Film Forum took a holiday last week in order to relax, enjoy a Thanksgiving feast, and count many blessings.
This week, as a direct result of taking time off, Film Forum is buried under piles of freshly fallen movie reviews. Yes, winter is here, and this your super-sized, post-Thanksgiving edition, featuring reviews of seventeen movies.
When Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden on account of their sin, they lost access to the Tree of Life. And things have been tough all over ever since. But what would happen if we gained access to the Tree of Life again?
The Fountain, a new film by Darren Aronofsky, tells three love stories—all of them starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz—in which lovers struggle with the reality of death. And while the movie avoids the subject of sin—and, in fact, barely even acknowledges God's part in all of this—it does offer us a rare big-screen example of a romantic, happy marriage and some thought-provoking portrayals of how we react when reminded of our mortality.
Fans of thought-provoking science fiction, dazzling visuals, and stories of passionate love may find themselves transported by Darren Aronofsky's film. Some Christian film critics are rating it among their favorites for the year. One Christian media personality has hastily written it off as a "New Age piece of propaganda," but that's far from the case. No, Aronofsky's storytelling demonstrates what C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien knew so well—that myths and religions around the world exhibit traces of the truth, revealing that all of us have the same longing for redemption, and all of us have eternity "written in our hearts." Further, it encourages us not to spend our lives in a frantic attempt to escape death, but to instead respond with love.
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) writes, "Genesis references notwithstanding, The Fountain is a syncretistic mishmash that never addresses core biblical teaching about humanity's sin and our need for a Savior." He concludes that "violent imagery, harsh profanity and a sexually suggestive scene may well render The Fountain's confusing spiritual and philosophical meandering moot."
Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) says that viewers might find it "baffling, pompous, and preposterous," or they might find it "stunning and spellbinding." Nevertheless, he was mightily impressed. "Ultimately, The Fountain analyzes our perceptions of death, and our perceptions of life. … [It's] a brilliantly conceived and executed artistic vision."
"Is The Fountain a movie worth the time and effort that Aronofsky put into it? Absolutely," raves Matt Wiggins (Relevant). "This isn't a movie that everyone will love, however. It requires engagement and patience by the viewer. … For those prepared for a brilliantly profound mixture of story and visual, The Fountain will undoubtedly be the best film of 2006."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the film is "poignant and confusing, but the visuals are striking and the unifying themes of love and mortality provide for some thoughtful reflection on the way death helps delineate our humanity and give our lives meaning."
Mainstream critics are divided, some thrilled and inspired, others shaking their heads in bewilderment.
The last time Tony Scott directed Denzel Washington, moviegoers got the violent revenge thriller Man on Fire, in which an American hero captures and tortures the foreign villains with reckless abandon.
This time, in Dé jé Vu, the two cook up more high-energy entertainment, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. This time, Washington plays an agent working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He's a brilliant investigator, but he may not be prepared for the deeper, more complicated waters of his next case, which leads him into a tangled path that wanders back and forth through time.
Steven D. Greydanus (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The filmmakers spin a slick, engrossing yarn and ratchet up the suspense effectively, but eventually they write themselves into a corner. At some point, they must choose between one ending that follows from everything we've seen, and another ending that gives viewers what they want. Neither is fully satisfying."
He concludes, "If it isn't the brilliant film it could have been, Dé jé Vu still contains enough flashes of that film to make it entertaining while you're watching it. On reflection, though, it feels a bit like a shell game in which the conjuror himself has lost track of where the pea is supposed to be."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a smart and sufficiently engaging sci-fi flavored mystery, despite some wormholes in story logic."
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) writes, "Dé jé Vu wants to be lots of things: a ripped-from-the-headlines, sci-fi, love story, terrorism-themed police action/thriller. … Is it just too much to sustain the story? Sure. Does it all unravel if you think about it too hard? You betcha. Was I on the edge of my seat most of the time anyway … ? OK, yes."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says it's "not a profound work, nor is it head and shoulders above the filmmakers' earlier projects, but Dé jé Vu may be the first film from either man to demand a second viewing—not only because of the complicated plot, but because of the existential issues it raises about God, man and foreordination."
"[W]hile Dé jé Vu might not be high art, it proved to be an interesting and entertaining movie," says Michael Brunk (Past the Popcorn). "I don't think you'll be disappointed."
