Celtie Johnson would rather her daughter not inherit the hot air of Inherit the Wind.
The 1960 film, which recounts the story of the 1925 Scopes Trial, was recently shown in a sophomore biology class at Shawnee Mission East, a Kansas City high school. When Johnson heard what her daughter was "learning" in biology class, she and others took their protest to the school board. The teacher, they argued, had assigned the children to study "bigotry and propaganda."
Inherit the Wind portrays the trial of John Scopes, a schoolteacher accused of teaching evolution in a public school. The film is a fictionalization of the events, and Johnson argues that the film skews towards becoming "anti-Christian." The Kansas City Star quotes Johnson: "This movie has been touted as an American classic for so long, and no one has questioned it. We're adults now, and it's high time we question it."
Johnson says the film would be perfectly acceptable as a subject for discussion in other educational contexts, and a special committee created by the school district to review the complaint will soon reach a decision.
The Johnsons certainly have a point about the historical inaccuracies of Inherit the Wind, but their frustration with its apparent bias reflects a feeling widespread amongst Christians that Hollywood movies give them a bad rap. The church is frequently portrayed on the big screen in an unflattering light. Some go so far as to argue that this reflects a prevalent anti-Christian prejudice and a conspiracy in Hollywood to discredit the Church, while others argue that Christians often behave in ways that encourage the nasty stereotype.
Let me know: What are the most offensive and dismaying portrayals of Christians you have seen in the movies? Have any portrayals been accurate, admirable, and honorable? Do any particular filmmakers strike you as having an anti-Christian agenda? Do any seem to have a balanced and fair perspective?
I will include brief excerpts from some of the responses in next week's Film Forum, so please include your full name with your response. (If you do not wish to have your response quoted, please say so.)
Finding Nemo, the new progeny from the powerful marriage of Disney and Pixar, earned more than $70 million on its opening weekend, outperforming any other animated movie in history—including Disney/Pixar's own Toy Story films, A Bug's Life, and Monsters, Inc.
The good news is that Finding Nemo is not just a box office hit: it's a fantastic movie. Most critics agree that this is the studio's most impressive visual feat to date. And while Pixar fans will argue about which of the studio's stories they like best (I'm partial to Toy Story 2), no one can deny the powerful emotions the plot is stirring in viewers both young and old. The storytellers at Pixar have their roots in the best storytelling of the Disney tradition. There are echoes of Bambi, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and even The Rescuers.
After the movie, parents and children alike may find themselves pondering some unexpected issues. Nemo is full of situations that, although portrayed underwater, resonate with lessons for our daily lives above sea level. The film explores obedience, freedom, loss, healing, patience, and compassion. There are the beginnings of a remarkable love story forming by the end. And although the film is not heavy-handed about it, there is just enough tongue-in-cheek talk about fish being "friends—not food" that questions about vegetarians might come up at the dinner table.
The image that startled me above all came early in the film. We see Marlin, the proud father, assuring his son that everything will be all right while Nemo is still in an embryonic state, curled and quivering in his translucent egg. It's a beautiful image. It is also underlines the idea that life is beautiful and significant even before a baby "hatches" into the world.
Religious press critics are all raving about the film.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "an enchanting fable about courage, self-sacrifice and the power of love to overcome insurmountable odds."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees, saying that Nemo leaves Pixar's previous works "in its wake. Pixar excels in developing multidimensional characters and relationships that they use to drive their story forward and provide depth and substance to their imaginative tale. Every character, no matter how briefly they appear, has a reason for being there."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) writes, "Not only are the underwater scenes brilliant and fascinating, but the adventures on dry land prove to be challenging … and intense as well."
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says the movie "captures your heart, your mind and your soul and will hold viewers breathless until the fantastic 'fin-ish.'" He says the script "should become required reading for any hopeful scriptwriters. The story and characters are also filled with lots of family-friendly humor. Best of all, the movie is full of great moral values. It … could cause the most hard-hearted father to lighten up and cry."
Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says he's seen what "may well be the most lavish animation seen to date on the big screen. There's very little wrong with Finding Nemo, and there's lots to learn from and enjoy."
Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) raves, "Children will love this movie. My 6-year-old was enraptured by it, and my 12-year-old was not bored in the least. Parents, however—and fathers specifically—should truly enjoy this movie."
Mainstream press critics know a good thing when they see it. They are celebrating Nemo as one of the finest films released so far this year. You can scan archives of their reviews in two formats at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.
You would think that the masterminds of movie heists would learn to distrust their own people. What would a heist movie be without a double-cross?
That's exactly what happens to Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg). Making off with loads of gold bullion from an Italian palazzo, Charlie and his cronies (Seth Green, Jason Statham, Mos Def, and Donald Sutherland) are tricked by one of their own (Edward Norton). So the team regroups, joins forces with an attractive safecracker (Charlize Theron), and heads for California to go for the gold all over again, and get revenge along the way.
Sound like a typical film about burglars? The Italian Job is, in fact, a loose remake of a 1969 film bearing the same title. This version boasts a lot of action, including a thrilling high-speed pursuit with Mini Coopers that is sure to boost sales of the trendy little cars.
But thrills and clever heists are not enough to impress most religious press critics. Some find this Job mediocre, while others find it unethical.
