Who can walk and chew gum … throw a taxi cab, smash a window, pour a drink, and pat you on the back, all at the same time?

That would be Otto Octavius—or "Doc Ock," as he's best known to Spider-man fans. He's the multi-limbed scientist whose malevolent, metallic appendages override his better instincts in Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi's exhilarating, super-sized superhero sequel. Alfred Molina storms onto the screen and becomes the most formidable supervillain we've yet seen in a comic-book movie. Many Marvel fans will agree that this is the greatest comic book movie ever made, and one of the many things Raimi gets right is casting Molina in this role.

But Spider-Man 2 has more than just a villain. It's the best film of Raimi's career, full of renzied comedy-packed action. (Note to parents: It's an extremely violent movie in a way that only comic-book movies can be.) But more surprisingly, this is also his most emotional film. Perhaps more impressive is the moral backbone of the Spider-Man story. Octavius becomes a striking metaphor for the way that power corrupts—and for the dilemma of weapons of mass destruction.

Peter Parker faces some truly challenging choices in this film, as he ponders the burden of responsibility, and how his true calling may require him to sacrifice his own personal desires. In a society saturated with movies that tell us the most important ethic is to "follow your dreams," the Spider-Man franchise offers an admirable alternative: There is something more important, something bigger, than you and I—and in order to overcome evil with good, we will have to turn away from our personal preferences and lay down our lives for others. Hard to believe such heavy stuff can come from the comic books. But isn't that really why this particular character has remained so popular for so long?

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) turns in a tarantula-sized rave: "At last! At last! This is what a Spider-Man movie should be—freewheeling, rip-roaring, hilarious, heartfelt, over the top. Spider-Man 2 just might be the single greatest super-hero movie ever; it is unquestionably the wildest, most joyous, flat-out comic-bookiest comic-book of all time. Nothing in the original prepared me for the sheer energy, creativity, wit, and daring of this sequel. Spider-Man 2 left me bursting with excitement like no super-hero movie since I first saw Superman II in theaters—and I wasn't yet in high school then."

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At Christianity Today Movies, Russ Breimeier gushes, "Kudos to director Sam Raimi for making a film that is entertaining from practically every angle. It's also a very touching and dramatic film, and I think most will also be surprised at how genuinely funny it is." He concludes that Spider-Man is "hands down the best comic book franchise on film."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service)—always up for puns and wordplay—says, "If bad summer films have you crawling up the walls, you may want to swing by your friendly neighborhood multiplex and check out Spider-Man 2." He calls it "twice as fun as the original. Underneath its exhilarating effects sequences is a tale about a guy viewers can identify with. Raimi once again leavens the film with dollops of camp and self-conscious humor. Building on themes established in the first movie, [it] plumbs deeper in its exploration of the emotional web in which Peter finds himself entangled. It raises moral questions concerning identity, responsibility and sacrifice."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says that the webslinger has never been "more deserving of admiration. Few superheroes can go head-to-head with Spider-Man's morality, his humility, his sensitivity, his ability to self-analyze, his selflessness and his granite grip on justice and rightness. When Spidey spins his webs, it seems like all the good stuff sticks and the bad stuff slides right off. Comic book violence is an issue. Heads bonk. Bodies bounce. And damsels get distressed. But the moral tent pole planted in Vol. 1 stands firm."

Mainstream critics are slinging rave reviews all over the place. It looks unlikely that any other summer blockbusters can top this one for spectacle, storytelling, or box office appeal.

Fahrenheit 9/11 sets record, stirs controversy

Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11set a box office record for a documentary, out-grossing Moore's own Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine in its very first weekend.

It also started the biggest movie-related debate since tempers flared over Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ. Some are even challenging Moore's definition of "documentary," saying the content of this film amounts to nothing more than anti-George Bush propaganda.