Mainstream critics are offering a mix of responses—some found it "engaging," others call it "preposterous."
You've probably heard that, while the name and the number are the same, James Bond, a.k.a. 007, has changed.
In Martin Campbell's latest James Bond adventure, Casino Royale, there's a new actor in the lead—Daniel Craig. Craig will be an unfamiliar face to many, but he's been lurking in the background of many popular films. Recently he appeared in Enduring Love, Infamous, and Steven Spielberg's Munich, and he played the troublesome son of Paul Newman's gangster in The Road to Perdition and an assassin monk hunting Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth. Craig gives James Bond some surprising new dimension. He's more likely to make mistakes. He has a heart, and is fully capable of falling in love. And he's not as preoccupied with sensual pleasure as he is with catching the bad guys.
While the film begins with enough chase scenes and death-defying stunts to fill two action movies, the pace slows as the film progresses, requiring us to turn our brains on instead of insulting our intelligence.
Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) says it "twists and turns through espionage, crossings and double-crossings that gets too convoluted and goes on for about 20 minutes too long. But it's excusable because Casino Royale gives us so much that the Bond franchise has longed for: credibility, actual human drama, maturity, intensity and great unpredicted surprises. … [It's] fun and often laugh-out-loud funny. The film isn't action-centered, loud and explosion-focused. But there are still three incredibly exciting and impressively executed action sequences that—surprisingly in a day where we've seen it all—offer some action bits we've never quite seen before."
"Casino Royale certainly introduces the Bond character better than any of the previous movies," says Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily), "and it offers much hope for the franchise."
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says, "At a time when we can be reasonably sure there really are guys out there licensed and eager to kill in the name of country—whether justified or not—Bond seems less naturally heroic and more morally culpable for his actions than ever." He concludes that the story is "far better," but the result is "less outright 'fun' than previous incarnations."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says the new Bond is "gritty and real—but is that what we really want? … Casino Royale's realness might be a bit much to handle." She adds, "The movie's worldview is basically biblical in its extolling of bravery and diligence in overcoming evil, but the tools used are overweening violence and adultery, which dilute the message."
Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, "For Bond fans, I'd suggest seeing Casino Royale with an open mind. For non-Bond action film fans, I'd suggest the same. … For fans of just plain great filmmaking, though, I'd say cast your net a bit wider. Haggis' script is pretty savvy and self-aware, Campbell's direction is competent, and Craig's Bond is very compelling; but the whole affair is pretty transparent nonetheless. There should be better cinematic opportunities over the holidays."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Some fans will applaud its harder-edged return to the grittiness of Ian Fleming's novels. Others may feel it's too dark and serious, and lacks the sense of campy fun of earlier films."
Mainstream critics are enthusiastic about the new Bond.
Emilio Estevez takes a turn as director for Bobby, a film celebrating the life and convictions of Robert F. Kennedy. And he has a lot of talented actors helping him out—from Anthony Hopkins to Elijah Wood.
But according to most Christian film critics, Bobby is not nearly as inspiring as a film about RFK should be.
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says that none of the film's many subplots are very impressive, "but together, they add up to a remarkable portrait of a particular time and place … . We also come to realize that it is in the lives of individual people—as individuals and communities—that ideals are ultimately lived out or betrayed, and the moment of Kennedy's assassination is remarkable for how it puts all that came before it into a new perspective, one that even sees opponents coming together out of a renewed prioritization of their own shared humanity. Bobby may not make the case for its messiah as much as it would like to, but on its own terms, it is a reasonably moving portrayal of a society in need of salvation."
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says that the film's "rambling, purposeless storylines and stereotypical characters … ultimately disappoint."
"Bobby is less concerned with its title character than it is with teaching 1960s history," says Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk). "What we get is a 'highlight reel' of late-sixties turbulence set to the most obvious period songs imaginable … . The film's biggest surprise is that the end result is so banal."
Mike Smith (Past the Popcorn) says it's "an inventive but embarrassingly sentimental re-enactment of Bobby Kennedy's assassination. … [The film is] a slow moving, syrupy quasi-sermon about what made Bobby Kennedy great in the minds of those who knew him."
