Look for Remember the Titans to top many Christian critics' ten-best lists come January. Although two other fact-based dramas, Erin Brockovich and Almost Famous, have earned equal praise for dramatic punch, Titans lacks the profanity and sexuality of those R-rated ventures, therefore earning the most unqualified kudos so far this year.
Remember the Titans is considered a sort of victory for proponents of family entertainment; Disney stripped the original script of its graphic language to get a PG rating, and the move has paid off at the box office with $20.9 million—Denzel Washington's biggest opening weekend ever. "This movie clearly takes a step back from other recent movies in its ability to carry out a compelling story without senseless violence, sex, nudity, and foul language," says Movieguide. "One of the best movies of the year, it is a refreshing and uplifting, often humorous, look at the positive side of high school football." The high school in question has just undergone racial integration, and the football players' ability to overcome prejudice and work as a team helps unite their divided community. Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com liked the way it "illustrates how a team mentality can overcome individual fears and prejudices. … It isn't preached or sermonized with grandiose verbiage. It is simply lived by those on the screen. It is displayed for us through these characters who grew to understand, appreciate and love one another." One such character is coach Herman Boone (played by Washington), a strong leader who uses training camp to force his players to get to know each other. Despite his heroism, he remains convincingly human, says The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks. "Calling Coach Boone the hero of our story isn't exactly right. While he's certainly the focal character and a man of deep integrity, he's not without his flaws. … In particular, [he] treats all of his players the same even though they respond in dramatically different fashion to his harsh demeanor." Preview's John Evans agreed that "Boone's tough, demanding treatment of the players seems overdone at times. But he's [also] shown to be a sincere, sensitive man and imbues his players with high ideals." The biggest point of disagreement was a brief scene where one teammate kisses another in the locker room in order to unsettle him. Movieguide says "this is done as a joke, not as a homosexual element," and the Dove Foundation's Phil Boatwright says "personally, I think he was just messing with the guy's head." Others thought it was indeed homosexual; Elliott called it "an apparent nod to our 'tolerant' times," and the ChildCare Action Project says it's "clearly making the homosexual presence a token." Interestingly, there was no debate on the film's treatment of Christians. Although one racist parent is mentioned as being a deacon in his church, another makes her son go to church rather than meet with his black teammate, and a coach's suggestion for prayer and reflection is ignored, Christian critics only had compliments to give. Preview singles out "one remark about trusting the Lord" as inspiring, and Bob Smithouser of Focus on the Family praises the "old-fashioned respect for discipline, integrity and Christian faith."
The rerelease of The Exorcist is a different film than the one that Billy Graham denounced in 1973 as evil. Billed as "the version you've never seen," it includes 11 minutes of additional footage—including theological conversation between the two exorcism priests, and a clarified conclusion. But does the new version go far enough? Peter T. Chattaway of B.C. Christian News says it still falls short. Although the update makes clear that good triumphs over evil (the original was more ambiguous), Chattaway chides, "If God has anything to do with the demon's defeat, it's not obvious within the film." Instead, he says, the forces of good are merely lucky. The ChildCare Action Project agrees there was a "tendency to give evil too much autonomy against and invulnerability to the power of our Lord." Still, critics stopped well short of calling it evil. Paul Bicking of Preview doesn't recommend the film, but says it "definitely encourages religious discussion," and is impressed that "Catholic rituals of communion and exorcism are treated with respect." Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure says the film points to God for answers, since the "despair at the limitations of humanity is truly the scariest part of this movie." Even the U.S. Catholic Conference says that while "the movie is on shaky ground theologically … the result is an exciting horror fantasy for those with strong stomachs." (And they mean that literally—the movie was such a shock to viewers in 1973 that vomiting in theaters was reported around the country.) Today's audiences might be less affected by its low-tech effects, but the Dove Foundation warns that there's still "some pretty spooky imagery, what with an innocent baby-faced preteen suddenly spitting up green slime by the gallons and stabbing her bloodied vagina with a crucifix."
