Note: Film Forum will be posting on Wednesday next week rather than Thursday for the holiday. I'm curious—What's the best movie about American history you've seen? Send me your recommendations on good rentals for the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
Hot from the Oven
You probably know the premise of this week's box office champ—Minority Report—by now. Film Forum posted early reviews of the film last week. Suffice to say: Tom Cruise plays a cop who heads a prototype crime initiative in the year 2054 that uses psychic helpers to catch murderers before they commit crimes. But when he sees himself holding the gun in a projected murder scenario, he goes on the run, dodging his own team, to figure out if he has been framed, or if he is indeed a murderer. It's an action-packed sci-fi extravaganza, and the box office shows that Steven Spielberg still has the magic touch.
This week, religious press critics offered a wide array of responses to Spielberg's intense, sci-fi murder mystery, mostly positive. (My own review is at Looking Closer.)
Paul Bicking (Preview) complains that the movie includes "violent crimes … gruesome scenes [involving] a medical procedure … crude and vulgar terms." He concludes, "Minority Report doesn't get a majority vote."
But a quick scan through other religious press reviews shows that the majority is quite impressed indeed. A critic at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, "Spielberg's direction is masterful. The narrative … presents issues of societal good at the cost of personal freedom, and the value of human life. The movie is also topical in questioning how far government should be allowed to go to protect its citizens from potential criminals, a front and center issue for Americans today." This reviewer also underlines the film's "spiritual flourishes." Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees, calling it "a thoroughly entertaining thrill ride of a movie [that] provides much food for thought, especially along the lines of balancing the concept of predestination with that of free will."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says it's a "captivating, entertaining and unusual movie. I found myself wanting more when the credits rolled." She adds, "You'll be in the minority if you don't like this one!" (Ouch.)
Michael Karounos (Christian Spotlight) concludes, "While containing the inevitable Spielberg sentimentality, the film's conclusion argues for forgiveness over revenge, for mercy over justice, and for free will over determinism without being lugubrious. Literally and metaphorically, the film makes the argument that new eyes make for a new perspective … a clever polemic which will both entertain and provoke the viewer to think about metaphysical, philosophical, and political issues which have been and always will be important to our culture and to our faith."
Providing a sort of study guide, Dick Staub (Culture Watch) highlights points for post-viewing discussion: "There are numerous direct references to God and religion … but the real theological/philosophical grist is imbedded in discourses about concepts like foreknowledge, free will, and the essential fallenness and self-interests of humans."
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says it has "a moral point of view" but he is critical of "problematic, adult moments." He concludes, "Older viewers might find this movie worth seeing more than once … [for] Spielberg's brilliant cinematic vision … and Tom Cruise's excellent performance, not to mention their fabulous supporting cast."
Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) has one small gripe: "A hopeful, feel-good ending, which I normally support, seemed false and unsatisfying in a film that otherwise could be considered a masterpiece. Everything else works. The acting, the look, the effects, which are there to support the story rather than become it, and Steven Spielberg's direction, arguably the greatest film visionary in movie history."
Jeremy Lott (Relevant Magazine) offers a less enthusiastic response. He calls it "visually thrilling, surreal, exciting and ultimately a pale imitation of the Philip K. Dick short story on which the movie is loosely based. This disappointment comes because Steven Spielberg has profoundly misread, or creatively reread, Dick. While he faithfully reproduces some of the darkness and paranoia of Dick's vision, he confessed to Wired magazine recently that he thinks the story is about 'wishful thinking.' As such, aspects and subplots are added to make the characters more human and likable and the black humor of the story has been extracted."
Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) also has small criticisms: "Don't expect Minority Report to explore the moral ramifications of its subject matter as much as A.I. did. This is much more a mystery than an exploration of the meaning of life." Isaac's favorable review includes a strong caution about "gore, violence, foul language, and sexual content. Not easy things to get around even when there is a good story to be told." He also points out a gaping hole in the plot (but that brings with it a large spoiler, so let the reader beware.)
Mainstream critics are offering almost unanimous raves. But there are a few guarded reviews in the mix. Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) says, "As impressive as this disturbing, even haunting film can be, it does not feel all of a piece. If anything, Minority Report is trying to do too much, trying to combine elements—philosophical, futuristic, hard-boiled criminal—that haven't been made to completely cohere. What is best, and creepiest, about Minority Report comes from Phillip K. Dick, brilliant at envisioning a future that's got us by the throat."
