First off, a salute to Steve Lansingh, who introduced Film Forum, has kept it in fine form since November 1999, and who is now moving on to other things. Steve has done us all a favor, keeping us informed of different perspectives and opinions within the Christian community as well as the film criticism community at large. His work has promoted healthy dialogue about filmmaking, and because of Film Forum many of us have encountered good work we might otherwise have missed. Thanks, Steve, and best wishes in whatever you do for a sequel. It will be a challenge to maintain the standard that you have set.
We've been experiencing "post-Oscar slump." Studios threw all of their quality work at us in the past few months to qualify for Oscar nominations in time, and now critics in the mainstream and religious media alike have been picking through leftovers—half-baked, primarily commercial fare. Here is a review of what they have concluded about February's big releases.
While audiences gave Ridley Scott's Hannibal one of the highest opening weekends in history, many critics in both the religious and mainstream press have reservations about the infamous cannibal's return to the big screen. Like many viewers, Dick Rolfe at The Dove Foundation finds the film's excessively gory spectacles difficult to, uh, stomach. "I had to turn away from the screen lest I pass out in the midst of my film critic peers, some of whom I caught turning their heads at the same time. … We don't need to patronize Hannibal to know what man is capable of at his lowest, most demented state." Others found more to unsettle them than the violence. J. Robert Parks at The Phantom Tollbooth takes issue with the film's " typically condescending approach to religion, specifically Christianity. "The film's two vilest characters … are both linked to Christianity," he observes, "and Christianity is offhandedly linked to child molestation. Later, a genuinely blasphemous crucifixion metaphor is introduced, which is followed by a revolting pre-'dinner' prayer." Jonathan V. Last atBeliefnet notes the evolution of Hannibal Lecter's character over the three films. "He first appeared as a caged monster, then softened into an evil genius, and now he stands before us as a nondenominational leading man. The Hannibal in Hannibal is no longer a villain. Where Lecter was once an evil genius, he is now simply a genius—he has moved beyond good and evil. … What is truly pernicious about Hannibal is that it puts us in a universe where the very notions good and evil are laughable." Ted Baehr of Movieguide simply calls the film "a thoroughly despicable movie."
Down to Earth did not inspire such violent responses, but failed to generate much enthusiasm. The film, which updates the Heaven Can Wait formula, casts Chris Rock as a man given a second chance at life, reincarnated as a wealthy Caucasian industrialist. While J. Robert Parks at The Phantom Tollbooth admits to being a Chris Rock fan, he advises that we avoid high expectations of the film. "Don't expect much in the way of plot or character development. Don't be surprised when the direction and blocking remind you of an 8th-grade drama performance." He does find one aspect of the film intriguing. "It's this issue of how language changes depending on whether it's uttered by a white person or a black person … how the very same joke, phrase, or speech can provoke extremely different reactions depending solely on the race of the speaker and the race of his or her audience." Holly McClure of The Dove Foundation finds it difficult to go along with the film's leaps of logic, especially when the leading lady falls for the reincarnated comic. "It's hard to fathom that a young, beautiful black woman with high ideals and intelligence, would be swept up off her feet and fall for an older white man in his 60's just because he's rich and turns generous doing a good deed for her. That part not only doesn't make sense, it feels wrong, awkward and, well, gross." Ted Baehr at Movieguide writes off the film for its "abhorrent New Age theology and left-wing ideology." Michael Elliot atMovieParables thinks the film's perspective of the afterlife is unsatisfying, and the film disappointing: "The racial twist is by far the most interesting element to this remake but the filmmakers simply don't employ it in ways to make any kind of social statement. It is a wasted opportunity. As a pure comedy, apart from Rock's closing standup routine, there is nothing that gives this film any distinction."
