Writer/director/actor Mike Binder turns in one of 2005's most critically acclaimed films so far with The Upside of Anger, and the reviews hail Joan Allen's performance as one of her very best. Allen, most recently seen in The Bourne Supremacy, has been nominated several times for an Oscar, but has yet to win. It's possible she'll earn yet another nomination for her work as Terry, a disillusioned, middle-aged woman who falls in love with Denny, a retired baseball star (Kevin Costner) next door. The film also stars Erika Christensen (Traffic), Keri Russell (TV's Felicity), and Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen, The Missing).

Binder's film is extremely popular with the mainstream press, and religious press critics are finding plenty to praise as well.

"Without Allen and Costner, I suspect my 3-star rating would slip back closer to a 2," says Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies). "A twist ending presented a lot of questions for me. . . . But the movie did resonate with the mostly middle-aged crowd I saw it with. That might be because, for better and for worse, many in their 40s and 50s might see themselves in Terry and Denny—people struggling to reconcile their youthful dreams with the reality of what their lives have become."

Megan Basham, a Christian film critic who writes for National Review, says Upside "is a story too rare in cinema today: It's a love story for and about grown-ups—people who carry life's scars into their next relationships and cope with disappointment in messy ways." She too has some problems with the way the film wraps up, but concludes that it's "truly something special."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says it's "a beautifully acted, droll, and, ultimately, profoundly moving comedy-drama. [It] imparts a strong moral about the destructive nature of misplaced animosity … and ultimately is a touchingly strong affirmation of love and family. And it's intelligent adult fare, as too few films are these days, even if there is a preponderance of salty language." He says Joan Allen "surpasses anything she has ever done with a mercurial performance that is a pleasure to watch."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) joins in with raves for Allen, saying her "intensity simply burns up the screen." He praises Costner and the rest of the cast, but has a few notes for the director. "Binder has written some very clever dialogue and crafted some interesting characters but his screenplay is far from flawless."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) considers how the film stacks up to a similar drama. "Anger doesn't match the overall cohesiveness of American Beauty. . . . But the performances by Costner and Allen are rock-solid, and the relationship they build is one many mature adults will be able to appreciate."

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Don't put on The Ring Two

Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) and her son Aidan (David Dorfman) have left Seattle to escape memories of what happened in The Ring. They've taken refuge in the coastal city of Astoria, Oregon, where they're bound to run into all-new horrors in this inevitable (and brilliantly titled) sequel: The Ring Two. Sure enough, that devilish videotape from the first film is back, provoking homicides, and sending Rachel back to Seattle to look for answers. But according to critics, it's viewers who will need to relocate if they want to escape a bad case of sequel letdown.

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "The Ring Two celebrates a mother 'protecting' her child by injuring him, justifying her behavior by concocting circumstances that demand her to act. And that's no laughing matter. It happens in real life; women do murder their offspring. [This movie] trivializes the real-life horror of women taking the lives of their children."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "stylish and scary, but less satisfying" than the first film. "Unlike [The Ring, which] was essentially a race-against-time mystery, The Ring Two is much more a conventional horror movie. And while the new picture echoes the visual creepiness of The Ring, it lacks its predecessor's overall sharpness and originality."

Mainstream critics are bored of the Ring.

Live from Iraq! U.S. soldiers in a "reality" war movie: Gunner Palace

In the occupation of Baghdad, the "Gunners" are a group of American soldiers in the 2/3 Field Artillery. And they're talking right to the camera in the gripping documentary Gunner Palace. Director Michael Tucker's movie features no big name stars . . . just real live American soldiers on the front lines of the Iraq war. The title refers to their base, in Saddam Hussein's bomb-scarred palace where the tyrant committed so many atrocities.

But in spite of the film's volatile context, Gunner Palace is not a particularly political movie. That's what critics are saying, as they praise the film for its behind-the-scenes revelations.

"Gunner Palace could easily have become an anti-war documentary," says Tom Neven (Plugged In), "and some have tried to use it for that purpose. I believe director Michael Tucker is being honest when he says he just wants to pay tribute to the Gunners and the duty they perform in Iraq. The result is a warts-and-all portrayal of Army life in a combat zone—the boredom, the fear, the occasional pettiness and, for the lower-ranking soldiers, the sense of being lost in a larger picture they can't see. Overall, they acquit themselves remarkably well."

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He does, however, feel the film deserved an R-rating. When the filmmakers appealed the original R-rating, they persuaded the MPAA to downgrade it to a PG-13, in spite of its harsh language. (Reel News covered this story a few weeks ago.)

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a raw and unfocused but affecting anti-war documentary. Though the inclusion of voices who feel that their presence is making a positive difference would have provided more balance, Gunner Palace remains (for the most part) apolitical."

Mainstream critics are praising it as "riveting and indispensable."

Ice Princess finds fans in spite of formula

Disney's burgeoning reservoir of movies about teen girls and for teen (and pre-teen) girls just keeps growing larger. Ice Princess, directed by Tim Fywell, stars Michelle Trachtenberg as Casey Carlyle, the latest "ugly duckling" (math geek) to become a swan (ice skating star).

