For those wondering if this column has become merely The Passion Chronicle, here's some news: Starting this week, The Passion of The Christ is no longer the top story.

This week, the spotlight falls on a Stephen King adaptation and two films about secret agents. This may seem like a plunge from profound into predictable, but religious press reviewers are finding much worth discussing in these films.

Depp's worth seeing in Secret Window

Stephen King has written several horror stories about writers (The Shining, Misery), and adaptations of these stories have given some of Hollywood's finest actors opportunities to do excellent work. With the release of Secret Window, critics are applauding the performance of Johnny Depp as a writer wrestling with personal demons.

While most mainstream critics are quick to point out that this is not one of King's best works, some religious press critics are finding some valuable lessons in the story. "Depp is the best actor in Hollywood," says Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk), "and his performance … is positively inspired." She adds that the film shows "that evil is not only frighteningly real, but something that must be avoided at all cost. The film also demonstrates the high cost of marital infidelity and the kind of evil that can be unleashed when we choose to follow our sinful desires."

Jeff Diaz (The Film Forum) says, "The plotline is a variation on the common 'your-sins-will-find-you-out' theme with a not too inspired twist. Therefore at times it feels like a well-worn coat … comfortable but rather shabby. And being that it is a well-worn plot you figure out the end way before you need to … hence leaving you with watching the inevitable happen like a slow train coming down the tracks."

Speaking to the quality of the filmmaking, Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says Secret Window "falls flat. The plot presents the audience with a few simple puzzles, but they aren't that hard to solve, and once they are, we're not left with a desire to figure out what any of it might mean."

Eddie Turner (Movieguide) agrees that the film is "undercooked and will give you little for a two-hour investment."

But David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the movie is "tautly paced with enough hair-raising suspense to keep viewers' cold sweat on a slow drip. [It] owes more of its pedigree to the works of Hitchcock than to contemporary slasher flicks."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) argues, "Secret Window is not a bad film, but it isn't necessarily a great one. Depp's characterization is worth a look—as is [John] Turturro's. But overall, the twists of the film are a bit obvious." He says the story "has to do with what we choose to do with our minds. We can dwell on the hurt and pain that we have experienced in the past or we can choose to look towards the future which holds the promise of a life yet to come."

Sherri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) is bothered by "gore and many disturbing, un-Christian themes throughout." But the themes that she highlight seem quite Christian indeed: "This is a film that deals with the power Satan has in inflicting depression caused by sin and then turning it into mental illness. If he can catch a soul at this most vulnerable time, the devil feels he has won a small victory." She concludes by rejecting the film for its "references to adulterous sex, the themes of alcohol abuse, loose morals, strong language, and graphic visions of murder," which she says "will be extremely offensive to most Christians."

If the film shows a character making evil choices, and then shows the consequences, why should that be offensive to Christians? If it portrays the damage that alcohol abuse can achieve, should we not call it truthful?

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) addresses that very point in his review. He says Depp's character "provides us with a powerful metaphor of the human dilemma. Each of us determines, in a substantial way, the ending of our own story, whether we want to think so or not. And, each of us contributes to the life stories of others. We are all responsible for the outcome of our lives and for the lives of those that surround us."

The dialogue's the thing in Spartan

Amongst writers, theater buffs, and filmmakers, David Mamet is as celebrated as any Hollywood star. Mamet's projects, whether or not he directs them, stand out because of his clever, rapid-fire dialogue. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says Mamet "works like a magician who uses words instead of cards." Mamet's latest, which he did direct, is Spartan. Val Kilmer (Heat, Thunderheart), Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher, Pieces of April), William H. Macy (Seabiscuit), and Mamet himself are all earning mainstream applause.

This fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat thriller follows the trials of a special operations officer who joins the international hunt for a missing Harvard student. Despite his professionalism and espionage expertise, Robert Scott (Kilmer) finds himself taken aback by the investigation's unexpected twists, which take him deep into a labyrinth of deceit and disturbing revelations, from dark alleys to the deserts of the Middle East. The more he adheres to his moral convictions, the farther he strays from what his superiors order him to do. Spartan paints a dispiriting picture of how difficult it is to be a principled man in a complex, volatile, and corrupt international landscape.

