Fans of C. S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe spent so many years hoping that someone would turn it into a feature film, that we may not have considered what might happen once it became just another offering at the multiplex. Now comes the inevitable parody: a crass spoof featuring Fred Willard and Jennifer Coolidge (both veterans of the American Pie movies and Christopher Guest's mockumentaries) as vulgar stand-ins for Aslan and the White Witch.
The film is called Epic Movie even though many of the movies it mocks—including Nacho Libre, Snakes on a Plane and Borat—would not qualify as "epic" by most definitions. This movie was not shown to critics before it came out and topped the charts last week, but a few intrepid Christian critics reviewed it all the same.
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) writes, "There are times I'm sure many Christians wish C. S. Lewis was still around to comment on what he might observe in our deteriorating culture. After seeing Epic Movie, however, I'm glad he's not here to witness how his beloved Narnia has been so sadly—and needlessly—perverted. … I'm sure the film's creators will dismiss inevitable criticism—from those who care about Lewis' story in particular—claiming it comes from stuck-in-the-muds who just don't have a sense of humor. But the funny thing about Epic Movie is that it's neither epic nor funny. It feels twisted for the sake of being twisted. It shocks for the sake of shock. It's like a clueless adolescent who tells a dirty joke over and over again, not realizing (or not caring) that it was never funny in the first place."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) dismisses it quickly: "Directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer elicit few chuckles amid a mostly witless slog of sophomoric slapstick and lowbrow humor, amounting to an epic waste of time."
So far, the mainstream critics who have bothered to see the film have all given it a thumbs-down.
Joe Carnahan made a good impression five years ago with his gritty, serious cop movie Narc. His newest film—Smokin' Aces—also concerns cops and criminals (and assassins, and bounty hunters, and neo-Nazis, etc., etc., all coming after a single Las Vegas magician), but this time he plays it for violent laughs in a style that many critics say reflects the influence of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie.
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) describes the film's graphic scenes of torture, violence and sexuality, and calls the movie "depraved," "convoluted and ultimately pointless," before summing it up: "Lots of crooks. Lots of subplots. Even more senseless, unwarranted violence, sex, language and drug abuse. And in the end, not a single person we really like, much less care about."
Michael Brunt (Past the Popcorn) says the film's two biggest themes are loyalty and betrayal, and concludes, "It's not a perfect vehicle, and you do have to suspend a little disbelief with the timeline and the idea that these larger-than-life hit men can move through society without being noticed. Still, it's a small price to pay if you're a fan of highly stylized crime-action movies. You certainly won't get bored watching."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) adds Sam Peckinpah and John Woo to the list of directors whose styles may have influenced this film. He says the film, "though intended as camp, is nevertheless just videogame-style brutality surrounded by a convoluted plot. Even more troubling is the way the murderous, if absurdly over-the-top, mayhem is presented with a hip veneer."
Mainstream critics say this is one smoke where there's no fire.
Catch and Release stars Jennifer Garner as a woman who discovers that her recently-deceased fiancé was keeping some pretty big secrets from her—so she rebounds by sleeping with one of his promiscuous best friends while hanging out with a couple of his other buddies. The ensuing "romantic comedy" is neither very romantic nor very comic (apart from Kevin Smith's supporting role as one of the buddies); perhaps "romantic dramedy" would be a better word?
Carolyn Arends (Christianity Today Movies) likes the performances but finds the movie a mixed bag, partly due to the fact that director Susannah Grant, the Oscar-nominated writer of Erin Brockovich and In Her Shoes, is still finding her feet as a director (this is her first movie behind the camera). Arends writes: "There are several false endings, robbing the final acts of their emotional payoff. And, like so many other Hollywood films, physical intimacy is used as shorthand for emotional intimacy, over-simplifying relationships and complicating ethics. Perhaps this is an accurate reflection of the way sex is used in many real-world relationships, but it would be nice to see a portrayal of love developed another way."
