Hot from the Oven

Disney's The Three Musketeers came to the big screens in 1993. In 1998, United Artists released The Man in the Iron Mask, starring Leonardo Dicaprio. Is there an audience for yet another new Musketeer movie? Audiences responded with a resounding "Yes!" this week, making The Musketeer the latest box office champ.

According to most reviews, fans of slick, well-choreographed action will probably enjoy a Musketeer matinee. Director Peter Hyams adds a generous helping of martial-arts-styled combat to his adaptation of Alexander Dumas' famous adventure story. But those more interested in a movie that mines the meaningful depths of the classic story will probably leave disappointed.

Critics in the religious media were as mixed in their reviews as the mainstream press. Several were grateful to find the admirable ethical standards of the hero D'Artagnan intact, but there were many complaints of tepid artistry.

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "Except for a few genre-busting action sequences … The Musketeer is nothing more than a dimly lit, frenetically edited seventeenth-century travelogue full of swashbuckling clichés." But he still gives it some credit: "In spite of the movie's overall mediocrity, TheMusketeer deserves applause. It esteems loyalty, compassion, self-sacrifice, patriotism, chivalry and modesty."

The U.S. Catholic Conference declares that the story "pathetically limps along, interrupted occasionally by an imaginatively choreographed fighting sequence."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) sees something significant in this recurrence of Musketeers at the movies. "[D'Artagnan's] integrity, purity, and righteousness is immediately recognizable and appealing. A man with integrity … a man with no personal agenda except to serve a higher cause is a formidable man. It is D'Artagnan's sense of duty and unfailing faithfulness to do what is right that gives the Musketeers renewed life. Seeing him as a Christ figure lends special meaning to their stirring motto: 'All for one and one for all.'" The movie, however, disappoints him. "While [the action scenes] are somewhat entertaining to watch, they quickly become tiresome. If only the filmmakers had spent a bit more time developing the characters and relationships."

Other Christian critics registered complaints that the movie allows audiences to see unethical behavior. Preview's Paul Bicking "Some sexually suggestive material along with frequent violence makes The Musketeer an extremely questionable choice." Ted Baehr's Movieguide review faults "a solid revenge motif" and argues that "the movie's moral and Christian elements should have been made stronger." The review also claims that The Musketeer "suffers from an overly serious hero, whose earnest lines are delivered with little panache or character by Justin Chambers."

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The mainstream's most popular film connoisseur, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, has seen a great deal of swashbuckling in his career. "I cannot in strict accuracy recommend this film," he concludes. "It's such a jumble of action and motivation, ill-defined characters and action howlers. [But] the banquet scene is a marvel of art design. The action scenes are wonders to behold. And when Tim Roth vows vengeance on the man who blinded him, I for one believe him." He adds, "Roth already holds the crown for the single best swashbuckling scene in modern film history (in Rob Roy). This time, where most of the action is special effects, stunts, rope-flies and animation, he focuses on being hateful."

I'd have to agree that Rob Roy is a worthy alternative for duels, derring-do, and virtuous heroes. While definitely not for the squeamish (Rob Roy's villain is graphically perverse and wicked), the film takes a different route than merely glorifying a hero who successfully executes a revenge vendetta. Rather, Rob Roy is triumphant for his restraint, his patience, and his devotion to his wife. Furthermore, his wife's courage in keeping a terrible secret is far braver than any rash declaration to wreak vengeance upon an enemy.

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Last year, director Cameron Crowe gave us Almost Famous, a semi-autobiographical comedy about his youth as a rock journalist. His young Tom Sawyerish hero got caught up in a world of sex, drugs, ego, and indulgence, and learned hard lessons about integrity and artistry. In the end, the stuff his mom taught him about being good actually rubs off on some of his worldly new friends. The movie became a hit with critics (it was my favorite American film of 2000) and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Similar ground is covered by Stephen Herek's new film Rock Star. (Herek also directed … Disney's Three Musketeers!) Mark Wahlberg (Planet of the Apes) stars as Chris, a copier repairman who chases his dreams and becomes a heavy metal rock star called "Izzy." The story is loosely based on the history of famous big-hair headbangers in the band Judas Priest, the sort of rockers that This is Spinal Tap so memorably spoofed.

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Movie Parables' Michael Elliott finds truth even amidst mediocre filmmaking: "The screenplay … is a bit too pat or cliché-ridden to warrant high marks, but it does provide a framework in which a parable of sorts can be told. We all have fantasies. We all have dreams and aspirations. What we need to consider is the question: Upon what are those fantasies, dreams, and aspirations based? Chris/Izzy learns that there is some truth to the cliché of being 'careful for what we wish because we just might get it.' God encourages us to have dreams, aspirations, and goals. However, they are to be rewarding, not only for the moment, but for all eternity."

