World War I is often called "the Great War." But if movies were our only record, World War II would have the edge. The list of critically acclaimed films about WWII just keeps growing. This week, Christian film critics are raving about director John Dahl's new rescue adventure called The Great Raid. And when they call it "old-fashioned," they mean it as a compliment.
The Great Raid stars Benjamin Bratt (Catwoman) as a brusque colonel, James Franco (Spider-Man 2) as a captain, Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) as a prisoner of war suffering from malaria, and Connie Nielsen (Demonlover) as a courageous nurse.
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) is one of few Christian critics with reservations about the film: "The Great Raid is a rousing, patriotic war movie—or at least it tries to be—but beneath the heroics, you can sense a more subversive and resentful sensibility. … While the historical events depicted here were unusual and cause for genuine celebration, the film that depicts these events is a dull, by-the-numbers set of war-movie cliché s—or, worse, since the story concerns three protagonists in three very different circumstances who only barely ever meet each other, the film is more like three sets of war-movie cliché s."
His biggest gripe relates to the portrayal of the Japanese. "Worst of all, unlike truly great prisoner-of-war movies like The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Raid never tries to get under the skin of the … captors. Sure, the Japanese committed some terrible atrocities, but even the worst offender, deep down, shares some sort of humanity with the victim against whom he commits the offense; you'd never know it, though, from the paper-thin treatment the Japanese receive here."
But Phil Boatwright (Crosswalk) says it's "the best film I've seen so far this year. … The Great Raid … concerns a moment in history that helped clarify the American spirit. … It's about that indefinable something that spurs men and women on despite the high cost of their actions. … There's a religious element where we see men praying and speaking of the need for faith. There's a sacrificial element as both men and women are seen putting others first, giving their lives for what they believe to be more important than themselves. And there is a good versus evil element hard to come by in politically correct times."
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "By the end of The Great Raid, I wanted to stand up and applaud each and every one of them for being willing to put his or her life on the line for our great country—for me. Because somewhere in each soldier (both now and in World War II) lies the courage to selflessly serve to the death. And that deserves our full attention and appreciation."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) isn't enthusiastic, but he's not upset either. "As far as moviemaking goes, The Great Raid falls short of the adjective in its title. But it is a good film, a throwback to the type of unabashedly patriotic movies churned out by Hollywood studios during the 1940s. … [It's] a highly watchable tale of tremendous heroism and sacrifice."
Andrew Coffin (World) raves without flinching. "While cynical critics may chide Mr. Dahl for his very unhip 'literal-mindedness,' he has in fact created a film that stands shoulder to shoulder with other modern war classics like Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers. The Great Raid is remarkably free of political correctness: unabashedly admiring of the American soldier, critical of Japanese brutality, and—here's the real shocker—overtly appealing to an idealism that transcends the pathetically base motives assigned to soldiers in most modern war films."
Meanwhile, Willie R. Magnum, Jr. (Christian Spotlight) cannot recommend the film because he counted "three instances of the vulgar, profane use of God's name."
Mainstream critics are divided on The Great Raid, but most find it too familiar, too formulaic.
Four Brothers is a morality tale with a sobering lesson: Don't murder old ladies if they have vengeful, violent sons. When Evelyn Mercer is gunned down, the four boys she adopted and raised (played by Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, André Benjamin, and Garrett Hedlund) decide to settle the score in a hailstorm of bullets. Chiwetel Ejiofor of Dirty Pretty Things and the upcoming sci-fi adventure film Serenity co-stars as a brutal gangster.
Director John Singleton is no stranger to stories of gangsters and guns. He gave us Boys N the Hood, Poetic Justice, and Samuel Jackson's turn as Shaft. But reviews of this film are significantly less enthusiastic.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Despite believable performances and chemistry, the quartet is wholly unsympathetic (save for Benjamin) and their thuggish eye-for-an-eye tactics have little to do with true justice and undermine the story's emotional core."
Eric Rice (Crosswalk) says, "Four Brothers is meant to leave the audience with a sense of "justice wins" or a "brothers who stick together can do anything" uplifting sort of feeling when it is over. But instead, this particular reviewer (who really likes action films) walked away feeling only jangled and uncomfortable."
"What's missing … is the film's center," says Christopher Lyon (Plugged In). "These guys just don't seem as motivated to avenge their mom's death as they are to wreak havoc for the pure joy of violence. Her murder is the perfect excuse to start hitting and shooting people. I didn't buy that they felt the need to do it for her. They're just having too much fun. Even so, I'm left pondering this question: Is trying to incite audiences to gleeful vicarious revenge a good idea?"
"Four Brothers is cinematically and narratively well done," writes Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily), "and the car chase in the snow is particularly harrowing. But the near merriment it attaches to vengeful action is a tad—OK, a ton—too indulgent."