Religious press critics are generally praising the film, stressing its lowbrow humor and wholesome quality.

Mary Lasse (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "Ice Princess is about as clean and graceful as can be. Girls of all ages will fall in love with the movie—and parents should enjoy the ride (or the glide) as well."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) notes that the movie "offers no surprises. It offers no real thrills or laughs. What it does offer is a wholesome, well-made film intended for family audiences."

"This gentle family film treats its brainy heroine with respect," says Bob Smithouser (Plugged In), "and shows how a deep understanding of math and science can help make dreams come true. Ice Princess is a great date movie for mothers and daughters—especially in families struggling over plans and expectations for their teen's future."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says it's "a fairly standard but not uninteresting tale. Fywell's modest film … is reasonably absorbing for all its plot predictability. All comes out well in the end, and there are good themes of friendship, honesty and following one's dream."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) writes, "Ice Princess is a lovely story … that promotes several great messages. It's hard to criticize a film that is this good. Not only are the story, the messages and the acting all fantastic, but the movie sticks to child-appropriate humor."

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Mainstream critics are pretty split on their verdict.

Critics fall in love with Dear Frankie

Always on the move, nine-year-old Frankie and his single mom Lizzie settle in a Scottish town. Lizzie doesn't want Frankie, who is deaf, to discover that they're fleeing from his father. She writes fake letters to convince him that his father is out having wild adventures at sea. When Frankie sees an opportunity for a rendezvous, Lizzie must decide whether or not to tell him the awful truth.

That's the setup for Dear Frankie, a film starring the talented Emily Mortimer (Lovely and Amazing, Young Adam). The film, making its way to art house theatres around the country, is earning some of the best reviews from Christian press critics all year.

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) said she expected "a rather syrupy story that overflowed with contrivances and schmaltz." She discovered something entirely different. "Dear Frankie is a wonderful film that conveys great truth about the human heart and the burning need we all have for a father. A worthy, worthwhile movie of great merit."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "an immensely appealing film. Some minor plot improbabilities aside, the story—and certainly the emotions—ring heartrendingly true. The ending is satisfying, and avoids the expected denouement. This is superlative entertainment for adults and older adolescents."

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) blogged about the movie at Film Chat: "Dear Frankie is a modest but charming film. [It has a] somewhat contrived set-up, but once you swallow it, the rest of the film goes down pretty easy. The film, which was written, directed, and produced by women, definitely has the feel of a crowd-pleaser, but it doesn't push our buttons too hard. I liked it."

Mainstream critics are mulling it over, generally pleased.

In My Country fumbles historical drama with lousy romance

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings deserve a film like Schindler's List or Hotel Rwanda—something that brings that historical drama to life in a way that helps us shoulder the burden of history and walk away wiser. In My Country, which stars Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche, tries to be that film, but falls short.

Clearly, director John Boorman had the resources at his disposal to make a powerful, affecting drama. But Ann Peacock's adaptation of Antjie Krog's autobiographical Country of My Skull makes the audience less interested in the liberation of the South Africans and more interested in whether the two weary journalists at the center of the story will suffer nervous breakdowns or run off into the desert for a torrid love affair.

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My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) says, "I guess I can encourage you to see the movie's first half (if you do, flee the theater when the stars get in bed for the second time—you'll know what I mean). And high school teachers might want to screen selected scenes to educate students who weren't even alive when apartheid fell. But for most of us, this attempt to show some history falls prey to our current problem of showing too many celebrities."

Mainstream critics are similarly disappointed.

Schultze Gets the Blues in spite of positive reviews

When a retired miner and polka musician from East Germany discovers the blues, he grabs his accordion and heads for Louisiana. Schultze Gets the Blues is about more than music, however. It's about getting older and living with purpose.

So says Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies). "This is one of the best movies in demonstrating the potential tedium of retired life—wasted hours, seemingly aimless future, little to look forward to. Not everyone can appreciate characters that seem to do nothing for minutes on end. But audiences can find reward by investing patience into the developments, capitalizing on the silences to consider what is trying to be expressed and reflect on them in relation to their own lives." He concludes that the film is "figuratively sad, literally joyful. It's about a man on a personal quest for meaning."

Mainstream critics are praising it as "highly original." One critic calls it "One of those movies where nothing whatsoever seems to happen until you look closely, at which point everything happens."

More reviews of recent releases

Born into Brothels:Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "This makes two films in recent memory that espouse true Christian service. Like Hotel Rwanda, Born into Brothels calls to our attention a group of people who are in dire need of love and compassion, exhorting us to follow Christ's example by reaching out to 'the least of these.'"

Robots: Andrew Coffin (World) says Robots compares to Pixar movies "pretty well—but cut out the credits and it's still clear this is no Pixar release. For one thing, look at the rating. The Incredibles was the first Pixar movie to receive a PG rating—and that was for 'action violence.' No mention of 'suggestive humor.' Robots doesn't take things especially far, certainly not to the level of Shrek, but the occasional crudity or innuendo just feels cheap, easy, and unnecessary."

