Editor's note: After almost a decade, this is the final edition of Film Forum. The weekly column began long before CT Movies launched, and for years was CT's only regular coverage of current films. But now that CT Movies is three years old and going strong, Film Forum has run its course and crossed the finish line. Jeffrey Overstreet, who will continue to write reviews and other features for us, will move Film Forum to his own personal website (see details below). We could say much about Jeffrey's excellent work on FF over the last six years, but we'll close it with the same word the Italians use at the end of their films: Fine. The end. And a "fine" run it has indeed. Thanks, Jeffrey.
As I sat watching the Oscars and writing this, the last installment of Film Forum, I was inspired by all of the winners' thank-you speeches. So I want to start with a few thanks myself.
Film Forum was created by Steve Lansingh and Ted Olsen in November 1999 (even before Rotten Tomatoes started doing their thing). I would like to thank them for their vision and courage in establishing FF, and for inviting me to carry it forward. It has been a privilege.
Thanks to Mark Moring for being so supportive and working so hard at CT Movies. I greatly admire his courage, conviction, and enthusiasm, and I'm thankful for his thoughtful editing week after week.
And thanks to the critics from so many publications and websites, who are doing such inspiring work. You've changed my understanding of what a "Christian movie review" can be, and given me hope that we can carry Christian engagement with film to deeper, more rewarding levels.
Finally, thanks to the readers who have corresponded with me over the years. You've challenged me, corrected me, given me new ideas, and introduced me to great films I might otherwise have missed.
And of course, in the spirit of Jennifer Hudson, I'd like to thank God.
But this isn't the end of Film Forum. I like the idea of compiling a "roundtable" of what other Christians are writing about movies, so I'll keep doing FF (in a slightly altered format) at my website, LookingCloser.org. So, please come on over for a visit!
Before we get to this week's roundup, I want to leave you with a quote from Frederick Buechner's Whistling in the Dark that should remind us to pay close attention to the films of people from all perspectives, from all corners of the world:
"If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in."
That explains why I value the wide variety of insightful interpretations I've encountered in Film Forum—and that's why the Forum will continue elsewhere. Stay tuned. We're just getting started.
Amazing Grace, amazing testimony
Michael Apted's new film about William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace, celebrates the value of valiant political action without misleading us about the hardship and suffering that fall upon those who determine to do the right thing.
Wilberforce (1759-1833) suffered on several fronts as he stood like David to the Goliath of British Parliament, seeking to change their minds and hearts on the issues of slavery. The cross he bore—that is the focus of the film. But while Wilberforce may not have lived long enough to come out from under the shadow of such persecution to bask in the joy of his victories, it is clear that he is strove with one eye fixed upon heaven. His treasure lay there, his heart set upon pleasing God.
Amazing Grace rises above almost all recent films about Christian faith for its willingness to portray the complexities, hardships, and unanswered questions that characterize the road of faith. It is also features a cast that deliver impressive, memorable performances. And it manages to avoid being too "preachy." Wilberforce's story truly reflects the glory of Christ as we see him sacrificing so much for to redeem others.
It's a pleasant surprise in an otherwise uninspiring season at the movies. My full review is at Looking Closer.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Similar to Chariots of Fire and Shadowlands in tone, Amazing Grace balances faith and filmmaking in a historical drama that depicts an ordinary Christian doing extraordinary things because of his beliefs."
He praises many aspects, especially the script by Steven Knight. "The screenplay … succeeds in capturing the essence of Wilberforce and his accomplishments, never shying away from the man's faith but never making it the central component either—just as Eric Liddell's refusal to run on the Sabbath was vital but not paramount to Chariots of Fire.
Amazing Grace seems more honest because of such balance, and acclaimed director Michael Apted … succeeds in rendering the story with authenticity."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "Amazing Grace should find favor in schools, but this is no dry history lesson. Rather, it's a vital tribute to the man who, as his epitaph states, 'prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the empire.'"
