Mean Girls, mixed reviews

Last year, families found Freaky Friday to be an above-average comedy for teens and their parents. Now, director Mark S. Waters is back with Mean Girls, another comedy about an adolescent facing a crisis. Looks like he's got another hit on his hands—the movie was the #1 at the box office this week, and it was the best-reviewed new release as well. Written by Saturday Night Live "news anchorwoman" Tina Fey, Mean Girls is based on a work of non-fiction, a study of adolescent behavior called Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman.

The film stars Freaky Friday's Lindsay Lohan as a "wannabe" who is kept out of the popular circle by a particularly cruel group of peers known as The Plastics. SNL alum Tim Meadows is earning some compliments for his portrayal of the school principal.

Mainstream critics are fairly impressed, finding far more intelligence in the script than they expect from a film of this genre. Religious press critics also note the script's keen insights about contemporary adolescence. But some of them have a few reservations about its lack of substantial suggestions for how to avoid the superficiality and cruelty exhibited by these mean teens.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Fey's screenplay is blistering in its depiction of the social and political maneuvering that takes place in the 'girl world' of high school cliques. The insights and observations of high school life … will strike a chord with anyone who remembers the days of acne and lunchroom protocol. There is also a decent message being communicated to us. Spreading rumors, gossip, or even truth with the intent to hurt or belittle another human being bears a cost."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "I found it involving, and although it contains some objectionable content … it does not rely on crudity to gain laughter."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) was reminded of Clueless and Never Been Kissed. "It has the same smart, upbeat tone, snappy dialogue and humorously thorny commentary on high school subcultures. Unfortunately, another similarity is that it's sullied by unnecessary language, immodesty, sexual themes and teen drinking."

Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) prefers another teen-oriented new release. "13 Going On 30 actually surpasses Mean Girls' effectiveness in showing the dangers and ugliness of popularity. The difference? Sincerity. Mean Girls lacks it almost completely and instead acts like any teenage queen bee—setting rules, being cruel and picking on the weak—only to then break its own rules and be hypocritical."

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Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says the film "will leave many parents feeling like traditional high schools may be the last place they want their teens." She adds, "The film ultimately falls flat. It's shockingly good satire that suddenly morphs into politically-correct shallowness."

Laws of Attraction old-fashioned, but unimpressive

Taking a break from James Bond films, Pierce Brosnan tries his hand at another genre this week in Laws of Attraction. The result causes many critics to mention the comedies of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, although most admit that Brosnan and Julianne Moore (Far from Heaven, Magnolia) would need a better script in order to compete with classics of the '40s and '50s.

Brosnan and Moore play Daniel and Audrey, divorce lawyers who face off in the courtroom over a particularly nasty dispute between a rock star and his fashion-designer wife. Outside the courtroom, their own romance is sparking to life, whether Audrey likes it or not.

While many mainstream critics approve of director Peter Howitt's attempt to evoke the spirit of classic comedy, they find that it falls far short of its mark.

Christianity Today Movies recently featured interviews with Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan, in which they talk about the film's old-fashioned style. But in spite of its nostalgic sense of restraint, the film is not restrained enough for some religious press critics. Personally, I was bothered by the film's illogical turns and bored by its constantly predictable comedy.

Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "Though there's eventually nice chemistry between these two accomplished actors, there isn't enough scripting early on to establish a believable basis for their romance." Courtney is impressed with its "refreshing pro-marriage argument," but concludes, "By the time we get to this great message, we've seen so much irresponsible drinking and casual sex it almost seems funny for Daniel to tread any moral high ground. And it's tough to get over the fact he's arguing for a marriage that was inspired by too much beer. In the end, lazy scriptwriting leads to a lukewarm verdict."

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) calls it a "visually appealing but underwhelming romantic comedy. It's got a good message about commitment but it lags on laughs. At least it all comes down on accepting that marriage requires commitment and work, not to be discarded at the first hint of discontent."

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Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says it offers "a much-needed message about the power of making marriage work, against all odds." She goes on to criticize the behavior of the lead characters who hastily and drunkenly jump into bed together, but adds, "The acting throughout the film is superb. The script, though fairly predictable, has some very cute one-liners scattered throughout."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Laws of Attraction succeeds for no other reason than the fact that we like the two stars and the characters they portray. The chemistry works."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says the film is appealing because the "opposing divorce attorneys … weigh whether to move beyond attraction to commitment."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "Those involved deserve an A+ for attempting to revive grown-up banter and sophisticated predicaments on the silver screen. Alas, I think I liked it more for what it was trying to be than for what it actually was."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, "The overall effect of this story provides laughter and love—even correction—to the ugly cultural problem of divorce."

While I agree that it is a rare and wonderful thing to see a movie that suggests marriage is a good thing, I'm still unimpressed with Laws of Attraction. The comedy is oh so predictable. The writing is uninspired. The supporting characters are flat stereotypes. And worst of all, the two lead characters are not in any way ready to consider something as ambitious and sacred as marriage.

