This week, New Line Home Video delivered a package that will be on a lot of Christmas wish lists. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring—Special Extended Version DVD set—four full discs—improves upon the theatrical release, fills story gaps, and offers pleasant surprises. Fans of Tolkien's classic series will be delighted to see that several episodes from the book are now included in the film.

On top of more character development and extended scenes, the new version also offers a more leisurely, informative, and comical introduction to the hobbit lifestyle, and the camera lingers longer on the astonishing set design—village design, really—which was crafted to seem if these cultures existed for centuries before the filmmakers arrived. When Gandalf warns that Sauron threatens all the lands of Middle Earth, we now know more and appreciate better what beauty, joys, and traditions the enemy may destroy in future episodes.

In addition to the extended film itself, there is such a wealth of information here that Tolkien fans will explore for hours on end. Documentaries focus on Tolkien's immersion in languages, how his passions helped him endure after the loss of both his parents, and Peter Jackson's long quest to get the three movies made. But there is so much more as well.

I can't think of a better way for moviegoers to prepare for the opening of The Two Towers next month than to settle in with this sprawling, beautifully realized work. No home video package has ever offered such an in-depth look at the creative process or the way excellent storytelling can influence an audience.


Tomorrow's Menu

In a replay of last year's big-screen fantasy face-off, Harry Potter is back to stare down the hobbits. With established characters and familiar settings, director Chris Columbus is able to pack more action, more adventure, and more ambitious special effects into Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Based on the second book in the successful series, the movie finds Harry back at school with his charming cohorts and nefarious rivals, caught up in a troubling mystery. Students are being turned into stone one by one, and it's up to Potter and Co. to find out who's responsible and how to stop them.

Concerned parents and pastors are again raising their voices that the Potter books preach sorcery and paganism to children. Some Christian readers and moviegoers counter those criticisms by saying that the nay-sayers should look closer at the meaning of the Potter stories.

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In the first religious media press review of the film, Gerri Pare (Catholic News) addresses some Christians' concerns over Harry Potter's "magic" and the quality of the film itself. "It is to be stressed, as with its predecessor, the film is only a fantasy—not a course in witchcraft—so it is not attempting to undermine Catholic beliefs. Harry is out to thwart evil and protect his fellow students even at the risk of his own safety. Children too young to understand the difference between fantasy and reality are not the appropriate audience."

On this film's craftsmanship, Pare writes, "Some of the magic is missing. The two hours and 40 minutes feels really long in sections where the exposition is plodding and the pace lags." Pare adds, "The grand finale where Harry must face down the gigantic serpent is probably too frightening."

Shelvia Dancy (Ethics Daily) hears from two writers on the subject. Connie Neal (author of The Gospel According to Harry Potter) says, "Some people will tell you they've found 64 specific places where Harry Potter illustrates witchcraft, but my approach was that I could do the same thing and find the gospel. I found more than 80 parallels. Once you start looking for it, you get an eye for it and you see it everywhere you look." The Rev. Francis Bridger, principal of Trinity Theological College in Bristol, England, calls the Potter stories "an enormous opportunity for speaking about Christian themes and truths and ideas. The books open the door for talking about things such as right and wrong, the nature of faith, loyalty, bravery and trust."

Amy Hollingsworth, contributing writer at Crosswalk, gives a mother's testimony about encountering the movie with her son: "When my son and I exited the theatre … he didn't once mention an oppressive desire to worship Satan or to turn people to stone or to fly on broomsticks. His first remark (one he returned to again and again) was concerning the scene, depicted rather benignly by a flash of light, where Harry's mother is killed trying to save him, then a baby.  My son didn't take away a fascination for the occult, only the thing that touched him the most: a young boy losing his mother. He noted the loss; I noted the sacrifice. Powerful images, heartfelt lessons—not the kind likely to be spawned from the loins of Beelzebub."

Mainstream reviewers are debating whether this film is better than the last. Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) is disappointed for several reasons: "The sense of discovery … is missing. In its stead comes frantic activity. Characterization takes a back seat to action. Rather than shape [Rowling's] material for cinematic purposes, [screenwriter Steven] Kloves and Columbus retain the most tangential subplots and weakest characters. What plays like an intriguing side excursion on the printed page merely gums up the works in a film that at 161 minutes feels as bloated as an overfed child wobbling away from the Christmas table."

