Mel Gibson is back in the news with another controversial film. This time, though, he's not the director—he's the producer. (The film was directed by Paul Abascal, formerly a celebrity hair stylist.) And Paparazzi is about something quite different than a suffering savior. It's about a celebrity named Bo Laramie who gets so tired of the photographers following him around that he decides to start killing them—and becomes a hero. I'm not kidding.

The film, which includes a cameo appearance by Gibson himself, was concealed from critics until opening day, presumably because it is so bad that the studio did not want audiences to have a chance to hear the negative buzz before they bought opening day tickets. Thus, the film made it into fourth place at the weekend box office. But now the reviews are out, and sure enough, critics are disgusted with Paparazzi. Roger Moore (Orlando Sentinel) says, "[It's] a petulant, violent and sophomoric hissy fit about those nasty photographers who torment the rich and famous." Megan Lehmann (New York Post) sums up the film's message like this: "It's OK to murder celebrity photographers because they're amoral bottom-feeders." Dave Kehr (New York Times) calls it "[an] amazingly arrogant, immoral film." To scan more mainstream press reviews, click here.

Most religious press critics ignored the film.

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) agrees that the film's central character is a glorified serial killer. "Bo doesn't kill these men in self-defense," Holz observes. "The murders are calculated and in cold blood. Thus, Bo becomes an increasingly problematic character, as he never exhibits any remorse for these actions. The film deliberately veers away from critiquing Bo's vigilante justice. The film's moral is a dangerous one in our already violent society: If someone harasses you, kill him."

Evan D. Baltz (Christian Spotlight) thinks the film is not meant to be taken seriously. "The actors seem to be winking at the audience from time to time as they get in their jabs at their most hated foes. Each incident reminds us of actual events which have happened to Hollywood's elite. The movie is entertaining and I took it as being presented somewhat with tongue in cheek. On that level it works." But Baltz can't bring himself to give Paparazzi more than a C+.

At this writing, no other Christian press critics have reviewed the film. Did you see it? What was your impression of the film? Does Gibson need a rave or a reprimand?

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Vanity Fair fairly good, but differs from the novel

Last week, Film Forum marked the arrival of director Mira Nair's adaptation of the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, by posting links to early reviews at Catholic News Service and Decent Films.

Here are some more opinions from the Christian press:

Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) observes that "many of the characters here are kinder, gentler versions of the Thackeray originals." She concludes, "There's a subtle though stark moral here to be very choosy in whom you allow to influence your life. To our utter delight, these stories and messages are told with superb acting, amazing costumes that burst with color and texture, and dazzling locales. Unfortunately, the film's brisk pace breaks down in the final 20 minutes, making a good movie suddenly seem like a long movie."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) takes issue with the portrayal of Becky. "Thackeray portrayed Becky as a beautiful, scheming villain willing to do anything to succeed, and even subtitled his book 'A Novel Without a Hero' because Becky was an anti-heroine. Thackeray also structured his novel as a 'compare-and-contrast' between two women, Becky and Amelia, following the different paths their lives take over a 40-year period. Nair focuses instead on Becky, softening her into an ambitious but likeable gal who is simply trying to overcome poverty and 'do better for herself.'"

She concludes that "trying to condense a 900-word novel into a film is no easy task, and while it drags at times, Nair's effort is a good one."

Marvin Olasky (World) reports, "The essential problem … is that this film makes [Becky] more hit upon than hitting. The novel's Becky Sharp is essentially a villainess, preying on the seriously ill and sending men to their deaths. The movie's Becky Sharp is a heroine, a poor but ambitious orphan who does what she has to do." This change, Olasky notes, reflects "our general movement from emphasizing individual character to seeing individuals as stuck within a system and thus not responsible for their actions."

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) comments on the character: "Becky Sharp is an engaging and sympathetic figure, and we want her to reach her goal. At the same time, it becomes increasingly clear that Becky's choices will result in the tragic loss of the relationships most dear to her." He concludes, "Vanity Fair could be a good starting point for mature discussion about what matters most in life. It has much to offer thoughtful and patient viewers who are willing to talk about its messages and morals."

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Sheri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) finds it lacking. "Although done well with a beautiful emphasis on period costume and design, Vanity Fair left me wishing it had a richness to the fabric of it's characters as well. Even though it was meant to be poignant it didn't bring the viewer into the character's lives as deeply as needed to truly sympathize with their plights."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Nair and her crew exceed expectations in how well they portray early 19th century England (as well as India, Germany and Brussels). The script … neatly condenses Thackeray's 900-page epic to its key elements and although it does whitewash some of the more unsavory aspects of the tale, those decisions are well within the Victorian practice."

Mainstream critics were almost evenly split over the film.

