Reviews for this weekend's four new releases were oddly similar; both Pokémon The Movie 2000 and What Lies Beneath were criticized for occultic trappings, Loser and What Lies Beneath were knocked for a professor/student relationship, The In Crowd and Loser were denounced for glamorizing the self-absorbed lifestyle of the popular crowd, and—making the circle complete—Pokémon The Movie 2000 and The In Crowd were chided for one-dimensional characters.
What Lies Beneath is scary but not particularly special, according to Christian critics. The highly polished ghost story with Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer "makes audiences jump out of their seats, laugh nervously when expected scares don't appear, and generally have a frightfully good time," says Paul Bicking of Preview. The Dove Foundation calls it "one of the scariest movies I can remember seeing. Although director [Robert] Zemeckis blatantly steals from other thrillers, he does it with such a flourish that you find yourself squeezing the arm rests and jumping with every burst of high pitched music." But others found the stolen elements less satisfying: The U.S. Catholic Conference characterizes it as a "plodding ghost story [that] attempts to generate Hitchcock-like suspense but falls far short with glaring plot holes and an abundance of thriller clichés." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com grouses at "the ominous music, the protagonist slowly creeping down the hall … and the obligatory 'jump' scenes." No one recommended the film, however, because of the appearance of a Ouija board and scene of spirit possession. "There may be unexplained phenomenon which takes place in this world," says Elliott, "but to seek answers using methods of the occult is sheer lunacy." Movieguide fears that "its occult pagan worldview may just add to the spiritual ignorance of susceptible people." One review found spiritual import, instead; Annette Wierstra of Hollywood Jesus says that "water is an important symbol in this movie," and says it's used as a baptism. "When Claire [Pfeiffer's character] comes out the river she is washed clean of all the lies in her life and she knows the truth."
The good reviews for X-Men continue to trickle in, although they're laced with a few more caveats than previous ones. Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com warns to mind the PG-13 rating, as the film is too "dark, depressing and complicated" for youngsters. But overall she "was pleasantly surprised at how well written and directed this movie is, and although I've never been a fan of the comic strip, there is an interesting evil against good storyline." The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks finds its "big ideas" of prejudice and tolerance too heavy-handed, but says that it does effectively capture "the pain and angst of adolescence—when your body starts changing and you actually think you're a mutant, when nobody understands you and you'd rather run away into the woods, when your only salvation is finding someone who's as freaky as you are." PlanetWisdom calls it a "good action movie [that's] exciting and well-choreographed," but says the movie's references to evolution are "a serious flaw in the movie's premise." Preview's Paul Bicking, however, says God makes as much of an appearance in the film as evolution theory. The villain Magneto asks a prisoner "if he's a God-fearing man and states that God is a teacher who should not be feared."A sequel that's better than the original? Well, perhaps it's not so surprising when the original was so disliked. The awkwardly named Pokémon The Movie 2000 takes only a step up, from pathetic to lousy. "The story takes on a more subtle tone with less violence than the first Pokémon movie," says Movieguide, but it also "contains a pagan worldview alongside many good moral lessons and some redemptive elements." Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott elaborates on this mixture of themes: "In the film, Ash's arrival was predicted by tribal legend. As the 'chosen one,' Ash and Ash alone would be the one able to bring salvation and hope to people." Yet these messianic overtones are mixed freely with self-empowerment. "There's a brief scene with Ash's mother where she apparently gives him carte blanche to do whatever he wants (needs?) to do without seeking her approval or permission." The U.S. Catholic Conference says the resulting plot is "nonsensical … which will likely not matter to the hoards of child fans, but is a snore for adults accompanying their tykes." Speaking of tykes, Preview's John Evans believes the violence needs to be toned down even further for them: "The incessant fighting, battles, and injuries exploit violence to entertain and are excessive, particularly for younger children. The excessive violence of this film and its associated violent games for youth pose a serious concern about the Pokémon craze, along with its apparent promotion of occultic-like phenomenon in associated games."
