If Nutty Professor II: The Klumps seems awfully familiar, look past the first installment in the series--and even the original Jerry Lewis comedy--to the gross-out humor of Me, Myself, and Irene and Scary Movie. Yes, it's a third exercise in raunchy humor this summer, introducing audiences to, for starters, a giant hamster having sex with a university dean.
Audiences went nuts for Klumps, despite the ho-hum reviews of critics both Christian and mainstream. Eddie Murphy, who portrayed the entire overweight Klump clan, received pretty much the only accolades that reviewers were willing to dole out. "Mr. Murphy once again proves his versatility as an actor by not only developing six different characters, but by developing them with such depth and distinction," says Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com. But his praise fades fast. "It is therefore six times as sad that the script … was written to be so offensive . …It should have been called The Smutty Professor." The Dove Foundation elaborates: "When humor isn't extracted from broad sexual innuendo, Mr. Murphy turns to gross-out visuals, jokes about old age and the always reliable flatulence sound effect." Of course, this humor happens to be the summer audiences' cup of tea, so the U.S. Catholic Conference focuses its more basic failings, calling it a "sluggish" story with "few laughs." Paul Bicking of Previewsearches for something positive in the film, noting that "the Klumps do show support for family and for one another," but concludes: "While it strives to have a heart, other organs seem to be in control of [the film]."
What Lies Beneath received another round of faint praise and loud groans from critics this week, while the Harrison Ford/Michelle Pfeiffer ghost mystery continued to rein in audiences Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure admits to being "involved and glued to the screen," but felt "the story gets kind of shaky … in the revelation of who the ghost is and why she's there. … The plot has several holes in it with an ending that's hard to believe." Greenlake Reflections ' Jeffrey Overstreet attacks at the level of intention, not just story: "At their best, [ghost stories] appeal to our sense of mystery. They remind us that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy", if I may quote the greatest ghost story of all: "Hamlet". … At their worst, ghost stories seek only to make us lose faith," writes Overstreet, placing Beneath in the latter category, "and appeal to our appetites for the malevolent and destructive." PlanetWisdom agrees that the film could cause unintentional harm. "Yes, this is just a movie and you might be able to look past that--except that it might lead to treating too lightly the very real presence of demons and the spiritual world. … If scary movies cause you to struggle with lingering fear of the supernatural, I don't recommend this one." The film is not completely without merit, however Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Halyna Barannik says the human relationships are much more successful than the spiritual ones. Although the film "isn't a great thriller," she writes, "it turns out to be a sobering picture that examines human nature, marriage, [and] infidelity."
Not even a gentle children's comedy could escape the critics' summertime blues. Thomas and the Magic Railroad, based on the popular series of children's books about a cartoon train, was deemed adequate at best. The U.S. Catholic Conference says it "works best when the animated engines are the focus, but human performances are weak and the plot runs out of steam." For Movieguide, though, the quality of the acting wasn't as important as the reputation of the actors; cinematic bad boys Alec Baldwin and Peter Fonda migrated for the first time to the tiny tyke audience. "This is a whimsical Alec Baldwin that audiences have not seen before. Bravo!" says Movieguide. But Crosswalk.'s Michael Elliott notes that even screen legends can't keep toddlers' attention long. "The meandering pace, the simplistic animation, and the overall length of the film (nearly 90 minutes) proved to be simply too much for the antsy preschoolers. [And it's] too silly a movie for their older siblings." The story's reliance on magic drew a range of responses. Childcare Action says it's harmless: "There was 'magic' such as the Mary Poppins style, but as in Mary Poppins none of it was evil, sinister or even selfish. All of it was clean childhood fantasy." Preview's Mary Draughon, however, recommends that the film be saved for those" children who understand the difference between the world of make-believe and reality." For those kids, says the Dove Foundation, there's "positive messages about friendship, loyalty and self-sacrifice." Even better, the film "never preaches. It makes those characteristics seem desirable and attainable."
