Writer/director Gary Ross (Big, Dave, Pleasantville) may have another winner on his hands. Seabiscuit is thrilling audiences with its tale of an underdog (underhorse?) that became an inspiration to Americans in the late '30s. Rumor has it that the movie can make a grown man cry.

But this horse might not reach its stride until its second week, as word-of-mouth takes its course. Seabiscuit took fifth place at the box office over the weekend, behind such critically maligned stinkers as Bad Boys 2, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, and the much-praised summer adventure film Pirates of the Caribbean. (Meanwhile, Pixar's animated hit Finding Nemo went on to become the biggest box-office cartoon of all time, passing The Lion King's total of $312.8 million.)

Seabiscuit stars Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski) as owner Charles Howard, Oscar-winner Chris Cooper (Adaptation) as talented trainer Tom Smith, and Spiderman's Tobey Maguire as Johnny Pollard, the not-so-little jockey that could.

All three actors earn applause from critics, many of whom predict that the film could have a shot at an Oscar nomination. Critics in the religious press are fairly impressed as well, posting only a few mild cautions and complaints.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says the film is "buoyed by nuanced performances," riveting, and handsomely shot. The story, she says, "serves as a metaphor for how the country was able to weather the Depression and survive. It's a very American story about the land of opportunity and second chances."

In spite of these strengths, Pare says the horse loses its natural grace at the end. "Distressingly, the film's climactic race relies more on swelling music than thrilling visuals."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) agrees: "It stumbles a bit near the finish line, when it becomes overly sentimental and anticlimactic. [But] Seabiscuit is a feel-good film that earns its sentiment, and the craft on display, particularly in the performances of Bridges and Cooper, is testimony to the best Hollywood offers."

Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "While not great moviemaking, Seabiscuit has a great subject and a great story to tell, and its winning theme of the little guy with the heart of a champion may just leave you feeling great as well."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) raves, "While the acting of this fine cast is commendable, it by no means steals focus from the reason to see the film. The star of this film is, and always has been, the story itself. If you or any member of your family is unfamiliar with the Seabiscuit saga, I urge you to see this movie."

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Running the other way, Movieguide's critic says, "The good feelings generated by the movie's moral, redemptive, and patriotic worldview are spoiled by foul language, sexual content, and a brief socialist element or two."

While she cautions parents not to take their younger children, Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "It's always good for the soul to see a true story about perseverance, overcoming the odds, and being renewed with a little hope and love." But she too is upset that the filmmakers included foul language: "Why screenwriters think that cursing God and Jesus numerous times throughout a movie would add anything to the story is insulting."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) is pleased to see audiences cheering "a film of substance during a summer movie season dominated by sequels, explosions, special effects and bathroom humor." He joins the chorus of complaint, however, faulting it for showing characters drinking alcohol and spending time at a brothel. Perhaps this true story would have made a better film if it had been less realistic.

Strangely, those critics upset about the language and the brothel scene register little or no complaint about the ethical indiscretion at the center of the film. Mainstream critic Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) picks up on that: "If Seabiscuit has a weakness, it's the movie's curious indifference to betting." He concludes that he "liked the movie a whole lot without quite loving it. Ross and his cinematographer, John Schwartzman, get amazingly close to the action. The movie gives me a much better sense of how difficult and dangerous it is to ride one of those grand animals in a race."

David Denby (New Yorker) calls the film "effective and satisfying—both realistic and poetic, and always vivid emotionally." But he frowns at "an element of Oscar-grabbing opportunism and bullying…. When a director exploits our hardwired responses to pathos, he fails, so to speak, a test of honor. For all his skill and tact, Gary Ross often fails in that way. At its worst, the triumphalism of Seabiscuit is not far from the shiny American glow emanating from an official Presidential-campaign film."

Steve Salier (UPI) is harsher on the film. "Seabiscuit … turns out to be 2003's Road to Perdition: a gorgeous but dramatically inert lump of summer Oscar-bait. Ross's long, sentimental, and predictable script is an object lesson in how not to adapt a good book."

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Second Croftpoor on craft
Angelina Jolie is back flaunting her physique in another action movie aimed at audiences of adolescent boys. Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life follows the further adventures of video game heroine Lara Croft in a continent-hopping quest to find the legendary Pandora's Box and keep it out of the hands of malevolent Chinese crime lords and a villain who wants to use the box as a weapon of mass destruction.