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "Many movies pretend importance. Few, however, make good on their lofty ambitions. In contrast, Amazing Grace isn't landing at the multiplex with a multimillion dollar ad campaign trumpeting its arrival. And yet, the messages it delivers are important. … Amazing Grace reminds us that God's calling on our lives is not neatly divided into sacred and secular categories."
Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, "As a history lesson, Amazing Grace is beyond admirable." He also calls it "a powerful indictment" of slavery, and "an Oscar-bait complex powerhouse." He adds, "As an example of ensemble acting that might be more memorable than anything else we'll see this year, we couldn't ask for more." But he concludes, "[T]he whole doesn't quite add up to the sum of its parts. There's something missing here, something passionate and vibrant that only comes through when Finney is onscreen, or in the stirring moments of the closing credits."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says, "With so much going for it, the film is easy to recommend, but it's a qualified recommendation. Why? Because although … Apted tells Wilberforce's story competently, his nicely lit scenes are heavy on dialogue and very light on camera movement. Such an approach is not inappropriate for a historical drama, but after so many standard shots of characters talking to each other, the film begins to feel heavy and somewhat inert."
He also finds trouble with the flashback structure, but concludes, "Amazing Grace is an amazing story, a reminder that believers are called to persevere through trials, and that we sometimes reap rewards in this life as well as the next."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says it "delivers everything you want: solid script, outstanding performances, clever wit, tight drama, inspiring story."
Mainstream critics are fairly impressed as well. For those who think that the mainstream press will always dismiss films that show faith in a positive light—see what a difference a strong script, artful cinematography, and great performances can make?
Astronaut falls short of its dreams
"Follow your dreams." That is one of the most prevalent messages in American filmmaking. But what if your dream is a little crazy? What if it upsets or inconveniences those around you? Should we follow all of our dreams … all of the time?
In The Astronaut Farmer, Billy Bob Thornton plays a rancher with a dream: He wants to be an astronaut. And as he strives to build his very own rocket, hoping it will launch him into orbit, he faces a great deal of criticism and skepticism. And some critics are suggesting that some of that skepticism might be justified.
But most of them are impressed with this flattering portrayal of a loving, churchgoing family.
Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Though the movie does muster more plausibility and heart in the final third, ultimately dreams are the only thing this movie has—dreams of being an Inspiring Family Film. Would that that were enough. And for those who like safe, predictable, fluffy family fare, it probably will be. But in light of films such as October Sky, Dear Frankie, and Millions—family-friendly movies that inspire and offer three-dimensional characters, creative yet plausible plot twists, and compelling dialogue—we know there's so much more possible than what's being offered here. In that sense, The Astronaut Farmer doesn't aim or dream nearly high enough."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says it "offers old-fashioned, down-home inspirational drama." He say it "seems as earnest and unironic as the day is long, a big old-fashioned inspirational ode to following one's dreams no matter what, to the goodness of family and the badness of bureaucracy." But he concludes that it "doesn't quite rise above its cliché s. … [It] feels more often than not almost like a diagram of an inspirational film rather than a full-blooded example of the genre."
Lindy Keffer (Plugged In) says, "Hands down, the sweet portrayal of the Farmer family's relationships with each other are the best thing about this movie. … On top of that, there's the feel-good message about following dreams. But that's both a good thing and a bad thing. In principle, it's a great idea, but the way it plays out makes it less like the icing on the cake and more like a ketchup filling inside a pie. You can swallow it, and it won't kill you, but something's not quite right about it." She concludes by noting, "True greatness isn't about self-actualization, but about laying down your life for those you love."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) calls it "a compelling case study on whether or not it's really worth the risk to follow the big dreams, despite daunting odds. More than anything, it's an interesting peek into the dynamics and potential rewards of something we don't often see: a functional, loving, supportive family. Yes, even Billy Bob Thornton has put a muzzle on for this feel-good flick and comes across as a warm, fatherly teacher and encourager."
