Director Richard Linklater, best known for his intellectually challenging art-house films (Waking Life, Before Sunrise), finds himself #1 at the box office this week with his most formulaic and commercial endeavor, The School of Rock. It's admittedly a predictable lowbrow comedy, but a surprisingly enjoyable one, thanks especially to the starmaking turn by Jack Black.

Obnoxious and reckless, Black belongs among the ranks of the most manic comedians. While he lacks Robin Williams' sophisticated wit and Jim Carrey's versatile range of expression, he shares their boisterous stage manner, and like John Belushi, he can also rock-and-roll. (During his offscreen hours Black plays gigs in a band called Tenacious D.) Director Stephen Frears knew enough to cast Black as a record-store know-it-all in High Fidelity, but Linklater has custom-made School to exhibit Black's passion for heavy metal from trivia to performance. He may have been confined to small supporting roles in Bob Roberts, Dead Man Walking, Waterworld, and Orange County, but this time Jack is ready for the spotlight, guitar in hand.

Fortunately for moviegoers, and despite Black's reputation as a comedy anarchist, the movie has a big heart, avoids crude indulgence, and gives viewers of all ages something to enjoy. Even religious press critics are moshing with the enthusiastic mainstream critics—most of them, anyway.

Black plays Dewey Finn, a heavy-metal-rock-star-wannabe. The film opens as Dewey is kicked out of his band. Hurt and fuming, he trudges home, only to receive an eviction notice from his roommate, a substitute schoolteacher named Ned (Linklater's co-writer, Mike White). Needing money, Dewey gets desperate and answers a call intended for his roommate. Before he realizes what is expected of him, he's stammering before a classroom full of skeptical sixth-graders, his dress shirt and bow tie barely containing his undisciplined spirit. It does not take long for him to cast off the curriculum and, behind the back of the school's legalistic principal (Joan Cusack), begin schooling the children in the history of rock music.

He doesn't stop there. The local "Battle of the Bands" is heating up, and Dewey wants to be on the battlefield. When he discovers his youngsters' musical talent, he begins training them how to listen to the Who, and then how to play like Pete Townsend. Before the parents, teachers, and police have a chance to interfere, he has entered his kids in the competition. Catastrophe surely awaits.

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says that the filmmakers "wisely build their film around Black, who rewards them by staying on warp drive from beginning to end."

"I like the fact that this movie focuses on a whole generation of kids and pre-teens who have never heard (gasp) or even understood what the world of rock and roll was and is all about," says Holly McClure (Crosswalk). "Hopefully it will inspire a few kids to play an instrument, take band class, get involved in a music lesson outside their home. Ultimately the story's message about overcoming odds and criticism and rising to the occasion to prove yourself is a theme I think everyone will relate to."

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) says it is "marred by some obscenities and the whole theme of loving rock music." But she gives it a "really cute" rating anyway.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is not so amused. He says the film's positive message "is undermined by a problematic bass rhythm that pokes fun at parental authority and the value of any subject that can't be learned on an electric guitar. While its celebration of rock'n'roll music is not in itself a bad thing, the film offers a rather one-sided picture of rock culture … sugar-coating its darker side."

But Frederica Mathewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) had a grand time, largely due to the Black's charisma. She describes her experience as "a couple of hours of continual laughing." For cautious families, she adds, "Despite the rockin' theme, there is little to worry parents, no bad language or sexual situations, and Finn makes it clear to his charges that rock is not about 'getting wasted' but has a higher, if nebulous goal."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) calls it "a rollicking good time and a jolt of earthy energy that parents can enjoy alongside their kids without cringing or apologizing. It deserves its four stars."

But Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) disagrees. "When Black is building his pupils' self-esteem, School of Rock rocks. But their education includes lessons in rebellion and belting out profane lyrics. [The movie] will alienate families who fail to find humor in heavy-metal idolatry and the corruption of children."

