My first year steering Film Forum through reviews, debates, and discussions has been an education. It hasn't been the most memorable year for movies. But we've experienced a continental shift in the conversation regarding violence on the big screen. For example, after the release of In the Bedroom, letters demonstrated that the wounds of September 11 were still raw and there was an urgency to viewers' soul-searching as they questioned the ethics of revenge.

I've also seen just how many ways, in conversation, in print, and online, that Christians can respond to their culture. Many believers will only accept and praise films that bear a blatant scriptural sermon to the audience. Others warn Christians away from the cinema, treating contemporary secular films as poisonous. Some approach the multiplex as though they're stepping into a minefield, carefully marking anything that might offend or "corrupt" them.

Recently I have had the privilege of participating in a new endeavor—The Promontory Film Critics' Circle. Several critics frequently excerpted in Film Forum are now working in concert to cultivate in-depth conversation among Christians about movies, how they should be made, and what they mean. (The group is being organized by Doug Cummings of Chiaroscuro, Steve Lansingh of The Film Forum, and myself.) I hope Film Forum serves a similar purpose for you in the coming year, leading you to rewarding perspectives, making moviegoing a more nourishing experience.

Hot from the Oven
Enough about the last year at Film Forum. There are other backward-looking endeavors to consider. One of literature's most beloved sci-fi writers, H.G. Wells, has given us The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, and the often-adapted The Time Machine. The story remains popular, its influence evident in numerous big-screen and television favorites, from Back to the Future to Star Trek to Quantum Leap.

This new big screen adaptation introduces drastic revisions. The scientist-inventor-hero (Guy Pearce) is now crushed by the loss of his sweetheart. So he employs a time travel vehicle that's part gyroscope, part cockpit, part Harley-Davidson—a whirligig that hurls him backward and forward, first in an attempt to prevent the death of his beloved, then in a quest to gain understanding from a future world 800,000 years away. In the future, he discovers the Eloi, an above-ground people caught up in conflict with monstrous subterranean Morlocks. The Morlocks are orc-like beasts led by a ghostly psychic (played by Jeremy Irons, who must have slept in a tub of bleach to achieve his ghastly appearance.

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The film is directed by Wells's great-grandson Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt). But Wells departed the project near its completion, and Gore Verbinski (The Mexican) took over. The result is a fusion of smirking comedy and action/adventure that became the weekend's box office champ but scored very few points with critics.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) complains that the directors "straddle between two genres and ultimately satisfy fans of neither." The silver lining: "One thing the film does depict well … is the truth that no matter what man does to ruin this planet for himself, God designed it to endure."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) calls it "an amusing B-movie … a mindless popcorn flick. The movie raises issues of conformity, guilt, and deciding when it's appropriate to accept one's fate and when it's better to fight it."

Although she too liked the film, Holly McClure (Crosswalk) warns worried parents: "I predict your kids will have bad dreams for weeks."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) writes, "Although it is too violent for young children and has a few gaffes in the story, The Time Machine is an interesting, fun diversion which makes some good, moral and even redemptive points."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) recommends the film, calling it "a compelling drama," and says, "Most sci-fi fans will be pleased with the trip."

Several other religious press critics vehemently disagree. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic calls it a "misguided effort with average special effects and forced performances in a spotty, convoluted screenplay that devolves from sci-fi to horror to action without entertaining."

[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead! Click here to go past them.]

Steven J. Greydanus (Decent Films) says the film is "pitiful entertainment, succeeding neither as spectacle, as action-adventure, or as love story." He's bewildered by the fact that the hero "works for years to save the love of his life, then gives up after one try." He poses other challenges to specific plot points, like, "How do you sucker-punch someone who's telepathic?"

Similarly incredulous, film critic Peter T. Chattaway stacks up further challenges in a comment at the onFilm dicussion list: "How on earth can a holographic library system survive 800,000 years after the city has been destroyed by falling moon debris and after an ice age has covered the earth and melted away ... what sort of power source is this thing running on? And how is it that the time machine can be turned into an explosive device ... and how does [the hero] know what sort of explosion the time machine will create? Arrrrgh. These are just the first inexplicabilities that pop into my head."

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Mary Draughon (Preview) faults "a few mild crudities and one exclamatory profanity" and a "bleak view of a Godless universe."

Mainstream critics were bored and bothered by Time Machine. Jeffrey Wells ( writes, "The failure of The Time Machine is unqualified by mediocrity; its awfulness achieves a kind of splendor." He describes the Morlocks as "totally unthreatening. Not for a millisecond do you believe they're anything other than computerized creations, and unoriginal ones at that. They look like blond cousins of the Orcs from Lord of the Rings."

