As this column's review collections often demonstrate, religious press critics frequently disagree on whether cinematic storytellers should portray depraved characters and immoral behavior in their movies. This week is no exception: the debate continues in reference to several titles. But the week's most popular movie had critics lining up, almost unanimously wishing it would just go away.
Hot from the Oven
This week's number one box office hit—it made $22.8 million this weekend—is not intended as a narrative of any sort. And it is not intended for any honorable purpose. It exists solely to serve up documentary footage of spectacularly tactless behavior, most of it bent on humiliating, embarrassing, sickening, and shocking viewers—both the innocent bystanders onscreen and those in their seats. Jackass: The Movie unapologetically glorifies depraved behavior more vigorously than any film in recent memory.
The heroes of Jackass are MTV clowns who set up elaborate, mean-spirited, gutter-minded, and often self-injuring pranks to shock and nauseate passersby. The stars, led by the obnoxious Johnny Knoxville (Men in Black 2), use their big-screen debut to push their impropriety further than their television show allowed. You won't find a listing of their many perverse, violent, lewd acts here as you might on other sites, but let's just say that the film makes most frat-house hazing rituals look tame by comparison.
(Interesting that Jackass did not provoke action from those who will likely protest Harry Potter again next month. Isn't Jackass more likely to inspire dangerous pranks than Potter is to inspire paganism?)
Critics, meanwhile, wondered how to save audiences from themselves.
Michael Elliott says, "I don't know what's more disturbing—the fact that this movie was made in the first place, the fact that it will most likely make tons of money, or the fact that there may be people dumb enough to want to emulate the idiotic, self-destructive, and perverse behavior which is passing for a motion picture released by a major studio."
Bob Waliszewski (Focus on the Family) says, "I'd call this stuff gross-out humor, but there's no humor. It's just gross for grossness' sake. And it's dangerous. The movie opens with a disclaimer warning viewers to never imitate the movie's stunts. A better disclaimer would be to warn audiences to run away as fast as their legs will carry them."
Pete Zimowski (Preview) says, "This could've been a very funny film, in a Three Stooges, slapstick kind of way, without the reaches into the bizarre and disgusting. For any generation, this is surely the movie to miss this year."
Most mainstream critics condemned the film as base and reprehensible. But a few managed to find some aspects of the movie they consider admirable. Go figure.
Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) offers a review that is troubling in and of itself: "It's difficult to reprimand Johnny Knoxville and his crew of merry sick pranksters when their principal pastime consists of dreaming up elaborate new ways to punish themselves." It is "difficult to reprimand them" for punishing themselves for entertainment? "I'm not sure if I enjoyed myself, exactly," Gleiberman concludes, "but I could hardly wait to see what I'd be appalled by next." Sometimes a review tells us more about a critic than the movie he's been watching.
Speaking of audacious celebrities—Bob Crane, the star of the '70s television series Hogan's Heroes, is the focus of Auto Focus. Director Paul Schrader has written a pile of screenplays about characters, historical and fictional, who wrestle personal demons in dark places. He brought us Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, a tyrannical alcoholic in Affliction, a burdened messiah in The Last Temptation of Christ, and a world-weary paramedic in Bringing Out the Dead. Here, he re-creates Bob Crane's clean-cut, affable personality, his co stars on the Heroes set, and the morally ambiguous era in which he partied. Then, in terms just as frank and unflinching, he portrays the destructive effects of sexual addiction. Greg Kinnear plays the reckless, camera-happy adulterer, and Willem Dafoe plays John Carpenter, Crane's depraved friend who lures him into debauchery, in a film that weaves humor and tragedy into a compelling and discomforting document of Hollywood behind the scenes.
While Schrader has always been frank about his Calvinist background and his interest in spiritual struggles, his portrayals of troubled men often disturb religious press critics, and this film is no exception. Viewers should take caution: an honest portrayal of sexual addiction and Crane's environment is sure to include scenes with graphic material. But does this film go too far?
Paul Bicking (Preview) writes, "While it vividly displays the downward spiral of sexual addiction … Auto Focus depicts the message with unnecessarily pornographic images."
Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says, "What would have made this movie compelling—an incisive character study—is sorely lacking. But the filmmaker never takes us below the surface of the two leads' extremely tawdry lifestyle. In essence, you have a movie that focuses on [the characters'] nights (and years) of constant orgies where love would definitely be an unwelcome incursion on their lust-filled rampages."
Many mainstream critics were also disappointed in the film's reportedly unenlightening accounts of foolish behavior. David Denby (The New Yorker) says, "Auto Focus certainly holds one's attention, but it's a strange and grim experience, ice-cold and borderline pointless. Schrader … has put his talent for inwardness in a peculiar box: he has made a film about two men incapable of an interior life."
On to the next exhibit in this week's tour of troubling imagery: Ghost Ship is the second successful horror flick of the month, refusing to sink under the weight of bad reviews. Is it celebrating evil? The movie reportedly portrays the ship's passengers drawn to their various demises by their own foolishness and moral weakness, so perhaps the narrative could be considered a morality play. But more often than not, Hollywood horror flicks subvert their own storytelling, serving up intoxicating imagery of sinfulness and suffering rather than edifying with symbolic, cautionary tales.
That seems to be the case again here. Paul Bicking calls the film "a moral derelict." Gerri Pare (Catholic News) calls it "an uninspired horror flick with nothing special to recommend it, and one can only hope Ghost Ship will vanish without a trace."
Mainstream press critics also fired on the ship. Steven Holden (The New York Times) says, "Ghost Ship … is so preoccupied with delivering its effects that it doesn't bother to make sense of its story."
The Truth About Charlie is the latest film from Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, but it's quite a change from the somber, troubling tone of those films. In fact, it's a lively, loose remake of the famous romantic adventure Charade. This time it stars Mark Wahlberg (Three Kings, Planet of the Apes) in the Cary Grant part and Thandie Newton (Flirting, Beloved, Mission Impossible 2) in the Audrey Hepburn role.
Religious press critics, like many mainstream critics, spend most of their time complaining that the film should not have been made at all because Charade is such a classic. But some looked past the inevitable failure of the film to surpass the original, and found it to have some virtues all its own.
"It's best to see it without making continual comparisons to Charade, which is in a class by itself," says Gerri Pare (Catholic News). She goes on to celebrate Charlie, pointing out its subtle flourishes. She recognizes it as "an homage to the French New Wave cinema of the 1960s as well as a valentine to Paris. Visual backgrounds are sprinkled with French film references and inside jokes. Charles Aznavour shows up both in a vintage film clip from Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player and within the movie as a white-haired singer whose love song ends the film on a whimsically upbeat note." She praises "a vibrancy in Demme's film technique … that infuses the story with touches of humor even as characters croak. He gets winning performances from his cast."
Sophisticated references and tributes like this did not impress other religious press critics. Holly McClure (Crosswalk) calls it "a charade. It's marginally entertaining and can't even be compared to the classic Charade. Remind yourselves of what great dialogue, a well-written script, and superb acting used to look like and rent the original." Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) sums it up as "a jumbled, irritating mess of a movie." Movieguide's critic calls it "a witless remake … poorly made and uninspired." And Mary Draughon (Preview) says the movie "misses our mark of acceptability with depictions of graphic violence." She adds, "This remake has none of the traditional charm of Paris."
Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) disagrees: "The Parisian backdrop seems even more compelling than it did in 1963. And Mark Wahlberg looks pretty spiffy sporting a French accent and a black beret." He concludes, "Charlie's not even playing in the same ballpark as Charade. But it does manage to create its own identity. The pacing is energetic and buoyant."
Mainstream critics offered mixed reviews, but those who perceived it as having different aims than the original seemed to enjoy it. Kent Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) says, "Charlie is one of those movies where you have to believe everyone had a ball making the film. The ghosts of movies past turn up at every corner. [It] may mystify younger moviegoers with characters and scenes that play with one's memory of characters and scenes from old movies. But Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton make likable romantic leads, the action and mystery mix as well as they did in the original, and Demme has assembled a superb cast and crew that gets caught up in the spirit of the production."
Elvis Mitchell (The New York Times) says, "Sometimes you fall in love with a movie, even when you should know better. And there's a great possibility that will happen with Charlie. That infatuation is possible in part because the director uses the nervous energy that he suppressed in more formal works like Philadelphia and The Silence of the Lambs. So you may be taken by the director's enormous enthusiasm, but the picture doesn't quite work."
