Recent debates over proposed amendments have provoked concern the U.S. Constitution should be preserved. The premise of a new action film suggests, however, that it's the Declaration of Independence might be in more serious danger.

Nicolas Cage won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, opening up opportunities to a wide range of high-profile roles—and he chose to do comic book spin-offs and action movies. While his attempts to get his own comic book franchise have fallen short (Ghost Rider never happened, and rumors of Cage as Superman fizzled), he's flexed his muscles and machismo in adrenalin-rush action flicks like The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off, and Gone in 60 Seconds. He's won some good box office totals, but his reputation as an actor has suffered. So, occasionally, he reminds us of his award-caliber potential, as in the case of Adaptation and Matchstick Men. Now he's trying something new—a "family-friendly" cliffhanger adventure—and he's a box office champion once again.

National Treasure could be called Cage's Indiana Jones film. Almost every review compares his treasure-hunting hero, Benjamin Franklin Gates, to the heroic, whip-wielding archaeologist, but only in the way that a feeble imitator is compared to a classic. Some note a similarity to The Da Vinci Code, in that the hero has discovered a conspiracy related to a secret message that is attached to a historical document. But instead of finding scandalous revelations about religion, Gates finds a treasure map. And instead of finding it in a painting, he finds it in the founding fathers' Declaration.

He's not alone in his discovery. Another hunter and the FBI are on the case. So he decides the only way to protect the document's secrets is to steal it himself. And if you think that sounds implausible, you're in for quite a trip. According to mainstream critics, National Treasure heaps one unlikely development upon another until it toes the line of inadvertent parody.

Director John Turteltaub, who directed Three Ninjas, Cool Runnings, and The Kid, steps up to his biggest project yet. He knows the routine—brawny hero, beautiful romantic interest (Troy's Diane Kruger), a villain (Sean Bean) complete with foreign accent, and plenty of adventures involving traps and puzzles. And he's got an admirable cast, including John Voight, Harvey Keitel, and Christopher Plummer.

But the reviews he's winning from religious press critics are a mix of moderate approval and disappointment. Most find it inoffensive, but unremarkable.

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Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says National Treasure "can be enjoyed as preposterous fun, even when you sense that the cast and crew are just going through the motions. There is a certain Indiana Jones quality to the proceedings … but without that brush of the transcendent or supernatural that made Indy's adventures more than just jazzed-up Saturday-matinee fare. If you can see the film through the eyes of a relatively young boy or girl—one who can separate fact from fiction, and one who thinks a cheesy thriller is the ideal way to pick up new facts about the history of his country—then this isn't that bad a yarn, really."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "Fans of smartly layered mysteries that slip viewers subtle hints, rewarding them in the end for their astuteness, will be frustrated. We're not challenged to solve a puzzle, but just hang with the heroes while they do. Fortunately, the cat-and-mouse game … creates enough tension to bridge the ho-hum epiphanies."

Smithouser's thrilled, however, by the film's "family-friendly" qualities. "What Disney hopes to do with films like National Treasure is reposition its big-budget, live-action fare as more accessible to families. If it manages to revolutionize Hollywood's approach to live-action family films, it truly would be a national treasure."

Phil Boatwright (CBN) says, "If you can leave all reasoning power at the ticket booth, you will have a fun time with this witty, clean and often exciting adventure. Course, if you begin to use logic, the story quickly falls apart."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) is pleased by what the movie doesn't have. "[The filmmakers] are to be commended for making a thriller with almost no profanities and very little violence." But she's bothered by what it does have—"serious difficulties," "bad acting," "large holes in the plot," "too many climaxes to count," a "morally shaky" premise, and dialogue that "has a tendency toward the ridiculous."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) describes it as "a fun, clean action adventure for the entire family. It is a wonderful offering for those that enjoy high wire suspense with an Indiana Jones type flavor." But he objects to the glorification of the Freemasons, "a secret, subversive anti-Christian group with roots that go deep into the occult."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "It's big; it's bold; it's completely implausible; it's entertaining enough to be popular among the masses; and it's bad enough to make critics cringe and once again bemoan the fallen state of the art they love."

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"A copy of Thomas Paine's 1776 tract, 'Common Sense,' surfaces in one scene, which is exactly what the implausible script is sorely missing," remarks David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "Cage is appealing enough, but lacks any chemistry with Kruger, a problem compounded by the film's lame dialogue."

It's hip to be SquarePants

The deep-sea town of Bikini Bottom is saying goodbye to television hero SpongeBob SquarePants. He's on his way to hunt down King Neptune's crown, which has been stolen. He's got help from some of his slippery friends, he's opposed by a squishy villain, and, in a twist that makes as much sense as the rest of it, he gets help from the infamous TV superstar David Hasselhoff.

He's also winning good reviews. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie has earned a "sponge up" from Roger Ebert and many other mainstream critics. Religious press reviewers are surprised and pleased as well.

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "It's good comedy offering plenty of adult-oriented satire and real world gags sprinkled throughout the animated slapstick. The big question, of course, is whether or not this film will appeal to anyone who isn't already acquainted with the show. I don't think it will, for several reasons." And he goes on to describe them, concluding, "Unless you're a well-versed SpongeBob fanatic, this is not your movie."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it preserves the television cartoon's "light-hearted, kid-friendly tone," and that it feels like "an extended episode" of the show. It's "never mean-spirited and refreshingly cynicism-free. Underneath its looney-tune silliness is a positive believe-in-yourself message that extols the virtues of childhood. In a world where kids grow up way too fast, it's nice to see a movie that actually celebrates innocence."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "SpongeBob is cartoonish enough for youngsters to like it. Off-beat enough for teens to still think it's cool. And funny enough for lots of adults to enjoy." But he encourages parents to use discernment, and to observe how their children react to the show, due to a high level of "cartoon violence that, while now all-too routine, is still influential, and needs to be addressed if your family sees this flick."

