The Magdalene Sisters, directed by Peter Mullan, picked up the prestigious Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year. It is based on the true story of an Irish reform school for wayward young ladies, where residents were forced into a sort of slave labor and abused mentally and physically.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is voicing objections: "To be sure, conditions were harsh by today's standards but they were not uncommon in their day. Historians have recounted how Protestant-run institutions were similar."

But Peter Malone, author of several books on film and faith and president of SIGNIS, the international Catholic association for communication, defends the film. "Mullan … has made an expertly-crafted but grim film. The film will certainly cause sadness in audiences who have been disturbed by the experiences of the 1990s, the revelations, the court cases, and sentences. It will cause sadness for those who have positive memories of education by sisters and for those who want to see pleasant images of the church and church personnel. However, this story, which makes more impact perhaps because it is being seen rather than merely being read, is no less true than many of the recent stories that have been reported even in the Catholic press. Most audiences will appreciate, as they would with a film criticizing the police or politicians, that the majority of members of the profession did not act in this way. The Magdalene Sisters can be seen as part of an honest examination of conscience by the church and a request for repentance, an expression of sorrow and an apology, something which Pope John Paul II has exemplified and encouraged in recent years."

In this time when the news is focused on gross abuses that have taken place behind the concealing walls of churches, is it wise to claim defamation? Better we face up to the sins of the past, acknowledge that the church is made up of sinners, and point to the true source of cleansing, forgiveness, healing, and hope.

The film played over the weekend at the New York Film Festival. More reviews can be found here.

Hot from the Oven

Sweet Home Alabama gives Reese Witherspoon her most glamorous role yet, and the film broke records for a September opening weekend. Witherspoon plays Melanie, a fashion mogul trying to escape her modest past in small-town Alabama. When her rich boyfriend (Patrick Dempsey) proposes to her in lavish fashion, the stage is set for a spectacular wedding. There's just one problem—she has yet to complete a divorce with her estranged husband (Josh Lucas). Is their marriage really dead? Which guy will she choose—the big-city rich guy or the unshaven small-town rogue who really knows her? Make a wild guess.

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Religious media critics express mixed feelings. "While the movie eventually has its heart in the right place … Alabama plays fast and loose with Melanie's commitment to her marriage vows," Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says. "In the interests of light-hearted comedic elements, her indiscretions get blown over as if they are harmless little white lies when in reality they are serious, even reckless."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) is bothered by something else: "The film depends heavily upon stereotypes for its humor. We must … recognize that stereotypes tend to encourage division amongst us as they focus on what makes a group of people uniquely different."

The caricatures didn't seem divisive to Holly McClure (Crosswalk): "I'm from Texas, so the accents, attitudes and references to the South were all things I could laugh at and relate to. Instead of the story focusing on a good or bad guy 'winning' the woman, it comes down to issues about who Melanie really is and … what kind of person she wants to be. And I like that."

"I can't think of how it would be possible to make a movie about Alabama without filling it with stereotypes," says Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family). "Leave 'em out and you don't do the culture justice. Put 'em in and you're bound to offend someone. Thankfully, for every good-natured jab, Sweet Home Alabama supplies a human face for balance. The film is fun to watch even when its formula pokes through. And Witherspoon is every bit as charming as she was in [Legally] Blonde." He cautions viewers, though, that the film contains "backhanded homosexual endorsements and … too many misuses of God's name."

Dick Staub (CultureWatch) poses questions for getting the most out of the experience: "Can youthful love be the right love? Once you've given your heart completely can you ever really take it back? Can you and should you ever turn away from your roots and the people and places who have made you who you are?"

But Preview's critic says viewers shouldn't bother: "[Alabama] would be a wholesome movie without its condoned excessive drinking and foul language."

Mainstream critics liked Witherspoon even if they weren't thrilled with the rest. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "It is a fantasy, a sweet, light-hearted fairy tale. Witherspoon … is as lovable as Doris Day would have been in this role. But I am so very tired of the underlying premise. Isn't it time for the movies to reflect reality and show the Melanies of the world fleeing to New York as fast as they can?"

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Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) is even less fond of it: "The whole project treads a delicate line between something that will fill a gulf in your afternoon and something that your local sanitation department will refuse to cart away. [Director Andy] Tennant … wants viewers to laugh down their noses at Alabama mores (bring on the deep-fried gags), yet he also wishes to make it perfectly clear that he holds the Yankee gods of money and modishness in righteous contempt."

