It is based on a true story, won last year's Golden Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival, and was snatched up by Miramax for distribution. And now that it is opening in theatres across the country, mainstream critics are raving that The Magdalene Sisters is one of the year's best films.

But not everyone is so pleased. Director Peter Mullan's film about the abuses suffered by young women at the hands of some harsh and unforgiving Irish Catholics has the Catholic League and many other religious press media critics calling it exaggerated, unfair, and cruel in its own right.

According to The Washington Post, the Walt Disney Company's board of directors received an appeal from the president of the Catholic League last September. William Donohue demanded that the company break off ties with Miramax. He continues to insist that the movie is driven by an anti-Catholic agenda. But a Miramax spokesman showed that the company would not budge. "The film portrays something that actually happened," he said.

Movies that vilify people of faith usually get mixed reactions from the religious media. Frequently there are some who take offense, preferring to have believers shown in a flattering light. Others recognize that religious folk are as capable of sin as everyone else, and find honesty to be the best policy. In the case of The Magdalene Sisters, almost every critic agrees that "the Maggies," as they were called, were indeed mistreated by the church. But they also agree that the movie unnecessarily exaggerates the situation, rigging the movie to provoke audiences toward outrage instead of productive, balanced, and redemptive understanding.

Movieguide's critic says the film "is a painful expression of a twisted system. That this film was made to show the injustice and cruelty of the asylums is understandable in that they should never happen again, but it is regrettable that the many good deeds of godly, kind, self-sacrificing sisters are not shown. Regrettably, this movie will turn many people who see it away from the loving God who wants to save them from this evil." The film is given a rating of "Abhorrent."

Steve Parish (The Film Forum) calls protesters daft. "There are plenty of feel-good movies in theatres," he says. "But if you need to feel bad, particularly at the inhumanity of the Christian church—in this case Irish Catholicism—then The Magdalene Sisters will certainly work."

Finding himself harassed and accused of anti-church attitudes, Rex Reed (New York Observer) defends his admiration for the film: "Why is it that every time I write objectively about movies or plays or museums courageous enough to take on religious infractions, question the sanity of religious myths and mind control, or treat anything involving the Catholic church with a sense of curiosity or humor, I am suddenly deluged with volumes of organized hate mail? When do these people get a life and focus on the real world? The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for … [Magdalene Sisters] is a great film that deserves genuflection. For others, it may be disturbing enough to turn church suppers into heavenly hash."

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Film critic Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) responded to this article in an online discussion: "The [Roman] Catholic Church has shown itself able to deal with decidedly mixed and even highly critical depictions of hierarchy and religious figures. The Vatican list of notable important films includes such hierarchy-indicting titles as The Mission, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Andrei Rublev. Somehow I can't imagine many other groups officially endorsing films similarly depicting their leadership in such critical terms. That Magdalene Sisters has been denounced on Vatican radio and in the Vatican newspaper, where these other films have been met with openness despite taking a hard look at members of the hierarchy, is due, not to a knee-jerk reaction against all negative depictions, [but] to the viciousness, exaggeration, and lack of nuance or moral honesty in this particular depiction."

David Sterritt (The Christian Science Monitor) disagrees: "The Magdalene Sisters is a pungent, powerful film that points an accusing finger not at religious beliefs but at flawed human institutions. It also targets social and cultural mores that are almost medieval in their patriarchal bias against girls and women."

(Film Forum earlier noted the film in September 2002, and Philip Yancey recently commented on it in one of his Christianity Today columns.)

Friday is more funny than freaky.

In the new version of the Disney classic Freaky Friday, Jamie Lee Curtis plays single mother Tess, who switches bodies with her 15-year-old daughter, Anna. It's no small feat, and Curtis's remarkable shift of personality and manner is drawing raves from critics. Likewise, newcomer Lindsay Lohan is drawing some cheers. The story squeezes a great deal of comedy from the conundrum, as the two quarreling ladies are forced to see the world through new eyes.

Mainstream critics are somewhat surprised and delighted to find this gimmicky Disney farce to be entertaining, clever, and impressively acted. Some are saying that this is one of Jamie Lee Curtis's best performances. Families lined up for the movie, giving it a $22.2 million weekend at the box office.

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The reviewer at Movieguide cautions viewers that the movie "relies upon a false religious notion that souls can switch bodies. Christian theology teaches, however, that this is impossible." That is not the only problem. The reviewer is further disturbed to see that, "in this version of the story, a magical fortune cookie is the culprit behind the curse." The writer finds some comfort in the fact that "the only way that the curse can be broken is by an act of selfless love."

Other Christian film critics, however, seem to recognize that the movie's "body-switching" is merely a fairy-tale plot device for the purposes of simple moral lessons.

