Are moviegoers tired of noisy, bombastic, overblown action movies? Especially those that rip off lots of other films while pretending to have something to say about the direction our technology is taking us? Could be.
Last week, the bioethics thriller The Island became the first of the half-dozen films directed by Michael Bay (Armageddon, Bad Boys) to flop at the box office. And this week, Stealth—a movie directed by Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, XXX), about a military plane that gets hit by lightning, starts thinking for itself, and becomes a bigger threat than the terrorists it's supposed to be killing—crashed and burned at theatres, too.
Critics seem to agree that the film—which shamelessly cribs elements of War Games, Colossus: The Forbin Project, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Short Circuit, with an unexpected side trip into Behind Enemy Lines territory—is more artificial than intelligent.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "The greatest flaw with Stealth—and there are many—is that it doesn't stay true to its premise … Bad acting and dialogue also keep these characters from becoming engaging or believable … Suffice to say, this is yet another perfect example of a bad Hollywood blockbuster, incapable of offering a sensible script or a well-staged action sequence. Neither entertaining nor exciting, the dumb and noisy Stealth will hopefully live up to its name by fading quietly from movie theaters."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the film is so busy it's boring: "Part of Einstein's theory of relativity states that the faster an object moves the more time slows down. Want proof? Go see Stealth (Columbia), a high-speed but vacuous exercise in adrenalin overdrive that packs a lot of G-force, as in 'Gee, when is this film going to be over?'" He adds that the movie "makes you pine for the emotional subtlety and character depth of a Jerry Bruckheimer film … Like EDI's cockpit, Stealth is empty."
Jeffrey Huston (Crosswalk) says the film fails even on its own superficial terms: "Visually it's horrible; the ships are poorly designed, the flight action is obviously fake … and only one shot (a mid-air ring of fire) makes you think 'wow.' Director Rob Cohen was so busy trying to make his aerial sequences look impressive that he forgot to make them feel authentic … The film's only boast is that it's loud, thus making it stealth in name only. But hey—at least when the robot jet goes renegade it cranks hard-driving rock tunes as it unleashes its heartless destruction. Sure it may be evil, but man, its iPod playlists are the coolest!"
Mainstream critics seem divided into two camps: those who think it's so bad it's good, and those who think it's so bad it's bad.
What if the X-Men went to a school that was kind of like Hogwarts, only American instead of British? And what if the school was stationed up in the air, kind of like that hangar where Angelina Jolie was stationed in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? You might get something like Sky High, a fun Disney flick about a high school for superheroes that seems to have left most Christian critics reasonably happy.
My own review is at Christianity Today Movies.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Director Mike Mitchell strikes the perfect blend of campy humor, visual finesse and honest emotion. The movie has a goofy comic-book charm that doesn't take itself too seriously. Yet though lighthearted in tone the film explores coming-of-age themes of self-esteem, peer pressure and parental expectations, and is suitable for all but the youngest viewers. Like The Incredibles, at its heart Sky High is about family and those everyday superpowers we all possess: love and friendship."
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says the film has "some super messages" for tweens: "For one, Will has two strong (really strong), committed parents who are married and genuinely like each other—unusual for kids in most Disney flicks. They're not perfect. Dad's expectations put lots of pressure on Will, and Will gives into some normal teen temptations including lying, disobedience and reluctantly hosting a party while the 'rents are away. But all his wrong choices have clear, negative consequences. And Mom and Dad are Will's first stop when looking for support and guidance." Lyon goes on to call it "a generally kid-friendly, low stress, sometimes funny little adventure that's easy to watch and easy to forget. In a summer crowded with dark, brooding and complex celluloid superheroes, though, Sky High's light tone, bright colors, chuckles and easy lessons may provide a welcome relief to families looking to satiate their youngsters' hero-hunger."
Kenneth R. Morefield (Christian Answers) compares the film to other depictions of high school life: "After ten years of Beverly Hills 90210, it is refreshing to see a high school depicted with actors who look like they could actually be in high school and characters who still feel awkward over that first kiss and whether or not mom and dad will give them a scornful look. I have no doubt that teens like those depicted in Mean Girls and Thirteen exist, but I also have no doubt that there are still a few places on the globe where harassment from the school bully is a bigger fear than not being able to score your next fix."
Mainstream critics seem mildly pleased by the film.
The studios' one significant bit of counter-programming last week was Must Love Dogs, a romantic comedy—starring Diane Lane and John Cusack, with fine supporting work from Stockard Channing and Christopher Plummer—about newly divorced people in their 40s (and an even older widower) who try their hand at online dating.
The film has all the sitcom-style humor you would expect from writer-director Gary David Goldberg (the creator of Family Ties and Spin City), and while some Christian critics seem to wish they could have liked it more, their responses are more mixed.
Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) doesn't mind the fact that the romance was predictable and escapist, but wishes it had been done with a higher degree of quality. She also objects to the film's consistently negative portrayal of heterosexual men. "Enough already. We're all fallen human beings. We all hurt each other. Men and women. Let's stop highlighting worst-case specimens of the male of the species and get back to our regularly scheduled programming already … Overall, I wouldn't call the movie a dog, but I didn't love it either. And I wanted to. Our search for the next Great Romantic Comedy, like so many Hollywood singletons' quest for love, continues."