Mary Ann Johanson (Flick Filosopher) is reminded of Einstein's description of relativity: "Spend an hour with a pretty girl (he said), and it feels like only a moment. Put your hand on a hot stove for a moment, and it feels like an hour. The Time Machine is like spending time with the hot stove, not the pretty girl. I'll grant that it doesn't cause actual physical injury, only mental numbness."

Charles Taylor ( offers a frail compliment: "It's not much praise to say that The Time Machine is the sort of diversion that's better than you expect it to be. But we're almost a quarter of the way through a year that so far has offered no genuinely entertaining mainstream movies."

Side Dishes
The year's first major foreign film, Monsoon Wedding, comes from India, offering yet another tale of the confining, frustrating nature of arranged marriages and the importance of personal choice and true love. The heroine accepts the arranged marriage as the normal path of tradition, but is reluctant to give up her affair with a married TV-show host.

John Adair (Preview) calls the film "a truly special movie about the connection, support, and encouragement people can find in and through their families. Issues range from [the bride] dealing with feelings for her ex-boyfriend, to problems within existing marriages, and even past instances of family abuse. The film handles each of these and others effortlessly and, with such reality, that they truly hit home with the audience." But he counts bad language as reason enough not to go see it after all.

Mainstream critics highlighted the film's unique portrayal of modern India. "This may be India, but a lot of it looks familiar," says Mike Clark (USA Today). "Everyone clutches a cell phone, and the TV host's show of hot-button issues could fit in on American cable. Yet this is a ceremony in which traditional rituals are respected and expected. Some of the movie's best scenes … involve musical interludes: an elaborate dance that has been planned as a centerpiece ceremony and a wonderful interlude in which the female guests sing a traditional song."

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Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) observes, "The director … wants to immerse us in the ways that the spirit of the world has changed. Americanization has left the Vermas a little unhinged, but it's also something they embrace. The characters keep whipping back and forth, right in the middle of conversations, between Punjabi and English, and this is more than a matter of multilingualism. The current of technology has jumbled everyone up, speeding forward the pulse of their lives."

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) writes, "There's such an unreasonable prejudice in this country against any film that is not exactly like every other film. People cheerfully attend assembly-line junk but are wary of movies that might give them new experiences or take them to new places. Monsoon Wedding … is the kind of film where you meet characters you have never been within 10,000 miles of, and feel like you know them at once."

Monsoon Wedding joins a long list of films about the problem of arranged marriages and the influence of Western liberties on Eastern traditions. Last year's East is East remains the most powerful and challenging comedy I've seen on the subject. But too many of these films, while revealing the destructive nature of oppressive traditions, end up declaring the wrong answer—"Follow your heart." The human heart is a deceptive thing, far too susceptible to destructive appetites, to pride, and to näiveté. True love is not instinctual. It is godly, something we aspire to, and it's far more about selflessness than about getting what you want.

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If films about arranged marriages are common, urban crime dramas are legion. It seems every month brings us a handful of these films. They usually star shotgun-wielding rock stars and rap stars, and they splash excess sex and violence across the screen. Most of these stories can be summed up like this: "You mess with me, take my stuff, steal my girl, or get in my way, and I'll come after you with a gun, an encyclopedia of cuss words, and a very very loud heavy metal soundtrack!"

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This week we have All About the Benjamins. Ice Cube plays Bucum, a Miami bounty hunter who gets entangled in a diamond heist with Reggie, a clumsy grifter (Mike Epps). Normally, Bucum would be dragging Reggie to jail, but when he sees that they could partner in an attempt to catch some big-time crooks, he changes his game. A lost $60 million dollar lottery ticket becomes part of the gamble, so there's a lot of money ($100 bills=Benjamins, you see) at stake, and great civil unrest ensues. But are these unlikely "heroes" after justice, or personal gain?

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) writes, "The few funny moments … are outweighed by a torrent of profanity. Ice Cube needs to either play a tough guy with a soft side or a softie that has a mean streak in him, but his character isn't mean enough or funny enough to carry this movie. Epps has his moments, but he's no Chris Rock, or Tucker for that matter. The two try their hardest to be funny, but after about the 100th F-word, I quit counting the horrendous language and got irritated."

John Adair (Preview) says "brutal" violence and "more than 200 obscenities" gain the film his "most objectionable rating."

Mainstream critics were as harsh or harsher in their judgments. Jay Boyar (The Orlando Sentinel) declares, "The violence and profanity are so gratuitous and vulgar that your mind shuts down self-protectively. 'Remember that time is money,' cautioned the original Benjamin Franklin, and he was right. The 90 minutes you spend at All About the Benjamins can start to feel like a whole fistful of Benjamins."

