Hot from the Oven

If your son needed a heart transplant and your medical coverage refused you any help, what would you do? In John Q, a new film by Nick Cassavetes (She's So Lovely), Denzel Washington plays a father driven to desperation by insurance company technicalities, unemployment, debt, and law enforcement. Unable to get help from authorities, he takes hostages in a hospital emergency room. This gets the attention of the press and results in a standoff with the police.

While it may be easy to sympathize with John, especially since he is portrayed as a God-fearing man, a loving husband, and an admirable father, religious press critics are displeased with the glorification of Mr. Q's vigilante tactics.

Steven J. Greydanus (Decent Films) asks, "Did I just walk into The Twilight Zone, or did Hollywood just release a post-9/11 film featuring an immaculately uniformed and decorated police chief as a bad guy, and a gun-wielding, hostage-taking terrorist as the hero?" He's not impressed with the character or the movie. "John makes his point with a gun and fiery determination. Cassavetes makes his with ham-fisted unsubtlety, blatant manipulation, embarrassingly stereotyped characters and clichéd situations, thuddingly preachy dialogue, bludgeoning musical cues, and finally even a string of celebrity cameos by Jay Leno, Hillary Clinton, and Bill Maher calling for health care reform."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the filmmakers "stack the deck so obviously in favor of the common man … that they actually weaken the points being made. To honestly address the flaws inherent in how medical aid is made available to American workers, a more balanced or fair portrayal of both sides will be needed." But he adds, "What does shine through the all-too-obvious propagandizing … is the love that this father has for his son. God's fatherly love towards us is no less intense."

"It works," argues David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus). "You're really rooting for [John]. He's willing to sacrifice everything for his son—his name, his career, his very life. The Scriptures say that there is no greater love than he who would lay down his life for another."

Mary Draughon (Preview) calls the plea for reform intense and dramatic, but adds that she "can't give [it] high marks for acceptability because of the foul language and its theme of solving problems by breaking the law and endangering lives."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) is pleased that the movie "does not shy away from revealing the Christian background of John and Denise." He disagrees not with the film's promotion of vigilantism or its heath care reform agenda: "The filmmakers have decided to use their story to present a biased, socialist solution to the health care issue in the United States. Under such a system, of course, government bureaucrats would force every company and every person in the United States, including illegal aliens, to put their money into a national health care system."

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Holly McClure (Crosswalk) raves, "I was enthralled with some scenes, shed tears at others. Themes of redemption and victory over 'the system' as well as the struggle with human behavior and survival make it an uplifting drama worth seeing."

And Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) says, "I was completely entertained with this film. I enjoyed seeing a family pull together through hard times. The early-on scenes painted a realistic family. The dialogue was lively, yet, always believable. And although I struggle with viewing some movie stars portraying people with financial problems, Denzel is such a fine actor that you buy into the film's premise, instantly."

Eric Schmidt (Christian Spotlight) disagrees, calling it "a laughable, completely unplausable film."

Mainstream critics recognized that the film is designed to manipulate the emotions of an audience, and thus, like A Beautiful Mind, it will probably be a successful crowd-pleaser. But most suggest that implausibility and sentimentality weaken the exploration of health care issues, and that Washington gives a strong performance in spite of a weak, propaganda-heavy script.

"John Q is … so earnest, so overwrought and so wildly implausible that it begs to be parodied," declares Roger Ebert. "I agree with its message—that the richest nation in history should be able to afford national health insurance—but the message is pounded in with such fevered melodrama, it's as slanted and manipulative as your average political commercial."

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Three of last week's Oscar nominations for acting went to a film that had not even opened in wide release: Iris gained acknowledgement for Judi Dench (Best Actress), Jim Broadbent (Best Actor), and Kate Winslet (Best Supporting Actress). Now that it has arrived, critics are largely impressed.

The film tells the story of Iris Murdoch (Dench), a beloved British novelist who published 12 acclaimed volumes and inspired many to a greater appreciation of intellectual freedom. Murdoch suffered severly late in life from Alzheimer's disease, but her devoted husband, Bayley (Broadbent), stayed with her through it all. The movie jumps back and forth from their courtship, during which Bayley struggled with Murdoch's promiscuity, to Murdoch's final days, as he strove to comfort her.