Andrew Coffin (World) concurs: "You've seen all of this before. But perhaps it's been a while since you've seen it all strung together so ineptly. That's about the sum of Must Love Dogs … a romantic comedy that survives, if at all, solely on the charm of its performers." He adds that the film is surprisingly "disjointed," despite its predictability. "Although only a single screenwriter is credited (the director), one would almost expect to discover that a dozen or more participated, each asked to contribute a single scene utilizing the same cast of vaguely defined characters."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) likes co-stars Lane and Cusack, but says the screenplay "meanders, and some of the plot turns are implausible, even in the context of a romantic bauble like this. And, frankly, it's just not funny enough." He also takes issue with the film's acceptance of casual sex, including an implausible scene in which two characters drive all over town looking for an open store that has condoms in stock. "It's clear to the viewer that each of them is looking for true love. Though they're going through the motions of dating, their hearts aren't really in it, and there's the implicit notion that picking up men … and sex before marriage are par for the course."
Mainstream critics are having trouble loving this particular mutt.
Audiences tired of badly-made, overly-budgeted and utterly formulaic Hollywood movies have started looking elsewhere for their entertainment—and one of the beneficiaries has been a National Geographic documentary about the mating cycle of Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic!
March of the Penguins, narrated by Morgan Freeman, has cracked the box office top ten for two weeks running, and it seems destined to become the second-highest-grossing documentary of all time, after Fahrenheit 9/11.
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) writes, "I won't try too hard to overlay human meaning onto the lives of these penguins, but Freeman goes out of his way to do so in a couple of places ('They're not that different from us, really'), so it's worth noting the great level of personal sacrifice penguin parents exhibit hatching and protecting their young. Survival mandates the involvement of both parents. To thrive, hard work is required. And great physical affection and selfless love are demonstrated along the way."
Andrew Coffin (World) has some problems with the script, but says the story "easily stands on its own two very short legs … That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat—and, some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design. It's sad that acknowledgment of a creator is absent in the examination of such strange and wonderful animals. But it's also a gap easily filled by family discussion after the film."
Other documentaries are winning accolades, too. Murderball is a remarkably empowering look at "quadriplegic rugby"—a sport in which people who have lost the use of their legs and at least part of their arms race about a basketball court in specially modified wheelchairs, trash-talking each other and knocking each other over. The film covers the rivalry between an American team and the former player who left them to coach the Canadian team.
My own review is at CanadianChristianity.com.
Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) writes, "The highlight of the film is how it manages to humanize these athletes for us. One of the players, when speaking about meeting girls, says that you're never sure whether they see you or the chair. For the most part, at the beginning of the film, we see the chair. That is, we note how disabled they all are … Slowly, the filmmakers reveal to us the people who are sitting in the chairs … By the time we watch them in Athens, we are no longer watching the chairs running up and down the court; we are watching our team. We do not see disabled athletes; we see athletes."
Another documentary getting some attention is Rize, music-video director Dave LaChapelle's look at "krumping," a new form of street dancing in South Central Los Angeles that has political, historical, sexual, and even spiritual overtones.
Maurice Broaddus (Hollywood Jesus) writes, "The movie makes the case that this radical dance form plays an enormous (potential) role in the black communities in South Central Los Angeles. The dancing is important as a serious form of spiritual and artistic expression—and as an alternative to gang participation … . I don't have to make spiritual connections with this movie because it does it for me. There is a natural connectedness between worship and dance, worship and spirit. This exploration of dance took the dancers back to their roots as they danced from their spirit. 'I get my Krump from Jesus,' Miss Prissy says plainly. 'God started me on this way,' and she uses the gift that she's been given."
Another film making the rounds off the beaten path is The Beautiful Country, about a young Vietnamese man who searches for his birth parents—a Vietnamese woman and a former American G.I. This search takes him through a maze of cultural tensions.
Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) says the film offers a thoughtful examination of our notions of beauty—and ugliness. "Additionally, throughout Binh's travels we see stunning portraits of loss and perseverance, the plight of refugees, the longing to belong, the intoxicating nature of hope, the ripple effects of tragedy and war, the redemption of a father's love. Thankfully, none of these portraits or questions are in-your-face, but are offered with nuanced performances and sparse dialogue. The ending isn't a typical Hollywood father-son reunion, but is much more subtle, realistic, and meaningful."
Mainstream critics seem to think the film is beautiful indeed.
More reviews of recent releases:
The Island: Gene Edward Veith (World) says, "Whether its message comes from the views of the filmmakers—the action-movie director Michael Bay and writer Caspian Tredwell-Owen—or whether it just emerges logically from the movie's premise, The Island packs a powerful pro-life punch … [and] makes an important imaginative contribution to the current debates, reminding us that clones are not monsters. The monsters are the people who do the cloning and those who are willing to destroy life just to enhance their own."
Peter Suderman (Relevant) says "the plot, such as it is, is ancillary to Bay's destructive impulses; story points exist only to move the characters from one rollicking set piece to another. You get the feeling that if the film could inject action scenes intravenously, it would. It's not so much a movie as an action-scene delivery system."
Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) compare the scientists of this film to King Herod, who killed infants to protect his throne; and they conclude, "Whether terminating the lives of cloned women who give birth for adoptive parents or placing in gas chambers those clones whose curiosity makes them impossible to manipulate, this film presents the reality that such control over others' is murder."
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "The most startling thing about Burton's film is that, unlike many of his other movies about misunderstood geniuses, this one gives no excuses for self-indulgence and irresponsibility. Like the central character in Burton's Big Fish, Willy Wonka is a man who has retreated to his own created world of fantasy, and with his seclusion he has forgotten how to show others compassion and love. His life is fractured because of his tormented childhood, and he carries with him a cold disdain for any and all grown-ups—particularly parents. But rather than make a hero of this man, as he did in Big Fish, Burton instead shows us what a lonely road Wonka walks, pointing us to the more excellent path of love, forgiveness, and family."
Peter T. Chattaway is filling in this week and next for Jeffrey Overstreet, our regular Film Forum writer. Overstreet will return on August 18.
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