Food for Thought: What's So Bad About Rated "R" Movies?

I was only 6 when I got hooked on movies. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was all it took. I quickly graduated from Disney to the violent, sensational visions of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. My parents were concerned. Where was I headed? Even the advertisements themselves sometimes seemed inappropriate fodder for a little kid, with their sexy stars and in-your-face firearms. They knew that these Saturday matinees were breadcrumbs leading me into treacherous woods.

R-rated movies were off-limits—they were full of corrupting influence. But as I got older, I started testing the waters, seeing a few "R" flicks that had been widely acclaimed (well, I guess I can't count my first R-film—Predator. That was an inexcusable decision. I loved it.) I began to question whether the rating on the movie was really what should determine its value or not. I walked away from some of those films—Witness, Dangerous Liaisons, Apocalypse Now, and Blade Runner, to name a few—deeply moved by the stories, my mind preoccupied by something far more significant than a glimpse of nudity or the bloody aftermath of a gunshot. Their themes were honorable, their lessons worthwhile, and the people in them were memorable characters with strengths and weaknesses that I could sometimes understand. Clearly, there were other works that were merely indulgent, crass entertainment. Learning to discern the difference between what is "worthy of praise" (Philippians 4:8) and what is inappropriate became to me a crucial factor in developing a Christian perspective on the arts.

In the mail I receive from readers, I find many to have a definite list of no-no's that automatically disqualify a movie from relevance. Some, for example, complain that we gave attention to a film that includes characters in various states of undress. Likewise, some of the critics we profile each week clinically dissect the contents of a film, counting occurrences of the "S" word and "F" word and describing in detail each bullet wound. A few will admit to being impressed by a film, but then discount it because they glimpsed a bare breast. Others spend time exploring the story, and only mention these volatile elements of a film to caution parents that their children might not be ready for this sort of viewing.

And it's not just a Christian thing. More politicians are calling for stricter filters. But others are concerned that such intervention gives opportunity for censorship.

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In hopes of contributing some glimmers of guidance, Film Forum is opening the discussion, inviting critics and moviegoers to voice their thoughts on the "hot topics". Sex. Nudity. Foul Language. Violence. Can we find any consensus on what to make of these controversial onscreen occurrences? Let's start with nudity.

Pastor and scholar John Stuart Peck, author of What the Bible Teaches about the Holy Spirit and other works, has recently published an article in Cornerstone magazine on sex in art. The exploration is timely, challenging, and thorough, especially in. defining pornography away from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's classic 1964 definition of "I know it when I see it":

The difference between erotic art and pornography, and the distinctive qualities of a Christian view of sex in art, lie in the following: (1) in the extent to which the dominant effect and intention is to induce sexual arousal: pornography focuses on it; (2) in the focus on the relationship involved rather than sexual gratification: pornography is preoccupied with the latter; and (3) the degree to which it is redemptive and rescues our sexual life from improper exposure and from the idea that sex is an activity with no meaning beyond the physical experience: pornography aims to make sexual intimacy freely accessible without the claims of privacy and commitment.

Do you agree? How and when are the bare essentials appropriate? How can we discern pornography from a mature and proper portrayal of the human body?

Next week, I will post the opinions of several critics in the religious media. I'll also include a sampling of some of the things I hear from you.

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Hot from the Oven

Kiss of the Dragon is another vehicle for Jet Li to demonstrate his martial arts prowess. Directed by French commercial filmmaker Chris Nahon, who has obviously learned a lot from Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita), the film is based on a story that Li himself concocted. Taking the familiar pose of a loner-hero, Li plays Liu Jiuan, a top-ranked Chinese agent sent to disrupt a gangster ring in Paris. Jiuan (the villains call him "Johnny") is immediately framed for a political assassination. He goes into hiding and gets sidetracked defending a persecuted prostitute named Jessica (a shrill and whiny Bridget Fonda) who works for the same criminal mastermind that committed the aforementioned killing. The Patriot's Tchéky Karyo plays this uncannily prolific crook, a French police chief who has so many criminal activities on the stove it's hard to believe he has any time to keep up appearances of civil services.

There's little or no character development to speak of. Jessica exists only give Jet Li a reason to look virtuous as he delivers bloody vengeance on the heads of those who enslave her and hold her daughter hostage. Paris makes a nice backdrop, but it's odd how many central characters, Chinese and French, prefer to speak English.

