Roger Ebert writes, "The movie is not about redemption, not about how Hank overcomes his attitudes, but about how they fall away from him like a dead skin because his other feelings are so much more urgent. The movie then is not about overcoming prejudice, but sidestepping it because it comes to seem monstrously irrelevant. The movie has the complexity of great fiction, and requires our empathy as we interpret the decisions that are made."

The story may have an honorable theme. But is it a movie worth seeing? Should a Christian critic praise a movie like this? What sets apart a "Christian movie review" here?

Some focus on both the craftsmanship and the story's profound meaning. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic reports, "Forster's quietly intense film is difficult viewing, yet its core message that love can conquer prejudice and lead to redemption is ultimately hopeful."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) writes, "The real strength of Monster's Ball is in its well-drawn characters and the actors who play them. The script … tries to take on too much, and some of the plot threads get lost in the shuffle. But … Forster is more interested in atmosphere and characters than linear narrative." He suggests "the two explicit sex scenes … serve the characters well even if they do go on too long."

In my own review, I agree: the performances of Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry are excellent. And I agree that Forster makes us too intimate with these characters. When two of them get drunk after a devastating day, they rush into sexual activity that changes the course of their lives and their story. These scenes are entirely necessary for advancing the plot, but they're filmed too explicitly. Forster wants to show us subtle changes of heart that take place during private sexual interaction. But these scenes go beyond informative to become inappropriately provocative, transgressing a primary rule of art: Less is more. Still, the film's strengths outweigh its flaws. Although it is heavy-handed, it strikes some resonant chords about forgiveness, compassion, and doing the right thing.

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Other Christian critics use their reviews simply to point out what might offend viewers, suggesting that portrayals of sinners should forgo any portrayals of graphic sin. John Adair (Preview) writes, "Vulgar dialogue and pornographic sexual content take the air out of Monster's Ball."

Yet another critic goes to an extreme. After praising certain technical aspects of the film, he condemns those who appreciate the film, making a scapegoat of the mainstream media's most prominent and popular critic—Roger Ebert. Why?

The writer points out that Ebert chose Monster's Ball as his favorite film of the year. The writer claims that Ebert was

obviously attracted to the steamy sex scenes in Monster's Ball. He also apparently didn't mind ogling the naked breasts of Halle Berry … he got to see similar sightings of a voluptuous nude black woman in Beloved [1998], it should be noted … or the breasts of the blonde prostitute who tries to satisfy both Sonny and Hank at a couple points in the story. After all, Roger used to write scripts for softporn movies early on in his career.

Is this the purpose and proper mode for a Christian movie review? To judge those who like the film, and to speculate on what sinful attitudes might have provoked a "thumbs-up"?

This critic—whose name I am not printing because I want to discuss philosophy, not people—simply guesses at Ebert's reaction to certain scenes. Ebert does not even mention nudity in his reviews, but remains focused on character and moral development. This critic implies Ebert is preoccupied with "ogling" naked women onscreen. Ebert and other critics—including the critic making the accusations—regularly see most movies that are released, even those prominent releases that contain nudity. It's their job. What has Ebert said in reference to the film that suggests he's moved by lust? Further, why does the critic emphasize Ebert's response to footage of black women, by making a connection to the film Beloved?

Finally, the review contains a nasty parting shot: the critic mentions Ebert's participation in production of some trashy movies. These allegations are true: Ebert worked with Russ Meyer, a notorious director of trashy movies—in the 1970s. Since then, Ebert has grown into an intelligent, important, essential writer of film criticism. His opinions are widely respected and valued, even among many of the widely published Christian film critics that Film Forum regularly quotes. (Check out his thoughtful archive of writing at the Chicago Sun-Times.) Although Ebert is more liberal than critics in the religious press are, he is quick to praise films with strong moral messages. Check out Ebert's review of A Walk to Remember—he goes against the mainstream backlash and praises the portrayal of a thoughtful Christian teenager.

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Should Christians be publicly shaming Ebert for questionable choices he made two decades ago? Christ responded to such behavior quite intensely: Let the critic who has never sinned throw the first stone.

Christian moviegoers should exercise discernment and caution in deciding to whether attend Monster's Ball, which is indeed a flawed, volatile, troubling movie. But hopefully they will not rush to condemn it before considering its strengths, which are many.

Christian film critics often complain that Hollywood moviemakers portray churchgoers as condescending, judgmental, and legalistic. It is important, not just for critics but for all believers, to use caution and avoid behavior that reinforces such stereotypes. After all, Scripture assures us that all have sinned, and that the lives of most individuals deserve some pretty harsh ratings. God is indeed a giver of great grace.