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) looks back to an earlier era, in which movies showed how people overcame problems by developing strength of character, and then contrasts that with this film, in which people sleep around and nobody really minds because, well, nobody wants to judge. "That narrow, narcissistic point of view," he writes, "is what tends to muddy up Ms. Grant's inconspicuous little movie that tries to be about love and loss and love again. … [O]n The O.C. it would make perfect sense to happily and gratefully bounce from a cheating guy to a promiscuous one. But in real life, all Gray would be asking for is more pain."
Mike Smith (Past the Popcorn) finds the film's idyllic, hippie-ish acceptance of promiscuity superficial and unbelievable: "The director does almost nothing to help us understand the relationships that develop. Motivation is non-existent. Moods never seem to change. Grief is muted, joy is muted, life goes on and doesn't change a thing. And soul-searching never enters this film's lexicon. The dialogue doesn't address the philosophical issues the film raises—it blithely assumes the answers are obvious: What the heck; we all live in a moral cocoon of anticlimax and communal openness. You may be an ogre and a liar. But you look pretty cute, and I need someone right now. I guess you'll do."
Christa Banister (Crosswalk) says Garner's smile, "which she flashes constantly," can't "make up for the film's weak script," or for the implausibility of her character falling in love again so soon after her fiancé 's death: "In what could've been an insightful commentary on the grieving process, the writers wasted an opportunity by creating unbelievable characters in a by-the-numbers comedy that's devoid of any substance."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) finds the film "dour, slow-moving" and says it "lacks a consistent tone."
Mainstream critics, having caught the film, have thrown it back in the water.
As Dion and the Belmonts might have put it, "Why must I be a werewolf in love?" Blood and Chocolate was made by the producers of Underworld, and just as that film featured a Romeo-and-Juliet style romance between a vampire and a werewolf, Blood and Chocolate stars Agnes Brucker as Vivian, a Romanian werewolf who falls in forbidden love with … a mere human being.
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says the movie has potential but doesn't always live up to it: "The real drama of the story is Vivian's struggle to come to grips with her animal and human sides. … Director Katja von Garnier, unfortunately, doesn't help us struggle with her, setting up the possibilities but falling short and relying on tired monster-movie cliché s and silver bullets to wrap things up."
Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) is not a big fan of the film—or the genre to which it belongs—but he appreciates its restraint, offering "kudos to von Garnier and company for doing something a little sweet, new, and restrained with the genre—and for attempting to remake the genre as one of hope and reconciliation rather than one of pure nihilism. Sadly, genre fans will likely wish there were less chocolate here, and more blood."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "While relatively restrained in terms of sex and gory violence, director Katja von Garnier's 'Lost Boys'-with-fur doesn't work as a love story or a thriller, and despite its nocturnal Bucharest backdrop and some modestly stylish sequences the overall effect is bland. The actual werewolf transformations are hokey and the script is saddled with corny dialogue like, 'Ask the animal that's inside you; she will teach you.' It's enough to make Lon Chaney Jr. howl … with laughter."
Mainstream critics aren't biting.
Now that Pierce Brosnan has gotten James Bond out of his system, he's getting good notices as the lead in Seraphim Falls, a Western set after the Civil War, in which Brosnan is pursued by Liam Neeson for reasons that only slowly reveal themselves.
Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "We don't know who Gideon is. Or why he's being chased. Or even if he's the good guy or bad guy. Instead, we are seeing only the action. Someone is after him and he must run and kill to survive. … The film's camera work and scenery is impressive. And anyone will appreciate what is clearly one of Pierce Brosnan's best performances." But he finds the film gets too "bizarrely surreal" in the end, which takes a long time coming.
