Despite the controversy Film Forum mentioned last week, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone enchanted audiences and soared at the box office again this week. The film has earned $187 million as of Tuesday, but will not fulfill projections that it will outdo The Phantom Menace's record-time leap to the $200 million mark. Critics continued to offer ho-hum summations. Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, for example, calls it "a big and often sloppy Hollywood production with some bad computer graphics, a syrupy score from John Williams, and a focus on storybook adventure rather than Rowling's oddball characters."

Incidentally, there's an interesting feature in this week's Los Angeles Times regarding how some critics in the religious press, including Christianity Today's Douglas LeBlanc, were introduced to the film.

Meanwhile, an array of films with less hype opened this week, earning a similarly wide variety of 'bah humbugs' from critics.

Hot from the Oven

Movies and television have rediscovered spies. On television, ABC's new series Alias places an admirable heroine undercover as a double agent for the CIA and a sinister "splinter group" called SD-6. The show is impressive in that Sidney (multi-talented newcomer Jennifer Garner) is placed in seemingly inescapable dilemmas, and she emerges with her secrets—and more importantly, a solid sense of right and wrong—intact.

Good and evil are not so clear in this week's slick new big screen thriller, Spy Game.

Tony Scott, director of blockbuster action films like Top Gun, Crimson Tide, and Enemy of the State, has crafted another intelligent popcorn flick, and this one boasts the strongest lead talents of any film he's made so far. Robert Redford stars as Nathan Muir, a seasoned CIA professional readying for retirement; and Brad Pitt plays his prodigy, Tom Bishop.

When Bishop gets caught and tortured by the Chinese on the eve of an important and volatile presidential visit to China, the CIA wants to find a politically convenient excuse to forget about him and leave him to his painful fate. But Muir is not that kind of mentor. He's not about to leave his man behind.

Critics in the religious media praised Scott's technique, but had mixed feelings about the story itself. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) reports, "Spy Game is an intellectual thriller much more than it is an emotional roller coaster. Screenwriter Michael Frost Beckner … certainly has insight as to the workings of the CIA and some of the moral questions that arise from men who work as undercover agents in hostile territories." He found some of it perhaps too challenging: "The structure of the screenplay does lend to some difficulties in comprehension." He finds no challenges in watching Redford and Pitt work together, saying both are at the top of their game.

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Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) calls Spy Game an "engagingly written, visually arresting thriller. It neither confuses, nor condescends." But he objects to hearing men under pressure resorting to profanity. "Had they taken the language down a notch, Spy Game would have been a worthwhile flick."

"Seeing Redford and Pitt on the screen together is all a story needs to give it passion and purpose," raves Holly McClure (The Orange County Register). "Scott goes well beyond both of those ingredients to deliver an exciting, well-written, edge-of-your-seat spy adventure that will satisfy any fan of the genre."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) is relieved that the film is "not an anti-American diatribe, though it does not paint a pretty picture of the greedy contemporary CIA." He is most troubled by the portrayal of "moral" heroes whose "radical individualism" excuses them from certain moral responsibilities. "A little understanding of moral virtue by the filmmakers would have sharpened the distinction between good and evil in the story and improved the movie tremendously."

John Adair (Preview) writes, "Spy Game is definitely a 'guy-movie' with several exciting action sequences, plenty of suspense, and some top-notch acting. Director Tony Scott also makes good use of the camera, which in turn consistently heightens the intensity throughout." But he disqualifies the film as worthwhile viewing, however, due to "strong obscenities."

Personally, I found the harsh language to be a properly realistic element. An expletive or two would not be out of place in these circumstances. What I found truly troubling was the way Muir, who gripes about the lack of ethics among CIA superiors, gives himself permission to break laws, lie to American authorities, and sneak around behind their backs to do what he thinks is right. Sure, it's a bad situation, having one of your best men stuck behind enemy lines … but should Muir be endangering national security, risk a major embarrassment in the press, and subvert complicated political procedures to carry out an operation all his own?

Tony Scott's stylish direction keeps the tension high, but I found the rapid-cut editing and hyperactive camerawork to be distractions from an interesting and complex plot. Worse, the film doubts the intelligence of its audiences, constantly reminding us "the clock is ticking" and that the hour of Bishop's execution draws ever closer. The love story that surfaces in the second half of the film seems one of those only-in-the-movies developments. As the film progresses, the heroes wear the scars of their adventures, but an undercover beauty who has been imprisoned and subjected to harsh treatment emerges looking as pure as a Revlon commercial.

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Most viewers were on the edge of their seats, and I too was caught up in the cliffhanger countdown. But afterwards I realized that I had been maneuvered into rooting for a dangerously reckless and presumptuous man. We're left admiring Muir's "cool" while the administrators of American government are painted as sloppy, half-witted buffoons. In a time when the need for respectful citizens and respectable government seems more crucial than ever, these are rather dissonant chords.

While it is not the film's intent to question the ethics of its central characters, Spy Game raises questions about the boundaries that should be set for spies. Just how far can their deceit go in the name of national security? Is it ever appropriate to endanger the lives of innocent civilians in the name of eliminating a terrorist or a warlord? What does Scripture show us about devious endeavor done in the name of king and country?

Looking for laughs? Keep looking. Black Knight, directed by Gil Junger (10 Things I Hate About You), offers us the latest vehicle for popular comedian Martin Lawrence. It's billed as a comedy, but seems more sick than silly.

Martin Lawrence plays Jamal Walker, a theme park employee who gets transported back to the Middle Ages. There, after realizing that this is not just another elaborate theme park, he becomes motivated to join an uprising against a wicked king (Kevin Conway).

