You'll find predictions and preferences about next Sunday's Oscars on just about every entertainment Web site. Mainstream critics are making wild guesses for the closest Best Picture race in years. Hollywood must choose between the first of Tolkien's beloved Rings trilogy, Moulin Rouge's "re-invention" of the musical, Beautiful Mind's schizophrenia-to-Nobel-Prize biopic, In the Bedroom's grief and marital distress, or the murder mystery at Gosford Park's British manor. Roger Ebert is predicting a surprise: Moulin Rouge. You can peruse in-depth reviews of Best Picture nominees at Focus on the Family, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Film Forum, my own site Looking Closer, and other Christian film review sites. Instead of joining the chorus of predictions, Film Forum will wait until next week and post the official winners, along with various approvals and disapprovals from religious press critics.

If you do plan to watch the Oscars this weekend, you might find Peter Travers's guide to the Oscar ceremony an eye-opening read—it's published this month in the mainstream music and media magazine Rolling Stone. It's not Oscar propaganda. Travers explains who selects the awards, highlighting the ugly politics and popularity contests that prevent recognition of true excellence. Pop star Britney Spears plays an important part in his analysis, believe it or not. It might be enough to make you seek a second opinion to Oscar's.

Hot from the Oven

Blue Sky Studios has entered the big leagues of animated features. Chris Wedge's Ice Age is the first feature-length CGI cartoon from the studio, which was recently acquired by 20th Century Fox after their own animation company folded following the disappointment of Titan A.E.

Ice Age is a story about a wooly mammoth named Manfred (Ray Romano) and a clumsy sloth named Sid (John Leguizamo) who form an unlikely, reluctant friendship as they try to return an abandoned human child to its clan of early humans. They must overcome a series of environmental obstacles and avoid the wiles of sabertooth tigers, who are hunting the child for vengeance.

Ice Age is a delightful surprise—a well-told story, brought to life with impressive animation. Leguizamo, Romano, and Denis Leary (who voices a tiger named Diego) provide excellent voice work. Many will be relieved to know that the film avoids the typically annoying pop songs. And there's a preference for Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote humor rather than the crass innuendos and pop culture references of Shrek. Sure, it's a familiar story, with elements of Bambi, The Lion King, The Jungle Book, and a dozen other children's classics. But it's not a rip-off. At only 75 minutes long, it should keep your kids' attention, and yours. You'll find my full review at Looking Closer.

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"Ice Age isn't perfect," writes J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth). "It feels 15 minutes too long. But as Disney seems to have abandoned its award-winning formula, it's nice to see another studio pick up where Disney left off. [It's] a movie your kids will love and you'll enjoy."

At Hollywood Jesus, David Bruce finds examples of selfless love throughout the story, and he points out an echo of Christ in the transforming power of a child in the lives of his caretakers: "The child comes into a world of enemies and furnishes the common ground on which reconciliation can occur."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "The set designs are imaginative and the main characters are expressive and well defined." He says the film's theme of cooperation "resonates with us because God has called us to operate as one, much like a herd."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops's critic says, "Wedge enlivens the proceedings with bouncy physical humor, punchy one-liners and skillfully drawn animation while tossing in a light lesson on familial love, no matter who makes up the family unit."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I thought I would. It's a perfect movie to take your kids to, and you'll enjoy sitting through it yourself."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) applauds it as well: "[It] benefits from clever writing, delightfully wacky voice work by John Leguizamo, and some of the wildest action and slapstick possible without an anvil and a 'That's all folks!'"

"Ice Age has neither the invention and creativity of Monsters Inc. nor the satiric wit of Shrek," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "but it still emerges as the best new family film of the season. [It] blends slapstick, occasionally sly adult humor, and, yes, a couple of poop jokes—though parents may rest assured that it doesn't even approach Shrek-like levels of low humor."

Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) calls it "action filled comedy with tons of heart."

Paul Bicking (Preview) cautions parents that "Younger audiences may find some scenes disturbing, such as the child's mother disappearing in a river, an intense battle with Diego's tiger pack, and cave drawings depicting men attacking a mammoth family." He points out a scene of one character risking his life for another, and says, "For Christians, the line stirs memories of Christ giving up his life to save many." Is he worried about the movie's nods to evolutionary theory? "One humorous scene in an ice cave suggests Darwin's theory of evolution but a following scene includes a UFO stuck in ice, which could equate Darwin's ideas with those of extraterrestrial life."