The comedy Loser, about a country boy (Jason Biggs) who braves the Big Apple as a college freshman, received a lot more praise for its good intentions than for execution. Preview's John Adair says "in more serious moments, [the film] plainly shows teens and young adult's deep desire to be accepted into society." But in order to show just how outcast our nice-guy protagonist is, the rest of the actors indulge in some pretty disturbing behavior. "We are witnesses to the illegal teacher-student affair involving one of our main characters," reports Phil Boatwright of the Dove Foundation. "We also see college kids partying hard with lots of alcohol and drugs. Some of the drugs boys are giving to girls in order to take advantage of them. I don't find that subject very funny." Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott agrees that a great role model gets tarnished by an unwatchable story: "The pity of this predictable and vapor-thin tale is that Mr. Biggs actually manages to present a character that is at once charming, likable, virtuous, socially awkward, and unbelievably blind to deceit and corruption. He plays the world's perception of 'dork' without being one." The U.S. Catholic Conference writes it off the story as "instantly forgettable."
Facing almost the exact same criticisms is The In Crowd, which tells of a mental patient who is released to work at a posh beach resort. The cool kids who hang out there are unadmirable types. "Illegal drug use, drunkenness and some implied sex are common activities among the in-crowd," notes Mary Draughon of Preview. Unlike Loser, though, there's no one to win the audience's sympathy. Draughon says "the film has little of any value to say and no reason to like these poor, rich kids or even sympathize with [the protagonist]." The Dove Foundation suspects that the film exists only to "appeal to adolescent males hoping to see young women in very little clothing. I think even they will be disappointed." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com agrees that "the actors' good looks that are used to try to carry the picture," seeing that "the script is beyond weak, the acting mediocre, and the direction near laughable." The U.S. Catholic Conference tosses in "dreadfully dull."
With little worthwhile on the big screen, conversation has sprung up around the new video release Magnolia, and what exactly its now-famous downpour of frogs means. When the film was still in theaters, most Christian reviews described it as a redemptive story, and interpreted the hail of frogs as an act of God—a judgment perhaps, or maybe a miracle—that echoed the plague in Exodus. The film was, after all, littered with references to Exodus 8:2, God's promise to send a plague of frogs on Egypt. But as writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson talked about the movie with the press, he attributed his inspiration for the frogs to the works of Charles Fort, whose books chronicle paranormal experiences and unexplained phenomena. (The three stories of bizarre coincidence at Magnolia's start are Fortean in nature.) The Christian "counterculture" site Antithesis uses quotes by Anderson to reveal the film as postmodern in nature: "He explains his finale in this way: 'You're staring at a doctor who is telling you something is wrong, and while we know what it is, we have no way of fixing it. And you just go, so what you're telling me, basically, is that it's raining frogs from the sky.' … Rather than symbolizing the rational judgment of God, as many have assumed, Anderson's frogs are a demonstration of postmodern irrationality in its lowest form: a wishing away of the tragedy of human sinfulness." But ChristianWeek's Gerry Bowler says that Anderson's statements are hardly the last word: "[Anderson] doesn't have a clue about the movie he really made—and that tells us something enormously vital about culture in the year 2000. … He knows he has made a great film, but in interviews it is clear that he thinks it's just about coincidences and strange weather and being nice to your kids. … Anderson, for all his skill as a film-maker, does not know that he was making a movie about the absence of grace." This world he introduces sets the stage for "two ministers of grace—a melancholy Christian policeman and a compassionate male nurse—and a spectacular act of God." Over at the OnFilm eGroup, a post by Peter T. Chattaway suggests that perhaps the absurdity of the frogs and their miraculous quality aren't mutually exclusive: "Isn't there an absurd element to miracles, though? Isn't grace itself somewhat absurd?" Grace is beyond our control, he says, which could be the point of Magnolia. "As Aimee Mann sings [on the soundtrack], the pain we carry with us, the pain that goes way back into our pasts, is 'not going to stop / Till you wise up / So just / Give up.' Giving up, in this context, need not be fatalistic resignation; it can be a conscious, life-affirming recognition that we don't have everything in control and we don't have to have everything in control."
Steve Lansingh is editor ofthefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
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