Many avoided seeing You Can Count On Me, no doubt because it is Rated "R." Some will steer clear because, among other things, the film includes some foul language … mostly the fault of Terry, its roguish ugly duckling. For numerous critics, myself included, You Can Count On Me was one of the more beautiful and profound films of 2000, a deeply moving story about recovering sinaholics. (It also contained two of the best performances of the year.) Should we have abstained from the film because of Terry's swearing? We might ask Pastor Ron, "What's the Church's official position on cussing?" "Well," he'd say, "It's a sin." "But should we stay away from movies when we might hear it? Shouldn't moviemakers quit putting swearing in their movies?"
Last week, critics and readers raised their voices on whether onscreen nudity is or is not appropriate … and if it is, how, when, and where "proper" use is distinguished. (You can read a follow-up at the end of today's column.) Next week, we'll move on to the subject of foul language. Some press STOP when they hear a swear word on their movie rental. Others don't. Write to me with your thoughts. Is profanity ever appropriate in popular media? How does the Bible inform your view? Do parents have special responsibilities in these matters?
Hot From The Oven
Jurassic Park 3 was a sure financial success. (It's made $81.4 million at this writing, six days after opening.) People love dinosaurs; no matter how poor the script, they'll line up to see prehistoric monsters stomp through the woods and chase people. I admit it: I'm a sucker for the genre. I love the amusement-park thrill of being scared, and there's something healthy about recognizing ourselves as we run screaming from the very trouble our own god complexes can set in motion. (My full review is online at Looking Closer.) For most audiences, though, the biggest suspense about JPIII is whether there is enough amusement in the Park.
Naysayers had T-Rex-sized complaints. Carrie Rostollan at Christian Spotlight on the Movies walked in saying, "Please let this movie be something more than eye candy." She was disappointed. "JPIII falls flat, simply a vehicle for a long string of action sequences with no memorable moments. It's less preachy about evolution, but it doesn't find anything new to say, either." Movie Parables' Michael Elliott was disappointed as well: "As action-packed as JPIII is, it lacks the dramatic tension to produce the requisite scares that the genre demands." (Elliott uses this as a launching point for some interesting ideas about how dinosaurs might have fit into the pattern of creation.) Megan Lenz at The Phantom Tollbooth demands more plausibility from her summer rollercoaster: "Are we really to believe that the collective governments, armies and scientists of the world are allowing dinosaurs to run amok on various islands in the Pacific? Are we really to believe that the members of the original Jurassic Park posse will continually and voluntarily get within spitting distance of said islands?"
On the other side of the electrified fence, Phil Boatwright reacted to the implausibility claim: "If you are searching for any kind of in-depth storyline, what are you doing in a second sequel to a movie about dinosaurs?" He's pleased with the portrayal of "a separated couple rediscovering their love, and the more noble characters being willing to lay down their lives for others. It also has very impressive special effects, with the huge dinos looking very real, and very menacing. This film is all about action." "[It's] the first completely thrilling action flick of the summer," agrees Movieguide's critic. "JPIII seems more redemptive and morally compelling than the other two movies." But there's a caution for parents and dinophobes: "Naturally, the movie includes plenty of intense, scary action violence." Peter T. Chattaway of The Vancouver Courier writes, "Surprise, surprise … [JPIII] just may be the purest thrill ride of the summer. [Director Joe] Johnston … doesn't waste time on preachy lessons about the evils of capitalism, the lessons of chaos theory, and the virtues of trusting in nature. Instead, he takes us, as briskly as possible, from one narrow escape to the next, and along the way, he throws in just enough new creatures to make the whole experience seem fresh again. Jurassic Park III is cynically amusing, not least when it takes digs at the previous films, and, most surprising of all, it actually may leave you wanting more."
Other critics were on the fence. John Barber at Preview reports that "Moviegoers expecting the twists and turns of the original Crichton novel or the movie magic of Spielberg's direction may be disappointed … but those who want action-packed fun with plenty of special effects wizardry and panoramic cinematography will find it." Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser notes that the hero, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), "reverently alludes to Darwin and evolutionary theory, yet later comments that the dinos were created by scientists who were 'playing God.' So, Dr. Grant, which is it, an impersonal emergence from the primordial ooze or a benevolent Creator who can bless people?" He adds, "The writing here is actually pretty good. I liked the way a fractured family is drawn together as they try to keep from being—quite literally—torn apart." Still, he's not completely swept off his feet by the flying and fierce pteranodons: "Sure, audiences get plenty of dino-bang for their buck this time around, but the franchise hasn't evolved much in eight years." The U.S. Catholic Conference shrugs, "Johnston reduces dialogue and characterization to throwaway status but turns in an energetic sequel whose action sequences deliver the accustomed thrills and spills."
Taking an altogether different approach, David Bruce of Hollywood Jesus digs up traces of truthfulness in the mythic backbone of this practically prehistoric genre. "This film is loaded with metaphors," he argues. "The film is basically about the horrors of family breakup. The dinosaurs represent the psychological traumas that the children of feuding parents must unfortunately face. Eric, with childhood resilience … goes into total isolation from everyone, and has to learn how to survive on his own … the plight of the children of divorce. Our forbidden island choices (deception, divorce, money, seduction) can adversely affect the lives of other people. There are consequences to our actions—we truly reap what we sow."
