"The unexamined life is not worth living." If Socrates had not said those words, they could have come from Harvey Pekar. The inventive and wildly entertaining film about Pekar's life in theaters this week demonstrates that very principle.

Pekar is many things. If you have heard of him, then you probably encountered him on the David Letterman show or as the writer and central character (but not the artist) of a series of comic books called American Splendor. Nevertheless, Pekar has spent most of his adult life as a file clerk, surrounded by people that society seems to overlook.

What sets Pekar apart from other comic book authors—indeed, from most artists of any kind—is his attention to the details of ordinary lives, to losers and "average folks," to menial activity and common conversation. As he focuses on these details, he discovers the epic, the tragic, and the comic in everyday life. His humor is tinged with bitterness, sadness, irony, and sarcasm, but it also glows with affection for unglamorous people.

The new film American Splendor, written and directed by devoted Pekar fans Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, portrays the grouchy, cantankerous, philosophical cartoonist in a variety of ways. Pekar starts off as cartoon character, which then comes to life through an inspired performance by Paul Giamatti. Finally, the real Harvey arrives to play himself. Pekar narrates his own film in his unique laryngitic rasp, reading a script that others wrote about his life. It's a bold approach, and it succeeds brilliantly, thanks to clever screenwriting and a talented cast.

Even though Pekar's strange rise to fame develops into a familiar fight-with-cancer drama, the film is never less than engaging. Most of the time it is surprising, hilarious, and thoughtful. The filmmakers never lose their focus on larger themes. In the end, American Splendor is one of the year's best films. It's an inspiring epic about how one man, cynical about life and boasting that he doesn't believe in "growth," stumbles into true love and a family. For the Christian viewer, it works as a story of grace coming to those who, sadly, never stop to question what their blessings mean.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is similarly impressed: "Despite a discursive script and meandering pace, the film's dramatic rudder—Pekar's alienation and search for meaning in life's marvelous minutiae—holds the story in tow, driving it forward and providing a linchpin to keep viewers engaged. Sadly, the Divine has no play in the prickly poet's musings about ultimate meaning and purpose."

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J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) calls it "a strange amalgamation of genres. The movie does a wonderful job of bringing those comic book stories to life. Pekar's deadpan humor, especially about himself, is exceedingly funny." But Parks believes that the film "falls short" from the moment Harvey's wife Joyce enters his life. "Though Hope Davis is a fine actress and one I'm always happy to see … her character's presence sends the film in an unfortunate direction. The movie becomes much more about their relationship and Harvey's struggle to make a name for himself. It's standard bio-pic stuff, following the traditional narrative arc of ups, downs, self-realization, and eventual triumph."

Movieguide's critic says it "ultimately paints a positive portrait of one unique man and his family, but it contains plenty of strong foul language."

Few films released this year have received as warm a welcome from mainstream critics as American Splendor. Click here to scan through some of their rave reviews.

Families should discoverThe Legend of Johnny Lingo
A little G-rated movie called The Legend of Johnny Lingo is getting reviews that suggest it should not be overlooked. Perhaps a few families will be fortunate enough to discover it even in the midst of the summer blockbuster season.

Lingo follows the adventures of a boy named Tama who as an infant is discovered by a tribe of South Pacific islanders and adopted as the child and heir of the tribe's chief. But when the chief's wife expresses her dislike for the boy, he ends up being rejected and goes off to live with the local drunk and his daughter.

Eventually, he sets out on yet another journey, promising to return. His travels lead him to a different shore, where he befriends the wealthiest trader in the region, a man called Johnny Lingo. Johnny offers Tama wisdom and guidance on everything from sailing to living a life of integrity.

"The story is actually a sweet and loving one," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The film unfortunately does suffer from its use of nonprofessional Polynesian actors. There is an amateurish air to the production that must be forgiven in order to enjoy the tale being told. However, there is no denying that the message behind the story is a powerful and poignant one. The Legend of Johnny Lingo can lead us to question how it is we are to determine or view our self-worth as well as show us how our treatment of others will affect how they see themselves."