The latest Christian movie, Time Changer, is written and directed by Rich Christiano. It's a sci-fi adventure about a time traveler who discovers that morality is meaningless without belief in God. The hero, Russell Carlisle, is a Bible professor sent from 1890 to a present in which society has fallen into immorality and chaos. For example, he walks into a movie theatre and hears God's name blasphemed, so he runs screaming out of the building. Later, he admonishes a doorman when he finds out the man is divorced. Will Carlisle ever get back to 1890, a place where such abominations are hard to imagine?
Those Christian film critics who tend to applaud any movie that affirms Christian values are, of course, enthusiastic. But some Christians are not entirely impressed with its message.
Bob Waliszewski (Focus on the Family) says, "Time Changer is built on a foundation that some Christians (myself among them) will dispute. It links America's spiritual decline directly to the teaching of morality apart from the authority of Jesus Christ. Do we cease all moral instruction unless we are allowed to include Christ's authority? Focus on the Family believes it is valuable to encourage teens to be abstinent even if God isn't part of their education. The same goes for teaching such values as honesty, fidelity, the sanctity of human life, etc. I like Time Changer, not for splashy effects, A-list acting or even theological accuracy, but because it provided my family a unique opportunity to discuss several critical issues within a 'movie night' framework."
Holly McClure raves, "This is a thought-provoking journey that reveals how relevant God is for today and boldly explores the importance of God in our culture. Time Changer is an interesting look at the timeless importance of God with a timeless message that could change your life!"
Movieguide's critic says that while "the story sometimes lags in dramatic tension … Time Changer [is an] imaginative and courageous step into feature filmmaking."
Mainstream critics don't find it very interesting, timeless, or even worthwhile. Joe Baltake (The Sacramento Bee) calls Carlisle "a judgmental pest, constantly eavesdropping on private conversations and intruding upon them with unsolicited, admonishing advice and pontifications about how to live."
Keith Cassidy (The Miami Herald) writes, "The strong Christian message and denouncement of sin in Time Changer will give many ministers and Bible-study groups hours of material to discuss. But mainstream audiences will find little of interest in this film, which is often preachy and poorly acted. Christiano has a feel for visual storytelling and uses the camera well, but the script is pretentious. His desire to spread his message overrides the story, and some scenes seem so staged that they might just as well carry subtitles declaring: Film's Message—pay attention!''
Lawrence Toppman (The Charlotte Observer) muses, "I wonder how many people will accept his premises that divorce is not only undesirable but wicked; that any scientific knowledge not verified by the Bible is false; that Christian religion should be taught in public schools, not just permissible as personal prayer." He is also bothered that the hero doesn't recognize a telephone or baseball terms, "both of which were common knowledge before 1890."
Last week, Film Forum posted early religious press reviews of Michael Moore's riveting documentary Bowling for Columbine. This week, critics in the Christian press continued applauding the film.
Edward Blank (Catholic News) offers a cautionary recommendation: "Moore constructs a valid inquiry into the nature and frequency of American violence and the ease with which weapons and ammunition may be obtained, but he clouds his case with an assortment of specious arguments. Bowling for Columbine may encourage enlightened dialogue on some of its notions. The danger is that it may be accepted too much at face value by impressionable audiences unaware of the manipulation built into Moore's arguments."
J. Robert Parks (review pending at The Phantom Tollbooth) responds with great enthusiasm: "Rather than seeming arrogant or nasty as he did in parts of Roger and Me, he comes across as incredibly friendly and earnest. By linking himself with ordinary people, he also broadens our possibilities—he provokes us in the audience to wonder: maybe I can question my leaders, maybe I don't have to take what's being spoon-fed to me on TV, maybe I can protest what's going on and make a difference. And the movie's dramatic moments, particularly in a return to his hometown of Flint, are genuinely moving. Bowling for Columbine is a great movie. Don't miss it."
Also provoking discussions among moviegoers, Punch-Drunk Love continued to draw mixed reviews from religious press critics. (Film Forum posted early reviews last week.)