But Mary Ann Johanson (Flick Filosopher) joins the chorus of praise: "I'm dying to say this is Spielberg's best movie since Raiders, and it might even be true. It's got the thinky, soul-searching stuff of his recent films—like the unjustly unappreciated A.I.—combined with the gee-whiz popcorn fun of the Indy movies and the dinosaur flicks. In truth, Spielberg probably hasn't given us a film like this since Close Encounters."
And deservedly so. While the film is a mixed bag, its strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses. This is a small, humble production, utilizing the studio's old-fashioned hand-drawn animation instead of the lush computer imagery of Tarzan and Atlantis. There are subtle, humorous moments, high-speed comic hijinx, and Star Wars-style spaceship chase scenes. The action scenes were probably included to keep kids awake. But they seem distracting and unnecessary, because the interaction of these remarkable characters is so enjoyable. While they're drawn simply, Lilo and Stitch are as endearing and memorable as Disney heroes come.
Stitch is the name given to a runaway alien adopted by an orphaned Hawaiian girl named Lilo. Stitch is an experiment, a puppy-sized weapon of minor destruction who escapes a death sentence in outer space and crashes on Earth. Lilo is naïve enough to overlook his alien nature but perceptive enough to understand Stitch's loneliness. She traces his destructive tendencies to his lack of a loving family. Welcoming him with unconditional love into her ohanu( We are frequently reminded, "Ohanu means family") Lilo appeals to the little beast's softer, sweeter nature. And, fortunately for us, Stitch's growth into a self-controlled, kind-hearted alien in no way compromises his humor and his character. He remains unpredictable, surprising, and capable of making the grownups laugh out loud. But it is Lilo who wins our hearts. She's as spunky and original a heroine as any the studio has invented. I'd rather watch her than a starry-eyed Snow White or a quirkless Sleeping Beauty any day.
When Lilo prays for an angel and is given a sharp-toothed monster, she demonstrates an important principle: Rather than waiting for love to come and rescue you, you can instead become the vessel through which transforming love arrives. While Stitch learns some lessons, Lilo is the one who changes life for her family. The film never denies that parents are good things, but it does give us a glimpse of how grace can cultivate good things even in broken families. When Lilo affirms that her family is "little, and broken, but good," it's not a typical Disney sentimental moment. It is rather a well-earned truth that, yes, produced a lump in the throat of this jaded moviegoer.
"When I find a film like Lilo & Stitch, I suddenly become ecstatic with the occupation I have chosen," raves Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter). "What a delight. This is a smart film for kids, with enough sophisticated humor to keep attending adults just as entertained. It is the most artistic film achievement I have seen so far this year!"
Michelle Mauldin (Christian Spotlight) says, "Put all these characters and storylines together, and you've got a whopper of a movie, full of suspense, action, and heart-tugging moments. The film shows the value of unconditional love." Likewise, Ted Baehr (Movieguide) calls it "a delightful discovery. Lilo & Stitch extols love, perseverance, commitment, faith, family, and redemption." Mary Draughon (Preview) agrees, but cautions viewers about "slapstick violence" and "a slang word for posterior."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "Lilo & Stitch is a unique imaginative achievement that succeeds in its own right, without laying down any kind of template for future films to follow. Attempts to repeat its success, to make it into a formula, would be a dismal failure, unless perhaps the formula were to be 'Give the creative people room to try something new and let them work without a safety net.' What a concept."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic highlights the heroine: "Lilo's unsinkable optimism and hopefulness in the midst of a broken family life make her utterly sympathetic."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) complains that Disney's constant repetition of the lost-parent plot is "an overused device. It may serve the story. It may even lift the spirits of a child who has faced similar tragedy and realizes that they, too, can overcome desperate sadness and loss. But I've often wondered about the cumulative effect of these films on non-orphaned Disney fans, and whether they fear for Mom and Dad's safety."
Many mainstream critics reacted with surprise and delight. Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) says, "Looser and less obviously formulaic in its fresh approach to our hearts, [the film] has an unleashed, subversive sense of humor that's less corporate and more uninhibited than any non-Pixar Disney film has been time out of mind. This is a happy throwback to the time when cartoons were cinema's most idiosyncratic form instead of one of its most predictable."
MaryAnn Johanson (Flick Filosopher) admits, "Lilo & Stitch avoids feeling gimmicky because all its little quirks are woven into the story in such a way that to pull them out would unravel the tale. Even the running motif of happily making do with the family you've got … feels fresh and unforced.
