Note: This week's scheduled focus on Ed Solomon's Levity has been postponed because the film's release has been pushed back to April 26th.

Phone Booth becomes a confessional

Last week, Film Forum focused on the new Joel Schumacher film Phone Booth. The thriller's simple, suspenseful plot places Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), a self-centered Manhattan publicist, in a phone booth at a busy intersection where a sniper (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) holds him as a long-distance hostage. From an unknown hiding place in one of the countless skyscraper windows around him, the villain gives Stu orders over the phone, forcing him to appear as a deranged and murderous gunman (false) and reveal himself as an unfaithful husband (nearly true.)

Religious press critics differ on whether the film is a significant morality play or merely sensationalized suspense. Some are impressed by the story's strong moral lesson, but others find it rather distastefully delivered.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says it "has a message which can be easily traced back to the scriptures. Stu is being forced to recognize a spiritual reality that will eventually face us all."

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) raves, "Not since Daredevil has there been a film with so much spiritual symbolism in it. The phone booth … serves as a confessional. The sniper being perched high up in a skyscraper is very godlike. This is a story about judgment, confession, and redemption. The sniper wants Stu to call his wife and confess his unfaithfulness—doing penance." Bruce then highlights a symbolically Christ-like progression, a death and resurrection of sorts, and he concludes, "Could any film be more dead-on with the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ?"

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) agrees that it "makes moral statements that reflect Scriptural truth. But there's way too much static on the line. Violence, nonstop obscenities and other crass dialogue make seeing Phone Booth a bad call." Bob Nusser (Preview) agrees: "The overall language and violence call for moviegoers to stay away from Phone Booth."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) reports, "The moral message about the importance of marriage, honesty, and ordinary decency comes across with unexpected force, though the movie never fully answers its own questions about the caller's identity, motivations, and desires."

Geri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "It's … the audience's misfortune that [this story] is played out in such a profane manner and with logical inconsistencies, like why Stu's wife seems so blissfully unaware that he is one nasty individual. Schumacher tries to keep the deliberately claustrophobic visuals compelling by using split screens, but by its double-twist ending viewers may question whether this was a call worth answering."

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Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) complains that the film's limited focus reminds him of the critically maligned Speed 2, which based all of its action on a cruise ship.

But Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "If it's hard for you to imagine how an entire movie could be made about a man in a phone booth, go see this movie. You won't be disappointed! I enjoyed [it] for the many truths it brought out about human nature; we can all see ourselves in Stu! This is a good story for married couples to see because it emphasizes the importance of truth and true love in a relationship."

Movieguide's critic says, "Schumacher … does a masterful job of holding the viewer's interest for such a long time at one single location. It was a curiosity to see if the story, location, direction, and acting could carry the story of one man in a phone booth … and they do." But the reviewer criticizes the film's harsh language and adds, "The other major problem with the movie is relating to Stu, who, for the most part, is a detestable person who's being threatened by an even more detestable human being."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Phone Booth isn't very profound, or even very plausible, and its reliance on four-letter words is excessive. But it has some interesting themes and engaging performances, and manages to be entertaining throughout its efficient 81-minute running time." He observes, "It isn't every day that a Hollywood thriller suggests that there's something morally wrong with ogling and fantasizing."

The more I reflect on the film, the more I am unconvinced that Phone Booth works as a story of moral reformation. The fear factor may encourage Stu to change his behavior, but it is unlikely that the experience changes his heart and mind. Shepard's pride may crumble when his reputation is on the line, but is he likely to abandon his ego and dishonest habits long term? It is even more unsettling that the film concludes by shifting its focus from Stu's momentary crisis of conscience to instead prod our sense of insecurity and urban unease all the more. My full review is posted at Looking Closer.

Mainstream critics seem most interested in whether Farrell proved himself as a leading man. Mary Ann Johanson (The Flick Filosopher) says, "Farrell is so sympathetic an actor and so capable of crawling under your skin, and his Stu is reduced to such a crushingly low point, beaten and broken by The Caller's sadistic game, that I was on the verge of tears by the time it was all over." But Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) is not so moved: "For all the coiled skill of Farrell's performance, the character remains a frantic, one-note hustler who gets no more interesting to watch as he unravels."

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Robert Duvall falls out of step in Assassination Tango

Christian film critics poured on the praise for Robert Duvall's direction of The Apostle, in which he played a passionate but flawed preacher. This time, Duvall's direction focuses on a far less admirable character, and religious press critics are unimpressed.