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Lisa Rice (Movieguide) objects to the "politically correct" elements of "anti-hunting, evolution, possible homosexual inferences." But she also objects to "politically correct" elements of "environmentalism … and jabs at fear-based 'end of the world' religious zealots." Hmmmm. "To counter this," Rice argues, "there was a very strong endorsement of marriage, a life laid down in sacrifice for another and a strong portrayal of the necessity of unity before victory."

Mainstream critics were divided over the movie. Some found it too formulaic, while others appreciated how much Wedge accomplished in 75 minutes.

MaryAnn Johanson (The Flick Filosopher) dismisses it as formulaic and bland: "The computer animation may be lovely … but that can't make up for a humdrum script that steamrollers the audience with an overly sentimental story we've seen too many times before."

But Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "The filmmakers have all worked together to really see and love these characters, who are not 'cartoon animals' but as quirky and individual as human actors, and more engaging than most."

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In last year's thriller 15 Minutes, Robert DeNiro played a cop whose dangerous job was disrupted when the media got involved and made a spectacle of it. This year he's in a comedy called Showtime, but his situation hasn't changed much. Directed by Tom Dey (Shanghai Noon), Showtime matches a tough cop (DeNiro) and a tough-talking celebrity-cop (Eddie Murphy) for the development of a new "reality TV" show about crime-fighting on the streets. They find it hard to get their job done, especially when their acting coach turns out to be William Shatner. Soon, they're on the trail of a gang of crooks, dodging cameras all the while.

The movie's general message seems to be: What you see on "reality TV" is not always what you get. Ironically, critics claim Showtime isn't all it's cracked up to be either. Even though DeNiro and Murphy are two of the big screen's most talented comedians—yes, DeNiro can be very funny—the laughs are falling flat.

Mary Draughon (Preview) argues, "There's no deep message or moral to the story except forget your worries and have a little fun." But she concludes," Showtime clearly deserves an 'R' rating for foul language and excessive violence. When will Hollywood learn that entertainment doesn't require 'reality' to be real?"

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The USCCB's critic calls it a "cookie-cutter comedy … with one-dimensional characters and autopilot performances. Dey's contrived comedy never gathers enough momentum to produce anything more than a few chuckles."

Phil Boatwright found "some funny moments … but it lacks any real satirical edge. The material doesn't live up to the cast's ability."

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says, "Showtime has very little to do with [its] flimsy story. Instead, it has everything to do with huge fireballs, frantic car chases, and an exploding swimming pool. Showtime is nothing more than Beverly Hills Cop VIII meets Lethal Weapon IX with a dose of TV's COPS thrown in for fun."

Michael Elliott says, "Dey … and a trio of screenwriters have a workable premise from which to build but they simply don't take it far enough. Their film is riddled with missed opportunities, missing punch lines, improbable scenarios, and stereotypically written characters."

Holly McClure liked it better than most: "Pairing DeNiro and Murphy together was movie magic. I just think Showtime could have been a better story if the movie would have made the audience take it a little more seriously."

Mainstream critics called it a disappointment. MaryAnn Johanson says it's "shockingly underwritten: bad guys have little motivation other than being clichÉd action-flick bad guys, entire scenes feel like they've been left out, and the few moments of real, original humor come and go and are never capitalized on. When an appearance by William Shatner is the biggest cause for celebration, you know a movie's in trouble. Showtime's in trouble."

Roger Ebert says, "I learn from the Internet Movie Database that [Tom Dey] studied film at Brown University, the Centre des Etudes Critiques in Paris, and the American Film Institute. He probably knows what's wrong with this movie more than I do. My guess: The screenplay was funnier and more satirical until the studio began to doubt the intelligence of the potential audience, and decided to shovel in more action as insurance."

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Writer/director Paul Anderson (Event Horizon, Soldier) turned the video game Mortal Kombat into a successful movie, and now he's got more game with Resident Evil. Michelle Rodriguez (Girlfight) plays a heavy artillery commando who follows amnesiac Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element) into a sealed-off labyrinth called "the Hive." There a virus has turned former employees into zombies of all shapes, sizes, and gross-out capabilities. It may sound like a realistic exposé on modern life at the office, but alas, no: instead it's another hyperviolent actioner, sending the heavily-armed ladies from one violent confrontation to the next in an attempt to explosively evict these stubborn Residents.

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Religious press critics sound like the movie has numbed them into zombies. The USCCB's critic writes, "Anderson's frenetic sci-fi flick has an absurd story that uses explicit violence and tuneless, ear-piercing music to fill in cavernous narrative holes."

