A paranoid risk-assessment agent. A wild and crazy thrill-seeker. A romance that draws a worrywart into a world of extreme sports, dirty dancing, ferret-keeping, and opportunism. These elements should provide the opportunity for hilarious comedy.

But the screenwriter missed that opportunity. At least, that's what almost all religious press film critics are saying about Along Came Polly. Despite an all-star cast—Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Debra Messing, Hank Azaria and Alec Baldwin—this comedy from the co-writer of Meet the Parents, John Hamburg, is the first disappointment of the new year.

"By looking at the poster … one would expect a breezy romantic comedy full of love, laughs and a ferret," says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "Hamburg delivers on the ferret. And though one out of three is not bad, the movie is."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The problem is not with the actors but with the material. There isn't that much for them to work with. The characters they're playing just aren't interesting. [Stiller and Aniston] are rather disappointing. They're simply doing shtick we've seen them do many times before."

Lisa A. Rice (Movieguide) condemns its "nasty scatological humor."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says the film continues a trend in contemporary comedies, supplying "bathroom antics in place of wit."

Loren Eaton (Plugged In) says, "All the raunch and disrespect make the film's already ambiguous moral messages seem tacked on and insincere, and its mirth self-conscious and hollow."

"I'm confused," says Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). "Is the director four years old—or does he think we are? Because that's the only age group I know of (outside of Hollywood) which thinks potty humor is downright hilarious."

Taking a solitary stand in favor of the film, Gareth Van Kallenbach (Phantom Tollbooth) calls it "a funny and enjoyable comedy that should make you laugh and leave you with a smile."

Scowling, mainstream critics shake their heads and hurry off to the next movie in hopes of finding something better.

Critic wins a Datewith Tad Hamilton!

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) is the first religious press critic to post a review of the new romantic comedy from Robert Luketic, the director of Legally Blonde. Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! features Blue Crush star Kate Bosworth and Topher Grace, the star of That 70s Show.

Elliott praises the cast and writes that love is "the heart of the film" and that it is "totally enjoyable." He is also pleased with the film's simple message: "Committing to another individual is a momentous step. We should make sure that our decision is based upon more than a superficial appreciation of how a person looks or appears."

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Film Forum will feature more Christian press reviews of the movie next week.

Teacher's Pet unleashes rave reviews from religious press critics

Moving from Saturday morning cartoons to a big screen animated feature, Teacher's Pet grants Spot the talking dog his wish. A mad scientist genetically transforms the clever canine into a "real boy." But there's a problem—Spot lives his new human life in "dog years," so he's aging far too rapidly. With their faithful "fido" facing a swift decline, Spot's master and friends conspire to fetch him out of his ultimate makeover.

This family-friendly Disney feature has an impressive list of voice talents—Nathan Lane, Kelsey Grammer, Shaun Fleming, Debra Jo Rupp, David Ogden Stiers, and Jerry Stiller.

The reviews aren't bad either.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) raves, "This is one teacher's pet which deserves straight A's. Regardless of whether they are fans of the show, kids will find their ribs tickled by the flick's kooky characters and outrageous sight gags."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says it's cute, and credits it with "a creative storyline and a wonderful voice performance from the witty Nathan Lane. The plot makes room for life lessons concerning selfishness and helping others fulfill their dreams."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "There is so much visual humor and verbal wit packed into a relatively short amount of time that our attention is arrested and we soon find ourselves getting used to the look of the film."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) calls it "wacky, goofy fun for the entire family. The comical situations are a little edgy at times … but the movie has a moral worldview extolling the virtues of being content with how God made you and attacking science—especially genetic scientists—for trying to play God."

Biker flick Torquegets pulled over by critics

Martin Henderson and Ice Cube star in Torque, the latest adrenalin rush for speed lovers. In the tradition of—or should we say, "in the bad habit of"—The Fast and the Furious, Joseph Kahn's movie follows a biker named Ford on his quest to reunite with his girlfriend and to settle a score. But a nefarious drug dealer wants to get some expensive motorcycles back from the prodigal biker. When Ford refuses to play along, he finds himself in a fast-paced fight for his life.

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Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "Sadly, this genre is limited to rebellious heroes and stories that prefer their curves on the female form than on plotline structure. So while there is much eye candy in this action category, there's as much substance as in a mound of cotton candy. With its fast pacing, rapid editing … and weightless premise, Torque is like an MTV video on steroids."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) asks, "Who knew that it would be possible to 'dumb down' 2 Fast 2 Furious? Don't look to the acting. There's nothing there to see. Please don't look to the screenplay. It is an embarrassment of the first order. If there is one redeeming feature to this film, its the relatively short length (approximately 81 minutes)."

