It's spring cleaning in Hollywood this month, as movie studios are dumping mediocre offerings onto the market and letting audiences root through the glut. So far, April's eight mainstream releases have sparked little interest in moviegoers, and have received an equally middling response from Christian critics.
Rules of Engagement ($15 million)
This courtroom drama took number one at the box office this weekend, but still performed below industry expectations. (Perhaps because the title sounds like a romantic comedy about proposing to a girlfriend.) What's more likely, as many Christian critics have suggested, is that the movie doesn't really deliver what it promises. The potential morality play tells of a U.S. marine (Samuel L. Jackson) charged with murder after a bloody conflict with Yemen demonstrators becomes a PR nightmare for the government, but the U.S. Catholic Conference says the film only "superficially explor[es] the harsh reality of life-and-death decision-making under fire." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com agrees, adding that the politician bad guys are flatly "portrayed as being either weak and cowardly or as evil and manipulating," and that any lesson is presented with "a heavy hand … instead of triggering our minds with its subtlety." The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks offers a more upbeat take, writing that although "the script's resolution might leave you scratching your head," the film still makes for "an interesting diversion." John Adair of Preview gives an equally average report, noting that while "the story lacks originality … the battle scenes are quite compelling."
Erin Brockovich ($9.8 million)
New reviews of this smash hit, still number two in its third week, don't differ much from initial reaction by Christian critics. The true story of a nearly penniless mother who ends up seeing justice done for hundreds of local residents poisoned by a nearby power company, Erin Brockovich has been highly praised. Critics have lauded both its intelligent, persevering heroine and its tackling of tough moral issues. Movieguide calls it "an extremely entertaining movie about finding one's vocation by helping other people," and The Movie Reporter notes its "positive message about seeking justice for those who can't defend themselves." Jeffrey Overstreet of Greenlake Reflections praises the film because it "refuses to sugar-coat the tough moral dilemma" of whether family or work should come first. "What would you do in this situation?" asks Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth. "Take care of your kids and watch your neighbors and friends die at the hands of an indifferent and careless company?" But several critics, Movieguide and The Movie Reporter included, felt Brockovich's provocative attire and foul language tarnished the film. Childcare Action chides her for "brazen and forcibly bold manipulations" using "every manner of non-violent verbal and sexual intimidation she could muster." Others, though, like Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Gabe Rodriguez, said Brockovich is tolerable within the context of the film. "Albert Finney, in a far more subtle role [as head of the law firm], is great, and he provides needed balance to Erin's brash ways."
The Road to El Dorado ($9.1 million)
This animated musical, about two ruffians who stumble into the city of gold and angle to plunder its riches, is another underperformer receiving lackluster reviews. World magazine faults it for aping the Disney formula, right down to the "standard-issue Evil Sorcerer with his standard-issue Enchanted Monster." The U.S. Catholic Conference writes that "the storyline tends to limp and the flat, formulaic music is forgettable," and Childcare Action says the film borders on racist, as "the Aztecs in the movie were stupid enough to think the Spanish con artists were gods." The few bright spots critics found were hotly contested. Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure "liked the fact that the heroine is very clever, witty, spunky and pretty without being too sensuous or sexy," but the site's other reviewer, Michael Elliott, complains that the heroine "is drawn and portrayed with a suggested sexuality that is sure to make parents of our youngest viewers uncomfortable." Preview's John Evans commends the way the film portrays a tribal priest who conjures reptiles "as evil and misguided," noting that the "incident is similar to the miracles of Pharaoh's evil sorcerers in the Bible book of Exodus." Movieguide, however, rejects the film for its "references to pagan religion, and a scary monster conjured up by the evil priest." One thing Christian reviewers did agree on was rejecting the popular implication in mainstream reviews that the two main characters are vaguely homosexual. While Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly points out that "the two enjoy roughhousing and bathing together, as well as provoking each other with limp taunts ('You fight like my sister!')," Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Deanna Marquart dismisses such ideas: "I myself saw no hints of impropriety between them."
Return to Me ($7.8 million)
Winning stronger notices is this romantic comedy about a widower (David Duchovny) who falls in love with the woman (Minnie Driver) who received his wife's heart in a transplant. Although World magazine questions whether many "can stomach the morose plot point," most reviewers concurred with Movieguide, which calls it "a strongly moral love story" in which "the characters are portrayed with realistic strength." The U.S. Catholic Conference was likewise upbeat, saying it's "an appealing look at romance and second chances, with honest, funny dialogue and good performances." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com was also impressed, finding it "refreshing to see family units portrayed as loving and supportive" and relishing the "warm and inviting characters who clearly loved one another and enjoyed each other immensely." Other critics had qualms with a recurring joke where a kid repeated his father's foul language. "Hearing a little kid repeat God d-- is not funny or clever," says The Movie Reporter. Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com makes allowance that the gag will be "funny to some parents who've had that moment happen, but [it] will also offend others." The relatively minor moral concerns in this film led one reviewer to perhaps overreach for a criticism; Preview's John Evans complains that the father "is not bashful in suggesting sex" to his wife, which isn't really a moral infraction. Evans was the only critic, though, who extensively praised the film for its strong religious content, which includes "a devout Catholic" who encourages his granddaughter "to vacation and pray in Rome where 'God will hear you better.'" Still, none of the reviewers even mentioned the questions the film prompts about free will and the relationship between body and soul, after the transplant recipient begins to take on several traits of the donor.