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The Tuxedo stars stunt-superstar Jackie Chan as a spy equipped with formal wear lined with high-tech circuitry that turns him into a martial arts master. The stage is set for slapstick comedy and thrilling action, but the show does not go on.

Director Kevin Donovan is probably not pleased with the mainstream reviews of his first feature film. Religious media reviews are not much better.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "a brilliant concept," but concludes that this particular Chan adventure "is rather bland. Even the stunts fail to impress. Donovan simply isn't able to overcome the inadequacies of the script."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says it "isn't the worst film of the year, but it's not a very good one. The humor fails more often than not."

Gerri Pare (Catholic News) writes, "With a feeble story in the background … the silly proceedings soon play like a drawn-out fantasy — but they would have played better at half-hour sitcom length."

Preview's critic says, "With frequently crude dialogue, crude sexual content, and martial arts violence exploited to entertain, The Tuxedo needs to be cleaned up."

But Holly McClure (Crosswalk) argues that the violence is not graphic. She writes, "I'm a fan of Chan's and even though this is not his best work, it is still a fun and interesting movie for mature audiences to enjoy."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) bemoans the "gratuitous, even forced crude and sexual humor." Nevertheless, he sings Chan's praises: "Whether he's jerking convulsively around [the] room trying to master the secrets of the tuxedo, frantically fending off a squad of assassins while dealing with a rope around his neck that ends up wrapped around objects and attackers alike, or boogying onstage in a hilarious impression of James Brown … Jackie remains a joy to watch. I can't quite recommend The Tuxedo; but can't deny that I enjoyed it, either."

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Igby Goes Down is the Dysfunctional Family Movie of the Week, starring Kieran Culkin as a kid who is hardly "home alone." As he tries to cope with his maddening, wealthy, drug-warped family dynamics, he seeks solace in sexual meddling with two different women and plunges headlong into angst, despair, and rebellion.

Christian media critics are not convinced that bad family dynamics should make audiences sympathetic to reckless, sarcastic, destructive heroes. Preview's critic reports, "No redeeming elements were found in any scrap of this film."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) finds that the film is true to the '60s, but too mean-spirited to do any good. He calls it "vicious, sarcastic and depressing. This is the poison pen of the politics of envy, which refuses to see the good that lives alongside the bad in our society. The writing is poignant and even compelling, though the Freudian message that every child's problems can be laid at the feet of their mother is insufferable."

In the mainstream press, critics generally approved of the picture. Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) calls it "poisonously funny and unstintingly furious … a little indie-style production that succeeds not because it breaks new ground but because it displays such nimble footing around a familiarly rocky coming-of-age landscape."

But Mary Ann Johanson (Flick Filosopher) disagrees: "Even Culkin's intensely mordant performance here can't make this pointless and brutal film watchable. Culkin is extraordinary in Igby's adolescent anguish, but it couldn't have been hard to pretend you want out of this world."

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Moonlight Mile comes from director Brad Silberling (City of Angels). He calls it "emotionally autobiographical" fiction. The movie tells of parents grieving the loss of their daughter and struggling to relate to her grieving fiancé. While the specifics of the story are quite different, the director clearly knows the territory. TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was Silberling's girlfriend in the late '80s, was shot to death by a deranged fan. Critics praise the film's powerful performances from Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, and Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky, Donnie Darko.) But some, including religious media critics, are not entirely satisfied with the film's exploration of grief and loss.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the film "is a disjointed study of a New England family grieving the death of a murdered daughter. While [it] boasts a formidable cast, the film ultimately suffers from [Silberling's] inability to channel a profusion of subplots into an emotionally engaging story. The picture's overall lack of narrative focus does not, however, preclude genuine moments of poignancy, humor and synergy among cast members."

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Tom Snyder (Movieguide) says, "A humanist worldview and some plot problems undercut this movie's excellent acting and dilute its artistic, moral, psychological, and spiritual [aspects]."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) found it rewarding: "Moonlight Mile explores, or perhaps contemplates is a better word, grief and healing, passivity and aggression, well-meaning secrecy and blunt honesty. Silberling's story comes from experience. For Silberling, making Moonlight Mile was doubtless a cathartic experience. Watching it is also one."