Bruce Donaldson (Movieguide) is disappointed that "the key 'stunts' are animated." He also criticizes the "simple story, undirected/uninspired acting, and the patented use of girlie-eye candy."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says the movie is "a visual thrill. The film's overt message—that we must do what's right, even if that costs us relationships and freedom—is a good one. But the means portrayed to get to that goal aren't very wise."

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) calls it "sleek but completely vacuous. In going for a cheap buzz, Kahn has stripped the film of a particular tension that convinces audiences that real danger lurks around that hairpin turn, which is where the thrill lies. With soap-opera names like Ford and Shane, the characters are every bit as artificial as the dopey dialogue that bloats the film."

Mainstream critics are throwing tomatoes here.

Critics divided over Fog of War

Master documentarian Errol Morris, who made the amusing and challenging film Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, is back with his latest—and some are saying greatest—work of nonfiction.

Fog of War is an up-close interview with Robert McNamara about World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. The revealing, intimate conversation has been winning raves from mainstream press critics. But among religious press critics, it is drawing different responses.

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) argues that this interview would have been better if it had presented the Gospel. "Fog of War presents a disappointing, inconclusive, and at times misleading interview. It often stops short of making real revelations about McNamara's experiences. It fails to consider the fact that a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ can indeed change human nature."

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Other critics believe that there is much that can be gained from listening to an interview like this, even if the subject doesn't spell out the Gospel.

Darrel Manson (review pending at Hollywood Jesus) says the film is "an important and useful view into one of the most contentious times in U.S. history and into many issues involved with war and peace that often need to be considered."

J. Robert Parks (Paste Magazine) calls the film "amazing … an incredibly relevant portrait of a man who helped shape the 20th century. [The film] raises enough issues, provokes enough questions, and challenges enough assumptions to make it essential viewing."

Parks explains, "Most viewers will come to the movie interested to hear McNamara expound on the Vietnam War, but it's his reflections on WWII that are the most illuminating. In one of the most riveting interviews seen on film, McNamara recounts how the firebombing of Tokyo was designed—with ruthless efficiency. He then describes the subsequent bombing of 66 other Japanese cities, ending with the admission that, if the U.S. had lost the war, he would almost certainly have been tried as a war criminal. It's an absolutely startling claim, especially given that he's referring not to the Vietnam War, but to the 'Good War.'"

Darrel Manson speaks up about The Passion of the Christ, but the Pope does not

After a special rough-cut critics' screening of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood Jesus film critic Darrel Manson posted his first impressions this week. He writes, "The film is designed to focus on the biblical events, and does so well. It should be noted that the film includes some traditions and legends that are not part of the biblical account, such as stories involving Pilate's wife and St. Veronica. It needs to be noted that this is a very violent and gruesome film. It will be rated R and rightfully so."

Meanwhile, a report at Catholic News Service addresses other reports that claimed Pope John Paul II responded to the film by saying "It is as it was." In fact, says the Pope's personal secretary, the pontiff "told no one his opinion of this film."

More about The Return of the King, In America, Love Don't Cost a Thing, Love Actually, Bad Santa, The Cooler, Monster, Girl with a Pearl Earring, House of Sand and Fog, and Big Fish

Christian film critic J. Robert Parks is running a movie review marathon this week at The Phantom Tollbooth.

As he catches up with several holiday releases, Parks, who also writes for Paste Magazine and the Hyde Park Herald in Chicago, details several things that bother him about the Christmas season's biggest blockbuster—The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. "Yes, I'm quibbling, but I quibble because I love. I had high hopes for Return of the King … [and it] is a marvelous achievement, especially when you compare it with other third movies (I'm talking about you, Matrix: Revolutions). But it's not a masterpiece, and it doesn't even measure up to The Two Towers."

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(Speaking of The Return of the King, USA Today reports this week that the record-breaking fantasy series may have something to do with the rising tide of fantasy films in-production.)

Of In America, Parks raves, "It's a wonderful family drama that pulls at your heart strings without ever getting out of tune. And it features two of the finest child performances I've seen in several years."

He writes that the teen romance movie Love Don't' Cost A Thing is "a surprisingly pleasant film. I certainly won't blame parents who think that this PG-13 rating means no one under 17 should attend. But I'm a fan of teen movies, and this one's better than most."

