The Constant Gardener closes the summer movie season with an unusually challenging thriller. The film is based on the popular novel by John le Carré and directed by Fernando Mereilles, whose acclaimed debut City of God earned him an Oscar nomination.

The title refers to the central character—British diplomat Justin Quayle(Ralph Fiennes), a man who likes to garden and stay out of trouble. But when his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an activist working in Kenya, is murdered, he ends up digging into the dirt of corporate greed and its consequences on the weak and the vulnerable.

Christian critics generally praised the movie's merits.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says the film is "more of a political message delivery system than a movie. It is also extremely well made. And unlike, say, The Interpreter … this new film knows how to put its craftsmanship to the service of its message, which is fierce and focused throughout. Many political thrillers use the travails of the so-called Third World as an excuse to show glamorous people doing exciting things, but The Constant Gardener comes at it the other way 'round. Here, the mysteries and conspiracies take us deeper into an African situation which, the film assures us, reflects the reality on the ground."

Dick Staub (CultureWatch), author of Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters, finds wisdom in this film as well. "The Constant Gardener is a must-see film for multi-layered reasons. It is a great cinematic accomplishment combining a truly compelling story, gripping, memorable performances and exotic locations. … It is also a film with a conscience, angry about the abuse of the poor, specifically in Africa, through a conspiracy of governments and mega-corporations, in this case pharmaceutical companies." He exhorts readers to allow the film to "tamper with your sense of calling and responsibility, if not for this specific set of issues, for the ones you are aware of and could personally get involved with now."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) raves, "Fiennes is at his very best, showing how his easygoing complacency morphs into an impassioned activism much like that of his wife. Weisz is appropriately obnoxious in her strident activism, but likable too. Besides their excellent work, there are also solid acting turns by [Danny] Huston, Gerard McSorley, Richard McCabe, Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite. … All in all, this is a quality film with an important social justice message."

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Steven Isaac (Plugged In) writes, "The Constant Gardener takes American moviegoers across the ocean to another place, but more importantly it asks them to step outside of themselves for a few moments and consider the value of lives they rarely consider valuable. Or at best, rarely think about at all. This is a message movie first and foremost, but it injects its agenda smoothly."

Josh Hurst (Reveal) says the film will probably earn Oscar nominations—even some undeserved ones. He says Fiennes and Weisz "deserve 'em. Give one to cinematographer Cé sar Charlone, too. But don't be surprised if the Academy love-fest continues long after that. The Constant Gardener is, in many respects, just the kind of movie that Oscar tends to go ga-ga over: A so-so movie cleverly disguised as a great work of art."

Hurst is right—judging from the reception the film's receiving from mainstream critics, we're likely to see this one remembered at Oscar time.

2046 one of the best films of 2005

Widely acclaimed by critics as one of the best films of 2005, the latest arthouse romance from master filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, 2046, is making its way to selected cities in the U.S. and earning raves. To this date, however, no major religious-press publication has published a review. Here's a summary and some of my own reflections.

After experiencing a fleeting but fulfilling love affair in the film In the Mood for Love, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) now wanders from one romance to another. Thinking back fondly on the hotel room—number 2046—where that rendezvous occurred, he develops a fetish for the number, and moves into room 2047 in a hotel where he can spy on the various women who move into 2046. During his various affairs, he is manipulated, he manipulates, and he wavers between bliss and despair.

Chow's various romances include a flirtatious prostitute (Ziyi Zhang), a mysterious gambler (Gong Li), and a timid writer of kung fu novels (Faye Wong). All the while, he labors over a science fiction novel (set in the year 2046, of course) in which these women manifest themselves as beautiful androids, reinforcing the insufficiency of his indulgence to put his mind and heart at ease.

The narrative of Wong Kar Wai's film is melancholy and ultimately despairing, but it explores a universal theme—that of the longing for Eden lost. In this fractured world, we experience only glimmers of heaven. If we determine to seize that state of perfection by our own power, and seek to glean it from created things, we are doomed to failure and frustration.

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My full review is at Looking Closer. (Note: The film is appropriate only for discerning adults who can navigate a tale of sexual misbehavior and sin without being tempted by the things that lure Mr. Chow into weakness and emptiness.)

Jason Morehead (Opuszine), a Christian, blogs his response to the film, saying it has "a certain aura of mystique" but that it "can also leave one feeling a bit empty, as if the film is nothing more than its style and atmosphere. They are intoxicating to be sure, [but] the intoxication also quickly wears off, and the film becomes quite hard to take due to the rather dim outlook."

