If audiences want movie studios to produce great movies that the whole family can enjoy, they need to go out and buy tickets for those movies when they occur. This week is a perfect opportunity. While Spider-Man 2 and Fahrenheit 9/11 are making a lot of noise and raking in big box office receipts, an all-ages adventure is playing alongside them that is different than any big screen experience you've had before.

Imagine if an experienced cinematographer invited you to come and see his favorite footage from a career of capturing visions that inspire awe and national pride. The guy happens to be passionately patriotic. He also has a knack for discovering some of America's most interesting and inspiring people. His collection of footage is a treasure trove of exhilarating imagery and storytelling that challenges us to consider what makes us distinctive and what we can accomplish with our lives.

That pretty much sums up America's Heart and Soul, the new film from Louis Schwartzberg. He doesn't like to call it a "documentary," but considers it to be a big screen adventure movie that stars real people instead of Hollywood actors.

Unfortunately, the film is opening while the controversial, politically charged documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 is making headlines. Thus, some are arguing that this film is an answer to Michael Moore's troubling speculations and arguments. The truth is, America's Heart and Soul is not a political film. These interviews took place before September 11, 2001, and it took Schwartzberg a while to pull it together into a finished work. The film should inspire fans of John Kerry as much as it inspires supporters of George W. Bush or other American leaders. It'll inspire everyone but those who have given up on Disney studios completely.

The movie treats us to a whirlwind tour of the nation through Schwartzberg's romantic, colorful, gravity-defying cinematography. For just over 90 minutes, we're introduced to one amazing person after another, each one with a life story that will impress and intrigue you. You'll wish you could slow the movie down and dig deeper into each story, spending more time with each person.

My review is at Looking Closer, along with an interview with director Louis Schwartzberg, in which he shares his thoughts about the Michael Moore controversy and tells us one of the great stories that didn't quite make the final cut of the movie.

"What I love about America's Heart and Soul," writes Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies), "is the way it presents people who are really living. Forget reality television. This is reality and it's all about people who don't need a head shot to validate their existence. Inasmuch as popular culture narrows the world by presenting a limited number of corporately sponsored artists and personalities for mass consumption, this movie widens the world by reminding us that there's a whole lot of interesting people out there. God bless America, indeed."

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"There's virtually nothing in this uplifting film to warrant such terms as liberal or conservative, isolationist or interventionist, jingoistic or America-bashing," writes Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). "America's Heart and Soul is one of the least political documentary-type films … I've ever seen. The term 'patriotic' might apply, in the sense that the film celebrates American freedom and the unexpected myriad of ways Americans find to enjoy it—but not in any sense that need be felt to detract from other countries. The best adjective, though, would be simply human. [The movie] is a tribute to the endless diversity of ways in which human nature will engage in the pursuit of happiness, as long as there is life and the liberty to do so."

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says it's "a valentine to liberty, family bonding, the work ethic and the immigrant experience. [The movie] comes across as a deeply personal and patriotic film about those who are fortunate enough to be living the American dream. Its cinematography is so impressive that this is one film best seen in a theater rather than down the line on video."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, "The pictures Schwartzberg has captured are amazing—both with scenery and with the naturalness breathed out by the people. All in all, it is visually and emotionally captivating. In the midst of swimming pools and backyard barbeques, make sure you make time for America's Heart and Soul."

"This is an exhilarating movie," writes Mike Smith (Hollywood Jesus). "It gives us new respect for the people that make this country great: everyday folks. This is a documentary about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And if you're one of those people to whom life has become a drudgery of mandates and obligations, I think you will be encouraged by this movie."

Steve Lansingh (Film Forum) observes, "It captures several people who speak openly about God and his power. It's a side of Christianity we're not used to seeing in the media, as the headlines are often grabbed by angry spokespeople. Instead we see a [grape] grower who connects his life's passion to Jesus' first miracle of making wine. We see a gospel singer who speaks about the influence of the Spirit when singing on stage. We see a church that is committed to racial diversity, which reaches out to put homeless people in its pews. And even when God isn't talked about explicitly, the movie celebrates God's gifts—the landscape, the body, laughter, community, creativity. If the movie is relentlessly upbeat it is upbeat in all the right ways: not sugar-coating the surface of America but tapping into the rich veins of sweetness that God has given our lives."