Mainstream critics say it rates as a decent "revenge thriller," but few of them feel strongly about the picture either one way or the other.
One movie often celebrated by Christian film buffs is 1981's Chariots of Fire. More than two decades later, another film about a runner driven by faith has reached the screen: Saint Ralph. This runner is significantly younger. Ralph (Adam Butcher) is a high school freshman who wants to win the Boston Marathon in hopes that it will be the miracle required to wake his mother up from a coma.
Is the film as inspiring as Chariots? Or is it merely sentimental? Christian film critics are fairly impressed.
Carolyn Arends (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "The film's climax is enormously compelling, and there are subtleties along the way that more than compensate for the cliché s and contrivances. Christian viewers who can bear the pubescent indulgences of the film's first twenty minutes will enjoy watching Ralph's journey into the beginnings of emotional, and even spiritual, maturity. … For the jaded moviegoer who hasn't found much to care about on the screens lately, here's a little film that just might restore your faith—in movies and a whole lot more."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) turns in a rave. "For adults and older adolescents, this is a lovely, extraordinarily touching film that conveys an admirable picture of filial devotion, self-sacrifice, faith, good sportsmanship and universal fellowship."
Mainstream critics are debating whether or not Ralph has emerged as a winner.
Director Iain Softley delivers this week's mediocre horror film, The Skeleton Key, which stars Kate Hudson (Almost Famous), Gena Rowlands, and John Hurt. Hudson plays the caretaker for a dying New Orleans man (Hurt) whose home rests on a foundation of bloody secrets and enchantment. Lacking the sense to quit the job, she lingers long enough to give us almost two hours of cheap thrills.
Rarely impressed with horror films, Christian press critics find this one typically off-key.
Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Whether you would enjoy supernatural thriller The Skeleton Key may come down to two factors: 1) Your tolerance of dark depictions of witchcraft and voodoo. 2) Your tolerance of movies written by Ehren Kruger." Regarding Kruger, he says, "The Skeleton Key is pretty much what you would expect from the screenwriter of disappointing films such as Scream 3, Reindeer Games and Arlington Road—a sometimes taut, somewhat compelling film hurt by a predictable and convoluted plot, and a big 'gotcha' ending that really doesn't get ya. Kruger is a poor man's M. Night Shyamalan."
"This is a throwback to the kind of horror film they don't make much anymore," says Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service). "On the plus side, the violence is relatively tame by today's standards, there's only a smattering of bad language and sex is nonexistent. On the other hand, the story line is often predictable, and Ehren Kruger's dialogue is more likely to elicit quiet chuckles of recognition than real thrills, but the story—hoary though it is—at least effectively holds your interest."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "This film can't decide if it wants to be a supernatural thriller or a murder mystery. In the end, it tries to be both, relying on a twist ending that will have audiences feeling like they've just seen a poor rip-off of The Sixth Sense."
Mainstream critics seem similarly weary of spooky disappointments.
You could go see Rob Schneider's new comedy Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. Or you could just read the jokes on the walls of public restrooms. According to critics, the two experiences are quite similar.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it a "brainless and disastrously distasteful sequel. … The much raunchier follow-up wallows in juvenile sexual and scatological sight gags that succeed in lowering the already gutter-level bar set by the original. It seems that even rock bottom sometimes has a trap door."
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) describes his painful experience. "As the film started, I braced myself for a barrage of offensive material—and it rained down just as I expected. But after about the fifth genital-related joke, it ceased to be offensive as much as it was just mind-numbing. Is that all you've got? I wondered. For me, the overall effect of so much sexualized humor was not outrage (though that would be warranted) as much as sheer boredom. When every line of dialogue is working so hard to shock you, it has exactly the opposite effect."
Mainstream critics return from seeing this unwanted sequel with excruciating stories of how they survived the experience.
Timothy Treadwell documented more than 100 hours of footage in which he cavorted with grizzly bears in Alaska's Katmai National Park, determined to celebrate these massive animals, educate others about them, and protect them from encroaching dangers. The bears, in the end, failed to respect his efforts. They attacked and ate Treadwell and his girlfriend. Nevertheless, Grizzly Man, the story of his 14 summers in the wild, proves to be an arresting documentary. Legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog took an interest in Treadwell's efforts and performed several interviews with Treadwell before things ended in tragedy.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) writes, "Herzog—who also narrates—explores the life and death of a man by turns passionate, eccentric and childlike. … The result is a compulsively absorbing psychological study of an obsessed man, alternately admired and disparaged by those who knew him, as much as a nature documentary. (As for the latter, the footage of the bears is indeed extraordinary.) … You may find this film about man's relationship to nature, and madness and obsession at times uncomfortable to sit through, but you sure won't be bored."
Mainstream critics give the film higher praise than anything they've reviewed in the past few weeks.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.