First, an addendum: A couple of weeks ago, Film Forum readers debated whether they like the idea of software that allows viewers to edit out—or transform—offensive elements of the films they watch on DVD. The rise of movie rental services that offer pre-edited tapes has intensified the issue.
This week the plot thickened. The New York Times quotes Warner Brothers president Alan Horn, who points out what might occur if MovieMask and CleanFlicks get their way. "It doesn't sit well with me, frankly, because these people could go the other way, too, with more sex and more violence."
The Times article brings to light yet another detail—something that might dampen the supporters' enthusiasm. It seems MovieMask has more up its sleeve than just sanitizing movies: "If the directors are upset about what they have seen so far, they probably will not like to hear that MovieMask just signed a contract with a product-placement company to insert products into existing films, perhaps even region by region."
What could the effects be of commercials added into movies? Maybe Babette will serve Coke at her feast. Maybe Eric Liddell will run with the help of Nike … or, in the alternate version, Adidas. Perhaps Jesus will go to the wedding and turn water into "all the best" of Ernest and Julio Gallo. Stay tuned.
To End All Wars, a new movie from director David Cunningham, is causing a stir among critics with its powerful wartime tale. It made a splash at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and was later nominated for Best Feature Film at the Hawaii Film Festival.
Nevertheless, it may cause a different stir in religious communities. Cunningham, son of Youth With a Mission founders Loren and Darlene Cunningham, is an outspoken Christian. So is Brian Godawa, author of the script. But the film differs from others identified with Christian filmmakers. Whereas the Left Behind/Omega Code-type films avoid foul language, sexuality, and graphic violence as they deliver their apocalyptic tales, this movie is rated R.
Could it be anything else? It's a World War II epic about four POWs enduring harsh treatment in a Japanese camp. In a plot that recalls the classic Bridge Over the River Kwai, the main characters—portrayed by a talented cast that includes Kiefer Sutherland (TV's 24) and Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty)—are forced to construct "the Death Railway" through jungles in Thailand. To endure their trials, the men get involved in philosophical conversations. Christian faith proves a source of strength and inspiration in a dark place.
Cunningham explains that the film is "not a Christian movie, and we don't want it portrayed as one." In an interview with The Oregonian, he elaborated: "The rating is an R and my frustration [with conservative Christians] is this: that over the last few years, all the great movies—Schindler's List, Dead Man Walking, The Shawshank Redemption and Amistad—are all R-rated pictures, and everybody should be seeing them. They'll accept PG-13 in The Fast and the Furious but not the R of Schindler's List. The church should not be basing its decisions on that system, which covers such a range."
When asked why he doesn't follow the route of films like Left Behind and The Omega Code, Cunningham explains, "They almost seem to me like fear-motivated messages—'turn or burn' kind of things. I don't think they're related to modern life. It may be well meaning, but none of these people are filmmakers; they're all evangelists trying to use film. My heart and desire has been to make a film that causes you to think. It's not based on fear, but on the struggles that we have inside us."
The first major mainstream review of the film can be found at The Hollywood Reporter. "An ensemble effort that recalls other great POW movies, Wars boasts many superb performances," writes critic David Hunter. "[The film] is quite successful at showing how [the heroes] use their minds and Christian faith to bend rather than break under the Japanese system of Bushido. The cinematography of Greg Gardiner, costumes and production design are all exemplary for such a modest budget."
So far, the film is receiving positive reports from Christian media critics. You can read Doug LeBlanc's review of the film, which appeared in CT in tandem with his review of Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones, here. At Christian Spotlight on the Movies, Ken James raves about the film's excellence and potential for discussion fodder. Another Christian media review, by Eric Metaxas, appeared a few months ago in CT's sister publication Books & Culture. You can read it here.
Click here to visit the film's official website. David Bruce's Hollywood Jesus website also offers a page full of information about the film along with a collection of stills. (A review there is pending.)
It is exciting to see some Christian artists taking on difficult subjects with honesty, realism, and craftsmanship. Let's hope it's the beginning of a trend. (For more on the subject of R-rated films and a Christian perspective, look back at the series Film Forum ran last year: "Wrong, Right, and Rated R," parts 1, 2, and 3.)
Spirited Away is being presented across the U.S. by Walt Disney Studios, but it is not in any way a typical Disney film. Parents should be cautioned that while it looks like a friendly cartoon, it is actually an elaborate, complicated, and sometimes intense animated fantasy that may frighten and confuse young children.
It is also the most highly acclaimed movie of the year (check out the dozens of rave reviews stacking up at Rotten Tomatoes).
Drawing on a vast array of fairy tales and Disney films, legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has woven a tapestry full of myth, comedy, drama, and wild imagination. The story resembles a fusion of Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and earlier Miyazaki works (Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro). A good witch and a bad witch are feuding in a realm filled with spirits and monsters. Into this world stumble a man, woman, and their cautious daughter, Chihiro. The eager, careless adults quickly fall under a curse—the wages of sin, so to speak—and it is up to Chihiro to set them free. With the help of a few magical and sympathetic guides, Chihiro finds a job in a busy mansion, a sort of spiritual resort, called "The Bath House." There, her hard work and her virtue change the course of events. She becomes a hero of open-mindedness, patience, compassion, and courage.