Comparing the two holiday releases Love Actually and Bad Santa, he finds pros and cons in both. "Love, Actually is a great date movie but one that might irritate the single folk. Bad Santa is a hilarious attack on our Christmas conventions but one that will wear out the welcome of all but the most jaded. Which category fits you best will determine which movie you enjoy more."

Reviewing The Cooler, he finds "a number of nice moments" and "some explicit violence and sex that come out of nowhere. The film also never gets past a superficial exploration of the idea of Lady Luck." He concludes that it is "lamely superficial."

Comparing Girl with a Pearl Earring and Monster, he heavily favors Earring. "Monster is a flashier film and, therefore, one more likely to get the media's attention. And it certainly features two fine performances. But Girl with a Pearl Earring is the real deal, with an amazing portrayal by Scarlett Johansson and beautiful direction to back it up."

(This stands in sharp contrast to the review from Bob Waliszewski of Plugged In, who concludes that Earring is "far from acceptable entertainment, celebrating middle-aged lechery, and embracing inappropriate relationships and lustful thoughts.")

Parks raves that House of Sand and Fog "has a rigor rare in Hollywood dramas. The movie is resolute in its portrayal, never softening the story or its characters for easy sentiment. This leads to a fantastic conclusion, where a simple declaration feels like a hard-won victory."

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House of Sand and Fog is also earning raves from Roger Thomas (Ethics Daily). Thomas calls the work of Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, and Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo "three of the finest performances of this past year. [The movie], as with Changing Lanes before it, has at least two prominent lessons. First, the film is a commentary on contemporary American society where people have lost the ability to listen and care. The other lesson concerns the escalation of unrighteous choices." He adds that House of Sand and Fog and Changing Lanes "will make a fantastic double feature on the inability to empathize—and the sometimes hazardous results of this inability."

Evan C. Derrick (Relevant) says, "House of Sand and Fog is not primarily about plot … but about those enmeshed within it. This film is an intimate portrait of a painful truth, allowing sin to be carried out to its natural and inevitable conclusion: death." The reviewer testifies, "I left the theater very sobered. Not only was grace more precious to me, but I realized that too often I allow its beauty to numb my perception of sin rather than sharpen it."

Dick Staub (CultureWatch) says Big Fish "reminds us of the importance of story." He adds, "Every family has a 'blowhard' personality whose stories have been told too many times. This film reminds us that there could be gold in those stories if we will but take the time to mine it." In conclusion, he declares that director Tim Burton has delivered "a brilliant balance of whimsy and sorrow beautiful to watch, sobering to absorb."

Christian film critics vote on the best of 2003

"It was a rough year at the movies for the Catholic Church," observes Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). Citing examples such as The Crime of Fr. Amaro, Amen, The Order, The Statement, The Magdalene Sisters, and even Luther, he explains that church-bashing was big on the big screen in 2003.

This is the leading issue in Greydanus's review of 2003's film offerings. He also highlights the year's best family films, and then spells out his own list of favorites.

At The Matthews House Project, Michael Leary gives us his perspective on the year, and his favorites as well. Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation tops the list. "Coppola's film … leaves us with a breathtaking vision of the awkwardness with which we all stumble towards security. This is by no means a moral tale. But the decisions her characters eventually make are surprisingly enchanting."

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Christian film critics who publish at The Phantom Tollbooth, Hollywood Jesus, The Film Forum, Decent Films, Cinema in Focus, The Rebel Base, Movie Parables, Canadian Christianity, The Matthews House Project, my own site Looking Closer, and elsewhere contributed votes, resulting in nominations for the third annual Promontory Film Critics Circle awards.

This association of Christian press film critics selected Finding Nemo, In This World, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Lost in Translation, and The Son as their nominees for Best Narrative Film of 2003. Several actors ranked highly on their chart as well, including Olivier Gourmet (The Son), Robert Duvall (Open Range), Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog), Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean), Sean Penn (Mystic River), Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation), Jennifer Connelly (House of Sand and Fog), Charlize Theron (Monster), Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider), and Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen),

In their most distinctive award category—Most Significant Exploration of Spiritual Issues—they honored Luther, Stevie, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working in Time, and The Son (Le Fils).

Winners will be posted February 2nd. To see the full list of nominations, click here.

Next week:The Butterfly Effect, The Company, and more reviews of Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!