I enjoyed the chemistry of Brosnan and Moore. But their characters exhibit such reckless behavior and self-absorption that I'm never convinced for a moment that they are really interested in each other. Daniel is drawn to Audrey's appearance and personality quirks. Audrey seems drawn to Daniel because, well … why? His carpet of chest hair? Any good marriage counselor would look at these two and recommend a good deal of character development before they'd approve of a lifelong commitment. While the music and the movie conventions try to sway us into believing that they're headed for "happily ever after," all I see are fights, betrayals, lawsuits, and damage waiting around the corner.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Critics cheer role model golfer Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones was for a time referred to as "the Best Golfer in the World." He had a distinct style, a strength born out of suffering, and a passion for the game. His records have never been broken. And, whaddaya know—the guy playing him is Jim Caviezel, an actor who knows a thing or two about "passion."

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Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius co-stars Claire Forlani (Meet Joe Black, The Rock), Jeremy Northam (Gosford Park, An Ideal Husband) and Malcolm McDowell (The Company, A Clockwork Orange).

While many are put off by the production's sports-movie cliché s, Bobby Jones is impressing some mainstream critics during this time of corruption in professional sports. "Was Bobby Jones really this great a guy?' asks Peter Hartlaub (San Francisco Chronicle). "Who knows? But after watching the greed that has consumed sports and the anti-heroes that have consumed modern films, finding someone to clap for is an OK way to pass the time."

Most religious press critics are demonstrating some passion of their own for the film.

But Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) criticizes the film's "shameless marketing ploy" (the slogan: "His passion … was his genius"), although he sees a faint similarity between the film about the golfer and the film about Christ: "Both films are reverently respectful portraits of a real-life person who endured physical sufferings in the course of pursuing his life's work, and achieved something unique."

Despite its honorable intentions, the film, according to Greydanus, falters. "The most successful sports movies … reach out across the divide separating fans from non-fans, finding ways of making the drama compelling to the uninitiated as well as aficionados. Bobby Jones, while sweetly sincere and uplifting, doesn't fully succeed in doing this. I wasn't drawn into the game, or the story, the way I wanted to be. It doesn't help that [the writers] rely too frequently on prefabricated dialogue, from cliché s … to inspiring quotations."

Readers should also check out Greydanus's review for his amusing speculation about the origins of the game … in Presbyterian Scotland.

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "This pleasant, beautifully photographed period film is entertaining and rife with moral themes. In fact, I walked out so impressed with Jones' 'life well lived' that I couldn't wait to read more about him. Bobby Jones wasn't perfect, but he was a humble guy whose integrity, sportsmanship and refusal to play for money make him a fascinating character study today."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) "This film will help to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of who Jones was and what drove him to excel. The film is rife with biblical principles, themes and lessons which can be used to illustrate God's wonderful truths."

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Ed Cox (Christian Spotlight) says, "I want to stress just how wonderful this film is. True … it is a sports movie. After all, Bobby Jones became famous for his golf swing, not his days in court. But that said, it does two things extremely well. First it demonstrates how a man can live his life with honor and virtue and still be successful. Second it surrounds that theme with good theater. Oh that more movies would dare to stand for something instead of stand in the way of something."

"Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius is more than just a sports movie," says Mark Moring (Christianity Today Movies). "It's a film about triumph over adversity, about the complexities of relationships, and about the grit, determination and integrity of a family man on multiple missions—cliché s all, indeed, but they're handled tastefully and sensitively enough that you really do care about what happens to the good guy in the end."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Though it may sound like a contradiction in terms, the best sports movies are, at their core, rarely about sports. Whether manifested in the balletic brutality of the boxing ring or in the edifying endurance of runners, the visual poetry of athletic competition has long provided filmmakers with the perfect metaphorical canvas upon which to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit. Such is the case with [this] handsomely crafted biopic."

Benn Becker (Hollywood Jesus) reports that the film "felt more like a TV movie than a feature film. I felt Caviezel's acting was a little restrained and did not portray the internal struggles of Jones's character effectively. However, I would still recommend this film about a true gentleman of the game of golf, especially for those who have heard about the legend but aren't completely familiar with his story."

Envy is not this film's biggest sin

Ben Stiller stars in Envy … his third comedy in six months (and there's another one, Dodgeball, right around the corner.) Perhaps he should take a break. This one's receiving the same kind of disparaging remarks that greeted his last bomb—Duplex. Not even School of Rock star Jack Black, co-star Christopher Walken, or acclaimed director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam) can save this botched affair.

The movie traces the relationship of two neighbors, Tim (Stiller) and Nick (Black), after one of them becomes an instant success off of a get-rich-quick scheme. Nick's invention is called "the Vapoorizer," a device that immediately and mysteriously "vapoorizes" canine waste. You can imagine the ways that detail plays into mainstream critics' negative reviews of the film, some of which declare this as "one of the worst comedies" in recent memory.

