Even though summer is the season of Hollywood blockbusters, nothing draws a crowd like a wedding.

Over the last five months, one movie has traveled an unconventional path toward the top of the box office. My Big Fat Greek Wedding opened on about a hundred screens and started a wave of big fat word-of-mouth raves—the best kind of publicity. On Labor Day, it reached number one. This astonishing success has baffled industry analysts and earned quite a profit. Cost: $5 million. Box office totals: more than $82.6 million so far. Perhaps Hollywood has forgotten the strength of such special effects as warmth, laughs, insight, and uplift—virtues hard to find in an action-saturated multiplex.

Where did this unconventional big screen hit come from? The story goes that Rita Wilson—a comedienne, actress, and Greek American—was so charmed by Nia Vardalos's stage show, she talked her husband into producing a version for the screen. When your husband happens to be Tom Hanks, you have some advantages.

This warm-hearted, four-course comedy tells the story of a young woman, Toula Portokalos (Nia Vardalos), whose pending marriage provokes her Greek family to prepare a traditionally lavish event. As the family learns that her fiancé is not Greek, the differences between the family's expectations and Toula's intentions stir up a scandal. There is an assumption that Toula will follow the traditional path: marry Greek, have Greek children, and work in the kitchen to fill the family bellies.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "While My Big Fat Greek Wedding pokes obvious fun at Greeks and some of their idiosyncrasies, it never once turns ugly or mean spirited. At the root of all the jokes and witty observations is a recognizable love and fondness for the characters in the film. Because of this, it is not necessary to be Greek to connect with the story. Familial love is something that is universally understood."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) calls it "one of the sweetest romantic comedies to come along in some time." Musing on its surprising success, he comments, "Maybe that's because the major studios underestimate the viability of intelligent, character-driven, reasonably clean fare between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Mature audiences want more for their summer dollar than slam-bang action, bathroom humor, and showy special effects. They want well-told stories about interesting people. They want movies with heart."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Christian Spotlight) write, "The celebration of life presented in … Greek Wedding is a wonderful message of the value of family with its cultural traditions and relationships. Such a message is helpful in defining and celebrating our own family, culture, and religious heritage."

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Tom Snyder (Movieguide) calls it "a warm-hearted, often amusing celebration of Toula's family heritage, including its Greek Orthodox Christian background."

Dick Staub says, "This film celebrates family, tradition, and the binding force of religion. The infusion of genuine love bathes this film in a humorous and rare warmth that has an almost healing effect on the audience." He expresses some disappointment at the story's inclusion of a scene in which the couple become engaged while in bed together.


Not in the mood for a Greek wedding? How about a neo-Nazi rally?

The Believer explores the experience of a Jewish skinhead who joins a neo-Nazi group. Actor Ryan Gosling is earning great acclaim for his work as the bitter miscreant who rebels against consumer culture and God. He believes strongly in God, but sees him as manipulative. His only response is to rebel.

Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) writes, "The Believer is a powerful, shocking film about one man's struggle with faith and ideology." Chattaway compares Danny and Job. The biblical figure gets angry with God, blaming him for his (and the world's) problems, but Danny goes farther, actually cursing God. Chattaway writes, "This is a highly challenging film, and it gives the viewer a lot more to chew on, theologically, than there is space to get into here. Be prepared to discuss this film at some length once it's over."

Mainstream critics like Lisa Schwarzbaum, Roger Ebert, and Shawn Levy offer other opinions on the film's "unflinching" exploration of a neo-Nazi's world.


We've already seen the dangers of surfing this summer in Blue Crush. In feardotcom, Internet surfing proves dangerous and scary. After four people are brutally murdered by a mysterious wwwacko, a daring detective (Steven Dorff) and a researcher from the Department of Health (Natasha McElhone) set a dangerous trap for the elusive online killer.

Christian film critics agree with the mainstream critics on this one. While the story sets good investigators against an evil man, the film spends more energy illustrating the exploits of evil than it does exploring the nature of evil.

Phil Boatwright says, "Besides the gruesomeness of this picture, it's also clichéd and moronic, as well as badly acted and directed. It will surely make most critics' list of worst films of the year."

