Many people have noticed the rather impressive transformation of director Peter Jackson. In his frequent appearances affiliated with his Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings films, he was, let's say, a man befitting the big screen. But now, thanks to what must be an effective diet, he's hardly the man he used to be.
According to many film critics, Jackson's newest film—King Kong—could stand to lose a few pounds as well.
Jackson's lifelong dream of remaking King Kong has finally been fulfilled, and as you might expect, critics are celebrating it as a triumph of special effects. The San Diego Film Critics even honored King Kong as the Best Picture of 2005. But in spite of Andy Serkis' incredible collaboration with the special effects team, the reunion of the Lord of the Rings screenwriting team, the extraordinary talents of Adrien Brody and Naomi Watts, and the popularity of Jack Black, Christian film critics have some reservations about this season's 100-pound-gorilla.
"King Kong ultimately makes you consider whether or not it's possible to have too much of a good thing," says Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies). "Do we need every action sequence, every scene of character development, every self-indulgent camera shot to establish mood? Viewers may disagree on the answer to that question, but most will agree it is worth seeing. There are some truly stunning sights to behold here, none more so than 'the eighth wonder of the world' himself, but you'll have to endure a lot of tedium and repetition to get to them."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) has mixed feelings about the result: "Lacking even a loose idea to organize the story around, King Kong ultimately boils down to escapist action-adventure spectacle, Kong and Ann's oddly touching relationship, and not much else. And even the escapist action-adventure spectacle is really only thrilling when it's about Kong and Ann." But he concludes, "Still, when it is about Kong and Ann, it's a mighty thing, and I cared about this beast and his beauty right up to the end."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says the movie will "cement Jackson's status as a 21st century Steven Spielberg, a master at creating heartfelt, effects-filled blockbusters at a time when been-there, seen-that audiences aren't easily impressed. But what would've made this escapist adventure even better is a little old-fashioned restraint."
Josh Hurst (Reveal) calls it "a thrilling, mostly pleasant holiday blockbuster that almost makes its three-hour running time worth it. … It's a mighty large time investment, and not all of it pays off. But there's ultimately a lot to love about Jackson's rendering of Kong."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says, "King Kong does deliver plenty of thrills. However, as a promised emotional tour-de-force, it falls short. … For all of the technical prowess on display in Jackson's film, the original, running a relatively lean 100 minutes, remains a model of efficient storytelling, with at least as much emotional resonance as Jackson's bloated, but still effective, remake."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) disagrees: "Jackson's greatest achievement isn't stampeding brontosauruses or eye-filling re-creations of Depression-era New York—astounding though they are—but his strong sense of storytelling and sure-handedness (for the most part) in making the special effects serve the narrative, never losing sight of the fable's emotional core."
Todd Patrick (Christian Spotlight) is enthusiastic. "It is everything that George Lucas's second Star Wars trilogy should have been, but wasn't. Is it a bit overindulgent? Yes, it is. It takes its time setting up and expanding on all its characters, then plunges us into two hours of nonstop action-adventure, reminiscent of the Indiana Jones trilogy or the first Star Wars trilogy. … Jackson is, in my opinion, the undisputed king of the blockbuster, dethroning Spielberg and early Lucas, and kicking to the curb the shoddy work of Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, John Woo, and all the other modern-day blockbuster posers out there who are all flash and no depth."
As a Tolkien fan grateful to Jackson for his brilliant Lord of the Rings series, I walked into Kong with great anticipation. And I was mostly blown away by the special effects. But the first hour drags, uninspired and populated by a bland batch of characters. The second and third hour indulge in too much spectacle and too little character development. Some sequences make the time slow to a crawl. By the time Kong makes his fateful climb up the Empire State Building, if you're like me you'll already be checking your watch.
My full review is at Looking Closer.
Mainstream critics are so impressed by the spectacle that they're rating the film quite highly.