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At the popular "film geek" site Ain't It Cool News, critic Harry Knowles offers it "a great deal of praise." But he adds a harsh criticism: "It is better than the first Harry Potter film, however it still has an excruciatingly awful ending that just never seems to end … 20 minutes of excruciatingly self-congratulatory pats on the backs and clappings and hugs and presentations, and huge entrances and laaaadeeedaaas."


Hot from the Oven

8 Mile opened to a huge box office success this weekend ($51.2 million.) It also kept theater employees busy preventing younger viewers from slipping past its R-rating barrier.

The story follows a familiar Rocky/Karate Kid formula, but is set in a troubled corner of Detroit, where young people vent their anger, prejudice, and bitterness in contests of bile-spewing, yet skillful, rap. The film has received a lot of hype as being semi-autobiographical for its star, the controversial young rap celebrity Eminem. But director Curtis Hanson does a fine job of making what is predictable seem fresh, and he finds in Eminem a surprisingly engaging screen presence.

David DiCerto (Catholic News) calls it "a raw foray into the high-stakes world of Detroit's hip-hop subculture. Unfortunately, despite the controversial rap phenom's strong debut and a unique stratum of American culture rarely explored, the hackneyed story line lends little originality to the tired genre of inner-city angst films."

Will Johnson (Relevant Magazine) says Eminem "shows his impressive command over subtlety." In spite of the questionable behavior of many of the film's character, Johnson argues, "One of the most unusual aspects of this movie is its unexpected high moral ground. It promotes ideas of loyalty, hard work and thoughtfulness. This seems to be the opposite of Eminem's blatantly and purposely controversial lyrics. Though the movie has a never-ending string of bad language, a graphic sex scene, and some adult subject matter, the movie still feels uplifting and inspirational."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Hanson paints a gritty picture of a life on the streets of Detroit and guided by his hand, 8 Mile has the appearance of being a better film than it is. It is the script by Scott Silver that disappoints. Aspiring to be a Rocky for the hip-hop crowd, its dueling rap scenes are more reminiscent of Over the Top, Stallone's easily forgettable arm wrestling epic."

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Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) calls the film "an illusory PR coup for Eminem" and objects to the language and behavior of the characters. "8 Mile becomes the distance teens should put between themselves and this movie."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) says, "8 Mile [tells] a gritty story about people living in the rundown urban areas that the radical anti-biblical left created in Detroit in the last 35 years. … Many children and teenagers are just as likely to imitate the bad behavior in this movie as much as, if not more than, the positive behavior. Thus, although there are some positive moral and redemptive elements in 8 Mile, Movieguide cannot recommend it."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says of Eminem, "He surprised me. As bleak as this story is, I still enjoyed the acting ensemble and slice-of-life message about overcoming your circumstances to achieve your dream." She adds that the film is "definitely for mature teens and adults only!"

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) writes, "I find the whole rap, hip-hop scene … destructive and satanic. The people involved in that industry keep overdosing or shooting one another. The messages are generally hostile, violent, sexist or racist. It's full of anger, produced by people unable to express themselves without the use of profanity or exploitation. Rap and hip-hop are anti music."

But Simon Remark (Hollywood Jesus review pending) is ready to "battle" the film's naysayers: "What's great about it is we do not see an artist from the gutter making it big. After the film's climax, Bunny Rabbit goes back to work, at the stamping plant." He defends the rap battling too: "Hip-hop is a subversive music and culture, and this film really illustrates this. And many people will not understand the nature of battling; it's been referred to negatively in several reviews already. Freestyle battling isn't just about hurling insults, expletives, and what have you at the opposing MC. It's about cleverness, creativity, competition and having fun. It's not to be taken personally, and those on the outside looking in will most likely misunderstand it."

My review is posted at Looking Closer.

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Mainstream critics continue to hail Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) as a bold, groundbreaking, inventive director, and many believe Eminem has great potential as a movie star. But Ebert himself has concerns about the glorification of this music: "What has happened to our hopes, that young audiences now embrace such cheerless material, avoiding melody like the plague? At least in their puritanism they still permit rhymes."


Femme Fatale is the latest "erotic thriller" from the famous "Hitchcockian" director Brian De Palma. This film, which involves a beautiful and mysterious woman who tries to conceal her identity in order to hide from her enemies, is gaining high praise from De Palma fans for its style. But others, especially religious press critics, find it ludicrous and empty.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says the film is an "empty exercise in voyeurism. Ultimately there are too many characterization loose ends and not enough substance to his truncated story. A more recent generation of filmmakers has unfortunately surpassed De Palma in terms of violence and shock factor, so his trademark endings no longer come as a surprise, even if we still never quite know how things will turn out."

