Criticizing everything he sees, including his children, Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels)—the lead character in Noah Baumbach's new film The Squid and the Whale—is a monstrous egomaniac.

To make things worse, he's also a teacher, whose feverish condemnation of cultural "Philistines" doesn't stop him from neglecting, resenting, and verbally abusing his wife Joan (Laura Linney). Nor does it stop him from flirting with a student who worships him (Anna Paquin). And for all of his apparent insight into human nature, his fierce competitiveness and judgmentalism—in everything from literature to Ping-Pong—sets a dangerous example for his two sons, Walt and Frank (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline).

Walt, the eldest, admires his father's authoritative nature and emulates him. He's a brash, dishonest, sneering cynic-in-the-making, and he's all too eager to use and abuse women just like Dad does. Twelve-year-old Frank, on the other hand, is weary of his father's punishing expectations, and he's growing into a monster of a different order. Confused by the trials and changes of adolescence, traumatized by his parents' sexual affairs, and speaking in their expletive-laced language, Frank begins developing a variety of bad habits, including a sick form of vandalism at school. Only an affable tennis instructor (William Baldwin) seems likely to provide an alternate example for these young men—and that is depressing indeed.

The Squid and the Whale tells this dismaying story through Walt's perspective, drawing us into a realistic tale set in 1970s Brooklyn, where a house built on selfishness is collapsing on itself. Deftly fusing both comedy and tragedy, the film joins The Ice Storm, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (which Baumbach co-wrote with Wes Anderson) as one of the strongest recent features about the far-reaching consequences of adultery and divorce.

Jeff Daniels delivers his most accomplished performance in this film, one that should earn him more lead roles and the kind of credit he has long deserved. His comic timing makes Bernard's foolishness funny at times, but ultimately devastating. Laura Linney (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) gives a complex, heartfelt, and convincing performance here as a mother whose needs are so neglected, whose desires so reckless and uncontrolled, that she ignores the needs of her children and plunges into dissatisfying affairs. Jessie Eisenberg and Owen Kline are also utterly convincing, bringing Walt and Frank to life with such skill that it's easy to believe they're out there in the real world, lost souls still searching for counsel, guidance, and love. The saddest thing of all—there are so many young people just like them.

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My full review is at Looking Closer.

"For all its unpleasantness, the film is a cautionary tale about an overly permissive upbringing and the fallout of divorce," writes Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service). "It is also mordantly funny, and poignant in its sad truths." But he adds a strong caution about this R-rated film: "The amoral behavior of the narcissistic, literary parents (though shown to have negative consequences) and the relentless barrage of expletives and open discussions of sexual matters—though realistic for some—will turn off many viewers."

Andrew Coffin (World) was turned off by the film, saying it "strips what sheen may still exist from divorce … Mr. Baumbach, viewers sense, is being brutally honest in Squid and must find the experience somehow cathartic. But justifying the time any of the rest of us would spend with such profoundly unsympathetic characters is a task far beyond this reviewer."

Yes, the Berkmans' behavior can be extremely unpleasant for viewers. Baumbach's story is told with autobiographical passion and searing candor, whether or not he ever experienced joint custody himself. But there are notes of compassion in the midst of the grief he communicates through the tone of his storytelling.

Because it candidly tells the truth about sin and consequences, The Squid and the Whale is not easy to recommend; it's far from a "feel-good" movie. But it is a powerfully well-made work of art that can help those who have had similar experiences see through the emotion and the damage to discern the roots of such evil, and hopefully choose a better path for our own relationships. It can provide a point of discussion with neighbors, who perhaps have not considered the impact of infidelity and parental neglect. Further, it can also help those of us who have never experienced such dysfunction to find compassion for those caught in similar storms.

Thus, I would argue that The Squid and the Whale is one of the best films of 2005, just as Ang Lee's The Ice Storm was one of the finest films of 1997. Mainstream reviewers seem to agree, hailing it as one of the best films ever made about divorce.

Apolitical Jarhead: Unfair to soldiers?

Before last week's opening of Jarhead, film critics and political bloggers seemed ready for a fight. Many expected the new film from director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, The Road to Perdition) to be an attack on U.S. intervention in Iraq, with grim depictions of American soldiers misbehaving and despairing.

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Surprise! Most critics agree it's not an "anti-war" movie. In fact, many are bewildered by the film's lack of agenda either way. In his adaptation of Anthony Swofford's bestselling wartime memoir, William Broyles Jr. has altered the tone somewhat. Thus, this version of a Marine's experience in the first Gulf War shows us little more than a bunch of soldiers sitting around waiting for a chance to use their weapons and agonizing over the infidelities of their lovers back home.

The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum wonders if Mendes is "appealing to the antithetical preferences of both pacifists and warmongers. I suspect the warmongers lured in by the trailer will walk out disappointed and the pacifists will come away confused." In The New York Times, A.O. Scott says the film "walks up to some of the most urgent and painful issues of our present circumstance, clears its throat loudly and, with occasional flourishes of impressive rhetoric, says nothing." Other mainstream critics echo these misgivings.

Religious press critics are similarly divided as to whether the film is worth seeing or not.

"Thanks to its poignancy and expert crafting, Jarhead could become a classic war drama," says Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies), adding that it does not fit typical war-movie molds. "This is not John Wayne. The day isn't saved. And there's no political discussion about whether the U.S. should be in a war with Iraq, or in any war at all. Instead, the film pointedly moves past those issues and focuses on the reality that in any war, there are people who wage it. … What do soldiers experience mentally? What is it like to war for a living? How does it color you for life?"

