In the onslaught of this year's substandard films, moviegoers might easily miss a few gems worth seeking out. One is the delightfully quirky and colorful parable The Man Without a Past, from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. The film, which was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2002 Academy Awards, and has picked up several other honors in its world tour, is opening in limited release across the country.

The film opens with a man (Markku Peltola) getting off a train in Helsinki, where he is attacked by thugs. Written off as dead by his doctors, this unfortunate traveler returns to consciousness, but not to his memories. He flees the hospital and lands in the care of a kindhearted family who share their meager meals and the shambles of their home with him. With their help and the ministry of the Salvation Army, the enigmatic "M" finds enough strength and confidence to strike up a cautious romance with one of the ladies who works in the soup kitchen. Irma (Kati Outinen) quickly recognizes a large and gentle heart in the weather-beaten stranger, and she struggles with her desire to know him better and her duty to remain a restrained, dutiful servant of the Salvation Army. Eventually her friendship will be the key to helping M out of the trouble that comes from not having a name or a history.

Peltola, who has the road-weary authority and cool of Johnny Cash, is a wonderfully large and likeable screen presence. He and Outinen make M and Irma a charming couple. At times the camera captures the light of a fairy-tale, teasing us with bizarre supporting characters interesting enough to serve as the subjects of a series of films. One scene echoes The Fisher King directly, as the violent punks return to the scene of their earlier crime only to be ambushed by a host of armed homeless men rising up like phantoms from dark corners.

Viewers accustomed to the camera-ready faces of Hollywood actors will delight in the director's love of time-worn, detailed, fascinating faces. Kaurismäki's fondness for American rock & roll is obvious as well. Watching M guide the somber Salvation Army singers out of their traditional hymns and into something resembling a Finnish Dire Straits is an unexpected pleasure, especially when the group gains an unlikely lead singer.

With its rusty old railroads and dingy metal canisters where the downtrodden dwell, Man Without a Past finds color, surprise, and joy in the simplicity of these struggling Helsinki outcasts. Their exchanges and support for each other in the shadow of the city's neglect resonate with the lessons of a Bible story or a book of old folk tales. (One review site quotes Kaurismäki as confessing, "I eat Bibles for breakfast.") Themes of resurrection, doing unto others, planning carefully for the future, and healing old wounds with forgiveness weave together to create storytelling—like Babette's Feast, Ordet, and Not of This World—that may not gain a large audience, but it will be remembered and even treasured by those who discover it.

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Peter T. Chattaway's review at Books & Culture, which Film Forum mentioned a few weeks back, offers a deeper look at the way M's journey has Christlike connotations.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Kaurismäki observes his characters with a wry eye and a gentle, almost melancholy compassion infused with subtle humor. The combination of soulful Finnish visuals, spare dialogue and measured sentimentality leads to a deftly resonant film that stands apart from the many Hollywood films that have used a character with amnesia as a gimmicky plot device."

Movieguide's critic says the movie's rave reviews are surprising for two reasons. "One, it is almost like a home movie, although it is very winsome. Two, it is unabashedly pro-Christian and pro-Salvation Army. What a joy it is to see the Gospel proclaimed and Christians commended in such a wonderful way."

Peruse the raves of mainstream critics here.

The Real Cancun captures real superficiality, real stupidity

There's a movie opening soon called Dumb and Dumberer, but it is unlikely that the film will match the brazen foolishness on display in The Real Cancun, which opened this week. There's a big difference, however: the characters in Dumberer are fictional, and they're supposed to be stupid, whereas Cancun glorifies its shallow sensualists and romanticizes reckless behavior in its carefully calculated "reality."

Someone should confront MTV's movie division on its false advertising. This movie, a spinoff of a popular reality-television show called The Real World, is not presenting the "real" anything. For one thing, these young and glamorous hedonists have been thrown together in a context calculated to sensationalize their beach-ready bodies and their eagerness to shed their clothes and moral convictions. Further, the film focuses only on the "fun" of now and not the larger perspective of how actions have consequences.

Is there anything good to say about such a venture? Perhaps. It appears to be failing at the box office. One critic, said in a news brief at, "It's not nice to savor other peoples' failures, but the idea of movie theaters being invaded by R-rated versions of reality TV shows is a SARS scare in its own right."

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Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says, "It comes across like a way-too-long TV episode [of The Real World] doused with lots of extra sex, nudity, alcohol and obscenity. Onscreen, spring break is fun, fun, fun, and daddy never takes the T-bird away. Consider The Real Cancun the equivalent of a serious case of alcohol poisoning."

Some mainstream critics actually approved of the film, but most had fun taking potshots at an easy target. You can review their reviews here.

It Runs in the Family features finer points of a dysfunctional family

Acting legends Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas join forces this week with a dramedy about the fractured Gromberg family. It Runs in the Family's director, Fred Shepisi, was responsible for the charming comedy Roxanne and 2001's deeply moving drama about aging and wounded relationships, Last Orders.

