Why do mainstream moviemakers so often portray Christians as foolish, legalistic, and condescendingly snobbish?

I get a lot of answers—often accompanied by intense emotion—when I ask that question. Some Christians blame a conspiracy of liberal, anti-Christian Hollywood powerbrokers. Other believers argue that if more Christians were telling good stories and making good movies for general audiences instead of within the bounds of a Christian subculture, truer representations would be offered more frequently. Still others suggest that Christians have earned flak by sometimes behaving in a condescending, judgmental way toward unbelievers.

Whatever the cause, the trend may be shifting, at least for a while. Two of three wide-release films opening this week present heroes whose successes are linked to their belief in a benevolent God. Still, there's more to good artmaking than avoidance of caricature; the films are garnering various complaints about onscreen religiosity and other aspects as well.

Hot from the Oven

Director Adam Shankman's (The Wedding Planner) A Walk to Remember, based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, has religious press journalists on their feet and cheering. But mainstream critics are remaining seated, or else they're headed for the lobby, where they're jostling to come up with the best joke headline—"The Bland Leading the Bland," "Forgettable," and "A Walk to Forget." Are these naysayers merely prejudiced? Or is the movie really just preaching to the choir? If you've seen the film, let me know what you think.

The heroine is Jamie Sullivan (pop singer Mandy Moore), daughter of a kind-hearted pastor (Peter Coyote) in a small North Carolina town. We're given the impression that Jamie is considered unattractive. (This made many critics smirk—apparently, it's hard to make Mandy Moore look dumpy.) In spite of her perpetual good deeds, Jamie gets mocked by high school troublemakers and popular kids. One of the class rebels, Landon Carter (Shane West), gets assigned the lead in a school play as a punishment for causing trouble. And—surprise, surprise—it's righteous-but-unpopular Jamie who gets the job of teaching him his lines. Surely the "plain" beauty and the "handsome" beast will be drawn to each other. Surely Papa will disapprove. And surely some dark secret will be revealed.

"Who would have thought that A Walk To Remember would turn out to be the first pleasant movie surprise of 2002?" says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "It will have its fair share of detractors who will deride it for what they'll [call] sappy, sentimental content. The film wears its heart on its sleeve, but at least it is a healthy heart that beats soundly and resonates with love."

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CT's Douglas LeBlanc says, "Peter Coyote delivers one of the finest performances of his eccentric career" in what he describes as "a quiet but remarkable film."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic writes, "Shankman's earnest teen romance travels a predictable route but excels in affirming faith values as a positive and joyous part of life."

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) remarks that the film "is just what its title implies. Moore infuses youthful passion into her heart-wrenching portrayal of Jamie. [She] has turned Jamie into a living, breathing Christian that you can cheer for and cry for." But despite his raves, Issac raises questions about the appropriateness of the film's central romance: "To begin dating [Landon], knowing that he is an unbeliever, puts Jamie in a precarious position. And if her actions are emulated, they will place young Christians in potentially compromising relationships."

Bruce Donaldson (Movieguide) voices similar misgivings. "Unfortunately, the movie reflects a phenomenon observable in the Church throughout much of the United States: the strong spiritual woman who wears the spiritual pants in the family. These women marry the 'good' backslidden or unregenerate men. As an exemplary Christian girl, Jamie should know better than to be 'unequally yoked.' If I had a daughter, I'd be concerned that, after seeing this movie, she'd get some romantic notion of finding an unruly boy and taming him herself."

Holly McClure (Orange County Register) was impressed that Jamie's "character and faith … gave her the inner strength and confidence that were her most important assets." But she tells parents, "There are several issues (standing up for your faith, teen marriage, a teen's death) that you may want to discuss with your kids and teens later."

Paul Bicking (Preview) cautions us that "almost a dozen obscenities are heard in early scenes, which prevents [Preview's] total recommendation." But he adds, "strong Christian elements, including Bible readings about love, are included without seeming overly preachy. The main character is portrayed as a Christian without being psychopathic or holier-than-thou."

(But is Jamie clearly a Christian? A fellow critic asked me if Moore mentions Christ even once. She certainly behaves morally, but do we hear her specifically express personal faith in Christ?)

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"We long for good films for our youth," says Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight on the Movies). "Well finally, here's one on the right track!" He admits, however, that his theater experience wasn't exactly ideal: "Much of the crowd laughed and made fun of the film. I can already see a shameless parody coming." But he concludes, "The message is inescapable."

That's the response from the religious press. But how does the film play for the nonreligious moviegoer?