The film's only worthwhile aspect is its series of breathtakingly swift martial arts fight scenes. Let's face it: that's why people go to a Jet Li movie. And yet, when it comes to combat, Kiss of the Dragon is only a so-so contribution to the genre. Several fight scenes are edited with such wild, fast cutting that the viewer can't tell how much of the fight is actually being performed and how much is just clever camerawork. Only two set pieces deliver eyefuls of real-live, seemingly superhuman, hand-to-hand combat—one in which Li takes on an entire classroom of martial arts students (a running gag through most of Li's films), and another in which he fights Herculean twins who might just be his match. Just as we watch Michael Jordan to admire poetry in motion, there is definitely something admirable about Li's mastery of martial arts. He seems to anticipate every blow and have a parry ready and waiting.

Unfortunately, the film tarnishes what might have been a guilt-free, fun adventure by savoring the spectacularly gory deaths of the villains. It doesn't matter what the hero's motives; this guy seems to take genuine pleasure in concocting over-the-top ways to off the bad guys. Far more worrying is the large section of the audience that seems to revel in these grisly, overdone executions.

The U.S. Catholic Conference agrees. "Nahon's vicious, negligible narrative degenerates into non-stop bloodlust with the value of human life disregarded." But with only a mild warning about explicit violence, Movieguide argues that "Jet Li's character … is a man of honor, duty and morality. Li and Fonda breathe new life into this age-old story of saving a damsel in distress."

Roger Ebert also recommends this implausible actioner. "In a movie where the physical actions border on the impossible, why expect the story to be reasonable? I like the movie on a simple physical level. There is no deeper meaning and no higher skill involved; just professional action, well-staged and filmed with a certain stylistic elegance."

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Cats and Dogs borrows the popular Babe-type critter animation techniques to bring to life a comic battle for control of Earth between secretly brilliant felines and canines. The project, over-the-top, sophisticated, and with something of a mean streak in its script, attracted a significant amount of celebrity involvement; animals are voiced by Alec Baldwin, Tobey Maguire, Susan Sarandon, Michael Clarke Duncan, Joe Pantoliano, and Charlton Heston. It tells the story of a cantankerous cat named Mr. Tinkles who, cursed to be dressed by his owner in frilly clothes and pampered like a baby, has aspirations to transcend his troubles and take over the world. Dogs, who have been working undercover to protect the world from such threats, find themselves losing their grip on security, and the task of saving the world falls into the paws of Lou, a young secret agent pup.

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"No profanity, no sexual references, just good clean family fun," exclaims Lewis A. McNeely at Christian Spotlight on the Movies. "The summer of 2001 has mostly been a disaster … making this summer's movie lineup one of the least kid-friendly in recent years. It is refreshing to have a well-made family movie that will also make a great video purchase for the Christmas season (if it is released in time)." Preview recommends, "Cats and Dogs can be a fun outing for ages 6 and up." Focus on the Family's Loren Eaton writes, "Cats & Dogs is, ironically, miles more creative that the films it parodies, namely the Mission: Impossible franchise. Parents can applaud its noble themes, stare in awe at its technical wizardry and enjoy the shenanigans of its four-footed protagonists." Phil Boatwright of The Movie Reporter also addresses parental concerns: "If you think the old Bugs Bunny/Wile E. Coyote cartoons are too aggressive for your little ones, then you might want to resist taking them to Cats and Dogs. But I found the producers used great care and sensitivity with the action sequences. I think it is obvious that no animals are really hurt during the slapstick battle sequences. Unlike many of today's comedies … its humor is not based on crudity." He found a redemptive theme in the plot as well: "The film's family grows closer by the ending, and love and honor are lifted up."

Several sources did more hissing than howling. The U.S. Catholic Conference calls it a "fitfully amusing action comedy", but complains that "the soft narrative disappoints." Movieguide says it "suffers from predictable plot points, tired clichés, no character development, and over-the-top acting." This "silly little movie" isn't what Movie Parables' Michael Elliott expected. "To be honest, due to the marketing approach of the film, I expected more of a fair-handed and playful dueling between the species which might have better used the never-ending cat-lover vs. dog-lover debate for comedic purposes."

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Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert praises the technical mastery of the special effects team: "So advanced are the special effects techniques that the filmmakers even combine animated faces with real animal bodies, with such uncanny skill that after awhile you give up trying to find the seams." He concludes that, in a summer full of "inventive family movies," Cats and Dogs is one of the best, "for the remarkably convincing animals, the wild action and, not least, the parachuting Ninja cats. You really have to see them. Know how something will get you started giggling?" But Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum complains, "There's just one problem: The plot and script sag like worn out chew toys just when Cats & Dogs should be in full squeak."

