Whatever the critics think of Mandy Moore's performance in A Walk to Remember, the Christian heroine that she plays in the movie is making it a hit with American evangelical audiences. Surprising skeptics, Walk is a modest success, coming in fourth in last week's North American box office charts with $8.8 million earned for the week, $23.3 million overall. (Yes, that's modest, compared with Black Hawk Down's three-week total of $75.5 million, or The Fellowship of the Ring, which has gathered $267.1 million in North America alone since December 19.) For a project widely referred to as a "Christian movie," its popularity is impressive, and many religious press critics are expressing hopes that this will encourage production of more Christian-themed films on the big screen.
Last week, Film Forum excerpted reviews from critics who were either moved to tears or crying for it to go away. This week, I found out moviegoers have strong opinions of their own and that they are quite willing to send in e-mail on the subject. Most of the positive reviews came from teenagers.
Nicole S. testified, "I fell in love with the whole theme of the movie. I walked away saying, 'I want to be more like Jamie.' It's amazing how one girl's life can touch so many. People are looking at your life, and I want people to feel that discomfort that God puts in your heart to change. [This] was really a great movie."
What do boys think of this weepy, rather sentimental story? Dan writes, "Being a teenage boy, I am not always interested in attending movies [that have] lots of high emotion and I don't feel like any kind of real plot developed. I was amazingly shocked to find that … not only was the movie a good plot, but God was lifted up in it also. I feel on the level of faith and obedience, Jamie Sullivan portrayed many of the feelings I feel about God."
Grownups are finding a mix of virtues and faults in the film. Martha Mims writes, "I thought that it was not a great movie, but it had a great theme. I liked the religious elements and the biblical references and shots, but was not too pleased that Jamie was obviously bra-less in the tattoo scene."
Matthew French took his senior high youth group to the film and reports, "Teenage girls will love it. It was a little slow and drawn out, but as a man in his late 20s, this isn't the genre I would normally be interested in. I was happy to support such a project and I hope it does well enough to stir up interest in making more movies like this. Now we just need a quality Christian-themed movie for the teenage guys. That will be more challenging."
Jason Dickey responds to some of the critics' accusations that the film is formulaic. "I know of no teen movies where a terminally-ill class nerd finds inner resolve through faith and realizes that her short life moves the lives of those around her. That is hardly a 'cliched' storyline." He also disagrees with those who found the one African American high schooler to be stereotyped. "All of the 'in-crowd' in this film speaks using hip-hop argot. The fact that one of the 'in-crowd' in a southern community happens to be black is a progressive statement. The black teen is the only popular teen, aside from the hero, who turns out to be a decently-minded chap in the end. Southern Baptists will also be pleased to see the Baptist church portrayed as an inter-racial congregation whose worship style blends a somewhat subdued variety of white fundamentalism with African American music and decor. Apparently the moviemakers have taken all of the SBC's 'racial reconciliation' talk seriously. … Any film critic who gives teen crud like Booty Call or American Pie a thumbs up while panning A Walk to Remember is biased."
One viewer raves, "If I could I would shake Mandy Moore's hand for being willing to 'stand out and stand up' for what she believes in. It may not win 'little gold statues' but it does win applause from those who hold morals, faith, Christ and hope!"
But some Christian are not applauding. Actress Cressida Troy writes: "Besides the lack of acting ability and poor plot, the fact that Mandy Moore's character was a Christian seemed to go on the backburner after the scene where we see her sing in church, and it seemed to me that it was simply an excuse for her to be able to sing in the movie to make up for her lack of acting skills. I was sorely disappointed in the lack of references to God during the movie. When they did refer to Moore's Christianity, it was very general, and we didn't see any real believability in her character."
"Most of my friends agreed with me it was a really bland film," says Russ Breimeier, coproducer and music critic for the ChristianityToday.com music channel. "I do think it is a wholesome film, suitable for Christian teens—parents can rest easy knowing that the film has a lot of good messages in it. But it was little more than an after-school special to me."
And how about the film's much-lauded portrayal of the faith? "In terms of Christianity," says Breimeier, "the film has little to say about it. The Christian faith of Jamie's character is merely a characteristic, not a plot point. She could have been any faith or culture and they could have written the story around that without altering it too much. I think a key scene is when Carter visits her in the hospital. Jamie says she has a gift for him and then qualifies that with 'Don't worry … it's not a Bible.' This is a solid Christian, who doesn't even make the slightest attempt to share her faith with the man she loves? I kept waiting for the eventual scene of faith, and it never happened. … The Christian message I took from the film is that Christians are really nice people who tend to volunteer a lot and only listen to Christian music. They take marriage very seriously and when they become adults, they're often overprotective of their children. Certainly not a bad portrayal of Christians, but is it really an image worthy of acclaim?"