Some steered clear of comedy and carnage, preferring the more conventional romance of Sweet November, a remake of a 1968 film of the same title. "Women will probably enjoy this movie the most," says Holly McClure of The Dove Foundation. "We tend to gravitate to impossible love stories that end up working." Nevertheless, she raises an eyebrow over the film's plausibility and insight. "The premise of a woman taking a perfect stranger into her home for a month to romance, coddle, support and 'fix' him, is not only dangerously stupid and unhealthy, but ridiculously unrealistic." The moral development of Nelson (Keanu Reeves) leads Betty Hamm at Hollywood Jesus to observe parallels between the way Satan ensnares people in the world and the way he sought to ensnare Christ. "Mr. Price, an advertising demi-god, offers Nelson the world on a platter. It is a similar offer to the one Satan gave Jesus in the wilderness. Nelson must consider the cost." Michael Elliott at MovieParables also observed fundamental truths at work in the story of Nelson's redemption. "The daily habit patterns of life and living can lead to a certain dullness of mind … effectively numbing one's perception of the variety and diversity which exists in all of God's creation." But however strong the film's moral, Elliott still finds the quality of the filmmaking so poor that he can't resist playing off of the film's title: "It doesn't take long for Sweet November to start leaving a sour aftertaste. This remake tries to get by on the sugary charisma of its stars and, for a time, it succeeds, only to be ultimately done in by the gaping cavities that develop in its script."
Disney's Recess: School's Out, a big screen version of the popular animated television show, divided critics. Michael Elliott at MovieParables appreciates that the film "embraces the unique childlike imagination to which we can all relate because each one of us was, at some time, a child." Though he finds it a bit too long, Elliott concludes that the movie is "an agreeable family picture that contains a little something for everyone." Holly McClure of The Dove Foundation raves, "The story is fantasy at its finest. What kid hasn't imagined him or herself pitted against evil forces to save summer vacation—and coming out the winner?" At Movieguide, Ted Baehr says, "Recess should be commended for its attempt to make an exciting adventure film for elementary school age children while managing to do minimal social or spiritual harm to its young audience." But the United States Catholic Conference has no praise for the film's craftsmanship: "Chuck Sheetz's film feels like an extended series episode with flat animation and a flimsy narrative."
New this week, Monkeybone, a film about a cartoonist stuck in a nightmare of his own making, is receiving almost universally bad press. Movieguide lists off the film's transgressions as though they were reading a criminal record. "While brimming with creativity from stars like Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda, and Chris Kattan of TV's Saturday Night Live, this movie contains crude sexual references, a pagan worldview, demonic occult elements, and creepy characters." The United States Catholic Conference is not so offended, but points out a problem in the storytelling. "As directed by Henry Selick, the live-action/stop-motion animation film is filled with entertaining characters and kooky creations but the muddled narrative is impenetrable." MovieParables' Michael Elliott gives his own "thumbs down" to the film. "The sexual innuendoes run as wild as a pack of crazed monkeys in this visually adventurous but narratively inane story." Even the king of mainstream film critics, Roger Ebert, observes, "strangeness is not enough. There must also be humor, and characters who exist for some reason other than to look bizarre."
Pollock is actor/director Ed Harris's labor of love, a movie he worked to make for ten years, describing the troubled life of brilliant and self-destructive artist Jackson Pollock. The movie has earned Marcia Gay Harden an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and Harris himself a nomination for Best Actor. The United States Catholic Conference has mixed feelings about his efforts: "Harris' directorial debut is an appropriately restrained work that grasps the troubled life of an artistic icon, although the finely wrought performances are hindered by a somewhat lagging narrative pace." Next week we'll provide more responses as other critics catch up with the film.
In 3000 Miles to Graceland, a group of ex-cons (played by Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, among others) storm a Las Vegas casino dressed as Elvises. The heist goes well, but the movie does not, according to almost all critics. The United States Catholic Conference has no patience for it, describing the film as "Extended scenes of brutality … topped off with narrative inconsistencies and an amoral conclusion." Michael Elliott at MovieParables sees bad implications about society in general as he reflects on the film. "The filmmakers ask us to sympathize and root for [the bad guys] to succeed and use their considerable manipulation skills to marshal our emotions to their side," Elliot writes. "It says a lot about our society when the only verbalized reaction of regret or dismay from the audience comes at the demise of a cherry red 1959 Cadillac convertible. The dozens of characters who were killed along the way don't even merit a whimper." Movieguide denounced the film as well. "The pagan worldview in 3000 Miles to Graceland turns a criminal into a hero by making him just a little less ruthless than the other criminals. … This movie is one of the most abhorrent movies of the last three years." Mainstream critics seemed troubled on technical aspects. Christopher Null at Filmcritic.com comes out with barrels blazing in his review. "For two long hours, the film presents us with an unbearable litany of unbelievable coincidences and awful continuity errors that would have Elvis himself spinning in his grave. (Case in point: It's only 1,600 miles by road from Las Vegas to Memphis, not 3,000.)" Roger Ebert sounds like the film gave him a headache: "Here's a movie without an ounce of human kindness, a sour and mean-spirited enterprise so desperate to please, it tries to be a yukky comedy and a hard-boiled action picture at the same time."
