Criminal bloodshed and the proper response to it are central themes in two of this week's new releases. Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill—Vol. 1 is primarily concerned with the styles, varieties of combat, and other genre conventions of kung-fu and gunslinger revenge epics. And Clint Eastwood takes the moral implications "eye-for-an-eye" much more seriously in his moody drama Mystic River.
Meanwhile, as cries of anti-Semitism continue to rise concerning Mel Gibson's upcoming film about Jesus, now the film's violent nature is becoming controversial as well.
(Note: In a story at Yahoo News, it appears that the title of the film has changed. It is now apparently called The Passion of Christ.)
At Easterblogg, Gregg Easterbrook of The New Republic writes that "Gibson has a reputation for movies that revel in gore, so there's legitimate worry that The Passion will depict an over-the-top, splatter-movie Hollywood version of Christ's final hours; and Gibson will sell this as historically accurate 'truth' when it is just one of many possible interpretations of an event no one can be sure about."
Elsewhere, Frederica Matthewes-Green is similarly concerned about how much Gibson plans to dwell on the violent means by which Christ was killed. "It's a mark of our age that we don't believe something is realistic unless it is brutal. But there's another factor to consider. When the four evangelists were writing their own accounts of the Passion, they didn't take Gibson's approach. In fact, the descriptions of Jesus' beating and crucifixion are as minimal as the writers can make them. Instead of appealing to our empathy, they invite us to awesome wonder, because they had a different understanding of the meaning of his suffering."
At the Catholic News Service, Archbishop Stefan Soroka of the Ukrainian Archdiocese of Philadelphia has seen the movie, and thus can report on the film itself. His response? "[It's a] shallow presentation on the life of Jesus and the significance of the resurrection. Frankly, without the hype, this movie will not interest many viewers because it fails to offer hope. I would not recommend the movie to my friends nor to the faithful—and particularly the young—because the film, while interesting in the way some things are portrayed, particularly evil, lacks content to really engage my interest."
Tarantino cuts Kill Bill in two; Christian critics cut Volume One to pieces
Last week, Film Forum summarized Quentin Tarantino's new film Kill Bill—Vol. 1 and listed a few early responses from religious press critics.
This week, Tarantino's bloody epic earned more scorn from Christian film reviewers—but it won a few defenders as well. The film, which stars Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Darryl Hannah, and Sonny Chiba, is an homage to the combat-oriented movies that Tarantino cherished as a young moviegoer. While many are offended that viewers could laugh at such rampant cruelty, those who laugh explain their reaction by saying that the scenes are funny because they are so preposterous and exaggerated. Tarantino does indeed find a lot of comedy in his tongue-in-cheek tribute. But he also strives to make us sympathize with his heroine and her quest for revenge the same way that we come to care about the missions of Braveheart and The Patriot. While we may not approve of violent revenge as a motive, surely we can understand it. The question remains open: Will "the Bride" eventually see the futility and damaging effects of her vengeful killing spree? Or will she finish her story as she began, believing that she is the punishing hand of God, justly delivering judgment upon those who so grievously wronged her?
While I share many of the complaints offered up by most religious press critics—primarily, that the film is at times self-indulgent and shallow—I differ from most of them in admitting that I did appreciate many things about the movie. Tarantino is, at times, a masterful director. (At other times he is quite immature and indulgent.) He knows how to fuse music and imagery together in a way that makes for unforgettable scenes, and his work with cinematographer Robert Richardson results in some dazzling rides of color and light. He also knows how to stage an action scene so that it looks like nothing we've seen before.
Granted, Tarantino lavishes all of this amazing style onto a story that is intentionally primitive, ankle-deep, and unsatisfying, at least so far. But it is a type of story that has been an established genre for as long as stories have been told. I wish he would quit giving so much attention to the repulsiveness of his villains, which he does in order to encourage our jubilance when and if they are finally executed (and most of them are.) But I cannot join the majority of the religious press critics who write off the film entirely. Tarantino has accomplished some remarkable craftsmanship here, and that should be acknowledged as much as his failings. If he can find a substantial story to tell, he may yet make a truly great film someday. My full review is at Looking Closer.
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) is also impressed. He calls it "a spectacular triumph of style over substance." He highly praises Richardson's cinematography, calling it "awe-inspiring. His lighting and camera movement produce so many jaw-dropping moments I don't know where to begin."