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He goes on to ask if Christians should attend horror films. "In Hollywood's infancy, horror films, like westerns, were actually morality plays. And even today, certain films such as the frightening yet thought-provoking sci-fi thriller Signs still deliver good vs. evil themes. But nowadays most frightening flicks are designed to sell popcorn, aid guys who lacked the courage to wrap an arm around a cute date, and spook the Jujubes out of us."


Less than a year after Ali, boxing is back on the big screen in Undisputed, from acclaimed director Walter Hill (48 Hours, Trespass). This, however, is neither a historical document nor a story about inspirational heroes. According to critics, it's a formulaic B-movie about rivalries and violence in a penitentiary. A heavyweight boxing champion (Ving Rhames) is sent to prison for rape and butts heads with the prison's notorious fighting champion (Wesley Snipes). When another inmate (Peter Falk) sees opportunity for a profit, a match is arranged to see who is the real champ.

Anne Navarro (Catholic News) says, "Hill feebly attempts to inject some gravitas into the tedious film, but the result is a wafer-thin plot which broadcasts its narrative turns from miles away. The cardboard characters are so stereotypical as to be laughable. Screenwriters Hill and David Giler must have failed their SATs, since their vocabulary is limited to curses and grunts."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "I'm not a fan of boxing in real life, but I have to admit that I enjoy a good boxing movie. This is not one of them. Undisputed is a good-looking film, but it could have been much better with the right chemistry between the two stars."

Foreign Fare

If My Big Fat Greek Wedding sounds good to you because you like Greek wedding feasts, check out Mostly Martha, a story about an accomplished chef (Martina Gedeck) at a respected restaurant in Munich. Martha is quite the taskmaster in the kitchen, demanding sophistication from her staff and her customers alike.

Anne Navarro (Catholic News) says, "Mostly Martha is not the most original recipe, yet it has a bittersweet, philosophical edge that is appealing. [Director Sandra] Nettelbeck shows real affection for her characters, despite—or maybe because of—their foibles, and warmly invites the audience to do the same. Her tale urges audiences not to settle for fast food when a gourmet meal is there for the taking."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) writes, "Mostly Martha is a wonderful movie, which, except for a scene with Martha in her underwear, some light foul language and light sexual innuendo, would be a nearly perfect cinematic feast for almost the entire family. The only things missing in this excellent German production are a God-centered and Christ-centered worldview. The ending, however, contains a heartwarming celebration of marriage, family, and life that lightens the heavy loads we all have to carry in this fallen world of ours. That is no small accomplishment!"

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Still Cooking

Last week critics praised the family-oriented Little Secrets, but seemed a bit put off by the hard-to-believe fantasy of its clean, happy, sweet-natured world. This week Phil Boatwright writes, "The film starts out a bit fluffy, but eventually deepens in meaning as the subjects of truth and not keeping secrets from others is brought to the front. Filled with life lessons and comic situations aimed at youngsters, Little Secrets is an enjoyable little film for kids and young teens."


One Hour Photo is gaining even higher praise, but Mary Draughon (Preview) says the film "cannot be called a family movie, even though it vividly stresses the importance of family. Gratuitous obscenities, lewd poses and pornographic photos develop a negative image for One Hour Photo."

But Megan Basham (Christian Spotlight) reports that while the film is a "somewhat disturbing movie, not meant for everyone. … It is also an artistically excellent film, exploring characters that, probably more often than we'd like to admit, occasionally cross our paths. [It] deals with the chaos and pain that lurk just below the surface of people's cheerful or affluent masks and what happens when those masks start to crumble. Robin Williams does a brilliant job." But she adds that another Robin Williams film, Insomnia, "deals with corrupt human nature in a much more instructive, hopeful way."

Table Talk

Reports popped up on the Internet a few weeks ago that Mel Gibson was scouting locations used in The Gospel According to St. Matthew to make his own film about the Messiah. While nothing official has yet been announced, the idea made a big splash on movie news pages.

While Jesus' life has seen a fair share of cinematic interpretations (critic Peter T. Chattaway provides a fascinating compare/contrast here), Film Forum readers have voiced some opinions on what they would like to see in the next version.