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Critics in the mainstream press praised it, especially Stanley Kauffmann (The New Republic): "The film is self-evidently grave, but it is not lachrymose. Almost every moment in both time strands is thoroughly realized, as if that moment of life and living were being saved, not filmed. Eyre … is an expert and graceful director."

In The Vancouver Courier, Peter T. Chattaway (sometime critic for Books & Culture and Canadian Chrisitanity) says, "Thanks to its cast, the film has an emotional appeal that makes up for the gaps in its narrative and its occasional reliance on conventional story devices. Broadbent is especially good."

But Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) took a contrary position, although admitting his reasons were primarily personal. "We see [Iris's] high spirits and fierce intelligence at the beginning, and the sadness at the end. What is missing is the middle. Instead of honoring the work, Iris mourns the life. [Bayley] is one of the most brilliant of literary critics … but on the basis of this film, you would think of him, frankly, as a fond old fool. Because the film is well-acted and written with intelligence, it might be worth seeing, despite my objections … but no: I cannot accept this Iris. The one in my mind is too alive, too vital, too inspiring."

I actually find Bayley's "fond old fool" to be a compelling demonstration that godliness can be seen not in words, but in actions. Although frustrated with the weight of his sacrifice, he endures Iris's unfaithfulness with a steadfastness that recalls the story of Hosea. Should we reject the story because the beloved is flawed? In this kind of devotion, we can see a beautiful picture of Christlike love, as God remains faithful to us though we all fall short of his glory.

But Movieguide's Lisa Rice argues that the film is not worthwhile because she finds Iris "not likable … a self-focused woman."

Phil Boatwright fundamentally disagrees with the film's implications: "Certainly freedoms are extremely important, but the film suggests that they are all that's important. Indeed, the film, unbeknownst to its participants, shows how shortsighted we are when we place our hopes and dreams on human understanding, alone."

I believe the film speaks truth in spite of the filmmakers' intentions. While the script attempts to champion the life of the mind as the way of salvation, the story itself shows the mind is flawed and failing, while the action of love transcends physical frailty and provides comfort, hope, forgiveness, and grace. Sometimes a story's greatest truth can come as a surprise even to the one telling it.

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That's Bruce Willis on the poster, but Colin Farrell is the star of Hart's War, the new military thriller from director Gregory Holbit (Frequency.) The preview promises explosions and combat action, but for the most part, this is a cerebral drama about soldiers restrained in a German prison camp during World War II. Bruce Willis plays Colonel William McNamara, the top-ranking American officer in a German POW camp who tries to direct his fellow prisoners to behave honorably while the German colonel (the much-praised Marcel Iures) looks on. Colin Farrell plays a soldier appointed to work on a court-marshal that involves murder and racism in the camp, but the more he investigates, the more he realizes there is far more going on within the barbed wire than meets the eye.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) reports, "Hoblit keeps Hart's War moving at a methodical pace, focusing on the human dynamics of the characters' relationships rather than filling the screen with action sequences. It makes for a fuller, richer, film experience."

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) says, "It's about courage, it's about honor. It's a very good film. If you like a good war film, it has a brilliant message, well-written."

"The film engages while teaching lessons concerning the wrongness of prejudice," says Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter). "It gives examples of honor, courage, and sacrifices made by soldiers at war. Terrific performances from all."

"I really enjoyed Hart's War because it's a different kind of war story," writes Holly McClure (Crosswalk). "I encourage parents to take their mature teenagers to see this movie and discuss some of the key elements about honor, courage, bravery and taking a stand for your beliefs."

Ted Snyder (Movieguide) says the film "focuses on moral, patriotic themes of honor, duty, courage, goodwill toward one's fellow man, and, above all, sacrifice and laying down one's life for others, including one's country and fellow countrymen. [Its] Christian worldview and … moral elements, handled so splendidly, give Hart's War a depth of meaning that transcends mere Hollywood popcorn cinema. [It should] delight Christians who love the possibilities of cinema as a divinely inspired art form."