This week, Michael Elliott explains, "The film is ostensibly about love … specifically how it can heal and restore even those among us who may appear beyond salvation. This offbeat romantic comedy has its darker elements, but it is shades lighter than Anderson's earlier films. Sandler's work shows that he's more than capable of stepping outside of the idiot savant persona that he puts on. His Barry is not unlike other Sandler characters, with one notable exception … he casts aside the humorous facade and plays the character straight. It is a brave step for the actor and one that deserves recognition."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) writes, "There was something about this story that I liked. I think it's that the goofy, quirky underdog got the girl and proved he could be 'normal.'"
J. Robert Parks (review pending at The Phantom Tollbooth) sees even more at work in the film: "I think it's difficult to appreciate Punch-Drunk Love unless you realize it's an indictment of the current state of Hollywood. P.T. Anderson has taken this wildly successful character (he wrote the movie specifically for Sandler) and transplanted it into a normal drama. This reveals the Sandler persona to be a dysfunctional idiot, and his antics, stripped of their comedic value, are hard to take. Unlike almost every other Hollywood movie—which fit into nice, neat boxes and feature stock characters that we've seen countless times before—Punch-Drunk Love reminds us that life is rarely neat and tidy, that conflict is irritating and annoying, and that even our victories are rarely all that they seem."
Hell House, a documentary on a popular and controversial evangelical outreach effort, is still drawing applause from religious press critics. (Click here for our previous coverage.) In a review soon to be posted at The Phantom Tollbooth, critic Michael Leary writes, "It chronicles a very shocking way a church has chosen to reach their community with the gospel. But perhaps most shocking of all … it does this with an even-handed gravity that allows us to see who these people really are before it judges what they do."
Director Julie Taymor, famous for her elaborate stage production of The Lion King and her visually bizarre big screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus, is back with another rush for the senses: Frida. The film follows the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, focusing on her defiant affairs both romantic and artistic. Salma Hayek (Dogma, From Dusk Till Dawn) plays the lead role, and Alfred Molina (Chocolat, Raiders of the Lost Ark) co-stars as Frida's famous lover, artist Diego Rivera.
Frida receives early praise from Steve Lansingh (Film Forum): "As a biography the film works quite well, as the paintings had become more familiar and more alive once I knew the personalities behind the portraits. Taymor manages to blend paintings with animation and photography to really take us inside the works. As a story, the film has its rough patches, and wouldn't place in the top movies about artists over the centuries. Although stylisticly daring and tightly paced, the film spreads itself thin trying to cram in the politics, marriage, art, trauma, family, and country that influence Frida. It is at once intimate and clinical, both commiserative and expository. But if it is hit-or-miss, it hits more often than not, and makes for an compelling entrée into the artistic mind."
Regarding the reckless behavior of the central characters, Lansingh writes, "I can't pretend to hold Kahlo and Rivera up as moral paragons, but I think they do commit a courageous and revolutionary act. It is not when they get married, as the character in the film suggests. It is when, after having seen the utter blackness in each other, they remarry. I find myself moved by such "impracticality.""
But Lisa Rice (Movieguide) objects to the film, saying, "Despite superb acting and outstanding cinematography, Frida is a portrayal of the despair that comes as a certain fruit of every relativistic ideology." (Portraying the wages of sin is a bad thing?)
Mainstream critics are already offering mixes of praise and disappointment, calling it overly ambitious. A.O. Scott (The New York Times) writes, "Ms. Hayek and Mr. Molina are both wonderfully charismatic, but their scenes of recrimination and reconciliation have a dull, actorly flavor that makes the characters seem smaller than life. Frida is corseted by the norms of high-toned, responsible filmmaking, ticking off important events in Kahlo's life without much insight or feeling. But when the movie manages to break free—in bursts of color, imagination, music, sex and over-the-top theatricality—it honors the artist's brave, anarchic spirit."
Marghola Dargis (Los Angeles Times) agrees that it "ticks off Kahlo's lifetime milestones with the dutiful precision of a tax accountant. But it fails to get at the ferocity of the artist and her artifice, to get at the core of a woman who painted a self-portrait in which she gives birth to her adult self, as if she were both Zeus and Diana." She describes the film as a "meticulously mounted, exasperatingly well-behaved film."
This month, Roy Anker (Books & Culture) offers an exploration of M. Night Shyamalan's work, including the recent blockbuster Signs. Read his new article titled "Signs and Wonders," but beware of spoilers if you haven't seen Shyamalan's films.
