This week, a Senate panel is hearing arguments about whether or not a film should be R-rated if it shows characters smoking cigarettes.
It's not such a wild idea. After all, films get R-ratings if their characters use certain swear words, expose certain areas of their flesh, or if the violence becomes too extreme for the vulnerable minds of younger viewers. Why not give a film an R-rating for giving attention to equally volatile behavior—one that causes cancer, obesity, depression, and even death?
It makes you wonder—why do we give films strict ratings for certain portrayals of misbehavior while other misbehaviors are shown regularly without any protest? Pride. Lying. Jealousy.
And what about the glorification of eating foods that are bad for you? Should a film be R-rated if the characters wolf down Big Macs on screen or drink Big Gulp-sized cola? Certainly, if characters who cuss can influence impressionable viewers to make poor choices, so can the presentation of reckless consumption of foods that lack nourishment.
Scripture tells us to avoid idle talk, murder, and lust. Thus, many Christians are offended—even outraged—whenever these behaviors are reflected on the big screen. But Scripture also tells us that our bodies are our "temples." We should honor God by being wise in how we use them and in what we give them. Why are those same Christians undistracted by big screen role models who advertise the pleasures of addictive soda pop, candy, and fast food?
Personally, I think artists should be free to portray the way human beings behave—both the good behavior and the bad behavior—in contexts that prod us to think about choices and consequences. It is up to the viewer to listen to his conscience, avoid those things that cause him to stumble, and learn to be a discerning viewer who is not influenced and persuaded by evidence of worldliness. A Christian who vows to "see no evil" will have to build a wall around himself and never venture out into the world Jesus asked us to love.
But we also must exercise our free will, to become strong against temptations toward misbehavior of any kind, whether it is shown in the media or exhibited by our neighbors where we live and work. Christians are called to "test all things and hold fast to what is good." That goes as much for our diet as it does for our media intake.
We're surrounded by fast food advertising. It has a massive influence on children who watch television. It has turned many grownups into junk food addicts. And it is this problem that Morgan Spurlock focuses on in his new documentary Super Size Me.
Whether or not you eat at McDonald's once a year, once a month, once a week, or once a day, if you're a discerning grownup, you should get in line to see this eye-opening, entertaining, appalling documentary. Spurlock decided to find out the hard way whether or not McDonald's fast food is as bad for our bodies as folks say it is. And he did learn. As he committed himself to eating three meals a day from the McD's menu for thirty days, the hard way proved much harder than he—and his doctors—ever dreamed.
Spurlock's film explores much more than the disintegration of his health. It also exposes the ruthless business tactics of fast food companies and national food corporations to get kids addicted to sugar and junk food. This (brave? insane?) filmmaker suggests that there's just as much reason to worry about the discernment and health of people who eat fast food as there is to worry about smokers. The information backs up his argument. So do his internal organs.
My full review is at Looking Closer.
Peter T. Chattaway (CT Movies) says, "The film is not just about one man, and it is not just about nutrition. Along the way, Spurlock raises some essential questions about the nature of personal, corporate and social responsibility. The film … underscore[s] the need for individuals to take responsibility for their own health, and it does this in a frequently humorous and self-deprecating way. Whether the viewer agrees with all aspects of Spurlock's political agenda or not, Super Size Me would be perfect for group discussions of all kinds—it gives the viewer plenty of food for thought."
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) has some strong criticisms of the documentary. "Spurlock himself is hilarious, and his command of documentary editing is fantastic. He mixes the … interviews with humorous animated sequences. He also makes some helpful points about how the sub-contracting of school food providers might be leading to our junk-food crisis. [But] there is certainly an uncomfortable element of arrogance in Super Size Me. The movie may couch its critique of people who eat at McDonald's on the basis of health, but the reappearing shots of grossly overweight people hold those people up to ridicule. There's no attempt at understanding why people gain so much weight or find so much comfort in food."
Parks is right—Spurlock could have made his film more informative, less confrontational. Still, I want to applaud his courage in bringing this important argument to such a large platform. He could have done it more tactfully, but these are issues that need to be discussed. This is information vital to our health, crucial to our decisionmaking. After all, our diet is a moral and a spiritual issue. It reflects our attitude toward Creation, and thus, toward the Creator himself.
Caution: The film does include some harsh language, graphic imagery of surgery, and some frank talk about how diet affects sexual activity. It also shows a lot of food that's bad for you.
Van Helsing: A monster movie that ends up a disaster movie
Hugh Jackman, who charged into the ranks of Hollywood's leading men with his charismatic and vigorous performance as Wolverine in the X-Men movies, now has the starring role in Van Helsing. According to the reviews, this is not a move that Jackman should be proud of.