Jenn Wright (Past the Popcorn) says the movie didn't work for her because "there's no real sense of good or evil or any moral foundation. … The pacing of the film is, to be frank, its greatest flaw. A chase fueled by vengeance should include some tension, some apprehension, but this chase evokes an overwhelming sense of tedium."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls the film "a downbeat, post-Civil War chase saga with some artsy surrealistic flourishes thrown in for good measure," and concludes that, although "the resolution is admirably moral (with strong messages about forgiveness and ending violence), everything feels either strangely familiar or oddly contrived."
Mainstream critics are mixed, but they seem to indicate it's the best of the week's new releases—though that isn't saying much.
More reviews of recent releases
Alpha Dog: Josh Allan (Relevant) writes, "When it comes down to it, though, for me this movie was all about choice. I've come to believe that what we might call 'decisions' are actually the inevitable result of thousands, if not millions, of seemingly meaningless, trivial choices. We, in a sense, destine ourselves to the future of our own choosing by the stops we make along life's highway. The tragedy of Alpha Dog does not lie solely in the bad choices made—though they are there as well—but in the horrific lie of the group mentality that choice is not yours to make."
Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) reviews the film from a unique perspective—as a former pastor to one of the men depicted in Nick Cassavetes' troubling film about young criminals. He gives it only one star, but writes: "The message of the film is clear as it is stated by Sonny Truelove in the opening 'interview' by the filmmaker: it is all about parents.If we do not protect our young from this culture then we will see more violence perpetrated by soulless 'alpha dogs' somewhere."
Family Law: Mike Smith (Past the Popcorn) writes that this Argentinian film "is a wholesome Woody-Allenesque film about guy stuff" in which director Daniel Burman addresses "the transitions from son to father, and father to grandfather. He believes, and I agree, that these are things that men need to talk about with other guys—friends, priests, fathers, sons. … Family Law is enjoyable because it is paced in such a way as to allow it to become your story, and the dialogue is under-written to great effect—clever but also exceedingly mundane sometimes. Its sparseness adds luster to the story as we can visually see the introspection behind the thoughtful lines."
In addition, a few Christian movie sites have been catching up with slightly older films that were nominated for Academy Awards last week.
Letters from Iwo Jima: Brett McCracken (Relevant) writes that the question driving Clint Eastwood's Best Picture contender is "when is death (and in a larger sense, violence) honorable? It is a question that has come up in other places in recent cinema, like in United 93, which pit terrorists' notions about jihad honor against western values of life at all costs. … Clint Eastwood, through the film cycle of Flags and Letters, is taking our 'pro-life' notions and throwing them in our face—asking us if we really do value life as much as we claim."
The Queen: Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) calls it "a quiet, profound, and even gently amusing film that accomplishes the unlikely. It builds empathy for an emotionally distant monarch and a (currently) buffeted politician by following them through a difficult week. … Morgan and Frears could easily have turned the royals into a kind of a joke, exaggerating their out-of-touch comments and mannerisms for comic effect. Instead, they play every character with great restraint and even with what you might call affection, allowing their biggest revelations about the nobility and banality of a monarchy in the modern age to be discovered in the smallest movements."
Half Nelson: Critics have raved about the film, and about Ryan Gosling's Oscar-nominated performance as a drug-addicted teacher in particular, but Kenneth R. Morefield (The Matthews House Project), who compares the film to Leaving Las Vegas, is skeptical: "Despite its good intentions, the film had a hard time reeling me in. I was curious about the logistics of Dan's addiction—how he managed his habit as long as he did. There was also something about his suffering that felt dishonest; it's all too existential, glossing over the squalor that increasingly accompanies giving oneself over to despair or depravity."
Jesus Camp: Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says of this Oscar-nominated documentary, newly released on DVD: "Most critics insisted after the theatrical release that the documentary was 'very balanced'—especially after Fischer herself reportedly said that it was an accurate representation of her camp.It's clear, however, that everything from the creepy score to the choice of a liberal (as opposed to an evangelical) commentator were intended to sway the audience against this kind of teaching. … 'Jesus Camp' will likely drive home not only the polarization between believers and non-believers, but also how truly splintered we are as Christians today."
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