Some Christian viewers may be disturbed by references to Shinto beliefs and "nature spirits" that pop up throughout the film. These tales are clearly coming from a tradition other than Christianity. No doubt they spring from Miyazaki's familiarity with Japanese culture, myths, and beliefs. But the film does not exist to preach a false religion. The trappings of another culture and another belief system here, ultimately, serve to glorify virtues that are resonant with the way Christ told us to live. Before the film is over (it is an exhaustingly busy 125 minutes), we have been given parables about greed and the power of sacrificial love.
Discerning grownup viewers should find much to debate, discuss, and enjoy. Older children may enjoy it too, although parents should discuss the film with them.
That's my take on the film. My full review is at Looking Closer.
Other Christian media critics posted varying praises and complaints. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) admits, "I'm not a big fan of Japanese animation. I'm also not very appreciative of films whose messages contradict the Bible from which I derive my beliefs. The fact that despite this, I've given the film two and one half stars speaks volumes as to its artistic level."
Debbie Mils (Catholic News) sees more value in the film: "[It] shows how the adult world is confusing and harsh to children and how they learn … to get past what they perceive to be scary obstacles in order to get what they want and need. It also shows how it can be a child's nature to trust and their need to follow their own instincts. [The film] ultimately has a fairy-tale happy ending as Chihiro makes it through her own personal journey, finding love and friendship."
Ted Snyder (Movieguide) offers an indirect rebuke of any Christians who like the film. "Bible-believing Christians and Jews will find Spirited Away particularly creepy." Snyder goes on to explain his understanding of "the difference between good fantasy and bad fantasy." "Good fantasy" depends on the hero learning lessons not from "pagan spirits" but instead from allegorical equivalents of "God Himself and/or one or more members of the Holy Trinity."
(However, it is not Chihiro who learns lessons from the symbolic spirits. Instead, they are humbled by her refusal to be ensnared by her own appetites. They are amazed by her selfless love for her friend.)
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Spirited Away is a work of pagan imagination. So are the works of Homer and Sophocles. In all these works there is much for Christian audiences to take exception with as Christians, but also much to marvel at as audiences." He also acknowledges Miyazaki's superiority as an animator: "I love the quirky character design in Monsters, Inc., but the mythic power of the imagery in Spirited Away makes Monsters, Inc. look like child's play."
Mainstream critics like Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) and Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) offered higher praise than for any film yet released this year, animated or otherwise. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) raves, "It is the best animated film of recent years. This is a wonderful film. Myazaki's works have a depth and complexity often missing in American animation."
Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon star in The Banger Sisters, a new comedy from Bob Dolman (writer of Far and Away and Willow) costarring Geoffrey Rush. The ladies are not actually sisters; they're longtime friends who strive to escape the drudgery of their lives by regaining the rebellious spirit they once shared as rock-and-roll groupies.
Christian media critics loudly refute the film. Anne Navarro (Catholic News) says this "disagreeable comedy … sugarcoats promiscuity. It is a superficial story which … relies on the foolish premise that only through living it up is one truly liberated. Both Hawn and Sarandon are competent actresses, but their talents cannot compensate for the distasteful story."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) remarks, "The simplistic and misleading message … is that it is more important to be true to who we are than to conform to societal expectations. That logic, if carried to its extreme, fails. Our actions and behavior do have an impact on others and to ignore that reality is to live selfishly and irresponsibly."
Eric Rice (Movieguide) says, "The movie portrays as 'cute' that which has ripped apart marriages and caused unfathomable scars and heartache to families."
Some mainstream critics also highlighted the story's flawed ideas. David Denby (The New Yorker) writes, "The premise … strikes me as, well, bananas. I'm not sure how any intelligent person can achieve a breakthrough by being true to her past as a groupie. Are these movies really stories about women's lives, or are they some sort of corkscrewed male fantasy?"
Director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) is back with a new epic. Well, perhaps it's not so new. The Four Feathers, a novel by A.E.W. Mason, has already been a film five times over. This latest production stars Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, and Kate Hudson as tormented Brits caught up in war, love, and the desire to prove their courage. Like last year's Pearl Harbor, the cinematography and spectacular battle scenes are gaining raves, but the rest of the drama, including the love triangle, is getting boos.
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) enjoyed the film because it "deals with friendships, loyalty and love relationships … man's faith, his will to survive, and his trust in God."
But Michael Elliott calls it "a jumbled mix of missed opportunities … a film that would have benefited from being longer in order to tell its tale more completely." J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) writes it off as predictable, "fairly typical stuff."
Steven D. Greydanus questions why an Indian director "would choose to make a movie that takes such an oddly old-fashioned and uncritical view of a hero who finds manhood and honor in learning to fight and kill non-Europeans on the colonial battlefield in order to win the respect of his peers and father and beloved."
Gerri Pare (Catholic News) argues that it "maintains a bleak and oppressive tone." She adds that it "takes an ironic and ultimately critical view of the role of religion and God, seeing them as a motivation and justification for what are actually wars of conquest and revenge."