"This is one of those movies where the big jokes are lumbering and coarse, and the only funny jokes are the tiny kind that land in the corner of the frame and then blow away," says Anthony Lane at The New Yorker. Lane finds the characters, animal and human, to be frustratingly shallow, and reserves special complaint for the child actor: "Alexander Pollock … should have been bundled into any available transport and driven away before principal photography began." He also wonders if the poor animals weren't rather disgusted by the whole affair. "As [the beagle] is forced, for the twentieth time, to cock his head to one side and lock into Cute Factor 10, you can see a wrinkle of despair pucker his noble snout—a look that says, "Did Snoopy give everything for this?'"

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It might be better just not to mention this unfortunate waste of human resources that is Scary Movie II, but the film provoked some reviews that were more worthwhile than the movie that prompted them.

Bob Smithouser at Focus on the Family writes, "According to ads … it's 'More merciless. More shameless.' Give 'em points for honesty. This is sick stuff, and it only gets sicker." This disposable sequel provoked a scathing critique from Michael Elliott. "Scary Movie II is only scary when we consider what it takes for any film to reach the point of a wide theatrical release. That people in the film industry believe this to be the kind of humor which will … earn a profit and thus justify a reported who knows how many millions of dollars budget, is more than scary. It is an indictment of the culture that we, as a people, have helped to build." Instead of reviewing this film specifically, he finds it so redundant and plagiaristic of the original that he felt it only appropriate to simply run the review of the original film again! He had only this glimmer of hope to offer: "Scary Movie II had people laughing uproariously … for about 15 minutes. I was very gratified to see that the laughter died out rather quickly. Perhaps we, as a people, are tiring of the crude shock humor which Scary Movie II, like its predecessor, use almost exclusively."

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Still Cooking

J. Robert Parks, critic for The Phantom Tollbooth, caught up with the box office hit crazy/beautiful this past week. (His latest reviews will be posted soon.) While the critics featured in last week's Film Forum had rather mixed feelings about it, Parks calls it "this summer's big surprise (so far). Its tale of young romance is poignant, convincing, and true. It's one of those rare teen movies that is both relevant to its target audience and mature enough for adults to enjoy. If the storyline is rather common, the writing … is striking in its representation of teen culture. The script … is also remarkable for how much it respects its audience. Characters are shown and revealed, rather than, as is common practice today, described through leaden dialogue. Plot threads develop organically, with subtle foreshadowing instead of obvious conflicts and resolutions."

Steven Spielberg's A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) also continued to do decent business, and the debate continues over both the film's blend of Kubrick and Spielberg styles and its surprising final act. (Don't read the next paragraph if you don't want to know the ending.)

Film Forum readers raved and ranted with startlingly different responses. "I liked the ending as I saw it," writes Nick Alexander, who was impressed by the "parallel stories" of the robot's relationship with his creator and humankind's relationship with The Creator. Carene Cooper, however, says she "thought the movie should have ended when David was underwater pleading with the Blue Fairy. All of a sudden it went from a dark commentary to an alien flick, and I thought that was a cop-out. How do we end this movie on a brighter note? Gee, let's bring in aliens." (A lot of people still seem to be concluding that the "strangers" at the end are aliens. They are, as the credits point out, advanced robots or "mechas." Their arrival had been hinted at by the robot-makers' company logo and by statements made by David and Gigolo Joe, and their appearance is almost exactly what the audience first sees of David, when his blurry silhouette stands in a bright doorway.) Cooper concludes, "Even though leaving David underwater would have been rather bleak, it made sense and completed the 'journey' so to speak." A critic from Colorado Springs, Patton Dodd, wrote in to say he thought the ending was bleak: "I think the movie ended as it should have. It's a fairy tale—David is supposed to become a real boy, because that is what would happen in a fairy tale. I don't think it was sentimental, because it was not emotionally satisfying; I think it was bleak and cautionary, exactly in step with the rest of the movie. I applaud the ending. (Kubrick [in his storyline], by the way, had the mother as an alcoholic and the movie ending with David bringing her a Bloody Mary with a twisted smile on his face.)" And Beth Rambo shares her own take: "After my husband & I saw it, I said it was the most thought-provoking movie I'd seen recently — but I was annoyed that Spielberg wouldn't let us think about it. He wanted to force us to feel certain things, especially to feel that David had something like a happy ending. But of course it wasn't happy, couldn't possibly be. In the end, it was more like a saccharine mirror of Gigolo Joe's assessment of humanity: 'She loves what you do for her; she doesn't love you.' That, in the end, seemed to be the real motive for David to bring back Monica for one day—he loved her for what she could do for him—be his Mommy. Twisted!"