Digest (and a correction)
Over the past few weeks, Film Forum surveyed critics regarding Moulin Rouge, Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers, and 40 Days and 40 Nights, but the analysis and dialogue continue this week in various other publications.

Were you offended by the debauchery on display in the Oscar-nominated Moulin Rogue? Or were you dazzled by its lights, music, zany comedy, and melodrama? (Perhaps you were put off by its pell-mell bombast.) Whatever your response, you should visit Books & Culture this week, where Douglas Jones offers an insightful interpretation. Jones calls the film "a wonderful image of Christian cultural transformation. Instead of winning the Underworld by the tyranny of the ballot box or threats of searing tribulation, a Christian culture can seduce darkness to light by sonnet, tango, and fugue. Tell that story, Christian."

Andrew Coffin compares the two war epics in World magazine: "On a technical level, and perhaps on a visceral level as well, Black Hawk Down is a better film. We Were Soldiers, however, shows unflinching respect for things not often given this much reverence in modern films: God, country, and family."

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Peter T. Chattaway, occasional media writer for Books & Culture, Christianity Today, and Canadian Christianity, has an article in The Vancouver Sun this week on 40 Days and 40 Nights. Chattaway is troubled by the way this film, like so many, portrays sexual abstinence as ludicrous and well-nigh impossible. His complaint "is not that it exaggerates the significance of sex, but that it does so to the point where sex seems to eclipse just about every other way of relating to people. Abstinence becomes just another way to kink sex up, as Matt and his new girlfriend look for loopholes in his vow of chastity, which is due to expire in a few weeks anyway. The film plays on the notion that life without sex is untenable. But honestly, for some of us at least, it isn't all that bad."

I planted my foot—or rather, my keyboard—in my mouth last week when I described 40 Days and 40 Nights as being about a high school senior. I apologize—I was going on second-hand information this time around and failed to double-check my facts. Apparently, the main character is older, college-age, and thus my questions about the film's accuracy in portraying high school life were rather off the mark.

However, I did receive several differing responses from high schoolers, affirming that yes, sexual activity among their peers is troublingly frequent. In their experience, classmates not only engage in regular sexual escapades, but also ridicule those who abstain.

It was nice, though, to see one student write, "I am a 17-year old high school junior, and … most movies that I have seen do not reflect high school for me. My friends and I do not have constant sex, we are not made fun of because of that, and we are not embarrassed." She argues that the truly embarrassing thing is the way that movies portray high schoolers.

Mike Clawson writes in, "I don't find that most teen movies portray positive values. One teen movie that I found to be highly entertaining and which had a positive message worked into it was 10 Things I Hate About You, a clever and funny adaptation of Shakespeare's' Taming of the Shrew. Furthermore, as the story develops we get to hear a main character (Kat) openly discuss the negative consequences of deciding to give up her virginity. Other parts of the movie show the negative side effects of excessive drinking, and positively portray characters who make their own decisions based on their personal values rather than just following the crowd. 10 Things certainly isn't a morality tale, but it is a funny movie with an overall virtuous message."

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"What irritates me most," writes Rick de Geier, "is the quasi-moralistic message these movies always end with—'Sex is fun, and it's okay to experiment with it, but good buddies are more important'—as if that makes everything all right. … I don't turn to movies for answers to my problems, but to be moved by honest, happy or sad stories. What I look for is realism. I enjoy a realistic character far better than a hero who hardly shows any weakness."

He recommends the Swedish film Show Me Love, "about a 15-year old nerdy girl who falls in love with the coolest girl from her class, somewhere in a boring Swedish suburb. They're shown kissing once or twice, but the movie isn't about homosexuality, it's about the hopes and insecurities of young teenagers. The way they can be both sincerely sweet and exceptionally cruel toward each other. I haven't seen 15-year olds portrayed more realistic in any other movie I've seen. It's quite tragic, but it's so much more honest than all this American Pie trash.

"Another recent film about teens I really enjoyed was Ghost World. It was very dark, but again—honest. I felt like I knew the two cynical girls who seem to be living in a dumb, insane place, because that's how I felt when I was a teen in my own little alternative subculture. The way they hated everything around them was maybe not 'Christian' or 'admirable', but it was so recognizable to me that I thought it was terribly funny and sad at the same time. The movie definitely has a message: negativity will make you bitter and lonely. I like the fact that the movie doesn't have a happy end, but does show a bit of hope for the characters at the end (just like in real life)."

Next week:Ice Age, the year's first original animated family film. Showtime, the first movie for fans of Robert DeNiro and Eddie Murphy and William Shatner! And Resident Evil, the year's first movie based on a video game.

Related Elsewhere

Past review roundups are available in the Film Forum archives.