Three months into 2002, we finally have a film that seems to have won everybody's heart, conservative and liberal, young and old. But the box office points to a very different champion. Other heavily promoted releases are producing the all-too-familiar sound of yawns, grumbles, and unintentional laughter. Is any of it really worthwhile? Do these stories mean anything?

Hot from the Oven

Until now, screenwriter John Lee Hancock was best known for penning A Perfect World, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. But this week Hancock has delivered a rare gift to moviegoers, a G-rated family film that has audiences cheering and critics raving. Many are saying Dennis Quaid gives the best performance of his career in the leading role. In fact, The Rookie is the most acclaimed G-rated film since David Lynch's The Straight Story.

Sources say very few details in this true story have been altered to please the crowd—there's no Beautiful Mind revisionism to make a fairy tale out of difficult fact. Hancock and screenwriter Mark Rich found the tale of Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Morris powerful enough to inspire audiences without adding sentimental glop. And what a story: Morris surrendered his baseball career and his dreams when he injured his shoulder and doctors told him he'd never get his impressive abilities back. So he built a new life as a husband and a father, a community baseball coach, and a high school chemistry teacher. That's remarkable on its own, but when Morris's students challenged him to chase his dream one last time, he went for it. At 40 years old. And the dream came true.

Sports movies are too often tailored to convince us that all we need is willpower and a dream. The Rookie could easily have become a cliché about the glory of sports. But moviegoers testify that above all this is a story about the power of supportive and encouraging families and communities to make unlikely things possible. While this spoils the myth of the independent, self-sufficient hero, it offers a far healthier example to those chasing dreams of achievement and excellence.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) is inspired by the story. He writes that Hancock and Rich "do lay the schmaltz on a bit thickly. But, to their credit, they do replicate the small town flavor of a community bound together by the personal heroics of one of their own. The way the people important to Jimmy rallied around him, encouraging and exhorting him to go forward to achieve his goals … is exactly how members in the body of Christ are to help one another."

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In a review appearing online today, Douglas LeBlanc (Christianity Today) highlights "the film's prevailing theme of grace coming into the lives of people who pursue their dreams with courage and love." LeBlanc argues that Morris's quest for the major leagues is "less interesting … than the back story written by Mike Rich. Morris's father is so emotionally repressed that he cannot touch his son even in a moment of athletic triumph. Character actor Brian Cox brings subtlety to a role that he could have easily overplayed. The tentative steps toward reconciliation between father and son make the G-rated Rookie a worthwhile outing."

Jamee Kennedy (The Film Forum) calls it "a triumph of heart and soul and a wonderfully uplifting movie. Although the film's promos drip testosterone-laden baseball action, this film is really all about second chances and what we do with them."

The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops calls it an "uplifting charmer. In spite of a few sags in momentum … Hancock's film pulls on the heart strings … while pleasing and inspiring without the slightest suggestion of violence, sex, or even a crude word."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says the film "celebrates hard work, community, perseverance and the need for spouses to share a common, unselfish vision for their home. Also, there's a sharp contrast between healthy and unhealthy approaches to fathering. The Rookie is guileless entertainment with lots of heart and plenty for parents and teens to talk about."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) calls it "one of the best baseball movies ever made. Much more than just a story about the sport, it's a testimony that God can give second chances in life no matter how old a person is. This one will go on my list as one of the top ten movies this year, and I predict it will be a huge hit!"

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) says Dennis Quaid "gives an excellent performance. [The Rookie is] so well made, that it should win many awards. It also serves as a telling example to Hollywood that clean … pro-family movies can be the hottest ticket in town."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) responds euphorically: "Christians and people that value high morals need to support this film. Let's create some positive buzz!"

Some Christian critics prefer to focus on what the movie doesn't have. Mary Draughon (Preview) writes, "It's heartwarming to see an entertaining, feature film about a loving family. The Rookie's glaring absence of sex, violence and foul language … adds to its charm."

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Even hard-to-please critics in the mainstream press are won over. Stephanie Zacharek of writes, "The idea is sentimental, but Quaid dries all the sappiness out of it. There's something in his face that suggests both contentment and restlessness, but even more important, the sense that it's perfectly natural (and understandable) for the two to coexist in all of us. That's what makes his moments of joy—the swollen music on the soundtrack notwithstanding—seem pure and wholly believable."

Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) says it "derives its power by sticking to the facts."

Jeffrey Wells ( finds it a rare treasure: "Comparisons have been made to Remember the Titans, but that film was 'entertainment' … [it] used every trick and ploy it could think of to stir the emotions. [The Rookie] works its peculiar magic without seeming to milk, shovel, or pull any one's chain."

Marc Caro (Chicago Tribune) writes that the film "plays off of the most basic yearnings: What baseball fan hasn't imagined striding to the mound of a major league stadium and zipping a fastball past a desperately swinging batter? What son hasn't wanted his dad to be proud of him? What father hasn't wanted his son to be proud of him? The Rookie may be pushing buttons, but at least they're the right buttons."

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Director David Fincher (The Game, Se7en) is back to fry nerves once again with Panic Room, this week's box office champion. Jodie Foster plays Meg, a single mother who moves into a an extravagant, six-bathroom mansion in which the architect built a safe haven, a steel-encased room—filled with video monitors and safety features—that can be sealed off in the event of a break-in or other danger. So of course, when the trouble comes in the form of three dangerous crooks (played by Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam, and the marvelous Forrest Whitaker), Meg seals herself and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) inside to wait until the storm passes. Unfortunately, what the bad guys want is inside the room with them.

Recent thrillers like The Usual Suspects and Fincher's own Fight Club have provoked a tidal wave of postmodern genre pictures (Memento and Mulholland Drive included) that cause audiences to question the "reality" of the story, to distrust the storyteller. But Panic Room is about the gears and pulleys of traditional thrill making. It frequently admits that "it's only a movie," built from borrowed parts. Characters make references to Titanic and GoodFellas, as well as Elmore Leonard and Edgar Allen Poe. Some critics are writing Panic Room off as simplistic and derivative. But close scrutiny can reveal important truths at work in this old-fashioned, all-business thriller. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

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Unlike the heavy-handed Fight Club, this movie's efficient storytelling hints at lessons quietly, without putting a gun to our heads, preaching, or stooping to smug sarcasm. There's a commentary about contemporary big-city life embedded in the action, alongside a parable about the consequences of self-reliance. Call the police, but they won't come until Tuesday. Scream at your neighbors for help, they'll pull down the shades and ignore you. This is a neighborhood where the rich invest in their own protection. But even Meg's house, over-equipped with security devices, reeks of vulnerability. In downtown Manhattan, no one can hear you scream.

There's nothing like life-endangering trauma to shock us into a balanced perspective. Mother and daughter, suffering the typical divide of parent and adolescent, are brought together in a cramped space, and forced to depend on each other with very few tools at hand. Their salvation depends not on violent retaliation so much as on the ruins of Meg's shattered marriage, and on what conscience remains in the hearts of the villains. Love is still the answer, no matter how much technology or firepower you have at your disposal.

These besieged heroes may not turn to God, but those who know him may recognize him interrupting a crime in progress. Scripture tells us that cooperative evil eventually breaks down as one sinner turns against the other, and you can see that principle in play here. You can also see how compassion—even a trace of it—can soften a hard heart and accomplish much. Near the end, there is even a visual suggestion (perhaps inadvertent) of the cross. Perhaps even this slick commercial jolt-fest has an idea or two about the problem with life in the "panic" of the big city—and a hint at the solution.

Surely the filmmakers could not have anticipated how the tension would be underscored by the New York skyline that bookends the film. But in view of the city's recent panic, it's hard to miss the implications: The rich and powerful in Panic Room are under siege, and the overgrown fortress of their self-indulgence seems helpless to defend itself. Hope and healing here is found as families draw back together to help each other in the wake of the violence of desperate and evil men. Sometimes entertainment says more than it means to.

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Religious press critics are praising Fincher's skillful suspense, but criticizing it on many fronts as well. "Though some of the contrivances are a bit preposterous," writes the critic at the USCCB, "thanks to engaging portrayals and a brisk tempo, Panic Room holds the viewer's attention even when suspension of disbelief is necessary. The film utilizes menace and fear more than outright violence, although when it does get around to it, the brutality is a bit fierce."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) responds: "Once the hook is set, the tension never lets up. The reason the tension is so strong is because we care about what happens to these characters. Foster is wonderful in a Die Hard kind of role."