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Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) has an objection to the film that overrides the things that impressed him. "Except for its decision to showcase Cecil Williams' ultraliberal Glide Memorial United Methodist Church as the poster child for compassionate Christianity in America, this film has a lot of good things to say. Great people. Solid work ethic. Inspirational stories. But there's no getting past that one subtle, yet agonizingly disappointing inclusion. Inevitably, some hurting viewers will seek out Williams' misguided church or others like it for answers to life's most important questions. I can't recommend a documentary that could steer people in that direction, no matter how solid the rest of the movie may be."

But Steve Beard (Thunderstruck) raves, "With a touch of the Americana images that would make Norman Rockwell dance a jig, Heart and Soul is a pageantry of gutsy and creative men and women who make this country such a unique place."

Mainstream critics aren't sure what to make of such an unusual film. But I recommend you hurry out and support it while it's in theatres, so Disney gets the message that unique, interesting, hand-crafted movies for the family are important to us.

The Clearingleaves us lost in the woods

When wealthy car-rental-business pioneer Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) is kidnapped from the driveway of his suburban Pittsburgh home by an amateur criminal named Arnold (Willem Dafoe), his resourceful homemaker wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) is left to fret over the crisis. Their grown children (Alessandro Nivolo and Melissa Sagemiller) come home to furrow their brows over the scarcity of clues, and an FBI agent (Mike Pniewski) moves in to enjoy Eileen's hospitality and muse over the identity of the kidnapper. Meanwhile, Wayne is forced to trudge hand-cuffed through rugged, rainy, forested terrain with his captor's gun aimed at his spine. Arnold tells him there's a cabin ahead, and that he'll be handed over to a band of crooks who have hired him for the delivery.

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Sounds exciting … but it isn't.

The Clearing starts out like a thriller, but it is far from thrilling. Pieter Jan Brugge's directorial debut is watchable only for its talented cast, a trio of formidable actors who make you wonder what drew them to this particular script. It's a kidnapping yarn that raises a lot of interesting questions and suggests myriad possibilities for conspiracy and surprise, only to cast off those concerns entirely. It ends by slumping into the territory of simple morality plays—you know the kind, where the captive rich man suddenly learns that a few of his priorities are out of whack.

My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a cinematic soufflé that, though soundly crafted, fails to engage viewers on a sustained emotional level."

"Brugge seems more intent on making people think and reflect upon their lives and relationships than in providing the thrills and chills normally associated with the genre," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The single act which drives this film is a kidnapping. But instead of a pulse-throbbing action picture about the crime and rescue, we are given relatively quiet scenes as the three main characters get introspective about life and their respective places in the world."

De-Lovely a musical disappointment

While it opened only in select cities, De-Lovely, Irwin Winkler's new biopic about legendary songwriter Cole Porter, received ho-hum reviews in the mainstream press this week, in spite of Kevin Kline's performance in the lead role. In the only two religious press reviews posted at this writing, there was a similar lack of enthusiasm.

Comparing this Porter biopic with 1946's Night and Day, Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "They are so far apart they are like … well, night and day. The difference is, of course, the subject of Porter's homosexuality. It is a topic that was not broached publicly in the '40s and so the early biography was largely fictionalized. In Night and Day, the tension that existed in Porter's marriage was explained by his incessant workaholic nature. De-lovely explodes that myth to build one of its own in a stylized, romanticized version of the gay Cole Porter. The convention of framing his life as a staged musical production can be intellectually accepted and understood but it is neither original nor altogether successful. Taking the appeal of his music and placing it to one side, there is little that is pleasant about watching a man traveling down a long road to a lonely, pathetic and bitter end."

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Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) writes, "The new film is scarcely more dramatic than the first. Porter's philandering is presented as little different from the conventional sort, and is shown to bring the couple considerable pain and regret. Ultimately, the film extols the loving over-the-years relationship which survives Porter's transgressions."

Spider-Man 2: More cheers for the webbed wonder

Last week, Christian press film critics heralded Spider-Man 2 as a sequel that surpasses the original film in the franchise. They also called it one of the year's best films. This week, more critics join the chorus of admirers.

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) calls it "one of the best movies I've seen in years. Director Sam Raimi has done a fabulous job with this film, and the script couldn't be any better. Full of nuances, great dialogue and Godly themes, Spider-Man 2 has something for everyone. Most important is its overarching message—that good must and will ultimately conquer evil. Evil is overcome, this film clearly says, by men who are willing to do what is right—at any cost."

