Stories about loving fathers and their sons were particularly well-reviewed this week by Christian critics, who praised Gladiator, featuring a Roman general who'd rather stay at home with his boy, Frequency, in which a New York cop talks to his deceased father via a time-travel phenomenon, and the TV-movie Jesus, about God the Father and his only Son. Mothers and their daughters didn't fare as well, as the unwed, pregnant teen in Where the Heart Is and the repressive matron in The Virgin Suicides drew criticism.
Moviegoers are abuzz with talk about Gladiator, the first big-budget release of the year, which pulled in a healthy $34.8 million haul this weekend. Christian critics were no exception; everyone had a strong opinion one way or another. The majority were supportive of the epic, in which a fictional Roman general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), nearly becomes the leader of the Empire but instead finds himself as a slave forced to fight gladiator duels. "This stunning epic," says Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure, "has all the ingredients—incredible special effects, beautiful scenery, colossal battle scenes, [and] a moral message." Movieguide was equally supportive: "Although vengeance is Maximus' motivation, he exhibits several virtues, not the least of which is mercy when killing is unnecessary. Furthermore, the movie makes clear that the bloodsport of the Coliseum is distracting and destroying Rome." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com was likewise enthusiastic, saying that the film shows how "one good man can save an entire people from bondage and tyranny." But other critics rebutted these points. Childcare Action felt the movie wallows in its "lust for killing [and] glorification of carnage" instead of transcending it. Culture@Home's Sarah Barnett complains that "while the dazzling production embraces the tragic grandeur of the arena, it fudges on the politics. … By the time we reach the bloody conclusion we are awash with wanton breaches of accuracy"—Rome wasn't freed from bondage, for example. Other critics found the film intriguing as allegory. The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks compares the declining Roman Empire to struggles in this country. "British-born director Scott offers no solutions except for the great man of integrity. This, too, feels like a rebuke of contemporary America, particularly its current president." Hollywood Jesus discovered parallels between Maximus' story and several Biblical characters, including Joseph, Moses, and Jesus in its "slave to hero, and death to life themes." Jeffrey Overstreet of GreenLake Reflections, on the other hand, would have preferred some fleshing out of Roman culture: "Isn't there some history to explore here? Some culture to enjoy? Some philosophy to argue? … [Audiences] don't know a single thing more about Rome than they did walking in."Several Christian reviewers were surprised to find that The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, the largely panned prequel to the 1994 live-action hit, was worth sitting through. Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com says he "actually walked away with a mild appreciation for it. … It was so unabashedly committed to its own silliness that I was begrudgingly won over." Holly McClure, also of Crosswalk.com, was likewise not "expecting much, but to be truthful, it's not that bad. The sets are cute, colorful and creative and the oversized story and gags keep it interesting for kids." The U.S. Catholic Conference calls it "entertainingly silly." Not everyone was charmed, though. Focus on the Family's Steven Isaac says the movie can't overcome the "half-hearted acting and second-rate scripts," and Preview's John Evans was chagrined by a scene that tinkers with some American icons; it "implies Barney and Fred are attracted to each other.
"Frequency is a time-bending thriller about emotionally wounded son who discovers he can speak 30 years into the past via an old ham radio to his deceased father. The tightly wound plot about time-altering has kept audiences returning for another look, and it has also impressed Christian critics. "The film is full of surprises that keep the audience wondering right to the end," writes World magazine, and Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com deems it "one of the truly more interesting, entertaining and enjoyable supernatural films that I've seen in a long time." Many critics appreciated how the story prompted questions that aren't often asked. "What if you could talk to your dad when he was your age?" asks PlanetWisdom. "What would you ask him? What would he tell you?" Peter T. Chattaway of ChristianWeek says it "made me appreciate the fact that God lets us make our choices and helps us to cope with the consequences, pro and con. It made me thankful I don't have to worry about the things that might have been." It had a parallel effect on Hollywood Jesus, who says Frequency reminds us that "today's actions can bring long-term consequences. My decision today to do a right thing can and does impact my tomorrows in a positive way." The movie also received praise for "the caring relationships in the Sullivan family," which Preview's John Evans says "make Frequency an exceptional movie going experience." Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Carole Stewart McDonnell agrees, saying "it preaches family values without being preachy. We see the effect of a broken family."
Christian critics were split on Where the Heart Is, which features a sweet story but some unsavory characters. Based on the Oprah Book Club bestseller by Billie Letts, the film follows pregnant and abandoned Novalle Nation (Natalie Portman) as she survives by living in a Wal-Mart and eventually makes friends with those who want to help her. "The developing relationships feel very realistic," says Debbie James, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight, "and watching Portman's character grow into a young woman is a joy to watch." Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott agrees, calling the film "a plucky tale with a central character who is so much richer than the handful of change that makes up her life savings." But others were turned off by the portrayal of some Christian characters. Bob Smithouser of Focus on the Family bristles at the portrayal of one character who "prays at mealtime, [but] believes reading too much of the Bible is a bad idea because it breeds confusion. And her grace always ends with a flip confession of the latest fornication committed with her elderly gentleman friend." Preview's Mary Draughon took issue with "an evangelical Christian couple [who] are shown as mean-spirited when they write a hate letter to the single mother." Movieguide finds the whole movie lacking a spiritual anchor, chiding the film for "an immoral take on premarital sex, some anti-Christian content, an uneven story, inconsistent acting, and spiritually confused characters." But Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com sees the characters' bad choices as an asset: "This would be a good movie for a mother and teenage daughter (and son) to see together because it deals with poor choices (promiscuous sex, pregnancy, poor dating choices) and the consequences."