Hot from the Oven (Actually, More like Leftovers)

Now that the Oscar nominations are posted (The Lord of the Rings has 13 nominations!), studio executives are getting around to releasing the movies that didn't stand a chance of winning awards. So here they are—sloppily made, full of sound and fury, signifying very little.

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Rollerball brought noise, chaos, violence, and extreme sports to the big screen this week in a reckless remake of the Norman Jewison sci-fi film from 1975. The movie focuses on a team of athletes who engage in a dangerous futuristic sport, exploiting violent play in order to earn high ratings for heartless entertainment execs. (Sounds like the February/March film calendar!) This updated edition stars Chris Klein (Election) and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (X-Men) as team players who share the court, the locker room, and too much more. Director John McTiernan built a reputation on standard-setting action films like Die Hard. Rollerball is apparently not one of his best works.

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Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) says, "The dialogue is trite when not melodramatic, the acting lackluster when not hammy, and the plot far less developed than Ms. Romijn-Stamos."

"To market this film to teens is extremely irresponsible," writes Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight).

Paul Bicking (Preview, The Dove Foundation) cautions parents about the severe nature of this PG-13 flick: "Minor moral moments fail to overcome the barrage of violent scenes and frequent vulgarities in Rollerball."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "Rollerball glories in the same vulgar excesses as its characters. Why does junk like this keep getting made? To quote a character in the film, 'If they'll buy it, I'll sell it.' Let's hope young moviegoers aren't buying."

Mainstream critics agree. Roger Ebert writes, "Rollerball is an incoherent mess, a jumble of footage in search of plot, meaning, rhythm and sense." He goes on to point out some of the film's laughable, ludicrous lapses in logic.

Michael Wilmington (Chicago Tribune) says, "The 1975 Rollerball … a big, sterile sci-fi epic … was a cinematic masterpiece next to this one. McTiernan's remake has no interesting characters or ideas, no style or substance and no intriguing contemporary riffs. Even worse, it mostly lacks McTiernan's specialty: great razzle-dazzle action scenes. It's dull, spiritless, silly and monotonous: an ultra-loud blast of pointless mayhem, going nowhere fast."

Gary Thompson (Philadelphia Daily News) says, "Rollerballis as bad as you think, and worse than you can imagine." He looks hard at the film for some kind of message: "Violence is bad, you see, and [the hero] must put an end to it by smashing [the villain] in the face with a steel ball, hitting him with a footstool and shooting another guy with a shotgun. That'll teach him."

Likewise, MaryAnn Johanson (The Flick Filosopher) says, "The point … seems to be 'Violence is okay, as long as you're beating up the right people.'"

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Clearly, the violent events of September 11 have affected the entertainment industry. This week, audiences and critics realized how much the experience of watching a movie has changed. The reviews of Arnold Schwarzenegger's new action flick Collateral Damage might have been different if it had opened during the summer. Since 9/11, the hero-versus-terrorist genre is one that critics would like to forget. Who can believe anymore in the wild antics of a brawny hero who can single-handedly outwit and overthrow terrorists? Implausible at best, this premise is insulting and even damaging at worst. For example, Stephen Hunter (The Washington Post) describes Schwarzenegger's movie as "a telegram from a dead world. It hails from an America that no longer exists." Others went so far as to say it should have been canceled out of respect for the true heroes.

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Paul Bicking (Preview, The Dove Foundation) says the film is corrupted by very different elements: "numerous explosions and brutal killings … rear nudity, mottled by shower glass … numerous obscenities and strong profanity." But, in his opinion, "The film touches on many different topics related to terrorism with surprising candor."

Phil Boatwright observed, "People in the audience seemed to need the release of seeing the bad guys get their just desserts by film's end. Maybe that's healthy. But the film isn't." He is also baffled by Schwarzenegger's unexplained magical powers. "Whenever he needs official papers, they pop up. And if he needs a hand grenade, it magically appears. There is never any explanation to how he knows the things he knows or how he comes up with the needed tools."

"Despite its many shortcomings," says Joseph Kalsco (Movieguide), "[the movie] still manages to serve a strong punch with riveting action and considerable suspense. It is hard, however, not to notice how much worse reality can be. In this movie, innocent bystanders are collateral damage, while in real life the general population has now become the target itself."

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Looking for a film that's okay for kids? We may have the first good suggestion of the new year.