While some of Moore's information is factual (some would say all of it, some would say very little), many religious press critics take issue with what he leaves out, and even more are upset about the tone with which Moore delivers his diatribe. Much of Moore's visual presentation consists of quotes taken out of context and embarrassing video footage of the President caught in awkward moments.

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Yet, despite the controversies, some industry analysts are already speculating that Fahrenheit 9/11 stands a good chance of earning an Oscar nomination—not just for Best Documentary, but maybe even Best Picture.

My review is at Looking Closer.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The problem with Fahrenheit 9/11 is not that it is one-sided, per se; it is that Moore barely acknowledges there even is another side. The problem is not that he fails to give the other side equal time or equal validity; it is that he shows virtually no interest in what that other side might be, and in how he might best deal with it. Inevitably, this weakens Moore's own arguments—or it would, if he was all that concerned about making any. Moore's appeal is more emotional and visceral than intellectual; in his own way, Moore is a fearmonger, and preying on the ignorance of his audience just as he accuses Bush of doing."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "[Moore] weaves a self-contradictory web of half-connections, coincidences and sinister music to imply, among other things, that (take a deep breath) the war in Afghanistan was not a retaliatory attack for that country's harboring of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda but because the Unocal Oil Company, which just happens to have headquarters in Texas, the same state where George W. Bush was governor, wanted to build a natural gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, so the U.S. had to first conquer Afghanistan before moving on to Iraq to facilitate this profit-making venture (whew!). What he doesn't reveal is that Unocal pulled out of that deal before 9/11 ever happened. He also doesn't tell us that the bin Laden family denounced and disowned black sheep Osama. (Sure, we can be suspicious of those claims, too, but Moore never gives us that chance.)"

J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) says, "It provides the unusual combination of being both entertaining and thought-provoking. But it also feels like a missed opportunity, with too many digressions and an over-reliance on funny musical interludes. The problem with Fahrenheit 9/11 is that it finds conspiracies in every nook and cranny of the Bush administration. Some of those conspiracies are flimsy at best. These conspiratorial digressions detract from what should be the real meat of the film—the Bush administration's persistent and outrageous lies regarding Iraq and national security."

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"Moore raises important points that need to be part of the political discussion," writes Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "There are issues raised that need to be addressed and questions asked that should be answered. But let us not make the mistake of being emotionally manipulated into accepting his accusations blindly. Moore has made an effective piece of propaganda. It can't be mindlessly dismissed but neither should it be mindlessly embraced."

"Fahrenheit 9/11 is by turns outrageous, inflammatory, extremely emotional, at times compelling and occasionally quite funny," says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). But he concludes it is "unabashedly biased in its inflammatory assertions. In mounting such a one-sided ad hominem attack, director Moore walks a perilous line between investigative journalism and partisan propaganda. And, though artfully packaged and engagingly entertaining, as a political polemic the case made by Moore ultimately falls short of convincing."

Mainstream critics are divided over the film. Some embrace it as visionary, while others—even some who admit they don't like George W. Bush—find Moore's argument shoddy and arrogant.

Three cheers for Two Brothers

After reading my review ofTwo Brothers, some parents who took their children to the film wrote to complain that it was too scary for younger kids.

I apologize to anyone who saw the film based on my positive review, and came away disturbed by some of the film's scenes. But my review also was clear that the film is rated PG (and thus, by definition, not necessarily suitable for all audiences), and I included a warning about the suffering of the animal characters. Specifically, the main characters—sibling tigers named Kumal and Sangha—are mistreated by humans. Similarly, their parents come to an untimely and distressing end, much like in Bambi. Parents should know this before taking their children to the film.

Kumal, the bold and adventurous one, and Sangha, the timid one, grow up in the Southeast Asian jungle, discovering the wide world until they are separated from their parents by a hunting expedition. Before long, Kumal is sold to a circus, where he is mistreated and forced to become a stunt tiger. Sangha goes from being a pet to the son of a French colonialist to being a caged souvenir for a hard-hearted prince. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud's story brings the tigers' adventures to a fitting conclusion that affirms the bond between brothers and the power of learning.

