What do American Weddingand Masked and Anonymous have in common? Both films are getting bad reviews and both are in some way related to Bob Dylan. Masked stars the legendary singer-songwriter, who also co-wrote the movie. Film Forum covered the negative reviews of the film last week.

This week, Bob's son Jesse Dylan, a director, delivers a movie that has drawn even worse reviews—the third installment in the crass American Pie series.

This popular comedy series has been a hit with adolescents (young and old) across America, so another sequel was sadly inevitable. But instead of improving a bad thing, the situation just gets worse.

Critics argue that anything admirable about what the movie has to say about love and marriage gets lost under the tide of locker room humor. Stars Jason Biggs, Eugene Levy, and the gang seem content to wallow in the muck of shock-value "comedy" that, being the norm of the series, is hardly shocking.

Michael Medved says, "Writer-producer Adam Herz might have connected to any number of issues and emotions: the mixed feelings of parents at their early-twenties offspring making a fateful decision, the sense of abandonment by free-spirited friends at one of their number tying the knot, the inevitable worries of an already nervous young man about building his career as a married man, or over the very notion of kinky, uninhibited sex as the sole basis for a lifetime commitment. Unfortunately, this new movie explores none of these potentially intriguing areas and instead expends its feeble energy on predictably 'shocking' gags."

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says it "scrapes the bottom of the proverbial barrel for laughs, and what it comes up with is much of the same gunk found in the first two American Pie comedies."

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) says, "To say American Wedding dredges the depths of deviancy for material is generous. Bestiality, bondage, and public sex all get screen time. And while a few positive themes appear … they don't just get submerged, they get forcibly drowned by messages belittling virginity, sexual temperance, and the institution of marriage."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) reports, "The sexual language and references are explicit. The nudity is gratuitous. The crudity is excessive. If such content offends, you're in the wrong theater. As with the earlier films, there's a tacked on moral message which, I supposed, is intended to excuse the 90 minutes of uninterrupted R-rated content."

Movieguide says, "American Wedding is a perfect example of the kind of movies we get when we remove all standards of decency and taste from popular culture. Of course, the filmmakers and the actors behind it all are laughing all the way to the bank, which proves the biblical aphorism that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil."

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Mainstream critics turned in similarly unsympathetic reviews.

Meanwhile, the film easily took first place at the box office, bringing in $34.3 million over the weekend. Where were your kids on Saturday night?

Gigliis a loser, any way you pronounce it
Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are the most popular couple in the tabloids. And sure enough, their first film together—Gigli—is proving to be enormously popular as well … but not in the way they intended. Critics and moviegoers are forming long lines to take a turn at writing the harshest possible response to it.

Writer-director Martin Brest delivered a brilliant buddy comedy about cons when he made Midnight Run with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin—but that was in 1988. Afterward, he delivered the popular but overly sentimental Scent of a Woman, and continued to spiral downward with Meet Joe Black. According to the reviews, he may have just hit bottom.

The story concerns a dopey macho hit man who teams up with a brusque lesbian assassin (that is, she's an assassin, not an assassin of lesbians). Together they strive to protect a disabled child while also attempting to get along. In the strangest case of typecasting in a long while, Ben Affleck seems to be the actor to call when a script needs a male protagonist to persuade a lesbian to fall in love with him. (It first happened in Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, a far superior film.)

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Academy members may reconsider the Oscar they awarded [to] Brest in 1992 for Scent of a Woman after they get a whiff of this stinker." He writes, "Affleck and Lopez are not the second coming of Bogey and Bacall—or, for that matter, even Lisa-Marie Presley and Michael Jackson. [They generate] about as many sparks as matches in a monsoon. On a much more disturbing level, the narrative is fueled by a warped view of sexuality."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "Unless you have an unnatural curiosity to see Ben and J-Lo on screen together, save your money for their next movie together." (That will arrive in just a few months—Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl.)

Movieguide's critic says, "Possibly the worst movie in three years, Gigli is simply a bisexual propaganda movie that moral audiences will likely avoid, perhaps even boycott."

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Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) asks, "How many words would it take for me to convince families to treat Gigli like it's infected with West Nile Virus?"

J. Robert Parks (review pending at Phantom Tollbooth) says, "Of Gigli's many problems, the biggest is that we don't believe these characters. These two are the nicest hit men ever. We also don't believe that they could ever fall in love. Which goes to show you how bad the acting is, as Ben and Jen actually did fall in love." He adds, "The one great thing about Gigli is the chance to see Christopher Walken work. His five-minute cameo is fantastic and hilarious."

Mainstream critics compete for the most creative put-downs. Charles Taylor (Salon) is merciful: "[It] turns out to be merely bad—not a train wreck, not the crime against humanity it's been rumored to be."

But Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) says, "The only people likely to get a kick out of Gigli … are Madonna and her director hubby Guy Ritchie. Finally there's a movie as jaw-droppingly awful as their Swept Away."

Military bashedby Buffalo Soldiers, but critics bash the movie
Set at an Army Base in West Germany just before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Buffalo Soldiers focuses on a U.S. military officer (Joaquin Phoenix) who has become skilled in black market operations due to his sheer boredom with his assignment.

When he comes into possession of $5 million in stolen weapons he gets into deep trouble, and only makes things worse when he becomes infatuated with the daughter (Anna Paquin) of a tough new commander (Scott Glenn).

"Buffalo Soldiers aptly resembles the horned animal of its title: a point here, a point there and a lot of bull in between," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service).