Paul Bicking (Preview) speaks from experience with video games. "Having played older video games, such as the classic Doom where the odds in battles get increasingly greater, it's difficult to call such masochism entertainment. Although, there is a certain satisfaction in finally surviving to the next level." The movie, he argues, is a different story: "The continuing desensitization to violence and vulgar language earns our strongest vote against moving in with Resident Evil."

Michael Elliott writes, "I found its incessant macabre violence to be both repetitive and tiresome." He makes a distinction between Resident's sort of evil and the nature of true evil: "The depiction of the zombies … is reminiscent of our own spiritual adversary with one important exception … the devil isn't brain dead. He's smart and wily, and he wants to devour us with the same level of intensity as the undead of the film."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) finds the film "far too violent, gory and ridiculous to make me care about who sabotaged the lab or why. I just wanted the rampage to end."

"The filmmakers should have at least given their audience something to cheer about in the end," writes Tom Snyder (Movieguide). "Otherwise, what's the point of even making such a movie like this?"

Ebert shakes his head at the film's ludicrous action sequences. "There is one neat effect when characters unwisely venture into a corridor and the door slams shut on them. Then a laser beam passes at head level, decapitating one. Another beam whizzes past at waist level, cutting the second in two while the others duck. A third laser pretends to be high but then switches to low, but the third character outsmarts it by jumping at the last minute. Then the fourth laser turns into a grid that dices its victim into pieces the size of a Big Mac. Since the grid is inescapable, what were the earlier lasers about? Does the corridor have a sense of humor?"

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MaryAnn Johanson ridicules "a rather breathtaking lack of attempts at creating characters and a brazen avoidance of any semblance of a story or even a logical procession from one scene to the next. It's about really loud hard rock music drowning out the nonsense and making the whole affair feel like a 100-minute music video."

Side Dishes

The other animated feature worth catching this month is for grownups only, and it may prove harder to find. Metropolis is a futuristic sci-fi epic that recalls Blade Runner, the Terminator films, and even the recent A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). Boiled down to its essential plot, it echoes the Bible's story of the tower of Babel, a connection acknowledged within the script.

In the crowded, advanced, multi-layered city of Metropolis, the President is slowly losing power to an ambitious and deceitful man called Duke Red. The Duke plans to control the world using technological weapons that cause sunspot activity and threaten the earth with dangerous levels of radiation. At the same time, he employs a scientist to create a super-being—a robot girl named Tima—who will sit on a throne atop the city's tallest tower, the Ziggurat. When the Duke's jealous son tries to assassinate Tima, a kind-hearted journalist named Kinichi rescues her, and the two strike up an unlikely but touching romance.

Metropolis's animation is a mix of flat, overly simplistic cartoons and convincing, three-dimensional CGI animation, some of the most dazzlingly complex visual imagery ever created for the big screen. Katsuhiro Ôtomo, who wrote the script for the famous and hyperviolent Japanese animated epic Akira, is responsible for adapting this script from a 1949 Japanese comic series. It's a more optimistic story than Akira, affirming the possibility that machine and humans can exist harmoniously and perhaps outlast the coming apocalyptic consequences of technology abuse.

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says, Metropolis is "visually stunning. … The story doesn't always make sense, however, and the animators lay on the violent metaphors a bit too thickly. The violence too frequently seems gratuitous. The apocalyptic ending is well worth seeing. The movie even cites the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, and Kenichi's uncle makes a positive reference to God in the movie's otherwise non-Christian dialogue."

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Doug Cummings (Chiaroscuro), on the other hand, finds a lot of sense in the story as he compares it to the 1927 Metropolis film by Fritz Lang. He sends in this review:

Lang's film was a thinly-disguised biblical allegory involving a city ruler (the head) who unites with the working class (the hands) through his intermediary son (the heart) in a Gothic cathedral, but it's remembered more for its grandiose visions of a futuristic city. The epic came during a time of severe economic depression in Germany and embodied the ideal merging of technological dreams and spiritual values that many hoped would produce a successful State.

While the more recent animated film shares many of Lang's basic narrative setups (a city ruler hopes to unite the city's factions through an "anointed" being), its differences are noteworthy. The next 73 years of the 20th century suggested to many that technological utopias were quite possibly wholly unattainable, and because Japan is the only country to have experienced a nuclear bombardment, it's no surprise that much of its science fiction questions the integration of body, soul, and technology. Tezuka's Metropolis (directed by Rin Taro) may have a 'head,' but its son is a militant killer, its 'heart' is a naive kid who is in over his head, and its 'hands' are an assortments of abused machines and robots just waiting to malfunction. Nevertheless, the ruler decides an advanced robot fused with human emotions just might be the answer to all his problems, but the mixture of unchecked power, a lack of identity, and psychological vulnerability only spells certain annihilation.

