Is there any moviegoing target audience that Hollywood pursues more aggressively than teenage girls? The last two years has felt like a "princess parade," with The Princess Diaries, The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, Freaky Friday, Ella Enchanted, Mean Girls, A Cinderella Story, and First Daughter. Tabloids hype up a "rivalry" between teen screen queens Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan. And the box office shows that audiences aren't yet weary of fashion plate heroines fighting their way to the top of their class or into a royal inheritance.
In Raise Your Voice, Terri Fletcher (Duff) is an aspiring singer who faces more realistic challenges than those conquered by other recent heroines. While still recovering from the shock of a death in the family, Terri gets an offer from a Los Angeles music school. Her father forbids it, but she pursues it anyway, only to find that her dream isn't going to be achieved easily.
The fact that Terri's a Christian girl is pleasing several Christian film critics, but the fact that she defies her father's authority is bothering others.
"The plot has its weak moments, and the group performances sometimes come off as forced, but overall the film accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: inspire," says Joan Brasher (Christianity Today Movies). "In a sea of teen movies not fit for adults, much less teens, this is a movie I would feel comfortable taking my 14-year-old niece to, and that's a good thing indeed." (Brasher talked with the film's director, Sean McNamara, about his willingness to feature details of Terri's faith in his storytelling.)
Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) compliments Terri's relatively clean character, who "loves deeply, encourages the underdog, is hard-working and committed, doesn't smoke or drink, and keeps the guy-girl thing pure." But then she asks, "So does that excuse the big, black, ugly blot of deception that runs through her film? Because there are no real consequences experienced by either Terri or her co-conspirators, the message to young filmgoers is that it's okay to pursue your dreams at any cost."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says it's "the perfect vehicle for Duff … who loves to both act and sing. In Raise Your Voice, she gets to do both, and Duff fans will no doubt love it. McNamara … puts together some impressive musical sets. The rhythm is infectious." (Vaughn also interviewed McNamara.)
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it "makes up for its lack of originality with its positive message and effervescent performance by … Duff. While laden with cliché s and schmaltzy follow-your-heart speeches, Raise Your Voice is the kind of uplifting movie that would pass the test of most parents. Family and faith are presented in a positive light and the picture avoids the prurience of most teen movies."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says Duff's fans "may be surprised by the heavily emotional themes of Raise Your Voice. Hilary shows surprising growth as an actress." But there are problems as well. "McNamara … utilized his television experience to complete this shoot under a very tight 30-day schedule—and it unfortunately shows. Plot developments and character arcs feel rushed and superficial."
"Other films … have captured the feeling brilliantly—like Fame … Dead Poet's Society … or Amadeus," says Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus). "Raise Your Voice updates this theme for the next generation, and in ways that many will find equally satisfying."
Michael Smith (Hollywood Jesus) says it's not just for teens. "Adults will like and learn from Raise Your Voice, too. It is by and large a wholesome movie, neither preachy nor improbable. What this film does best … is show that doing your best gets a great boost from a combination of faith, family, and friends."
Lacey Mical Callahan (Christian Spotlight) argues, "It could have been done better, but it is not entirely a waste of time. Older teens may enjoy it, though armed with biblical knowledge they will discard the ideas presented as humanistic mire."
Phil Boatwright (CBN) says it's "a bit shallow for adults, but for its intended audience, the film successfully addresses several poignant issues, including standing up for yourself and drawing from a spiritual core when facing life's realities. The actors give bright, sincere performances, and … McNamara's direction is effective at keeping the narrative from becoming maudlin or sugary while never condescending to his intended audience."
He adds, "Though [Duff] is fine in this film, I would suggest she actually attend a performing arts school."
While Duff is raising her voice, most mainstream critics are throwing rotten tomatoes.
Taxi's a wreck
Jimmy Fallon has left Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update behind for a career that focuses on the silver screen. In Taxi, he makes one thing clear: He needs an agent with some discernment.
Fallon plays an inept New York cop who picks up the trail of some sexy bank robbers. But if he's to follow them down that trail, he needs a ride. So he dives into a taxi that turns his life upside down. The taxi driver, played by the irrepressibly talented Queen Latifah, talks back at him, puts him in his place, and makes any other taxi driver look timid by comparison.
Taxi may be a remake of a French film written by Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, The Professional), but critics agree that it looks and smells exactly like a big, expensive, American failure. Where Besson's film inspired sequels, viewers can hope these filmmakers have their licenses revoked.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Taxi has a full tank of high-speed car chases, but is running on fumes when it comes to laughs. [It becomes] a fast and furious game of cat-and-mouse, consisting of little else than a series of pedal-to-the-metal drag races … as tedious as they are over the top."
"What most teens are going to remember about this movie isn't Latifah's punishing wit," writes Steven Isaac (Plugged In). "It's the scene in which a bombshell bank robber fondles a female cop."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) finds something to praise: "Queen Latifah … has what used to be known as 'star power' and it has never served her better. She shines even though everything around her is tarnished beyond salvage." But Fallon "manages to throw the film's tone completely out of balance."