Director Steven Sommers, who stole, burgled, robbed, and pillaged the Indiana Jones films to assemble the plots for The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, now borrows everything available to him from classic monster films, horror films, and adventure films. Van Helsing battles Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's square-headed monster. If classic filmmakers see what he's done with their ideas, they may ask him never to pay them tribute again.
Mainstream critics say Van Helsing ranks (or "is rank") alongside such summertime losers as Wild, Wild West and Batman and Robin. Religious press critics agree: the movie is monstrous.
Loren Eaton (Plugged In) says, "Even more than the typical summer box office fare, the film relies so heavily on cliché and convention that it quickly collapses under their weight. But what really bleeds Van Helsing dry is a constant gush of violence that skirts the edges of an R rating, plus lusty pseudo-lesbian vampires and a dumbed-down theological mishmash. Embarrassing, especially for a movie obviously aimed at 13-year-old boys."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Sommers tries to adopt the same campy humor that was sprinkled atop his two Mummy pictures. The problem is that he goes too far and pushes the entire tone of the film off kilter." He also criticizes "the overplaying of Richard Roxburgh as the central villain."
"Avoid this film," writes Russ Breimeier (CT Movies). "The movie exceeds one's capabilities to suspend disbelief. It's a comic book film without the thrills—nothing is impossible, no one can get hurt, and anyone is capable of doing anything at any time. Except for the charisma of its two leads, which is little consolation here, Van Helsing is a complete failure in every way."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Full of headache-inducing action sequences, the clumsily structured film is more lumbering than Frankenstein's monster, mostly due to a script that lacks any bite and that has enough stale dialogue to make an audience howl with laughter—full moon or not. Toward the end of the movie, Frankenstein's monster bemoans the fact that he is 'accustomed to pain,' but by that point so is the audience."
"Taking scenes and inspiration wholesale from film classics and putting them in a blender does not make a classic film," says Keith Howland (Christian Spotlight).
Not everyone is so upset by Sommers' work. Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) raves, "All in all I really enjoyed this movie. It was a fun ride and one that I will take again. You will have the opportunity to escape reality for a few hours and have a lot of thrills, laughs and reflective moments in the process. It is one that has given me a new respect for Sommers. On a scale of 1-10 … a thrilling and enjoyable 8."
Andrew Coffin (World) was impressed too—but only if he considers Van Helsing as a commercial rather than a movie. He says it "features some remarkable special effects, but to say that the script has shortcomings is more than a modest understatement. Watching the film, I kept imagining scenes as different levels in the video game, and—even though I don't play video games—it looked fun. So credit the movie this much: As a two hour advertisement for another product, Van Helsing is quite effective."
New York Minute … two hours too long
Jane and Roxy Ryan (Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen) are two 17-year-old sisters who travel from Long Island to New York so Jane can give a speech that will qualify her for a college scholarship. Roxy tags along so she can go behind the scenes at the site of a music video shoot for the punk band she loves. But their plans fall apart when Jane's day planner gets lost and, while trying to get it back, they find themselves dealing with criminals and engaging in criminal behavior of their own.
Mainstream critics reject the film primarily because it's just not very funny. But it's primarily the glorification of criminal and immature behavior—the "end justifies the means" mentality of the film—that earns the film a thumbs' down with religious press critics. Further, some sexually suggestive content disappoints those who have a soft spot for the spunky teen actresses.
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Parents are likely to assume that this film is as innocuous as the girls' childish videos. This would be a mistake. One can't help but wonder if the girls are pandering to a growing male audience by appearing in nothing but towels during several extended scenes in this film. They also throw their hair in slow-motion shots that look like they could be pornography, especially in their sexy state of undress. So … [it] represents a disturbing trend in entertainment for children—one that portrays young women as sex objects." She also notes positive messages about "accepting differences" and perseverance, but cautions against the film's suggestion that the end justifies the means.
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "This is a film that keeps things relatively clean in all the obvious categories, but runs amok everywhere else. Jane and Roxy don't swear up a storm; they don't have sex; they don't do drugs; they don't kill anybody. But they do go to great lengths to point their adoring tween fan base in quite a few wrong directions. Add to all that the fact that New York Minute is corny beyond all reasonable expectations."
Mary Lasse (CT Movies) says, "New York Minute will resonate with the very tweens who carry the Olsens' billion-dollar franchise … but not with many others. Most will likely be checking their watches, probably wishing this Minute were gone in 60 seconds."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says of the twins, "While not great actresses, they do manage to project a certain earnestness or sincerity. Their image is more sassy than sexy, which I'm sure is welcomed by the parents of the legion of loyal pre-teen Olsen fans.
