Easter-oriented puns were abundant in media headlines this week as The Passion of The Christ stunned the film industry by—you guessed it—"rising again" to the top of the box office. Mel Gibson's film earned $15.2 million over the holiday weekend, increasing its total gross to $353 million in seven weeks.
The Passion's triumph was assisted by the fact that none of the new films opening had much positive buzz.
Christian critics abhor Girl Next Door
When a teenager (Emile Hirsch of The Emperor's Club) falls for the ex-porn star (Elisha Cuthbert of TV's 24) next door, he is drawn into a caper that takes him from the corridors of his high school to the lap-dancing rooms of a strip club.
Director Luke Greenfield's film The Girl Next Door is rated-R, but the ads and previews are clearly tempting under-age viewers. Even those old enough to get in to see the movie without a chaperone might need to have their maturity level checked. How many people are really able to laugh about the idea of a high school porn star?
It gets worse. Mainstream press critics are giving the film stronger reviews than any of the other major new releases this week, including a historical epic and an animated family film from Disney. (It's worth noting that they also liked it better than The Passion of The Christ.) Only a few critics are willing to take a stand against such subversive and base material, including Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times).
But religious press critics are unanimous in arguing that this "comedy" is capable of earning only the most unhealthy sort of laughter.
"It's an adolescent male fantasy—the sexy porn star who actually has a heart of gold falls for the nerdy fellow," explains Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service). "She pulls the uptight boy out of his shell, and he helps the fallen young woman find her innocence again."
Does that mean the film is baiting us with bad things only to surprise us with a moral perspective? Hardly. Navarro explains, "The film's conceit is that it wants the audience to believe its tsk-tsk attitude toward the adult entertainment industry. Yet … Greenfield makes certain that the cameras linger longingly over Cuthbert's curvaceous body and features plenty of shots of topless women slinking around steel poles in the scenes at a so-called gentleman's club. While pretending to disapprove of the objectification of women, the movie does the same thing by showing voluptuous coeds giving the high school football team plenty of close-contact attention." She concludes by criticizing the film's poorly written dialogue and stereotypes.
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Porn stars in high schools? An R-rated teenage sex comedy? Is it just me or do these concepts seem more than a little inappropriate?" The message, he says, boils down to this: "'If you find the most important thing in your life, you do whatever you have to do, even if it isn't nice, to hold onto it.' That's having moral fiber? What rubbish."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) writes an imagined conversation of the meeting in which the film was pitched. The studio executive is skeptical saying it sounds too much like an update of Risky Business. But the ambitious filmmaker adds up the raunchy elements that will sell the movie to audiences, and in doing so, he persuades the studio. "Your movie sounds like a contemptible piece of lascivious garbage," says the exec, "lacking even a shred of decency or social conscience. It crusades against chastity, glamorizes drug and alcohol use, and will come a hair's breadth from being labeled pornography itself. Furthermore, it sounds like you're exploiting the very objectification of women you pretend to be condemning. It's a shameless rip-off for a generation desensitized by MTV, pay cable, and online porn. So, when do we start shooting?"
Joe Sinko (Christian Spotlight) says the movie "is designed to appeal to the lasciviousness that is running rampant in our culture. It is predictable, awkward, full of profanity and nudity. It pokes fun at the use of Ecstasy, and portrays the majority of high school kids as morally bankrupt. [It] pokes fun at 'normal' kids who are doing their best to get a good education and become contributing citizens in society. It implies that casual sex and pornography are generally harmless things that really hurt no one, and that using drugs will make you funny and enlightened."
Religious press defends Alamo
John Lee Hancock, the Texas storyteller who brought us The Rookie, took over the troubled production of Ron Howard's The Alamo after the director bailed on the project. For many months, the Internet was abuzz with reports that the film was falling apart. Now that it's here, critics are calling it flawed, but hardly a failure.
The Alamo has lasted as one of American history's most riveting stories. While it seems that it would be hard to mess up a story about 200 men making their last stand to declare Texas independent from Mexico, most Alamo movies have fallen short. Hancock's version is earning lackluster reviews in the mainstream press, but religious press critics seem impressed by the character development and historical accuracy of the film.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) finds plenty to praise: "Davy Crockett is the heart and soul of this movie, and it is surprisingly one of [Billy Bob] Thornton's most enjoyable and affecting performances. [The film] succeeds in retelling the tragic, patriotic tale to a new generation without relying on graphic violence or overtly modernizing it." But he adds, "This movie absolutely fails at framing the expository events in historical and political context."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "If parents of older teens are willing to navigate some of the violence, The Alamo can serve as a fine discussion-starter about flawed humanity, bravery in battle, the courage of one's convictions, and the fruits of arrogance and folly."