"Herek takes the viewer full circle in the predictable yet slightly appealing film," concludes The U.S. Catholic Conference, "but the story is mostly shallow with a corny, feel-good ending."

Steven Isaac at Focus on the Family sees a valuable moral to this story: "Although [Rock Star is] crammed with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, those excesses ultimately serve as a poignant morality tale for today's young rock and hip hop fans: Be careful what you wish for; it just might come true. It's a cautionary message hopefully not lost on young star-struck music fans lured—against their parents' better judgment—to the theater to experience Rock Star. Because if that lesson is ignored there's really nothing left onscreen but luridness and obscenity."

Other religious critics cite the film for exposing audiences to the rock stars' immoral behavior. Preview's Mary Draughon admits, "Rock Star doesn't glamorize the musician's decadent lifestyle," but she objects to the portrayal of excessive lifestyles. Likewise, Ted Baehr's Movieguide review says, "It is refreshing to see [characters] recognize the bankruptcy and shallowness of the rock star's world and decide to give it all up for a simpler lifestyle. Regrettably, this redemptive message gets lost in an ear-splitting haze of second rate rock music, sex, drugs, and alcohol abuse."

Apparently the "redemptive message" rang out loud and clear for mainstream critics. Perhaps too loud. Predictability, lack of depth, and moralizing provoked in them a different reaction: boredom.

Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) remarks, "Director Stephen Herek, whose credits include the juvenile The Mighty Ducks and the tear-jerking Mr. Holland's Opus, is not the guy you'd look to for gritty truth and blunt authenticity." Roger Ebert writes, "Instead of the life and energy in a movie like Almost Famous … there was a glum disconsolance. Where was the juice and joy? By the end of the film I conceded, yes, there are good performances and the period is well captured, but the movie didn't convince me of the feel and the flavor of its experiences." The Chicago Tribune's Mark Caroagrees: "Almost Famous covered much of this terrain much more convincingly and entertainingly last year, and it also maintained a lot more affection for its motley bandmates and for rock 'n' roll in general. So, by the way, did This Is Spinal Tap." And Kirk Honeycutt (The Hollywood Reporter) reports: "Rock Star is a far cry from … last year's underappreciated Almost Famous. This is a completely generic movie that hits all the expected notes in a pat, formulaic way."

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Still Cooking

The new version of Othello, O, which portrays an outbreak of jealousy and violence in a high school, divided the critics in last week's Film Forum.

This week, Carole McDonnell (Christian Spotlight on the Movies) looks past the foul language and the violence and finds significance in the honesty of the film's portrayals of youthful jealousy and rage:

We sympathize with [O's] characters and are afraid because we could see ourselves or someone we know in their predicament. This is one of the best films of the summer … a philosophical tearjerker. We want to cry because the world is sometimes such a terrible place. The tragedy of school killings like the one at Columbine High School, raging youthful testosterone, the history of American and European racism and the cruel hierarchy of high school all have contributed to a tragic and relevant updating of Othello. Anyone who remembers sitting on the sidelines while other people were honored will feel for the villain Hugo. Anyone who knows that teenagers are ruled by their hormones will understand how a tragedy could happen. The film is wonderfully real. The language is offensive, but it is also real. Unfortunately, this is how most teenagers, white or black, speak. Christians will understand the nature of temptation and man's attempt to set matters right by doing the wrong thing. Christian parents will understand how dangerous those teenage years truly are.

Similarly, The Flick Filosopher registers an impassioned argument that the film is not only worthwhile, but important. She asks, "Is there a more appropriate place to transfer a Shakespearean tragedy than the viper pit of interpersonal politics known as the American high school? Passion, jealousy, anger, bitterness, sex, and love among the South's children of privilege … all the seething drama of life is heightened and exacerbated by the raging hormones of adolescence, making this as potent and relevant a filmed production of Shakespeare as we've seen since, perhaps, Bas Luhrman's vastly underappreciated Romeo + Juliet. O does not water down or sugarcoat Shakespeare's horrific violence—horrific not because of a visual explicitness but because of the emotional depravity it represents."

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Table Talk: Wrapping Up Summer …

This summer's cinema has given us a lot more "A" (artificial) than "I" (intelligence). We've seen digital animation climb to new highs and storytelling sink to astonishing lows. As we fall into Fall 2001, some critics are still busy reflecting on a few of summer's highlights.

