More and more movies made by Christians, about Christians, and marketed to Christians are opening in theaters every month. Most of them are shrugged off by critics—including members of the religious press—as mediocre (or worse) in their craftsmanship, and as preachy in their storytelling.
Only a handful of recent such films—like The Second Chance—combine excellent craftsmanship with inspiring portrayals of Christian faith. They have impressed viewers with content and with form, showing more than telling, exploring rather than proselytizing.
It begs the question: Are Christian moviemakers taking the best path by sending message-driven movies out to theaters in second-rate packages? Doesn't excellence—or the lack of it—send a message of its own?
The latest of these films, The Last Sin Eater, is earning some praise for its lead actress, 11-year-old Liana Liberato. But is it a step in the right direction for Christian filmmaking?
That depends on which critic you ask. Christian film reviewers are divided over this adaptation of Francine Rivers' novel, which was directed by Michael Landon Jr.
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The film suffers from pedestrian direction, but it benefits from decent performances, especially where its young star, Liana Liberato, is concerned. As a window into an older culture, or an evening's entertainment with the family, you could certainly do worse. Just don't be surprised when the movie starts preaching to the converted—that is, to the fellow believers who will undoubtedly make up the bulk of its audience."
Under a title calling the film "mediocre," Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says she's "uncomfortable" criticizing a fellow Christian's art, but affirms that we must hold each other to high standards. To that end, she observes that Landon is "a bit heavy-handed with his gospel presentation . . . leaving little to the imagination. As a result, non-Christian viewers will probably not enjoy the film."
She adds that there are problems with the production values, the "didactic" dialogue, the pacing, the editing, the "stale" cinematography, the "off-kilter" sound, and more.
But she concludes that "Christian audiences looking for solid teaching about the faith will appreciate this very much, along with the beautiful Utah scenery."
Bob Hoose and Steven Isaac (Plugged In) praise Liberato, and applaud the film for "telling a story about how Christ's redemptive work can set free even the most guilt-beset heart." But they add that "[M]any of Liberato's adult co-stars fail to live up to her potential. And chunks of the script feel as if the writer was working around commercial breaks, not directly addressing more savvy theatergoers whose expectations are rising right along with ticket prices."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) is fairly complimentary, saying it's "rather short on period atmosphere, but consistently holds your interest despite plot improbabilities, and registers as good family fare for all but the very youngest viewers. … There are fine Christian messages, in an evangelical vein, about redemption, reconciliation and renewal."
But most mainstream film critics find it to be an elaborate advertisement for Jesus instead of a memorable work of art.
Jessica Grose (Village Voice) says the film has "a heavy-handed Christian agenda and barely legible plot." And Joe Leydon (Variety) agrees: "Never afraid to overstate the obvious … Landon establishes, underscores and italicizes each plot point with the well-intentioned didacticism of a Sunday School teacher."
In The New York Times, Matt Zoller Seitz finds a few positive things to say, but concludes that it's "a blunt and rather prosaic Christian allegory … a big-screen Sunday school story with sumptuous scenery, graceful crane shots and Rembrandt lighting — designed mainly to impart and then repeat wisdom about guilt, sin and redemption …."
And Jeff Shannon (Seattle Times) stands out as one of the film's few defenders in the mainstream press, saying, "[I]t's plagued by a modest budget, resulting in the generic production values of a well-meaning TV movie. … While that may strike some moviegoers as a reason to stay home, this earnest adaptation … is easily recommended for what it gets right, and what it gets wrong is easily forgiven."
Most comedy lovers would agree that Eddie Murphy is an immensely talented comedian. They would probably also agree that he ends up in some of the dumbest, most disposable comedies ever to reach the big screen.
Norbit is sure to strengthen that impression. Once again, Murphy's displaying his capacity to play a wide variety of characters … including, well, wide characters. And once again the writers (which include Murphy himself) have scraped the bottom of the comedy barrel and slapped that sludge across the screen.
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "I guess if your idea of good comedy is yet another movie featuring Mr. Murphy cracking crude-but-predictable sex jokes in a female fat suit and an old man's stage makeup, among other disguises, that title might indeed be accurate. Yeah, and morbid obesity, tired ethnic caricatures and brutally mean-spirited racist and sexist gibes are the height of hilarity."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says director Brian Robbins "keeps the fitfully amusing gags coming, and Murphy's versatility is undeniably impressive, but the script often sags and vulgarity is rampant."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says, "For those who saw Daddy Day Care and Doctor Dolittle, and were hoping for some more 'Eddie-Murphy's-now-a-dad-so-he's-making-cute-family-films' movies, don't hold your breath. Murphy's latest comedy … has way more crassness going for it than cuteness."
Michael Brunk (Past the Popcorn ) writes, "Norbit has a mean-spirited tone from the opening scene of the infant Norbit being thrown from a moving car, and it never lets up from there. The characters are a collection of the worst stereotypes one can imagine seeing onscreen. The humor, if that's what you choose to call it, is drawn from the lowest variety of fat jokes, racial caricatures, and insults."
Mainstream critics wish Murphy would find a script worthy of his talents. One goes so far as to call it "the most disturbing, morally repugnant, nightmare-inducing film of the century so far."
In 1991, Hannibal Lecter faced Clarice Starling, smiled, and even before he could say anything he became one of the creepiest, most memorable villains in movie history.
