Bennett Miller's film Capote should encourage a resurgence of interest in Truman Capote's writing, especially In Cold Blood. Capote's notorious, groundbreaking "nonfiction novel" chronicles his investigation of the murders of a family of four in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959, and Miller's film examines the events that led to the volume's publication.

At first glance, the story of an artist with compassion for prisoners would seem like a story of Christian virtue. And Capote, as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, certainly demonstrates compassion for Perry Smith, the killer he befriends during his visits while researching a story for his next book.

But Miller's film is not a tale of virtue. As Capote interviews Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.), cozying up to him in his death-row cell, he loses his way. With the support of The New Yorker, which serialized his story, Capote gains Smith's confidence through lies, even as his affection for the man complicates his feelings and his work. And ultimately, he exploits him, driven by an ego swollen with the praise for his previous work. Haunted by the nightmares of his childhood, Capote was a man who kept his troubled heart concealed. His mind was an enigma, but his talent was undeniable. Viewers will respond with conflicting feelings about the man as they watch his fascinating fluctuations between pity and pride, sympathy and selfishness.

Hoffman, who has earned critics' praise for performances in films such as The Big Lebowski, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Almost Famous and Punch-Drunk Love, takes on this difficult task and succeeds brilliantly, completely transforming himself into a bold and eccentric character with a voice like an infant's whine and a hunger for the spotlight. He's given strong support by Bruce Greenwood, and Chris Cooper, and Catherine Keener, who plays Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Miller has directed a film that deserves high honors.

It's already being praised by mainstream critics as one of 2005's best films, and Hoffman deserves the Academy Award nomination he's likely to earn—he may even win. But screenwriter Dan Futterman should also receive recognition for penning a rare and provocative work that asks us to consider the ethical challenges that many artists and journalists face.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "Miller's sobering film masterfully recreates the early 1960s … Hoffman does a spot-on impersonation of Capote, and paints a picture of a man whose vanity and frivolousness often get the upper hand. It's far from an approving portrait … For a while it seems the film might be painting too sympathetic a picture of the culprits, especially Smith. But even as Capote warms, or seems to warm to him, we're given enough of a balanced picture so that we can plainly see Smith is far from a wounded puppy. Capote is one of the best adult films of the year, and Hoffman a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination."

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J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) offers a different take: "I like In Cold Blood so much that I found the movie frustrating. Rather than explore the impact that the book had … Capote is a by-the-numbers portrayal of the artist's lot in life, complete with triumphs (a standing ovation!), disappointments (people like Harper Lee better than me!), and emotional breakdowns (more booze!). Those who haven't read the book might find this enjoyable despite its banality, and everyone will appreciate Hoffman's brilliant turn, but trust me when I say the book is better."

They came, they Saw II, they wrote bad reviews

This week's box office champion was, unfortunately, Saw II. Yes, with the opportunity to see fine works of art and splendid entertainment, America instead chose to watch human beings chopped up into lots of blood-splattered pieces.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes that this sequel "follows the original's lead in conceiving ever more twisted ways to kill and maim while packaging torturous cruelty as shock entertainment."

Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) writes, "Skip the original, and skip this sequel. No one needs to see this."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) speaks for many when he writes, "It's hard to imagine topping the vile content of the original Saw, in which blood gushed as freely as water over Niagara Falls. Yet somehow—somehow!—the makers of this entirely unnecessary sequel have managed to do it … How filmmakers can justify celebrating such an onslaught of gore and violence is fundamentally baffling. Equally so is the willingness of people to pay money to see it."

Mainstream critics are also hacking Saw II to pieces.

Steve Martin falls for a Shopgirl

While Steve Martin's many fans grumble about many of his recent, disposable, creatively bankrupt choices (Cheaper by the Dozen 2, anyone?), the famous comedian continues to make unconventional choices from time to time. In this stage of his career, he seems more interested in writing novels and plays than in pushing himself as a film star. And that may be why his performance in Shopgirl is getting so much praise—his character is his own invention, straight from the pages of his own novel.

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Director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) guides Martin, Claire Danes, and Jason Schwartzman through this artful, if dissatisfying, comedy about a young woman torn between an aging romantic and a younger suitor.

Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) says, "While the book is a well-crafted exploration of the psychology behind complicated relationships, the movie turns out to be more of a mood piece that, aside from a few short pieces of narration, leaves the audience to largely draw its own conclusions as to what motivates the main players."

"Tucker does his best with this material—and achieves the intended bittersweet tone—but somehow it all feels patently unreal," writes Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service). "Despite a feel-good ending, and (presumably) a morally sound resolution, the ethical choices made by these characters—all in the name of the story's theme of 'the quest to find connection'—are dubious. Beyond that, strictly as entertainment, Shopgirl lacks momentum."