In Assassination Tango, Duvall portrays John J. Anderson. Anderson keeps his girlfriend (Kathy Baker) convinced that he's just the owner of several Brooklyn beauty salons. But he invests himself in a second, more sinister vocation—he's an assassin for hire. When he reluctantly agrees to perform a hit in Argentina, Anderson insists on one thing: the job must wrap up in time for his 10-year-old daughter's birthday. Things do not go as planned. As Anderson waits for his target to arrive, he becomes suspicious of his partners in crime (Ruben Blades and Julio Oscar Mechoso). To complicate matters further, he becomes obsessed with a local tango teacher, a beautiful dancer named Manuela (Luciana Pedraza). Before long, Anderson is running for his life, killing those who get in his way, determined to resolve things on his own terms without remorse.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) calls it "a morally bankrupt film. Neither the romantic elements nor what should build to the suspenseful aspect of the crime ever comes to life."

Alex Field (Relevant Magazine) agrees: "The story lacks the one thing it boasts: tension." Field also argues that Duvall's Anderson is less than convincing: "Duvall's boss touts him as 'the best,' but we never get a sense of that, in fact it sometimes feels like the opposite is true. [Anderson] wears bad disguises, although he's the only 70-year-old gringo haunting this particular Argentinean neighborhood; he stakes out the location of an assassination so obviously that somebody's got to take notice; and he uses every hit man cliché to precede him including the token clean-your-gun, draw-your-gun scene."

Mainstream critics are not quite as negative in their responses. You can scan their reviews here.

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Violence blasts apart A Man Apart

Vin Diesel got off to an impressive start in the movies by playing a soldier in Saving Private Ryan, the voice of The Iron Giant, and an interplanetary convict in Pitch Black. But he seems to have found his niche as an indulgent action hero, raking in big bucks at the box office with a string of shallow, indulgent, hyperviolent flicks. Even before the bad memories of XXX, The Fast and the Furious, and Knockaround Guys have faded, Diesel is back in A Man Apart. Here, the bald and brawny brute plays an undercover narcotics officer whose work to topple a drug lord becomes personal when his wife becomes a casualty. His tactics turn unconventional and illegal, and soon he is seeking revenge in a storm of bullets and glorified vigilantism.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "It would appear that those responsible for … A Man Apart never bothered to put it back together. It is an excessively violent, incoherent jumble of a movie. Perhaps if an actor were cast who was capable of carrying some dramatic weight the film would be different. But with Vin Diesel as the headliner, all we need do is to wait for stuff to blow up."

"The film's incessant violence is disturbing," says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service), "especially in the current climate where world events expose the ugly reality of violence and its consequences as opposed to the stylized version offered by Hollywood. The filmmakers display an almost cavalier disregard for human life, using actors like props to be mowed down like ducks at a carnival game. [The film's] ends-justifies-the-means mentality is incompatible with the Christian understanding of overcoming evil with good."

Blaine Butcher (Preview) says, "The film has some positive themes like loyalty, but it also has a darker side with unclothed women and graphic violence. Be a man or woman apart from this one, and view a more constructive film."

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) objects to the film's message. "Onscreen, the cartel boss says that to 'bring down a monster, you have to become a monster.' So there, in a shell casing, is this movie's 'moral.'"

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) writes, "Diesel's career will continue to stall if he continues to appear in predictable pap like this tired shoot-'em-up."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) says the movie is "engrossing in parts (and so is Diesel's performance), but it's not anything audiences haven't seen before at the movies. In fact, the movie at times plays like a big budget production of one of Steven Seagal's lesser movies."

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Mainstream critics agree that A Man Apart is one of the worst yet in this year's parade of bad movies. Scott Brown (Entertainment Weekly) says it's "a threadbare hand-me-down of an action thriller—even its obligatory twists feel preworn. You won't know who to trust. And you won't care."

DysFunktional Family suffers comedy malfunction

Eddie Griffin, star of last year's Undercover Brother, brings his standup routine into the spotlight in DysFunktional Family, a program of crude humor that has critics offended and unimpressed.

Movieguide's critic says, "It's a raw, lewd movie … Eddie Griffin can be a funny guy, but decent-minded audiences will not be amused by his crude antics in this offensive concert movie."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "At one point Griffin observes that if God created him to be funny, and if he is created in God's image, then humor and joy in turn must be an integral part of God and his plan for humanity—which is theologically sound, but one wonders what God would think of his vulgar standup routine?"

Real heroes honored in The Guys

Sigourney Weaver (Heartbreakers) and Anthony LaPaglia (Lantana) star in The Guys, the first big-screen drama to directly examine September 11, 2001. Religious press critics say that The Guys, contrary to so many other current movies, offers glimpses of real heroism, as well as a rewarding examination of grief.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "The Guys is not an entertainment, or even a story, but a simple, direct portrait of grief amid overwhelming circumstances. There's a transparent honesty to this film, an immediacy and insistence of emotion, that makes clear this is not a product of a calculated decision about the topicality of 9/11 stories. The deliberate lack of artifice makes The Guys a quietly moving experience; given another approach, it could easily have come off as crassly opportunistic or sensational." He also highlight's the film's focus on "what God wants and how we can relate to him."