I had fun at the film, but I'm only giving this School a B-. While the children are charming and the music is a hoot, the jokes are rarely sharper than what you'll find in sitcom-land. The script feels like a rough draft and a predictable routine. Worse, it foolishly stereotypes parents and teachers as generally clueless about their young charges. Black's Finn is the only fully developed character, and Joan Cusack is not given enough room to exercise her own talents. Further, I was disappointed to feel an unspoken approval for how the students' new role model teaches them to deceive their elders in order to attain worldly glory.

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Nevertheless, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. While Linklater glosses over rock's more rugged realities, he strikes some profound chords regarding the importance of humility, creativity, self-expression, and teamwork. For the most part, Rock is a worthwhile jam session for discerning viewers. Just be sure to discuss it with your kids if you take them along.

Mainstream critics argue for and against the movie, but the majority are pleased. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "The other day I saw a family film named Good Boy! that was astonishingly stupid, and treated its audience as if it had a tragically slow learning curve and was immune to boredom. Here is a movie that proves you can make a family film that's alive and well-acted and smart and perceptive and funny—and that rocks." He adds that he has no idea why the movie is rated PG-13.

The School of Rock vs. The Fighting Temptations

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is not turning cartwheels over Linklater's School of Rock, but in an e-mail he offered me a revealing comparison between this reckless, high-spirited comedy and another recent music-oriented flick: The Fighting Temptations. Which film would you guess is richer, the one about the rock band or the one about the gospel choir? Guess again.

(Warning: Some spoilers are included in these comparisons.)

Both movies feature a charlatan protagonist, a man who, having lost his main gig in life, finds an unexpected opportunity to profit if he pretends to have credentials he doesn't have. [Further, he] winds up cobbling together an unlikely musical act from inauspicious beginnings, intending to lead it to competition glory and potential financial reward. Both films also pit the hero against a suspicious, uptight woman in a position of authority who is a stickler for rules and is intimidating to others.
In both films, the protagonist is exposed for the fraud he is, and departs in disgrace. However, there are no real-world consequences for his criminal acts in either film, as both films find ridiculously contrived ways of glossing over the whole subject. More importantly, despite his having been exposed and disgraced, the bond between the hero and the musicians ultimately wins out, and in the third act they are triumphantly reunited, and go on to the climactic concert showdown.
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Having said all that, here are some interesting differences:
The School of Rock makes it abundantly clear that the music is about something more than itself, and that the climactic concert is about something other than potentially winning and making a lot of money. In The Fighting Temptations, on the other hand, there is never any suggestion that gospel music is about anything other than the music itself, or that there is any point to playing at the final competition other than to win.
By the end of School of Rock, we have a good bit of understanding and sympathy for Joan Cusack's character, and she shows herself capable of sympathetic behavior as well as human weakness. In Temptations, … the uptight female figure becomes more and more an antagonist and is finally shamed and disgraced with stunningly unchristian glee by her pastor brother, and sent ignominiously away.

Tarantino's Kill Bill: The bloodiest film ever made?

This weekend, Reservoir Dogs director Quentin Tarantino returns to movie theatres with sound and fury. It has been nine years since Pulp Fiction stunned the Cannes Film Festival with its violence and wisecracks and, for better or worse, established Tarantino as the most influential new filmmaker of the '90s. After his 1997 follow-up, Jackie Brown, performed poorly, Tarantino withdrew.

His comeback film is just as hyperviolent, stylized, and audacious as the previous releases. Kill Bill—Vol. 1 is basically a revenge story. Uma Thurman plays an angry woman called "The Bride" who was once a member of an elite team of deadly secret agents (a bloodier version of Charlie's Angels). When she wakes up from a coma, she sets out to revenge herself against her former employer, Bill (David Carradine), and fellow agents (Lucy Liu, Darryl Hannah, and Michael Madsen)—the same people who slaughtered her fiancé, her friends, the pastor and his wife, and her unborn child in the middle of her wedding ceremony. What follows is a marathon of bloodletting.