Luis Segarra objects to critical reactions like Movieguide's, which criticized the movie's pairing of a rebellious boy with a virtuous girl: "[These] religious reviews … crystallize the problem that evangelicals are going to have as we try to bring our message beyond the four walls of the church: When a movie is made that portrays one of 'us,' it's never good enough for us. The complaint about [the pair being] 'unequally yoked' is laughable! Hey people, relax, enjoy a sweet movie with a nice message and a nice portrayal of a Christian; not just pick and poke where it's not theologically correct. How far are we going to take this? Are we going to howl if the characters are not Calvinists or Pre-Tribulationists? If they weren't reading from the KJV? When Prince of Egypt came out … a movie chronicling one of our great biblical heroes, bending over backwards for evangelicals … what were the comments of people around me? 'It veered from Exodus here.' 'It got that detail from Deuteronomy wrong there.' Because of all these nitpicks, Evangelicals did not turn out en masse to see this wonderful movie and encourage other moviemakers to go down this road. Tragic!"
Segarra believes evangelical responses to movies will have to change before Hollywood's attitude does: "Evangelicalism is going to have to mature and not have automatic knee-jerk reactions if we ever plan to use such a wonderful medium as the big screen for the cause of our Saviour. The reason why Christians … are on the average not portrayed in a positive light in movies is simple: on the average, movie writers, directors, producers, and actors are on the average not religious; they are alien to us, our message. So all they know is caricatures. It's no left-wing conspiracy; it's simple ignorance. It's our job (not theirs) to present ourselves and our message of Christ."
Hot from the Oven
Meanwhile, new releases at the multiplexes diluted the soup that, for a few weeks, has been rich in praiseworthy projects.
,Birthday Girl directed by Jez Butterworth, has been on Miramax's shelf for three years. It might have stayed there if it hadn't been for the recent Kidman-mania. Nicole Kidman just won a Golden Globe for Moulin Rouge and turned in another sensational performance in The Others, and the sudden surge of her popularity is a wave Miramax hopes to ride. Birthday Girl's Ben Chaplin plays a bank teller who, miserable with loneliness, decides to treat himself to an Internet-order bride (Kidman) from Russia. He gets more than he e-bargained for, when her two mischievous cousins pay a visit for her birthday.
Sounds like a potentially wacky comedy, but the critics aren't laughing. The U.S. Catholic Conference's critic says the "initial quirkiness abruptly gives way to menace," and the film "becomes increasingly formulaic before ending on a falsely upbeat note that allows the protagonists to escape the consequences of their criminal actions."
Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) writes, "The film changes genres going from offbeat romantic comedy to a more serious thriller … [and] it doesn't succeed at either. Neither the execution of the story not the performances are very engaging. There's really not much to learn from this film and the emphasis on sensuality is not very conducive to spiritual growth."
And Peter T. Chattaway (The Vancouver Courier) says it is "full of implausible plot twists and undeveloped threads, and it is ultimately unworthy of Kidman's talents. The script … does give the cast a few good moments; Chaplin is especially good at conveying the anger and wounded pride beneath John's meek exterior. But the film as a whole is ultimately beneath them all. This is one birthday gift you may want to return to the store."
Most mainstream critics would happily exchange this birthday present for either of Kidman's other recent hits.
Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "The movie's downfall is to substitute plot for personality. It doesn't really know or care about the characters, and uses them as markers for a series of preordained events. Since these events take us into darker places than we expect, and then pull us back out again with still more arbitrary plotting, we lose interest; these people do not seem plausible, and we feel toyed with. Even the funny moments feel like nothing more than—well, the filmmakers inventing funny moments."
Another film getting 2002 off to a lousy start is Dewey Nicks' directorial debut, Slackers. The film follows three college cheaters who agree to help a klutzy nerd get the girl of his dreams if he will help them pass their exams. What follows are crass, locker-room humor exploits of the lowest variety. Sounds like the biggest slacker is the screenwriter.
John Adair (Preview) writes, "The three cheaters really care about no one but themselves, and even when one of them does the 'virtuous' thing, his ultimate motive is still getting what he wants out of the deal. This film is just the most recent in a long line of crude comedies seemingly directed at teens, yet including more than enough content for a strong R rating."
