Swimfan is a thriller that basically takes the Fatal Attraction formula—married man stalked by obsessed woman—and places it in a high school. When a swim star lapses in faithfulness to his girlfriend, his dalliance with an obsessed fan costs him his peace of mind … and much more. The seductress (Traffic's Erika Christensen) is not about to let her target get away, and when he tries to hide his foolish error from his girlfriend, the stalker becomes dangerous and aggressive.

Certainly this is a basic morality play. Religious media critics are displeased by the film, not for its message that "infidelity is bad," but because the "good" relationship is actually far from healthy.

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "The message: Cheating, bad; sex between committed high schoolers, good. Sometimes what lurks beneath the surface poses the greatest threat."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) writes, "Most Christians and morally conscious people would blush at the innuendo-laden dialogue present in Swimfan. You begin to get the very distinct impression that all teens think about is sex and 'getting laid'. Why does Hollywood persist in old stereotypes? Please heed these warnings and skip out on this corporate attempt to further corrupt the innocence of America."

Looking at other aspects, Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says there's not much to admire: "Putting aside the objectionable content for a moment, the script, the direction and most of the acting are—now let's be generous—disappointing."

Meanwhile, mainstream critics are hoping the movie quickly drowns in bad reviews.

Stephen Holden (New York Times) claims that the film "goes overboard with a loony melodramatic denouement." David Hunter (Hollywood Reporter) says, "The project's filmmakers forgot to include anything even halfway scary. Swimfan has bad-movie cult potential, if it even gets that much attention. [The film] dog-paddles to the finish … but the movie by then has become far funnier than any thriller can afford to be."


In City by the Sea, a dramatic thriller based (very loosely) on true events, Robert De Niro takes on one of the more understated roles of his career. He plays Vincent LaMarca, a well-respected investigator trying to redeem his family's reputation. Vincent's father was executed for a murder conviction, and while Vincent questions the truth of this verdict, he is haunted by the scandal. Even as he dedicates his life to justice in his community, his neglect of his own son, Joey (James Franco), brings the old ghost back. Joey, separated from his father after his parents' painful divorce, plunges into drug-addiction and despair, and soon he finds himself accused of killing a policeman. As the cops close in, Vincent finds his loyalties divided, and he tries to make amends with his son before it is too late.

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Director Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy) is not new to father-son dramas. In fact, he got excellent work out of De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy's Life. Here, he avoids over-stylizing the tense proceedings and lets the actors develop believable, memorable characters. De Niro is especially good, making Vincent a man burdened by regret, slow to share his secrets, and afraid of the commitment required to make a family work. His bitter ex-wife (Patty Lupone) makes matters worse, but the care and sympathy he finds in the heart of a new flame (Frances McDormand) just might motivate him to do the right thing. Franco is impressive as the frightened, nervous, drug-addicted Joey, playing him with convincing weariness and desperation. Nevertheless, McDormand almost steals the movie out from under both lead actors, taking another small, forgettable part and transforming it, as she did in Almost Famous, into a vital character.

Unfortunately, the film stumbles in the final frantic moments. When father and son finally reach their crucial confrontation, the screenwriter loses faith in the actions of the characters and gives Vincent a long flurry of sentimental words that even the great Robert De Niro cannot convincingly pull off. An otherwise compelling human drama falls apart. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

Other religious media critics were perplexed by the film, troubled at its dark visions of the wages of sin, yet impressed by its emphasis on family bonds. Most give the film good marks for its strong themes.

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) writes, "Like an unscrupulous and half-trained surgeon, City by the Sea correctly identifies the cancers causing familial suffering. Then it proceeds to use a dull, rusty pocketknife to extract the diseased cells. Emotionally grueling scenes … are de riguer, rendering the movie's 'happy twist' at the end hopelessly unconvincing." Megan Basham (Christian Spotlight) says, "City by the Sea is not a bad movie, but … with a little more focus, it could have been a great one."

Eric Rice (Movieguide) asks, "So what caught me by surprise? The believable way director Caton-Jones reveals the interwoven pain of these lives. The action fades into the background as the viewer is drawn into the life of the tortured men, hoping they can somehow overcome their demons and get a second chance at life and family. The ending is warm and hope-filled without being too sappy."

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But Anne Navarro (Catholic News) disagrees, saying that the film "clumsily conveys that each individual, no matter what his past may be riddled with, ultimately must take responsibility for his own actions and forge a better life. Respectable performances rise above the clichéd script, but the movie's sluggish pace and the predictable plotting diminish what could have been a more dramatic and compelling film."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) was impressed with the legendary lead: "Robert De Niro takes a low-key, naturalistic approach to his role of Vincent. Except for an emotionally overblown climax which doesn't quite ring true, he gives a balanced introspective performance."

Mainstream critics hailed McDormand and Franco, but had differing opinions on how this De Niro performance compares to his past work. Andrew Sarris (New York Observer) says, "It's worth seeing … for the varied subtleties of De Niro's acting." Robert Koehler (Variety) says, "De Niro infuses his familiar NYC cop identity with a feeling of near-exhaustion and emotional fatigue, the outward face of a man who has been privately suffering for years."

But Brian Miller (Seattle Weekly) was too distracted by De Niro's current physique to have much to say about his performance: "Will daddy bring his neglected boy to justice? Can he protect his kid from trigger-happy cops? A better question is, will the corpulent De Niro suffer a stroke on-screen?" But he praises McDormand: "Her usual intelligence outshines everyone else on-screen; she's like some alien visitor from a much, much better movie."

David Denby (New Yorker) praises the performance: "[De Niro's] underplaying shows the kind of balance and lightness gained from long experience with 'dark' material." That, he argues, is still not enough. "After the complex buildup of tensions, the last ten minutes of the movie are a comic-pathetic letdown. Even De Niro's discipline and skill can't save lines that should never have been spoken in the first place."


Still Cooking

While My Big Fat Greek Wedding lost out to Swimfan at this week's box office, it did reach number one on Labor Day, and remains this year's most impressive success story. Film Forum covered reviews of the film last week. This week, Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) adds his voice to the chorus of raves: "It's a shame more movies aren't like this one. Rated PG, it's one for all generations of the family. Audiences are certain to leave the theater remembering the one-liners, which may help account for the positive word-of-mouth Big Fat is generating."

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Side Dishes

Many Christians complain that filmmakers do not spend enough screen time taking faith-especially Christianity-seriously. It is worth noting, then, that a new documentary by British director Lucy Walker, The Devil's Playground, focuses on a Christian tradition, albeit a small and select denomination. Her film offers us an intimate look at four Amish youngsters, their experiences at home and their interaction with mainstream culture. (Walker's film should not to be confused with a 1976 film of the same title, which deals with Catholicism and the issue of sexual temptation.)

Doug Cummings (Chiaroscuro) offers a review of the film on his Web site, in which he mentions an echo of the only popular American movie to have dealt intently with the Amish—Peter Weir's Witness. "Walker's film … could be said to take its aesthetic cues from Weir's movie, complete with carefully composed pastoral views and continuous electronic tones on the soundtrack."

He quotes the filmmaker's own impression of her subject: "There are so many positive things about the Amish … and yet there's a price to pay, and I can't make up my mind even to this day whether I'd want to go Amish tomorrow or think that they really shouldn't be allowed. I was literally moved to tears by this life. It occurred to me that they really had it all right and we should all give it up and be Amish. I think for many people, the fascination with the Amish is that they really present some of the things we seem to have lost as a society as we've progressed."

Next week: Critics consider Barbershop, Stealing Harvard, Igby Goes Down, and a documentary about popular band Wilco.