The new horror flick Urban Legends: Final Cut is likewise filled with disturbing material, but lacks any meaningful subtext. "There is slashing murder, stabbing murder, beating murder, gunfire murder, hanging murder, electrocution murder, axe murder and probably a murder or two I missed while logging all these murders," says the ChildCare Action Project's anonymous reviewer about the violent content. The Dove Foundation's Phil Boatwright muses that the characters' willingness to "keep strolling down those desolate campus locations [may be] a comment on the youthful belief that they are immortal. Or maybe it's just bad writing." The U.S. Catholic Conference complains that it's "not even good enough to be called camp." More seriously, Movieguide was bothered by "an evil overtone … present throughout the movie, which tells a dark and sick story." Focus on the Family's Jonathan Bartha didn't like how the film "seeks to confuse the boundaries of fiction and real life." Since it's about a film student (named Amy) being stalked by a killer, "At any given moment, it is hard to decipher whether the violence on screen is part of the killer's rampage, part of Amy's film or part of a dream sequence."
While some critics found some wisdom in Beautiful, a drama about a beauty queen scheming to win a national crown, no one had much fun seeing it. "What begins as a sweet story of childhood friendship and achievement quickly deteriorates into a clichéd and scattered mess that becomes painful to watch," says Preview's John Adair. Mona, played by Minnie Driver, "inexplicably becomes a selfish backstabber, even willing to walk all over her best friend." The Dove Foundation was more engaged by the character, though, arguing that Mona's actions "poke fun at those so absorbed in their life's dreams that they miss out on life. … Cattiness, self-absorption, bad family relations and sexual suggestiveness are the breading grounds for humor and pathos in this wise but often gloomy film." Movieguide also noted some wisdom, highlighting that "inner beauty is what prevails in the end." The U.S. Catholic Conference interpreted the conclusion more gloomily, rejecting the "implausible ending [for] rewarding selfish actions."
The story of Woman on Top charmed most Christian critics, but its clumsy handling of adultery and mysticism soured them by the film's end. "There's so much positive to say about this comic fairy tale," write the Dove Foundation. "First, there is the music: a great bosa nova/samba beat. … Then there is the romantic cadence, which lately has also taken a backseat in the arts to more edgy sensations. … And last, and certainly not least, is the enchanting presence of Penelope Cruz. She's soft, smart and luminous." Isabella (played by Cruz) is a young chef who, after her husband cheats on her, moves to the United States and becomes the star of her own cooking show. However, her cooking talent is attributed to a goddess' powers, complains Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com. "There is a pervasive element of spiritual error woven into the fabric of the story, as Isabella and the residents of her Brazilian home of Bahia worship … a fantasy sea goddess named Yemanja." And John Adair of Preview says it trivializes adultery, as Isabella's husband's "aggressive nature and simple passion endear him to the audience" and we end up "feeling sorry for him." Movieguide agrees with its colleagues: "This movie could have been produced solely as a charming new independent movie to put a smile on your face, but it has been built instead on a fatal foundation of paganism, immorality, sexual perversion, and occultism."
Christians who work in Hollywood speak out at Beliefnet about the lack of support they receive from their brothers and sisters outside the industry. CBS Studio Center president Michael Klausman "estimates that more than 1,000 Christians meet for organized prayer every week at his lot alone," and says he "rarely turns down a chance to talk about Christ." Beliefnet reports that he gave the keynote speech at a "the second annual 'Praise Breakfast' organized by Media Fellowship International, one of more than a dozen Christian groups in Hollywood." Yet from those Christians outside television, Klausman fields mostly complaints about content. "If I say I'm not going to do Will and Grace, I get fired, and now I'm not an influence at all," he says. Alternate programming ideas he receives from other Christians just won't turn a profit. "I have people who approach me with Christian poodle acts and play 'Jesus Loves Me' on the piano and don't understand why we can't make a series out of that," he says. "I've got a cassette of exorcisms they feel could be the next great reality program. I don't think so." Worse, part of the reason wholesome or spiritual programming doesn't sell is because Christians have been reluctant to support it themselves. Mary Sweeney, screenwriter of last year's well-praised but underperforming The Straight Story, says she "was very, very disappointed. Of all the people criticizing Hollywood, not a single one of them championed the film." And X-Men producer Ralph Winter, "a devout Presbyterian … says more than 100 wealthy evangelicals turned him down not long ago when he sought funding for a film version of Left Behind, the wildly popular Christian best-seller." Many Christians in Hollywood even avoid publicly announcing their faith because they fear "criticism from evangelicals beyond" the industry. "We're the only people still in the closet," says Barbara Nicolosi, a Catholic who runs a workshop for Christian screenwriters.
Steve Lansingh is editor of TheFilmForum.com, an Internet magazine devoted to Christian conversation about the movies.
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