Interested in Something Off the Beaten Path?
The Widow of St. Pierre opens in a limited release this week. Doris Toumarkine of the International Film Journal calls the film "reminiscent of the works of Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac" and writes, "The Widow of St. Pierre is a magnificent production that also evokes … the austerity and self-serving pettiness embraced by France's establishment of the mid-19th century. … The film also means to be a plea for the impoverished. It is just as compelling in its equally timely attack on capital punishment." You can expect to hear more on this film as it opens more widely across the country.
J. Robert Parks at The Phantom Tollbooth recommends In the Mood for Love, a meditative look at Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), a husband and a wife (not married to each other) who discover their spouses are having an affair. As they try to come to terms with the infidelity, they struggle with their own growing mutual attraction. Parks calls the film "gorgeous and moving … As you're drawn more and more into Chow and Su's lives, you start noticing their small gestures, their clipped sentences, their subtle expressions. Their emotions become your emotions. You become enmeshed in their sense of loss and attraction." Holly McClure of The Dove Foundation finds timely insight in this story set in the '60s, saying, "it mirrors the despair and the aloneness created by today's cyber-obsessed generation. Despite the ability to reach out to people throughout the world by the mere touch of a computer keyboard, people are feeling more cut-off than ever before." This release, she concludes, isn't exactly a feel-good movie: "It is well acted and subtly directed, but I left the theater feeling depressed." That might steer some people away, but sometimes a downer can also contain keen insight, and the rave reviews following this movie around seem to recommend it as rich and revealing.
A short film called Last Resort is opening in a limited release this week. It focuses on the plight of a young Russian mother who goes to meet her fiance in Britain, but he doesn't show up at the airport as planned. She declares herself a refugee to avoid being hauled back to Moscow, but is soon imprisoned—and worse. As of yet, critics in the religious media have not caught up with the film. But Christopher Null of Filmcritic.com writes, "Last Resort is a small movie, with simple themes and a running time slightly longer than your typical episode of ER. However, it carries far more power than any old TV show—and most other movies, to boot." Internet film critic James Berardinelli at Reel Views is also impressed. "For anyone who has never experienced the unique fear of being alone, unprotected, and confused in a strange land with a different language, a different culture, and only uncaring bureaucrats to offer "aid," Paul Pavlikovsky's Last Resort presents a taste of the experience. The flavor isn't pleasant, but, by approaching the subject manner in the way he does, Pavlikovsky puts a human face on a problem that often goes by as a blur on the evening news: the tide of refugees and would-be immigrants to Western countries from former Soviet bloc nations." He concludes that the film "does what a good film of its ilk should do: offer a window overlooking a fragment of society that the average viewer is unfamiliar with." Village Voice critic J. Hoberman says, "Pavlikowski has an eye for the menacingly forlorn and elegantly bleak." While none of these critics find much about the film that is hopeful or uplifting, a story told from a perspective of loneliness and desperation can sometimes inspire in viewers a deeper compassion for those in such a plight, and thus works like this should not be neglected. Roger Ebert has strong words about the film's ending: "Some movies abandon their soul by solving everything with their endings. To pretend a character's problems can be solved is a cheat—in a realistic film, anyway (comedies, fantasies and formulas are another matter). I like the way Last Resort ends, how it concludes its emotional journey without pretending the underlying story is over."
So it seems the "post-Oscar slump" may not be a cinematic wasteland after all. You might just need to pay a visit to one of those small arthouse theatres to find some buried treasure.
A look at the new screwball comedy The Mexican starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, more responses to Pollock, and other critical perspectives on new films opening in March.
Jeffrey Overstreet is on the board of Promontory Artists Association, a non-profit organization based in Seattle, which provides community, resources, and encouragement for Christian artists. He edits an artists' magazine (The Crossing), publishes frequent film and music reviews on his website (Looking Closer), and is at work on a series of novels. His work has also appeared in Christianity and the Arts Magazine.
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