Director Jan De Bont (Speed) piles on references to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but critics claim that such allusions fail to elevate the adventure to Indiana Jones-level quality.

"There's plenty to look at for two hours but there's not much to enjoy," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The film is a bore, plodding on from plot point to plot point with little energy and less purpose. Never having played a video game featuring Lara Croft, I have no idea how faithful this film is to the spirit of the character. All I know is if the game is anything like the movie, I'll stick with Donkey Kong."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) calls it "noisy, numbing eye candy that dares us to care a lick about what's going on." Smithouser is troubled by the ongoing trend of films that "pit men and women against each other in brutal hand-to-hand combat, sometimes to the death, and often with sexual overtones."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "At the end of the day there are only two types of moviegoers: those who care if Lara Croft ever finds Pandora's fabled box and those who do not. For those who do … The Cradle of Life is sheer escapist fun. For those who do not, [the film] amounts to little more than a ridiculous exercise in excess."

Lisa Rice and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) go easy on it: "The movie contains some fun, but campy, action sequences, a mixed pagan worldview, and some scary scenes with monsters."

Most criticshopeGame Over translates to "franchise over"
Last week, Film Forum featured early reviews of the third installment in Richard Rodriguez's popular Spy Kids series. Those reviews were generally positive; critics voiced their praise for the movie's virtues.

This week, however, most critics are saying that good morals do not necessarily mean a good movie.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the series "has fallen flat on its sprockets with the third installment. [It] imparts a positive message about the importance of family, clearly condemning vengeance and extolling forgiveness. However, these laudable sentiments are consistently undermined by the film's saccharine sentimentality and preachy tone."

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Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "It's cheerful, energetic, inoffensive, visually stimulating… . I was never bored." But he concludes that, like the second Spy Kids film, this one falls short of the original.

Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) observes, "Rodriguez gives lessons on the importance of working together and at one point even the importance of spirituality and family. There are also lessons on the importance of recognizing that even the bad things that happen can have positive influences and messages if one will but look for them." He still concludes, "It is weak and difficult to watch."

Highly aggravated, Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says it "may not be the worst movie of the summer (the competition is, after all, ferocious), but it is almost certainly the most annoying. Not even the most riveting gimmick, however, could save a movie so sloppily and childishly scripted, and with such an incoherent and slapdash plot."

But J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) disagrees. "Though Spy Kids 3-D is clunky on occasion … it has a joy we rarely see in the movies. This is a group of actors and filmmakers having fun, and the audience joins right in." Parks is especially impressed with what he sees through the 3-D glasses: "There are scenes when things start flying at the audience for no reason other than to show off. Usually, I'd be skeptical of moments like that, but here they have an exhilarating impact."

Some praise it primarily for what the movie does not have. Caroline Mooney (Christian Spotlight) praises the film for having "zero profanity, sensuality, and extremely mild violence."

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) is likewise pleased to find "zero profanity, zero sexual content and zero drug/alcohol content. And there's even a good moral to walk away with. Not bad for a virtually plotless exercise in 3-D diversion."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk)is not so pleased. "I'm torn on this movie because on the one hand, the story supports family and sticking together—which I like. But the drab colors, weird characters, goofy plot and even goofier [Sylvester] Stallone take this trilogy back a step."

Critics find Northforka little tough to chew
Gaining the most puzzled reviews of the week is Northfork, the new drama from Mark and Michael Polish, the team responsible for two other quirky dramas about life in the Midwest: Twin Falls, Idaho and Jackpot. This time they have an all-star cast that includes James Woods, Nick Nolte, Claire Forlani, Daryl Hannah, Anthony Edwards, and Peter Coyote.

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The story takes place in 1955. A government agent and his son travel to the small town of Northfork to persuade the town's residents to move away before a deteriorating dam floods the area. While they are there, they encounter a temperamental cleric, a man building an ark, a dying orphan boy, and mysterious events surrounding the appearance of angels.

Movieguide's critic calls the film "a weird, sometimes pretentious, allegorical fantasy." The reviewer concludes, "The movie has a strong spiritual weight to it, including some biblical and Christian references, but its premise is a bit murky. It's doubtful that many viewers will want to penetrate the murk. Perhaps the filmmakers just want their movie to be experienced rather than interpreted."

Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) suggests other possibilities, "For many it may be too muddled and nebulous. Many may wade into it and just see pretension but discover that there is no there there. Many others will find something in this that speaks to them and leads them on to higher ground."

