What happens when the central villain of a gory and indulgent horror series faces off with the central villain of another similarly crass franchise? Just what you'd expect: twice the gore, twice the vulgarity, and twice the revelry in baser behaviors.

It also becomes the most popular film at the box office: $36.4 million in its first weekend. The amount would have been higher if not for the nation's largest power outage on record. Nevertheless, these numbers make it look like the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises are bound to march on, undead.

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) says the movie is "filled with gruesome violence and gore. It also contains a barrage of foul and vulgar language. Scenes of explicit nudity and depicted sex round out the reasons why everyone should avoid this abhorrent movie, which also features a nominalistic worldview with occult elements."

"The film is driven by a repulsive impulse to treat graphic violence as entertainment," says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "Serial killers are treated like rock stars, cheered on by enthusiastic fans every time they rack up another notch on their machete, earning bonus points if the method of slaughter employed is exceptionally gruesome." He is also troubled by "the film's promotion of substance abuse and casual sex … [and] a disheartening suspicion of and antagonism toward authority figures, especially parents."

Mainstream critics chalked this film up as yet another "nightmare," and learned again how little their warnings to the public affect a film's box office. Paul Farhi (The Washington Post) compares the clash to Bush vs. Hussein: "It's overlong, it's hard to tell which one's the bad guy, and it's filled with lots of senseless carnage on both sides."

Costner seems at home on the Range

Returning to the genre that won him Oscars and superstardom, actor/director Kevin Costner delivers Open Range to moviegoers this week. This ambitious epic, which also stars Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Jeter (in one of his last big-screen appearances), and Michael Gambon, looks like it will restore Costner's reputation among critics.

The star has not had much success since Dances with Wolves, turning out a string of disappointing choices both as an actor (Dragonfly, For the Love of the Game) and director (Waterworld). Costner instills his new film with some of the qualities of beloved, classic westerns. In doing so, he pleases many mainstream critics, and several religious press critics as well.

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The film follows Boss (Duvall) and Charlie (Costner) as they move a cattle herd near a small town where the local tyrant, Baxter, is keeping the locals in line with fear and abuse. When the two cattlemen suffer devastating losses because the local authorities dislike "free-rangers," they decide not to move on without evening the score. The clock is then set ticking toward a showdown.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) calls it "a simple, uncluttered tale of honor, loyalty, freedom, and frontier justice, padded only by a rather unpersuasive romantic subplot."

Bob Waliszewski (Focus on the Family) also praises the cinematography and performances. He praises the heroes as "examples of compassion and respect." But he is displeased that they are portrayed as having "few boundaries." He concludes, "Had this been a Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy flick, the bad guys would fall without the bloody closeups. Perhaps someday a new western will capture the heart and realism of Open Range and leave the violence more to the imagination."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "To say that the great John Ford would feel proud of what Costner has created might be overstating the movie's virtues, but at the very least Ford would recognize and appreciate many areas of continuity. [Costner] beats the odds to make an emotional connection with his characters and with the audience—just as he did in Dances with Wolves."

A reviewer at Movieguide is not so complimentary, summing it up as "Gorgeous cinematography with some ponderously long scenes … great acting, but familiar-feeling story … sweet love interest with confusing resolution … good conflict with too much violence … commendable initiative and resourcefulness, but many lawless, independent actions … [and] genuine prayers and blaspheming God. Open Range is a mixed bag of production elements and worldviews."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Costner … indulges in a kind of spacious filmmaking, which, despite moments of heavy-handed melodrama and a disturbing, revenge-driven plot, effectively evokes the mythic tone of this most American of genres." In spite of what he describes as a "redemptive message," DiCerto is nevertheless troubled that the film "seems driven by darker impulses of the eye-for-an-eye variety, rather than any sincere hunger for justice in the Christian sense."

Similarly, Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) have trouble with the film's premise: "The moral themes of the film are several but only explored in a limited manner. In part, it is true that if good people do nothing evil flourishes. But in a similar way, for a film to suggest that resorting to murderous vengeance is a good thing opens our souls to a dangerous self-justification that undermines both social and spiritual life."