Critics usher moviegoers away from Wicker Park

"I'm all for the idea that love can conquer all," writes Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies), "but a film needs to earn that theme, instead of just tacking it on at the end of a story that was pushing in a very, very different direction."

He's talking about Paul McGuigan's film Wicker Park, an American remake of the French thriller L'Apartement, starring Josh Hartnett (Black Hawk Down), Diane Kruger (Troy), and Rose Byrne (I Capture the Castle). Chattaway concludes that "the filmmakers cannot decide what sort of story they want to tell, and as a result, the story they tell isn't really worth the telling."

Other religious press critics are troubled by the film's definition of "love."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The film is more about obsession than it is love. Furthermore, it is about how the two can get easily confused. As one of the characters explains, 'Love makes you do crazy things—things you would never imagine yourself doing—but you can't help it.' What the character describes isn't love. Whatever it is, it is debilitating, personally destructive and morally reprehensible. Love shouldn't make anyone do 'crazy' things. Love is the sanest and most selfless motivation that exists in this world."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "How much pity can we muster for a guy who is practically engaged to one woman, obsessed about reconnecting with another, and willing to—on a whim—sleep with a third girl he just met? These metropolitan twentysomethings are foolish, selfish and unethical. Since we can't empathize or identify with the principals, all that remains is trumped-up suspense, redundant action shown from multiple perspectives and a detached curiosity about what might happen next."

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes that it "awkwardly shifts gears between romantic melodrama and suspense, neither providing enough emotional torque to power the story in its uphill battle against the overall lackluster material. The movie touches on themes of truth, trust, envy and self-image, but to characterize its treatment of these issues as anything but superficial would be a stretch."

Mainstream critics are dismissing the film as yet another unnecessary and poorly crafted remake.

Danny Deckchair—Australia's latest whimsical import

The latest comical caper to cross the water from Australia and charm American audiences is director Jeff Balsmeyer's film Danny Deckchair. The film stars Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, Vanity Fair) as a forlorn fellow who ties helium balloons to a chair and floats away, only to land in a new place where he falls in love with a local beauty, played by Miranda Otto (The Lord of the Rings' Eowyn).

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "It's always gratifying to come across a small, modestly scaled film that turns out to be total delight from start to finish. And so it is with Danny Deckchair. Balsmeyer … has created an engaging story in the vein of 'magical realism' about overcoming one's limitations and exploring life's possibilities. Ifans gives a superb performance."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, "The filmmaking here is quite simple, but done well. The plot is predictable and the humor is moderate. The acting is good, especially Ifans and Miranda Otto. It was a bit of a stretch to see Ifans and Otto play opposite each other romantically, but it is still feasible and doesn't really detract from the delightful experience this film can be."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Rhys Ifans is typically cast as an offbeat supporting character but shows that he has a little of the 'everyman' quality to him. He's fine as a romantic lead although his other performances show him to have more range. It's as if he's hamstrung in a role that requires him to be the film's center rather than a colorful part of an ensemble cast. Miranda Otto is too intelligent and beautiful to be cast as a dateless meter maid but she's pleasant to watch and easily gains the audience's sympathy."

Mainstream film critics have mixed feelings about Danny and his chair.

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The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi—style over substance

There have been many Japanese movies made about the blind warrior named Zatoichi. But none of them have been directed by the popular director Takeshi Kitano. In The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Kitano does more than direct the stylish action sequences and surprising musical numbers—he also plays the lead role!

This Zatoichi adventure concerns the arrival of the blind swordsman in a small town where bad guys have been brutalizing the townsfolk. Like the hero in a Clint Eastwood western or an Akira Kurosawa samurai epic, Zatoichi becomes the equalizer in a fearful and oppressed community. Full of bizarre and abrupt changes in tone and style, and populated with memorably zany supporting characters, Kitano's film is entertaining, but disposable.

Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Style over substance. The phrase wasn't ever meant to be a credo, but many filmmakers seem to turn it into one. And very few movies in recent memory have been as monumentally shallow as The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. The plot is flimsy, at best, little more than a vehicle to move the swordsman from one brutal killing to another." He adds, "In Kitano's defense, his film has a few sharply funny comedic moments, and Keiichi Suzuki's quirky score proves to be stirring and effective. But such stylistic triumphs hardly make up for this otherwise superficial and boring piece of filmmaking."

J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) calls the film "a serviceable genre effort that will please the sword fighting fans among us. But there's also not much substance to it. The movie's final scene is a fantastically energetic dance sequence that might be worth the price of admission. If only the rest of the film lived up to that."

Most mainstream critics seem more impressed by the film.

Look out for The Cookout … and steer clear of it

The Cookout, another film that capitalizes on the success of the Barbershop franchise by striking a similar tone and formula, apparently makes Barbershop look like a timeless classic.