Parks also cautiously addresses the criticism that has been leveled at the film's violence. "Violent it is … but the violence in Kill Bill bothered me much less than in some of this summer's blockbusters. It's violence inspired by comic books and kung fu films. When someone's head gets chopped off, the blood spurts like a fountain, just like the 'black knight' scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And just like that movie, I found myself laughing at the excess of it all. Indeed the sheer amount of blood and severed body parts in Kill Bill becomes almost comic."
But Michael Medved counters this with an all-out condemnation, calling the film a "putrid and puerile martial arts epic. Defenders of the movie will cite the self-conscious invocation of hyper-violent Japanese anime comic books, just as they will note the movie's fleeting tributes to samurai classics and spaghetti westerns. The artsy references may provide busy work for film critics and graduate students, but ordinary moviegoers will feel insulted and ripped off. The extent of the gory, sadistic violence, gutter language and unspeakable obscene sex references makes you wonder what more a movie must offer to receive the rating of 'NC-17.'"
Movieguide's critic says, "Moral audiences that might accidentally stumble into this movie will need to take a bath immediately afterwards—to cleanse the heart and mind of the graphic images of rape and every type of violence." He adds that a good deal of the movie is just "a wretched exercise in excess that neglects elemental story and character devices that help audiences identify with the protagonist."
"[Pulp Fiction] set the standard for brutality and blood lust," writes Stephen Isaac (Plugged In). "It also inspired multitudes of gory rip-offs. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 makes Pulp Fiction look like a Disney flick." He goes on to quote Tarantino extensively, displaying the director's own lack of perspective on his own work and its potential negative impact. "Tarantino brags that his film elevates 'girl power' and tips its hat to the way (he thinks) women should hold their own in the world. To the contrary, Kill Bill demeans, degrades and devalues women at every turn. They're portrayed as vengeful, heartless beasts, bent on death and destruction. What, in fact, he's doing is opening them up to contempt and abuse."
Mainstream critics are divided over the film as well. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says the movie "shows Quentin Tarantino so effortlessly and brilliantly in command of his technique that he reminds me of a virtuoso violinist racing through 'Flight of the Bumble Bee'—or maybe an accordion prodigy setting a speed record for 'Lady of Spain.' I mean that as a sincere compliment. The movie is not about anything at all except the skill and humor of its making. It's kind of brilliant."
Andrew Sarris (The New York Observer) celebrates the film as a "soulful kung fu flick [that] does for Uma Thurman as an action icon what Sergio Leone's 'Man with No Name' trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), did for Clint Eastwood."
Sarris goes on to explain what he believes makes Tarantino an important director: "For one thing, he is the most casually color-blind Caucasian filmmaker around; not merely in terms of a liberal 'tolerance' for African-Americans and Asians, but with a deep and passionate embrace of all their cultural nuances." And he adds, "What redeems Mr. Tarantino's violence from mere exploitation is his genuine affection for the genres he celebrated, particularly his unironic appreciation, in Kill Bill, of the various moral codes by which his heroines conduct their lives and establish limits to their warrior behavior. But what makes him especially unusual is a fondness and respect for women that never lapses into lust or lechery."
But elsewhere, Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle) shows contempt not just for Tarantino's film, but for the whole genre the director is seeking to revitalize. "Once it was possible to assume that Tarantino's pop culture references were an ironic critique on the barrenness of media-age culture, but there's no mistaking it now: Tarantino's work is not a commentary on the barrenness. It is the barrenness."
An icon of gunslinger revenge epics himself, Clint Eastwood returns to the screen this week with a drama that explores the darker side of vigilante justice. Winning raves and early Oscar-buzz from critics, Mystic River is a dark, moody journey through grief to anger and, eventually, a mission of violent revenge. The story examines the different perspectives and responses of three men to a grisly murder, and how a traumatizing event from their childhoods influences their behavior as adults.
A troublemaker as a child, Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) has grown up into a bitter, dangerous man who is accustomed to settling scores with violence below the radar of the Boston police. Thus, when someone close to him is killed, he sets out to find the killer and bring about justice on his own. While we see him, his picture-perfect wife (Laura Linney), and his beautiful daughters dressed in their Sunday best at the local church, we know that Markum's subversive plans are being carried out behind the scenes.
Sean (Kevin Bacon), Markum's childhood friend, has become a cop, and now he must return to "the neighborhood" to investigate the crime and revisit his old friends, old haunts. He and his contrarian partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) trudge along the trail of clues, trying to get to the truth before Jimmy does.