Bob Smithouser writes, "Black Knight is a painfully unfunny, sloppily made film. There's no real story to care about, not an original idea within miles, and the gags are as stupid as they are offensive." He notes, "This may be a comedy, but the film's surprising amount of violence is played straight. Some is fairly graphic."

"Martin Lawrence overplays his role in a shameless display of mugging; shucking and jiving," says Michael Elliott. "Black Knight is a silly exercise that will quickly become tiresome to all but the most enthusiastic Martin Lawrence fan." He observes only the most general of moral lessons at work: "Jamal moves from a 'every man for himself' mentality to a more altruistic, community-minded outlook."

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Tom Snyder (Movieguide) seems to have attended a different film. "Black Knight is a funny, well-made comedy that contains some touching, heroic moments. Martin Lawrence once again does a very good job as the comical hero." He is bothered only by "foul language and sexual content."

"This movie does have a few funny moments because of the period in history," says Holly McClure, "but [Lawrence] still depends on sexual humor to make it work instead of his comedic timing."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight on the Movies) has nothing complimentary to say: "Black Knight may unfortunately need to be reclassified as a disaster film instead of a comedy. If you need to waste some time and money—then this is the film for you. If you took [profane language] out of Martin's dialogue—he would be almost speechless!"

Paul Bicking (Preview) believes that "Crowds will really enjoy this mix of humor, slapstick, adventure and personal discovery." That doesn't mean he recommends it. "Explicit sexual content, graphic violence and obscenity-laden dialogue dethrone the good messages of Black Knight."

The harshest judgment comes from J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth), who declares, "This Martin Lawrence vehicle is so awful, so pathetic, so genuinely horrible that words cannot adequately describe its shortcomings. The first half hour of Black Knight is merely boring, but that felt like pure joy compared to the film's last hour. The movie trots out every possible clichÉ. Along the way, Martin does so much mugging for the camera I began to wonder if there was some deep psychological problem on display."

Side Dishes

Steve Martin must have suffered much in the dentist chair—he keeps playing dentists with a foolish tendency towards dangerous behavior. (Who can forget his performance as the singing sadist of oral surgery in Little Shop of Horrors?) This time he's drilling in a morbid comedy called Novocaine. When Helena Bonham Carter arrives, she appeals to this dentist's secret fantasies; but in the end she's his worst nightmare. She's a meddlesome seductress who demands a heavy dose of prescription drugs … and much more. Novocaine is getting mixed reviews, but Martin draws raves for his impressive ability to perform beyond the borders of comedy.

The USCC calls it a "quirky dark comedy … [that] lacks sufficient humor and energetic writing … very mediocre fare."

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John Barber (Preview) observes, "In the end, the bad guys get their due and it seems that Sangster's original sin works out to his benefit, which sends a very disconcerting message to impressionable viewers."

Mainstream critics are divided. "This all-over-the-place flick is neither funny enough nor suspenseful enough to maintain much interest," argues The Flick Filosopher, "and the coolly sophisticated Martin just comes across as too savvy a guy to have let himself get into this mess."

But Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says the movie "is funny all the way through, and ingenious all the way through. I am not sure it plugs all its loopholes, but in a comedy that's not such a problem."

Actor/director/writer Ed Burns (The Brothers McMullen) got back behind the camera for Sidewalks of New York, a documentary-style comedy in which New Yorkers answer questions about love and sex.

"Those who empathize with lonely singles and loveless couples may find this somewhat bittersweet romantic comedy entertaining," says Mary Draughon (Preview). "The best thing to be said about Sidewalks is that unfaithfulness, bed-hopping, and spiritual voids generate realistic unhappiness."

MaryAnn Johanson (The Flick Filosopher)writes, "Burns … draws his characters with a razor-sharp precision and lets them speak the way actual people actually do; their straight talk about fidelity versus cheating, sex versus love, and other romantic conundrums is almost painfully real at times. Set amongst real New Yorkers … this is a love letter to a city that Burns clearly loves, if perhaps a city that suddenly doesn't exist anymore."

"The movie is funny without being hilarious, touching but not tearful," says Ebert. "Yet Sidewalks of New York finds the right note, of seeking optimism among the shoals of hope."

Out Cold is the latest comedy aiming raunchy humor at adolescent audiences. It follows the misadventures of four snowboarding dudes who try to prevent a wicked Colorado ski mogul from taking over their town.

Steven Issac of Focus on the Family reports from a rather chaotic screening: "Out Cold was created to appeal to preteen boys. And so it does. The only others in the theater with me were young boys. A crowd of them. They threw M&Ms around the theater. They ran up and down the aisles. And from the corners of their eyes they absorbed some of the most damaging images, life lessons, and amoral messages you could imagine. Make sure your sons (or daughters) never see what they did."

After piling on similar derogatory remarks, Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight on the Movies) concludes, "My very strong advice is to skip this film."

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Paul Bicking (Preview) also gives it the cold shoulder: "Although it includes some great shots of extreme snowboarding, the film is mostly filled with scenes of drinking to excess and sexual fantasies."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) calls it "an offensive slob comedy in search of a plot."

Next week: Owen Wilson goes Behind Enemy Lines as a downed American pilot in a action-flick/political-thriller that also stars Gene Hackman. Is it a warm, whimsical holiday treat for the whole family?

Related Elsewhere

Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: Harry Potter,Shallow Hal, Heist, Monsters, Inc., The One, Domestic Disturbance, and Life as a House.