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Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "The Legend of Johnny Lingo is similar to the story of the biblical Joseph, who toils for years in servanthood, but whose wisdom and dedication bring him great honor—as he works to do what is right. The film also works as a case of lost-and-found identity, which children are sure to love. [The movie] is as warm and stirring as the island-scapes it beautifully captures. The film industry needs more of this storytelling wind in its sails."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) agrees that the movie "has a lot of virtues. Patience, kindness, hard work, perseverance, are all extolled. Furthermore, taking care of the homeless, the lost, and the rebellious are exemplified. Being true to your promises, loving someone for what's inside them, and sacrificing your life for others are also extolled. … The defect … is that there is no real appreciation and recognition, or clarification, regarding the true salvation available in Jesus Christ."

This Medallionis no prize
Jackie Chan's new film The Medallion, directed by Gordon Chan, is distressing critics and fans. The problem is this: Viewers usually go to Jackie Chan movies for stunts and comedy, not special effects and CGI.

The Medallion follows the adventures of a Hong Kong policeman (Chan) and a British Interpol agent (Claire Forlani of Meet Joe Black) as they try to keep a mysterious medallion from the grasp of an evil drug lord called Snakehead (Julian Sands). During the excitement, the cop begins to develop superhuman powers that give him greater strength, speed, and even the gift of flight.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) exclaims, "Can't anybody in the movie biz figure out how to make better use of Jackie Chan's time? The Medallion has very little genuine humor, and only one action scene of any distinction at all. It's all generic at best, watered down with lots of fast cuts and uninteresting special effects. It's not enough. For the first time in years, the lameness of the surrounding product finally drags Jackie down, instead of him managing to rise above it."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Viewing it is akin to watching landfill, with the projector dumping just enough garbage to fill 90 minutes of screen time." He also criticizes the director for "lighthearted use of Buddhist religious imagery."

"They say that if you have an infinite amount of monkeys and give them an infinite amount of typewriters and an infinite amount of time, they'll eventually bang out the works of Shakespeare," writes Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "True or not, it is doubtful that they would do worse than the five screenwriters responsible for The Medallion."

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Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says it "deserves kudos" not for what it is, but for what it doesn't have: "Very little foul language. No sex …. Even the frequent action violence yields few casualties. The filmmakers could have gotten away with a lot more offensive material, yet chose not to. But beyond that, there's not much worthwhile about Jackie Chan's latest effort. Eastern mysticism is the heroes' salvation … this movie misrepresents true divinity and spiritual authority."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) enjoyed the film: "If you want a no-brainer popcorn movie with lots of amazing action, stunts and very funny scenes to finish off the summer with, then this is the movie for you to see."

Moviegoers go on a bad date with My Boss's Daughter
In My Boss's Daughter, Ashton Kutcher (That '70s Show; Dude, Where's My Car?) plays Tom Stansfield, an accident-prone executive who is invited to housesit for his boss (Terrance Stamp of The Limey). Hoping to impress his employer's daughter (Tara Reid), he instead lands in a pile of trouble when unexpected visitors show up on the premises.

Mainstream critics describe this new comedy from director David Zucker (Airplane!, The Naked Gun) as an Ashton Kutcher vehicle that is unfit for the road. Religious press critics are not any happier.

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) says, "If gags involving ménage à trois, public urination, rape, and racial ridicule don't keep audiences away (and let's pray they do), perhaps the fact that this Boss is desperately unfunny will."

Mary Draughon (Preview) catalogues a long list of offensive elements and says, "Consider yourself warned."

More bad press for The Magdalene Sisters
Another religious press film critic has joined the chorus of harsh criticism for Peter Mullan's Catholic-bashing film The Magdalene Sisters.

Frederica Matthews-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) speaks out against the film's exaggerated and obvious bias against Catholics: "The Magdalene Sisters is a work of imagination based on facts, but it's hard to tell what the facts are, because Mullan is so consumed by his agenda. He is convinced that the nuns were self-righteous, vindictive, and judgmental; he has made a movie that is self-righteous, vindictive, and judgmental."

If you are interested in the film, you may want to revisit Phillip Yancey's thoughts on "the Maggies," which were posted back in May.

Next week: 2003's documentaries offer more suspense, drama, tragedy, comedy, and majesty than moviegoers usually find in mainstream films.