The film strips the original narrative of its Christian allegorical basis and reformulates its various parts to emphasize humanity's tenuous grasp on technology. The mounting chaos is brought to colorful life through a pastiche of visually elaborate backgrounds against simple caricatures, Japanese social settings to a score comprised of big band jazz numbers, future visions with touches of the 1940s, and cyberpunk ideas conveyed through retro, saucer-eyed faces. Nothing in the film seems to entirely match-up, making everything anachronistic. It's as if the animators themselves cannot contain the world in one aesthetic, but pile on a hodgepodge of styles and voices too numerous to unify, overwhelming the film with its lack of a fixed identity. Beautifully drawn and consistently entertaining, the film nevertheless feels like a massive technological experiment in search of a unified perspective—which is exactly its point, of course.

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Harrison's Flowers is the new film from writer/director/producer Elie Chouraqui. The story is about the disappearance of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Harrison Lloyd (David Strathairn), and how his determined wife Sarah (Andie MacDowell) sets out against all odds to find him behind enemy lines. She ends up trapped in the violent political turmoil in Croatia. In view of the death of journalist Daniel Pearl, it's certainly a timely political thriller.

The USCCB's critic writes, "Using the backdrop of fierce political strife … Chouraqui depicts ethnic cleansing in agonizing terms, but the central story of a wife whose fear is overshadowed by love fails to resonate as powerfully as it should."

John Adair (Preview) says it's not just an action movie: "Its serious tone and message take it beyond that shallow level. The film shows great respect and honor for what these photographers go through, simply to tell stories of far off places that few people in the West are aware of. They literally risk their lives as the bombs drop and bullets fly. Their pictures tell stories others need to hear." Yet he concludes that foul language "wilts Harrison's Flowers."

"It does give us a head-on view of the dangerous, but necessary life of the photojournalist," agrees Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter), "but Chouraqui loses control, becoming excessive, uncontrolled, and overwrought. The characters are unlikable and the violence and language are superfluous. It is brutal and depressing. I predict this one will bomb." (A safe prediction, since the film is not playing on very many screens.)

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Trembling Before G-d is a new, provocative documentary about the dilemma of gay and lesbian Jews who remain committed to their Orthodox or Hasidic traditions.

Doug Cummings writes, "Some films seem tailor-made for discussions of spirituality and the cinema, and Sandi DuBowski 's Trembling Before G-d is one of them. The documentary transcends the usual conservative/liberal agendas by focusing on its human stories. Interviewing people both in and out of the closet, as well as psychologists and rabbis, the film intercuts soul-searching monologues with prayers, rituals, and celebrations of the Jewish faith. In fact, it's one of the most boldly worshipful films in some time; a document of a people committed to the 'struggle with God,' integrating their innermost desires with their religious convictions."

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At The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell praises it as well: "DuBowski latches on to a provocative subject and invests it with a compelling tenderness. This documentary is essentially about merging the Old World and the New, but with a twist that is shocking: it concerns the heartfelt desire of homosexuals to find a place for themselves in Orthodox Judaism, where they are shunned and repudiated. When does compassion supplant dogma, or can it?"

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Cummings also highlights Maryam, perhaps the most intelligent film about a teenager to come to the big screen in a long time. While most teens are in line for American Pie 2, "Maryam," says Cummings, "is a breath of fresh air."

Maryam (Mariam Parris) is an Iranian teenager living in New York, trying to deal with conflicting thoughts during the events of 1979, as the U.S. gives refuge to the former shah of Iran and holds its breath while Islamic militants hold Americans hostage.

"The film demonstrates the way religious beliefs can both inspire and constrain individuals," Cummings explains. "Despite its unassuming style, the film has important things to say to Americans about Iranian American life and the way patriotism can often become a form of intimidation—a good perspective to remember during current events. It's a thoughtful film, especially for teenagers, that should not be missed by families seeking accessible, well-crafted movies for discussion."

Mainstream critics are starting to carry the torch as well. Andrew O'Hehir ( writes, "This movie may not have the highest production values you've ever seen, but it's the work of an artist, one whose view of America, history and the awkwardness of human life is generous and deep."

Next week: Who won the Oscars? What kind of message does that send to audiences and filmmakers? Religious press critics argue whether Oscar did the right thing, or if perhaps other films deserved high honors. Plus: Kid-TV hosts Edward Norton and Robin Williams fight a celebrity deathmatch in Death to Smoochy.