"The beautiful part of this story is the main theme: unselfish love," writes David M. Wheeler (Christian Spotlight). Wheeler concludes that the film is "destined to become a family classic."

Bob Waliszewski (Focus on the Family) says, "Sharing shelf space with The Princess Diaries and What a Girl Wants, Freaky Friday isn't Oscar material or brilliant filmmaking, but it's funny, generally clean, and pro-family."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) acknowledges "a valuable message about the importance of family and understanding between the generations, evenhandedly exposing the prejudices while celebrating the differences of each. Both Tess and Anna earn a deeper appreciation of and respect for one another—a lesson in tolerance that transcends generation gap issues, equally applicable to political and even religious conflicts."

"This is a great movie for parents to see with their kids," writes Holly McClure (Crosswalk), "because both sides will be reminded about what it takes to walk in the other person's shoes for a while."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "Despite its drawbacks, the story unfolds with cheerful, warm-hearted style, and delivers a few moments of surprising mother-daughter emotion at its climax."

But Suzanne E. and Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) are uneasy with the film's suggestion that grownups are the only ones needing an education. "What about Anna?" they ask. "What lessons does the movie have for her to learn from this experience, other than that she already knows everything and what a failure her mother is? Does she learn how to think about someone else for a change, or how hard it is to try to raise two kids while working full time at a job as demanding as psychotherapy? Nope. All the learning is for frumpy adults who have forgotten about rock and roll."

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S.W.A.T.-ted down

Director Clark Johnson, who worked on such admired television series as Homicide: Life on the Street, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, and The Shield, is at the helm of the new action film S.W.A.T., which is based on a popular television series from the '70s. He has a strong cast of stars, featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, and LL Cool J, and the result is drawing moderate applause from mainstream critics. The fairly routine summer actioner focuses on a drug lord who tries to escape police custody, only to find a formidable Special Weapons and Tactics team endeavoring to keep him in custody.

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) sums it up as "a great popcorn movie to enjoy on a hot summer day."

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) finds something to admire in the film: "Johnson … thankfully foregoes most of the genre's clichés. What I liked best was that … the film takes the time to establish the sense of teamwork that goes into a real S.W.A.T. unit—how you have to trust the people around you, how each person brings his or her talents to bear." He concludes, however, that the film's finale is "disappointing. We get mayhem instead of planning, executing criminals instead of executing a game plan. It feels like a betrayal of everything that's come before."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) describes it as "a popcorn movie that, while enjoyable, will most likely fade from memory soon after the lights come up."

Ben Cornish (Christian Spotlight) observes "extreme violence far beyond its PG-13 rating." But he adds, "S.W.A.T. offers constructive insight on teamwork, greed, power of the media, and perseverance. However it is the theme of redemption that is most prominent."

"S.W.A.T. could be compared to a western of the early '60s," says Eric Rice (Movieguide). "One would expect gunplay and some rough talk. A mature Christian could perhaps enjoy this film without feeling slimed when he or she walks out of the theater."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) disagrees. "The only person who should be brought up on charges is Clark Johnson, for impersonating a film director in what amounts to essentially a mindless B-movie guns-'n'-ammo fest with an A-movie price tag."

Also displeased, Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "For families, S.W.A.T. stands for Study What's At Theaters. If it's no better than this, stay home."

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Beaucoup des bad reviews pour Le Divorce

Ismail Merchant and James Ivory are back with yet another literary adaptation based on a book about romance and cultural differences, Le Divorce. It is easy to see what drew the producer and director of A Room with a View, Howard's End, and The Remains of the Day to the comedy of errors set in contemporary Paris. The film is based on Diane Johnson's 1997 bestseller about the differences between American and French culture. But where Room with a View's circus of libertine and repressed characters orbited the impressionable, admirable, intelligent Lucy (Helena Bonham Carter), Le Divorce is far less focused. Worse, none of its characters have much of a moral compass.

The curtain opens on the Paris arrival of a young American named Isabel (Kate Hudson), who intends to offer help to her pregnant sister, an aspiring poet named Roxy (Naomi Watts.) Arriving simultaneously with the sudden and unexplained departure of Roxy's husband (Melvil Pompaud), Isabel is just in time to catch her sister as she falls into despair. But her attentions quickly wander. She practically leaps into bed with the first cute boy she meets, and a few days later she's drawn in by the sexual allure of a 55-year-old French senator named Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), the uncle of Roxy's errant husband.

While Edgar distracts Isabel, Roxy is left in a lonely and despairing plunge. Soon, we are shifting between Isabel's flighty, reckless, infuriatingly shallow antics (which Ivory films with affection and sensual delight), quick admiring close-ups of exquisite French cuisine, and reminders of Roxy's slow disintegration as she learns that love is not something to take lightly. My full review is at Looking Closer.