If you are even slightly squeamish, be warned—this film is not for you. The various battles are half cartoonish violence, half bloody ballet. Each one is spectacularly choreographed by kung-fu legend Sonny Chiba. The clever, quick, and efficient dialogue keeps most of the audience laughing in spite of their discomfort. But make no mistake: the movie is like a parade of vividly rendered dismemberments, the Bride knocking off her opponents in every gory way you can imagine. Bloodshed does not, of course, make a story inappropriate. History is full of carnage-filled tales, and Scripture has a fair number of them as well. But unlike Pulp Fiction, in which violent villains took turns learning valuable lessons, Kill Bill does not offer any stories about men (or women) learning the error of their ways, though there are isolated moments that acknowledge a sense of right and wrong. In one scene, a retired agent (Fox)—now a loving wife and mother—is confronted in her kitchen, and much blood is shed while her young daughter stands by watching, numb with shock. Tarantino is not being merely twisted—he uses the scene to remind us of all that the Bride herself has lost and suffered. A shred of conscience is clearly alive in the Bride's battered heart, making her capable of occasional mercy. But unless the sequel has some big surprises for us, this film tends to glorify vigilante justice, and vengeance remains the superior, celebrated ethic.

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"This is, without question, the bloodiest, goriest, most violent film I've ever forced myself to watch," writes Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "That said, it is impossible to deny the artistry at work in this movie. It's just that I prefer art to be edifying and emotionally rewarding. Kill Bill is neither. It is pure exploitation without much of a point." Mainstream critics are celebrating the film as one of the year's most exhilarating works and proof positive that Tarantino is still a groundbreaking, relevant filmmaker. Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) comes close to excusing all of this excess, as many critics seduced by Tarantino's formidable style will, because he knows the movie is made as an homage to the Asian action-flick tradition called "grindhouse movies." But he does admit, "Kill Bill may be a case of overkill. This movie lacks humor, subtext, unpredictability and the rich dialogue that made [Pulp Fiction] so memorable. Instead of rethinking genre movies, here he is a slave to them."

David Denby (The New Yorker) gives Tarantino a thrashing for unethical behavior and challenges the majority of critics for excusing mediocrity in the name of flashy style. He concludes, "Coming out of this dazzling, whirling movie, I felt nothing—not anger, not dismay, not amusement. Nothing."

Kill Bill—Vol. 1 ends at intermission. Just as its star Uma Thurman neatly slices her opponents, so Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein convinced Tarantino to sever his bloody revenge epic in twain. Viewers will have a four-month intermission before the finale arrives in theatres.

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Out of Timeis ethically out of line

Just outside of Miami on the Florida coast, Matt Lee Whitlock (Denzel Washington) is the police chief of a sleepy town called Banyan County. He loves his job and his wife. Nevertheless, one night, he foolishly wanders off of his beat and into the company of Ann (Sanaa Lathan), his former girlfriend. Ann has clearly been mistreated by her husband (Dean Cain), who runs the local morgue. Compassion gives way to lust, and soon she and Whitlock are tumbling in transgression.

When Whitlock learns that Ann is dying from an inoperable cancer, he tries to help her pay for treatment by sneaking "dirty money" from the police evidence vault. But his illegal operation goes wrong when Ann's house goes up in flames. A witness reports that she saw Whitlock lurking at the scene of the crime, and his wife (Eva Mendez) is appointed to coordinate the investigation. Whitlock is quickly running Out of Time.

Director Carl Franklin, who directed Denzel Washington in the admirable, overlooked thriller Devil in a Blue Dress eight years ago, is back in his element with this moody thriller. Religious press critics seem impressed by the suspense of Whitlock's plight, but they have grave reservations about the film's nonchalant treatment of Whitlock's misbehavior.

David DiCerto (CNS) says, "Despite the film's morally clouded ending … Franklin navigates the plot turns and twists with workmanlike efficiency, resulting in an engaging neo-noir tale of lust, greed and deception." But he warns viewers that Whitlock is no hero: "[Whitlock's] troubles are brought on by freely choosing morally misguided courses of action … [and his] desire to right his mistakes is not so much driven by recognizing the error of his ways as it is by fear of being caught."

Movieguide says Franklin's film "has all the elements necessary for a successful movie, but contains some foul language, sexual content, and a conflicted protagonist."