Brian Godawa—director of the film To End All Wars (covered a couple of weeks back here at Film Forum)—argues with the widespread view among Christians that it is a bad thing to make, or even to see, a film in which the characters use bad language. The source of his argument? Scripture. Visit RazorMouth to peruse his thoughts on the issue.
Also at RazorMouth, two writers address the recent controversy over Harry Potter. Is the wizard a harmless hero in an admirable fairy tale for children, or is he baiting children to study sorcery? Yep, the debate is heating up again as the second movie in the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is on its way to theaters. Check out Gerry Wisz's argument that Potter isn't the wizard he claims to be. Then visit Douglas Jones's Credenda essay on "so-called fantasy," and Joel Miller's response to the article at RazorMouth. (Joel Miller's original defense of the boy wizard—or magician, or whatever you want to call him—is still available here.)
Movies Christians Haven't Seen, But Should
Michael Leary is a graduate student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School working in the field of Gospel studies and postmodern hermeneutics. He is also a freelance film critic with a series of articles pending at Gatherings dealing with the role of Christians in film history and criticism.
Leary visits Film Forum this week to recommend the work of a director whose films will prove challenging and of special interest to Christian audiences: Werner Herzog, a temperamental prophet.
The legendary biography of one of this century's most interesting German directors, Werner Herzog, is as much a mix of fact and fantasy as many of his "documentaries" are. Some say he grew up in the boondocks of Bavaria and never even saw a telephone until he was 17, when he moved to Munich and became a rodeo-rider. Some say he won a Fulbright scholarship and studied film in Pittsburgh, supporting himself on the side smuggling TVs across the Mexican border. But one thing we know for sure is that the body of work he will leave behind him will be timelessly relevant as a prophetic call to continually re-evaluate with film is all about.
Armed with his mantra that "Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates," Herzog has managed to confound critics with his outrageous approaches to filmmaking and storytelling from his first film Signs of Life in 1967 until his latest 2002 feature Invincible.
Perhaps one of his most readily celebrated films Fitzcarraldo (1982) is a perfect example of this. Fitzcarraldo is the parabolic adventure of an obsessed opera fan who wants to build a theater in the jungles of the Amazon. All he needs is a little cash, which he plans to make harvesting the rubber from a part of the jungle only accessible by actually dragging his river boat steamer over the top of a mountain. Which, quite amazingly, Herzog actually does with absolutely no special effects. The production of this film was so epic that it inspired a documentary that came out the same year as the film. As legend holds, he had to hypnotize hundreds of natives to work as his extras. A civil war broke out during shooting. His lead actor Klaus Kinski was so rude to the natives that they asked Herzog if they could kill him. But in spite of these and many more disturbing production difficulties, Fitzcarraldo offers us an extended glimpse into the relationship between the beauty of art and the ugliness of the absurdity of life that art itself is an attempt to respond to.
Even though such turbulence inevitably followed his productions around, his films are eerily peaceful. His camera often lingers thoughtfully not just on the quiet and exotic scenery of his storylines, but on the intense faces of his enigmatic anti-heroes. As is typical in historic German cinema, Herzog builds pensive spaces of visual introspection and allows the viewer to really meditate through his storylines as we watch them. And it is in these spaces that we find a few of Herzog's most treasured themes: the type of epiphany that can only occur in total isolation, the absurdity of man struggling against his environment, and the existential value of man actively seeking hope with his own two hands. Despite the comical odds Herzog's film career has faced, he has summed up his life's work so far with the thought that, "It is my duty [to make films] because this might be the inner-chronicle of what we are, and we have to articulate ourselves. Otherwise we would be cows in the field."
Herzog's films are readily accessible to the Christian mind for a number of reasons. While he is by no means influenced heavily by the Christian tradition, his work attempts to bring to light both the moral shallowness of contemporary film, and the power that film has to penetrate the human condition. His films make us the objective outsider in stories that deal with that fragility and difficulty of existence and the things Godless people do to keep these truths at arms length. As typified in Fitzcarraldo, Herzog has been able to capture this elusive theological reality in a way few filmmakers have.
Next week: More religious press reviews of Frida. Plus, I Spy, Heaven, and more.