Tom Neven (Plugged In) lists off The Cookout's faults: "This mess of a movie is just plain awful: Terrible acting, horrible directing, stilted dialogue, wretched writing, drug references and grade-school potty humor overwhelm the story. It plays on the worst stereotypes of blacks, whites and homosexuals in an attempt to get laughs."

Mainstream critics sampled it and threw it out.

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More reviews of Hero and Before Sunset

These films were covered by Film Forum in previous weeks, but this week, more reviews became available online.

Hero:Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The martial arts scenes … are awe-inspiring. Hero is one of those near perfect blends of visual and story that film makes possible." He adds, "In spite of the nature of martial arts, violence is not glorified in this film. The fight scenes are made into something beautiful, but they are beautiful in part because there is so little blood shed. When blood is seen, it actually serves to remind us just how precious blood is." He concludes that the film's message is "to show us that violence is not the answer."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) rave, "The visual mythology … transcends the language barriers. We experience [Zhang Yimou's] tale with our entire souls and not just our eyes and ears.The visual arts and musical scores make each moment a feast that we don't want to end as they support the fluid movement of the dancing fighters." They add that the film's importance lies in how it helps us understand the Chinese. "If this tale is representative of the cultural beliefs of the people, then it reveals that they see peace as possible only through brutal subjugation."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, "It is highly entertaining and rich in beauty and meaning. There is too much good in it for a production like this to be ignored."

"Until the end, when some profound meditations on sacrifice and common good come to the forefront, Hero begins to seem like just a lot of beautifully staged martial-arts exhibitions," writes Andrew Coffin (World). But he also is enthralled by those exhibitions. "In many ways, Hero is a stunning achievement. Hero is about as impressive a film to look at as anything ever put on the screen. Any single frame, taken on its own, presents a perfectly composed, visual feast."

Not everyone was so pleased. Check out this response by Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses): "Undeniably lush and beautiful … Hero is also the most stylish piece of insidious propaganda since Triumph of the Will. Like, Leni Riefenstahl's masterpiece, which was intended primarily to whip up the German people, I think Hero is much more aimed at propagandizing Chinese people than us Westerners. Chilling, that. I have been amazed to see the positive treatment that the film is getting from some prominent Christian reviewers. My guess is, they are being so distracted by the lush visuals in this piece, that they 'cannot see past the yellow/red forest for the themes.' But people need to look again. The message here is profoundly anti-Christian."

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Nicolosi makes a good point. The film does end up viewing the unification of China as a good thing, trying to justify, to some extent, the cruel conquest of the king. But, as I wrote in my review at Christianity Today Movies, I don't think the film is just a simple, straightforward endorsement of the king's right to slaughter those who oppose him. In fact, the film subtly subverts that very theme by focusing on the way that those who resist are able to overcome the enemy forces more powerfully through art than through violence. Further, it makes those who stand against the king the most colorful, inspiring, and memorable characters. And finally, the king is reminded that the true "hero" is he who does not use a sword at all, but uses ideas instead. The film is called Hero, not Heroes, and it is clear that the film's most revered character is not the king, but the one who makes an impassioned appeal for the end of violence.

The film may indeed be a celebration of China—that is no surprise, considering the origins of the story. What I find great about the film (aside from the extraordinary visuals) is that, in spite of the film's China-centric perspective, the film glimmers with honorable truths that are worth acknowledging and discussing. The story gives us examples of what Christ described as the greatest love—laying down one's life for one's friends. It affirms the importance of excellence in art, and the timeless power art can achieve. It draws our attention to the importance of individual voices as opposed to a vast and impersonal force. And it demonstrates the righteousness of putting down the sword, something that the king will not do, even at the end when he has seen an example of a greater man who could. Thus, Hero remains a conflicted masterpiece. Even if Zhang Yimou did set out to make a film to please the government, his finished work raises too many questions to be written off as mere propaganda. Moviegoers would do well to examine the film closely and discuss it rather than ignore it.

By the way, the film took first place in the box office race for the second week in a row.

Before Sunset:Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project) considers this sequel to Before Sunrise and then compares the two. "The films address us as individuals with memories of love and innocence and presents of disillusionment and boredom. Before Sunset is completely engaging on this level, even more so considering that Jesse is now married. This adds a moral dimension to the film that forces us to come to grips with what it means to be old and tired when we once swore we would never end up that way. Hopefully the film will cause each viewer to work through this moral dilemma with Jesse, deciding with him what it is that now defines us. Is it our daydreams or our commitments?" He adds that "Before Sunset ends with what may be the very best 'fade to black' in the history of film."

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Next week:Cellular, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and the return of George Lucas's THX 1138.