"Panic Room does pay off," agrees Marie Asner (The Phantom Tollbooth). She argues that it's not the story or the actors but the panic room itself that steals the show.

Kenneth Morefield (Viewpoint) writes, "The ambiguity between sympathetic and villainous is one that director Fincher has explored in Alien3, The Game, and Fight Club, and the theme is particularly interesting here. … Panic Room is an above average suspense thriller that [has] more going for it than explosions and gory fights."

But Paul Bicking (Preview) objects: "There is no need to subject audiences to almost non-stop obscenities and the gory violence shown in Panic Room."

And Jerry Langford (Movieguide) sums it up as "a seductive steel trap intent on flooding the audience's mind with foul language and powerful violent images."

Most mainstream critics think the film is too shallow and its clever camerawork gratuitous. Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) says the movie "strains credibility from the get-go and unsuccessfully tries to sucker one in with Hitchcockian atmospherics."

Charles Taylor ( writes about his growing weariness with Fincher's troubling, punishing films: "For somebody so dedicated to playing around with the camera, Fincher doesn't seem to be having any fun. [He] takes no apparent joy in making movies, and he gives none to the audience."

Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) claims the film disintegrates into shock-value tactics. "The extreme violence (a variation on the characteristic, ornately gruesome Fincher style) becomes an end in itself."

"Fincher crafts memorably spooky details," writes Brian Miller (Seattle Weekly), "but fails to achieve one decent surprise or unpredictable shock in 108 minutes."

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In last week's Film Forum, critics warned readers that the new Robin Williams comedy Death to Smoochy was not quite up to snuff. Now that the film is in wide release, the reviews are pouring in, and most critics are bewildered at how a film loaded with so much talent could fall apart so spectacularly.

Smoochy tells the violent tale of Rainbow Randolph Smiley, who was fired from his post as host of a Barney-like children's television show. Randolph's rage has fermented into devilish plots to bring down his replacement, a simple-minded goof (Edward Norton) who bounces around in a giant purple rhino costume.

A critic at the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops says Smoochy "eventually collapses under its own weight, sinking into warped, vicious humor with some gritty violence. After the shock humor and nasty shenanigans are repeated for the nth time … the audience may understandably tune out."

Michael Elliott calls it "an uneven production at its best. Robin Williams' shtick is looking more and more forced while being less and less funny. Because we never really accept him as a kiddie show personality, we are never drawn into one of the major conflicts of the story."

Dan Buck (Relevant Magazine) writes, "Sometimes the actors/directors are so interested in working with each other, they don't really pay much attention to what it is they choose to work on. Unfortunately … ample talent does not a great movie make."

Mainstream critics find the movie dead on arrival. Stephanie Zacharek ( writes, "There's lots of manufactured outlandishness … and yet the movie is simply no fun. As a satire of hype and consumer culture, it fails in the worst way."

"There's no one to root for in this ponderously 'scathing' thriller-farce," complains Owen Glieberman (Entertainment Weekly). "Death to Smoochy tells a moldy-oldie, not-nearly-as-nasty-as-it-thinks-it-is joke. Over and over again."

"It uses four-letter language as if being paid by the word," says Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times). "In all the annals of the movies, few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant."

Michael Wilmington (Chicago Tribune) also disapproves: "It's so predictably vicious that, after a while, there's no surprise. Death to Smoochy is death to satire … a dark comedy that blows up like an exploding cigar, leaving nothing much behind but smoke, noise and a bad taste."

By the way, Smoochy is in trouble in real life as well … the producers of the film may be in legal trouble with the producers of the Canadian PBS show Ricky's Room. Apparently Smoochy is too similar to the rhino featured on the Ricky show. Smooch's posters show a purple rhino dead, his horn poking through the black tarp thrown over him. This has the potential, reportedly, to traumatize young fans of Ricky's Room.

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Even though Smoochy made critics dig deep in their thesauruses for words that mean "unpleasant," they saved a few harsh words for the sci-fi teen adventure flick Clockstoppers as well.