Loren Eaton (Plugged In) calls the movie "a taut thriller that unfortunately shatters any aspirations to realism with its overly convoluted conclusion." Eaton adds that the potential for some good lessons in the story is "ruined" by the hero's "relentless (and self-destructive) lawlessness."

For Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), plausibility is the real problem: "The preliminary events are just too far-fetched to be believed. But once the premise is set and our hero is trapped, the movie's pulse starts beating."

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Mainstream critics favor the film, but many point out that it does not measure up to Franklin and Washington's earlier collaboration.

The Station Agent: a small film with a big heart

David DiCerto (CNS) tells us that The Station Agent is "one small film you might want to see before it pulls out of the station."

The film tells the story of a man named Finn (Peter Dinklage), who leaves behind his job at a train/hobby shop to investigate some New Jersey property left to him by a recently deceased friend. It turns out that his inheritance is an abandoned train station alongside a busy railroad. Happy to have his own quiet place, Finn moves in, only to discover he has a loud young Italian neighbor (Bobby Cannavale) who uses a trailer home for a hot dog/cappuccino stand next door. After a reckless red-headed driver named Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) almost runs Finn over , she joins Joe and Finn in a tenuous friendship, strolling along the tracks and discussing their lives. Before long, though, their tenuous chemistry is disrupted when one of them disappears, and Finn's old wounds of loneliness are opened again.

DiCerto explains that the story addresses our "underlying need for interpersonal bonds. Connecting people and communities separated by physical and emotional distances, railroads serve as an apt metaphor for the intersection of lives depicted in the film, with the station house itself being the hub where their isolated existences—journeying along different life tracks—meet in community."

Movieguide's film critic says, "The filmmakers did a good job of the 'show it, don't say it' rule, and the movie certainly draws audiences into the mood immediately. A bittersweet story is sprinkled with moments of light, fun humor, just exactly when it's most needed. The movie shows the profound isolation that comes when one's spirit exists apart from God."

Wonderlandhas critic wondering why we should care

1970s porn star John Holmes is the subject of director James Cox's new film Wonderland, which focuses on Holmes' post-stardom life in the 80s, in which he spirals downward into a life of drugs, debauchery, and eventually a quadruple homicide in Los Angeles. Suffice to say that this is not necessarily the best choice for family viewing this weekend, in spite of its all-star cast, which includes Lisa Kudrow, Kate Bosworth, and Val Kilmer in the leading role.

David DiCerto (CNS) sums it up: "Full of graphically disturbing violence … [Cox's film reveals] a morally barren landscape so devoid of redeemable features that it is nearly impossible for viewers to invest any emotional interest, let alone sympathy, in the film's mostly repellent characters."

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More critics Luther, Lions, and Matchstick Men

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) reviews Luther this week. Echoing some of last week's reviews, he says that although "the time constraints leave huge gaps in the Luther story," the movie "succeeds in the major challenge for any project of this sort: it leaves the audience craving to learn more about the astonishing story it tells."

Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, and Haley Joel Osment had religious press critics cheering for Secondhand Lionsa couple of weeks ago. This week, Josh Hurst (The Rebel Base) has a little trouble with it. "The only scene that gives us anything more than empty platitudes and hollow sentimentality is when young Walter confides to one of his uncles that he doesn't know what to believe in. The uncle's reply is horrifying; just believe in something, he advises, regardless of whether or not it's true. It gives us all a nice warm and fuzzy feeling inside, but the day it cures anyone's problems is the day Duvall is crowned Miss America."

Heather Mann (Relevant) recommends Matchstick Men, but she calls it "a drama masquerading as a confidence movie masquerading as a drama. The object of confidence movies is to con the audience.The object of dramas is for the main character to change in a meaningful way.The fact that this movie is both a drama and a confidence movie dilutes the effectiveness it has as either type of movie."

On the same page, a reader disagrees: "[The film is] not masquerading as anything … it's intentionally defying convention, which is something we will see more of from moviemakers, musicians, artists in general. And in response, we need to cheer them on for venturing into new territories, rather than demand a categorization of their work."