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The Passion Recut:Gene Edward Veith (World) says Mel Gibson's movie is "still very bloody, but toned down considerably. Still, the original version is much better. The very shock value of so much of it gave the movie its impact and power."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "The slightly-less-violent revision is missing roughly six minutes of the movie's bloodiest scenes … softening the film's graphic nature a bit without eviscerating its emotional and spiritual poignancy. Even with the cuts, however, the cumulative effect is still too intense for young children and those sensitive to violence, though perhaps some parents may now feel it appropriate for older adolescents."

Millions:J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "The film isn't your typical kids flick. It actually takes time to pause and reflect, to examine the motives of its characters. The movie is a fantastic springboard to a marvelous post-film discussion, no matter what the age of your group. Millions … asks the simple question of what we would do with half a million dollars but also explores the nature of charity and poverty. Furthermore it asks how we balance our own happiness with that of those around us and those thousands of miles away. It's … that rare film that takes religious faith seriously and wonders how it would act in our modern world."

Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) says director Danny Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce "never condescend to their young protagonists or their audience; they don't seem to be trying to make a 'family' film. Instead, they try to see the world through the eyes of their characters, and they invite us to do the same. The film also makes some nice allusions to the place of money in Christian tradition. Most significantly, the film could very well leave audiences wondering what to do with the money they have right now … and it does this without being preachy. Bravo."

Million Dollar Baby: "Million Dollar Baby isn't a film about euthanasia," says Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project), "it is about these characters that took two hours to develop before the fateful twist at the end. The film simply continues Eastwood's penchant for characters forced to make ethical decisions that they know will cost them their souls. At the very least, the film seems to imply that the act of euthanasia, even if as an act of mercy, will cost the actor a great deal."

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DVDs worth noting: The Dust Factory and Buechner

Film Forum typically focuses on films currently playing in theatres, but here are two DVDs of note. We missed the first, The Dust Factory, during its theatre run last fall—probably because it showed in so few places and was gone within weeks. And the second, Buechner, was a straight-to-video release that never went to the big screen.

In The Dust Factory, young Ryan (Ryan Kelley), wounded by the loss of his father, no longer speaks. At least, not in this world. Neither does his grandfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who suffers from Alzheimer's. But when an accident sends Ryan into a fantasy world called "The Dust Factory," he meets his grandfather there, and the two are able to converse. He also befriends a tomboy named Mel (Hayden Panettiere), with whom he forms a special friendship.

Eric Small's film is difficult to describe. It's a rather bizarre viewing experience. Mainstream critics are frustrated with its strangeness, but religious press critics are finding some value in this low-budget, imaginative, uneven independent work.

"[This] intriguing film wrestles with heavy issues—death, loss and grief—in an imaginative way," says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service), "but its opaque narrative, freighted with surreal imagery, fogs the movie's underlying message: that despite its transience and unavoidable pain, life is ultimately worth embracing."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "The picture sometimes feels a bit slow … it could have trimmed about 20 minutes. The scenery is beautiful, and the music and sound design are also apt and impressive." He also writes that Small "doesn't shy away from issues of death and dying. One of the most enduring themes of the film, however, is the notion that one must believe in something before he or she can see it."

Bill Fentum (Reporter Interactive) says the film is "a little too surreal for its own good." But he concludes, "If The Dust Factory's reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, a story that dares to broach these subjects with young viewers is more than enough compensation. Beautiful Pacific-Northwest locations, a fine musical score by Academy Award-winning composer Luis Bacalov, and a quiet, very satisfying final scene only add to the film's pleasures."

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Buechner, meanwhile, is simply a conversation with the title character. On the first day of the war in Iraq, Rob and Molly Collins sat down with one of their heroes—the writer and ordained Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner. The cameras rolled, and the result is a thought-provoking conversation with the writer of Godric, Son of Laughter, An Alphabet of Grace, and many other novels and classics of Christian thought.

In this context of tension, profound questions, and longing for peace, the Collinses share their questions and Buechner, clearly familiar with the themes, muses spontaneously and offers anecdotes from his experiences. He suggests that God is speaking to us through everyday occurrences and subtle details, just waiting for us to notice him and learn to listen. The film does not make any pretense to be about the writer's life or to explore his literature. It feels almost like a home movie about two readers' privileged hours with the man who has profoundly enriched their lives.

Here, Buechner's answers only scratch the surface of issues he has explored in-depth in his books, and we could certainly ask for a film that offers more background on his history, his many and varied publications, his influences, and other writers, artists, and Christian leaders he has inspired. Further, Buechner's casual blending of Buddhist sensibilities with Christian philosophy may seem unsettling to some (although it will be inspiring to others).

But Buechner can serve as an excellent conversation piece for Christians at home, at church, or with neighbors. It can also give curious moviegoers their first taste of his personality and views, which might lead them to some of the most rewarding reading of their lives. Watching the Collins' work, it's easy to see that they would find nothing more rewarding than to know that their work coaxed viewers to try out Buechner's writing for the first time.

For more information on the Buechner DVD, visit the official site.