What would Jesus boycott? Or would he even bother? Last week, I asked readers their opinions about the boycott of the Walt Disney Company and its affiliates, which began in 1997, especially in light of the apparent resurgence of family-friendly, faith-oriented films coming from Disney's family of film studios.
A handful of responses suggested the boycott should continue. "Boycotting is a natural Christian response to those people and practices which do not glorify God," said Merrellee Moore, quoting 1 Thessalonians 5:22 ("Abstain from all appearance of evil") and Proverbs 4:27 ("remove thy foot from evil"). "How else are we to get it through their thick skulls?" asked Kim Cairns. "If more people would boycott we could change the entertainment industry."
An overwhelming majority of respondents, however, believed that boycotts don't ultimately win the target over—or even hurt the cause. "Our salt loses its flavor and our lights grow dim as we separate ourselves from the rest of the world," says Cory Goode, who calls the Disney boycott "ridiculous and shameful." Laura Adair agrees: "Any attempt to force non-Christians to act like Christians is unbiblical and ridiculous."
Derek Napoleon wrote in with a story about how his Southern Baptist congregation was asked to boycott a Borders bookstore, but refused. Instead, they discovered their local Borders regularly brings in local musicians and speakers. "So we took our Christian band and played Christian music. … We now have a good relationship with the store's PR rep. and have taken the gospel to Borders a few times now," Napoleon reports. "By openly picketing or boycotting, we become hostile in their eyes. Instead of opening doors for grace, we are slamming them shut, we make enemies instead of friends."
Hot from the Oven
Disney isn't the only cultural bogeyman turning to more family-friendly films. Roberto Rodriguez, who made a name for himself with hyperviolent action movies like El Mariachi and Desperado and monster movies like The Faculty and From Dusk Till Dawn, has become an unlikely champion of family filmmaking with the success of last year's Spy Kids. Religious media critics are pleased with the return of siblings Carmen and Juni Cortez in Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, but a few voice disappointments.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "Spy Kids 2 has the imagination and energy of the earlier film, but not, alas, the heart, or the wit. The creatures are wackier than ever, the gadgets even more over-the-top. But the theme of family togetherness takes a back seat to inter-family rivalry and workplace ambition, and the slapdash story includes whole subplots … that have no explanation or even plot relevance." Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) offers similar complaints: "The freshness is gone and the sibling rivalry that was so amusing in the original is almost nonexistent here."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) disagrees: "This movie is a safe bet to please both kids and parents, and it has some redeeming family values to talk about afterward. I like that the family unit is reinforced (especially with the grandparents) and no one gets seriously hurt or injured. It's people like Rodriguez who are changing Hollywood for the better." Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family), Lisa Rice and Ted Baehr (Movieguide), Paul Bicking (Preview), Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) Anne Navarro (Catholic News), and Dick Staub offer similar recommendations "for youngsters and grown-ups alike."
Mainstream critics generally praised the film for being solid family entertainment. Few were enthusiastic. Mary Ann Johanson (Flick Filosopher) says, "It's bigger, it's dumber, it's more obvious, it's less fun. It's a sequel. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes."
Speaking of gadget-happy heroes, XXX provides us with a new secret agent whose secret weapons are the kind you'd find in a shop for extreme-sports enthusiasts. Vin Diesel plays Xander Cage, a delinquent whose audacity and athleticism make him a potential spy. Why waste such a good-looking crook by locking him up in jail? Give him tools and a mission, turn him loose, and you'll find he has what it takes to become a hero.
While the film is drenched in caustic alt-rock music, hyperkinetic violence, dizzying rapid-cut editing, and James Bond-ish sex-scene accessories, some religious media critics seem fond of the film … or at least of Diesel.
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) raves, "If you're looking for a different style of Bond film with a tattooed leading man that exudes a tough-guy charm and is a champion for the cause of saving people, you'll enjoy this movie. … Hollywood has found a new leading man and America has a new action hero." Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "Like Yul Brynner, Diesel is the star for all ethnicities. With his shaved head, bulging biceps and anti-WASP features, he's a fresh look for a generation more adjusted to America's increasingly divergent melting pot. … He's Superman for the new millennium."