Tom Snyder (Movieguide) claims the film is "an excellent redemptive movie that, despite its flaws, should be seen by mature Christian audiences everywhere. It is also another one of this year's fine Christian parables of the indomitable human spirit." (Is there any such thing?)
Preview's critics make their call based on different aspects, complaining about glimpses of "bare male rears" and objectionable violence that is "more intense than necessary."
Mainstream critics such as Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) aren't greatly impressed: "We're supposed to be watching Harry restore his warrior's code of honor, but the movie is too embarrassed to admit that it's that very code that resulted in his fellow Brits thinking they could take over the desert in the first place."
Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) criticizes the cast: "Bentley … has mastered the bayonet charge and the brutishness of rugby, but the mysteries of an English accent reduce him to abject terror. Kate Hudson, never less than lovely, has a wholly modern air that no layers of costume can stifle, while Heath Ledger, being an Australian, has all the virtues, such as openness and unstarched humor, that people, then as now, left England in order to acquire. You could argue that this makes him perfect for the hero, the rebel soul, except that he doesn't look rebellious; he just looks miserable."
Roger Ebert says, "The problem … is that the characters are so feckless, the coincidences so blatant and the movie so innocent of any doubts about the White Man's Burden that Kipling could have written it although if he had, there would have been deeper psychology and better roles for the locals."
Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever stars Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro, Spy Kids) and Lucy Liu (Charlie's Angels) as sparring spies in this violent action pic. Reviews from both religious media and mainstream critics aren't good.
Preview's critic says, "Continuous and often graphic violence is exploited and poses as entertainment." Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says the movie is "so explosively violent … that Banderas and Liu are almost beside the point. They are mere instruments of destruction in this trashy tale of vengeance-motivated kidnapping and killing."
Mainstream critics agree. Robert K. Elder (Chicago Times) writes, "Heavy artillery for intellectual lightweights, Ballistic offers the most onscreen explosions in recent memory. It's almost pornography for arsonists." Manohla Dargis (Los Angeles Times), on the other hand, offers one of the few semi-positive reviews: "There's no defense for movies like these, but neither do they warrant apology; they're irresistibly watchable, like car wrecks."
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) is cheering this week's box office champion, Barbershop. He writes, "The movie has been marketed as a comedy, and it is genuinely funny. But much of Barbershop's humor comes from the situation instead of one-liners. It's the laughter of recognition, as we see ourselves portrayed on screen. It's a humor that builds community, as opposed to the insult—or humiliation—driven comedy we typically see. The movie is also surprisingly clean. With any movie that might be successful, there's already talk of a sequel. That's something I would welcome. These are wonderful characters with interesting stories. Let's have more of that." (Earlier reviews are rounded up here.)
Director Steven Shainberg's Secretary, the story of a secretary who finds happiness by developing a sadomasochistic sexual affair with her boss, is drawing harsh criticism from religious media critics.
Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says, "Shainberg presents a positive portrait of sadomasochism as wonderfully freeing and fulfilling even as Lee embraces every degradation, only wanting more. The one-note focus on aberrant sexuality becomes as repellant as the suggestion that Lee is a heroine for insisting on reveling in such sadomasochism. Sadly, there is little true insight in this film which prefers to simply attack the values of more traditional viewers and tack on a smugly happy ending."
Such criticism was not limited to the religious media. David Denby (The New Yorker) says, "The meaning of Secretary is that pain is liberation. This is not a comic idea but a pornographic idea, mixed with defiant anti-feminism: 'If that's what makes you happy, you go, girl.'"
Mary Ann Johanson (Flick Filosopher) is similarly disgusted: "There is nothing beautiful or wonderful about needing to be beaten to feel alive, or worse, wanted, and there is nothing innocent or funny about a man who needs to beat a woman to get aroused. Plenty of women are willing to be treated like dirt by the men who profess to love them for the cycle of violence to be perpetuated. It's really fairly shocking, however, to see a nonpornographic movie feed that cycle."
Reviews of One Hour Photo have been running in this column for a while. This week, Roger Thomas (Ethics Daily) turns in a review that offers a new perspective on the film's moral implications. "The film seems to ask, 'If we truly value the 'ideal family,' how far should we go to guarantee it exists?' If what Sy does is too far—comparable to acts such as bombing abortion clinics—what of covenant marriage laws requiring counseling before couples can leave a bad relationship? Society's desire for strong families will never come through force—only through free choice, commitment and love."
Out on video this week, a film that had Christian critics buzzing earlier this year—Changing Lanes. The movie stars Ben Affleck and Samuel Jackson as two men who meet in rush-hour traffic, and the resulting road rage leads to a vengeful struggle between them. The script is full of soul-searching, and what begins as a petty debate ultimately raises important spiritual questions. It remains one of the year's must-see films and comes highly recommended for movie discussion groups. (The film is rated R for language.)
Next week:Igby Goes Down, Sweet Home Alabama, The Tuxedo, 8 Women, and the first installment of a new guest-critic series.
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