Taking a different approach than the majority, one Christian media personality seized this occasion to attack Bobby Kennedy directly, saying that his message amounts to "empty political platitudes." And he claims that the movie will "lead many people astray, morally, politically and theologically" with its "false Romantic, Neo-Marxist liberal ideology and … rhetoric." He begs us to protect our "family, friends, children, church, [and] country" from this movie.
Mainstream critics manage to focus on the movie itself, and they're not terribly impressed.
Animated? Check. Cute talking animals? Check. Singing and dancing? Check. Wisecracking characters voiced by celebrities? Check. Clearly, Happy Feet has what it takes to be a box office smash.
But is it any good? Yes, according to most Christian film critics.
Some religious media personalities are convinced that Christians don't want to bother with a story that suggests human recklessness might have a negative effect on nature. One such personality warns us that the movie has "very strong environmentalist content," "New Age pagan sentiments," and "political propaganda."
But most Christian film reviewers are happy to recommend it to families.
Ron Reed (Christianity Today Movies) acknowledges that there are "a clutter of themes and subplots that suggests the screenplay was written by committee," but overall, he's is impressed: "Combined with a cinematic beauty reminiscent of March of the Penguins and a roster of genuinely funny, vividly drawn characters, Happy Feet will be a winter season smash. It's flawed … but it's fun … a tremendously entertaining mess."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "entertaining, if at times surprisingly dark … . Visually, Happy Feet ranks among the best of the recent crowd of computer-animated movies, with a realism … that is truly amazing." He agrees that the story explores "too many weighty themes."
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says that the penguins' wintry wonderland is "both bone-chilling and beautiful. It also boogies down a path that kids' movies have just about worn down into a rut: Be true to yourself. Gratifyingly, although that theme has been hijacked in recent years by (anti)social agendas, the film doesn't appear to boast any banner other than, 'Friendship and love can overcome any difference.'"
Christa Banister (Crosswalk) praises the "stunning visuals and songs straight from the pop culture vault. … It's these theatrical elements, not to mention a witty screenplay and some of the best animation I've seen in a while, that ultimately make the film enjoyable for kids and adults alike."
Mainstream critics are noticing that director George Miller, who brought us The Road Warrior as well as Babe and Babe: Pig in the City, has once again given us surprisingly ambitious entertainment.
Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation is a non-fiction exposé on the many and varied problems with America's fast food industry. And director Richard Linklater, one of the most versatile and talented American filmmakers working today, has turned that study into a web of stories that emphasize those flaws.
Christian film critics have mixed responses.
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says the movie at times "threatens to become a mere animal rights tract. In its final moments, the film depicts the actual stunning and slaughter of cows, but without any of the problems that the film has spelled out for us (e.g., we never see the meat get contaminated by feces leaking out of the intestines). It is as though the film expects us to be shocked not only because, as several characters say, 'There is s--- in the meat,' but because there is meat in the meat."
Michael Brunk (Past the Popcorn) says, " … [T]he movie provides a laundry list of society's ills without a single solution in sight. I can't imagine anyone leaving the theater feeling anything other than helplessness and frustration. Maybe this was the goal."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "By the time you've finished watching Fast Food Nation you will surely think twice before biting into that next Big Mac or Whopper. … [The movie] is an absorbing, albeit bleak, multiplotted expose excoriating the fast-food industry for its dangerous, unsanitary and exploitative working conditions … ."
Mainstream critics are similarly divided over Linklater's latest.
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, directed by Steven Shainberg (Secretary), is a speculative fiction about Diane Arbus's famous career as a photographer. But according to most critics, that fiction falls far short of profound.
Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, "As much as Shainberg is a fan of Arbus' photography—as much as he was steeped in it as a child—his film communicates nothing of its power, nor of the power of her method. Where Arbus let her images speak for themselves, including all the rough edges, Shainberg must spell things out for us, stripping away every last layer of fur to lay bare the beauty beneath—and hammer us over the head with it."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "cinematically inventive" and says, "Some may take … issue with such embroidering of reality, but as the film is based on Arbus' biography (the only one thus far) by Patricia Bosworth, who also co-produced the film, one must assume a reasonable degree of emotional, if not factual, authenticity."
Mainstream critics aren't going "fur" it.
