Mandy Moore, star of A Walk to Remember, plays Anna, the President's daughter, in the new film Chasing Liberty. Director Andy Cadiff's film just might be the first big screen endeavor to make heroes out of the Bush twins.

Well, okay, Anna's not supposed to be one of the Bush girls. But there are certain … uh … behavioral similarities. Anna is tired of the high-security confinements of her daily life as the "First Daughter." So she heads off on a vacation, determined to enjoy all of the things that have been off-limits to her.

Here's the bad news: The film paints Anna's rebellious streak—her drinking, her hasty sex, and her evasions of responsibility—as acceptable and even admirable.

This is not winning the film any fans amongst religious press film critics.

"Does it seem archaic to suggest that a couple shouldn't sleep together after knowing one another for a whole two days?" asks Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter). "Putting biblical teaching aside for a moment, doesn't that seem like a dangerous message for a pretty, famous ingénue to be sending out to her Tween fans? On the surface, Chasing Liberty seems to be another fluffy, teen romance, but there are some messages contained that parents should [heed.]"

Eddie Turner (Movieguide) says, "[Anna's] trip is motivated by rebelliousness and a desire to experience carnal pleasures that she would never be allowed while living under parental scrutiny. By the end, every character behaves in morally reprehensible ways, always choosing the most comfortable, self-serving option."

"[It's] as derivative and formulaic as they come," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The settings (Prague, Venice, and Berlin) are attractive, as is Ms. Moore, but there just isn't much else going on behind the pretty facade. Liberty is … a completely average piece of fluff with more sexual content than the parents of Mandy Moore fans would like to see."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "If the filmmaker's intent is to argue for parents trusting their children, he presents a rather self-incriminating case. Anna proves that she is anything but responsible. Underneath its fresh-scrubbed facade, the film seems more concerned with the pursuit of happiness than life or liberty. And the 'happiness' sought is not what St. Thomas Aquinas would call the 'summa bonum' (the final good) but a cheap hedonism."

Bob Waliszewski (Plugged In) says, "In Liberty, the icing on life's cake can only be found inside a liquor bottle, in a river while naked, and in the act of losing one's virginity. In A Walk to Remember, Mandy Moore's character takes the high road. This time around … Moore's character takes the low road—and in typical Hollywood style, there's no cost involved. I must admit I was hoping for better things from Miss Moore."

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Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) spends a good deal of her "review" speculating about Mandy Moore: "Is she, or isn't she a Christian? Certainly, her skinny-dipping, premarital sex, lies and the abundant sexuality in the film will leave many wondering about this popular star's alleged faith."

The problem with this approach is that the critic is confusing the character and the actress. It is not Mandy Moore having premarital sex in the film. It is, rather, that Moore has consented to play a character that does these things. There are many actors in Hollywood who have chosen to play immoral characters, and they have done so for differing reasons, some admirable and some questionable. However, to encourage readers and moviegoers to guess at the fate of an actor's immortal soul simply by judging the characters she plays … this is a presumptuous and dangerous path to tread. It approaches the land of "Christian gossip." Mandy Moore's salvation is God's business.

Critics would do well to focus on helping readers think about the movie, as Robertson does in the rest of her review. "[The movie] preaches the message that we are, essentially, alone in this world—without hope or meaning—until we connect with other humans. The view is not without merit, but believers know that in order to have successful relationships, we must first 'connect' with our Creator, who teaches us how to love others." She also addresses the way the screenwriters make lying a virtue. This kind of discussion is more productive territory for a film critic.

My Baby's Daddyflunks fatherhood

Director Cheryl Dunye puts three lifelong friends through the panic and trials of pending fatherhood in her new film My Baby's Daddy. Eddie Griffin, Anthony Anderson and Michael Imperioli star as pals from South Philly whose girlfriends simultaneously declare their pregnancies. Bewildered, the men are suddenly forced to learn how to put their adolescent behavior behind them and step up to the demands of responsible adulthood.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The film's heart is in the right place, but its crude sexual humor considerably coarsens the story's otherwise entertaining, though shopworn, men-and-dirty-diapers premise."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it a "a lame, thoroughly insulting 'black' comedy about boys in the hood learning to become men by first becoming parents. These three 'fathers' are completely lame-brained and clueless until the time they need to step up to the plate and take on responsibility for the lives they helped to bring into the world. And even then, their ability to contribute to the positive upbringing of their children remains questionable."

Loren Eaton (Plugged In) writes, "I wish I could say that My Baby's Daddy has a good heart. In certain moments the film certainly seems to be trying. It urges men to be involved with their families. It lauds marriage (at times). And it celebrates fatherhood. On the way to those wholesome sentiments, though, audiences will run smack into ribald sexual jesting, constantly crude language, and a hefty dose of homosexual propaganda."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) says that he expected the film to be disastrous, because critics were forbidden to attend a sneak preview. But when he finally caught up to the film, he concluded, "It turns out My Baby's Daddy isn't horrible. The main problem … is this inconsistency of tone. You get the sense that the movie started out as a somewhat sensitive, if predictable, romantic comedy, but then it didn't test well in focus groups. More jokes, they yelled. More laughs, they demanded. Give us more farting!"

