It was a week for mixed messages at the movies: The tempted-by-Satan comedy Bedazzled had some good points to make about the devil, but some lousy points to make about redemption. Pay It Forward, a drama about starting a "chain letter" of good deeds, also drew criticism for implying that humankind can save itself, but was highly praised for endorsing compassion.
In Bedazzled, the devil (Elizabeth Hurley) buys the soul of Elliot Richards (Brendan Fraser) for seven wishes, which Elliot uses to try to become the dream guy for his dream girl. The wishes, of course, go humorously awry, since the devil is a master of trickery and duplicity. "Hidden in this film are some remarkable (and no doubt inadvertent) truths about the nature of Satan," says Curtis D. Smith, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight. "Over and over we witness deception, lies, unfulfilled promises of satisfaction and arrogance on the part of Hurley's character, the father of lies." Movie Reporter Phil Boatwright agrees, saying "this rendition of the classic tale of Faust selling his soul to Mephistopheles reminds viewers of Satan's seductive offers, and how they come at a price." Boatwright also praises the film's comic touches. "When Elizabeth Hurley ... confirms that God exists and that he is a man, she adds, 'Most men think they are God. This one just happens to be right.' Well, I nearly doubled over. It was a great line and a pitch-perfect delivery." But the U.S. Catholic Conference wasn't rib-tickled, calling it a "tiresome film [that] emphasizes makeup and costuming more than humorous substance." Steven Isaac of Focus on the Family attacks the theology, too, saying the spiritual truths are outweighed by the misconceptions. "On closer inspection," Isaac says, "humanistic theology and spiritual smokescreens turn [the movie] into a monster. Quite literally, Elliot conquers Satan and earns his salvation with his own strength. And God is just another guy in the park with a few good ideas."
Pay It Forward's central idea—to do big favors for three people and ask them to pass favors on to three others—was inspiring to many Christian critics. "The concept of helping others is uplifting, and a welcome relief from more self-serving themes in many of today's movies," says Preview's John Evans, and the U.S. Catholic Conference calls it a "poignant drama [with an] exemplary message." However, the favors which Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) does to start the movement were met with skepticism. "Part of the flaw of Pay It Forward is in the depiction of the good deeds themselves," says Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott. "Trevor's first act is an ill-advised one of bringing home a homeless drug addict and letting him spend the night. Later, a bag lady will, as her 'pay it forward' responsibility, help a fleeing criminal escape from the police. We should all aspire to do good for others, but we must be wise in our actions and true to the laws of the land." Another favor that drew criticism was Trevor's attempt to get his lonely teacher (Kevin Spacey) together with his mom (Helen Hunt), which rankled the Rev. Ed McNulty of Beliefnet: "Hollywood's propensity for showing premarital sex as an answer to everyone's prayers won out: Trevor is improbably shown rejoicing when he sees his mother and teacher sharing the same bed." Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser was disappointed that characters relied on their own strength for redemption. "Despite good points about forgiveness, the fallout from addiction, and the need to reach out to struggling strangers," says Smithouser, "the message is humanistic. God has no place in the recovery of individuals or society." Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com, though, found the message of forgiveness poignant even without an explicit reference to God. "This is a heartbreaking story that proves how the golden rule pays off when an act of kindness is performed, but it's also about redemption and forgiveness," says McClure. "Mimi Leder has directed a movie about emotional healing from life's scars and how easily forgiveness can mend broken hearts and lives." (However, McClure warns parents that the previews for the film don't hint at how dark the movie is. "Even though the trailers show Osment with Spacey in a classroom situation, the story is not aimed at kids. This is an adult movie.") For more about this film at ChristianityToday.com, see Douglas LeBlanc's review/interview with director Mimi Leder and my movie review.
Martial artist Jackie Chan has successfully crossed over to American movies with hits like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon, but some folks still prefer the badly dubbed Hong Kong movies he used to make. The Legend of Drunken Master is one of these, a 1994 film that's hitting American theaters for the first time. Paul Bicking of Preview says it's a "combination of Buster Keaton comedy and High Noon showdown," and that "Chan fans won't be disappointed." Chan plays real-life Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hong, an expert in the "drunken boxing" style of fighting who tries to break up a smuggling ring. Phil Boatwright, editor of The Movie Reporter (his full-length reviews are unavailable now that iBelieve.com has closed up shop), cautions that "this action comedy contains a huge amount of violence and some suggestive sexual dialogue." Bicking agrees: "Typical of martial arts films, the fight scenes are almost non-stop. While a few scenes are exhibition-type displays, most involve severe injury and dangerous weapons. In one scene, one man fights with an axe stuck in his back. Other scenes involve severe beatings and fights with heated metal rods."