While most mainstream critics were ho hum about the whole affair, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker turned in a memorably funny and thoughtful review. He writes, "The first two installments of Jurassic Park … were baggy and bloated affairs, a chance for [Steven Spielberg] to prove that he could still be a journeyman. They did nothing for the shape of his genius and everything for the tumult of his cash flow. Jurassic Park III is the leanest and most headlong of the series." I like Lane's description of the debut appearance by Spinasaurus: "The look on the face of Tyrannosaurus Rex, the hero of the previous sagas, when he encounters this new and larger species on the block is, according to film historians, absolutely identical to that of Sylvester Stallone when he first got wind of Arnold Schwarzenegger."
Director Joe Roth introduced America's Sweethearts this week, a movie about a beloved celebrity couple who, behind the scenes, are splitting up due to an affair. While his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair with another man (Hank Azaria), Eddie (John Cusack) falls for his wife's less-glamorous sister (the entirely unglamorous Julia Roberts). The film costars one of its writers, Billy Crystal.
Roth, explaining why he made Sweethearts, claims audiences have been deprived of the kind of comedy that Preston Sturges and Frank Capra used to make. "True," replies Steven Issac of Focus on the Family, "but something [audiences] haven't been deprived of lately are large doses of the very kind of crass sexual humor that permeates Roth's movie. Couldn't he have copied Capra just a little bit more?" The critic for the U.S. Catholic Conference says the film "attempts to satirize Tinseltown and its spoiled celebrities but the pot shots are too genteel and the film is forgettable." Movieguide's writer recounts "some big laughs and funny moments … but the story, acting, script, and direction are uneven. The movie also contains two major, disgusting sexual jokes, as well as a scene of implied fornication and plenty of gratuitous foul language." Preview's Paul Bicking agrees: "What could have been a light romantic comedy treats adultery lightly and degrades itself with heavy sexual humor."
Movie Parables' Michael Elliott is a little sweeter on Sweethearts: "While taking jabs at the often duplicitous nature of moviemaking, [the film] does not go for the jugular. Instead it is content to set its aim upon the funny bone and, for the most part, hits it squarely." He calls it "an enjoyable diversion," but shakes his head at the phenomenon of celebrity worship so vividly displayed in the story: "The near obsession that the public (especially the American public) has with celebrities is unhealthy at the very least. The image and impression we have of the stars we see in films have next to no substantial reality. To 'idolize' them sets us up for disappointment after disappointment. It is foolishness." Meanwhile, The Dove Foundation's Holly McClure was thoroughly impressed: "Roth has created a unique comedy … with biting sarcasm and witty humor. This hilarious script … gives the public a glimpse into the world of a movie press junket and successfully uses the talents of Roberts, Zeta-Jones and Cusack. I really enjoyed this comedy aimed at adults who can appreciate the spoof on Hollywood."
In the mainstream press, the critics didn't think the spoof resembled the real Hollywood. Mr. Showbiz's Kevin Maynard has an inkling of Hollywood self-righteousness at work: "Naturally, it turns out that everyone in showbiz is vain, self-absorbed, and in it for the gross points, but the film's less an affectionate skewering than a smug pat on the back." Salon.com's Charles Taylor thinks the whole effort smacks of hypocrisy. "America's Sweethearts is part of the mealy-mouthed approach it claims to be sending up. Nothing in it is as good a piece of satire as the line in the production notes describing Crystal as 'a dedicated human-rights activist' or the current news story about Lizzie Grubman, who ran down 16 people driving out of a Hamptons nightclub in a huff. Only in Hollywood would you get a satire of showbiz mendacity from the same studio (Columbia) that brought us invented critic 'David Manning' or put its own African-American employees in ads shilling for The Patriot." But is the movie any good? "It's mostly terrible. The movie has no sparkle, no charm, nothing to sweep us off our feet."
Last week we ran a poll about nudity in film, and the results were not at all surprising. An overwhelming majority answered, "Nudity should never be exhibited in movies, no matter what." Yet, strangely, no one with this opinion contributed an argument to our open forum on the subject. There was some consensus among those critics who answered the invitation for e-mail opinions. Most made distinctions between "mere nudity" and "pornography," suggesting skin-baring may sometimes be necessary to achieve honorable intentions.
After the Forum ran, the e-mail piled up. One reader was grateful for a forum that was "balanced, fair, and incredibly thought-provoking." And our first (and only) response from a female Film Forum reader echoed the views of the critics. Rebecca Abie writes, "I agree that nudity in context should not be a big deal, and that each person should examine him/herself to determine what the appropriate boundaries are. By this I mean that one should truly examine oneself, and not simply poll one's church members to determine what is socially appropriate." Phil de Haan wrote to recommend a book by a professor at Calvin, Bill Romanowski, called Eyes Wide Open, which further addresses this issue. De Haan writes, "A lot of what he said resonates with what the critics you surveyed said. If you haven't had a chance to read his book I would highly recommend it."
But, as anticipated, there were objections. Tim Frankovich thinks that the God-ordained privacy of sex disqualifies it from portrayal in movies: "Sex, as God intended it, is a totally private action. Yes, it is to be celebrated. Yes, it is wonderful. But it is private. It should not be displayed on a huge screen for thousands of people to see." Another particularly offended reader argues, "The Christian movie reviewers you quoted sounded more like the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill than they sounded like the Apostle Paul. They pontificate about their insular world of film and go to lengths to defend the 'art' and 'entertainment' of the pagans who use it to shamelessly promote a godless world that can never be fully redeemed once it is 'in the can' (double-entendre intended)."
Next week: Fussing about cussing. Film Forum readers and critics react to bad language in the movies. Plus, the summer's last blockbuster adventure, Planet of the Apes, finally arrives.
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Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: Legally Blonde, The Score, Cats & Dogs, The Fast and the Furious, Scary Movie 2, Dr. Dolittle 2, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Kiss of the Dragon, and Shrek.