Meanwhile, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), who suffered a traumatizing period of sexual abuse as a child, stumbles through his days with weighty emotional baggage, a tendency towards alcohol, and a feeble grip on his marriage. The murder of his friend Jimmy's loved one, 30 years later, only intensifies the pain of his old wounds, especially when suspicion falls on him. When Dave's wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) comes to believe he is guilty, it comes as a shattering blow to his psyche.
Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) calls the movie "suspenseful and sobering. Eastwood seems to have come full circle, from once having … glamorized violence to directing more mature films such as Unforgiven and this gritty drama. [He] has a taut narrative to work with and gets some remarkable performances from his cast. Hands down, Penn steals the movie."
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) calls it a "sophisticated portrait of a Boston neighborhood … supported with some sparkling performances and a compelling tale. If you're in the mood for a mature film, you won't go wrong here." And yet he struggles with the film's split-personality as a murder mystery and a psychological drama: "The desire to keep the audience guessing ends up undermining the narrative itself."
While River is drawing many raves, I found it to be an uneven work that grows tiresome in the sullen, pessimistic tone imposed upon it. Penn and Robbins do some impressive work, but when the movie shifts away from them to focus on Bacon and Fishburne, the movie loses momentum and feels like a forgettable episode of NYPD Blue. Women are all portrayed as either fractured and feeble or malevolent and manipulative. Making matters worse, Eastwood's melodramatic soundtrack is too intrusive, too abrupt, and his scene changes are often awkward and jarring.
The neighborhood church is a backdrop for a central scene, opening up possibilities for spiritual exploration within the story. Alas, Eastwood can't find more to say than "evil begets evil," and he can't seem to do more than sigh heavily over his drowning characters. In the world of this story, the men are downcast, the women fractured, the truth is lost, and redemption, joy, and humor are nowhere to be found. In spite of its melodrama, Mystic River is not the profound work of artistry many have declared. Eastwood's Unforgiven remains his masterwork.
Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project) says the movie is loaded with "all the stuff of great contemporary American film. But unfortunately, even though it all is a great idea, Mystic River doesn't quite pan out. Somehow, without any warning at all, everything seems to just fall together in the end in a way that is supposed to register shock. But the lackluster ending really isn't able to muster up more than a stifled yawn."
"The acting is very good," says Tom Snyder (Movieguide), "but the story … takes some predictable and not-so-predictable turns and twists that are too typical of the type of medium-level mystery thriller lurking around too many bookstalls in American airports." He argues that the film leads to a good lesson: "Sin has real consequences in the story of these people's lives."
Most mainstream critics are heralding the film as a masterpiece, and many are calling for Oscar nominations.
Christian critics show differing levels of tolerance for Intolerable Cruelty
The Coen Brothers have given us a long list of memorably zany comedies—Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Hudsucker Proxy, to name a few audience favorites. Their latest, Intolerable Cruelty, is a first for them in two ways: It is a romantic comedy, and it is the first time they have made a movie by revising someone else's script.
The result is not quite as successful as their better films. Some of the film's humor seems too lowbrow, too commonplace, too crass. But their famously frenzied comic antics are still in full swing, their clever and convoluted banter is still sharply funny, and their cast exuberantly creates unforgettable characters.
Best of all is George Clooney, who is unexpectedly establishing himself as one of the most talented comedy actors in Hollywood. His performance here as Miles Massey, a slimey and slick divorce lawyer, has critics comparing him to Cary Grant. Clooney makes something special out of every line he delivers. Fortunately for moviegoers, he is paired with an actress with whom he strikes up some surprising sparks. Catherine Zeta-Jones turns in a performance here that is sly, subtle, and even more enjoyable than the one that earned her the little golden statue last year.
The story focuses on the nasty lawyer's meddlings in the marital crimes of a famously unfaithful woman. Massey is determined to foil Marilyn Rexroth Doyle's marathon of get-rich-quick divorces, but as he works to interrupt her latest scheme his professionalism crumbles under the force of his own unexpected but undeniable desire to have her for himself. What follows is an uproarious parody of contemporary marriage in Hollywood's materialistic culture. And before it's over, more than one person will have learned lessons the hard way: You can't have true love, or a true marriage for that matter, if the bride and groom are more focused on their egos and their bank accounts than they are upon each other.
