With the recent successes of such blockbuster epics as Braveheart, Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings, and Troy, and with two film narratives about Alexander the Great in the works, it was inevitable that the legend of King Arthur would find a new manifestation at the movies.

Judging from his reputation with film, it has also seemed inevitable that actor Clive Owen will become a superstar. Owen's supporting roles in films like Gosford Park and The Bourne Identity got viewers' attention, and his starring role in Mike Hodges' Croupier earned him high acclaim. The rumor mill has made noises about his potential as the next James Bond.

So it seemed like a sure thing when Owen won the lead in King Arthur, from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Tears of the Sun). The actor and the famous character seemed poised to storm onto the screen in unforgettable fashion.

They'll both have to try again. King Arthur, according to most critics, is a disappointment. And moviegoers gave the film a lukewarm opening, preferring to give Spider-Man 2 a second week at #1 and Anchorman an impressive debut at #2. Even the popularity of actress Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean), in the role of a scantily clad Guinevere, was not enough to give the film a blockbuster opening. Owen will have to wait a few more months to attain the predicted superstardom, when he'll star opposite Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, and Jude Law in Mike Nichols' film Closer. And Arthur will probably have to wait much longer than that for a makeover.

The Arthurian epic has always been of particular interest to religious audiences. But most religious press film critics are unimpressed with the way screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator, Amistad) treats this aspect of the story.

"[King Arthur] nods in the direction of tons of potentially interesting developments of plot, theme and character," says Ron Reed (Christianity Today Movies), "but doesn't bother to follow through on any of them enough to pay off. It could have been a pretty good movie. It could have been a dozen pretty good movies. But it settles instead for being merely good enough."

Regarding this film's take on Arthurian spirituality, Reed remarks, "Historical theology students will be intrigued at the medallion of Pelagius … but I'm afraid in the end that the character's (and the film's) spirituality ends up being mostly a way to talk about far more conventional themes of freedom, earthly and political."

"The tragedy of Arthur continues in the ongoing Hollywood butchery of his tale," rants Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). "The worst thing about … Fuqua's King Arthur, is that Fuqua and writer David Franzoni haven't even tried to get it right. Despite marketing claims about 'the truth behind the legend,' King Arthur bears virtually no resemblance either to Arthurian fact or legend. Instead of demythologizing the legend, or working with what little data exists regarding an historical Arthur, Fuqua and Franzoni simply discard virtually all the data and craft an entirely unrelated story in its place. Along the way, they find time not only to disparage Rome, the Church, and historic Christianity, but also to mount a curious rehabilitation campaign for the founder of the Pelagian heresy, which taught that man can achieve salvation by his own effort, without divine grace."

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "By divesting the tale of its fairy tale trappings, Fuqua has also emptied it of its romance—and, ultimately, its timeless allure. The Gladiator-like battle sequences … are impressive, but are much too intense for children and push the boundaries of the picture's PG-13 rating. More troubling however is the film's paganizing of what has traditionally been a quintessentially Christian myth."

Gen Edward Veith (World) says, "In many ways, it is a good movie, with strong characters, a good story, and terrific battle scenes. It is just not quite ancient enough."

"So what does King Arthur tell us about today?" asks Steve Lansingh (Film Forum). "Plenty. [It's] a movie steeped in modern (and quite American) sensibilities: The church is depicted as corrupt and unfeeling, but Arthur's faith in God is affirmed because it gives him personal strength. Guinevere is a fierce fighter and strong woman; the macho, tough-as-nails Bors finds he has a tender heart. The rest of the knights are reluctant warriors, not relishing danger but willing to follow their leader anywhere. Arthur believes in the freedom and free will of all people, although he is willing to slaughter those who don't agree with him. In short, the movie is every bit as admirable and frustrating, noble and deceitful, lovely and horrible as life in America is today."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Fuqua and … Franzoni bypass the ancient myths and create a new one fashioned after the spirit of our times—postmodernity—where do-it-yourself faith and feminism are the hallmarks. A disappointment on many levels, King Arthur consists of mostly fighting, all of it vicious and violent (though apparently not enough to warrant an R rating)."

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Not all Christian film critics arrived at this negative opinion.

"It's refreshing to see King Arthur draped with such a convincing Christian heritage," writes Tom Neven (Plugged In). "Up until his pagan wedding, it's made plain that everything Arthur does is motivated by his faith. And while a few Christian figures are negative, it's clear from the context that they're corrupt, not their religion." He adds that the film "features many positive lessons on loyalty, courage and self-sacrifice."

"Franzoni is very clever in how he takes the elements of the legend and inserts it into this story," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "Clive Owen has a commanding presence as Arthur. His character is driven by an overwhelming sense of morality and righteousness and he conveys strong charismatic leadership qualities that make it easy to believe that men would risk their lives for him. The rest of the cast form a fine ensemble."

A veritable "round table" of scowling mainstream film critics are criticizing the film as well.

For most, Anchorman delivers bad news

There's a reason for Will Ferrell's rising stardom — something that sets him apart from other Saturday Night Live alumni. Ferrell has a knack for portraying buffoons who are oblivious to their own ego and stupidity. Contrary to the tendency of his colleagues to try and make us laugh with cheap, locker-room humor, Ferrell gets us to laugh by drawing attention to the inanity of people who are blind to their own bad behavior — which sometimes includes the use of cheap, locker-room humor. From SNL to Elf, Ferrell's fools have one thing in common — they believe they understand how the world works, but they don't understand it at all. Thus, they are completely unaware of every faux pas they commit. We're not laughing at the expense of those he insults, but at the fact that anyone could be so spectacularly oblivious to their own childishness. That is, if indeed we're laughing at all.