Anne Navarro (Catholic News) disagrees: "Diesel has some charm and charisma, but no emotional range. He delivers his lines in a flippant monotone that wears thin and he relies mainly on his buffed body to convey feeling."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) lists off reasons to avoid it: "Lots of explosions and gunplay. About 40 profanities. Scantily clad women. Promiscuity. Alcohol use. XXX swaps 007's air of sophistication for Gen-X attitude and a blistering goth-rock soundtrack. Apart from an anti-tobacco jab and the hero's budding social conscience, there's no moral value." Paul Bicking (Preview) agrees, and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) says, "XXX does not have enough redemptive, moral content in it to be completely acceptable or appropriate."
Mainstream critics are so put off by the style-over-substance method of director Rob Cohen that they don't spend much time trying to find meaningful themes or messages. Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) declares, "I continue to believe, as Spider-Man is my witness, that an action hero ain't nothing but a marketing campaign unless he stands for something more than the thrills he seeks and the extreme-sports tie-ins he generates. Even in the summertime, the most restless young audience deserves the dignity of an action hero motivated by something more than franchise possibilities. Movies like XXX—a big 000—don't deserve our $$$."
Bucking the trend, David Denby (The New Yorker) finds the young star insufficient: "Selling Vin Diesel as a great star is a fine piece of mischief, a put-on to rival the greatest feats in the history of ballyhoo. He dangles, he jumps, he rides motorcycles. But can he walk? An action star has to have a walk—look at John Wayne, or Mel Gibson. He also has to try, now and then, to notice the other people in his films, and Diesel's response to the performers … is both grandiose and slighting, as if he were annoyed by their intruding on his movie at all."
The summer movie hero played by Clint Eastwood in his latest directorial effort—Blood Work—is about as different from Diesel's Xander Cage as you can imagine. He's Terry McCaleb, an aging detective with a heart condition that slows him down on the job.
Critics in both the religious media and mainstream press postulate that just as this hero is struggling to stay fit, Eastwood's skills as a filmmaker are weakening as well.
"The film proceeds methodically if not energetically to its ultimate showdown," says Anne Navarro (Catholic News). "It has the too-familiar quality of an Eastwood cop character tracking down his prey until that final moment when one or the other is sure to die. All in all, not enough of Blood Work works to qualify as a suspenseful thriller." Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The screenplay … is written with all the subtlety of a root canal performed without anesthesia."
Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) writes, "Although this may not be his worst film, it is his most unnecessary one."
But Holly McClure (Crosswalk), who has been a fan of every action hero so far this summer, says, "I always enjoy watching Eastwood movies. He still has a sparkle that makes his characters interesting and fun to watch." Lisa Rice (Movieguide) agrees, "Blood Work has all the fun Clint Eastwood-isms that his fans come to love and expect, especially the clever one-liners with the voice. The worldview … is moral in that McCaleb does want to do the right thing and puts himself last in his decision-making." But in the end, she argues that the movie is "marred by too much foul language and some graphic violence."
In his guide for reflecting on the film, Dick Staub highlights meaningful quotes from the script, along with an observation about the prominence of a Christian symbol in the film.
Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) is impressed with what the film doesn't do: "I was grateful Eastwood didn't go out of his way to glorify … heinous crimes. And I found it a relief that not every frame was crammed with bam-bam, slam-jam action." But he's still disappointed with what is in the film: "Violence, vulgarity, and implied sex are to be expected under the guidelines of [an R-rating], but that doesn't mean we should be embracing them. Find a good mystery novel and settle in for a few hours. You'll have a better time—and a clearer conscience." Similarly, Paul Bicking (Preview) writes it off for "frequent foul language."
Mainstream press reviews ranged from ho-hum approval to ho-hum dismissal. Owen Glieberman (Entertainment Weekly) says, "More than ever, Clint Eastwood's acting is all squint, rasp, sinew, and bone, but he [has] a few tricks left in him. Blood Work … is a sturdy, if dawdling, old-fashioned adding-up-the-clues mystery that turns out to be one or two notches cleverer than you expect; it's tasty and diverting genre popcorn."
Happy Times is the new film from director Zhang Yimou, who brought us the moving, vivid, delightful love story The Road Home last year, and the overwhelming historical epic To Live before that. This film tells the story of a man seeking a wife late in his life, but who finds instead a charming deaf girl who becomes like a daughter. According to early reviews, this film doesn't have the weight, or the rewards, of Zhang's previous work.