The Skulls ($6.5 million)
This new thriller is about an Ivy-League jock who gets lured into a secret society that offers cars, money, and women but kills to protect its existence. Christian opinion was split between those who reviewed the film and those who reviewed the message. Some critics, like Focus on the Family's Steven Isaac, found the movie noteworthy for its "strong overarching moral lessons … Stand up for the truth. Do the right thing, even if it means you'll lose everything. … Resist the allure of ill-gotten power and money." John Evans of Preview praises the protagonist who "risks his life for truth and justice." But the majority of critics found the movie too slight to support such messages: "The confusing plot drags on interminably," says the U.S. Catholic Conference, and The Movie Reporter calls it "cliched and not very suspenseful." Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure says it turns "boring, silly, and … ridiculous," lacking any "credibility and realism." StudentMinistry.net highlights the implausibility with this mock campus conversation: "'Excuse me, do you know where The Skulls, the most powerful, secret and impenetrable society in the world, holds its gatherings?' 'Oh, The Skulls. … See that building over there with the truck-sized skull on top of it? I'd try right there.'"
Rounding Out the Top Ten
Opening in a weak sixth place is Ready to Rumble, a comedy about two wrestling fans who'll stop at nothing to see their deposed hero, Jimmy King (Oliver Platt), become champion of the WCW again. The U.S. Catholic Conference calls it a "moronic movie" with "a slew of loud, lowlife characters," and The Movie Reporter takes umbrage at its disrespectful Christian references—bracelets that read "What Would King Do?" and a van of nuns who sing Van Halen's "Running with the Devil." Paul Bicking of Preview, however, allows for a "possibly subtle Christian message" in the film: a badly beaten King "ends up on the canvas in a crucifixion pose," then "disappears for awhile until found by his 'disciples'" before he "returns to lead a final battle to regain his position." (Apparently, the qualifications for becoming a Christ figure are growing lax.) The mainstream press dabbled in no such examinations of theme, but merely dismissed the film as a "107-minute commercial for World Championship Wrestling," as Box Office Guru put it, designed by Time Warner to "help its beleaguered wrestling federation get back on its feet."
Romeo Must Die took seventh place this week, and evoked similar sentiments in new Christian reviews as from its opening week. The action flick is "marred by skimpy character development" ( U.S. Catholic Conference), treats "gang members [as] evil, rotten thugs who should be beaten to a pulp" ( World magazine), and looks "like the director had a coupon for some free special effects" ( StudentMinistry.net).
Falling to eighth place in its second week is High Fidelity, a romantic comedy about self-absorbed record-store owner Rob Gordon (John Cusack), who gets dumped again and tries to figure out why he can't stay in a relationship long. Several reviewers fell hard for this romance; Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure calls it a "truthful comedy about men that rocks with a great soundtrack and is very funny." J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth says it's well "worth the price of admission … to be reminded that you're not alone … that everyone makes poor decisions and then suffers the consequences, that nobody goes through life unscathed." But a greater number felt no affiliation with Gordon's problem or his outlook. "You probably will not want to see another John Cusack film for awhile," writes Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Halyna Barannik, "after spending more than an hour inside this guy's head." GreenLake Reflections' Jeffrey Overstreet adds that "unfortunately, most of the film is spent portraying just how mean people can be to each other, and there's only the simplest of insights about how to be good." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com simply couldn't enjoy "watching this self-absorbed, unfaithful, non-ambitious loser try to rationalize his life."
Christian commentary on ninth-place finisher Final Destination has died down; the teen-horror pic earned low marks as a thriller but prompted discussion over its themes of destiny and death. Click here to read the summary of reviews from our previous installment.
Dropping to tenth place is Best-Picture winner American Beauty, which has also exhausted conversation; click here to read our earlier coverage.
Beyond the Top Ten
Just missing the top ten in its debut week is Black and White, a semi-improvised film from director James Toback that explores the fascination that affluent white teens have with ghetto culture. Available Christian reviews rejected the film for its "cynical, hostile attitude" and "filthy dialogue" ( The Movie Reporter), for its "unredeeming characters" and their "repugnant" actions ( Preview's Mary Draughon and Paul Bicking), and for its "raw, troubling" storyline ( U.S. Catholic Conference). None of them, however, bothered to address the real questions that Black and White raises. In mainstream circles, debate raged over the film's take on racism and teen sexuality. David Poland of TNT's Rough Cut attacks the movie, writing that "the idea, which Toback clearly does not intend, that relationships with black people are a fad, like blue hair or tattoos, is rather insulting to black people, no? The idea that young white girls are just out there looking for the newest adventure … is rather insulting to young girls, no?" The Miami Herald's Rene Rodriguez counters by calling it "the most intelligent, thought-provoking exploration of race since Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing." For him, the movie has less to do with hip-hop's young fans and more to do with its "players," elevated from ground zero to positions of power. "Black and White is ultimately about identity and how people often betray their own ideals—sometimes unconsciously—for personal gain."Christian critics found a lot more to like about Beyond the Mat, a documentary that probes the men behind pro wrestling, than in the bigger wrestling release Ready to Rumble. In this film, writer/director Barry Blaustein introduces the audience to three real-life wrestlers away from the ring: Jake "the Snake" Roberts, a former champion and current drug addict, Mick Foley (a.k.a. Mankind), a loving family man who contemplates giving up his success to calm the fears of his children, and Terry Funk, an elderly wrestler facing knee-replacement surgery. Nick Graham, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight and professing wrestling fan, says the movie comes from "a man looking at his childhood heroes, and in some cases the heroes of his own children, and showing that they are all too human. … What he gets is a revealing, sometimes funny, sometimes wince-inducing, and sometimes downright depressing." The U.S. Catholic Conference, not composed of wrestling aficionados, calls it "a well-done, surprisingly interesting documentary" that provides "a candid behind-the-scenes look at the controversial sports entertainment." Preview's John Adair agrees, adding that it's "often funny, and even emotional at times," and might help battle the idolatry of hero worship.
Steve Lansingh is editor of thefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
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