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But Ed Crumley (Preview) is not delighted: "Although the movie features dramatically authentic visuals, the fictional story suffers with an air of unreal reactions, an odor of political correctness, and displays of personal introspection that seem in some ways foreign to the time."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) criticizes the film's final 30 minutes, which collapse. "Not content to make the American soldiers merely honorable, Hart's War goes over the top. [Several characters] take turns outdoing each other in the race to see who's willing to sacrifice more. It gets genuinely silly at the end, and the movie's reach for glory falls painfully flat. Then, as if we in the audience were too dense to understand what's just happened, we're treated to a banal voiceover pontificating on the nature of heroism and honor. Please!" But he forgives the film's weaknesses in view of its strengths. "Hart's War is a nice change of pace for the war movie. Eschewing most of the big battle scenes, it instead focuses on the relationships of soldiers who don't always get along even as they serve under the same flag."

Mainstream critics referred to it as "an actor's showcase," but many were stunned and disappointed by the film's conclusion.

"The movie worked for me right up to the final scene, and then it caved in," says Roger Ebert. "Bowing to ancient and outdated convention, [the filmmakers] put the plot through an awkward U-turn so that Willis can end up as a hero."

Stephen Hunter (The Washington Post) writes, " The movie is … much better in its first half than in its second, where the genre melding grows awkward. It more or less self-destructs in a ridiculous last few minutes when it becomes a noble sacrifice-o-rama."

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Last year's cinematic disaster Glitter probably persuaded some pop stars to think twice before trying their hand at movie stardom. But this year made a success story out of Mandy Moore's breakthrough in A Walk to Remember, and now the reigning queen of teen-lust and superficial, materialistic pop—Britney Spears—has a movie of her own. In it she plays a singing, dancing, scantily clad … valedictorian? This could bring new meaning to the term "suspension of disbelief."

Crossroads follows the story of three teenage girls who revisit the dreams they had back when they were ten years old. They decide it's time to fulfill those dreams, and thus a road trip is in order. Britney Spears plays the academic one, and so, of course, she spends a lot of time dancing around scantily clad and singing. Kit (Zoë Saldana) is the popularity queen. And Mimi (Taryn Manning) is the reckless, trashy one who can't bring home a good report card. Together, they hitch a ride with a musician who may or may not have a criminal record. Smart girls.

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Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) calls the movie clichéd, but adds, "The youngsters at the screening were enthralled by Britney's first attempt at moviemaking. And why should they think it is clichéd? For many of them, this was their first romantic road picture. It's the first time they've seen a couple embrace, sinking to the floor as the camera pans away to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean." He concludes, "She's not a singer; she's a sexual commodity. Her 'music' is all about physical movement and the exaltation of a young body that spends far more time in the gym than in vocal class. The singer's message should be an exaltation of love rather than the primer of lust."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "It's a Britney commercial. Of even greater concern are the movie's 'if it feels good, do it' morality, and mixed messages about drunkenness and sex. Both are shown to be loads of fun, yet potentially dangerous. Sadly, since most teens think they're indestructible and uniquely equipped to beat the odds, chances are the average young viewer will embrace the fantasy with little regard for potential consequences."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) expressed her disappointment: "It has too many adult issues and themes and tries to be too serious for the age group who will flock to see it. Parents, if you let your daughters see this movie, make sure you discuss it afterward."

"The casualness with which this film treats the lead character's sexual 'awakening' is something that parents of young Britney wannabes will most likely find troubling," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "Perhaps the lack of a clear moral message wouldn't be much of an issue were another actress cast in the role. With Britney, there's a huge built-in fan base of young impressionable girls who already emulate her choice of dress, dance moves, and song styling."

"Despite Britney's popularity, Crossroads is a dead end." says Paul Bicking (Preview). "Despite Britney's public comments about saving herself for marriage, her character is shown in bed with [her boyfriend], implying they've had premarital sex."

Children's Menu

Families lined up this week for Disney's latest animated adventure—Return to Never Land. It's a strategy that's working for Disney—instead of investing in new ideas, just keep on revisiting the old ones. News from Yahoo tells us that Disney is "quietly preparing The Jungle Book II and Piglet's Big Movie for theatrical release next year." Reporter Scott Hettrick adds that Dumbo II, 101 Dalmatians: the Animated Sequel, Tarzan II, The Lion King III, Mulan II and Mulan III are all in "various stages of development." And Disney TV's Cinderella II: Dreams Come True and The Hunchback of Notre Dame II hit video store shelves on February 26 and March 19.