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"Costner establishes a strong sense of time and place," writes Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The cinematography is stunningly beautiful. However, it is the acting which takes place in front of the wonderful landscapes that catches our attention. Robert Duvall … is nothing short of brilliant. He is an American treasure and deserving of every accolade he receives."

I too enjoyed Robert Duvall's performance. He and Costner both convince us that they have spent their lives out in the elements, but Duvall surpasses Costner and all of his costars by making a compelling show of rather bland dialogue. He emerges as a figure of authority and subtle humor.

This may not be Costner's finest hour, but it does show he knows how to pace a film. The audience was growing restless, but that is probably due to their increasing unfamiliarity with silences and space. Costner recognizes that our context is as influential and important as any character.

He pays attention to little details, like what happens to a living room carpet after two road-weary cowboys walk across it from the outside. He is also responsible enough to show us the consequences of a gunfight, avoiding the misleadingly bloodless shootout of the traditional Western. Some religious press critics found the film too bloody. I, on the other hand, am grateful that young viewers will not come away from such scenes ignorant of the damage that such exchanges cause.

If only Costner paid as much attention to the human heart. His story is grounded in the crowd-pleasing notion that the best way to confront evil is with violence. I recommend reading this article by Frederica Matthews-Green on Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (which better portrays the consuming influence of violent vengeance) and the more recent In the Bedroom. It is a dangerous and shortsighted thing to suggest that when justice fails, the righteous man loads his pistol and wreaks vengeance himself.

Even though this juvenile sense of goodness is regrettable, I found Open Range refreshing. It was nice to see a film that takes its time. It was also a luxury to see the big screen filled with the majesty of James Muro's cinematography. Against a backdrop created by God instead of Industrial Light and Magic, the simplest things—two men on horseback crossing a river—begin to easily lend themselves to profound spiritual metaphors. For reminding us of what we are losing and of what we have already lost, I am grateful to Costner. It's just a shame he did not find a better story to tell.

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The Secret Lives of Dentists examines marriage decay

Based on Jane Smiley's novella The Age of Grief, Alan Rudolph's new film The Secret Lives of Dentists is earning praise for the performances of lead actors Campbell Scott (Roger Dodger)and Hope Davis (About Schmidt.) The story concerns a dentist (Scott) who has dreams that upset his trust in his wife and involve troubling visits from a patient (Dennis Leary.)

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Rudolph elicits nuanced performances in his mordantly humorous meditation on marital dysfunction. The film paints a darkly humorous, but ultimately compassionate, portrait of married life. The film … stresses friendship in marriage as the cornerstone of a loving and committed relationship, a gift shared by spouses long after white-hot sexual passions have cooled."

In The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris acclaims the film as "the most passionate defense of monogamy and marriage from a male perspective that I've ever seen in an American movie. Too many reviewers have undervalued the film." He praises "the wit, charm, tact and fluid grace of this exhilarating and yet also edifying entertainment. The Secret Lives of Dentists suggests once more that the gap between good movies and bad movies is growing ever wider conceptually. In any event, Mr. Rudolph's opus is already guaranteed a place on my year's 10-best list."

Ted Baehr, who in his latest issue of Movieguide says that SARS, mad cow disease, and crop blights are God's judgment on Canada, agrees that The Secret Lives of Dentists makes "some moral points." But he is dismayed that the film "is shot in such an artistic fashion that this allegory is not clear."

Uptown Girls a lowdown comedy

In Uptown Girls, Brittany Murphy (8 Mile) stars as Molly Gunn, the daughter of a famous (and dead) rock star, who becomes the nanny for Ray, the tough-talking daughter of a music executive. Molly supposedly learns how to act like a grownup, while Ray supposedly learns how to act her age. But this comedy does not have religious press critics, or mainstream critics, laughing.

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "Uptown Girls is just a poorly made movie. What could've been a breezy exercise in the girls' mutual self-discovery becomes the ponderous tale of two latch-key kids moping about the hands they've been dealt."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) bemoans the lack of character development. "The characters do change at some point, because the formulaic script calls for it, but we never really see why or how. There are too many continuity flaws, lapses of common sense logic, and character inconsistencies to overlook."