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My full review of the film is posted at Looking Closer. For those who can endure the company of some tough guys whose language is as rough as their militant methods of investigation, this is a sobering and challenging story about the cost of integrity. Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) has high praise for the film as well.

"This is one of the best movies I have ever seen in this genre, bar none," says Ed Cox (Christian Spotlight). "It is extremely fast-paced, has you gripping your seat during most of the movie, is spiced with points of humor so as not to take itself too seriously and leaves you with a message that to find truth you had best not look to man alone." But he adds, "This is a very sad, very depressing movie. Those dealing dirt to each other are not punished; those acting honorably pay the price—sounds like a familiar story that happened 2,000 years ago."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls Mamet "a master of minimalist dialogue. He expects us to bring our intelligence to the theater with us. We, the audience, must learn to pick up things as we go. The final act is a bit too contrived and preposterous, but overall the film is a taut and thrilling adventure of political intrigue."

Elliott points to the central question of the film: "At what point do we stop following the orders of men in order to answer to a higher authority? The answer must be 'always.'"

"Smart dialogue highlights this suspenseful espionage story," says Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter), "but beware the language and violence."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) says the film "has some positive Christian allegorical elements, but, regrettably, fails to capitalize fully on them."

Snyder is right, but the film is not an allegory, nor is it made by someone trying to make a religious point. Mamet is interested in illustrating the trials of a principled pilgrim in a world of corrupt politics. In doing this, he taps into a difficult truth: Sometimes, doing the right thing is complicated and costly.

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Snyder also objects to Mamet's description of a corrupt U.S. president. But where many filmmakers would have turned Spartan into a chance to take cheap shots at President Bush, Mamet goes out of his way to make this president a fictional one. (There are as many echoes of Clinton here as Bush.) Further, he emphasizes that the commander-in-chief's decisions are only as good as the information he is given to use as a basis for action. If that information is flawed—as it very recently was—then the person acting on it cannot be held solely responsible for mistakes. Spartan demonstrates how evil can flourish even when everyone is doing their job. Sometimes, virtuous men must put their lives on the line even if the world seems to crumble around them.

Cody Banks 2: Destination Lousy?

Speaking of secret agents, the sequel to Agent Cody Banks has arrived. The original film in this "spy kid" genre franchise was not warmly received by religious press critics (or mainstream critics, for that matter). Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London is being similarly criticized. In spite of the popularity of star Frankie Muniz Jr. (TV's Malcolm in the Middle) and supporting help from Anthony Anderson (Kangaroo Jack), the movie is largely accused of being formulaic and forgettable. Most mainstream critics agree with Lou Lumenick (New York Post), who says it is "far worse than you'd expect from a quickie sequel to a bad movie, even one that should have been shipped straight to video."

You would think a movie that credits fourteen producers—fourteen—would show evidence of so much time and effort. But apparently, more does not mean better.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) faults the "lame script" and "a cacophony of silly sight gags, cookie-cutter chases, and cardboard cliché characters."

Concerned parent Caroline Mooney (Christian Spotlight) says her kids "did not hear or understand the offensive language and crude humor," and she advises parents to discuss the film's intention "to undermine adult and parental authority. Many films today reverse the role of parents and children; it is popular to portray adults as child-like and the children as adult-like. Encouraging our children to take on adult roles as they rebuff parental authority can only lead to poor decision making and painful consequences."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) writes, "Over-the-top slapstick from a clumsy sidekick, plus a flatulence joke here and a food fight there, substitutes for anything resembling clever or original humor. Both screenwriter and director evidently felt nuance and subtlety were unnecessary. After all, it's just a film for kids, right?"

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In spite of these protests, some religious press critics are pleased. Bruce Donaldson (Movieguide) says the film is "a big improvement on the first movie … well-written and well-crafted entertainment with a basic moral worldview of good versus evil."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says it is "mostly harmless and fun—although parents will probably be looking at their watches. MGM is to be commended for making a family film that is uplifting and presents a moral worldview of good overcoming evil."