This week's Passion debate speakers, farewells to Elia Kazan, and another film festival

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Crosswalk) stands up this week to argue with those who accuse director Mel Gibson of anti-Semitism in his new film about Christ, The Passion. Mohler argues that a) the Bible says that Jewish leaders called for Jesus' crucifixion, and yet, b) Christ's death was God's plan, not the result of "a merely human plot."

Mohler concludes, "The Bible declares that Jesus came to die … for sinners. He died for our sins, and thus we are to blame. That's the sum and substance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—and that's what makes watching The Passion such a gut-wrenching experience. It's also why the enemies of the Gospel hate it."

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Gene Edward Veith (World) also addresses attacks on The Passion, specifically arguing with accusations that go so far as to criticize Christianity itself. He quotes Canadian intellectual Donald Harman Akenson, recipient of the Molson laureateship for contribution to Canadian culture, who calls the Gospel of John something akin to "hate literature." Then he excerpts a striking rebuttal.

Veith also pens a farewell to director Elia Kazan, the former communist who turned "pro-America" even as he turned out classic motion pictures like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, East of Eden, Splendor in the Grass, and A Face in the Crowd. John Whitehead offers his own remembrance of Kazan at RazorMouth.

Meanwhile, J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) has moved from the Toronto Film Festival to the Chicago International Film Festival. He offers a pep talk on which featured films we should plan to catch when they reach our hometowns.

Director Ron Howard to direct anti-Christian film?

From film industry websites to the pages of Variety, news has spread quickly that Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, EdTV, Backdraft) is reuniting with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and producer Brian Grazer, with whom he made A Beautiful Mind. Together they plan to make a big screen version of the summer's most popular page-turner, The DaVinci Code.

Fans of the book are probably thrilled by the news. But moviegoers and readers alike should be aware that the bestseller, written by Dan Brown, is chock-full o'lies and distortions.

This casts the news of Howard's involvement in a strange light. In an article at Ted Baehr's Movieguide, we are informed that Howard "confides to his associates that he is a Christian." The site also enthusiastically noted that Howard, at the 2001 Oscars, went to the microphone and said "God bless you." He was, by implication, a sign that Oscar was "cleaning up its act."

How will Howard's Christian fans respond to learn that he is now directing a film based on a book that promotes all sorts of false claims about Christ?

The novel is about a curator at the Louvre whose murder leads investigators to a startling discovery. It turns out the dead man has been part of an ancient secret society called the Priory of Sion that has concealed a scandalous secret for ages. What's the secret? Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and she was with child when he died. Jesus' descendents—the Merovingians—carried on a tradition of celebrating "the sacred feminine." Brown's story also insists that Christ's divinity was made up by the Emperor Constantine as a political maneuver.

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Most of this, writes Christian columnist Amy Wellborn, "is derived directly from the fantasy-disguised-as historical work Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and what is not is cobbled from other bits of well-worn and risible nuggets of esoteric and Gnostic conspiracy theories."

Carl E. Olson (Envoy) says, "The book … boils down to this: humanity needs to abandon its silly belief that Jesus is Savior and God, and get back to worshipping the 'sacred feminine,' especially as personified by Jesus' (supposed) wife, Mary Magdalene. Also important to Brown: the [Roman] Catholic Church needs a woman's touch (Mary Magdalene again; not Mary the Mother of God) and must abandon her obsession with doctrine, orthodoxy, and truth. Finally, religion is stupid and for simpletons."

Blogger Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses) writes, "The real puzzle is how come a book that is known to be virulently anti-Catholic can be acquired without a peep of indignation from the people who have been overflowing with horror about how some supposed scenes in The Passion may possibly be contorted by some twisted wackos somewhere into a validation of anti-Semitism? There is nothing subtle about the bigotry in The Da Vinci Code. It's just badly researched, offensive hate-blather which uses Christians as its object."

For more on the inaccuracies of Brown's book, check out this analysis by Margaret M. Mitchell of the University of Chicago's Divinity School.

Next week: Religious press critics explore the depths of Mystic River, strike back at Kill Bill—Vol. 1, respond to the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty, and much more.