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) calls the film "sweet and sad, accurately portraying the ache in the heart of parentless children. How wonderful it would have been if the filmmakers had shown healing through a portrayal of restoration of the father-heart of God, or even a symbolic earthly male, or someone who represented the El Shaddai, but they don't. They suggest spinning in teacups at a carnival. They show wounded girls trying to heal other wounded girls, which is sweet but an inadequate picture of God's plan for true healing."

Skateboarding films has critics Grinding their teeth

In Grind, a group of high school graduates choose competitive skateboarding over college and hit the road for a summer tour. The young role models show off their moves and harass girls on their way to stardom.

Religious press critics also show off a few moves as they line up to pan the feature.

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) concludes, "Grind is in a bind. The film is more interested in randy sexuality than halfpipes. In fact, so much time ends up being devoted to plunging bodices, shimmying rears, and taut tummies (and rampant sexual innuendo and scatological quips while we're at it) that one begins to feel as if he's stumbled into an edited version of the Tom Green vehicle Road Trip."

"Ohhhh … Puleeze," groans Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The loudest grind I heard was coming from the vicinity of my teeth as I sat and reflected on all the other films that I might have been seeing."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) criticizes "an excessive amount of implied sexual promiscuity, bathroom humor, and PG-13 foul language. Also, the perks of being a professional skateboarder involve getting all the girls, booze, and money that a growing young man wants. Instead of making something like this, the filmmakers could have made a redemptive version of something like The Karate Kid."

What's wrong with Hollywood?

In this month's issue of Response, the alumni magazine for Seattle Pacific University, editor Clint Kelly raised a lot of good questions about the way that Hollywood and religion influence each other.

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Questions include: What makes a good movie? Do you draw a distinction between art and entertainment in Hollywood? What do you think is at the root of the historical tension between people of faith and Hollywood? Why are some people of faith threatened by film? What movie needs to be made, and who would you cast in it?

Kelly addresses those questions to Michael Medved and SPU film instructor Todd Rendleman, and I jumped into the fray as well. Our answers show some agreement and some disagreement. And you can see that the lists of ten favorite films offered by Medved and Rendleman reflect extensive journeys through film history.

More criticism for The Magdalene Sisters

This week, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) posted his in-depth review of Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters. "Mullan's black-and-white (or rather black and more black) depiction of clergy and religious is absolute: Not a single character in a wimple or a roman collar ever manifests even the slightest shred of kindness, compassion, human decency, or genuine spirituality; not one has the briefest instant of guilt, regret or inner conflict over the energetic, sometimes cheerfully brutal sadism and abuse that pervades the film."

New cautionary movie rating to be employed by Catholic Conference

The Tidings sums up the news regarding a new movie classification being introduced by the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (OFB). To be more specific, a film rating currently employed by the Conference is being revised. The rating A-IV—"adults with reservations," will become L—"limited adult audience." The rating will apply to films "whose problematic content many adults would find troubling."

Mid-year Top Ten

You may have noticed that there have not been many films this year inspiring a lot of critical enthusiasm. Here at the end of August, just before the season known as "the Oscar rush," J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) picks his Mid-Year Top 10 (including a few films released pre-2003.)

If I were to pick ten films from 2003 worth seeing more than once, I'd have a hard time finding enough worthy titles. At this point, I've seen five strong contenders, three of which, I am surprised to say, are documentaries:

1) Steve James's phenomenal, heartbreaking documentary Stevie(coming soon on DVD).
2) Andrew Stanton's astonishing animated epic Finding Nemo.
3) Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (in theatres next month).
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4) The meditative Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time.
5) Spellbound's suspenseful National Spelling Bee drama.

Runners-up would include: Stephen Frears' conscientious thriller Dirty Pretty Things; Patrice Leconte's poetic character study Man on the Train; Bryan Singer's first-rate comic book movie X2: X-Men United; Gore Verbinski's surprising Pirates of the Caribbean, Danny Boyle's apocalyptic horror flick 28 Days Later, Niki Caro's subtly powerful hero story Whale Rider, Fernando Meirelles' City of God, or Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past.

Keeping a list of your own for this year? Let me know.

Next week:American Splendor, Thirteen, and more.