Mainstream critics are spellbound by Wong's work.

Mindless Transporter 2 is No. 1

The No. 1 film at the box office, Transporter 2, further establishes star Jason Statham as a formidable action star, even if the movie itself is earning less-than-stellar reviews. The story concerns an American drug lord (Matthew Modine) whose son has been kidnapped, the threat of a deadly virus outbreak, and another opportunity for Frank Martin (Statham) to engage in spectacularly violent hijinks.

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says it's "just as ridiculous" as the first film, "but much less amusingly so. … Jason Stratham's performance is really the only watchable element of the movie. He somehow makes Frank look cool in his uniform of black suit and tie, as well as bringing believability to his odd mix of integrity, emotional anxiety and hard-as-steel determination. It's almost enough to forgive all his action posing. It's not enough to save this near-parody of an action film."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "As far as mindless action flicks go, The Transporter 2 is well-crafted, but its bogus message that carnage is cool is not one that should be transported."

Mainstream critics may not find it a transporting experience, but about half of them found it to be a worthwhile action flick.

Thunder's a big screen blunder

When Ray Bradbury wrote a clever time-travel adventure called A Sound of Thunder, he probably had no idea that Warner Brothers would eventually turn it into a movie so bad that critics would write about their desire to time-travel and prevent it from being made. Director Peter Hyams isn't winning any new fans with this misguided, preposterous picture. And it's a mystery how such talented actors as Ben Kingsley were drawn to the project. A Sound of Thunder has critics complaining about the sound of lunacy.

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Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says the film "definitely bears the imprint of its director, Peter Hyams, whose films—which include The Musketeer, End of Days and Timecop—tend to be dull, pedestrian, and full of exposition. … By the end, you may wish that you could go back and prevent this movie from happening … ."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "There is one thing Darwinists, intelligent design proponents and creationists can all agree on: In the survival-of-the-fittest world of the box office, this movie will quickly go the way of the dodo."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) writes that Bradbury "deserves much better than this movie. Dialogue is silly in places. Pacing is glacial. And viewers are left to ponder plot holes big enough to accommodate several Allosauri. Perhaps worst of all, the special effects are laughable—in a 1950s B movie sort of way—which is unforgivable in an age when moviegoers have been dazzled by the likes of the Jurassic Park series and George Lucas' Star Wars flicks."

Mainstream critics rate it as "a real contender for the worst movie of the year."

Underclassman not so classy

Nick Cannon (Drumline) stars in the action-comedy Underclassman, playing a detective who goes undercover to catch a stolen car ring at an elite private school. Let's leave it at that—the reviews make it clear that most people want this film to disappear as quickly as possible.

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "Thankfully, Underclassman avoids the R-rated raunchiness of those sophomoric flicks. But the trio responsible for it will probably never truly know the meaning of the words propriety and taste, and they seem quite happy to regurgitate every cop movie cliché and plot point they can think of. To their credit, they plug the importance of education and teamwork in PSA-like fashion. It's just too bad they couldn't do it with any kind of style or with any kind of true creativity."

Underclassman earns a failing grade from mainstream critics.

Pretty Persuasion unpersuasive

Having made strong impressions in The Missing and Thirteen, Evan Rachel Wood is earning praise as the big screen's most talented teen actress. But it's unlikely that Pretty Persuasion is going to be remembered for long. This black-as-sin comedy follows a rebellious, egomaniacal high school girl named Kimberly and her porn-addicted father (James Woods) through an unpleasant tale of misbehavior.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) laments, "Pretty Persuasion is anything but pretty. In fact director Marcos Siega's cynical, mean-spirited and unjustifiably raunchy revenge tale makes other dark-edged teen satires like Heathers, Election and Mean Girls look positively cheery by comparison and makes their respective bobby-socked bad girls out to be candy stripers."

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Mainstream critics seem eager to put it behind them.

More reviews of recent releases

Undiscovered: Jamie Maxfield (Plugged In) says it's "96 minutes of middle-of-the-road acting and a worse-than-that plotline. … The real message here is that the only sure way to break into the music industry is to cheat."

The Brothers Grimm: The editors of World magazine write, "The concept has promise, but, as often happens in Mr. Gilliam's movies, the narrative gets gummed up with his labored surrealism. … The movie … has some interesting visual imagery (including gratuitous bugs), but any one of the old wives the Grimm brothers interviewed was a better storyteller."