Here's the premise: A watch has been created that can stop or slow time, and the teens that have it are trying to keep it from the clutches of pursuing bad guys. Judging from reports about the acting, the writing, and the lack of ideas, it sounds like the special effects team may have been the only ones working on the film who had anything interesting to do.

Mainstream critics quickly dismissed it as derivative and dumb. Robert K. Elder (Chicago Tribune) complains, "Sci-fi hijinks and a government conspiracy serve merely as window dressing for a ham-fisted message about the importance of good parenting and owning a car in high school."

Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) calls it "a lackluster children's action film … The script, credited seemingly to half the members of the Writers Guild, makes little attempt to establish the plausibility of the science fiction elements. OK, so the wearer of this watch winds up in hypertime, but how do cars and anyone nearby manage to enter this Coney Island of time and space?"

Roger Ebert offers a more positive summary: "Unlike Spy Kids or Big Fat Liar, it offers few consolations for parents and older brothers and sisters. It is what it is, efficiently and skillfully, and I salute it for hitting a double or maybe a triple."

Some religious press critics had similar complaints, but for others it passed muster.

The USCCB critic says, "Clockstoppers may appeal to children the way Spy Kids did because it portrays kids taking charge and saving adults. However, unlike Spy Kids, a far superior movie, there are no lessons to be learned, except maybe don't fool with your father's gadgets."

None of this troubles Holly McClure (Crosswalk): "This clever family-friendly movie will appeal to adults as well as kids and teens. The unique special effects, the fun time-stands-still scenes and teen heroes who save the day make this a positive story about family relationships."

Michael Elliott says, "Inconsistencies and unexplained gaps in its logic might frustrate the more demanding moviegoer. For the casual viewer, Clockstoppers is a bit of innocuous fun despite its many flaws."

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But Ted Baehr (Movieguide) labels it great: "Clockstoppers is a very entertaining diversion for teenagers. It skews too old for the younger crowd and may be too sweet for older teens, but it's got a great heart and great action adventure." Unlike the majority who found its special effects gimmicky and unoriginal, Baehr claims the film "has the same production excellence as its science fiction predecessors."

John Evans (Preview) argues that the moderate action and some "suggestive comments" make the film "objectionable viewing for pre-teens and very questionable for teenagers." He also has a notion that young viewers who experience this "frantic action with loud, startling music" may become hyperactive.

Still Cooking

Last week, Film Forum featured a menu of critical responses to the reissue of Steven Spielberg's classic sci-fi fable E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Raves continued this week. Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) sums up a number of possible interpretations of the film, and explores its theme of childhood innocence lost: "Like Peter Pan, who also took children flying until it was time for them to grow up, E.T. represents the wonder of childhood, of a time that we must all leave behind, though we may continue to carry it inside, 'right here,' in our minds and hearts."

Take Out

Every year, well-funded, widely released movies powered by aggressive promotional campaigns end up winning awards at the end of the year. But a very different list of titles shows up on the ten-best lists of critics, and several of them show up out of nowhere in video stores. These are the movies that lack the funding to compete, but often are better-made and tell more original and exciting stories than A Beautiful Mind and the blockbusters.

This week, yet another critic comes forward praising the virtues of the new-on-video Ghost World (see our earlier coverage of the film here). Terry Zwigoff's movie follows two meandering high school graduates as they struggle with cynicism in a grownup world fraught with hypocrisy, superficiality, and loneliness. It stars Steve Buscemi in a role that won him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Michael Leary (Relevant Magazine) describes Ghost World as "daring, epic, well directed, even better acted, but unfortunately underrated." He points to "layers of meaning and purpose that will stick with you long after you rewind the tape. This is 'not another teen movie.' Its subtleties do not have the immediate impact that characterizes films of the 'teen film' genre, but will linger with you and bring to light those areas in your mind and heart [in which] you are pushing away the world instead of dealing with it."

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While most 'teen movies' are preoccupied with fornication and rebellion, Ghost World stands apart as an honest exploration of contemporary teen disillusionment. While troubling, it has far more to say about the real world than a hundred American Pies.

Next week:Big Trouble, High Crimes, National Lampoon's Van Wilder, and the return of Amadeus.