Lynn Waalkes: "I'd love to see a Jesus who isn't played as an other-worldly, ethereal being who rolls his eyes heavenward every few seconds and seems to dance gracefully from scene to scene. I'd like a Jesus who looks more Mideastern than Californian, whose hair isn't light brown with artificially golden highlights, whose robe isn't a spotless Bob Mackie creation. I'd like to see more realism from the crowds. I'd like to see moms smacking their children's hands for grabbing too much bread in the feeding of the 5,000. I'd like to hear Jesus raising his voice during the Sermon on the Mount to be heard over the din of crying infants, chattering neighbors, and all the distractions that exist in real life. I'd like to see him brush a fly away from his face or shoo a stray chicken as he walks through untidy villages.

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"Granted, Kazantzakis' view of Jesus was a bit off-center (OK, more than a bit), but he had it right, I think, in seeing earthiness and the mystical as being interwoven, the one enhancing the other. If we could grasp the down-to-earth reality of day-to-day life for an oppressed people dimly aware of their spiritual heritage and privilege, maybe the Gospel—from Incarnation to Resurrection—would be all the more startling, vivid, and real."

Bob Kling: "The secular media's tendency to rewrite the Bible … and to create false characterizations of biblical peoples is a spreading of false teachings. This is a big problem, because most watching the movie are nonbelievers without an understanding of biblical truth. It is my prayer that Mel Gibson's movie show the perfect humanity of Jesus, without exaggeration."

Theresa Craig: "Our focus should always be his grace. Grace is what the world hungers and thirsts for. Grace is what the lost don't understand, but what they seek, and too infrequently find in Christians. To show the grace of Christ is to show his heart and his passion."

An anonymous reader: "I think the road to Calvary needs to be more bloody … to show how truly Jesus suffered for the sins of the world. Films in the past just do not show the graphics that the Bible illustrates about the crucifixion. Also the crowds don't seem to be that large like they are in secular films. The triumphal entry should have a large crowd … the crucifixion was during a major event (Passover)."

Homer Faris Abney: "Most movies about Jesus—whether intended to be so, or not—are about as honest and straightforward as Oliver Stone's JFK. Some insert hypotheses about Judas' motivations, or attempt to show Jesus' humanity by inventing relationships, conflicts, or whatever. Some go so far as to represent Jesus as having internal conflicts regarding his messiahship or divine sonship. One even represented him as calling himself a sinner. Eyewitnesses recorded Jesus' public challenge to anyone—including his enemies—to accurately accuse him of any sin. No one took him up on his challenge. His humanity did not conflict in any way with his divinity, his messiahship, his life.

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"The main concern I have is the 1,900-year-old notion that Jesus and his disciples ceased to be Jewish and became quasi-Gentiles. No one thinks about using a Jewish actor to portray Jesus, the King of the Jews. A movie in which we see Jesus as those who saw him saw him—an itinerate aggadic Jewish Rabbi of 2nd Temple Era Israel—would be so refreshing. I'd watch it more than Star Wars or Lord of the Rings."


Two weeks ago, Film Forum reported that members of the Directors Guild of America are threatening to sue Clean Flicks, the chain of stores offering unauthorized edited versions of DVDs. Their argument: As artists, they are compromised when others profit off of unapproved, snipped-up versions of their work. Last week, readers wrote in with their own views, addressing whether the programs are a dangerous form of censorship, or a great way for parents to protect themselves and their children from "undesirable elements" of art and entertainment.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Clean Flicks filed a preemptive suit against 16 prominent Hollywood directors, claiming that any attempts to stop their products violate the right to free speech.

Meanwhile, Ted Baehr at Movieguidecontinues to argue that Hollywood should notice the success of "clean movies" and change its ways, arguing that sanitized entertainment means bigger money.

On the other hand, George M. Thomas (The Seattle Times) reports, "There isn't a lot of gold to be found with a G rating. Last year only 4 percent of all movies shown in America carried the G. Their box-office haul that year was $418 million, or 5.36 percent of all revenue."

And speaking of big money, Austin Powers in Goldmember has now earned more than $203.5 million, placing it in the top three moneymakers of the year. The hyperviolent XXX has reached No. 11 with $123.9 million at the box office. And the thriller about doubt, faith, and aliens—Signs—has moved into fourth place with $195.1 million.

Next week: Critics look at City by the Sea and Swimfan.