Phil Boatwright says "It's certainly not good vs. evil. It's not even dumb vs. dumber. It's more like bad vs. badder. It's crude, exploitive and generally insulting to the funny bone."
"Dreadful," says the critic at the U.S. Catholic Conference. "Waffling between creepy and comedic … Nicks' sorry film is a churlish bore that regurgitates familiar gross-out humor and sexual jokes as it panders to the lowest common denominator."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says that Nicks, despite "showing an interesting visual style," has "unfortunately decided to take the gross-out humor approach to storytelling. The film does reflect a talent of some note, but its taste for 'shock humor' will wear thin on all but those weaned on the comedy of Tom Green and the Farrelly Brothers. The moral 'lesson' given in the film (i.e., it is better to tell the truth than to lie) is neither sincere nor fully represented. These slackers never really learn their lesson nor are their actions followed by appropriate consequences."
When the current high-grade, Oscar-hopeful films leave theatres, will there be anything worth seeing? The calendar has some promising projects in store for moviegoers. Last week we looked at several intriguing titles. Here are a few more.
Crime doesn't pay, but good crime stories can be rewarding illustrations of how the mighty can stumble, how the clever can crumble, how the wages of sin wait even for the most cautious of conspirators. But some of 2002's crime stories may dig deeper, looking at the cracks in the investigators themselves, and searching through tough questions about appropriate forms of human justice.
In May, we'll get an American remake of the artful festival hit Insomnia from director Chris Nolan (Memento). Al Pacino stars as a cop hunting down the killer of a teenage girl. But why can't he sleep? Robin Williams and Hilary Swank costar. Hopefully the film will retain the original's psychological complexities and treat seriously its central themes of sin, conscience, and consequences.
June brings us Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, a sci-fi action flick based on a Phillip K. Dick short story about a cop who can anticipate a killer's crimes. What's he to do when he himself becomes implicated in a crime that has yet to happen? The film costars Colin Farrell (Tigerland) and Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown, Jesus' Son.) Spielberg seems obsessed with exploring human evil in the past and in the future. Sounds like the story could raise questions about our innate capacity for sin, and our ability—or inability—to save ourselves from our weaknesses. Hopefully he'll hold off on the sentimentality that shipwrecked A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) and Hook and show some of the mastery that made Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind such classics.
Opponents of the death penalty may find themselves arguing with those who endorse it after seeing The Life of David Gale, which stars Kevin Spacey as an anti-death-penalty activist jailed under suspicion of killing a fellow activist. Kate Winslet costars as the reporter trying to learn the whole story. It's directed by Alan Parker (Angela's Ashes).
Michael Caton-Jones directs Robert DeNiro as—Is this a first?—a cop! In City by the Sea, the twist is that DeNiro investigates a crime in which the culprit might be his own son. Should justice or fatherly compassion prevail? Lauded newcomer James Franco, Golden Globe-winner for his portrayal of James Dean last year, stars as the son.
With pictures about crime often come questions about the ethics of revenge. In Memento, The Count of Monte Cristo, and In the Bedroom, we've recently seen different perspectives on how ultimately unsatisfying and destructive revenge can be. These titles may expand the conversation.
The high-profile revenge picture of the year will be The Road to Perdition, from Sam Mendes, the director of American Beauty. In that Oscar-winning film, Mendes seemed to justify all sorts of immoral and inappropriate behavior in the name of self-discovery and enlightenment. Will he be justifying a gangster's wrathful quest as he tries to bring down vengeance on the crook who killed his wife? Or will this be a more thoughtful contemplation of sin and consequences? Tom Hanks and Paul Newman star.
Ripley, who was played by Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, is back in an adaptation of another in Patricia Highsmith's series of novels about the master of disguise and deceit. This time, Ripley is played by John Malkovich, and he's on a mission to wreak revenge on an old colleague in Ripley's Game. In Anthony Minghella's movie two years ago, Ripley learned that his wicked methods lead to great suffering. Here's hoping that sin leads to consequences in this version as well.
Stories of gangsters and vigilantes offer moral lessons in rather graphic ways. Turning the camera on something more familiar, like family life, can be just as harrowing. To look at the movies, you'd come to the conclusion that there are no healthy families, no parents who really love their children or vice versa. And unfortunately, this year's lineup looks like yet another parade of dysfunction. American filmmakers seem to take the easy way out far too often, portraying families fractured by tragedy and divided by pride, unfaithfulness, lies, and hostility. But sometimes these stories do show love at work in the ruins, hinting at how our brokenness can be healed.