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) adds further complaint: "Ivory can't decide whether he's directing a breezy French romance, an examination of the differences between American and French views of infidelity, or an analysis of the fine art market. And when the gun gets pulled out in one of the strangest hostage scenes ever filmed, I threw my hands up in disgust."

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says, "The story is disappointingly shallow and surprisingly dark at turns, with underdeveloped characters that fail to involve the audience. As the clunky film laboriously chugs along, the viewer cares less and less about the characters."

But Holly McClure (Crosswalk) concludes, "I enjoyed watching this movie because of the ensemble of interesting characters and light comedy."

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Soldiers, horses, and angels at the movies

In the latest issue of Books and Culture, Peter T. Chattaway talks about the new surge of war films that have drawn big box office even during wartime. "The new post-September 11 mood is reflected in war movies in a variety of ways. Some films, like Black Hawk Down, eschew political reflection and celebrate military camaraderie for its own sake, while others, like Behind Enemy Lines and Tears of the Sun, clearly advocate U.S. intervention, suggesting that Americans have stood by and stayed out of foreign conflicts for far too long—a marked departure from the stance of many films inspired by the war in Vietnam."

Other religious press film critics are catching up with Seabiscuit, the inspiring story of a 1930s racehorse. (Film Forum focused on the film two weeks ago.) Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say, "The inspiration of this film is that it shows the way a group of broken people can come together in a supportive community and make the impossible happen."

Brett Younger looks at the message of Seabiscuit at EthicsDaily: "We all instinctively understand how much we need the grace of a second chance. Christians should recognize the message as central to our faith."

Elsewhere, Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) argues that Northfork, in spite of its strange story about an ark-builder and some angels, is nothing to shout about.

At Metaphilm, Anton Karl Koslovic turns in an article about the recurring phenomenon of Jesus figures at the movies

Is there proof at last that Harry Potter is steering kids toward paganism and witchcraft? Not really.

Ted Baehr's Movieguide posts news (reported by Reuters back in June) that "Kevin Carlyon, the High Priest of British White Witches, recently credited the furor over the Harry Potter books for children with an increased level of paganism and witchcraft in Great Britain." Movieguide also picks up a Reuters quote of Bristol University history professor Ronald Hutton, who says the increasing popularity of "witchcraft and paganism" can also be attributed to "environmentalism, feminism, and television programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch."

Movieguide concludes the article with (count them) four exclamation points: "This news disproves the lie that the pagan witchcraft in Harry Potter has no effect on children, teenagers, or adults. It does!!!!"

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Does a witch spokesperson's boast about paganism, and the opinion of a history professor, add up to proof that these beloved fairy tales are corrupting the youth that read them?

For a remarkably different testimony about the power of J. K. Rowling's myth, click here. This testimony—at last, a personal testimony—illustrates how Harry Potter changed one child's heart and mind—in a way that has nothing to do with witchcraft.

And for an in-depth look at what many Christians are missing in their rush to judge the series, read this study provided by Jerram Barrs, Resident Scholar at the Francis Schaeffer Institute. "It is a tragedy in that there are many people who have failed to read the books with an open mind," Barrs writes. "The Word of God challenges us to be prepared to celebrate anything that is good and true, wherever it is found. Sadly, I think there are many people who are unable to see the good qualities that are there, either in the Harry Potter books or in much else in popular culture. Many of those who have criticized the books to me personally have not even read them."

Critics keep lining up to defend Gibson's Passion

Welcome back to our weekly Passion play, in which Mel Gibson continues to show his new film about Jesus to critics, and to defend it against cries of anti-Semitism and Scriptural inaccuracies. This week, more voices join the chorus of the film's defenders.

Cal Thomas (Washington Times) says, "As one who has seen virtually every modern biblical epic—from Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments to the two-part Jesus miniseries on CBS three years ago—I can say The Passion is the most beautiful, profound, accurate, disturbing, realistic and bloody depiction of this well-known story that has ever been filmed. Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus with tender understatement, may be the best 'Jesus' ever (not counting the original)."

Speaking to the ongoing controversy that began when cries of anti-Semitism were raised by people who had not yet seen the film, he writes, "To those in the Jewish community who worry that the film … might contain anti-Semitic elements, or encourage people to persecute Jews, fear not. The film does not indict Jews for the death of Jesus. It is faithful to the New Testament account."

Army Archerd (Variety) also takes a stand. "You can quote me—Mel Gibson's The Passion is not anti-Semitic."

Christianity Today's Weblog has been collecting stories on The Passion this week. Here are some of the most recent articles:

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Don't worry folks. We only have to endure eight more months of this argument before the film finally reaches theatres and we can decide for ourselves.

Next week:Open Range, Uptown Girls, and Freddy vs. Jason. And … this is a wild guess … probably something more about The Passion.