And David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a tapestry of hauntingly evocative visuals skillfully woven together as an elegiac meditation on faith and death. Like all good works of art, Northfork can be interpreted in several ways. One possible interpretation is that the film is a eulogy for the openness of the West and its expansive way of life—with the stone structure of the hydroelectric plant serving as its tombstone. For Christians, it may be more interesting to see the film as an apt metaphor for the mystery of death."

The film is finding some enthusiastic supporters in the mainstream. Roger Ebert writes, "There has never been a movie quite like Northfork, but if you wanted to put it on a list, you would also include Days of Heaven and Wings of Desire. It has the desolate open spaces of the first, the angels of the second, and the feeling in both of deep sadness and pity. The movie is visionary and elegiac, more a fable than a story. Northfork is not an entertaining film so much as an entrancing one."

Bob Dylanis Masked and Anonymous
Comedy writer Larry Charles (Mad About You, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) and legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan have collaborated for a most unlikely film.

Masked and Anonymous is a surreal sort of fairy tale, in which a kingdom that faintly resembles the U.S. at its worst forces a legendary and enigmatic folk singer (guess who) to come out of retirement and play a benefit concert. An impressive cast of talents signed on for the project, including Jeff Bridges, Ed Harris, Jessica Lange, and John Goodman.

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Critics, however, are bewildered and bothered by this confounding film.

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) lowers the boom. "Harking back to the rock 'n' roll movies of the 1970s, this ensemble piece is like a narcissistic trip down memory lane. The film is incoherent and meandering. It attempts to make a sociopolitical statement, but instead bores with its meaningless platitudes and diatribes about the plight of the oppressed and the existential meaning of life. The dialogue is pretentious and self-consciously cute, making the exchanges between the actors unnatural. It is laced with assertions that sound vaguely religious, yet carry no real meaning whatsoever."

Mainstream press critics are criticizing the film as well. Kevin Thomas (Los Angeles Times) says, "The movie … attempts to be prophetic and put-on at the same time, thus falling into the ancient snare of trying to have it both ways—and being unable to pull it off. The look of the film is great, the soundtrack glorious, but more often than not the dialogue is atrocious, featuring a lot of long-winded gobbledygook."

But Stephanie Zacharek (Salon) suggests that Bob Dylan fans may see more going on in the film than others do. The film, she says, "is an exhilarating and sometimes puzzling jumble that explores the dangers of power, the nature of Americana and the Bob Dylan myth, among many, many other things. One of the movie's wonders is the way it recontextualizes the work and legend of Dylan. And another is the way it reminds us that Dylan is, first if not foremost, a guy with a sense of humor. [It is], inadvertently, about how much Dylan has given us. It is also, again inadvertently, about what we've taken away from him. The whole movie is one giant in-joke about Dylan's career and his destiny."

Mel's Messiahdrama causes mayhem among critics who have seen it
Mel Gibson's latest project, The Passion, which stars Jim Caviezel (Frequency, Pay It Forward) as Jesus, is being shown to a select group of industry insiders and critics. The screenings have caused an eruption of debate and differing opinions on the Internet.

Joseph Farah (WorldNetDaily) raves, "[The film] moved me, changed me, inspired me and deepened my faith. It's not an easy picture to watch. It's grueling, in fact. It's torturous—as it should be under the circumstances. It's the story of inhuman suffering willingly accepted in the ultimate substitutional sacrifice. It's hard to watch such graphic depictions of a man suffering and dying—even when you know the ultimate outcome. But it is worth it. This is horror we all need to see and understand. This is a death that shouldn't be glossed over."

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He adds, "Let me tell my Jewish friends: You have nothing to worry about in this movie. Drop it. Forget it. Don't waste another minute concerning yourselves with it. It is a wonderful, inspirational Christian movie that in no way takes any potshots at the Jews as a people."

Online columnist Matt Drudge (The Drudge Report) also turned in his positive report on a screening.

But controversy over the film continues to build, due to testimonies like the one posted by Paula Fredricksen at The New Republic (you can read the text here) which describes it as an "anti-historical, anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic film."

Columnist David Poland (The Hot Button) offers advice to director Mel Gibson on how to handle the controversy.

Next week:Dirty Pretty Things, I Capture the Castle, Gigli, American Wedding, and more.