Phil Boatwright says, "De Palma is renown for imitating the Hitchcock method. Sometimes it works … sometimes it doesn't. With Femme Fatale, it works and it doesn't. Everything about the film seems repetitious, taking plot devices from past TV shows and films. The style suddenly is no longer an homage, but rather a rip-off. It does have a mesmerizing style but it is not a film you'll learn something from, nor will it elevate your spiritual growth."

Movieguide's critic calls it "a vile, slow-moving, confused, strange, artsy film … disjointed and slow-moving in many spots, and the protagonist is not even likeable."

Mainstream critics argued intensely over the film, some praising De Palma's style while others bemoaned its lack of substance. Sean Axmaker (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) says "If there was any question before, Femme Fatale is proof that, when unleashed, Brian De Palma is utterly mad: cinema mad, set-piece mad, style mad. It's a beautiful madness. It's hard to call it thrilling—these aren't characters you actually care about and De Palma isn't as concerned with building tension as playing visual games—but it sure sparkles."

Owen Glieberman (Entertainment Weekly) rants, "If you look hard, you can make out a story in Femme Fatale, but it has nothing to do with the senseless pileup of jewel thievery, shutterbug voyeurism, and leggy sex bombs so shallow and bad they seem to have come out of a 1978 copy of Hustler magazine. No, the story the movie tells is of Brian De Palma's addiction to the junk-calorie suspense tropes that have all but ruined his career. Once good (Scarface), even great (Carrie), he has become a director content to let his camera go through the motions."

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Far From Heaven stars Julianne Moore as a model housewife, according to 1957 standards, who discovers that her husband is an ashamed homosexual. She seeks solace in a relationship with a black friend. But this is as frowned on as homosexuality, and in the 1950s, many dealt with such difficult issues by pretending they did not exist. Writer-director Todd Haynes (Safe) pays tribute to filmmaker Douglas Sirk, famous for such 1950s favorites as All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News) calls it "an exquisite melodrama of the kind Sirk did best - but bringing out themes that were not as openly addressed in the movies of a half-century ago. [Haynes] respects his characters as they come up against societal barriers, and in focusing on their humanity has crafted a wistful, even poignant tale that lingers in the memory. The filmmaker however allows us to look at that 1950s society not with condescension based on our more 'sophisticated' contemporary perspective, but in a thoughtful way that prompts us to consider and hopefully reject our own prejudices."

Phil Boatwright addresses the film's exploration of prejudice against homosexuals: "While I certainly do not condone homosexuality, this film reminds us that our contempt must be toward sin, not those struggling with sin. The Pharisees were consumed with the law, but they knew nothing of God's grace, compassion or willingness to forgive and embrace sinners."

Regarding the film as a whole, he raves, "The look is gorgeous. The performances are engrossing. The direction, although often a little too coy and sometimes bordering on camp, is leisurely paced. And I think as viewers leave the theater they will be thoughtful of a time when bigotry was so poisonous that if a black child even dared to step into a 'white' pool, it would send such shockwaves that the pool would be evacuated. While reminding us of that period, the film subtly suggests we continue to examine feelings concerning racial strife."

Movieguide's critic says, "Unless you like eating propaganda for dinner, avoid this movie altogether." The reviewer continues, "Haynes unfolds this politically correct, liberal storyline in the packaging of a classic melodrama, hoping to draw in viewers by the film's aesthetic qualities and lure them into a deeper agreement with his anti-Christian, Romantic worldview."

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Mainstream critics are enthralled by Todd Haynes's mastery of period style and the subtle nuances of his storytelling. Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) is quite impressed by its convincing portrayal of 1957: "The music is right, the décor is right, the pitcher of Daiquiris is right … Every leaf on every tree has been personally schooled to redden and drop in the approved late-fifties manner. Everything from the crane shots to the genteel fades, as slow as twilight, shows a director hitting a new high in pastiche, and, if you are a film buff, Far from Heaven will be an all-body massage."

I'll share my thoughts on the film next week.


Still Cooking

The Santa Clause 2 continues to divide religious press critics due to its sprightly humor and its unfortunate emphasis on gift-getting. This week, Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) says, "A Santa Claus movie opening on All Saints Day. Isn't it bad enough that Wal-Mart puts up Christmas decorations before Oct. 15?" He calls it "a cute movie, but it lacks some of the very elements that made the first movie good. [It] has the look and feel of those Disney knockoffs that are coming out now. These are sequels that don't need to be made. One of the trailers shown preceding this movie was for The Jungle Book 2. Jungle Book does not need a sequel."