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The religious media press continued to argue similar issues. The folks at CultureWatch highlight the chief questions of the film: "Is there an inherent difference between man and machine? Can man truly love a machine?" Doug Cummings, at his thought-provoking new Web site Chiaroscuro, feels the film's most important questions are neglected by a significant oversight on the part of the writer/director. "Spielberg makes a critical error by revolving the plot around the artificial boy's emotional journey rather than the mother. The audience knows too little about her story and too much about his—the result is a film that tries to wring emotional involvement from a one-note, hopeless perspective." By focusing on the boy's programmed perspective, Cummings argues, Spielberg makes major events in the film seem unrelated to the central story thread. "At first glance, the sexual environment of Rouge City might have been an entirely appropriate angle for a movie about the search for love and significance. Several moments pry open its superficial charms to reveal the darkness and pain beneath the glamour. But once again, this level of meaning is shortchanged because its message is foreign to David entirely. This isn't a land of darkness providing David with a moral compass along his journey, but a glittery, vacuous city of sorrow that, like the Flesh Fair, is disconnected entirely from David's (and thus, the audience's) yearnings."

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An interesting commentary in Seattle's independent newspaper The Stranger shed some light on the film's emphasis of the robot's "love", and yet the film's absence of any good example of love. "The version of 'love' that David has been programmed with is a pathetic one, all need and demonstration … When he has been imprinted on his mommy, it's Monica who is reflected in David's eyes, the object of a love that can't die but also, tellingly, can't evolve or grow—as if it were a battery that never needed replacing or recharging. Though he starts off as a curative device to help Monica get over her son's lasting illness, David soon becomes an albatross, needing constant reassurance and hectoring his mommy with declarations. It's during this sequence that Spielberg introduces an idea that couldn't be more alien to his body of work: that love may be defined not by its expression, but by its withholding. Of course, no one in the film comes anywhere near this realization; they're all either too selfish to care, or too numbed by access to convenient technology to know how to process such a complex response. You might say that love in this film is defined by its utter absence; A.I. is all about wanting."

Most critics, even those frustrated by the conclusion, agree that A.I. is a significant enough work of art by two important cinematic artists that it should be seen and discussed for decades to come.

But an impassioned Chicago Tribune columnist, John Kass, calls the movie "cynical" and "manipulative" and exhorts moviegoers "Do not see A.I." His argument? "It's as manipulative as Old Yeller, with a tear-jerker of an ending, except that Old Yeller was a flesh and blood dog, not an electrical appliance created to offer unconditional devotion to a futuristic upper-class couple. Do you love your espresso maker?" He sees the film as championing the cause of those who forward technology at the expense of human life, and condemning those who value the sanctity of creation. "How's [this]for Hollywood tolerance?" he asks. "Those who value real human life as something unique and special, those who value the sanctity of actual, not simulated life, well, they're bigoted fascist thugs. In A.I., those who diminish the human soul through science are heroic. The last time that happened in the real world, it was the 1920s and 1930s. A group of evil men justified their horrific crimes by using science as a shield against morality. And I have a question: Isn't Spielberg the same man who made Schindler's List?"

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Was Spielberg portraying the scientists as heroes? This seems an exaggeration to me. First of all, the plot proposes something that is becoming increasingly possible … humankind's ability to create new life forms for which we are largely incapable of being responsible. Humankind's arrogance, in the film, leads to the annihilation of human existence, which seems like a scathing critique of the scientist's blindness to moral responsibility. The only defenders of life who are portrayed as bigots are those who resort to fanatical religious fervor and employ violence, like abortion-clinic bombers. Kass ties the film to the current debate in Washington over ethical issues related to stem cell research. He's right, the movie certainly reminds us of current trends in science. While the movie may be somewhat manipulative in guiding us to sympathize with a deluded child-robot, I'd argue that its heart is in the right place most of the time. Just as he did in Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, Spielberg is preoccupied with portraying how human pride leads to the unleashing of forces beyond our control. Sentimental as he is, he's the prophet at the gates of the city in which ego-driven men are prying at Pandora's box.

Next Week:Final Fantasy, The Score, and Legally Blonde, plus more on naked Hollywood.

Related Elsewhere

See earlier Film Forum postings for these other movies in the box-office top ten: The Fast and the Furious, Dr. Dolittle 2, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Shrek, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Baby Boy.