RevisitingThe Station Agent

One of my favorite films of 2003, The Station Agent is winning more and more raves from religious press critics. First-time director Thomas McCarthy has made a quiet character study that throws three eccentrics together along a stretch of railroad where they overcome their poor social skills and learn to share their burdens, their interests, and their wisdom. It's a funny, delightful film. Peter Dinklage (Elf) plays an introspective train-enthusiast named Fin. Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April, Far from Heaven) is Olivia, an eccentric artist with a troubled marriage. Bobby Cannavale deserves Oscar attention for his endearing, hilarious performance as Joe, manager of the local espresso counter. Michelle Williams (TV's Dawson's Creek) plays the attractive young neighborhood librarian who harbors a troubling secret.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Its unhurried pace is perfect for this simple story that wins us over with its warmth and gentle humor. By the end of the film, we genuinely care about these characters and are gratified to see them in a better place emotionally than when they began. The script and direction … are worthy of awards. It is a rare achievement to tell such a simple story that carries with it such emotional weight. I look forward to Mr. McCarthy's next project."

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Roger Thomas (Ethics Daily) warns, "It will come and go from theaters quickly if people who truly like compelling, heartfelt stories do not seek out this gem. Some have described the film as a comedy. It does have some of the greatest laughs of any film this year. There are also moments of great poignancy, as moving as any drama. Basically, Agent is just a film about life."

Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) sees meaning in the film's locomotive-driven metaphors: "The trains are a poignant metaphor for life that is passing by Fin and the others. The trains are always going somewhere, but Fin's life is stuck within the walls that he has built to protect himself from the world. The others he encounters are also stuck in their own hiding places. It is fun to see the little train of people going down the tracks, with Fin as the engine moving them along and setting the pace, while Joe and Olivia follow along finding something new."

On the same page, Melinda Ledman (Hollywood Jesus) finds wisdom personified in the affable character of Joe. "Joe, though comical and innocent, represents our society's need for aggressive intervention into the lives of those hurting around us. Much like this movie, Christ taught that we need each other even when we think we'd rather be left alone. The movie evokes both tears and laughter quite successfully, and the actors' performances are stunning. But most of all, the honesty of the characters' desires to escape life's pain, and their ability to work through it together were true to life."

Does The Lord of the Ringsecho the West's current conflict with the Middle East?

Two weeks ago in World Magazine, Gene Edward Veith looked at the timeliness and resonance of The Lord of the Rings films.

"Fellowship … showed terrifying Dark Riders breaking into the peaceful, complacent world of the Shire only a few months after Sept. 11, 2001," he observed. "The Two Towers showed the battle joined between the 'free folks' and the forces of the Shadow, just as Americans were reacting to the destruction of their Two Towers by fighting the war in Afghanistan. This year, The Return of the King portrays a victory, in the aftermath of our own overwhelming but incomplete victory in Iraq, opening only a few days after the capture of the Dark Lord, Saddam Hussein. The movie even features a 'spider hole.'"

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But in accenting the epic's parallels to violent world events, Veith overlooks one of the primary themes of The Lord of the Rings: That our only hope lies in the destruction of tools of great power. In doing so, he contributes to a growing misinterpretation of Tolkien's work. Tolkien would have been grieved to hear that his story was throwing fuel on the fire of the United States "pre-emptive attacks." His story shows that the solution to the world's ills is not to put destructive power in the right hands. The solution is to eliminate that kind of power, to reject it, to refrain from seizing it.

The salvation of Middle-Earth is brought about through our compassion, our patience, and our humility in the presence of our enemies (Gollum.) As Tolkien understood, war is sometimes necessary. But it should never be the first impulse. Although this scene is not in the film, Tolkien's heroic ranger Aragorn walks out on the wall of Helm's Deep and extends the orcs a chance to surrender. The orcs! In the novels, Aragorn is a reluctant war-maker. He seeks first to give his enemy a chance to be redeemed.

Perhaps the sound and fury of Jackson's war-heavy Lord of the Rings films have deafened some viewers to its quieter, but ultimately more important, themes.

Meanwhile, in USA Today, Michael Medved looks at the different political points-of-view offered by two of the leading Lord of the Rings actors. He describes Viggo's soft-spoken argument as "ill-timed political posturing" and "pacifist preening."

You can read for yourself a fuller transcript Viggo's thoughts at Looking Closer. Is it "preening" to suggest that leaders should act without arrogance? Is it ill-timed political posturing for a person to suggest that a powerful nation should show respect for the U.N.?

He also includes quotes from the more conservative perspective of John Rhys-Davies, who makes some powerful observations as well. (A full transcript of that interview is available here.)