New York Minute is an innocuous, superficial romp. The 90 minutes pass quickly and painlessly and, on more than one occasion, generates a smile or two."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it a "frothy but forgettable movie [that] imparts a positive, family-friendly message. And while no one will mistake its screwball silliness for great—or even good—filmmaking, compared to the harder-edged fare being force-fed to young viewers, most parents would take this kind of fresh-scrubbed fluff in a New York minute."
Ken Goding (Christian Spotlight) says the movie "makes the twins … heroines who will do anything to achieve their goals, whether or not it is morally right." He adds, "As a male, I am deeply troubled by Jane in a towel." He concludes by gauging the violence ("Fairly mild and somewhat comic,") the profanity ("Mild"), and the sex/nudity ("Revealing and thought provoking for guys").
Other options? Critics explore a long list of new releases
Three religious press film critics reviewed Dogville this week, a film covered extensively at CT Movies last month.
Michael C. Smith (Relevant) says, "The film is not about God's grace as much as it is about a nation that believes itself to be the divine bearer of freedom and justice to the world—a belief that often contradicts the nation's actions toward it's own citizens. In other words, one of the most common and (depending on your perspective) most damning criticisms of America by foreigners like the Danish, Lars von Trier—we don't practice what we preach. The film manages to pack a solid emotional punch in the final chapter when Lars von Trier debates whether such a nation deserves 'grace' or punishment—a credit to all involved in this production for bringing us into the world of the story."
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "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."
Taking a much stronger tone, Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Dogville bears, at times, an uncanny resemblance to a Flannery O'Connor short story. Like the great tales of the prophetic Southern writer, Dogville is a gallery of monstrous, thoroughly crooked and depraved characters who act only out of selfishness and greed. What's missing … is grace, a key element that O'Connor never neglected to include in her stories. In fact, this film is totally devoid of even the slightest hint of mercy, forgiveness, and hope for its wicked characters. It is, therefore, overwhelmingly bleak, relentlessly joyless, and painfully dispiriting."
Interested in something a little less controversial? Try one of the other acclaimed foreign films playing in art house theatres.
In the Italian coming-of-age thriller I'm Not Scared, a ten year-old boy stumbles onto a bewildering discovery that transforms his view of the world and forces him to a life-changing decision
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Award winning director Gabriele Salvatores lets this story unfold as slowly and lazily as a summer day in a rural village in southern Italy. He successfully blends the structure of a coming of age tale with the elements of mystery and suspense. I'm Not Scared depicts that very odd time when we first become aware that we have a choice to make and it may be quite different from the choice our parents have made."
Michael Leary (Matthews House Project) writes, "I'm Not Scared is a unique hybrid of suspense thriller and introspective childhood drama. Worth seeing for its cinematography alone, [the movie] is a lush portrait of a few very simple truths."
If you've got a hankering for Russian rather than Italian, more and more Christian film critics recommend you see The Return.
Michael Leary (Matthews House Project) considers how the film sizes up to the work of Russian master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. "Tarkovsky's films do deal explicitly with spirituality and psychology of certain cultural situations, but they do so with a social or historical realism that roots the spiritual revelations of his films within the unfolding of concrete, historicized realities rather than mythical ones. The Return on the other hand opts to be driven by overtly mythical overtones, and the strength of the film lies in Zvyangintsev's uncanny knack for storytelling. He chooses simply to focus on his characters and their story instead of the culture of post-Soviet Russia, a theme which pervades much of contemporary Russian filmmaking."
Perhaps you're more interested in something foreign and funny.
If so, check out Goodbye, Lenin! The film, reviewed at CT Movies a couple of weeks ago, gets more attention this week from Evan D. Baltz (Christian Spotlight). Baltz says the film "reaches out beyond the boundaries of language, culture, and politics to grab the heart and stir the soul. It is an immensely profound, yet simple, beautiful, and funny adventure, crafted with care and originality. This movie may have you rethinking some of your own priorities in life."
Looking for something inspiring?
Andrew Coffin (World) saw Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, and says the film "isn't on the same level as Chariots of Fire, it is still a respectful, respectable effort. The film doesn't offer much in the way of insight into the complicated Jones, but it does very competently and sometimes movingly chart his rise to the status of a legend in the game."
Want wild and crazy martial arts combat? Look no further than Quentin Tarantino. But be prepared for extreme violence. In fact, you may want to look closer before buying a ticket to this bloody spectacle.