No one was very excited about I Dream of Africa, a true story about an American woman who moves her family to the wilds of Africa in a quest for inner purpose. It opened in a weak ninth place at the box office, and garnered equally dull reviews. The U.S. Catholic Conference calls it "visually grand but narratively weak. The film fails to convey what drove the woman to suddenly transplant to Africa." The Dove Foundation says it's "a watered down, uninspiring rip-off of Out Of Africa [that's] deadly dull," and Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott pans it as "little more than a travelogue gone bad." Mary Draughon of Preview was disappointed with the spiritual shallowness in a film about finding purpose; she notes that "at two funerals, there are no references to God, but to the souls of the dead returning to nature in New Age mumbo-jumbo." But one critic found worth in the film; Focus on the Family's Bob Waliszewski praises it for, well, focusing on the family. "No dysfunctional mess here. In fact, strong family ties are what ultimately weaves this story together. … It's clear they both love each other deeply."
The Virgin Suicides, a suburban angst drama based on Jeffrey Eugenides' novel about five sisters who flirt with suicide, is drawing fire from The Catholic League for the portrayal of the overprotective mother (Kathleen Turner) as a devout Catholic. League president William Donohue says in a statement that "a true story about sexuality and teenage suicide would show what happens to adolescents exposed to a 'value-free' Sixties-type home. It is not the kids who learn from the Dr. Lauras who wind up a psychological mess, it is the ones who were told by the Dr. Ruths to act on their own appetites who wind up that way." The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks says such accusations are misguided. "There is no villain in this film, only a mother who can't understand her daughters, a society that doesn't know how to raise its children, and teenagers struggling to find out who they are and sometimes never succeeding." The Dove Foundation says the movie does portray "religious upbringing as antiquated, offer[ing] no comfort for adolescent angst," but doesn't suggest that the mother's strictness was what drove the daughters to despair. Parks liked the film as a whole, which is "so enigmatic in its conclusions that it creates a captivating fog difficult to disperse," while The Dove Foundation sees only a melancholy haze: "It is a sad film that doesn't answer any questions."
Christian reviewers clamored for superlatives to describe The Basket, a limited release about a schoolteacher (Peter Coyote) who, during World War I, uses the newly invented game of basketball to help two German orphans gain acceptance in the Pacific Northwest. Movieguide calls it "one of the most wholesome, uplifting, redemptive movies ever released," which not only features "a strong Christian pastor who takes the orphans into his home," but a twist on the sports-movie genre "that has never been seen before." Preview's Paul Bicking says the "compelling story will intrigue and inspire audiences," as well as teach "lessons about prejudice, forgiveness and teamwork." The Dove Foundation notes that unlike many low-budget family-friendly releases, The Basket is "very well made. The production values are top notch and the cinematography is outstanding." It's deemed "an engaging film parents will enjoy with their kids."Critics are also enthusiastic about next week's TV mini-series, Jesus, which will air on CBS in two parts, May 14 and 17. Produced by the same committed Christians who were responsible for the TNT specials Abraham, Moses, and the Emmy-winning Joseph, this first foray into the New Testament is being embraced by reviewers with only minor reservations. Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com assures that "the integrity of the good news of the gospel and the message it communicates remains intact. … While some scriptural inaccuracies do appear, they are, for the most part, for dramatic enhancement." The film's director, Roger Young, says his biggest departure from previous Jesus movies is actually a tighter fit with the gospels: "What's always missing from the films of Jesus, it seems to me, is that he was a human being. If you go to the New Testament, you can see that he liked to dance, liked to drink, liked to eat. He made jokes, he called people by their nicknames—he made up their nicknames. He got angry, he blew up at people. All of that's in the Bible. … And that's the Jesus we're trying to portray." Dr. Ian Truscott, guest reviewer for Christ ian Spotlight, was mildly reproachful of this aim: "Like many who present Jesus' life, it too presents an agenda and does not let Jesus' life speak for itself." On the other hand, he says, "I don't think any movie could show you the real [Jesus]." Jeremy Sisto, the actor who plays Jesus, agrees: "So many people have a personal and specific idea of who Jesus is—and he's someone who has inspired millions of people. So, I had to decide from the beginning to let that go and try to relate to the story and person and interpretation that we were telling." Movieguide believes this down-to-earth Jesus (or as TV Guide puts it, Messiah-as-surfer-dude), "slightly diminish[es] the tension of Jesus being fully God as well as fully human. Even so, it is clear that the program recognizes: Jesus is the Messiah."
Steve Lansingh is editor of thefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
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