Christian critics' mixed reaction to Keeping the Faith, a comedy respectful of religion but ignorant of its meaning, made for this week's most interesting discussion. Viewers looking for less controversial fare were encouraged to check out The Miracle Worker, an animated story of Jesus' life told with creative flair.
While Christian critics' initial reaction to Rules of Engagement was tepid, subsequent reviews have turned decidedly enthusiastic for this week's box-office champ. It tells of a Marine (Samuel L. Jackson) being charged with murder for an act of bloodshed committed during combat. The Dove Foundation says it's "extremely well made and thought provoking, … [as it] examines both military and media behavior under the stress of combat." Movieguide concurs, calling it an "exciting, patriotic courtroom drama [that] intelligently explores the moral dilemmas American soldiers sometimes face." Focus on the Family's Tom Neven, who's also a seven-year Marine veteran, has a few more caveats than other reviewers. He was bothered by a flashback scene where the Marine executes a prisoner during the Vietnam war, which the film was "ambivalent" toward. "It's clearly treated as the atrocity it is, yet it also tries to show that it was an exigency of war." Neven still praises the film, though, for its "strong element of faithfulness to duty, courage, and the pursuit of truth and justice." Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com also has reservations, saying the movie's script "has a lot of loopholes and doesn't really answer the questions that it raises," but nevertheless feels that "this is a perfect example of how the definitions and terms of war have been changed by political correctness and how confusing, exasperating and dangerous it is to serve in these times." So far, none of the Christian critics has compared the movie's blurred line between murder and combat to the conviction of some Christians that the sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," necessitates pacifism.
Faring far worse is 28 Days, a comic drama about an alcoholic (Sandra Bullock) who gets sentenced to four weeks of rehab. Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott calls it an "overly simplistic" story that takes "a sanitized look" at addiction. The Dove Foundation agrees, offering as an example that "her withdrawal consists of one night in the bathroom vomiting and laying her head on the floor. You never feel the struggle that someone who begins her day with a beer and then is suddenly deprived of addictive substances goes through." J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth echoes the cricitism, calling it "a cookie-cutter drama" that tries to "add in some likable sidekicks [and] subtract out any difficult reality." Other reviewers were more generous; Focus on the Family's Bob Waliszewski, praised it simply because it "portrays sobriety as positive and addiction as negative … unlike Next Friday and Dazed and Confused." Paul Bicking of Preview notes "strong messages about needing help and communication to repair the destructive affects of drug abuse." Movieguide saw mild spiritual content in the film as "characters even show a relinquishing of their strength to God by praying the Serenity Prayer."
Most reviews for Keeping the Faith were two-pronged, faulting its lack of accuracy and sincerity in portraying religious life, but praising the several things it got right. The U.S. Catholic Conference was the most upbeat site reviewing this romantic comedy, which features a rabbi (Ben Stiller) and a priest (Edward Norton) who fall in love with the same woman (Jenna Elfman), because the priest's "vow of celibacy and his accompanying doubts are dealt with in an earnest manner that does not undermine his priestly commitment." Steven Isaac of Focus on the Family also praised the film's handling of spiritual duty: "A great point is made about commitment to God being a daily choice, not a one-time shot." But he felt the point gets lost in the immorality of the film, saying that "by the time the credits roll, your head is spinning with too much other manmade muck for it to sink in too deeply." Preview's John Evan elaborates on this "muck," explaining that "while Jake and Brian stay true to their spiritual commitments, they seem to have little concern about the moral example set by becoming involved sexually with Anna." Childcare Action is more concerned with film's exclusion of Jesus from the film than with the inclusion of sex. "The only time Jesus' name was mentioned was in vain and with disrespect. There were no crucifixes, no crosses, and no statues of Jesus—not even a picture." World magazine found it lacking not for moral or spiritual reasons, but simply because it "quickly gets boring when it tries to be serious." Others preferred to look for ways the film succeeded. The Dove Foundation liked that "the priest gives an intelligent and moving explanation concerning celibacy." Similarly, Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure enjoyed the portrayal of the religious men as smart, "cool people who are excited about doing God's work in their community, instead of the usual geeks or nerds religious people are commonly portrayed to be." In my review of the film for ChristianityToday.com, I focused on the new methods of worship that the two men bring to their communities, reflecting the real-life movement in the church to less traditional services.
