Violence ruled the crop of new films, despite the wide variety of genres: comedy (Nurse Betty), suspense (The Watcher), science fiction (Highlander: Endgame) and film noir (The Way of the Gun). Even among the decapitations, scalpings, and torture, though, Christian critics were able to find a few redeemable nuggets.
The Watcher: mediocre stalker film or incisive social commentary? Christian critics supported both theories, balking at the "predictable twists and contrived dialogue" ( U.S. Catholic Conference) but looking closer at what the film says "about how relationships work in our society" (Carole McDonnell at Christian Spotlight). The movie has a serial killer (Keanu Reeves) torment a burned-out detective (James Spader) with tantalizing clues—including photos of his intended targets—to create a cat-and-mouse game between them. McDonnell says the film is indicative of changing social patterns: "The serial killer is aware of his victim's schedule and life. More so than the victim's parents and friends. … It makes one wonder: what makes for attachment in a world where families are strangers and strangers, like therapists, are family? And, is a negative bond better than no bond at all?" Doug Phillips, whose review is also at Christian Spotlight, likewise gives a sociological perspective, calling "the idea of the media broadcasting a photo all day, and no one recognizing the picture and calling the police in time to save [the victim], is meant as some kind of social commentary about us being too busy and not being connected to our neighbors." As a film, though, The Watcher drew less praise. Preview's Paul Bicking says "viewers may find the cat-and-mouse game overly long," and "while gore is kept to a minimum, there are still several views of bloody victims and fiery deaths." The Dove Foundation was unnerved by "the sadistic pleasure the madman gets out of tormenting the law and his victims," and particularly loathed the how attractive Reeves' character was: "He's witty, buffed and skilled. He's more steamy than creepy … glorify[ing] demonic behavior." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com, on the other hand, thought Reeves' seductiveness was the film's best element. "Reeves also does surprisingly well in the role of the serial killer. Spookily charming, and chillingly unemotional … there's a detachment to his character that adds to the suspense."
The dark comedy Nurse Betty is a precarious balance between sweetness and evil, and Christian critics split over which they felt was most dominant. The film stars Renee Zellweger as a small-town waitress who witnesses her husband's bloody murder and suffers a post-trauma delusion that her favorite medical soap opera is real. She packs her bags for California to "reunite" with the show's lead character, but the killers (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) pursue her as their next target. "Audiences will love Betty's endearing, innocent charm," says Ed Crumley of Preview, "and will find Nurse Betty a humorous flight of soap opera fantasy. … [It's] a clever, well-acted, and -directed dark comedy." Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott also loved Betty's sweetness, saying "the innocence which she brings to the film is so all-encompassing that it defuses much of what is vile and ugly surrounding her character." He also praises the film's "concept of love which motivates and drives us forward, and some scenes which are as tenderly amusing as others are darkly disturbing." But the Dove Foundation's Phil Boatright argues that its darkness overwhelms the charm. "[The] comedy is always associated with the film's brutality, so that you find yourself laughing just after viewing something disgusting or unnerving. … No matter how fine the technical and artistic achievements of a film may be, if the content is troubling to my spirit, its virtues often become insignificant." Jeffrey Overstreet (who just moved from Green Lake Reflections to Promontory Artists' Looking Closer) was also troubled by its "bleak perspective." He says "the story wants to encourage us to hang on to our dreams, no matter how sentimental they are. … Dreams, it seems, make Betty's world seem a better place than it actually is. I find this to be cold comfort. Convincing yourself of a lie may make you feel better, but it hardly helps one gain understanding or hope in real life."
With a name like The Way of the Gun, it's got to be violent. And yet a spiritual element in the film has kept Christian critics from dismissing it outright. "Although primarily a crime story, the characters don't shy away from discussing such topics as the existence of God and the concept of redemption," notes Preview's John Adair. "One of the criminals wonders aloud what he will have to offer God when his time comes." Adair also praises its "wealth of interesting characters, sharp dialogue, and an involving plotline." This plotline follows two friends (Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe) who decide to step out of the "natural order," which for them means a life enslaved at minimum wage, and hold for ransom a surrogate mother to a millionaire couple. For Movieguide, though, this rejection of the "natural order" and a stated rejection of forgiveness from God constituted an assault on Christianity rather than a hopeful exploration of ideas, as Adair suggests. "Regrettably, this bitter reflection is an attack against the only One who truly can offer peace and forgiveness," writes Movieguide's uncredited reviewer (presumably Movieguide head Ted Baehr). "The movie's dark theme is reflected in its depiction of violence and crude behavior and in its blasphemous messages." (The OnFilm eGroup is currently discussing how sympathetic the audience is supposed to be to the characters' viewpoint, suggesting that these anti-heroes might not be intended as role models.) Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com disagrees with Adair's assessment of the characters and plot, writing that the script "is filled with as many implausible plot twists and turns to qualify it as a ride in a surreal theme park," while the U.S. Catholic Conference says "the intelligent film [has a] complex, absorbing narrative and impressive performances."Less intelligent, absorbing, and impressive was Highlander: Endgame, the fourth movie in the tired series. New this time around is Duncan McCloud (Adrian Paul), the subject of the Highlander TV series, who joins his brother Connor (Christopher Lambert) from the three Highlander films in battling evil immortals. Paul Bicking of Preview says it's "basically for the series fans, [and] may leave others wondering what's going on." The McClouds' enemy this time is Kell, the son of a priest Connor killed while trying to save his mother from burning at the stake. Bicking notes that "although raised by a priest, Kell is obsessed with revenge. … Duncan expresses hope in forgiveness for past errors and tells Kell that 'revenge never brings redemption.' Unfortunately, there's too much revenge and too little redemption." The Dove Foundation also said the spiritual angle went to waste: "It's not about spirituality or good vs. evil. Nor is it about character development. It's just one sword fight, martial arts battle or posterior-kicking after another." Of course, that's enough to get some in the door. Highlander fan Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com said it was worth it just to see Lambert and Paul team up. "The two had great chemistry, made this movie worth watching, and could have made it a huge hit if they had been given a better script." Don't forget melodramatic performances and kitschy special effects," adds the U.S. Catholic Conference.
Are American Christians too homogeneous? Pastor Jimmy Chalmers thinks it's possible; his article at the church ministry site Next-Wave compares Christians to Star Trek's collective-thinking Borg. "The Borg were cosmic vacuum cleaners that cruised around the galaxy [assimilating life forms]. They lived in a gigantic bee-like family where individuality of thought does not exist. … The real life of the person has been exchanged for the cold steel of machine. … Like the Borg, [Christians] cruise around planet earth looking to increase our number. We find someone and assimilate them into our group. We run them through a class or two teaching them how to be like us and then they come out looking and acting much like all the others we have collected along the way. … They come in with hearts hungry for God and go out robot-like instead of Jesus-like. … I'll never forget a man I knew who thought the contemporary Christian band Petra was 'of the devil.' … After talking with this brother I came to a conclusion: he liked Bach, he just didn't like rock. He wanted me, and all like me, to view the world of Christianity the same way he did. He wanted me to exchange the life of God for the machine of religious thinking."
Steve Lansingh is editor of thefilmforum.com, an Internet magazine devoted to Christian conversation about the movies.
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