And Roger Ebert (The Chicago Sun-Times) calls it "a truly inspired animated feature. It's one of the most charming feature-length cartoons of recent years—funny, sassy, startling, original. It doesn't get sickeningly sweet at the end, it has as much stuff in it for grownups as for kids, and it has a bright offbeat look to it."
Juwanna Mann is a comedy about a man who wants to make it in professional basketball, even if it means taking a starring role in the women's league. Miguel A. Núñez Jr. stars as the ambitious athlete, while Vivica A. Fox and Kevin Pollack costar. Director Jessie Vaughn's only previous directorial effort was a VH-1 special on Paula Abdul. According to religious press critics, this is not much of a step up.
"I have a dream," says Phil Boatwright. "Someday, I'm going to see a comic film starring African Americans, about African Americans, that doesn't rely on crudity and sexual situations to draw humor from." Similarly, Paul Bicking (Preview) says, "Frequent sexual comments, vulgar language, and nudity cause Juwanna Mann to foul out."
Michael Elliott compares the film to another gender-mixup comedy, and finds Juwanna Mann sorely lacking. "Tootsie was timely. Tootsie was funny. Tootsie was good. Juwanna Mann is none of these."
The USCCB's critic calls it "off-putting … and unsuitable for adolescents. The sappy all-ends-well conclusion and feeble message about the merits of teamwork can't compensate for what is essentially a derivative film chock full of old jokes with little entertainment value."
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is getting a lot of attention this week, primarily because of the supporting role played by Academy Award-winning Jodi Foster. It's the story of two adolescents coping with life in a Catholic school, which is portrayed as an oppressive and meddling institution that dares to come between the kids and their reckless behaviors.
Needless to say, the negative portrayal of religious folks earns the criticism of religious press reviewers.
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says, "There will be people who find this cutting edge and relish the thought of attacking Christianity. Regrettably, all it can do is foster a climate of hate in this society. The Motion Picture Code was right when it said don't demean the ministry of religion or mock anyone's faith. The filmmakers behind Dangerous Lives show no sense of responsibility." He adds, "There have been better exposès of the church. A little subtlety would have given the movie more impact."
The USCCB's critic argues that the film "means to be an affecting story of the difficulties of adolescence, but ultimately fails to deliver the powerful punch of which it initially seems capable." This critic also believes that the film's fails as an attack on the church. "Despite the title, the boys are seen assisting at Mass only once, and their own feelings on religion or faith are never fleshed out, which makes the setting of a Catholic school more of an afterthought than a pointed dig. There is the feeling that these boys would not have acted differently had they been in a public school.
We're far enough into summer to see which of the season's first wave films are standing the test of time.
The Bourne Identity is still in the top 10, and critics are still offering high praise for its stylish, intense storytelling. Ken Morefield (Viewpoint) gives it an "A-minus," saying, "With a little more substance, The Bourne Identity could have been great. On the plus side, the writing and acting flesh out the characters in what is essentially a two-hour chase scene. On the down side, the little touches that round out the characters don't quite manage to elevate the movie out of the generic action category. Don't get me wrong, The Bourne Identity is efficient and enjoyable. But it is also a little formulaic … and its serious questions are more often sidestepped than addressed."
Last week, I mentioned having difficulty finding a religious press critic who was not thoroughly disgusted with the movie version of Scooby-Doo. Well, this week Holly McClure (Crosswalk) posted her review: "Scooby-Doo isn't appropriate for kids of all ages, but parents will find it an enjoyable adaptation of the beloved cartoon. I thought this would be a really dumb movie, but my 20-year-old daughter and I enjoyed it together. As we looked around the theater, we noticed there were a lot of teenagers and adults (without kids) who seemed to be enjoying this movie as much as the kids."
But Mike Parnell (EthicsDaily.com) says that Doo "lacks any real focus. There are no genuine laughs. This film will do great at the box office. But there is such a following for this franchise that it deserves much better than what this movie offers."
Last week, Film Forum reported on the widespread success of a popular book trilogy coming soon to a theatre near you. No, its not The Lord of the Rings. Far from it. His Dark Materials is similar in scale and ambition—his plot is nothing short of The War in Heaven, Part 2—but his intentions and ideas are of a very different color than Tolkien's, Lewis's, L'Engle's, or even J.K. Rowling's. Since these bestsellers are bound for the big screen, it seems appropriate to get the conversation going about what is sure to be a difficult issue for Christians everywhere.