Side Dishes

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) praise the new documentary Family Fundamentals, a film that focuses on the experience of three homosexuals and their troubled family relationships.

"Documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong takes us into the world of three gay individuals who have suffered rejection from their Christian families. Viewed as 'living in sin' by those who are the closest to them, Brian Bennett, Susan Jester, and Brett Mathews each find themselves in circumstances conditionally cut off from those they love. It is hard to know who feels the greater pain, the parents or their adult children. Family Fundamentals neither condones nor condemns the gay lifestyles of these three adults, but it does focus on the paralysis and pain of lost relationships that have resulted. While the documentary may be about Susan, Brett, and Brian, the real story is about the difficulty we all face in truly loving our family and friends in the midst of our differences. There is no more 'fundamental' value in Christianity than loving each other unconditionally, and yet this is where we are all caught up short of the goal."

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Wayman and Conklin also provide helpful questions for post-viewing discussion: "When we express the goal of 'hating the sin but loving the sinner' how should that look in our lives and churches? What is necessary to 'hate the sin'? Does this include shunning the sinner? And if we agree it cannot mean we withhold love from the sinner or shun them from our lives, then how do we live with the tension—how do we weave integrity and love into a single fabric of relationship?"


Movies Christians Haven't Seen … But Should

In previous installments of this section, guest critics have celebrated the rich, resonant works of Ingmar Bergman and Werner Herzog. This week, guest critic Doug Cummings recommends another master filmmaker, Robert Bresson. Cummings has a B.A. in film from the University of Arizona and has maintained a website on movies and spirituality (Chiaroscuro) since 1998. Currently he's working as a graphic artist in Los Angeles.


As with Christianity, movies have a global life. And curious viewers who look beyond American pop culture will soon discover a world of international film reflecting the deepest truths of the human experience. "Among the people of my acquaintance who know the most about film," critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in 1998, "I doubt there are many—if any—who do not consider Robert Bresson to be the greatest of all living filmmakers." Perhaps surprising to some, this French auteur (1901-1999), whose films regularly top international critical lists, also offers a rare example of a quintessentially Christian cinema.

A Catholic Jansenist, Bresson's work infuses the concrete material world with ineffable and transcendent meanings, playing with storytelling ellipses and veiled character motivations to provoke viewer reflection. C.H. Dodd once defined a parable as "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought," a description which perfectly summarizes Bresson's work.

Believing that most movies are manipulative and superficial, Bresson subdued the surface emotions of his films. He used nonprofessional actors and made them speak with uninflected voices. He told simple stories about country priests and prisoners of war, petty thieves and abused donkeys. His style was "minimalist" or "essentialist—images of withdrawn faces and ritualized hands, terse dialogue, and rare bursts of music. To the casual viewer his films can seem dry or stilted; to close observers, his movies provide intensely moving portraits of human souls torn between sin and grace, free will and predeterminism.

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Bresson's early period, all available on video, is his most overtly theological:

Diary of a Country Priest (1951), based on George Bernanos' classic novel, presents a young rural priest who struggles to endure the dark night of the soul. It's a masterpiece of interior drama, told with a simple voiceover, which slowly reveals the hand of God through the everyday toils and muddy roads of the French countryside. (Kino International)

A Man Escaped (1957), subtitled "The Spirit Moves Where It Wills," constructs an elaborate metaphor for human activity and the role of the Divine as a French prisoner of war methodically breaks free from his Nazi prison. The protagonist gleans information through sounds alone, ritualistically constructs an escape route, and continually acts on faith. (New Yorker Films)

Pickpocket (1959) is based loosely on Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and reveals another kind of prison—man's compulsions—as a thief battles opposing tendencies of his soul, seeking redemption for his fallen nature while narrowly escaping the encroaching law. (New Yorker Films)

Au hasard, Balthazar (1966) is pure parable: A tale of a young donkey "blessed" by children and then condemned to a life of hardship and pain, thus paralleling the children's growth into adulthood. One of Bresson's many Christ figures, the donkey is at once alien to, and bearer of, humanity's sin. (This video is not officially distributed in the U.S., but regularly sells on eBay.)

Next week: More on Harry Potter, Half Past Dead, and other new releases.