Bob Waliszewski (Plugged In) is also impressed, saying that this "is one of those rare sequels that actually improves upon its predecessor. Gone are the X-ray glasses that allowed a younger Cody to see underneath women's clothes. Gone is the ultra-slinky, cleavage-revealing outfit worn by a saucy CIA agent. Gone are plastic breast-enhanced lessons on 'how to mate.'"

More on Reckoning, Hidalgo, Starsky, My Architect

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says The Reckoning (which Film Forum covered last week) "honors truth, justice and authentic faith in God." Highlighting the character of the conscience-driven priest, Monroe says, "Nicholas can be interpreted as a kind of Christ-figure in this film. Obviously, he is not perfect like Jesus, but after his reform, he does things that exemplify Christ—including sacrifice. This film … does not shelter from depicting the ugliness of sin, but it does not do so without bringing about something fully redemptive."

Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) disagrees. He says the medieval murder mystery "is described as a story of redemption. Therefore, I expected at least one of the following to take place: 1) the guilty party would confess his crime before his accusers, 2) he would express his penitence to them, 3) he would ask forgiveness of them, 4) he would attempt to make whatever restitution was possible, or 5) he would submit to justice for his wrongdoing." Apparently, none of these things take place in the movie. "In the end it doesn't amount to much."

Andrew Coffin (World) says Hidalgo, which drew mixed reviews last week, "can be forgiven for some of its cliché s. No, it's not the stock bad guys or predictable plot lines that are particularly grating—it's the modern twist on the cliché , heavy-handed political correctness, that really sinks this film."

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Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say Hidalgo "presents a predictable struggle imbedded with intrigue, romance, betrayal, and victory. It is a story of humanity and horses, recognizing that for both, what is on the inside is of far more importance than any exterior definition."

Of Starsky & Hutch, Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) says the film "is too much like the television show. It has a story, but the story is secondary to the interplay between the central characters and works only to give us the friction created by the two guys in the cool car. Maybe it would have been better left unmade." Other reviews were posted last week.

Three weeks ago, Film Forum posted reviews of the Oscar-nominated documentary My Architect. This week, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) offers his perspective.

Passion update: Youth pastor and Chicago Tribune in trouble

If you're collecting links to reviews of The Passion of The Christ, Richard Roeper's forceful response to the negative press is posted at the Chicago Sun-Times. (It has been posted there for a while, but was just brought to my attention.)

You should also check out the collection of fascinating, often bewildered, responses to the film's success archived at Dick Staub's CultureWatch.The Passion is on course to become the highest-grossing R-rated film ever.

Michael Medved assures us that the box office numbers will ensure the production of other religious-themed films. "The already visible eagerness to create additional projects that appeal to the nation's deep commitment to its Judeo-Christian heritage suggest that The Passion will be remembered as an historic turning point, rather than a freakish anomaly or an isolated experiment. The movie has helped Hollywood discover not just a new formula, but also a new audience."

At, Terry Mattingly ponders the film's Oscar chances, and adds, "I think Mel Gibson could have made a film that hit just as hard, without becoming such a festival of violence. I know what Gibson was trying to do with this film (stations of the cross for a media-soaked age), but I still question the theological balance of 15 minutes of flogging and 90 seconds of the Resurrection."

He also sends us to this challenging analysis of the film by Mark Holmberg, who writes, "Ultimately, this really isn't a movie. It's more of a stripped-down attempt to yank viewers back to those historic hours in order to do some heart surgery. How you come out of it likely will depend on how you go in. If you're hoping to be entertained, you won't be. If you're seeking to be offended, you will be. If you're looking for theological flaws, you'll find them. If you see Jesus as just a man or a fable, you may not be moved at all, except by anger. If you've had an easy life, it may be easy to forget what you see. But if you've been knocked to your knees by life, if you hunger for something more, or if you're already tenderized to the message, this can be a vital experience."