Cold Mountainconundrum

Adding to the long list of Christian press critics who have harshly criticized Anthony Minghella's new film Cold Mountain, Andrew Coffin (World) points to things that troubled him.

First, he praises the production values, scenery, and music. But he criticizes the film for its "weak anti-war and anti-heroic sentiment."

I found the film's central character, Inman (played by Jude Law), to be quite heroic. He remains faithful to his true love in the face of much sexual temptation. Further, he risks his entire mission by placing himself as a guard for a heartbroken war widow, defending her and her infant child. Mustering what virtue he can, as civilization is thrown into anarchy and barbarism, he marches home to declare his love and to save his beloved from the wolves that are circling. I'd call that heroic.

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Coffin qualifies this adaptation of Charles Frazier's novel as undercut by "a cynical, postmodern view of the world. Certainly, Inman does some honorable deeds during his long journey, but there's no hint of a cause or ideals any greater than him. Those who might represent such ideals (Union soldiers or ministers, for instance) are depicted as hypocrites, murderers, and rapists."

It is true that there are some wicked Union soldiers in the story, and a perverse preacher as well. (It would be a feeble pursuit to argue that there weren't opportunistic and wicked men on both sides of the Civil War.) But much of Ada's sense of virtue, honor, and restraint come from her father, who was himself a kind and gentle reverend. Indeed, Ada is honorable in that she will not give herself to a man without vowing a lifelong commitment. In fact, she insists on vowing marriage before God, even when there's no church and no community before whom she can vow such things, before she makes such a commitment.

Held up against other popular titles like this week's Mandy Moore release, Cold Mountain takes a rare stand for fidelity and maturity. My full review is at Looking Closer.

Should this Big Fishbe tossed back?

Over the past few weeks (here and here), Film Forum featured early reviews of Tim Burton's new film Big Fish. This week, more reviews came in, reflecting an ongoing division over the value of the film's story. Many critics praise its story of fathers and sons. Others are offended by the film's father figure, saying that Edward Bloom is celebrated and honored for being self-absorbed and insensitive.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Ultimately, I don't buy this Big Fish story. Though we're meant to be charmed by the whimsy and spirit of Bloom's imagination, looking past the glossy whimsy and wacky Burtonesque imagery, I can't help regarding Bloom as a man who lives so much in his own inner world that he's unwilling or unable to engage people who are unwilling or unable to join him there. The apparent implication is that Will [comes to believe] that there was nothing wrong with his father's stories, even though they led to an estrangement that wasn't resolved until his father lay on his deathbed."

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Frederica Mathewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) is also troubled by the film's glorification of a self-absorbed storyteller. "Imagination can provide a springboard to faith or into an empty pond. Big Fish recommends tale-spinning as a satisfying end in itself, precluding the need for spirituality or any further dimension to life. You're not even required to have honest, humble relations with those you supposedly love."

In my own review, I ask why more viewers aren't sympathizing with Bloom's rival, who never gets a shot at enjoying anything in life without Bloom taking the chance away from him.

But Steven Isaac (Plugged In) has a different perspective. "Big Fish [is] about coming to terms with a life that sometimes feels dull. It's about family bonds. Losses. Secrets that shouldn't be so secret. And the great value real has. Fanciful, funny and sweet on marriage and family, this Fish only has a few sharp bones to note, even after it's been filleted and dissected."

Matt Ingle (Relevant) shares excerpts from interviews with John August, the film's writer, and its producers—Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen, and Richard D. Zanuck. Ingle concludes that Bloom is portrayed as "an endlessly talented man, madly in love with his wife and son, with a zest to find reason in everything life throws his way."

More on Monster; a rave for Radioand To End All Wars

Last week, Film Forum summed up critical responses to Monster.

This week, Dick Staub (Culture Watch) considers the way the film's portrayal of Aileen Wuornos misinforms viewers about her mental state. "The omission of Aileen's mental illness means Monster's story itself does not deserve a good or great because the story has been edited in a way that reduces (or at least leaves vague) the perception that Aileen is insane. How can we draw life lessons, how can we evaluate her condition or understand the factors that contributed to her contorted morality without coming to grips with her true condition?"

My own review of the film is at Looking Closer.

Film critic Megan Basham (RazorMouth) turned in her list of ten favorite films for 2003 this week. She includes Radio on the list, saying, "Don't listen to the negative hyperbole. The fact that most critics found this film too inspirational to be true is a sad commentary on their own lives."

(Actually, critics were not saying the film was "too inspirational." They were saying it was "contrived" and "schmaltzy." Click here to scan their reviews, or here to read through my own take on the movie.)

Basham concludes that the best film of the year was the rarely seen To End All Wars. "Not since Chariots of Fire has a Christian story been told so powerfully for a secular audience. If Christian audiences don't support this movie when it becomes available on video/DVD more than we did when it was in the theaters, we have no one but ourselves to blame when the world associates us with embarrassments like Left Behind and The Omega Code."

Next week:Along Came Polly and Torque.