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"[It's] the year's best family film," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). "Annaud's skill and subtlety elevate what is essentially a simple, fable-like throwback to the sort of live-action feature Disney used to make in the 1950s. Annaud's real glory … is in eliciting and/or capturing the moments he wants from his photogenic performers. Sensitive children may find the bleakness and tension of some of the brothers' misfortunes a bit much, though these are hardly the dominant notes in the film and there's more than enough tenderness, comedy, and triumph to balance things out."

Andrew Coffin (World) calls it "an involving adventure tale for kids with enough subtlety and nuance for parents, a rarity among 'family' films. [It] may be the most rewarding family film of the summer."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a film burning bright with both beauty and heartfelt emotion. Annaud … earns his stripes in Two Brothers, combining stunning wildlife photography with sure-handed storytelling to craft a feel-good fable about the bonds of family and the healing power of love."

"Two Brothers will challenge us to think about what it means to be stewards of the world's animal kingdom," says Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk), "even as it entertains and charms us."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "More than just a quality family film with lessons for all but the youngest ages, Two Brothers is a big-screen fix for those of us who visit the zoo just to stand in awe of the Bengal tiger, God's breathtaking paradox."

Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) says, "Children really do respond well to Two Brothers, and here's why: it's about loss, growing up, and recovery. Even children who grow up in 'functional' families feel, at times, as if they're missing one or more parents. The plight of Sangha and Kumal at being separated from each other (and from their parents) will draw children in; and the story of their growth, their reunion, and their return to the wild—to their home, and to their family—is a tale to inspire hope in the hearts of children who have known loss."

"Two Brothers gives us an opportunity to spend some time in close proximity to a magnificent species," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), "one which is becoming rarer and rarer according to the film's postscript. This film illustrates two points. First, that having a teacher is vitally important if we are to learn anything beyond what we already know. Secondly, no lesson needs be permanent. Some bonds are stronger than any behavioral conditioning we may be forced to endure."

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"Besides being visually captivating, it is a great story for kids about family bonds, sibling affection, and respect for nature," writes Steve Beard (Thunderstruck). "While the movie does probe the ramifications of keeping wild animals in captivity, it does so without hitting you over the head with the butt of a hunting musket."

Wayans a waste in White Chicks

"From the movie's commercials and previews, one might think that the Wayans brothers' comedy White Chicks … might be dreadful," says Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service). "And one would be correct."

You'll have a hard time finding any critics to argue with her.

The Wayans' brothers continue to score at the box office with a comedy about two black FBI agents who don the guises of female Caucasian airheads in order to work undercover. But according to religious press film critics, it's not just the costumes that are pathetic.

"White Chicks comes off as crass and just on the verge of mean," Navarro continues. "None of the humor is original, and all of it has been done better elsewhere. The transparent can't-we-just-all-get-along lessons are the only things that are truly laughable."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "This is basically a one-joke movie dragged through the toilet on the way to the boudoir. Based on their consistent output over the years, the Wayans seem to have stopped maturing in the sixth grade, such is the level of their humor."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) says, "White Chicks is an R-rated film disguised as PG-13. That is the biggest 'drag' of all."

Many mainstream critics wish the Wayans would go undercover and stay there.

Christian critics love The Notebook

Nick Cassavetes' new film The Notebook, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks (A Walk to Remember), tells the story of an aging couple who, as one of them struggles with Alzheimer's disease, spend time reminiscing about their younger days and their romantic courtship. James Garner and Gena Rowlands play the older version of the couple, while Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams are the youthful lovers.

Steve Beard (Thunderstruck) says, "The movie is about enduring and passionate love that burns brightly with flames at the outset and ends up graduating to white-hot coals that last a lifetime." He also cautions viewers, "Hipper-than-thou movie critics are going to call it sappy, sentimental, and unrealistic. Ignore them. You will not find a more jaundiced crowd than movie critics."