A few mainstream critics were moderately pleased. Lisa Alspector (The Chicago Reader) says the movie "isn't manipulative" and it "has a fair amount of nuance and charm." And Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) liked it. "After all of the vulgar crudities of the typical modern teenage movie, here is one that looks closely, pays attention, sees that not all teenagers are as cretinous as Hollywood portrays them. Yes, the movie is corny at times. But … I forgave the movie its broad emotion because it earned it. A Walk to Remember is a small treasure."

The majority, however, find it contemptible for predictability, preachiness, and racial stereotypes. Online ranter Walter Chaw (Film Freak Central) calls it "hopelessly unrealistic and often uncomfortable to watch, far more interested in presenting Moore with showcase opportunities to peddle her cavity-causing music. If you don't know every single plot point and twist after the first twenty minutes, you've done the sensible thing and left after the first ten."

Stephanie Zacharek (Salon.com) complains, "The story is secondary to the movie's grand lessons, which are thumpingly obvious." She concludes that the film is "a vehicle for teen singing sensation Mandy Moore. As vehicles go, it's an Edsel."

Jonathan Perry (Boston Globe) says, "In their zeal to create a character who embodies a wholesome, positive adolescent ideal, the filmmakers have invented an 18-year-old girl with no self-doubt, no emotional weakness, no character flaws, and a crystal-clear complexion … they've invented a saint, not a teenager." It bothers him that the only African American character is "relegated to spouting stereotyped black lingo, presumably for laughs, about 'getting my freak on' and how a 'brother' needs 'booty.'"

A.O. Scott (New York Times) says it "proves that a movie about goodness is not the same thing as a good movie." He's dismayed at Landon's transformation—into a Christian music fan. "The movie's deep message seems to be that bad music is good for you."

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While it's comforting to Christians to see a believer portrayed without mockery, it sounds like it will take something more artful and original to capture the imaginations of more seasoned moviegoers. Still, this looks like a step in the right direction.

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I was pleasantly surprised by The Count of Monte Cristo. It's director Kevin Reynolds's (Waterworld, Robin Hood) strongest adventure film yet. While it drastically rewrites the classic story by Alexander Dumas, it focuses boldly on questions of God's justice and the ethics of revenge.

James Caviezel (Frequency) stars as Edmond Dantés, a traveling Frenchman who agrees to deliver a letter when he arrives back in Paris. Fortunately, he is stopped before he delivers it, and a secret military communiqué from Napoleon is thwarted. But the letter threatens to expose one politician's dark secret, and the innocent Dantés is quickly condemned and silenced about the matter. He suffers under a cruel prison warden (Michael Wincott). But a God-fearing old prisoner (Richard Harris) educates Dantés behind the warden's back, preparing him for a valiant escape and a chance for fame and fortune. Dantés is more interested in revenge.

2002 is off to a good start with this surprisingly solid, old-fashioned adventure flick, which reminded me (and others) of The Mask of Zorro. The script is flawed and anachronistic, but the performances won me over. Caviezel is especially striking; he convincingly carries his character through almost a decade of trials and transformations, from a meek and naïve youngster to a bold, confident, and crafty Count. Lacking big-budget special effects, the film draws energy from Dantes's careful plotting and impressive swordsmanship. But the film's emphasis on the hero's moral quandary becomes its greatest distinction. The formulaic finale is a bit of a cop-out, but Dantes's twinge of conscience is a strength rarely found in big screen heroes.

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "These days, action films rely far too heavily on gaudy special effects and dopey catch phrases, and far too little on intelligent scripts and interesting characters. Monte Cristo succeeds because it ultimately isn't about action. It's about people. It's about issues that transcend a high-speed chase or an explosion."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic writes, "Reynolds honors his source material by seamlessly interweaving themes of jealousy, betrayal, and vengeance transformed into mercy and redemption in an opulent production, although it underplays the main character's spiritual struggles with God."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) compares Dantes's trials to the sufferings of Job: "Woven into this classic story of revenge is the spiritual journey of a man who, due to the extreme injustice visited upon him, questions everything he once held to be true regarding God."

Ted Baehr and Lisa Rice (Movieguide) report, "The filmmakers are to be commended for clearly presenting a powerful tale, with a strong Christian perspective." They add, however, that the "Christian worldview [is] somewhat confused by a heightened emphasis on vengeance."

Not so thrilled, Marie Asner (The Phantom Tollbooth) protests that "18th-century films use modern-day dialogue as toss-away expressions. Monte Cristo has two good actors going for it and that's about it."

But Steven J. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "Monte Cristo balances its anachronistic sensibilities and over-the-top set pieces with genuine emotion and a real moral dimension—even a spiritual dimension." He concludes, "Monte Cristo is … as much fun as you're liable to have at the movies for quite some time."