Similarly, Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "The film took a difficult event—weeks of waiting followed by a short massacre—and brought the characters to life. Although it does not rise to epic status and will leave viewers confused about why the battle was actually fought … it's an entertaining movie with little objectionable content for families of older children."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) raves, "The Alamo is a stunning piece of muscular moviemaking with its sweeping scope, panoramic big-sky cinematography, painstaking attention to historical detail, stirring score, and uniformly top-notch acting—highlighted by Thornton's show-stealing performance."
Jimmy Akin (Decent Films) says, "Dramas about hallowed historical events often come off stiff at best and campy at worst. This film manages to succeed in spite of these dangers. It does romanticize the events associated with the Alamo, but it strives for historical accuracy and manages to humanize the historical figures on which it focuses."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "The film itself runs in spurts. At times it is an engrossing drama of tragic proportions, and at other times it is droning rhetoric."
Kevin Miller (Hollywood Jesus) deals with it a bit more harshly: "Despite … engaging character studies, this film ultimately fails from a structural point of view. By presenting the fall of the Alamo as one long flashback book-ended by General Sam Houston's response, the pacing just doesn't work. It's anti-climactic, slow to get going, and far longer than it needs to be."
Script guru Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses) is similarly disgruntled. She says The Alamo "gets flanked early on by the crowd of personalities who made the battle such high drama, but who can't possibly all be developed in a two hour and sixteen minute drama. Every character can only get a few minutes of screen time to be established, so the film resorts to easy, obvious attempts to gain sympathy or notoriety." She also faults the lack of establishing shots and a script that is "clearly problematic and episodic, so they ended up getting a film that is choppy and hard to follow."
Ella leaves critics un-Enchanted
Seeking to entertain audiences with the same magical spell cast by The Princess Bride, director Tommy O'Haver's fairy tale film Ella Enchanted goes so far as to cast the former Prince Wesley (Cary Elwes) in a small role. Anne Hathaway stars as a "plucky damsel" who tries to break free from a lifelong curse. Based on the children's book by Gail Carson Levine, the movie packs its storybook fare with Shrek-like pop culture references and humor intended for grownups.
While it has a happy ending, of course, the movie failed to make mainstream critics happy. Similarly, religious press critics would prefer something a little more original and much more meaningful.
"If I had known nothing about the book, I might have enjoyed the film as a purely silly twist on classic fairy tales, not unlike The Princess Bride," says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). "Anne Hathaway is simply a joy to watch." But he concludes, "The book emphasizes Ella's self-sacrificing love, whereas the film falls back on contrived gimmicks and a politically correct climax. Like Shrek, A Knight's Tale, and Black Knight before it, Ella Enchanted may be set in medieval times, but it never shakes off its 21st-century habits of mind."
"Fairy tales deserve better treatment than this," says Steven Isaac (Plugged In). "It's great to advocate the equality of all races (species, in this context) and to show the value of free will, but the alternative given—to follow your own heart and look for strength within—is beyond trite, it's foolish."
Misty Wagner (Christian Spotlight) lists things that some might consider offensive. "The kisses in this movie … are not closed mouth. To go one step further there is a small amount of cleavage, an excess amount of bare midriffs, talk of liking someone's 'butt,' and a comment made about girls 'tonguing' the floor that the prince supposedly walked on." But she concludes that "It's a sweet movie, and in this generation of ratings often being far too lenient, it keeps its 'innocence' fairly intact."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "While it is wholly in keeping with the church's teaching concerning the dignity of each person to encourage young girls to develop a healthy sense of self-empowerment, parents should be aware of the views being espoused underneath the film's breezy fairy tale facade. Once upon a time fairy godmothers didn't have to sleep off hangovers, and 'obedience' was not considered a curse."
"Once upon a time … blah, blah, blah," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "That's the feeling one gets while viewing Ella Enchanted. Tired, stale, and lame are not adjectives that you want to hear attached to a light comedy/fantasy film."
I would add that it is misleading for moviemakers to believe that fairy tales are just for kids, and that adults need their fantasy films peppered with "humor for grownups" or self-conscious references to pop culture. C. S. Lewis was right to argue that any story that isn't good enough for grownups certainly isn't good enough for children. If a children's story is told well, it will also prove compelling for adults. What made The Princess Bride such a charmer was not a bunch of pop culture references, but an artful use of tongue-in-cheek comedy, memorable performances, characters that surprised you at every turn, and themes more meaningful than self-reliance—the sacred nature of marriage and the power of love to endure all trials and to redeem even those who are dead. (Or at least "mostly dead, not all dead.")
Johnsonsshould have stayed home
In this year's variation on Chevy Chase's famous Vacation, Cedric the Entertainer (Barbershop, Intolerable Cruelty) stars in his first leading role. In Johnson Family Vacation, the comedian plays a frustrated father trying to get his wife and kids to a family reunion, where they hope to win the Family of the Year trophy. Of course, many mishaps occur, the greatest of which is that this movie was even made.
Mainstream critics, in the middle of the worst movie week in recent memory, have very little good to say about this vacation. Some Christian media critics noticed some meaningful messages in the film, but only a few are enthusiastic.