Mainstream critics speculated that the performances could make this film an Oscar contender. Some were also moved by the story. Ebert says, "Everyone who has grieved for a loved one will recognize the moment, some days after the death, when an irreverent remark will release the surprise of laughter. Sometimes we laugh, that we may not cry. Not many movies know that truth. Moonlight Mile is based on it."

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Trapped was not shown to the press before it opened. Some reviewers mused about canceled press screenings, guessing that the recent spate of news stories about child abductions made the film's central storyline seem untimely. But now that they've seen it, critics are not saying the film is inappropriate so much as it is implausible.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Trapped is an apt description of how viewers might feel as this kidnapping thriller grows increasingly ridiculous."

"The cast is uniformly decent," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), but he adds, "Director Luis Mandoki tries to distract us from the gaping holes in the plot by using hand held camera techniques. He succeeded to a degree. His choice of shaky, off-center camera shots was indeed distracting, but only in a negative sense."

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) says, "it jangles the nerves … as a good thriller should. The redeeming facets … include its accurate portrayal of the patterns of woundedness in the antagonist, as well as the positive portrayal of the overcoming power of a close family that is fully committed to fidelity. The offensive elements, however, far outweigh the good."

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Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "Many parents have a fear about their children being kidnapped, and this movie clearly plays into that fear. If you're a fan of intense thrillers with interesting plot twists and lots of surprise action, you'll appreciate this intense story."

Mainstream critics were not as patient with the film. "The movie is a negligible work of manipulation, an exploitation piece doing its usual worst to guilt-trip parents," says Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly).

Foreign Fare

8 Women is a new French comedy that has perhaps the most impressive collection of onscreen talent so far this year. Like Gosford Park, it packs a house with large personalities and turns them loose amid the chaos of a murder mystery. Formidable French actresses Isabelle Huppert (La Ceremonie, Amateur), Emanuelle Beart (Manon of the Spring, La Belle Noiseuse, Mission: Impossible), Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour, Indochine), Fanny Ardent (Elizabeth, Ridicule), and several others are drawing raves for their fiery performances.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says the film is "a delightful, campy experience until the tone darkens considerably by the second half, capped off by a violent act that renders the film unpleasantly nihilistic. And so we are left with one-dimensional characters of no depth whose infidelities and cruelties are of no consequence as long as they continue to look glamorous."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) goes beyond judging the film to judging the director (and anyone who enjoys the film): "It wouldn't be surprising if the writer and director, Francois Ozon, were wasted on drugs when he conceived of adapting this play by Robert Thomas. This mishmash just doesn't work, unless you're a jaded, politically correct, pagan humanist with nothing better to do."

Mainstream critics praised certain aspects of the film. David Poland says, "The blinding-bright art direction and costume design are candy-box precious but always an eyeful. It's Divas on Parade, with performances both delightful and deranged."

Ebert says, "I dare not reveal a shred of the plot. And the movie is all plot—that, and stylish behavior, and barbed wit, and those musical numbers. Watching [it], you have a silly grin half of the time. Movies like 8 Women are essentially made for movie-lovers. You have to have seen overdecorated studio musicals, and you have to know who Darrieux and Deneuve and Beart and Huppert and Ardant are, to get the full flavor."

Still Cooking

The large-scale historical epic The Four Feathers, which Film Forum covered in greater detail last week, continued dividing critics.

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Dick Staub's (CultureWatch) calls it "A dramatic story of redemption and restoration." And he offers questions for post-viewing discussion: "Whose side is God on? What is the significance of both sides praying before entering a conflict only one can win? Why is Abou's spiritual life so real and governing in his life while Harry's Christian spirituality so insipid?"

Alex Field (Relevant Magazine) writes, "The viewer is immediately engaged from the opening frames because the film is so visually stunning with its sandscapes, sunsets and stirring slow motion action sequences. Unfortunately, the film starts to feel long about two thirds of the way through. It is at this point that the timeline starts to get hazy and choppy editing disrupts the seamlessness of the earlier part of the movie. Character motivation goes sour and the story skitters to a bumpy end that is satisfying and bittersweet but anticlimactic at the same time."

Next week: Big Idea on the Big Screen in Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, Hannibal Lecter returns in Red Dragon, and Christians frighten people into getting saved in Hell House.