The American military figures prominently in three films Christian critics are excited about: WWII sailors are the heroes of U-571, present-day Marines display honor in Rules of Engagement, and in the near future an American president gambles with nuclear war in Deterrence.
U-571, a fictional thriller about American sailors who commandeer a German U-boat to steal a Nazi encryption device, made a splash at the box office this weekend with a $19.5 million haul. The film also earned the ardent support of Movieguide, which praises everything from Matthew McConaughey's "intense and strongly heroic, yet vulnerable, performance" to the movie's "tasteful, but exciting, use of wartime violence." The review also credits the film with "return[ing] a more old-fashioned and ultimately more honorable spirit to the World War II movie." Preview's Paul Bicking and Ed Crumley noted the patriotic spirit as well, which celebrates "the bravery and beyond-the-call accomplishments of young men at war," and the restrained violence, which was "prevalent but not gratuitous." But others feel the submarine genre is too worn. Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com says the setting "is so familiar that we are not engrossed in the story, merely curious as to how it is being presented." The Dove Foundation elaborates: "U-571 doesn't just freely borrow from other submarine movies, it downright steals from them … [substituting] loudness in place of character development."
Love and Basketball scored with audiences and critics, as the low-budget romance opened with an impressive $8.1 million and strong reviews. The film, which follows a pair of hoops stars' 15-year relationship, was praised by John Evans of Preview for "developing an enjoyable story around two fairly genteel, caring and successful black families," and avoiding "the incessant barrage of foul language so prevalent in films featuring predominantly black characters." Movieguide was pleased with the attitude toward sports in this "unique story," which "focuses on many important issues rather than the glorification of self in sports." The U.S. Catholic Conference had a few qualms with the "slightly pat script and foreseeable ending," but was nonetheless impressed by "pleasing performances and natural weaving of the sport of basketball into the narrative."
Rules of Engagement, which slipped to third place at the box office, had no new reviews this week. But a recent news story, in which Yemen called on fellow Arab nations to boycott the film, casts a new light on available reviews. Yemen's al-Sahwa newspaper complains that the film "justifies U.S. arrogance as a legitimate defense of the innocent," and depicts Yemenis as "terrorists, blood thirsty and cheats." While that's only one opinion, it does make the patriotic zeal of Christian reviews seem uncompassionate. Since Christians are also sensitive to their portrayal in mainstream media, it stands to reason that negative stereotyping of all sorts could be brought to light.
Two new reviews of 28 Days, a drama about 12-step drug rehabilitation, draw direct Christian parallels. Hollywood Jesus sees the movie's "idea of community, with self, others and God" as analogous to a church body. World magazine, on the other hand, calls 28 Days "the secular equivalent of those old Christian movies where the young rebel is insufferable and unrepentant until he converts at the right part of the movie. … The story is too neat, with all the right crises, colorful background characters, and Big Moments. The real pain of drug abuse—and treatment programs with very low success rates—is papered over."
Few were interested in seeing the new release Gossip this weekend, perhaps because this Joshua Jackson thriller, which involves lies spread across a college campus, seems so similar to The Skulls, another college-campus thriller starring Jackson. Or it could be the reviews like this one from the U.S. Catholic Conference: "Filled with vile, unsympathetic characters, the film's inane storyline and twisted ending offer little satisfaction." Movieguide chided the film for a scene in which one character "calls the gospels 'a bunch of stories that contradict each other'" when giving an example of gossip. Others were more generous, like Preview's John Adair, who calls it "an exciting and suspenseful movie … with all its twists and turns." He also finds worthwhile lessons in it, as the film reveals "the harm gossip causes [that] goes much farther than simply hurting someone's feelings," and "effectively illustrates the vulnerability of putting one's trust in another." The Dove Foundation also found it "an interesting suspense thriller," but ultimately marred by its foul language and sexual situations.Opening in limited release is the British comedy East is East, which tells of a Muslim Pakistani who marries a Catholic Englishwoman and attempts to raise their children in his religion rather than hers. Movieguide felt that the humor disappeared too quickly, letting it become "depressing in its depiction of a family being ripped apart by a father's unwillingness to listen to his children." Still, this allows the film to stand as "a lesson in the emptiness of having faith in ritual," Movieguide's reviewer says. John Adair of Preview found the film just as interesting but more fun, calling it "an enjoyable [and] eye-opening experience for audiences." The father's bullying tactics, which involve "making many decisions for his children, often without giving them options," reveal the futility of trying to control belief through force.
In 2008, the President of the United States (Kevin Pollack) is forced to deal with the sudden threat of war—while trapped by a snowstorm in a remote diner in Colorado. That's the premise of Deterrence, a release playing in only a few cities. John Evans of Preview laments that the film, which he calls "one of the most significant and profound films released in recent years," will be seen by so few. "Apparently the film's distributor does not think Deterrence will draw a large following," Evans writes, "but more sophisticated audiences will find it fascinating." Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure agrees: "This is a well-written, intense, drama that's both interesting and enthralling. … It perfectly captures how much responsibility is ultimately in the hands of the leader of our nation and how important it is to have someone who's balanced (and without ego) in that position." Movieguide is less enthusiastic, acknowledging that it's "sometimes interesting and provocative," but questioning why it reveals "in a somewhat pretentious, gratuitous moment, that the president actually considers himself to be an atheist." Evans also noted the president's atheism, but added that Pollack's character doesn't discount anyone who does believe in God; he is "tolerant of other races and religions, and opposed to bigotry."
Steve Lansingh is editor of thefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
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