Mainstream critics' reviews amount to a collective, "Meh."

The Weather Manis "a feel-good downer comedy"

The preview for The Weather Man shows actor Nicolas Cage playing the title character, braving the elements with an umbrella in hand, and suffering a bombardment of projectiles from disrespectful citizens. It certainly looked like a zany comedy.

But critics inform us that Gore Verbinski's "comedy" is a dispiriting affair. As Cage's character suffers a midlife crisis, struggling to accept what his life has become, he begins to fight back in various and awkward ways, trying to find a new perspective. The results are less than profound, and most would rather see Verbinski's next film—the sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean, coming in July '06.

"The Weather Man is sort of a feel-good downer comedy, if there can be such a thing," writes Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). Comparing the "emotional ambivalence" of the film to the works of Alexander Payne, he adds, "Just as we never quite know whether we're laughing with or at the characters in Sideways or About Schmidt, so too we never quite know if we're supposed to identify with the consistently depressed and melancholic characters who populate The Weather Man, or feel superior to them. But [the filmmakers] don't quite trust us to settle for this, so they fill the script with important life lessons and nudge the story toward an arbitrarily upbeat ending."

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Chrisitan Hamaker (Crosswalk) writes, "The Weather Man … is one of the strangest Hollywood studio concoctions to be thrust upon the public in some time. The film boldly peels back the veneer of material success, showing the existential emptiness that affects so many today, but falters badly by embracing these trends and the fractured society they have helped produce."

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "The Weather Man might best be described as a tragedy fueled by heedless secularism … The movie does offer a redemptive message … But that positive theme is still quite shallow and hopeless as it's stripped of a faith-informed worldview … The other dose of rain and sleet in The Weather Man is how it is so thoroughly battered by a storm of profanity and graphic, demeaning representations of sex—both visually and in several sequences of shocking dialogue."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it "starts out as simply depressing, but spirals into something more thoroughly cheerless. The Weather Man aspires to the sort of angst-chic quirkiness of independent movies by filmmakers such as Charlie Kaufman, David O. Russell and Alexander Payne, but its arrow falls well short of the mark, like those of its sad-sack protagonist … With its excessive profanity, shapeless script and trite message that life, like the weather, is highly unpredictable, those little breaks of sunshine are hardly worth suffering through the film's overwhelming cloudiness."

Todd Patrick (Christian Spotlight) has a half-dozen ways to say how much he hates this movie. He calls it "R-rated trash. It is a depressing look at a dysfunctional man and the completely dysfunctional world around him. It's not funny … This is Hollywood entertainment at its worst. In my view, there is nothing redeeming about this movie at all. I urge Christians to keep their hearts and minds far from it."

Mainstream critics find this one to be a bit too chilly.

Zorro stoops to "Home Alone antics"

Comparing The Legend of Zorro to its predecessor, 1998's The Mask of Zorro, The New Yorker calls the sequel "busier, sloppier, less coherent and more frantic." Other mainstream critics agree.

Director Martin Campbell has apparently come up short this time around, in spite of the chemistry between his two superstars, Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

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The Mask of Zorro "had character, dignity and personality," recalls Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Moves). "But this sequel removes its sense of restraint and stoops to lowest-denominator attempts at entertaining. It is still a big, fun-loving adventure caper, but it's just not at the same level of action, amusement, story or acting. The movie replaces a captivating story with Home Alone antics (bad guys falling on their crotches and landing in cactuses). In only two movies, the Zorro franchise has gone from being a rousing throwback to old Saturday afternoon westerns to being a Saturday morning cartoon. That the two movies were both directed by the same man, Martin Campbell, is mind-boggling."

Is it better or worse than the original? David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it "lacks the freshness of the original and the plot is rapier thin, but as popcorn fare goes it deserves to be rated 'Z' for zestfully entertaining." He praises "the spirited chemistry between Banderas and Zeta-Jones, whose verbal fencing skills have remained saber-sharp."

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says, "In spite of its uneven tone and ridiculous plot, a lot of things about this film feel old-fashioned … old-fashioned bad guys, an old-fashioned climax on a speeding train, and an old-fashioned feeling that the good guys will win and everything will be OK. Legend also earns cheers for its ultimately heroic family themes. … But that's not to say it's a complete winner for families." He goes on to list various concerns that parents should note before taking the family to see it.

But Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says, "Zorro is a movie with everything to offer during the fall family entertainment season:adventure, romance and heart."

Prime implies that "love is about taking, not giving"

After her comical turn in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Meryl Streep is winning laughs again for a comedic turn in director Ben Younger's comedy Prime. Streep plays a middle-aged therapist who is dismayed to learn that one of her patients (Uma Thurman) is dating her son.

But a talented cast does not a great movie make, as reviews from Christian critics demonstrate.

Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) says, "While the movie isn't prime, it's a small cut above your average Hollywood romance. Throwing realistic, thought-provoking obstacles at our lovers and showing growth in their character over the course of the relationship gives it a tad more depth than the typical chick-flick fluff. But ironically, this therapeutic romantic comedy ultimately suffers from too many unexplored issues."

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Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "a generally amusing, if at times morally problematic Manhattan-based story." He's bothered by "everyone's casualness about the affair." But he's pleased that "the affair at least very quickly morphs into one with real love and affection … and the bittersweet ending is admirably realistic, with Rafi ultimately doing 'the right thing.'"

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) calls it a "sexually permissive story full of bed-hopping and noncommitment. In some regards, there is a sweetness to Dave and Rafi. In an incidental way, both want to help each other along at their stage of life. Both are somewhat willing to overlook differences for the sake of love … [But] for both Rafi and Dave, love is about taking, not giving. It's about what you can do for me."

Meanwhile, mainstream reviews are a mixed bag.

Avoid avoid Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

In Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, writer and director Shane Black casts Robert Downey, Jr. as a thief who blunders into a film audition and, amazingly, walks away having won a role in the picture. To prepare for the role, he gets help from a private detective (Val Kilmer). And before long, dead bodies begin to accumulate.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) issues a strong caution about the film. "Fans of noir classics like Double Indemnity or The Big Sleep should be warned … that this film is full of graphic violence and bawdy humor—much of it revolving around Perry's homosexuality—and the kind of obscenity-riddled dialogue that would give Mickey Spillane pause." He praises Downey and Kilmer for their chemistry, but concludes that "from a moral standpoint, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang shoots blanks."

At this writing, no other religious press film critics have published reviews, but mainstream reviews are mostly positive.

3 Wise Men short on wisdom

In 2003, a Spanish production created by veteran Disney animators arrived, embellishing the Christmas tale of The 3 Wise Men. The movie has now been dubbed in English and released by Buena Vista on DVD, distributed exclusively to Wal-Mart stores.

You would think a professionally produced film about the three wise men would be an excellent choice for family entertainment during the holidays. But alas, Peter T. Chattaway—who also reviews films regularly for Christianity Today Movies—says on his personal blog that the film falls far short of being gift-worthy.

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"The film is so bad I don't know where to begin," blogs Chattaway (FilmChat). He goes on to list the film's many flaws, including "the absolutely non-Christian but oh-so-Disney message that we should always follow our hearts (because our hearts are never, ever wrong)."

More reviews of recent releases

Good Night, and Good Luck: I've posted my full review at Looking Closer. I was impressed by Clooney's technical achievement as a director, and David Strathairn's lead performance as Edward R. Murrow is very impressive. But Clooney, in his zeal to portray the politicians as liars and Murrow as a saint, misrepresented what really happened in several cases, and this tarnishes his integrity and weakens his message, which is, of course, about telling the truth.

Andrew Coffin (World) says it's "not a bad movie, but it is most certainly bad history. Mr. Clooney's exercise in hero worship … was clearly devised not as a history lesson but as a modern parable to indict a variety of favored targets of the left."

But J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) sees things quite differently. "Good Night, and Good Luck is a film that resonates so strongly that it's difficult to judge in its own time … We might not know the full impact or quality of Clooney's film for several years. I do know, though, that it is staggeringly relevant and one of the most important films of the year."

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story: Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says this family film starring Dakota Fanning and Kurt Russell is "the latest in a line of recent horse films like Seabiscuit and Racing Stripes, though Dreamer is tonally much more like the former—and just as satisfying."

North Country: "The first two thirds of the movie is compelling if predictable," writes J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth). "But the courtroom finale is hokey and manipulative … We even have a moment right out of A Few Good Men. I half expected someone to start barking, 'You can't handle the truth!'"

But Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) rave, "The gripping and realistically touching sequences between Josey and her father and her son are worth the price of admission. North Country is one of those films that should be repeatedly shown in high schools everywhere. It is as important a lesson in American history as any war ever fought."

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: My own review is up at Looking Closer. Nick Park's film is full of frivolous comical delights, innocent enough for the whole family, but sophisticated enough to make it worthwhile for the most seasoned cinephiles. But fans of the original, shorter Wallace and Gromit films might be a bit disappointed. In the shorts, fast-paced action was balanced with simple, nuanced interplay between the characters. Were-Rabbit pauses occasionally along the way, letting the characters' enchanting personalities glow. But most of the time it's too busy, too eager to amaze and to get us laughing. This stands in sharp contrast to Pixar's films, which are characterized by patient character development and rich storytelling to match their technical wizardry. Here's hoping that if Wallace and Gromit return, they have a stronger, richer storyline.

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