Tom Neven (Plugged In), who served in three infantry units in his seven-year Marine Corps experience, says the movie is misleading. "I never encountered a unit remotely as dysfunctional or undisciplined as the platoon portrayed in this film." He laments that the film gives the impression that American soldiers are "foul-mouthed, sex-crazed, homicidal maniacs and that their wives and girlfriends back home are unfaithful harlots just itching to hop into the nearest bed. After all, they have the 'word' of an actual former Marine." He admits, "Sure, there are some Marines who curse a blue streak, and some are obsessed with sex. Some of the immoral goings-on in this movie ring true … But the overall picture … is a large, deeply dishonest lie."

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The decidedly apolitical script … is full of raw language, which, while perhaps reflecting the reality of barracks banter, is—for a film—excessive." He continues, "At times, you feel the film is an indictment of the absurdity of war and its desensitizing psychological effects. But then it seems to approvingly revel in the chest-thumping, guts-and-glory machismo on display." He agrees with Neven regarding the soldiers' portrayal: "[M]ost come across as obscenity-spewing berserker warriors, fueled by raging testosterone and bloodlust, a stereotype which does disservice to the well-adjusted men and women who serve in the military with honor."

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) also argues that the film is an exaggerated and disrespectful portrayal of U.S. soldiers. "For those reasons alone, Jarhead would be difficult to recommend, but because the film offers little else to set itself apart from superior films about wartime malaise and political incoherence … it's an easy call. The film's only contribution to the genre is evermore explicit violence, language, and sexuality—elements that are, sadly, far too common in the most frivolous fare today."

Chicken Little cute, but no classic

In their first attempt to compete with Pixar and DreamWorks as a studio producing feature-length, computer-animated films, Walt Disney Pictures hoped to lay an egg—a golden egg—with Chicken Little.

There's good news and bad news for the "Mouse House." The good news: The film earned more at the box office than any of Disney's traditionally animated films since The Lion King. The bad news: It didn't earn nearly as much as the latest animated projects from Pixar and DreamWorks.

The New York Times was among many sources ridiculing the poor bird, calling the movie "a hectic, uninspired pastiche of catchphrases and cliché s, with very little wit, inspiration or originality to bring its frantically moving images to genuine life. Not to be Chicken Littleish about it, but our children deserve better. … Chicken Little joins Shark Tale, Robots and Madagascar as the latest evidence that technical novelty is a cheap—or, rather, a very expensive—substitute for good storytelling and memorable characters."

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Christian press critics weren't terribly impressed either.

Carolyn Arends (Christianity Today Movies) says the film has "a fun, hyper-realized cartoonish look—more Roger Rabbit than Nemo—and director Mark Dindal … manages to throw in some neat new tricks. Unfortunately, the story is not nearly as innovative as the animation." So, is it a good movie? "The most accurate answer might be to say it's a pastiche of several good (and not so good) movies." She notes elements that have been used earlier, and better, in films like Shark Tale, Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius, and the popular cartoon series Recess.

Matt Mungle (The Phantom Tollbooth) says Chicken Little "resembles a straight to video project or extended Saturday morning cartoon rather than a major release. And that is a shame because it had potential, but just never took flight. The relationship between Little and his dad is a little too deep for younger viewers and not sellable for adults. You will get the point of course but they never drive it home in a way that is relevant or thought provoking."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) notes the film's slogan—"The end is near"—and comments, "If the movie is any indication of things to come, that just might be true for Disney's storied reign as the gold standard of animated entertainment. … Sadly for the mouse house, this Chicken is a bit of a turkey."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) notes the lessons of the original childrens' tale: "Don't overreact and jump to conclusions … and don't spread rumors." That's different from the lessons of the film, he notes, which are about "believing in your kids and courageously facing the future." He says the film is "much more appropriate for the middle school set than it is for grade schoolers. There's enough madness and mayhem here—not to mention that whole sky-really-is-falling thing—to make me want to warn parents and teachers not to jump right in with all of the kiddies."

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says, "Though Chicken Little provides a great opportunity for family discussion about communication, trust, and unconditional love, its mix of heavy themes and alien chases should categorize it as 'wait for video.'"

Mainstream critics are not very pleased.

Great Gatsby dumbed down to a G

Remember that part in The Great Gatsby where the hip-hop mogul throws a huge house party in the Hamptons? No?

In G, director Christopher Scott Cherot has put an unlikely spin on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel by turning it into a tale of a journalist (Andre Royo) who becomes entangled in a mess of philandering and jealousy.

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David Dicerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a tepid updating of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age classic. … Despite a solid performance by [Richard T.] Jones, the low-budget movie is weighed down by a flat, melodramatic script riddled with decidedly un-'G'-rated dialogue."

Mainstream critics are rating G at about a C-minus.

More reviews of recent releases

The Legend of Zorro: Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) lowers the boom. "After the high standard set by the original, The Legend of Zorro ranks among this year's biggest disappointments. Other than the action, the one thing that keeps the film halfway watchable is Banderas and Zeta-Jones, who still have charisma and chemistry to spare … More precisely, it's a 'funny family action film' in the Fantastic Four mold—that is, a movie whose key qualification as kid entertainment is that it isn't good enough for grown‑ups. Too bad. Our kids deserve better. For that matter, so do we."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say Zorro "has morphed into a caricature of his former self," and yet the movie "is supportive of the importance of family, the need for commitment to marriage and the need for fathers to care for their children."

The Weather Man: Gabe Spece (Relevant) writes, "Ultimately, The Weather Man is one of those movies that will divide crowds. Some will find the story of a man striving for something better to be invigorating. They'll say it's a movie bold enough to say that sometimes life sucks, and we have to pull from the wreckage something valuable. But others, maybe those who have seen the whole mid-life crisis scenario played out better in films like About a Boy and American Beauty, won't be so moved by a recycled character's fight for redemption."