Director Ang Lee (Hulk, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm) has stirred up the year's biggest big screen controversy. He's made a film full of technical excellence—strong performances, enthralling scenery, delicate scripting. Thus, many film critics are praising Brokeback Mountain for its strengths. But Lee has also focused on a story in which two cowboys fall in love—and have sex—with each other, even after they go on to have wives and families. That, as you can imagine, is furrowing a few brows.
Christian film critics are approaching their reviews in different ways. Most acknowledge that homosexuality is considered a sin. And they also acknowledge that Ang Lee portrays those who reject homosexuality as old-fashioned, naïve, and oppressive. Some Christian critics respond by completely condemning the film. Some even stoop to labeling it with derogatory nicknames; one Christian critic even called the Golden Globe Awards, which gave Brokeback several nominations, the "Golden Gropes." Some seek to sift through it, acknowledging what is well done, and questioning what is faulty. And others think it's a sin to consider the film at all.
Some of this wide range of opinions is evidenced in the feedback coming in for the review at Christianity Today Movies. And some of it is evidenced in the controversy over the review from the Catholic News Service. As readers protested the CNS's initial classification of the film, the pressure caused the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops to revise their rating from "L" to "O."
Here is a sampling of the Christian press reviews of the film:
Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) says, "As much as Brokeback Mountain is being touted as a groundbreaking movie for its depictions of homosexuality, it is populated with people with conventional attitudes about homosexuality. And though it's presented as a story of thwarted love—of ache and longing and regrets—it's also ultimately a story about the relationships that shape us … for better and for worse."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) stirred things up, saying, "Lee tells the story with a sure sense of time and place, and presents the narrative in a way that is more palatable than would have been thought possible. … The performances are superb. Australian Ledger may be the one to beat at Oscar time, as his repressed manly stoicism masking great vulnerability is heartbreaking, and his Western accent sounds wonderfully authentic. Gyllenhaal is no less accomplished as the more demonstrative of the pair, while Williams and Hathaway … are very fine."
Forbes concludes, "Looked at from the point of view of the need for love which everyone feels but few people can articulate, the plight of these guys is easy to understand while their way of dealing with it is likely to surprise and shock an audience. … While the actions taken by Ennis and Jack cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true."
Digging much deeper into how the film works, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "Brokeback Mountain is a work of art, more concerned with telling a story about characters than with making sure that the viewer feels a certain way about a moral issue."
He continues, "That's not to say that Brokeback Mountain doesn't have a point of view. It does have a point of view—a profoundly problematic one, one that makes it potentially far more insidious than mere propaganda. All the same, it doesn't commit the artistic fraud of shaping every single element in its story to move the viewer's sympathies in one and only one direction. That sort of one-sidedness is increasingly the single thing that I find most quickly sabotages a film's persuasiveness; nothing else so glaringly announces that the filmmaker himself hasn't really put his own point of view to the test, and doesn't trust the audience to see things his way unless he stacks the deck in his own favor."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "Taiwanese director Ang Lee … certainly doesn't soft-sell the damage done by the choices Jack and Ennis make. But you don't walk away from Brokeback Mountain thinking about the destructiveness of acting on homosexual temptations. Rather, you're left with the idea that these cowboy-lovers would have experienced none of this pain if only social and moral norms had allowed them to pursue their passion from the get-go."
He points out that the obstacles to Jack and Ennis's relationship are, in fact, good things. "Usually it's a negative thing when people give in to the societal norms around them and give up on their dreams, refuse to step across racial divides, etc. But here, Ennis' reluctance to live with Jack is a good example of how established—biblical—morality within a culture can help people make right decisions. (It isn't a pressure so strong that it keeps him from repeatedly having sex with Jack, though.)"
J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) says, "If Brokeback's last 90 minutes were as good as its first 45, I'd agree that it's one of the best films of the year. But the last two-thirds … are genuinely disappointing. The biggest problem is that the narrative shifts from covering a summer in almost an hour to traversing 20 years in just an hour and a half. It's like a rock skipping across a pond, hitting the high points of the relationship and then dribbling out at the end."