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Never Land is a sequel to the 1953 classic adaptation of Peter Pan, and it is gaining praise for its remarkable similarities to the original, especially in its near-perfect voice matches. Will kids mind the awkward blend of traditional and computer animation, or the cheesy pop songs? Apparently not.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) notes that the story's central theme is not the need for parents, an issue that gave weight to the original. Instead, it focuses on the power of imagination. "Something's been lost," he says, "a darker undercurrent that ran through J. M. Barrie's original play and novel and was discernible even in the Disney version." Nevertheless, "It's still entertaining enough, with fast-paced excitement and colorful imagery that children will enjoy, and a sweetly nostalgic spirit that will appeal to parents. The writing is sharp if unambitious, the animation and voice work nicely evocative of the original, and there are clever touches here and there."

Phil Boatwright concludes, "It's not a great film, but a solid one, with a positive statement about faith at its core."

Jesse Florea (Focus on the Family) finds the pros outweigh the cons: "All around me in the theater, children were yelling at the screen to root on familiar characters, while softly sniffling moms wiped away a few tears in their eyes. It's obvious why Disney never said never again to Never Land."

Movieguide's critics, who worked overtime to condemn the magical, flying children in Harry Potter, applaud Never Land's magical, flying heroes. Lisa and Sarah Rice call it "a work of outstanding animation. The Peter Pan story is great, and this movie will, indeed, make you want to fly. The story is tight, the characterizations are very good, and the good lessons in the story are rampant."

Table Talk

It's a debate that won't go away. I continue to receive e-mail from angry readers who don't think I should have dared explore the issue Harry Potter and witchcraft here at Film Forum. Many Christian organizations continue to describe Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as "soft porn" promoting the occult. But some writers and moviegoers are questioning how these critics can say such things while, on the other hand, praising films like Return to Never Land and The Fellowship of the Ring, which, like Harry Potter, show heroes using magic to achieve their goals.

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This week, Michael G. Maudlin of Christianity Today's Books & Culture Corner addresses the ongoing debate over the alleged dangers of Harry Potter. Maudlin writes, "This primitive shunning of Harry Potter is made all the more strange when contrasted with the Christian response to The Lord of the Rings." He points out similarities in the series, including how "magic is seen as a neutral instrument that can be used for either good or evil. And both authors allow their heroes to make full use of magic in their cause. So why are not both condemned equally?"

Anti-Potter propagandists claim that the age-old tradition of magic as a literary device is an invitation for readers to experiment with occult practices. If this is true, then one thing is very clear: Tolkien's world is more dangerous than Rowling's. After all, Lord of the Rings has arguably served as the primary literary source of trends like Dungeons and Dragons and other cultural phenomena that indulge their participants' curiosity about the occult. Maudlin reports, "One Web site even sells Lord of the Rings Tarot Cards. Have some people used Tolkien as an entry point to the occult? The answer must be yes."

He concludes, "Neither series makes much sense apart from a Christian ethic. Both works convey a palpable sense of Providence; both lift up agape love as the highest virtue; both flesh out what it means to have noble character; both see evil as coming from the heart and not 'out there.' So why does Frodo get a pass while Harry is demonized?"

Good question. To follow the logic of Movieguide's Ted Baehr, we should be condemning not only Potter, but also The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, and the Arthur legends with their heroic wizard, Merlin. Fairy godmothers use magic wands in Cinderella, and there is magic everywhere in the Christian-themed works of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle. I grew up a Disney fan, and as a child I loved to sing along with a seemingly innocent little cricket: "When you wish upon a star / makes no difference who you are / Anything your heart desires will come to you." How then was I saved from a lifelong obsession with astrology?

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The magic of fairy tales is an essential metaphor for miracle, mystery, talent, and spiritual gifts. It is quite a different thing from the foolishness of the occult. If young readers are taught discernment and the value of symbolism, these stories will give them strength. But children tend to develop curiosity about things they are told to fear. Therefore, brethren, fear not the stories of Muggles, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.

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Next week:The Queen of the Damned unleashes the first vampires of the year, while Kevin Costner gets bugged in Dragonfly.

Related Elsewhere

More review roundups are available in the Film Forum archives.