Big Fat Liar stars Frankie Muniz (TV's Malcolm in the Middle) as Jason, a kid who discovers that his school paper is being turned into a blockbuster motion picture by a thieving Hollywood executive (Paul Giamatti). With the help of his friend (Amanda Bynes) he sets out to right the wrong. His parents, who consider Jason a chronic liar, come to admire their son's efforts, and Jason himself learns a lesson about the value of telling the truth.

Phil Boatwright describes it as a variation on "the boy who cried wolf." He says, "Although I admit to laughing out loud several times, I think the silliness of the plot will leave most grownups cold. But kids will have a blast."

But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops critic labels it a "lame comedy" and an "unfunny fantasy." Jason "ends up mocking truth instead of championing it, while the plodding story line, caricatured characters and mean-spirited escapades become increasingly disagreeable."

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Holly McClure (Crosswalk) disagrees, calling it "an example of a fun-filled adventure story that kids and younger teens will relate to and parents will appreciate because of the underlying themes about telling the truth. This is a big fat winner for the whole family, and that's the truth!"

John Adair (Preview) says, "The film's message … is that in the end, it always pays to tell the truth. However, to learn this lesson, Jason often has to lie and deceive his way through various obstacles. This could lead to a good family discussion of Abraham's lies about his wife or Rahab … the woman in Jericho who lied to protect the spies of Israel."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) remarks, "Morally speaking, Jason's scheming and practical jokes are not something parents would want their children to emulate. Still, truth wins out in the end, and Jason and his father experience a nice bonding moment after the climax to the story. There are also a couple times in the picture where characters look skyward, as if appealing to God for help."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) says, "It is … a safe flick if you are just dropping off the youth for a matinee. My recommendation is: Enjoy!"


At Crosswalk, there's an interview with Denise Di Novi, the popular and successful Hollywood producer who has given us A Walk to Remember.

Di Novi explains, "The distinction with this film is that this not a 'Christian movie' like The Omega Code. This is not a proselytizing movie. It's a love story where the character happens to be a Christian. If this were a Christian movie with a proselytizing agenda, it would not be reaching millions and millions of people the way it is."

Side Dishes

The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks is recommending a couple of alternatives, films that trade in celebrities, big budgets, and aggressive marketing for something truly rare: meaningful stories, carefully told.

The Devil's Backbone is a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. Boys orphaned by the war are sent to an orphanage, where a defective bomb dropped from an airplane looms ominously in the middle of the complex, a clear symbol for a conflict within the orphanage that will inevitably explode. When young Jacinto learns there is a child-ghost haunting the place, he fights back his fear and seeks the ghost out to discern why the spirit is so troubled. What he learns is a tragic story that underlines how one act of violence can lead to unforeseen consequences—a chain reaction of increasing violence ending in calamity and bloodshed.

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In most movies, says Parks, "death is usually just a plot device or, worse, a sign of victory, a validation of the hero's power. It is rare to find any movie that tries to convey actual pain. Instead, we're programmed to think violence doesn't have any results, that killing and maiming are routine." Not so in The Devil's Backbone. It's a film, Parks writes, "that speaks to our present and very human condition, that reminds us of the cost of violence but also the virtues of love and sacrifice, that wipes the mist from our eyes and helps us to see things as they are, and that reminds us that the ghosts of history must be dealt with and not ignored."

I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment, and would encourage believers to interpret the film carefully. The purpose of the film is not to make people afraid of ghosts or to encourage investigation of occult phenomena, but to help us think about how violent acts—between people and between nations—leave behind wounded people who will neither forget nor often forgive.

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Parks also recommends Italian for Beginners, the latest film produced as part of a series called Dogme. The films use handheld cameras, natural lighting, and restrict the use of makeup or effects that are beyond what would naturally occur. They challenge filmmakers to use great imagination and inventiveness while forbidding Hollywood's typical tools. The finest Dogme work, The Celebration, is a profound and impressive work (for discerning grownups), and judging from critical responses, Italian for Beginners is as well.

Parks writes, "A screwball comedy is built on a foundation of delayed gratification, where couples destined for love are kept apart through ridiculous contrivances and misunderstandings. So it is with Italian for Beginners. But the film also has its serious side, as it explores the natures of fate and faith, death and distress. After delaying gratification for 80 minutes, we could've waited a little longer for a more appropriate resolution. Nonetheless, Italian for Beginners is a nice little diversion."

Hopefully other religious press critics will take note of these releases soon and give us some other perspectives. But a high tide of new films is headed our way. Hopefully we'll have more to sample than mere leftovers.

Coming up:Crossroads, Hart's War, John Q, Return to Neverland, Super Troopers, and more.

Related Elsewhere

More review roundups are available in the Film Forum archives.