In Bamboozled, writer/director Spike Lee delivers a satire about marginalized status of black entertainers in television. In the film, an African-American TV writer sarcastically suggests a "minstrel show" that presents nothing but stereotyped images of black people, and the show becomes a huge hit. Movieguide wasn't impressed, saying that while "the movie makes some good points about negative stereotypes, it does not really try to come up with a strong moral solution to the issue of ethnic conflicts or the alleged problem of the lack of minority groups in power positions in the media." But J. Robert Parks of the Phantom Tollbooth disagrees, saying the film isn't about solutions but about helping races understand each other. "As Lee provocatively shows, blacks and whites are not only speaking different languages about race, but they're trying to translate for each other. This inevitably leads to miscommunication and one side or the other taking offense." Because of the misunderstandings, many black entertainers have to choose between speaking to a white audience or a black one, rather than both at the same time, says Parks. "Do you segregate yourself and end up preaching to the choir, or do you jump into the white-dominated culture of packaged entertainment and risk losing your identity?" Preview's John Adair agrees that Lee makes several good points, but was chagrined by the weak plot. "Starting off well with a biting commentary on the state of network television today, Bamboozled eventually loses steam, and weakens its 'big' ending."
The story of Billy Elliot earned strong reviews from Christian critics, although few recommendations, due to a repeated expletive. "Billy Elliott in many ways is a poignant and often humorous family drama," says Movieguide. The film tells of the son of a coal minor who trades in his boxing gloves for ballet shoes when he discovers a talent for dance. "Family situations lie at the heart of this well-produced, well-acted movie, which chugs along rather nicely, especially in the entertaining, original dance numbers." John Adair of Preview also notes the strong family themes, writing that it "portrays the strength gained from family, as the Elliots band together during financially hard times and stick by each other no matter what the cost. ... Billy Elliot is a sweet and endearing movie with a fantastic performance from young Jamie Bell [in the title role]." Phil Boatwright of The Movie Reporter says "this compelling story shows how a passion and a God-given gift can help overcome poverty and prejudice," and Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott highlights the lesson that "sometimes we have to ignore what people might think in order to change how people do think." In each case, though, the film was not recommended, due to four-dozen uses of the f-word. Christian critics found it a loss that a feel-good movie should be too raunchy to view; Entertainment Weekly used the R-rating of such an uplifting story as an example of where the MPAA ratings fail. "It seems reasonable to wonder why a film like Billy Elliot—which doesn't feature any sex, extreme violence, or mature themes—should get the same rating as, say, Scary Movie," says the magazine. MPAA head Jack Valenti defends their ratings, but notes that starting next week, "all advertisements for an MPAA-sanctioned film will not only include the rating but also detail why that rating was received." While it remains to be seen how detailed or helpful the new labeling will be, the announcement acknowledges the call from mainstream and Christian press for more information about movie content.
Fans of Air Bud, the basketball-playing dog, can now enjoy an ice-skating monkey in MVP: Most Valuable Primate. In the film, a chimp named Jack escapes a California research facility and takes off for Canada, befriending a deaf girl named Tara and her brother, Steven, who teaches Jack the finer points of hockey. "A chimp becoming a star hockey player somewhat stretches the imagination," writes John Evans of Preview, "and, of course, some of the slapstick humor is corny. But Jack's comical facial expressions and antics keep the audience laughing." Well, only the younger audience members, says Movie Reporter Phil Boatwright, who says he's "not a monkey movie person. ... But I think parents will get ... pleasure knowing their little ones are laughing at pretty clean (and often funny) material." In fact, the material in this PG-rated film was so clean that some reviewers thought it should have been G-rated. The ChildCare Action Report, which graphs the amount of offensive material in movies, concluded that they "have no idea why this movie was rated PG," and praised the positive role models, like Steven: "a loving and supportive sibling, so much unlike the plethora of siblings in movies nowadays." Movieguide found some flaws, like "making animals seem more human than they really are, and a subtle case against animal research," but overall thought "MVP stands out as very likable and cute."
Steve Lansingh is editor of TheFilmForum.com, an Internet magazine devoted to Christian conversation about the movies.
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