Michael Leary's review (The Matthews House Project) describes the Coen Brothers as "merry pranksters. Their scripts intone worlds of their own device, intentioned collections of parodies and overly indulgent intrigues that tend to leave the uninitiated with narrative whiplash. Their films are the amusement park ride of the American art-house scene." He calls the flick "a screwball comedy for the Divorce Court age. Clooney and Zeta-Jones electrify the script with a sort of magic we used to see in Hawks' films. Sometimes clever, sometimes satirical, the film is always entertaining even when it is just plain silly."
"Using the wrecking ball of comedy, the filmmakers demolish the wall of prenup poppycock that has been erected around matrimony and that acts to shackle vows in contractual claptrap," raves David DiCerto (CNS) "And though the offbeat road chosen by the Coens is paved with pitch-black wit, the film makes a strong case that marriage is not a legal agreement but an act of love."
Some religious press critics think the covenant of marriage, not the mishandling of marriage, is what's being mocked. "It is all done for fun and hilarity's sake, and much of it succeeds as comedy," says a critic at Movieguide. And yet that same reviewer concludes, "Betrayal, broken trust, and infidelities are not laughing matters … this movie sadly presents marriage as the biggest joke." Likewise, Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The institution of marriage takes it on the chin in this film. There is no representation of a solid, happy relationship based on love or faith. Intolerable Cruelty presents a world where alimony rules and the prenuptial agreement is king."
I did not sense any mockery of marriage itself, but rather the many ways people abuse the institution of marriage, defying its fundamental principles by marrying and divorcing for their own gain. By the end of the movie, we have come to see that the only kind of meaningful marriage is the one in which two people have no regard for their possessions or their financial security, but can think only of sharing their lives with the other. My review is at Looking Closer.
Taking the same stance, Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family's Plugged In) says, "The film ultimately elevates marriage by showing that love—true, faithful, marital love—is not only desirable, but can survive the most damaging circumstances given a strong commitment by both parties. Add hilarious performances … [and] a quirky, idiosyncratic script that zings you with laughter one moment and yanks your heartstrings the next, and you've got nothing short of an excellent film." Still, he warns parents that "rating-pushing profanity and frequent sexual antics" make it inappropriate family viewing.
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) testifies, "I knew I had surrendered to Intolerable Cruelty's disdainful tone when at an outdoor wedding, a priest strolled up the aisle, acoustic guitar in hand, singing a ridiculous folk song. In one hilarious 10-second shot, the Coen brothers skewer everything false about Hollywood weddings." He goes on to praise Clooney's work and the "spectacular" cinematography of Roger Deakins.
The majority of mainstream critics are impressed, but few argue that this stands alongside the best films of the Coen Brothers.
Good Boy! Good movie?
When 12-year-old Owen Baker discovers that his newly adopted dog Hubble is in fact a talking dog from outer space, it is just the first of many alarming discoveries. Soon, he is listening as Hubble talks with the other neighborhood dogs about how soon all dogs will soon be sent home to their home star, Sirius, by their commander-in-chief, the Greater Dane, unless they can prove to her that dogs have done their jobs and taken charge of Planet Earth.
Good Boy! is winning praise from critics on the lookout for entertaining family films. Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "This is a kid-friendly movie that will delight the younger ones and appeal to those who don't think they are 'too cool' to see a movie about man's best friend."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) calls it "basically harmless but uninspired" and concludes that it "will leave viewers essentially none the worse for wear but no better either."
Bob Wasilewski (Plugged In) says it "sends out all the right messages about family, friendship, sacrifice, bonding with a pet, loyalty and doing the right thing."
Movieguide calls it "a warm-hearted, funny film that will probably delight the whole family. It celebrates the joys of owning a dog, one of the great pleasures in life [with which] God has blessed His children." But the critic adds two cautions—one, that the film's "worldview" is "slightly spoiled by a couple New Age references to meditation and mental exercises"; and two, that it suggests one of the dogs might have homosexual owners.
Critics can't bury House of the Dead fast enough
The year's latest dumb, derivative horror flick, House of the Dead, earns nothing but scorn from Bob Smithouser (Plugged In). Smithouser writes, "It's hard to know which is worse in House of the Dead, the cartoonish dialogue, the actors saddled with it … or the cheesy makeup and special effects. [The filmmakers] know what the target audience for a low-budget zombie horror film wants: Sex, alcohol and mindless violence. And they give it to them."
Next week: Another John Grisham tale reaches the screen—Runaway Jury.