Paul Bicking (Preview) determines that "Teens and older can enjoy this adventurous tale" without elaborating on why, except to say that it is "virtually free of coarse language."

Mainstream critics are doing some dueling of their own. Roger Ebert declares that it is "so traditional it almost feels new … the kind of movie that used to be right at home at the Saturday matinee, and it still is. We can imagine Errol Flynn in this material, although Caviezel and Pearce bring more conviction to it."

But Jeff Stark (Salon.com) gripes, "it commits the gravest sin against great literature—it makes it boring. Reynolds has thrown out all the rich subtlety and deep irony of the novel in favor of neat resolutions."

Side Dishes

The Mothman Prophecies, a new paranormal thriller directed by Mark Pellington (Arlington Road), stars Richard Gere as a journalist sent to identify a ghostly presence in a small West Virginia town. A local cop (Laura Linney) helps him track down the moth-like monster that has been sighted in the vicinity of dreadful disasters.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic says, "Pellington's eerie film promises more than it delivers, but is short on substance."

Lindy Beam (Focus on the Family) says, "Mothman departs from the norm in its acknowledgment that evil spirits exist and make contact with humans, but it doesn't take them seriously enough to imply that they can and should be overcome."

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Mainstream critics like Roger Ebert squash Mothman. "The Mothman is singularly ineffective as a threat because it is only vaguely glimpsed, has no nature we can understand, doesn't operate under rules that the story can focus on, and seems to be involved in space-time shifts far beyond its presumed focus. There is also the problem that insects make unsatisfactory villains unless they are very big."

My favorite critical responses of the week come from Joe Morgenstern (Wall Street Journal) and Wesley Morris (Boston Globe). Morgenstern says, "This film will fail as proof that our planet has been visited by entities more advanced than we are, but will succeed as proof that scripts can be written, rewritten, and green-lighted by entities less advanced than we are." And Morris says the film is full of horror clichés: "The phone rings so often and so menacingly that terror appears to need its own receptionist."

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Many critics, perhaps exhausted by the number of crass comedies in recent months, decided that Kung Pow wasn't even worth seeing, much less reviewing. One who did brave the lowbrow comedy was Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family). Eaton writes, "While it's hard to deny its occasional moments of hilarity, Kung Pow!'s crassness, violence and sexual humor cripple an interesting effort. Families beware! This movie strikes below the belt." And John Adair (Preview) knocks it flat for "somewhat excessive, and occasionally crude, slapstick violence, a couple of lines of sexual dialogue, and six moderate crudities."

Serving Up the Same Old Thing - A 2002 Menu (Part 1 of 2)

2002 offers a discouragingly familiar variety of features. This year, we'll be comparing sequels and remakes to their originals more than ever. There's a new Star Trek film (Nemesis) and a sequel to Disney's Peter Pan (Return to Neverland). A remake of Charade is coming, called The Truth About Charlie. We'll go back for seconds with Men in Black 2, Harry Potter 2, Star Wars - Episode 2, and the second chapter of The Lord of the Rings. We'll revisit The Talented Mr. Ripley (Ripley's Game), and we'll get a new version of The Bourne Identity. And how about a third helping of Austin Powers? (The title is being changed, due to a lawsuit, and we don't yet know what it is.)

Perhaps the most anticipated film of the year is, in fact, not a sequel. But it's not anything terribly new either. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man arrives in May, with Tobey Maguire in the coveted role of the comic book hero. Kristen Dunst has the part of Mary Jane, his girlfriend, and Willem Dafoe (who has played Jesus, various devils, and even Nosferatu) hams it up as the Green Goblin. While it's sure to be a special-effects extravaganza, it could be even more. After all, Spider-man's longstanding popularity probably is partially due to the way young readers relate to Peter Parker's attempts to adapt to strange changes in his physique. (Adolescence?) As Parker struggles to control his powers, he also must determine how he will use them. Like young Harry Potter, Peter Parker's powers become a metaphor for every person's special gifts, whether artistic, athletic, or spiritual.

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And there are other high-flying—and deep-drilling—heroes on the way. Jackie Chan will be armed with tons of technological gadgets hidden inside The Tuxedo. Chan's movies are almost always a celebration of good choreography, stunts, and laughs, and there's nothing wrong with that. Elsewhere, in The Core, Hilary Swank journeys to the center of the Earth, laying down her life for humanity in an attempt to settle the planet's turbulent subterranean disturbances. Call her the human Rolaids tablet.

Fantasy literature will return to the big and small screen with a vengeance. While television will see an adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time this year, you can expect to hear more details on C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles, currently in pre-production.