Only two Christian reviews of American Psycho were available this weekend; many kept silent, perhaps operating on the principle that there's no such thing as bad publicity. American Psycho certainly seemed to prove that maxim at the box office, where the much-derided but much-discussed film opened with a strong $5 million. (The indie picture only cost $7 million to make.) In the film, Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman, an '80s-era Wall Street elitist who's also a serial killer. Despite its claims to be a comedy mocking the excesses and selfishness of the decade, the film has been attacked by women's rights groups, Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment, and a "a lawyer who promises he will sue [the studio] if the film spawns a copycat killing," reports MSN. The film won't be seen in the Czech Republic, since the country's film distributor rejected it on moral grounds, and it had its soundtrack pulled from stores the day before its scheduled release because Huey Lewis wanted his hit song "Hip to be Square" taken off the recording. But despite all the hubbub and a handful of mainstream reviews touting it as a masterpiece, critical reaction overall has been lukewarm. Christian reviews were no exception. Paul Bicking of Preview complains that "like its subject, American Psycho focuses too much on the surface image without exploring the darker whys of the psychotic mind, which will [frustrate] audiences seeking deeper meanings." The U.S. Catholic Conference calls it a "repelling tale," and says that its "attempts to satirize the greedy excesses of the me generation are overwhelmed by the remorseless main character's killing sprees and the film's core nihilism."
Paul Newman has said he made his latest film, Where the Money Is, specifically because it lacked graphic sex and violence, but that didn't stop Christian critics from finding other things to dislike about it. In the film, Newman plays a jailed thief who fakes a stroke in a plot to escape prison, but is blackmailed by his nurse to share his stashed loot. The Dove Foundation says the film's "depiction of stealing without consequences is unconscionable. The movie glamorizes people unconcerned with the rules of society." Movieguide took issue with its anti-family bent, calling it "a seemingly humorous but depraved story about sacrificing family for short-term thrills." The U.S. Catholic Conference attacks its craftsmanship, labeling it "a disappointing drama … with unconvincing plot twists, characters who are caricatures, and a contrived ending." Only Mary Draughon of Preview saw it as a fun caper, as Newman said he intended it, writing that "the plot is clever, the dialogue witty, and Newman can still charm audiences. Ages 16 and older will get caught up in the suspense of Where the Money Is, a fun movie-going experience."
Playing in just a handful of theaters right now (but soon to be released on video through Christian bookstores) is Who Gets the House, a movie produced by Feature Films for Families, which family-friendly Christian review sites have rated very highly. The plot is reminiscent of The Parent Trap, only instead of twins there are four kids who try to get their separating parents to reconcile by convincing a judge to transfer ownership of the house to the children should the parents divorce. Cliff McNeely of Preview calls it "a well-made and contemporary family comedy with depth and insight, … [with] good messages about marital reconciliation." Childcare Action notes that this is only the second movie out of the 300 they've analyzed to score a perfect 100 on their scorecard (the site takes away points for offensive content). "Some very, very loving and courageous kids and parents wise enough to listen to them in the right ways made this movie an honor for me to see," reads the review.
Others are excited over The Miracle Worker, which is making its debut in the U.S. on television this weekend. But as a feature film overseas, its reviews have mainly come from feature-film critics. The program, which airs on ABC Easter Sunday, tells the life story of Jesus using unique animation processes "from hand-drawn cels to stop-motion puppets and digitally manipulated paintings," according to Peter T. Chattaway of ChristianWeek. These different techniques are "cleverly employed," he says, such as the scene where Jesus casts out Mary Magdalene's demons. "Before she is healed, we see the world from her perspective: distorted and filled with terrifying faces. When Jesus heals her, these images, all hand-drawn, calm down until they are ultimately replaced by the 'realistic' puppets." The Dove Foundation notes another scene where such artistic bravado shines. "In many church productions, the solemn moment where Peter denies Jesus is often punctuated by a poorly produced audio track of a rooster crowing at an all-too-obvious pitch. Here, the filmmakers have made the profoundness of the moment clear to the viewer with a subtle, almost imperceptible, cock call from far off. It's a small detail, but it signifies the effort put into making this a meaningful presentation." ABC is hoping to make The Miracle Worker an annual Easter event, if audiences tune in. Judith Tukich, Director of Special Projects at ABC explains: "We've had much success with running The Ten Commandments at Easter time. But that's not really about Easter. The Miracle Maker reveals Christ to be the Son of God. It teaches children, while entertaining them." But it's not just for kids, Chattaway notes. "Although the film was clearly written with children in mind, it never talks down to its audience. … It's an exciting addition to the Jesus-movie canon." (ChristianityToday.com's review of The Miracle Maker will appear tomorrow.)
Steve Lansingh is editor of thefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
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