When Indiana Jones climbed into an airplane 25 years ago and escaped a throng of spear-throwing tribal warriors, he discovered he wasn't the only passenger. Coiling at his feet, a boa constrictor hissed a hello.
"There's a big snake in the plane, Jock!" Indy shouted to the pilot, hysterical.
Smiling, the pilot assured Indy that the fellow with the forked tongue was just his "pet"—Reggie—and there was nothing to worry about. Sure enough, Jones survived, and went on to face far more dangerous snakes, escaping unscathed every time.
But I would imagine that even the most accomplished snake handler would squirm at the thought of being trapped on an airplane with a snake on the loose. And what if there were dozens of snakes? What if there were more than four hundred?
So, it's no surprise that when the aptly (asp-tly?) titled Snakes on a Plane opened this week, theaters across the country filled with screams. But, thanks to director David R. Ellis, there was a lot of laughter as well. The cast—including Hollywood's favorite tough guy Samuel L. Jackson, and Juliana Marguiles of TV's E.R.—takes things over the top, and almost anything that could go wrong on that airplane does go spectacularly wrong.
Thanks to the Internet, the movie was a cult classic even before it opened. (One website challenged us to come up with the best sequel idea; suggestions included Kittens on a Kayak and Sharks on a Rollercoaster, but my favorite was Walrus on a Conveyor Belt.) And, according to film critics, the film may not be a classic, but it apparently delivers sufficiently on its promise of madness, mayhem, thrills, and chills. The hilarity has inspired some of them to compare Snakes on a Plane to Arachnophobia and Gremlins.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) recommends you see it "in a crowded theater, or at home with a group of friends while making Mystery Science Theater 3000-styled remarks. … The pacing is skillfully executed, but it's familiar B-movie territory that goes over-the-top with intentionally gratuitous scenes played for laughs and shock value."
And he concludes that it's "one of the best bad movies ever made. It's certainly not a first-rate thriller like The Birds or Jaws, nor is it trying to be. Rather, this is a loving tribute and quasi-parody of B-movie conventions … though it is unquestionably more adult and vulgar than those movies, to the thrill of some and the chagrin of others. … Make no mistake, this movie is trash, but it's meant to be, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't also a lot of fun."
Other Christian film critics are quicker to dismiss the film as unacceptably gratuitous.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says the film's "setup" is "wildly improbable, and it's a wonder that the capable cast … can deliver some of their lines with a straight face. Yet, to the film's credit, the premise is undeniably original, and the movie is never dull."
But he adds that "the frequent expletives and occasional sexual elements … are quite objectionable, all the more for being so gratuitous."
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) calls it "sadistically obscene."
Mainstream film critics, meanwhile, are divided, but most agree that it's "neither as good or as bad as you hoped it would be."
Film critic Steven D. Greydanus has pointed out that the plot of The Illusionist is, in a way, similar to that of The Princess Bride.
It's about a man who falls in love with a woman who becomes engaged to marry a rich and powerful prince. Thus, he must use every trick in his book to ensure that true love wins the day. But instead of challenging the prince with a sword, Eisenheim the magician (Edward Norton) employs some impressive hocus-pocus in order to win the heart of the lovely Sophie (Jessica Biel).
Director Neil Burger has adapted Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," and the result is impressing some critics.
Writing for Christianity Today Movies, Greydanus notes, "Some viewers may see through the plot's central illusion early on; others may be as fooled as most of the characters. On a fundamental level, though, The Illusionist succeeds: While the storytellers are at work, the spell holds."
Greydanus concludes by praising the cast and director. "The film's best effects … are Norton's compellingly enigmatic performance and [Paul] Giamatti's considerable sympathy and charm in a somewhat compromised role. Their scenes together are the best thing about the film, which also benefits visually from sumptuous Prague locations standing in for 1900s Vienna. Burger's direction mirrors Norton's performance; it is calm and unrushed, but never boring."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "a grippingly atmospheric romantic tale. … We won't spoil the plot, with its several Hitchcockian turns, but suffice it to say, things go awry, and writer-director Neil Burger lets the compelling tale unfold beautifully. … This is cinematic storytelling at its best."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says, "The Illusionist makes no claim to be a Christian allegory, but Christian viewers will be hard pressed not to pick up on the similarities between certain elements in the life of Christ and the story of Eisenheim … a stage magician. Those similarities, however, are echoes, not strict parallels, and The Illusionist is, in the end, a very well acted telling of a familiar story: a contest between a lovelorn protagonist and a reprehensible villain for the hand of a beautiful maiden."