Andrew Coffin (World) saw Kill Bill, Volume Two and says, "I like director Quentin Tarantino's cinematic inventiveness, but ever since Pulp Fiction I've respected his brain yet questioned his heart. Kill Bill 2 adds to those concerns. Does Tarantino showing off his cleverness make for a great movie? Not without heart."
Mark T. Conrad (Metaphilm) also explores the film, offering a remarkable new interpretation. It's therapy for Quentin Tarantino's broken childhood! It's all about his mom taking revenge on the dad who left them! And Conrad digs much deeper than that:
Remember: When Nietzsche said that God is dead, he didn't mean that an actual being, the Almighty, the First Cause, an omniscient, omnipotent creator had actually been killed. Rather, he meant that the idea, the institution of God ceased to have any meaning or relevance because we now view God as fictional and can no longer believe. Similarly, killing the father means killing the father's power over us, and that means that we have to stop viewing him as God, we have to reject that fiction, that misinterpretation.
This is exactly what Tarantino does to the father in Volume 2. Bill, the father, God, is completely humanized. In the first film we barely saw him, and never saw his face; he existed merely as an omnipresent threat …. Now … he's locally and physically present as a man, a mere mortal. This is that transforming moment when, as an adult, you recognize your old man's frailties and his shortcomings.
Interested in the ethics of cloning?
The paranormal thriller Godsend deals with the strange behavior of a cloned child. Andrew Coffin (World) writes, "The first part of the film, showing the family and how they react to the tragedy, is promising, raising important questions about the ethics and the possibilities of cloning. But after the movie's second birthday party, it becomes just another horror movie. And an inept one at that, with two major cop-outs in the story line, including one that erases the movie's very premise."
Kevin Miller (Relevant) says, "If Godsend had been made 50 years ago in black and white, it would be exactly the kind of thing I enjoy watching late on Saturday nights when there's nothing else on TV. However, viewers today are a lot more sophisticated than they were in the 1950s. They're not as apt to buy in to the faulty premises and dubious science that make those old films so laughable today."
Need a movie you can take your toddler to?
Andrew Coffin (World) also caught a movie made for small children—Clifford's Big Movie. He calls it "a mildly amusing children's film without great aspirations. There's a strong—and harmful—tendency among reviewers to require a children's film to exhibit an adult level of cynicism or 'sophistication' before acknowledging it as worthwhile entertainment. While Clifford may not approach transcendence, it is suitably "unsophisticated" enough to entertain kids and satisfy discerning parents."
Tired of teen movies yet? If not, last week's box office champ is still playing strong.
Susan Olasky (World) reviews Mean Girls and says it's "an empowerment lecture embedded in a funny movie about girls, high school, cliques, honesty, and popularity. The movie transforms from 'slice of cruel life' comedy to earnest 'grrrl power' lecture. But since the movie caters to the worldview of its teen audience, the critique of teen culture is shallow—and delivered in an often crude, vulgar way that will bother some parents."
Raymond Anito (Christian Spotlight) says, "The film takes a straight-line secular trip through high school in America. Sadly some, or all, of the situations in this film occur in schools but, not surprisingly, a spiritual solution is not put forth to guide the characters to a resolution. Being raised in Africa, the main character mostly relies on her knowledge of the law of the jungle to guide her."
Susan Olasky (World)also reviewed The Alamo, which she says is "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. In that sense The Alamo offers more of a biblical understanding of how flawed men can change than earlier versions that offered up William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett as plaster saints."
Looking for gorgeous cinematography?
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) reviews Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring. He says, "The film is rather a meditation on nature, faith, and the cycle of life—and a welcome meditation it is. The cinematography in Spring, Summer … is literally worth the price of admission. Most of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring is enriching and profound. Don't go expecting to see a dewy romance. Go expecting to be moved and awed."
Michael Leary (Matthews House Project) says the movie "is a great example of film as a spiritual exercise. It isn't a Western spirituality, and Kim's beautiful apology for the circularity of existence may strike one as lacking some key explanations when it comes full circle. But the film is rich with tones that and moments that are relevant in a variety of cultural contexts. At the very least, it is good to see such great cinematography put to use as a language of mysticism. And this is the good sort of mysticism, one that will lead you to reflection on many things that extend outside of the film itself."
Want to make sure you avoid a stinker?
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) saw Envy in a not-so-crowded theatre and says, "The emotion it evoked from the few who saw it was nowhere near envy. It was closer to boredom. The talent assembled for the film is impressive and should have resulted in something more entertaining than what we get."
Next week:Troy serves up brawny men in muscular combat. Coffee and Cigarettes serves up thoughtful celebrities in casual conversation.
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