Jenn Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, "While the Polish brothers' movie does offer a refreshing reality in terms of families and dreamers, there are simply too many implausibilities for me to take the film as seriously as they seemed to have intended it."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "The Astronaut Farmer is a sweet if wildly improbable film … . [T]he film has the gravity of a real-life biographical drama, but earns points for its strong affirmation of family, far more than the tiresome 'follow your dream' jargon which, in this case, seems fairly wacky."
Mainstream critics have mixed reactions to this Farmer.
Count the problems with The Number 23
Director Joel Schumacher is once again inspiring film critics to grumble about his work.
The Number 23, which stars Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen, is a thriller that asks a lot of questions … too many questions, perhaps. And when it comes time for answers, they just don't satisfy.
Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The Number 23 should be a provocative psychological thriller. It should be a good movie. It has an intriguingly creepy premise. It has a stylized (albeit disjointed and inconsistent) look and tone. And it has good performances—especially by Jim Carrey in his first dark, thriller role. You want to like it as you watch it."
Alas, it just doesn't work for him. "It's not that the film lacks anything. But in fact, it's the opposite. It has too much. Of everything. … [T]he Number 23 tries to carry too many themes, fit into too many genres and tell too many stories. Its promise is drowned out by a din of various themes, moods and storylines. Its thrills and tension are dampened by boring scenes of too much talking and repetition."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The movie closes with a quote from the Book of Numbers … 'Make no mistake about it; you will be punished for your sin,' which sums up the script's underdeveloped theme of fate." But does that make it a great film? "Despite an intriguing premise, director Joel Schumacher's neonoir tale is all style and little suspense, with a muddled plot and a contrived twist payoff. And 23 is also the number of letters in this advice to the wise: Take a pass on this vapid dud."
Lindy Keffer (Plugged In) says, " … [I]t doesn't matter a whit that it ends with a strong ethical message about taking responsibility for one's actions and setting a good example for one's children. Yes, the film's conclusion is a huge relief, both morally and psychologically. But in order to make it so, director Joel Schumacher … goes to great lengths to vividly portray every nook and cranny of the insanity and depravity that set the stage for it."
Christa Banister (Crosswalk) says, " … Schumacher does his best to set up the story in creepy, blood-red splendor, but not even Carrey's obvious ode to Jack Nicholson's chilling performance in The Shining can make the film's premise come off as anything more than just plain silly."
Mike Smith (Past the Popcorn) says, "In brief, the story is creative and unique, Carrey's acting is Oscar-caliber, and as we would hope, the story takes a surprising turn. But the turn that it takes is inconsistent with the film's internal logic, and the climax is a non sequitur."
Mainstream critics give 23 low numbers.
The movie police arrest Reno 911: Miami
Emergency? No, don't bother calling the ambulance. This comedy's D.O.A.
Reno 911!: Miami takes the popular, sophomoric cable comedy and sets a sequence of scenes in Miami. If you want to pay a lot of money to sit and bear witness to a bunch of locker-room humor, well, here you go.
Jeremy Lees (Plugged In) says, "The creators of Reno 911!: Miami aimed for the gutter and hit it. And they're willing to admit as much. 'We have a lot of naked boobs in the film,' says actor/writer/director Robert Ben Garant, who's responsible for producing the TV show, too. 'A lot of boobs.' In every sense of the word."
John P. McCarthy (Catholic News Service) writes, "Bumbling cops are a mainstay of comedy, but the eight law-enforcement pretenders from the Comedy Central cable series Reno 911! are arguably the most incompetent—not to mention perverse—of all time. Their ultraraunchy big-screen debut … is not terribly funny either. The humor derives from mocking very peculiar foibles and tendencies, with most of the sophomoric laughs of the nervous-laugh-inducing variety."
Mainstream critics say the Police Academy series looks good by comparison. Yikes!
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