Religious film critics are divided over the movie, some praising its emphasis on faithfulness and unity, others condemning it for portraying characters who behave like fallen human beings.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "It is a slow moving film but one that is rich in relationships as well as being honest regarding the family dynamic. The Grombergs may not be the Bradys or Ozzie and Harriet but who among us is? Their family, as odd and rife with problems as it is, is still bound together by love."

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) cautions families that there is plenty of profanity and reckless behavior on display. But the news isn't all bad. "The incessantly bickering Grombergs come across like a less cartoonish version of Everybody Loves Raymond's Barone clan. Yet beneath their animosity lies a sense of commitment so strong it's almost tangible. Instead of going their separate ways when drug charges, death, and allegations of an affair loom large, everyone pulls together, strengthened by Alex's pledge that 'We're a family and we're going to figure it out together.' It's a sentiment our ease-addicted culture needs to internalize."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The on-screen chemistry of … Kirk and Michael Douglas facilitates the theme of reconciliation to emerge with emotional honesty despite the at times schmaltzy sentimentality of the narrative. The film's theme of forgiveness, as well as the profamily message it espouses, make [the movie's] saccharine moments easy pills to swallow—even to applaud." He also lauds the film's portrayal of family prayer, noting that Hollywood is usually averse to including "traditional religious practices for any purpose other than mockery."

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Holly McClure (Crosswalk) is not so enthusiastic. "I was disappointed that this movie wasn't better considering the talent behind it."

Movieguide's critic warns, "They talk about character, but do not exhibit it. They create the wrong impression of what life is like at every turn. One thinks of the impact films have overseas, where movies have become the primary ambassadors for the United States. If the Muslim nations ever wanted a reason to think of our country as immoral and out of control, this movie will give it to them."

You can scan the primarily negative reviews of mainstream critics here.

Scares and twists of Identity thrill some, trouble others

In Identity, the new thriller by James Mangold (Kate and Leopold), John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Alfred Molina, and Amanda Peet play some of the characters trapped in a nightmare at an out-of-the-way hotel on a dark and stormy night. As the rain pours, one by one the tenants at the hotel are slain by a mysterious and elusive villain. As the unusual travelers slowly begin to uncover what they all have in common, they also begin to suspect that they cannot trust each other, and that locking their doors may not be enough to save them.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) reports, "With a good cast and a psychological twist on a classic premise, Identity has the goods which will please fans of the genre. For those who, like me, don't much care for tense scenes designed to scare or to see images of death and mutilation, my only suggestion would be to keep one eye on the exit and the other eye firmly closed … at least until the lights come up."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "This is psychological horror for audiences insulted by lazy movies—including today's self-referential screamers—mired in genre clichés. Identity earns style points for trying something different and keeping viewers off-balance with a wild payoff. It could have been scary and suspenseful without the downpour of violence, blood, and raw language."

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says the "talented cast is wasted in [this] bogus horror thriller. While the movie's dark, rain-slicked visuals are appropriately moody, plot holes soon envelop the narrative and diminish suspense, only to lead to an exasperating denouement."

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Movieguide's critic says, "Identity is for people who just don't get enough violence on TV. Nerve jangling, shocking, and knee jerking in its intensity (all in just the first 10 minutes), viewers may well indeed wonder how they will last through the other eighty minutes of the movie! There is … no real redemptive point to this movie, which includes enough blood and gore to sicken Sam Peckinpah."

Mainstream critics are arguing about whether the film succeeds or fails here.

New Edward Burns thriller has Confidence, lacks conscience

James Foley's new crime caper Confidence stars Ed Burns (Saving Private Ryan) as a skilled and stylish con man. In his latest heist, our antihero accidentally crosses "the King," a jittery and vengeful mob boss played by Dustin Hoffman. To get himself out of his dangerous predicament, he invites the King to be a part of his next endeavor, a proposal that proves perilously complicated. These two talented actors are joined by Rachel Weisz (About a Boy, The Mummy), Paul Giamatti, Andy Garcia, and Luis Guzman (The Count of Monte Cristo) in an intense, unpredictable, and perhaps amoral thriller.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) writes, "The narrative is intriguingly structured in Doug Jung's screenplay, but its self-satisfied tone and smug admiration for its brutal, criminal characters should not endear it to viewers. Not only are the crooks extremely greedy, but [they] show no hesitation to kill to get the big bucks. When such films are presented as simply a comic fantasy, a crime-does-pay conclusion can be taken with a grain of salt, but Confidence comes across as grounded in reality, and the film seems most impressed with its own vicious cleverness and cynical worldview."

"Confidence sits somewhere in the middle of the pack of heist/sting movies," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "It isn't as clever or enjoyable as The Sting or even last year's Heist. But it could have been far worse than it is. While the totality of the film is a bit disappointing, there are individual segments which are quite entertaining. Even with Hoffman's scene-stealing characterization, this remains Ed Burns' movie. He [gives] nothing away while pulling us in for the ride."

Mainstream critics offer mostly ho-hum reviews here.