Josh Hurst (Reveal) writes, "Raimi has hit a homerun and raised the bar staggeringly high for future comic book movies. He has done so by giving this super sequel a few things that your average summer action movie just doesn't have." He goes on to list its several distinct strengths.

Ed Cox (Christian Spotlight) assesses it for what it doesn't have: "There are a few language problems (two h*ll, one a** by my count, nothing in the profane category), two kissing scenes (one bland, one passionate). There are no drugs or references to same, no revealing costumes, no blood, nothing out of wedlock, etc. For Hollywood this is about as wholesome as an action movie can get."

Benn Becker (Hollywood Jesus) writes, "Spider-Man 2 is one of the best overall films I've seen this year. It manages to find great balance between character development and action sequences. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments as well."

Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) adds, "I can't recommend this movie high enough. It is the pill of joy that we all needed this summer and the one that will get us back to carrying for our fellow human, whether we agree with them, are the same as them, or not. In the tumultuous political climate surrounding our world right now, [Spider-Man 2] is a breath of fresh air. Don't believe me, go see for yourself."

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Matt Wiggins (Relevant) says, "Two words are heard throughout the film: responsibility and trying. For an action movie, Spider-Man 2 is very thoughtful and spends a considerable amount of time examining these two ideas. Instead of racing from one action sequence to another, it takes its time to build characters and relationships. Raimi is a brilliant action director but also proves he is equally capable with the dramatic aspects of the film. Every performance is great and no single actor seems to carry the film. Spider-Man 2 may not move as quickly as the first film, but the tradeoff is well worth it. Simply put, this movie is a joy to watch."

Will Johnson (Thunderstruck) contemplates the difference between the heroics of Spider-Man and another prominent hero. "He is [the people's] protector, their inspiration and their hope. There's one problem. Spider-Man isn't real. Just over two thousand years ago another man came to his earth, but he didn't wear a costume and he didn't fight the bad guys. Yet, despite all of this, he changed the course of history and gave countless millions of people hope, joy and deep love."

Fahrenheit 9/11 continues to provoke 'heated' discussion

Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 continues to draw intense discussion and debate among critics, journalists, politicians, and moviegoers this week.

In the religious press, opinions continued to vary. Dick Staub (Culture Watch) calls it "a terribly executed, one-sided, emotional slop of half-truths and innuendo, and takes its place among similar products on the right—we should seek the truth, but truth seekers know, it is difficult to find."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) give it three stars. "Like a prosecuting attorney who cunningly weaves the 'facts' of the case together in order to 'win his case' rather than present both sides to find out the truth, Moore's case is a masterpiece of partisan documentary skill. Presenting a case which Moore himself acknowledges reflects his own beliefs and biases, his case against President George W. Bush seems right until one looks more closely at the 'facts' which are left out and the statements which are removed from their original context."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, "Moore presents the information at a pretty rapid pace and doesn't really allow the audience time to think them over. He uses facts, but also exaggerates them, and relies heavily on conjecture. If you already agree with his ideas, then it will clearly be entertaining and affirming. If you don't know the details already, don't expect an objective presentation from his spin on them. This film is presented entertainingly, but more than anything incites animosity and contempt for our President."

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Chattaway reviews Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is still proving popular at the multiplex, and this week, a new review from Peter T. Chattaway of Christianity Today Movies has been posted at Canadian Christianity. Defending the series against critics of its magical metaphors, Chattaway turns in a positive review. "Many Christians—and I am one of them—defend the books on the basis that the 'magic' within them serves the exact same purpose as the technology in science fiction. And nothing has convinced me of the link between these books and science fiction more than the fact that this story introduces time travel to the wizards' bag of tricks. Somehow I think most children are smart enough to recognize that this is pure make-believe."

Another look at Kieslowski's Decalogue

An excerpt from a new book on Krzysztof Kieslowski's filmmaking masterpiece The Decalogue has been published this week at Metaphilm. In this excerpt, Dr. Joe Kickasola sums up the film series and offers an in-depth interpretation of the second episode.

Next week: Will Ferrell's Anchorman and a movie based on John Irving's A Widow for One Year, The Door in the Floor.