"The film will ultimately please SpongeBob fans," writes Jimmy Akin (Decent Films). "It survives the transition from its typical story length of twelve minutes and manages to fill ninety minutes of screen time with a satisfyingly complicated plot (for a cartoon). It's cute, funny, and, in the words of New York Times critic A.O. Scott, 'a marvel of unleashed childishness, like a birthday party on the edge of spinning out of control.'"

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But Lacy Mical Callahan (Christian Spotlight) objects. "Please do not be deceived by the light-hearted, cute trailers for this cartoon and take your kids to see it assuming it will be clean, innocent fun. There is nudity throughout the movie. We view Patrick's bare buttocks during three scenes, and SpongeBob's once. SpongeBob and Patrick are also shown in their underwear a few times. The underwear is drawn to look like men's fitted briefs. David Hasselhoff makes an embarrassing cameo in swim trunks. It is a grotesque scene. There are many scenes of fighting, threatening, execution orders, and countless times characters are wounded."

The Machinist cuts the pounds off Christian Bale

Have you ever lost sleep because somebody got on your nerves? In the troubling psychological thriller The Machinist, Trevor Raznik, a lathe operator, suffers from chronic insomnia due to the provocations of a man he believes is following him. As he's pushed to the edge of madness, he seeks his girlfriend's help in finding clues to the cause of his distress.

Director Brad Anderson is winning moderate approval for his film. But critics are expressing astonishment at the efforts of actor Christian Bale (Reign of Fire, Empire of the Sun), whose portrayal of Trevor is disturbingly convincing. Bale, who is likely to become a superstar with the lead role in David Goyer's upcoming Batman Begins, lost so much weight for The Machinist that he appears emaciated. It remains to be seen whether Academy voters think his performance is more than merely a weight loss stunt. Jennifer Jason Leigh co-stars.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Anderson has crafted a grimly stylish and suspenseful meditation on guilt, alienation and paranoia, dripping with nightmarish atmospherics and noir moodiness, buttressed by Roque Banos' Bernard Herrmann-inspired score. Filmed in creepy, washed-out tones for added bleak effect, the movie, though unremittingly cheerless, ends on a redemptive note."

More reviews of recent releases

Kinsey:Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The problem with Kinsey's studies, at least as they are portrayed here, runs much deeper than mere morality; one thing that is completely missing from Kinsey's life and work, or at least from this film's depiction of them, is any sense of the fact that human sexuality has a fundamentally sacred component and cannot be reduced to the breeding instincts of wasps and rodents. Kinsey the man may have challenged the sexual and scientific orthodoxies of his day, but Kinsey the film is a hagiographic tribute to the man who helped make possible the emerging do-whatever-you-want orthodoxy of our own times. Condon may think Kinsey lifted certain people up, but in doing so, he brings humanity as a whole down a notch or two."

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Finding Neverland:Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "a beautiful and affecting addition to the 'Peter Pan' filmography. While not entirely adhering to the facts, the fictionalized approach taken by screenwriter David Magee … is acceptable, and feels true enough in spirit to overlook the inaccuracies. This story of creativity and the power of imagination is a winner. But bring your tissues; you'll need them."

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) offers criticism, calling it "a glass ¼ empty," and praise, saying he was "swept up in the spirit and imagination expressed in the movie, a charming and dramatic tearjerker that's sweet without resorting to syrup. Though the content is wholesome enough for the whole family, it's really geared for adults seeking to recapture the lost wonder and innocence of youth. It just might inspire you to re-examine the world around you with younger, more whimsical eyes-and also revisit a literary classic."

Sideways:Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) calls Alexander Payne's film "a startlingly human comedy, which, like life, is funny and emotional, leaving audiences laughing one minute and groaning the next. The film's primary strength … is its script, which features some truly impressive dialogue. Also credit the top-notch acting. [Paul] Giamatti has, seemingly out of nowhere, shaped into a talented leading man. Still, a strong word of caution is necessary for Sideways." And he goes on to explain why.

Bridget Jones:The Edge of Reason: Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "All the elements from the original are there. The love triangle, the self-depreciating humor, the well-meaning but meddling friends, and, of course, the diary into which Bridget writes her always funny observations. Renee Zellweger … has already proved herself to be a perfect choice for the British heroine. This time around there's sure to be more complaints regarding the fact that she's been given such a weak script rather than the fact that she was given the script at all."

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Woman, Thou Art Loosed:Jennifer Parker (Catapult Magazine) says, "The film dramatically unfolds an unforgettable character's story, which will be for some an autobiography, for others an indictment, and for the chosen few, hopefully, a call to compassionate action. [The] film artfully reminds the Church to heed the cry of the victimized."

After the Sunset:Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) says, "The glorification of the criminal and immoral life, with few consequences and no guilt, is a fantasy created by filmmakers who deceive us. The truth that the fear, pain, guilt and consequences of a criminal life degrade us is a message this film ignores."

Seed of Chucky: David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "[This] schlocky and formulaic gorefest sinks to new lows by saddling its mindless mayhem with an offensive subplot in which Tilly (also playing herself) seduces a movie director into casting her as Mary in his upcoming project about the virgin birth."

Next week: Alexander, Christmas with the Kranks, and A Very Long Engagement.