Raising Victor Vargas pairs an unlikely young couple

Raising Victor Vargas is a naturalistic new film by director Peter Sollett, who is receiving rave reviews from mainstream critics for this delicate coming-of-age tale. The film focuses on Vargas (Victor Rasuk) and his family, who live in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When the unpopular boy starts flirting with the beautiful and popular Judy (Judy Marte), the two find unlikely advantages in an unconventional friendship. Inevitably, their feelings for each other grow stronger, and Victor's Catholic grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) protests.

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J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) writes, "Recalling other small films about kids growing up, like George Washington and Our Song (both favorites of mine), Raising Victor Vargas has a naturalism that is welcome in our age of Disneyfied artificiality."

Movieguide's critic calls it "a winsome character study of a Dominican Republic family living in New York City … a sweet romance." Although the characters' occasionally foul language draws a rebuke, the reviewer does argue that the film has "a light Christian worldview" because "a scene in a church appears to positively influence Victor."

Mainstream critics are praising the film as one of the year's best and most rewarding releases so far. You can scan their reviews here.

Christian critics continue to hail Holes, Levity, and other recent releases

Director Andrew Davis's complex and rewarding new family adventure film Holes is still gleaning good reviews from Christian critics. Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "Holes is one of the few children's books I've read as an adult that made me wish I'd been able to read it as a kid. Wry humor, thrills, and vividly bizarre details figure in a convoluted, almost epic plot in which seemingly unrelated elements are cleverly dovetailed into a satisfying, redemptive climax that takes on a weight of destiny. All of this is effectively brought to the screen. Holes is easily one of Hollywood's most challenging and intellectually engaging family films in recent years. Davis and Sachar deserve credit for refusing to dumb down the story and delivering a film that will reward repeated viewing."

Similarly, Christian columnist Terry Mattingly finds echoes of God's grace throughout the film.

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) echoes the praise of other religious press critics for Ed Solomon's sobering drama Levity. Vaughn writes, "Levity is perhaps a quintessential Billy Bob Thornton film. Themes of forgiveness, redemption, goodness, caring, justice, violence, choices, history—they infuse Thornton's body of work and make for meaningful films. Each member of the cast turns in a stellar performance. Levity is grounded by many themes, perhaps none more important than the destroying and saving of worlds and souls. Solomon has understood that the best way to explore that elemental matter is to walk alongside a man capable of both destroying and saving."

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And Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) writes, "Levity is uncomfortable territory. It's a probing, searching movie that connects us with our own sense of guilt and our search for grace. It reminds us that these are processes, that they are part of a journey, not subject to a quick fix. It invites us to be honest about our own misdeeds and our own broken relationships."

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) praises Nick Nolte's "captivating title performance" in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief. But he gives the movie bad marks: "While it's fine on seedy atmosphere and stunning Riviera visuals, eventually its ever murkier narrative turns wear the audience out—and may leave them puzzled by the morally ambiguous conclusion."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) cautions viewers not to stumble into Laurel Canyon, which he says "espouses that most dubious of chestnuts—that self-fulfillment hinges on jettisoning social convention and embracing libertinism. This view … liberation via libertinism … has grown a bit long in the tooth. Its proponents have been singing the same tune since film critics wore bowler hats. Thankfully, this disagreeable film does little to bolster the attractiveness of their argument."

Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) sat through a new slasher-thriller and writes, "If you are expecting a great art film, compelling story, inspirational movie or entertaining experience, don't go see The House of 1,000 Corpses."

He does, however, find a worthwhile observation in what he sums up as a dispiriting film. The film's portrayal of a mean-spirited church insensitive to the lost is, to Furches, partly the fault of the church in the real world. "While this movie is hard to watch, the reality … should hit home for most Christians who refuse to be a point of light to the world around them. We have not done a good job of showing the world Jesus' love by being honest examples of that love. It seems to me that when seeing this type of portrayal … at the very least we owe someone an apology and … an effort to start living a life that will change the message. Instead we tend to criticize and ostracize the world for being what they should be without Christ."

Movieguide's critic says the flick "lacks inspiration. The movie continues the terrible trend of contemporary horror movies, where the evil mad killers defeat all of their evil victims, no matter how hard they try to escape. The movie also contains plenty of strong foul language, many gory images, and nudity."

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Paul Chinn (Relevant) confesses, "I'm a fan of cheesy, shoddy horror. The bad acting, the laughable special effects and the campy dialogue can make for some very memorable film viewing." But now that he has seen Rob Zombie's bloodfest, he writes, "House of 1,000 Corpses is more than bad. It's dreadful. It's vile and offensive in its ineptitude. It is so loud, so brash, so idiotic. It makes the Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like Ben-Hur."

Next week: Is the season's first action-packed blockbuster-to-be a parable about persecuted Christians? Or marginalized homosexuals? Critics voice their interpretations of X2, which is earning comparisons to such classic sequels as The Empire Strikes Back and The Wrath of Khan.