Online this week, Chiaroscuro's J. Roger Wood offers a new commentary on one of the few summer movies this year that won over both critics and audiences, Shrek.

In the latest edition of Books and Culture, John Wilson digs into Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and considers the film's exploration of spirituality and false gods.

At the same time, Roy M. Anker (Books and Culture) takes a look at how human longing is explored in the film A.I. (Artificial Intelligence).

And at B.C. Christian News, David F. Dawes, calls Apocalypse Now Redux "essentially an essay on good and evil, using Vietnam as a surreal metaphor for all wars." He examines how spirituality is portrayed and critiqued in the context of the film, and concludes that, with this new version, "[Francis Ford] Coppola has indisputably transformed it into one of the all-time masterpieces of the art form."

… Looking Forward to Fall

Most movie enthusiasts are ready to put summer behind them and dig into what appears to be a substantial list of autumn new releases. While the mainstream media prepares to celebrate the Oscar race, glorifying celebrities and stars, at Film Forum we'll be reading reviews in search of storytelling that encourages us to dwell on what is "good, excellent, worthy of praise" … all of that good Philippians 4:8 stuff. Here are a few of the most promising titles:

Scott Hicks (Snow Falling on Cedars, Shine) directs a Stephen King drama called Hearts in Atlantis (Sept. 28). Anthony Hopkins stars as a man with mysterious powers who endeavors to help a young boy in need of guidance.

Michael Douglas tries to rescue his kidnapped teenager in Don't Say a Word(Sept. 28.)

Kevin Kline stars in Life as a House (Oct. 26), playing a man that has to face a messed-up teenage son and the onset of cancer at the same time.

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Leelee Sobieski stars in The Glass House (Sept. 14) in which she plays one of two orphans adopted by a couple (Diane Lane and Stellan Skarsgård) who just might be up to something sinister.

Parents, brace yourselves. Kids around the world will line up for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone(Nov. 16). Watch Harry learn about life and his own special gifts beyond the cruel restrictions of his uncle and aunt.

In Training Day(Sept. 21) Denzel Washington plays a less-than-ethical narcotics cop and a mentor to rookie Ethan Hawke.

In Tony Scott's Spy Game, Robert Redford plays the mentor to Brad Pitt.

Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis are burglars who both fall for the woman they've kidnapped (Cate Blanchett) in Bandits (Oct. 12.)

Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) directs the remake of Ocean's 11, a heist flick that stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and many more famous actors.

Rod Lurie's The Last Castle(Oct. 12) stars Robert Redford as an inmate at a military prison who directs an uprising in order to escape his wrongful incarceration.

Johnny Depp is on the trail of Jack the Ripper in From Hell (Oct. 19).

Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove ) directs K-Pax (Oct. 26), starring Kevin Spacey as a messiah-like stranger who claims to be from another planet.

In November, monsters lurk in kids' bedrooms at night in Monsters, Inc., from the creators of Toy Story and A Bug's Life.

The Coen Brothers are back with a '40s-style noir about infidelity, a barbershop, and some very nasty surprises in The Man Who Wasn't There (Nov. 2.)

Will Smith stars in Michael Mann's biopic about Ali, the "king of the world" (Dec. 7).

Cameron Crowe offers his first thriller on December 14, Vanilla Sky.Tom Cruise stars.

Also in December, a new film from Martin Scorcese, who takes his interest in New York gangsters back to an early-America New York, when when Irish and Italian immigrants faced off in the streets, a film appropriately titled Gangs of New York. Leonardo Dicaprio and the great Daniel Day-Lewis star.

And just in time for Christmas, the most anticipated big screen event of the year will arrive: the first part of Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Among these titles, it seems to me there are a surprising number of new films about the bond between children and their parents. A new generation of filmmakers might be shifting the creed of Hollywood heroes from me-firstism towards a more compassionate, sacrificial, and attentive hero. Many recent films have stressed how children are damaged when they are neglected, abused, or poorly taught by their parents—Eve's Bayou, American Beauty, Gladiator, The Virgin Suicides, and Ghost World, to name a few. While many of these recent and upcoming stories portray a lot of ugliness, anger, and dysfunction, perhaps they will act as signposts to a new generation, goading them to take marriage and parenthood more seriously. Let's hope so.

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Related Elsewhere

Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: Jeepers Creepers, The Others, Rush Hour 2, American Pie 2, Rat Race, The Princess Diaries, O, andJay and Silent Bob Strike Back.