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Religious press critics agree—the film stinks.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Though one would naturally assume that a tag team of Stiller and Black would give one's funny bone a good work out, don't worry: There is little chance that your laugh muscles will break a sweat, let alone bust a gut."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "The premise is one of the best I can remember in a film. The first hour tries and occasionally delivers a few laughs, but then the story loses momentum and the filmmakers lose faith in their parody, suddenly relying on the now common staple of movie comedy—crudity. Levinson … allows the film to drag, making it seem much longer than it really is."

Evan D. Baltz (Christian Spotlight) admits that the film made him struggle with envy … a very specific kind of envy: "I found myself being very envious of the other people coming into the theatre who were going to see other movies. If only I could be them, I thought. I was also envious of the other members of my group who saw the screening with me—envious that they walked out of the movie about 25 minutes into it and received their money back. If only I could have done the same."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) goes easier on the film. "This broad-stroke, goofy—sometimes plodding—throwback comedy blends the down-home wackiness of such '80s classics as The Great Outdoors and The Money Pit with Ben Stiller's hip turn in 2000's Meet the Parents." He calls it "a quirky morality tale" that "marks the path from petty jealousy to retaliation to guilt to confession to reconciliation."

A Godsend it isn't

What would you do if you were given an opportunity to bring back a loved one from the dead? In Godsend, Paul and Jessie (Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a couple traumatized by the loss of their eight-year-old son, are given an opportunity to restore their child to life. Their hope lies in the hands of a secretive doctor (Robert DeNiro) who meddles in the technology of cloning. Entangled in troubling questions of morality, legality, and spirituality, Paul and Jessie make a choice that leads to devastating consequences.

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The consequences are also devastating for the audience, according to mainstream critics. Religious press critics agree.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "While the questions raised are thought-provoking, the only thing the movie itself provokes in viewers is the urge to check their watches. Unfortunately, after an intelligent setup, the story's philosophical pretensions quickly give way to spooky atmospherics and standard ghost-story devices which detract from the central moral dilemma posed."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "It is hard to pinpoint exactly where this film begins to fall apart, but fall apart it does. By the end of the film, the story has gotten so ludicrous it is hard to muster any interest over what the outcome might be. And even then, we're still disappointed."

Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Despite its laudable intentions, Godsend is less than equal to its challenges. The script is long on the Big Issues, but comes up short in compelling dialogue. It needed a couple more drafts."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) agrees, calling it "a tense, if slightly derivative, thriller. Unfortunately, it bears all the earmarks of having been focus-grouped into inferiority. About 10 minutes from the end it swerves in a direction not warranted by what has preceded, and it feels as if an entire chapter has been ripped from a book." He adds, "Godsend cheats when it comes to answering the overarching moral question. Based on previews, I originally feared that it might trivialize the morality of human cloning by having the result be a monster, thus relieving the filmmakers of having to address whether human cloning is evil in and of itself. But they did worse: such moral questions are made irrelevant."

Michael Karounos (Christian Spotlight) says, "If you are interested in idea-movies, then Godsend is worth seeing. With a line here and a supernatural deletion everywhere else, it could easily have been made into an interesting Christian movie highlighting the moral and spiritual questions that cloning raises. With the recent success of The Passion, you wonder how long it will take Hollywood to catch on that Christians will go in droves to see genuinely Christian films."

More on Man on Fire, Alamo, Dogville

A few Christian press critics commented on films released in the past few weeks, titles that Film Forum covered earlier.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Man on Fire is an out-and-out apologia for the necessity of duct-taping a bad guy's hands to a steering wheel sometimes and lopping off fingers before shooting him in the head, or shoving a crude explosive device into a body cavity of another thug and taunting him with the threat of detonating it before finally going ahead and doing so. Scott's direction is always pointlessly hyperactive, but here he supplements his usual shortcomings with random use of subtitles and captions as design elements. In the end, though, what sinks the picture is that it asks us to sanction Creasy's brutality."

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Reviewing The Alamo, Susan Olasky (World) says, "The two-hour, 17-minute film feels longer than it is because it moves sluggishly until the last half hour and fails to find a compelling narrative focus. Nonetheless, it's a movie worth seeing because it portrays a group of flawed men who come to Texas for a second chance, and find in the battle for Texas independence a cause bigger than themselves and their own vices."

Andrew Coffin (World) had this to say about Dogville: "As fascinating and challenging as Dogville is, the film suffers from Mr. von Trier's profound disgust for everyone involved. The director seems to despise his characters, his audience, perhaps even himself. Dogville appears to be a passionate cry from a man who sees something terribly wrong with the world, but has rejected the only framework that would allow him to truly understand it and to see that its redemption is possible."

Next week: Monsters run amuck in Van Helsing, Olson twins run amuck in New York Minute.