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) says it's the first the first Zhang film he "can't wholeheartedly endorse. Zhang's trademark use of color is rarely seen, and the images largely lay flat on the screen. The same is true of his latest ingénue, Dong Jie. … True, being blind is a difficult role, but it's still a rather lifeless portrayal." Though not wholehearted, it's an endorsement nonetheless: "Happy Times might be worth seeing just to see Zhao Benshan. His performance as a man desperate to get married is wonderful."
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) is harsher on the film because of its focus on self-confidence. "For those who have an inkling of the dry rot which is Communism, it is easy to see the director grinding his ax. This subtle exposé of the Chinese Communist society is limited by its lackluster portrait of hope. The director understands that people are deeply flawed, but does not recognize in this movie at least that the answer is not themselves, but the salvation which is freely available in Jesus Christ."
Set in a more familiar setting for American audiences, and boasting a familiar cast, The Good Girl stars Jennifer Aniston as Justine, a convenience store clerk who is disillusioned with her marriage to a deadbeat husband. With a young coworker (Jake Gylenhaal of Donnie Darko and October Sky), she faces the temptation to begin an illicit affair. Faced with nothing but troubling choices, what's a minimum wage suburbanite to do?
Anne Navarro (Catholic News) concludes, "The Good Girl is not good for everyone. Probing into the underbelly of selfish human behavior, it offers in return just a glimmer of hope. Justine ends up hurting those around her, but the one sensible decision she does make gives her a second chance at reclaiming her shattered life. Ultimately, [this] is a story of unchecked passion which veers off on a serious tangent before righting itself for the film's faux happy ending." While critical of the story's resolution, Navarro adds, "The role marks a risky departure for Aniston, and she does very well playing against her familiar type."
Mainstream press critics are generally impressed with the film's style and storytelling. But some debate the merits of Aniston's performance. Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) says, "The Good Girl is a false drama anchored by two big lies. One is that working in an average, everywhere-in-America discount mart inevitably kills the soul, and anyone with more intelligence and self-regard than a cow would do well to get … out from behind the cash register. The other is that Jennifer Aniston bravely liberates herself from her glamorous Friends shackles by playing … a frumpy and disgruntled Retail Rodeo employee."
Speaking of temptations offered by coworkers, there's another arthouse flick that presents a more extreme dilemma. The new French thriller called Read My Lips has critics offering enthusiastic raves. Carla Bhem and Paul Angeli star in the story of a deaf office worker whose secretive coworker suddenly draws her into a risky, life-and-death caper of robbery, murder, and intrigue.
Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "The film deals with insulation, loneliness and frustration with life, but the solution in this film is vengeance and thievery. It contains provocative material, fine performances and tight direction, but I left the theater depressed. Did either person really find love or did they simply stick together out of desperation?"
Full Frontal, the new low-budget, all-star Steven Soderbergh film continues to confound critics with its puzzling movie-within-a-movie plot structure and its ad-libbed, unconventional scenes between big stars. We noted several critics' displeasure last week.
This week, Holly McClure (Crosswalk) writes, "I enjoy Soderbergh's work and thought this one had to be good because of the talent in it, but I was sadly disappointed in this movie and thought it was a waste of time."
Tom Snyder (Movieguide) allows it a few praises: "There are some funny scenes and some touching scenes and some scenes that provide a few insights into human behavior. There's even a reconciliation scene between the writer and his wife. Still, it's mostly just another vague humanist exercise that offers vague humanist answers to contemporary life. Hence, it is just as forgettable and just as pointless as too many of the mainstream movies that studios and filmmakers have been producing these days."
Mainstream critics continued to debate the film's merits. Greg Potter (Vancouver Courier) turns in a clever criticism: "To steal a line from Apocalypse Now, director Steven Soderbergh is out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of acceptable human conduct, and very obviously he has gone insane. There's no other way to explain this mishmashed garble of rambling vignettes, shaggy-dog tales and self-obsessed Gucci-shoe gazing that seemingly takes longer to watch than it did to make (18 days). Though it might be convenient to argue that the serpentine story-within-a-story structure is what makes Full Frontal so challenging, the simple fact is that there is no story to begin with; thus, the film is not so much challenging as chafing."
Next week: Will you be buying Movie Mask software to protect your family from "the bad parts" of movies? Plus: Possession, The Good Girl, Happy Times and Blue Crush.
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