Rosemarie Ute Hoffman (Christian Spotlight) says, "The overall message of the film seems to be that it is difficult for a father to balance the desires of his family while at the same time exhibiting a leadership role and humility—and that love and respect is most important within families. [The Johnson family members] seem to understand in the end the value of being a family unit, despite their collective dysfunctions."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says it "has a good heart; the filmmakers just let their juvenile sense of humor get in the way." He also faults "forced set-ups for gags, lame dialogue, lamer background music, and jumpy editing. It'd be a complete waste of time and money to include the Johnsons in your family's vacation plans."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says it is "so tediously dull and unfunny that it leads us to wonder if the folks out there in Hollywood have completely lost their judgment, their taste, or their minds. From the looks of this embarrassment for everyone involved, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of all three."
Nevertheless, Chris Utley (Hollywood Jesus) urges families to go out and see it. " Families would do well to see the film together and discuss it afterwards. It's hard for fathers, charged to lead their families, to openly express their feelings of guilt and failure. Nate's secret is indeed found out, but he eventually finds grace and mercy from his wife, children, and even his mother and brother. Hopefully, in the discussions following the film, real-life families will find the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God displayed through each other."
The Whole Ten Yards = wasted talent
Why bother to summarize a comedy that gets such bad reviews? Apparently the star power of Matthew Perry and Bruce Willis aren't enough to save this sloppy sequel to The Whole Nine Yards. You can read the synopsis to director Howard Deutch's film here.
Mainstream critics are ranking this film among the year's worst so far. Meanwhile, Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "To say that the plot … is convoluted would be putting it mildly. I'm still not sure who knew what and who was doing what to whom, except that there was a lot of gun-pointing, sex talk, … and discussions about erectile dysfunction. That four good actors would choose to be in this is, frankly, beyond my comprehension."
Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "I missed the press screening and was forced to pay $7 for a matinee ticket. I laughed twice. That's $3.50 per laugh."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) frowns as well. "It is proof that, sometimes, going the extra yard can be a big mistake. The problem with the film is that [the filmmakers] give us no good reason to revisit these characters. Perry's nervous antics and pratfalls seem stale and gratuitous. Willis just goes for cheap laughs and doesn't even pretend to care about character consistency."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "Forget the violence, vicious threats, language, alcohol use, and sexual content for a minute. Every character in this film needs some form of therapy. And fast. Their psychoses are supposed to be funny, and sometimes they are. But if you stop long enough to think about who you're being asked to root for, it's pitiful."
Sheri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) calls it a "poorly done, offensive sequel" and "an awful failure with no redeeming spiritual qualities. How can we have a PG-13 rating with a movie about hired assassins—let alone all the sex and violence?"
Good Bye, Lenin! a funny wake-up call
Director Wolfgang Becker's new comedy Good Bye, Lenin! explores a cultural shift in Germany that proves more difficult for some than others. When Alex's mother fell into a coma in October of 1989, she was a proud socialist living in East Germany. When she wakes up, she finds that the Berlin Wall has come down, and now she's living in a capitalist country! To help his mother out, Alex scrambles to make her home something more comfortable for her—a sort of socialist museum—so that she can live under the illusion that the world has not changed at all.
Angie Ward (Christianity Today Movies) calls it "a humorous yet poignant story about how difficult it can be to embrace change, yet still hold on to our dreams and the people we love. [It] succeeds on several accounts: as a comedy, as an inside glimpse at a tumultuous time in European history, and as a thoughtful look at the great lengths to which people will go for important relationships."
If other religious press reviews of this film become available, Film Forum will feature them in the upcoming weeks.
More on Dogville and Home on the Range
Catching up with the controversial limited-release drama Dogville, Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) responds by taking a close look at the various inflammatory aspects. He explores what some are calling "anti-Americanism" in the film, as well as its portrayal of cruelty to women and the director's choice to play out the drama on a sparsely decorated stage. He concludes, "I'm in the camp of those who love this film, in spite of and because of its challenges. It is the first film I've seen this year that I expect will be on my top 10 list."
Meanwhile, Home on the Range continued to draw discouraging words from religious press critics. Kevin Miller (Hollywood Jesus) says, "When compared to early Disney films like Snow White or modern classics like The Lion King, Home On the Range barely approaches mediocre. It … fails to do what so many other Disney movies are remembered for: Create characters and a fantasy world that live on long after the movie is over." He sums up the film's message: "Revenge is okay as long as it is carried out with the right motives."
Ken Priebe (also at Hollywood Jesus) gives Home a ho-hum review: "The characters weren't endearing enough, villain threatening enough, or the emotional arc strong enough to make it as satisfying as other Disney films, but I enjoyed elements of it nonetheless."
Next week: Is Kill Bill, Vol. 2 just another over-hyped, over-violent revenge fantasy? Or does Quentin Tarantino make his bloody two-part epic worthwhile? Plus: The Punisher and Connie and Carla.
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