In 1977, Obi-Wan Kenobi praised Luke Skywalker's first step of faith in something called "the Force," an invisible power that "binds the galaxy together." He said, "You've taken your first step into a larger world."
For many of us, watching that groundbreaking epic was our first step into a larger world indeed. The special effects, the mythological references, the spiritual ideas, the cliffhanger adventure, the allusions to Akira Kurosawa—it was a fascinating hybrid. You may have grown up with Star Wars toys, books, cereals, posters, and videotapes. (My own favorite pieces of Star Wars memorabilia … a battered old lunchbox and a die-cast model of Darth Vader's TIE fighter that I assembled, glued, and painted myself at age 7.)
Could it be that George Lucas is somewhat responsible for the current surge in Christian media film coverage? A decade ago, there weren't many Christian press film critics writing regularly. Now they're everywhere. A colleague of mine speculated that, since many of this new crowd of Christian critics are in a similar age range, it's possible that Star Wars had something to do with our choice of subject. After all, the trilogy arrived while many of us were young and impressionable. The saga's tendency to provoke conversations about spirituality and the nature of "the Force" inspired many of us to begin engaging with film in a whole new way.
Thus, many of us—including Christian press film critics—greet Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith with a mix of enthusiasm and sadness. The circle is now complete, and there's joy in seeing so many varying pieces fit together, completing the trilogy and answering most (but not all) of our nagging questions. There's joy in seeing the narrative seeds planted that develop into that beloved story of the Rebellion versus the evil Empire. And there's sadness in finding ourselves without another Star Wars film to anticipate. Let's face it: there's nothing like the thrill of that moment when the 20th Century Fox fanfare gives way to the classic John Williams theme. There's nothing like the sight of a Star Destroyer as it engulfs the screen or the sound of Darth Vader's menacing breath.
So, how is Episode Three? Does it continue the sub-standard dialogue and political intrigue of the previous prequels? Does it recapture the high-stakes action and compelling characterization of the original trilogy? Are there any real surprises?
While many Christian media will deliver their reviews starting today, here are a couple of second opinions from earlier in the week.
Peter T. Chattaway (CanadianChristianity.com) opens with some measured praise for the animation and the improvement in performances. But then he opens fire for a sustained attack on Lucas's storytelling. "For all the talk of 'democracy', this Star Wars film is actually less interested than any of the others in the lives of ordinary people, and the romantic dialogue is, of course, laughably bad. Revenge of the Sith proves once again that Lucas has no idea and little interest in how real people relate to one another. Lucas is as tin-eared and ham-fisted with spiritual seduction as he is with the romantic kind. Revenge … marks the first time Lucas has really shown a person 'converting' from one side of the Force to the other, but he never pulls it off."
He concludes, "The prequels have robbed the Star Wars universe of much of its mystique."
Episode Three has a similarly dramatic effect on Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). "I was an enthusiastic proponent of both [prequels, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones]. Only now, with the saga finally complete, do I fully appreciate in retrospect the extent to which the opportunity of the first two films was squandered. Yes, I admit it: I was wrong. The failure of Episodes I and II undercuts the power that Revenge of the Sith could have had. Revenge of the Sith is the first of the prequels that echoes elements in the original trilogy in such a way as to enhance the original films."
Greydanus also offers an impressive overview of the entire saga, demonstrating the Eastern ideas portrayed in Star Wars and how the series seems to contradict itself on key points.
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "I don't think I can boil my response … down to one word. But I can get it down to just two: satisfying and violent … Indeed, the violence in Revenge of the Sith is not kids' stuff. And it's actually gory enough that it may have adult viewers—me among them—wondering whether it really had to be so vicious."
Frederica Matthewes-Green (a Christian writer and film critic writing for National Review Online) says, "The outline of this story is Shakespearean, and Lucas handles it to satisfaction. This film … is a melancholy moment in the overall story. In a way it's a quiet movie—a small film that focuses closely on one man's fall. That's where it's excellent. From many other angles, it's not so great: It lacks the color and energy of the first few films, doesn't have the range of interesting characters, and the love interest is utterly flat."
Mainstream critics are at war. Most of them find this to be one of the best Star Wars films, but some are opening fire as if determined to bring Lucas's Star-ship the ground—including one (Peter Travers of Rolling Stone) who said, "Wear blinders. Cover your ears. Because that's the only way you can totally enjoy Revenge of the Sith."
We'll include more Christian critics' reactions to Sith in next week's Film Forum.