About Schmidt gives us Jack Nicholson as an insurance salesman who reevaluates the meaning of life after his wife dies and while his daughter prepares to marry the wrong man. Alexander Payne, who gave us the mixed up high school ethics of Election, directs.
Dysfunctional relationships of all kinds are onscreen in Todd Solondz's Storytelling. Selma Blair plays a naÏve student who believes that she should have a fling with her African American professor in the name of political correctness, and John Goodman plays a controlling father whose authority gets a little out of control.
Igby Goes Down is a coming-of-age comedy about a kid stuck in a bizarrely dysfunctional family. This one stars Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Ryan Phillipe, and Jeff Goldblum.
Another family struggles through the death of a daughter in Goodbye, Hello, from Brad Sieberling, the director responsible for "remaking" the profound and poetic Wings of Desire into two hours of sappy, sentimental, commercial American shlock—City of Angels. But what a cast! Dustin Hoffman returns, with Susan Sarandon and Jake Gyllenhall.
In the big-screen adaptation of the bestseller Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Ashley Judd, Sandra Bullock, Maggie Smith, and Ellen Burstyn star in Callie Khouri's directorial debut about oddball Southern women who learn lessons in love, forgiveness, and understanding.
Literature buffs will get another eyeful with a new adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. Caine plays a troubled, opium-addicted British journalist carrying on a torrid romance with a young Vietnamese beauty until a young American comes between them.
For those who cringe at the thought of a movie based on literature, there is plenty of lame-brained commercial product ready for audiences.
XXX isn't about pornography. It's about an extreme-sports maniac (Vin Diesel) who becomes a spy. The film is directed by Rob Cohen, who directed Diesel in last year's The Fast and the Furious. Some may argue with me and call this pornography of a different sort.
And then there's the live-action version of Scooby Doo, in which the miracle of digital animation brings to life the famous ghost-hunting dog. Freddy Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar star.
And speaking of technology being used in unfortunate ways …
Several ambitious adventure films are centered on what can happen when our cruel inventions turn against us.
In the latest Star Trek installment, Nemesis, cloning is at the center of the famous crew's concern. The Next Generation crew is back, with a lot of cameos from the show's other spin-offs.
As if it needed mentioning: Star Wars, Episode Two: Attack of the Clones also focuses on the controversial mass production of human beings. This episode's exploration of the whole cloning dilemma is already provoking widespread controversy, as it is rumored the boy band clones N'Sync may have cameo appearances as Jedi Knights.
Speaking of the Force, Harrison Ford returns in K-19: The Widowmaker, playing against type. He's cast as the big cheese on a Russian nuclear submarine when its reactor develops a dangerous flaw. Liam Neeson is also on board in this actioner directed by Katheryn Bigelow (The Peacemaker.)
If all of this sounds far too familiar and predictable, there are some new ideas out there, in the heads and hands of some of Hollywood's best talents.
Curtis Hanson, who became one of the most interesting and engaging directors on the scene with the fantastic L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, has a wild card in his hand with 8 Mile. Why would such a sophisticated talent take on a movie about the life of white boy rapper Eminem? Perhaps because it gives him an opportunity to explore racial tensions in a troubled community.
M. Night Shaymalan, who gave us The Sixth Sense and the sorely underrated Unbreakable, introduces a movie about a Field of Weird Dreams in Signs. Mel Gibson stars as a guy investigating crop circles that have appeared on his property.
And Robert Rodriguez turns in the inevitable sequel to last year's most inventive kid flick: Spy Kids. This one, The Island of Lost Dreams, brings back Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino as the undercover parental unit, but adds Steve Buscemi, Mike Judge, and Ricardo Montalban ("Khaaaaan! Khaaaaaaan!") to the list. In this one, the kids end up on an island where none of their gadgets work. What would James Bond do?
Oh, and speaking of Bond … Bond 20is on its way, shrouded in rumors and secrecy. But it sounds like it follows Bond's stealthy attempts to rob the new Austin Powers movie of its Bond-mocking title, which I won't mention here.
As usual, films from overseas are getting very little press, so we'll have the pleasure of being surprised again by some of the finest works of the new year coming from unexpected places. Stay tuned. I'll cover as many as I can here at Film Forum.
Next week: Monster's Ball … Who's the real monster? The man on death row? The cop who sends him to the chair? The cop's racist father? The criminal's wounded wife? Or is it Roger Ebert? As they say on the evening news: "The answer may surprise you."
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More review roundups are available in the Film Forum archives.