Let's be honest—many of us approach Christmas with some sense of worry, or even dread, because family gatherings can be stressful and difficult events. That's the dynamic that makes a movie like The Family Stone so popular at Christmastime. We laugh knowingly as we watch the clash of family personalities, the tense moments when someone brings their significant other to the table for the first time, the contrary traditions of celebration.
Unfortunately, The Family Stone is apparently too unpleasant for Christian film critics.
Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) says, "There seem to be two types of holiday family dramas: the kind that move you with an inspiring poignancy … and the kind that make you think, Well, at least my family isn't that bad … The Family Stone is definitely one of the latter category." She adds, "In the end, the movie feels a lot like slacker brother Ben: a little sloppy, mostly predictable, some flashes of surprising poignancy and wisdom, but ultimately doesn't live up to its potential."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "This story had potential, but it fails many times on the most basic level. … Various people say and do things, not because they logically grow out of their character, but because they're needed merely to advance the story." He also protests the film's "casual attitude toward illicit sex," "the not-so-subtle glorification of homosexuality," and "the drug abuse and the profanity."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) disagrees: "Writer-director Thomas Bezucha's low-keyed film takes its sweet time getting started, and the easy pace doesn't at first yield much in the way of dramatic dividends, but about midway through the story grabs you, and tugs at the heart, building to a moving life- and family-affirming fade-out. The performances are all excellent." He concludes, "Flaws and all, this is a worthy and ultimately touching addition to that ever-popular genre, the Christmas movie."
Mainstream critics are bickering over the movie like a family during the holidays.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) turns Arthur Golden's poetic novel Memoirs of a Geisha into another elaborate display of razzle-dazzle, and in doing so, he's won himself a controversy. After all, the novel is about Japanese characters, and Marshall's film is packed with well-known Chinese actresses. To complicate matters further, they're speaking English … a distracting, halting form of English.
Will the film be an Oscar contender? Perhaps in some categories for its flamboyant style. But most critics agree that Zhang Ziyi delivered a far more complex and engaging performance in Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 earlier this year. And they're dismayed at how the film, despite its enthralling source material, has come to feel rather like a Hollywood melodrama.
Christianity Today Movies is the only religious press site to publish a review since the film's opening. Camerin Cortney calls it "a moving work of art" and says "no one can argue that the acting in the film is anything but superb." She concludes that the film is "a lavishly spun tale of friendship and rivalry, hope and despair, choice and duty, love and lust, traditional custom and forbidden emotion."
Most mainstream film critics are unhappy with it, saying the makeup doesn't disguise the missteps.
More reviews of recent releases
Syriana: Andrew Coffin (World) says, "What's just plain silly is the way critics have taken Syriana at face value, as if it's some sort of biting, impartial look at Big Oil, the CIA, and the Middle East, when it most clearly is not. Syriana gives off the air of complexity and depth because it is, on the surface, confusing—characters enter and exit the story without much introduction or explanation about who they work for or what they're doing. But it doesn't take long to figure out that every character serves the same purpose: to blame the U.S. government and U.S. corporations for every evil in the Middle East."
Paradise Now: Andrew Coffin (World) says, "More than religious zeal, even, a sense of indignity and inferiority motivates Mr. Abu-Assad's characters. Paradise Now paints a sad, fascinating portrait of two young men who think that death (their own, and, although this integral element is skirted, of the Israeli civilians they blow up) is better than that indignity."
Yours, Mine, & Ours: Gene Edward Veith (World) says, "Instead of witty dialogue, we have unfunny slapstick. Instead of living characters, we have cultural stereotypes. The ideological clash is portrayed as if it really shouldn't matter and so is never resolved, while still overwhelming the warmer family themes. Forget the remake and rent the original."
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