But he argues that, despite the film's stronger points, it all amounts to "a tepid love story. … Rather than contemplate deeper issues, the story elects to focus on a villainous cretin and his quest to control another person. We've seen this before, and despite the nice performances, the period setting and mind-bending stage tricks, a warmed-over feeling about the plot persists."
It may be all about "sticking it to the man," but Steve Pink's directorial debut Accepted is really sticking it to the moviegoer.
Justin Long (Dodgeball) stars in this sophomoric comedy about a slacker who responds to college rejection by creating his own "university" with a bunch of his friends. It's a rallying cry for outcasts, but the critics aren't happy about it.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says that Pink "stealthily wraps the film's subversive nonconformist and anti-authority message in lighthearted, if lowbrow, satire that would seem to extol benign themes of acceptance, self-determination and creativity, and of following one's dreams."
"Most troubling … " he concludes, "is the underpinning notion that young minds must be liberated from the shackles of the traditional model of higher education, which supposedly stifles self-expression, and they must be free to do their 'own thing.'"
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) writes, "It wants to be about rebels who fight authority and scream that the rigid structure of formal education is at odds with the passionate flow of unencumbered creativity. But that point is so absurdly presented and paper-thin that even Uncle Ben, as drunk as he usually is, would find it hard to hold onto. Mass drunkenness, fresh-faced sexuality and excremental anarchy are far easier to spot."
Mainstream critics aren't impressed either.
Hilary Duff and her sister Haylie star in Material Girls, a movie that many are calling contradictory. The Duffs play the young, airheaded inheritors of their father's cosmetics company, and the movie is full of product placement and fashionable costumes, selling the very lifestyle it pretends to critique.
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) calls it "bouncy," "upbeat," and "even relatively restrained when it comes to sex, drugs, skin and sleaze." But he has a problem with what seems to be a contradiction. "The point behind Material Girls is supposed to be: Money doesn't buy happiness. … But though our heroines do learn a little about the value of friendship, it's difficult to wholeheartedly accept the 'money vs. happiness' lesson from a movie that ultimately reinforces a nation's obsession with the tabloids' treatment of idle celebrity."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) finds that this "breezy satirizing of celebrity superficiality is undermined by a lame script and irritatingly ditzy performances by the sisters, who shed their squeaky-clean image somewhat to appeal to a wider audience."
Mainstream critics don't unanimously condemn it the way they did Zoom, this month's other dismal "family film," but it's still tough to find anyone who recommends the film.
Matt Dillon has played a lot of outsiders. In Factotum, he plays Henry Chinanski, a veteran of bar fights, drunkenness, lost jobs, and ill-advised romances—a character created by writer Charles Bukowski.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says that character won't appeal to many moviegoers, even though "Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer captures Hank's desolate world with uncompromising exactitude, but the film's pacing is, to put it charitably, deliberate at best. … While [the characters'] behavior is reprehensible across the board, the film presents it as such, without glorification. But the unrelenting ugliness of the story and language, strong sexual elements and overall amoral behavior of its protagonists—despite the film's literary pedigree—will seriously limit its appeal."
Mainstream critics are divided. Some praise it as one of the best adaptations of Bukowski's work, others find it too slow and monotonous.
More reviews of recent releases
Little Miss Sunshine: Josh Hurst (Reveal) calls it "a movie so filled with compassion and grace that it just might be the year's most inspiring film anyway. … It's the best ensemble cast all year, and each one of them totally nails the performance. … It's a hysterically funny film. It's also touching, shocking, and full of surprises. And most importantly, it's redemptive. Loving your neighbor isn't always easy, and the film doesn't settle for easy or sentimental answers. So while it's not family-friendly—the R rating should be taken seriously—it just might be the best family comedy of the year."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) admits that the big finale of the Hoovers' story moved him to tears. "I was rooting wholeheartedly for them to come out on the other side as better people and as a more intact family."
But he has trouble with a lot of what went on along the way. "There's no denying that life is sad and ugly and funny, sometimes all at once. So it's not my task here to debate Carell's and Berger's statements. What is my task is dealing with whether such truthfulness should be used as an excuse to fill up a film with better than 50 profanities and obscenities. And depictions of illegal drug abuse. And exhortations for teens to have as much sex as they possibly can."
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