Ferrell's new comedy, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, includes a lot of crass behavior, some harsh language, inappropriate sexual behavior, and absurd comic violence that will likely offend many. Ferrell plays Ron Burgundy, a legendary, egomaniacal, idiotic anchorman who "had a voice that would make a wolverine purr." Burgundy is guilty of more journalistic crimes than Michael Moore. And yet, while his success relies on being photogenic, he still believes he's an authority on everything. Thus, when he is joined on camera by a female co-anchor (Christina Applegate), his whole chauvinistic world is threatened, and television news is changed forever.

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My full review is at Christianity Today Movies. And it appears I'm the only religious press critic who found anything worthwhile in this absurd, exaggerated comedy.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Ferrell milks his pompous, chauvinistic character for all it is worth but the comedy teat quickly runs dry. Inconsistent and ultimately uninteresting, Ron Burgundy is not a character upon which to hang a film. Anchorman has about as many laughs as an SNL sketch. Unfortunately the movie lasts fifteen times longer and there's just not enough humor to fill the empty spaces."

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) quotes Ferrell as saying, "We are not glorifying male chauvinists, we are making fun of them." And then Holz responds: "I question whether [Burgundy's] character development is adequate to offset the onslaught of coarse humor and misogynistic themes — let alone the pervasive profanity, alcohol abuse, smoking and violence. Anchorman is merely the latest in a long string of hugely disappointing films from funnymen who would serve their young fans better if they pulled their minds and their scripts out of the gutter."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "It's supposed to be a parody, of course, but somehow, the few references to '70s culture get lost amid the muck of sex jokes that are too inappropriate to even allude to."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "To its credit, the movie mocks the sexist attitudes that prevailed when women first sought equal status as on-air TV reporters and co-anchors. But satire succeeds when it's sharp, not insipid, and Anchorman is weighed down by its sheer silliness."

Some mainstream critics find more to laugh about in Anchorman, but audiences remain split.

Sleepover's teens need better supervision

Director Joe Nussbaum and screenwriter Elisa Bell are getting some criticism from Christian film critics for their new comedy Sleepover. The film follows a group of girls in the summer before they enter high school. Julie (Spy Kids' Alexa Vega) has her friends over for a slumber party, during which they try to achieve 'coolness' by competing in a scavenger hunt against the school's popular girls. This involves sneaking into clubs, taking dad's car without permission, avoiding Julie's mom, and questing for that first kiss. Ultimately, the girls end up in behavior that many parents would find inappropriate.

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "What I found troubling about the film is the way [Nussbaum and Bell] so cavalierly combine youthful innocence and teenage sensuality. They seem almost eager to push the bar of sensual permissibility further down the age ladder. Our culture does our young people a severe disservice by tempting them to reach for experiences before they are emotionally ready to have them. Julie complains that her mother treats her like a child. What she fails to recognize is that, at fourteen, she is a child."

Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) says, "Compared to others in this genre … Sleepover keeps it pretty clean. None of the major characters drink, do drugs, have sex or spew vulgarities. Still, messages are mixed on what's truly important in life. Quasi-nerdy kids find value and acceptance. Popular princesses tumble from their thrones. But coolness is still the ultimate goal, and everything else is just, well, oblivion."

Rosemarie Ute Hoffman (Christian Spotlight) responds, speaking to parents: "We must try to understand our children individually, and take into account their maturity levels. Though children are a gift from God, they are merely on loan. We are to govern and enforce righteousness consistently because when they are older they will not depart from it. The early years of childhood are the seed-planting years with little outward evidence of your hard work. Even so, it is many seasons later, that when children are without supervision they are able to put into action the many morals and values that have been instilled in them since day one."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Vega and company are appealing enough and the film has enough 'girl power' moments to generate some interest among young female viewers whose preoccupations fall somewhere between Barbies and boys. Still, for older moviegoers, this slumber party is more slumber than party."

Mainstream critics were quickly lulled to sleep by the film.

More on F 9/11, Spidey 2, America's Heart and Soul

This week, several critics caught up with the box-office hits of the last few weeks.

Andrew Coffin (World) has rather strong feelings about Michael Moore's latest film. "Fahrenheit 9/11 … is a disgusting, pathetic piece of propaganda without the slightest shred of integrity. This doesn't mean that there are no reasonable arguments to be made against the war in Iraq, in its timing, execution, or justifications, or certain aspects of U.S. response to 9/11. On the contrary, reasonable criticism — criticism worth debating, anyway — has come from both the left and the right. But none of it is to be found in this unbalanced (in every sense of the word) screed."

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On the No. 1 movie of the week — Spider-Man 2 — Coffin (World) writes, "[Director Sam Raimi is] not afraid to use a popcorn movie to deal straightforwardly with grand themes, like the nature of heroism, the need for self-sacrifice, the responsibility of power. This, truly, is a remarkable feat in a modern film. Moviegoers … ought to be deeply grateful that Peter Parker does more than follow his heart."

Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) is similarly enthusiastic. "Sam Raimi has crafted the best translation of a comic book to the screen. There has been a lot of seeming hyperbole about this movie, but it is all well deserved. There is nary a misstep in story, effects or casting."

Reviewing the cinematic collage of American stories titled America's Heart and Soul, Gene Edward Veith (World) asks, "What is distinctly American that binds all of these differences into a union? We see America's heart, the warm-and-fuzzy emotionalism. But what is its soul, the essence of the American ideal? England has its eccentrics; Australians love freedom; Poles are religious; India is multi-cultural. What is the heart and soul of America, as such? This movie could use some conflict. It is all sweetness, light, and harmony, even though we know today that our country is bitterly divided."

Next week:A Cinderella Story, I, Robot, The Door in the Floor, and much more.