Director John Whitesell may have a talented cast of comedy veterans—including Matthew Broderick and Danny Devito—but he doesn't have a worthwhile Christmas movie. Deck the Halls is getting snowballed by Christian film critics.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says Whitesell "fails to generate much holiday cheer [with this] comedy which, though containing enough Christmas lights to trim the fabled Rockefeller Center tree 10 times over, delivers only low-wattage laughs."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "Why we're still going to this same well year after year after year I'll never understand. … Christmas should be the least trivial and the most jolly holiday of the year. So why do the movies that 'celebrate' it so often seem to reverse the adjectives?"
Christa Banister (Crosswalk) says, "[I]ts hare-brained premise is neither heartwarming, particularly original, or funnythree essential components for a holiday comedy. … [L]et's just say that it almost makes Chevy Chase's campy Christmas Vacation or Ralphie's quest for a Red Ryder BB gun in A Christmas Story seem Oscar-worthy in comparison."
Jeff Walls (Past the Popcorn) says, "In its first forty-five minutes or so, Deck the Halls shows flashes of a becoming a delightful Christmas treasure. … The movie's second half, however, falls flat as the rivalry between Steve and Buddy turns childish and virtually humorless. Meanwhile, it is all building towards one of the all-time cheesiest endings, in a genre that is known for its cheesy endings."
If you look hard enough, you'll probably find some religious media voices claiming that all of this amounts to a "spiritually uplifting" film.
Mainstream critics can't find anything to celebrate here.
Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny will bring in fans of Jack Black, Kyle Glass, and their HBO comedy show "Tenacious D." But neither their outrageous rock-'n'-roll antics nor their crass comedy are impressing critics.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The sophomoric semi-rock opera's 'message' about friendship and following one's dreams is overpowered by a cacophony of vulgarity, irreverence and raunchy lyrics."
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "[T]eens drawn to this particular brand of 'hilarity' will get from it a whole lotta nothin'—and in the process ingest perverse sex gags, profane language and pointless, sometimes violent posturing."
Some mainstream critics are enjoying the tongue-in-cheek humor of the whole thing.
Some moviegoers would be happier in prison than sitting through Let's Go to Prison. That's the impression critics are giving in their reviews about the new comedy starring Dax Shepard and Will Arnett. Some are comparing the movie to the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor comedy, Stir Crazy—as a way of saying that it falls short of that mark.
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says it's "more sinister and vindictive" than Stir Crazy. "In addition to having no one to root for in this sophomoric, antisocial time bandit, Let's Go to Prison trots out one lame gag after another that will only appeal to disenfranchised, incarcerated or intoxicated audiences. Lazy writing and mean-spirited humor are the rule here."
Mainstream critics want everyone connected with this film locked up.
More reviews of recent releases
Deliver Us from Evil: Sister Rose Pacatte F.S.P. (Eye on Entertainment) calls it "The most difficult film I have ever watched," and adds, "We share the pain of these good, faithful believers who, unknowingly, allowed a snake into their homes."
The Departed: Sister Rose Pacatte F.S.P. (Eye on Entertainment) says, "This film is a testament to just how infested human societies can become with rats, both large and small, old and young. … I wouldn't be surprised if The Departed … doesn't gain an Oscar for Scorsese, at last, and another nod for DiCaprio, who is brilliant as the conflicted good cop."
Stranger Than Fiction: Santosh Ninan (Relevant) "Ferrell explores new acting ground in this film … . Stranger Than Fiction is a more dramatic piece with the aid of some comedic elements. Ferrell fans are in for a surprise; he is understated and effective in this role.
The Last King of Scotland: Sister Rose Pacatte F.S.P. (Eye on Entertainment) says, "Forest Whitaker's stellar embodiment of the despot [Idi Amin] chills, convinces and deserves Oscar consideration. Scottish director Kevin Macdonald has crafted a masterful tale of Africa, calling us to pay attention to this suffering, emerging Third World land."
The Queen: Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) says the film's portrayal of Britain's royalty "is fascinating and one that will raise both feelings of sympathy and sadness. … The Queen reminds us to be careful what you wish for when you want to 'live like a queen.'"
Babel: Josh Allan (Relevant) says, "One could watch this film and see depression and hopelessness, but I saw beauty and connectedness. Maybe [it] isn't about a distinction between communication and love; maybe it's saying that communication is love."
One Night with the King: Sister Rose Pacatte F.S.P. (Eye on Entertainment) calls it "overly costumed, unevenly acted and ideologically flawed."
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.