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) claims, "There's little sense of danger in this film. Everything looks and feels so precisely choreographed that whatever dramatic tension might have existed has long since been painted over with a bland shade of predictability."
Movieguide's critic condemns the film for "a pagan worldview that extols revenge, stealing and greed. The lightweight quality of this movie masks a surprising degree of carelessness, lust, sin, and blasphemy—even for a heist movie."
Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) says, "Teens … will likely internalize the message that it doesn't matter if you do wrong things just as long as you have the right motivation. A clear violation of Ephesians 4:28 and Deuteronomy 5:19."
But Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) finds something to admire. "The best heist films appeal to audiences not so much through their action—though that's always a draw—but through their teamwork. This remake keeps raising tension and stakes in a way most films find incredibly difficult. For a heist film, it definitely gets the job done."
Michael Medved (Crosswalk) lets this one off the hook: "The movie effectively glamorizes criminality. Nevertheless … Gray succeeds in creating a diverting fantasy that operates by its own rules, and provides nearly two hours of forget-your-troubles entertainment. If you'll feel guilty for spending your time in the dark rooting for a group of irresistibly appealing, mostly amoral operators pulling off their unlikely heists, then you'll walk out of The Italian Job as a tormented wretch. Otherwise … it's an exhilarating ride."
The week's second most popular film caused a curious phenomenon: a flood of phone calls to God.
Nevertheless, there is still some grumbling amongst Christian moviegoers about the new Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty because it portrays a hero displaying disrespect for God's power. Further, he swears, he lives with his girlfriend, and behaves rather recklessly in other ways.
But some Christian film critics are defending the film against such flack.
Frederick Davis (Hollywood Jesus) says, "I expected it to make me very angry." But the finished product surprised him. "Some complain that this film doesn't clearly present the Gospel of Jesus, and that's true, it doesn't. But it does focus on man's weakness in contrast with God's wisdom and love. In fact, Bruce ultimately realizes that true love for someone else comes only through seeing him or her through God's eyes. God, as presented in this film, is loving, wise, graceful, and yes, holy."
The same page offers an in-depth interview with director Tom Shadyac, who defends the main character. "We don't start with perfect people in movies," he argues. "We start with imperfect people, and then they have to go on a journey. Let's read the Bible and see how many people cohabitated and did imperfect things. There is shadow in the movie, and the shadow helps the light. So we are not espousing any life style. We are not telling people, 'Now this is how to live!' We were telling a story."
Christian critics still trying to make sense of The Matrix Reloaded
The struggle to discern what The Matrix Reloaded is really about is keeping religious press critics busy, just as the original film in the franchise inspired Christians to claim it as a religious allegory.
Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) finds that the new film subverts the very messiah-story that led so many believers to celebrate the original. "The Matrix Reloaded may cause Christian fans to rethink their appropriation of Neo's story, not least because the new film seems to undermine the very messianic overtones of the first film. The new film asks whether there is any real difference between Fate and the Matrix—it asks, in effect, whether prophecies and promises of salvation may be just another form of control. Alas, pondering these questions is not as fun as it used to be, since The Matrix Reloaded is basically just one fight scene after another, with little to give them the meaning or narrative purpose that the fight scenes in the first film had."
Jamey Bennett (RazorMouth) praises and defends the film. "Reloaded brings philosophical issues to the forefront of our culture, raising questions of destiny, choice, and purpose."
But Joel McDurmon (RazorMouth) criticizes the film on several counts. First, he argues that the plot offers chaos over coherence. But he's more upset that the film is "the latest cutting edge attempt to subsume Christian ideas under the umbrella of New Age thought … Reloaded is the perfect idol of our generation. Aimed at the teen to young-adult audience, it has the potential to intrude the man-deifying heresies of Gnosticism, pantheism, etc., in the minds of young Christians under the guise of what's cool."
In last week's Dick Staub Interview, Chris Seay, coauthor of The Gospel Reloaded, said, "I cringed when I would hear people say that The Matrix was a Christian film, because of all the other religious traditions that are represented in The Matrix. We need to be really careful though, [because] the majority of the Christian metaphors are actually a Gnostic Christian influence and not really mainstream orthodox Christianity." Still, he concludes, "To leave behind doubt and to embrace faith is really what this movie is about."
Frankly, I found the film more tedious that tantalizing. But I saw it a second time this week in order to get past the sensory overload of its excessive action sequences and concentrate on its philosophical riddles. Reloaded raises more questions than it answers, calling into question whether the Christ-figure is really a messiah at all, whether he is acting with freewill or merely following metaphysical orders, and whether all religions might be merely systems of control that keep us blind and subservient. I have a discomforting suspicion that the film will not conclude that there is any Higher Power worth serving. It seems much more interested in the development of someone "merely human" into some kind of superman rather than emphasizing humanity's need for a savior. Morpheus staggers offscreen, devastated by what he perceives as the failure of his beliefs. But clearly, he must pick up and go on before all is lost. Similarly, Neo scolds one of his fanboy-disciples: "I didn't save you. You saved yourself."
I hope I'm wrong. Where do you think the series is headed?
Next week: The best and worst of big-screen Christian characters.
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