Mainstream critics leave a punishing ticket on Taxi's windshield.
Friday Night Lights is not a "feel-good" sports movie
Most sports films (e.g. Chariots of Fire, The Mighty Ducks, The Rookie) focus on underdogs who rise to the challenge and achieve greatness. Friday Night Lights, director Peter Berg's adaptation of the best-selling book by H.G. Bissinger, is much more complicated. Its true-to-life storytelling of a football team in a Texas small town gives viewers an unconventionally honest view of high school athletics and the cost of making victory too high a priority. Billy Bob Thornton is earning points as the determined coach, and Derek Luke continues to draw rave reviews just as he did in Antwone Fisher and Pieces of April.
"This is one of the best—if not the best—sports movies I've ever seen," says Mark Moring (Christianity Today Movies). "It's extremely well done on all fronts—emotive acting, convincing (though sometimes overdone) plays on the field, terrific cinematography, snappy editing, and sensitive direction. You'll get caught up in the excitement. But don't misread me: While there are certainly moments where you'll find yourself cheering for the home team, this is not really a 'feel-good' sports movie. It's intense, it's in your face, and parts of it are gut-wrenchingly difficult to watch."
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) writes, "The best thing about Friday Night Lights is neither the story, the direction, nor the acting, as great as all these are. It's the film's message, which portrays in no uncertain terms both the seduction and the fleeting nature of football fame."
Marvin Olasky (World) examines the various elements that earned the film a PG-13 rating, and concludes, "The negatives may be positives, depending on parents' evaluation of their children's maturity. And the biggest positive may be terrific acting by many, including Billy Bob Thornton … and Derek Luke."
Kevin Miller (Hollywood Jesus) says it's "more than just a great sports movie; it is a great movie—period. Friday Night Lights compels you to examine your life, to make sure you haven't lost track of why you are living it, and to refocus on doing your best, on striving toward achieving something extraordinary."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) is more hesitant to dig into the bag of superlatives. "If the film shocks those people into reordering their priorities and cutting their local athletic program some slack, it will serve a purpose. However, some young people will internalize the message that they should turn their senior year into an excuse to party and sleep around because, after all 'it's all downhill from there.' For those viewers, the movie will do far more harm than good."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "not just a 'sports movie'—though virtually every frame of the film involves football—but an engrossing, at times unsettling, portrait of the lives and fragile dreams of young athletes and their families in economically depressed communities across America. [It] differs from most feel-good sports movies in that it exposes the unpleasant side of high-stakes amateur athletics: an unhealthy pressure cooker where teens are asked to shoulder the expectations of entire communities and where coaches are paid more than teachers."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says it's "surprisingly effective in capturing the small town fascination and nearly obsessive-behavior associated with high school sports. It is more realistic than Remember the Titans or Varsity Blues. It is probably most reminiscent of Hoosiers."
"The primary lesson is that there is nobility and reward in passionate engagement in life, that pursuing a goal that is beyond your reach brings with it the strength and character that can feed and sustain you emotionally, physically, and perhaps, for a time—spiritually," writes Kenneth Morefield (Christian Spotlight). "The curse is that these rewards are inextricably linked to a game that is arbitrary and undependable: happiness is never assured, and, once attained, it can be taken from you at any moment. Friday Night Lights works best in its moments where it is most honest about the curse as well as the hope."
Mainstream critics throw a few penalty flags, but overall they judge it a winner.
Director Walter Salles, the filmmaker responsible for the Oscar-winning Central Station, is winning more raves for his film about young Che Guevara. The Motorcycle Diaries stars Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Guevara and newcomer Rodrigo de la Serna as Guevara's friend, Alberto. While Guevara is a controversial figure in Cuba's history, the film's focus on a brief chapter of the young man's life offers plenty of thought-provoking material.
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says Salles "tends to emphasize the humanity of the characters through smaller, more intimate moments, while keeping overtly political statements to a minimum. As a result, The Motorcycle Diaries is a beautiful and even entertaining travelogue of a film … grounded in breathtaking scenery and engaging performances, and if it is more interested in what it means to be human than in pushing any particular ideological agenda, then that is not necessarily a bad thing."
J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) says, "For those of us who aren't already committed to a particular view of Che Guevara … The Motorcycle Diaries is engrossing and thought-provoking. Even if you don't buy into the film's political angle, you'll still appreciate the strong acting from Bernal and De la Serna. And the focus on just a small part of Che's life avoids the usual trap of bio-pics (the predictable narrative arc) and instead opens up an entire world."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Though the film is beautifully crafted and at times quite moving, some viewers may find it difficult, given the hindsight of history, to reconcile the film's quixotic—almost saintly—portrayal of Guevara with the guerilla warrior of later years who advocated violence as a political tool and, less than a decade after the events depicted, helped establish a communist state in Cuba as Castro's right-hand man."