The author of these imaginative, sometimes awe-inspiring works is Phillip Pullman. He is building a large readership and a vast audience of enthusiastic fans. (You can read reader responses to his works on several Amazon pages. Here are a few: 1, 2, 3, 4.) Christian readers are starting to voice their alarm at the series' portrayal of the Christian church. Christians are portrayed as evil, manipulative and murderous. They are even more intelligently villainous than the bad guys in the works of Tolkien and Lewis.
One reader review on Amazon.com addresses Christian reader protests: "People who have read His Dark Materials and claim that it is an attack on God need to get a grip. It is NOT an attack on God or the Christian faith, but is about growing up and the loss of innocence. The trilogy is labeled as a work of fantasy, and its positions on issues such as religion are not to be taken seriously." This argument may be shared by other readers, but one important spokesman loudly disagrees … the book's author, Phillip Pullman. He takes his anti-Christianity very seriously, as evidenced in a review at Third Way. (Thanks to watchful reader Ryan Bradley for passing along the link.) In this interview, Pullman also denounces C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia as "propaganda" for the Christian faith. He calls the books "racist" and "sexist."
I asked readers last week if they are going to prepare for book burnings. (A bit over the top, perhaps. But there were reports of Harry Potter book burnings in church parking lots, after all.) Should we picket the movies? Should we read the books? Or just leave well enough alone?
John and Trena Moran write in to say, "Our response will be the same as was for Harry Potter. We listened to critics, both Christian and non-Christian. Then, based on our convictions, we chose not to go to the theatre to see the movie, nor have we rented it from the video store, and have stayed away from products that support the film, toys, cereals, etc." Similarly, Geoff Biddulph writes, "I plan on reacting the way I always react to objectionable books and movies: by not buying them and not taking my kids to see them. The best way to hurt 'artists' like this is in their pocketbook by ignoring their products."
Ryan Bradley has a different idea about how Christians can respond to the popularity of the acclaimed books … read them and discuss them. "They would make an excellent choice for Christian book clubs to discuss. They raise objections to Christianity which are commonly held … but our community has convincing answers."
One reader offers a one-word strategy: Evangelize. "I have a real problem with all our political activism when the only plan for changing the culture in the New Testament is evangelism and discipleship, not political change. When hearts are turned to Christ, there will be no market for pornography, cocaine, His Dark Materials, etc."
Other Christians, however, argue that Christians should be knowledgeable about the works so they can show the weaknesses in Pullman's methods and arguments.
Patrick Oden says, "I believe the best response will simply be intelligent criticism. Surely the response Pullman is looking for is conservative rants and raves. We have the truth, so why worry and fret when someone challenges that?" Oden makes a follow-up point that should be a challenge to Christian artists and writers: "Pullman is filling a 'spiritual' void that simply isn't being filled by any Christian author like Lewis. That our flagship children's literature is now over a half-century old is rather discouraging. The worst thing we could do is rant and rave—the best thing we can do is offer intelligent dialogue and then begin to produce great authors who can themselves fill the void with redemptive literature."
Jay Woodham echoes the challenge: "I think the solution is very simple in concept, but difficult in execution: create literature and film deeply informed by Christian conviction."
Blaine Hill responds: "How do we respond to the reality of being part of a church that has historical periods where it more represented a kingdom of darkness than a sign of the Kingdom of God? The books' portrayal of the church … is not without grounds."
Sara Khangura writes, "I hadn't heard about these books before reading about them on your site today, but can't say I'm entirely surprised. Jesus told us that we'd suffer persecution for Him. It's sad that C.S. Lewis's wonderful writing is being attacked in such a flagrant and ridiculous way."
Ryan Ashton says, "All we have to do is perhaps engage a nonbeliever with 'Hey, what do you think of that movie? Do you think it's accurate?' and then have people say what they think about organized religion and God. Then the Spirit can do the rest."
Andy Bastable plans to take the same path. He's "looking forward" to the release of the movies … and to the accompanying controversy: "As a young Christian with many non-Christian friends, I often struggle to be able to talk openly about the Gospel and what it means—and I believe that Pullman's attempts to rabidly attack the faith may well rebound on him, and allow many more Christians an opportunity to address many stereotypes and prejudices that at the moment lie unchallenged in our friends, relatives and work colleagues." He concludes, "I really hope and pray, however, that Christian groups don't create a hysteria of ungrace around the books and films and instead seek to peacefully explain the differences between the 'religion' that Pullman attacks and the God of pure love."
Next week: Adam Sandler is Mr. Deeds. Also, patriotic reader recommendations.
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