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Edward Rothstein (The New York Times) makes an interesting comparison, juxtaposing Mel Gibson's The Passion with "The St. Matthew Passion" by Johann Sebastian Bach! Rothstein says, "After seeing Mr. Gibson's Passion … I listened to Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' with amazement, awe and relief. It should probably be prescribed as a remedy for every viewer of the film. Bach … mollifies the accusations of deicide by emphasizing the guilt of all of us — which is, presumably, the theological point. With Jesus being reduced to a pained being, as he is in the movie, his final triumph is as impersonal as his suffering. This is where Bach turns Gospel into musical glory … there is no boundary between the Passion story, the soul's struggles, and daily life. Bach's music moves between the public world of faith and its interior trials, between orthodox doctrine and its human significance. Mr. Gibson, I imagine, would be made nervous by Bach."

Meanwhile, one church landed in deep trouble when The Passion was shown to the youth group. In Gary, Indiana, Reverend Brent Endris of the Abundant Life Tabernacle Church said that a youth pastor brought a bootlegged copy of the movie to him at church so he could review it. The Indianapolis Star reports that the youth group was allowed to view about half of the movie. (The report's does not indicate who was responsible for this decision.) The film proved too much for some young viewers, one of whom went home with stomach pains. "A 12-year-old can't process the brutality," one mother responded. "That's why it's R-rated. I heard it was not Mel Gibson's intention for children to see it."

Elsewhere, the Chicago Tribune is under fire from readers for printing a lot of negative press about the film without any opinions representative of the many who have applauded Gibson's achievement. Tribune public editor Don Wycliff responds, and investigates to see if there has been any violence against Jews since the film opened. He finds that, indeed, there has been violence. "Vandals defaced a synagogue with swastikas, profane messages and the sentence, 'Jews must die.' The next day, members of the synagogue and those from several Christian congregations came together to clean away the mess. Maybe Mel hasn't quite set everything back with his movie."

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A poll from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews found that only 1.7 percent of the Christians participating in the poll believe that the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus.

Examining the negative media response to the film, Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The Passion of The Christ is not equivalent to Scripture, but strong evidence suggests that it is the gospel message, presented imperfectly but faithfully in Mr. Gibson's film, that has rubbed many critics the wrong way." He goes on to show how the difference between critics' reaction to The Passion and their reaction to television's Judas emphasizes mainstream ideas and misconceptions about Christ.

Frederica Mathewes-Green (Books and Culture), meanwhile, voices some problems that she has with Mel Gibson's decision to focus on the violence done against Christ.

Perhaps now would be a good time for Christian viewers to demonstrate that they are excited about The Passion because it is about Jesus, not because it is a Mel Gibson film. We can to that by expanding the discussion to cover other movies of Jesus' life that highlight other aspects of his ministry.

Roger Ebert, meanwhile, reviews what he considers "one of the most effective films on a religious theme I have ever seen." He's referring to The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a 1962 film by Pier Paolo Pasolini. "[It] tells the life of Christ as if a documentarian on a low budget had been following him from birth."

He adds, "Those who found Gibson's depiction of [Jews] as anti-Semitic may appreciate Pasolini's decision to film the debates mostly in long shot, and to show the priests not as angry and spiteful, but as learned and ponderous, dealing soberly with heresy."

Ebert concludes, "To see the film a few weeks after seeing Gibson's is to understand that there is no single version of his story. Gibson sees Christ's suffering as the overwhelming fact of his life, and his film contains very little of Christ's teachings. Pasolini thought the teachings were the central story."

Recovering a proper perspective of art

Can the Bible bring make a difference in our culture's appreciation of art? Gene Edward Veith (World) thinks it can, if only Christians can rediscover a proper perspective and engagement with the arts.

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In an article titled "Stealing Beauty," Veith writes, "Today's Christians often remain impoverished when it comes to the arts, buying into the same hedonism, commercialism, and subjectivism of their nonbelieving neighbors. Christians are in a position, though, to recover the arts. This is important because the arts are valuable in themselves, as gifts of God, and because the arts are a powerful means of shaping the culture and influencing the human heart. At a time when current ideologies are undermining what is most valuable in the arts, the Bible can restore them."

Next week:Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and more.