And it wasn't just his spree of his spectacular murders in The Silence of the Lambs that made us fear him. It was the mystery. How could such an intelligent person become such a dreadful killer? And who could possibly find a way to kill off such a brilliant menace?
It turns out that Hollywood has learned just the right trick to killing Hannibal and burying him for good. They've made three sequels now, and the latest—Hannibal Rising (technically a prequel)—continues to spoil the mystery and ruin the intrigue. Where The Silence of the Lambs was a challenging portrait of evil and the kind of character it takes to contend with it, the sequels appeal to audience appetites for lurid spectacle. The first film was about evil; the subsequent ones are celebrating it. Hannibal has become just another hero for moviegoers who enjoy "revenge porn." Each film has tried to outdo the others by shocking us with even more disgusting acts of cannibalism, and any trace of redemptive storytelling has vanished.
Hannibal Rising is a misleading title, because this series is sinking farther and farther from its legendary beginnings.
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says it's "technically well-done but physically, emotionally and spiritually … cannibalistic. This is a lurid Faustian opera that throws a morgue full of twisted pop psychology at a killer's backstory in an attempt to make us feel sympathy for the devil. … Can any redemption be found in exploring the why of it all? Not here."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says, "If Hannibal Rising isn't bad enough to kill off this franchise, nothing will do the trick. Ghastly and often disgusting, the film somehow manages also to be dull, all the while providing a strange but not entirely convincing impetus for Lecter's taste for human flesh."
He adds, "Why is the public fascinated by Hannibal Lecter and with these tales of visceral revenge? God tells us, 'A fool finds pleasure in evil conduct, but a man of understanding delights in wisdom' (Proverbs 10:23), and, 'Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it fully' (Proverbs 28:5)."
Jenn Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, "Hannibal Rising is about as suspenseful as eating a day-old warm mayonnaise sandwich: you know you're eventually going to throw up, it's just a matter of when. The latest Hannibal Lecter release holds no true surprises, no thrills, nothing but blood and gore at its basest and most unentertaining. And anyone with a lick of Psych 101 could figure out how the boy Hannibal became the monster cannibal in three easy steps. The series of 'revealing' traumatic flashbacks to war crimes doesn't make the character any more or less sympathetic—just pathetic."
Mainstream critics are chewing it up and spitting it out. Bill Muller (Arizona Republic) made my favorite Lecter-related remark: "The movie succeeds on some level, but the series has definitely begun to eat its own with Hannibal Rising."
George Hickenlooper's film about Edie Sedgwick, who became a celebrity through the art of Andy Warhol, is stylish and energetic, powered by the talented and beautiful Sienna Miller. Factory Girl follows Sedgwick's comet-like journey to fame, right on through to the point where she burnt out in a blaze of not-so-glorious recklessness. It's a dazzling story, but ultimately a sad and empty one.
Christian film critics are just beginning to discover it. And they're learning … well, just what they expected to learn. That is, it's not necessarily "better to burn out than fade away." And some say that Hickenlooper, for all of his stylistic flourishes, can't quite find a profound story here, or come up with a revealing depiction of "the real Edie Sedgwick," while others are impressed.
Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) calls it "a compelling and illuminating story" and adds, "I could buy all of this mythologizing … if not for Hickenlooper's disingenuousness." He goes on to elaborate on the film's weaknesses, and concludes, "Even in death, it seems, Sedgwick is fated to be the figment of somebody else's imagination. Poor Edie."
But Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service ) says, "There are good performances across the board. … The milieu is, as you would expect, downbeat and often seamy and therefore not to everyone's taste, but it's presented with relative restraint, and the impressive Miller is immensely appealing in her sensitive portrait of the trusting, vulnerable waif."
Mainstream critics are diappointed that Hickenlooper couldn't find something more interesting in Sedgwick's life.
In Secrets and Lies, Mike Leigh's fantastic drama about marriage, parenthood, and the secrets we conceal, the closing act becomes a sort of round-table confession. Everyone is crying and confessing things.
A similar thing happens in Anthony Minghella's new film Breaking and Entering, which stars Jude Law and Juliette Binoche. A wide range of characters engage in all manner of misbehavior, which can, if viewers are not discerning, become quite enjoyable to watch. But whether or not it has its heart in the right place as it unfolds these stories of crime and irresponsibility, it arrives at a conclusion of repentance.
Christian critics are trying to decide if the meaningful conclusion justifies the amount of wrongdoing graphically illustrated earlier in the film.
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says, "Is it celebrating lustful desire? Or lauding commitment and mercy? If the answer is both, I'm left with one more question: Should we justify the former by hoping for the latter?"
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "[The movie] is a thematically worthy but only so-so drama. … [Minghella] has assembled a quality cast, but interweaves his serious themes of immigration, motherhood (as sharply contrasted by the passionate Amira and too-cool Liv), and economic disparity into an only mildly compelling—and, as noted, not very plausible—plot, though the film's moral resolution involves a strong affirmation of forgiveness and reconciliation."
Mike Smith (Past the Popcorn) is impressed. "The film is intriguing, satisfying, and entertaining. I was surprised at the details of life that caused catharsis in some characters and bitterness in others, the greatness of spirit in the least likely, and the weakness of character of the most 'regular.'"
Most mainstream critics are not arrested by Breaking and Entering.
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