Movieguide's critic agrees. "The Guys is a powerful tribute. Though it displays the staged aspects of the original theatrical play on which it's based, the movie is totally absorbing, dramatic and heartfelt. It is an extraordinary American film that reminds us all of the dignity and value of each and every human life. The Guys clearly shows moviegoers that how we die is not the only important thing to remember, but how we lived."

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Lynn Nusser (Preview) calls the movie "an encouraging memorial of the sacrifices made by those who tried to rescue as many as they could on that fateful day."

The film's profound tribute is impressing critics everywhere. You can review their raves here. Stephanie Zacharek ( writes, "The scenes between LaPaglia and Weaver, directed and played with a straightforward austerity that occasionally moved me to tears, make up for every one of [the film's] flaws." Dan Fienberg (L.A. Weekly) says of the film's star, "The Australian actor taps into something miraculous here—LaPaglia's ability to convey grief and hope works with Weaver's sensitive reactions to make this a two-actor master class."

Princess Diaries 2? Critics smell familiar perfume in What a Girl Wants

Although the story in What a Girl Wants closely parallels that of last year's family favorite The Princess Diaries, the movie is actually a remake of The Reluctant Debutante (1958). Religious press critics are giving the movie some high marks, but they disagree on whether it's a better film than Diaries.

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) says, "Fortunately, What a Girl Wants [is] sweet without being treacly. Its characters are engaging, but reasonably realistic. And while most viewers will have the entire plot nailed within the first five minutes … the director and cast make it so much fun that you won't likely care. I certainly didn't."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Its strong moral message reinforces the important role a parent plays in a child's life and the sometimes courageous sacrifices demanded of a parent's love. As such, some parents may feel the film is fine for their pre-teens as well."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) says, "Yeah, it's a chick flick. I'll admit it, I liked it. It is so rare to find films for the MTV generation that are not saturated with offensive material. What a Girl Wants is for the most part a touching story that is almost on par with The Princess Diaries and A Walk to Remember."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "This is obviously an old fashioned fairy tale with a modern day twist, but it confirms one thing that is timeless: how important it is for children to have both parents in their lives. The message about being true to yourself and taking pride in who you are without trying to be something you're not is also important. This movie takes a stand against conformity with a positive and uplifting message to give to the younger generation."

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Alan Boyer (Preview) says it "positively portrays the bonds between parents and children and the sacrifices of family love, and it has few offensive elements."

Movieguide's reviewer describes it as "a sometimes funny, zany, tender movie. It strikes a chord as it speaks to the heart of one thing that every daughter truly wants and needs— a caring father who puts her first." But how does it compare to The Princess Diaries? "The message in What a Girl Wants is not as positive because of its mixed nature. Whereas Princess Diaries shows how duty, honor, family, patriotism, and individual freedom may be reconciled, this movie does not. Although it lauds family, fatherhood, parental love, and unselfishness, it also attacks duty and tradition."

In contrast, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) lists three ways in which the movie improves upon Princess Diaries, but then lists other ways in which the film is flawed. "The movie seems to view casual dress and behavior as a mark of authenticity and integrity, while breeding and politesse are viewed as suspect if not outright hypocritical."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) disagrees, preferring The Princess Diaries. "This formulaic new offering makes an utterly shameless attempt to recycle the box office appeal of that vastly superior commercial hit from two years ago. There's no sense of warmth or substance beneath the surface, which means that it makes no sense at all when all of Britain is supposed to fall in love with her earthy energy." But he concludes that the movie "respects the family audience enough to avoid obnoxious intrusions in the general atmosphere of forced and treacly sweetness, so it remains mostly enjoyable to watch."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "a mildly entertaining, if not particularly innovative, film. It happens to be elevated by the fresh-faced appeal of Amanda Bynes … and the solid presence of Colin Firth."

But Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) is not as impressed with Bynes. He describes her as "simply a Warner Brothers version of Disney's teen TV sensation-for-the-moment, Hilary Duff. Amanda's comic abilities consist mainly of the old stumble gag. She trips every few minutes just to remind the audience that she is a 'typical' awkward American teenager." He concludes, "If your kids liked The Princess Diaries, most likely this will also satisfy."

While many Christian critics seem pleased to have a film with clear positive messages, no matter how derivative the storytelling might be, most mainstream critics find this familiar fairy tale little more than "harmless … a cheap knockoff."

Next week:Anger Management pits a temperamental Adam Sandler against a volcanic Jack Nicholson.