It's not hard to imagine the conversation when somebody pitched the idea for Kicking and Screaming to Universal: "What if you put Will Ferrell as coach of a youth soccer team, and—" "We have a deal!!"
Ferrell is, to quote one of his own characters, "so hot right now." Last year's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was a hit. He's in Woody Allen's latest—Melinda and Melinda. He'll be in the upcoming Bewitched, a comedy called The Wedding Crashers, an animated version of Curious George, a remake of Land of the Lost, and there's talk of Elf 2. In Kicking and Screaming, he's the coach of his son's soccer team and taking these young bad news boys up against a rival team coached by … his own father (Robert Duvall).
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Granted, originality is not one of the film's stronger suits. But the big game in Kicking & Screaming is only part of the story. The familial relationships and themes of inspiring confidence are more central to the story. They add a new dimension to the final game, thus making it somewhat more unpredictable. This isn't just a movie about lovable losers trying to prove themselves. It's also about the difference between winning at all costs and having fun. This is the rare live action comedy that's appropriate for the whole family and still funny. Though predictable, it's well executed, with the actors and filmmakers coordinating like a championship team … and having fun in the process."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "When I heard that the director of the raunchy, R-rated comedy American Wedding was at the helm, I feared we'd get a distasteful movie full of foul-mouthed children—The Bad News Bears in cleats. Not so. These are decent, generally respectful kids whose innocence plays beautifully against Ferrell's manic insecurity. Unlike comics with an aggressive swagger and no fear of retaliation, Ferrell's bombast always contains hints of an exit strategy. It makes this suburban dad … vulnerable and easy to sympathize with."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it "offers a humorous critique of our hypercompetitive culture. But beyond its breezy 'winning isn't everything' moral, the film imparts a more serious message about parental approval and the long-term emotional damage that can result when such validation is withheld. However, [it] deserves a penalty flag for its inclusion of a vulgar running gag involving Buck's double-entendre sales slogan that is hardly appropriate for a 'kid-friendly' movie—though most of the objectionable elements will, like a soccer ball, probably bounce over youngsters' heads."
"[Director Jesse] Dylan does the best thing possible with a weak script," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "He turns the cameras on Ferrell and tries to stay out of the way. The result is a barely passable but sometimes amusing family comedy."
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) isn't pleased at all. "If all you're looking for is a film without objectionable content that you can take your kid to see, and you don't care a whit about the message, this is it (with a few completely gratuitous exceptions). Otherwise, I'd run kicking and screaming out of this one."
Josh Hurst (Reveal) says that Ferrell has "a talent that can redeem even the blandest movie from formula hell. And so he does in Kicking and Screaming. Duvall's great, too, and Mike Ditka manages not to embarrass himself, but what's surprising is how little we actually see of the kids. Though the story belongs to them, the movie belongs to Ferrell; some moviegoers might be disappointed by that, but rest assured that, if there were any less Ferrell here, the movie would sink under its own load of tired sports movie clichÉs."
Mainstream critics aren't getting much of a kick out of it.
Danny (Jet Li) has been conditioned to work as a human attack dog, and when he's Unleashed, you'd better watch out. But this martial arts movie aspires to be about more than action. It's about a hyperviolent hero who yearns to escape his cruel past and become a peaceful, free human being. Of course, in order to break free from his current life, he'll have to do a lot of damage.
Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Unleashed begins with an intriguing, if unfulfilled premise. It could have been an interesting film for teenagers who are wrestling with issues of meaning and destiny. It wouldn't have been a great film, but it could have been a fairly good one. Unfortunately, this story of redemption is unnecessarily offensive. It's as though the filmmakers couldn't quite decide what film they were trying to make."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Stylishly directed with an intentional gritty look, themes addressed include the depersonalizing effects of cruelty, the healing power of love, the malleability of young minds for good or evil, and the nature of free will. It is precisely this depth that elevates Unleashed above the standard mindlessness of most action films."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "This might have been a poignant story. Leterrier would have needed a better screenwriter. Besson has loaded this story with improbabilities and absurdities … [and] has also made his characters utterly stupid when it's convenient for the story. Unleashed can be easily summarized thus: Human kindness good. Hatred and violence bad. File under 'Duh!' and save yourself two hours of hokey storytelling and senseless mayhem."
Mainstream critics are divided. Some think it's "a watchable experiment" while others want to put Li back on a leash.
Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) directs Jennifer Lopez and the comeback-actress of the year—Jane Fonda—in Monster-in-Law, the latest in a trend of popular comedies about marriage and in-laws.
Christian film critics are saying Fonda could have chosen a better film for her big-screen return.
Mary Lasse (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "If you miss Monster-in-Law, you aren't missing much. If you want to check out Jane Fonda's return to the silver screen, just make it a rental down the road."
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Monster-in-Law is occasionally funny, but grows increasingly shrill and unpleasant as the battle between Charlie and Viola escalates. Add in some forced, crude humor (when did it become acceptable to use an obscene gesture as a stand-in for the one taboo profanity in a PG-13 rated movie?), and Monster-in-Law squanders what little appeal it may have held."
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says, "Those who catch [Fonda's] much-hyped return to the big screen will be nearly united in their disappointment with Monster-in-Law. It's not for lack of trying. Fonda plays her whacked-out TV diva/mom so far over the top, most of the other actors seem to be standing still. In fact, she's just too far over, delivering a grating, manic performance I kept wishing director Robert Luketic had turned down a notch or two. Add to that an above average amount of crude sexual content for a romantic comedy, and it's tough to scare up any good reasons to catch this Monster movie."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "No one will be mistaking the humor of Monster-in-Law as being that of a sophisticated wit. It's as subtle as a slap in the face … an event which occurs repeatedly in the film. The film … relies too heavily upon cheap jokes, crude humor and the appeal of its stars. Only the latter gets anything close to a passing grade. The script by Anya Kochoff is barely passable—a formulaic, wafer-thin story that is as implausible as it is predictable."
"I can understand Jane Fonda's desire to return to the big screen, after a 15-year hiatus," Ananbelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says. "But did she have to pick this movie for her big comeback? The plot of Monster-in-Law is nothing more than a female version of Meet the Parents or Father of the Bride. And it had great potential, playing off a cliché that sadly is more often true than not. But instead of amusing antics, we get tired truisms."
Fonda's comeback distresses many mainstream critics. One writes, "Fifteen years absent from the big screen, and this is what Jane Fonda comes back to? Catfights with J. Lo?"
Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) directed this action film before directing the second version of the recent Exorcist prequel, The Beginning. But Mindhunters, which stars Christian Slater, Val Kilmer, Patricia Velasquez, and L.L. Cool J., is finally here. And it's likely to disappear quickly … just like that Exorcist prequel.
Mindhunters follows FBI trainees performing exercises on an island, and what happens to them when they discover one of their colleagues is a serial killer. It's like Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians all over again, as the trainees are bumped off one by one. Who's the killer? Or, perhaps a better question: Who really cares?
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "Mindhunters is not a particularly good film, but it's the sort of movie that you might enjoy watching in a dorm with your college buddies. There's nothing particularly deep about this film—and Harlin's efforts to jazz things up do occasionally go over-the-top, as when he sets a blood-analysis montage to an absurdly rhythmic beat—but moments like this are the sort of thing that keep late-night video parties buzzing."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says it's "excessively violent. None of the characters is particularly appealing (intentional?), and you may find yourself rooting for which one gets knocked off next. There is a twist at the end, but after so many red herrings the payoff is only mildly surprising."
Mainstream critics have readers "good review hunting." Good luck with that.
More reviews of recent releases
Kingdom of Heaven: Nate Murray (Relevant) says the movie "fails as a war epic but succeeds in raising important questions about interfaith relations. Especially considering the incendiary times in which we live, the historical setting of the Crusades reminds us that the great faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have a long, interwoven history. There have never been easy answers to how such faiths can coexist."
Crash: Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The strength of Crash rests in [screenwriter Paul] Haggis's readiness to allow for depth of character even in unattractive people, and his willingness to admit that racial distrust and hatred is born out of a complex web of rationales and experiences. However, he's so single-mindedly focused on race that racism exists almost entirely as a cause, not as a symptom—where it could be usefully seen in the larger context of fallen human nature."
Brett McCracken (Relevant) says, "When it comes down to it, Crash wrecks its chances of having the same impact of other provocative race films (like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing) by trying to be too much. It tries to be exciting, sad, surprising and life-changing. It tries to sell a world in which every interaction is somehow race-related or a 'crash' of cultures. It is a world too hyperbolized to believe and less attuned to real human interaction than to archetypical Hollywood versions of it. Still, despite its imperfections, Crash contains important human truths and questions that need to be asked."
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