But I'm A Cheerleader, a comedy about a teenage girl sent to a "sexual reprogramming" camp because her parents suspect she is a lesbian, turns out to be only surface-deep. "The filmmaker gets a case of the cutes," complains the Dove Foundation, "leaving his actors looking like cartoon characters. Nothing is seriously addressed. … Perhaps the producers would have given viewers a more powerful film had they seriously examined the subject of sexual orientation and whether it could be changed." Movieguide agrees that the characters are "obvious, shallow, and vulgar, [playing] on both homosexual and Christian stereotypes." (The mainstream media agrees; Owen Gleiberman of the Entertainment Weekly says "any self-respecting lesbian should rear up in horror at a movie that tells her that this is how she's supposed to be.") Movieguide offers as an example a scene where "one of the other teenagers confronts Megan about her sexual relationship with her boyfriend, Megan replies, No, I'm a Christian. This, however, does not stop her from participating in promiscuous behavior with a girl."
With the controversial Revolutionary War film The Patriot crossing the $100 million barrier, and the little-seen Civil War film Ride with the Devil making its debut on video, this week saw a lot of discussion on the best way to make a war film.
World magazine says that The Patriot is the great war movie that cultural conservatives have been waiting for. "It is all here: the passionate commitment to family; the celebration of America and its heritage; the cultural impact of Christianity. … What makes the movie a triumph of a distinctly conservative approach to culture is that the final emotion viewers feel from the movie is inspiration, a sense of exaltation and gratitude for America, its heritage, and the lives that were laid down for its cause." But others saw The Patriot as manipulative, inspiring white American audiences to feel good about themselves only by tearing others down. Already well documented are the British press' objections to the portrayal of the Redcoats as "church-burning, baby-killing brutes," and African-American director Spike Lee's protests that The Patriot "completely ignored slavery." Christian critic Jeffrey Overstreet of Greenlake Reflections points to an even deeper fault: a misrepresentation of what freedom truly is. "'Freedom' is all too often explained as 'my right to pursue happiness and I'll knock down anybody who gets in my way.' If the character is charismatic, he's a hero, and we want him to be happy. If he's nasty, who cares about his right to be happy? Off with his head! In the end, it isn't freedom in a large sense, but merely 'survival of the coolest' that seems to matter in American movies." Christian satirist Betty Bowers mirrored that argument with a fake photo caption that captures Patriot hero Benjamin Martin "in the process of firing warning shots into the stomachs of pesky Indians who didn't understand that our God didn't inspire us to fight for freedom so that we would waste any of it on them." Mainstream sources, too, argued that the film has a shallow understanding of patriotism. Slate's Michael Lind contends that "this movie is deeply subversive of patriotism . …It appears that today's audiences can't imagine any cause that could justify political violence other than injury to a child or wife (your own, not your neighbor's--that's their problem). … A morality in which your duties do not extend beyond your clan is the oldest and most universal human ethic. The rivals of amoral familism have been religion and patriotism. … The message of The Patriot is that country is an abstraction, family is everything." (And, one could infer, religion becomes an abstraction as well.)
Sarah Barnett of Culture@Home holds forth Ride with the Devil as a film that pushes beyond familial loyalty to include a broader understanding of camaraderie. Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) are initially "drawn into the war when Jack's father is killed during a Northern raid . …[Later,] Ride with the Devil offers glimmers of humanity in the midst of cruelty. As the only literate member of gang, Jake is coerced into reading stolen Northern letters. The letters reveal the human face of their opponents, causing the men to question why they're fighting." Overstreet, too, is enthusiastic about the way the film breaks down the us-versus-them conventions of ordinary battle epics. "Ride with the Devil is not a war film that will make you cheer for one side or the other. It's a film far more interested in telling something true. … War is something about which we should never cheer. It should always leave us hollowed out, grieving for those on both sides. … There is a better [way to present battlefield epics] than merely shooting your enemies and having a showdown with those who persecute you."
Steve Lansingh is editor of thefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
See Christianity Today's earlier Film Forum postings for these other movies in the box-office top ten: X-men, Scary Movie, The Perfect Storm, Pokemon:The Movie, The Kid, The Patriot, and Chicken Run.
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