Wizards rear their bearded heads again in The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers, a darker and more violent chapter in Tolkien's great epic. We'll move into the chapters where hobbits Frodo and Sam journey into the perilous land of Mordor to destroy the Ring of Power before it destroys them. Meanwhile, the rest of the broken "fellowship" join forces with armies of men to defend the land against masses of nasty unbathed Orcs.

These films, and one other, bring to life the beloved works of many accomplished Christian artists. Yes, folks, Harry Potter's J. K. Rowling is a professing Christian. She's a member of the Church of Scotland, and insists, "I believe in God, not magic." (A reader who happens to be a pastor asked me recently about an e-mail that's making the rounds, which quoted Rowling as publicly casting a curse on Christians. It's a widespread hoax.) Is Harry's witchcraft a ploy of the devil to ruin children, or is it the same traditional literary device employed by other great Christian fantasy writers? The debate will continue through the release of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

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Reign of Fire is a fantasy wildcard. It's a tale about dragonslayers striking back at dragons that have laid waste to the world. Slayers are played by Christian Bale (American Psycho, Empire of the Sun) and Matthew McConaughey (A Time to Kill, The Newton Boys.) Rob Bowman, who did admirable work with The X-Files: Fight the Future, directs.

Other films will turn their attention away from popular art to focus on the lives of artists. Biopics about inspired geniuses often raise important questions about the source of artistic inspiration. Sometimes (Pollock, Amadeus, Immortal Beloved) they explore the way suffering can be transformed into something vital and redemptive. Sometimes (Surviving Picasso, Vincent and Theo, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle) they are preoccupied with volatile tempers and reckless lifestyles. Will any of this year's crop offer new insight?

Frida, directed by Julie Taymor (Titus), stars Salma Hayek as the famous mono-browed artist who inspired portraits by Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina.) Ashley Judd costars in this story of Kahlo's work, love affairs, and influence.

Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott) directs Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Ed Harris, in an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about artists, The Hours. Nicole Kidman costars as Virginia Woolf.

A.S. Byatt's acclaimed novel Possession seems too complex a work for the big screen. But director Neil Labute (Nurse Betty) has brought his rather subversive perspective to the story, which follows two academics (Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow) as they investigate evidence of a romance between two Victorian poets (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle.) Will life imitate art?

The musical Chicago moves from the stage to the screen in an adaptation starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rene Zellweger. Celebrity ambition leads to murder in this splashy show. The story could investigate sin and consequences, or it might merely sensationalize the antics of the stars. We'll see.

Celebrity corruption is also at the heart of Auto/Focus, a film by Paul Schrader. The film features Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane, star of TV's Hogan's Heroes, in an account of Crane's sexual addiction and self-destructive lifestyle.

Then there's Spike Jonze's Adaptation, the strangest of the bunch. How much of the artist's perspective and personality ends up in a work of art? Quite a bit, in this convoluted mind-bender. Nicolas Cage plays Charlie Kaufman, the real-life screenwriter who wrote Jonze's last film, Being John Malkovich. Kaufman (Cage) is writing a screenplay based on the real-life bestseller The Orchid Thief, by real-life author Susan Orlean. (No, of course, Susan Orlean doesn't play herself. That would be too easy. Meryl Streep takes the part.) When finishing the screenplay gets difficult, Kaufman (Cage) writes himself into it.

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Confused? Me too. Let's look at something more traditional … the annual dose of traditional period pieces.

The most prominent places us in a conflict between Irish immigrants and Italians in New York. Martin Scorcese, who has never made an uninteresting film, directs Gangs of New York, bringing back Daniel Day-Lewis (my favorite actor) as a man called "the Butcher." Leonardo DiCaprio plays the young Irish hero who challenges him. The film has been delayed, reportedly out of respect for New Yorkers who didn't think 2001 was really the year to reminisce about New York's troubled history. Still, while patriotism is at a high, we would do well to remember that while admirable, America is not infallible, and it has as many shameful chapters as it does shining hours.

The Importance of Being Earnest is getting a new big-screen treatment. It stars the British actors that weren't in Gosford Park, and the wife (Reese Witherspoon) of the American who was (Ryan Phillipe.) Judy Dench, Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, and many more are featured.

While hardly original, this list looks far more promising than last year's, in my opinion. Sure, there'll be the crass comedies and the flashy star vehicles. Hopefully, there will be many surprises from overseas. But many of these suggest we'll have some rousing discussions and debates in the coming days. And that's only Page One of a large menu.

Next week: Part Two of our 2002 preview, with glimpses of films that focus on crime, revenge, family dysfunction, and technology gone wrong.

Related Elsewhere

More review roundups are available in the Film Forum archives.