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Strangely enough, most Christian press critics aren't calling the movie any of those things. Almost all of them are celebrating the film, except for a few who point out that the film portrays premarital sex in romantic and appealing light.

Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) says it's an "engaging, intergenerational love story. Sparks's novel rests in good hands with this fine adaptation by Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi. The Notebook is a thoughtful, emotionally rich film that asks the right questions about love and life. In it, we see that great love, like deep faith, is forged on doubt, trials, and hardships. Only then does it deliver its deepest—and most eternal—rewards."

Jenn Wright (Hollywood Jesus) says the story is "incredibly moving. While there are no secrets about how the story will play out, The Notebook offers a beautiful tale well-told. It is a tale of love—how it begins, how it works, how it ends … and doesn't end. In it we see a picture of an ideal—a devotion, a loyalty, an unwavering commitment to love, honor, and cherish: in sickness and in health."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) raves, "The Notebook is a beautifully shot love story. From the opening frames to the last, viewers experience a cinematic atmosphere as enveloping as the love of the film's main characters."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Get your tissues ready. Even if this film plays on literary misconceptions about love and romance, it's still a heartwarming tear fest."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "This is a mature story about enduring love, commitment, and sacrifice that will have resonance among those blessed to have found a life partner with whom to weather the storms of time. As the baby boomer generation continues to advance in age, these types of stories, as sentimental as they may be, will have more and more meaning for us."

Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) says, "Nicholas Sparks has said his story 'is a metaphor for God's love for us all. The theme is everlasting, unconditional love. It also goes into the sanctity of marriage and the beauty you can find in a loving relationship.' It's too bad that metaphor gets muddied by premarital sex. The painful consequences of separation remind us that God's way is still the best way, but most discerning families aren't going to want to sit through steamy sex scenes just to get that memo." (Handlon was apparently quoting Sparks from a Christianity Today Movies interview. What she conveniently left out was Sparks' very next quote: "I don't want to mislead anyone who thinks these characters are without flaw. They're in love. Crazy things sometimes happen. Do you get my drift? I can't say that everything in the story is completely and a hundred percent Christian. But these are human characters. Nobody is perfect, period.")

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Some will undoubtedly be turned off, quickly dismissing it as mawkish melodrama. Others less cynical will see this valentine for what it is, a wonderful, old-time love story replete with glowing photography, unabashed ardor and rapturous rain-soaked reunions—full of Hallmark heavy-handedness, but ultimately heartfelt."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) argues, "This film can easily resonate with older couples who have been together for many, many years, and, hopefully, also inspire this current generation of young people. If you've ever wanted to support a movie that respectfully affirms and values true love, then be encouraged to see The Notebook."

But Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) stands apart from this chorus of raves, grading the film a 'D.' "The Notebook is about a couple whose budding relationship consists basically of three things: Doing cute / stupid / romantic / picturesque things. Waging a battle of wills. [And] getting way too forward with one another physically."

Regarding the characters' romanticized premarital sex scenes, Greydanus observes, "There's nothing remotely cautionary or critical here; the drama seems to side solidly with the young lovers. Those who previously knew Sparks primarily as the author of the wholesomely pro-chastity A Walk to Remember are liable to be caught off-guard by The Notebook's sex scenes, which are lit, choreographed, and edited to just this side of an R-rating."

Andrew Coffin (World) writes, "Mr. Sparks … is effective at playing his audience like marionettes, pushing a series of emotional buttons that leave those susceptible to his guiles hunched in their theater seats, shoulders trembling, lips quivering, wiping water from their eyes. There's undoubtedly an audience for this sort of thing, and that audience should be relatively happy with The Notebook." The filmmakers, he adds, give the sense "that vague emotion is more important than a concrete narrative."

Mainstream critics are similarly divided over the film, some calling it classy, others calling it sappy and unbearable.

Next week: Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe in The Clearing, and more reviews of Spider-Man 2.