Brett McCracken (Relevant) argues that the film "is less about preaching single-minded dogma than it is about weighing complex truths. Watching the film I tried to separate myself from the unpleasant picture I had of Che Guevera as a radical leader in Cuba's communist revolution. But, this movie is about who he was; not who he became. It's a story about life, the formation of ideals, and the origins of revolution; not the revolution itself. That is why Diaries didn't offend, but inspired me."
In a year heavy with biopics, mainstream critics are ranking Guevara's story among the year's best.
Bright Young Things, adapted from a novel called Vile Bodies by the Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh, represents the directorial debut of the popular British actor and writer Stephen Fry (Wilde, Gosford Park).
The film explores the libertinism of the Jazz Age, following a writer (Stephen Campbell Moore) whose manuscript is seized by customs agents, upsetting his plans for publication, throwing him into financial distress, and threatening his wedding plans. Dan Aykroyd (Grosse Pointe Blank) co-stars as the publishing magnate, Emily Mortimer (Young Adam) as his fiancé e Nina, and Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge, Vanity Fair) as a drunkard who goads the writer into making a bad bet. Peter O'Toole also shows up playing Nina's father. (C. S. Lewis fans, take note: James McAvoy, who has been cast as Mr. Tumnus the faun in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, has a role as a gossip columnist.)
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "Fry has seen in Waugh's story a searing indictment of a celebrity culture filled with gossip columnists and paparazzi, long before our present-day obsession with such gossip-generating engines as the National Enquirer and the E! channel. There's much decadent posing and snorting of cocaine and such in the party scenes, but, as in the book—a classic of social criticism—it's all for a moral purpose. The central characters ultimately come to a realization of the more important things of life."
John Zmirak (Godspy) writes, "Fry imbues the film with more of a Christian spirit than Waugh's novel ever had. We witness hospital nuns tending the sick, performing the only altruistic acts which appear on screen. In the film (but not the book) suffering and deprivation appear as potentially redemptive—while suicides and nervous breakdowns are depicted as genuinely tragic, not grimly amusing. Even the shallowest characters are presented as more human and forgivable than the pre-Catholic Waugh portrayed them—as if Fry were reading back into this early work the faith which eventually would give its author a glimmer of hope for this fallen world, shining through from the next."
Mainstream critics are divided over the success of the film, but most praise Fry's effort.
More reviews of recent releases and a science fiction classic
Monty Python'sLife of Brian: Josh Hurst (Reveal) responds to those who think the film is an attack on Christ himself. "Look closely … and you'll see that the humor in Brian is never directed toward Jesus Christ; rather, the butt of the jokes is always religious fanaticism, the kind that misunderstands and misrepresents Christ's teachings and leads to skirmishes within his church. In fact, the only person who comes across as being anything other than completely foolish is Jesus of Nazareth. Kudos to the Python troupe for … pointing out that, just as the Gospel writers suggest, meeting and even being healed by Jesus does not necessarily change us from the selfish buffoons that we are into something better."
Shark Tale:"Shark Tale isn't bad, depending on how you look at it," writes Andrew Coffin (World). "It's near the top of the DreamWorks animated line-up, which has offered some duds (The Road to El Dorado) and some clever but disturbingly adult hits (the Shrek films). But despite a genial tone and a few admirable qualities, Shark Tale still fails to approach the delightfulness of even the weaker entries in the Pixar canon."
Ladder 49: Lindsay Goodier (Relevant) says, "The story is simple and avoids glorifying the life of a fire fighter, but attempts to keep things true to life. Because of this simplicity, there are times in which the action is a little slow moving. Some will appreciate the true-to-life perspective, while others may find themselves reaching for their cell phones to play games in order to pass the time."
Shaun of the Dead:Carole McDonnell (Film Forum) rates the film highly—for a zombie movie. "This is a better film than most zombie flicks, and certainly better than Resident Evil. If you want to take your walking English dead seriously, then 28 Days Later is the film to see. But if you want a good laugh and can endure the profanity (if you can understand some of those English phrases), this is the film to see."
Jeff Diaz (Film Forum) writes, "Shaun of the Dead delivers a movie about friendship, loyalty, and commitment all under the umbrella of a horror flick. In fact, more is said about relational health in this movie than in many lighter and fluffier films that try to make relationships their focus."
Blade Runner:John Whitehead (Godspy) says, "The ultimate relevance of Blade Runner lies in its challenge of what it means to be human. It raises the eternal gnawing doubt as to our own humanity or lack of it. These are the same issues raised by the great religions and philosophies of the past. And it goes to how we respond to the pain of those around us. Do we reach for the one downed by the crushing perplexity of modernity or do we merely pass by, forgetting about that grizzled human lying on the sidewalk who is drowning in the gutter created by the disintegrating and dehumanizing post-modern existence?"
Next week: J-Lo and Richard Gere in Shall We Dance?, political puppets in Team America: World Police, and more.
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