DiCerto explains what he describes as the film's "toxic cynicism": "Challenging the myth of the soldier's 'code of honor' is not novel to the cinema; it's been done effectively countless times in both dramas and comedies. But rather than merely questioning this perhaps over-romanticized notion, Gregor seems hell-bent on demolishing any possibility of belief in virtue among members of the armed forces, neatly dividing his characters into three stereotyped ranks—careerists, clowns or cons. The crude mocking tone … undermines many of the weighty issues raised by the film concerning the hypocrisy of war and the dark side of capitalism unfettered by morality."

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) concludes, "The movie has a peace sign on its poster, and its content is certainly caustic and anti-American."

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Critics applaudthe suspenseful exploration of ethics in Dirty Pretty Things
When the government turns a blind eye and crime rules the streets, who is the most dangerous person? Answer: A righteous man. That's the theme of Dirty Pretty Things, the compelling new slow-burn thriller from director Stephen Frears.

Frears never makes the same movie twice. Having helmed projects like My Beautiful Launderette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, and High Fidelity, he is clearly one of the most versatile and unpredictable directors working today. His latest is yet another change of pace. It is also one of his best films, and one of the most original thrillers to come along in years.

Dirty Pretty Things is about a contemporary nightmare. We are drawn into the anxiety-heavy existence of desperate overworked immigrants—some legal, some otherwise—trying to survive in the overlooked areas of the big city. This particular story takes place in London, but Frears's avoidance of familiar landmarks keeps you from dwelling on that fact. The plot is populated with the people who are willing to do the jobs most people refuse. They are, in a way, invisible and taken for granted.

But Frears avoids the curse of films about social dilemmas. By making the film a thriller that echoes such classics as Blue Velvet and Casablanca, he gives us a suspenseful, romantic, and sharply funny story of ethical dilemmas behind closed doors.

The story follows Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor of Amistad in a powerful, stoic performance) as a Nigerian immigrant trying to dodge the immigration police even as he tries to interrupt a sinister criminal operation going on in the fancy hotel where he works as a desk clerk. But the closer Okwe gets to solving the mystery, the closer he brings himself to deportation. Worse, when his malevolent employer (Sergi Lopez) finds out about the woman close to his heart (Audrey Tautou of Amelie), he must risk his life in order to save her from the hands of cruel and manipulative opportunists.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) writes, "Steven Knight's well-crafted script builds suspense alongside character development. Strong performances certainly add to the sleek allure of this strange blend of film noir with a little twist of black comedy. But it is just as much a rather heartbreaking look at abused aliens with little recourse but disturbingly desperate measures."

Jerry Langford (Movieguide) calls it "an absorbing story with likable characters facing real-life dilemmas. The situational ethics are worthy of much discussion following the movie. [The film] is seriously marred by moral relativism, which attempts to argue that the ends justify the means. Also, the characters begin to lose spiritual faith and become their own saviors for their problems."

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It is true that the hero makes a point that he has "no religion." But I would argue that the film is not marred by portrayals of unethical behavior. The film gives us characters making very believable decisions, and while we may not agree with their choices, we are not being encouraged to behave unethically. On the contrary, if the film has any agenda at all, it is to awaken us to the needs of the underprivileged. It should inspire compassion and care, not vigilante justice.

Langford is right when he writes, "The plight of illegal immigrants presented [here] is a deeply moving story, which should genuinely motivate Christians to reach out to these needy and downtrodden people. Christ died for these people, and Christians should be prompted to love them into his kingdom."

Many mainstream critics are applauding the film as one of Frears's finest, perhaps one of the best films of the year.

Many months before its release, Mel Gibson's Jesus film is being debated everywhere
The debate of Mel Gibson's upcoming film (due Spring 2004) has been going on for several weeks now. (You can scan previous postings in the last couple of Film Forums.) The tension escalated this week as journalists continued to analyze the argument that Gibson's interpretation of the Gospels is anti-Semitic.

Michael Medved argues, "Any piece of pop culture that touches on serious religious themes inspires its share of controversy, but the noisy assaults on … Mel Gibson's unfinished film … seem unfair and painfully premature. Indignant denunciations of a movie that its critics haven't even seen, coming nearly a year before that picture's scheduled release, suggest an agenda beyond honest evaluation of the film's aesthetic or theological substance. The explosive charges of anti-Semitism being directed at this project may even threaten the emerging alliance between devout Christians and committed Jews."

Greg Kilday (The Washington Post) looks at the way that religious controversy can heighten the popularity of a film.

Other summaries of the debate appear at The International Herald Tribune, The Guardian, The New York Times and Yahoo. You can watch an extended version of the trailer at Greg Laurie's Harvest Online.

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Seabiscuit, Whale Rider, and other films continue to draw attention
continues to run victory laps.

D.J. Williams (Christian Spotlight) calls Seabiscuit "not only a great film, but the best film so far this year. The uplifting story is one that is sure to resound with audiences across the country, and the emotional journey of the film is one that everyone can relate to."

Roger Thomas (EthicsDaily) testifies, "It has been a long time since I have seen a film audience burst into applause, yet this happened not once but twice in my screening of Seabiscuit."

Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) writes, "Tobey Maquire's voice over at the end of the film says that Seabiscuit healed the broken people in the story. But it isn't the horse that heals, rather, the healing takes place through the symbiosis that occurs when all these broken characters come together. The community heals—whether that is the community of the quasi-family built up around Seabiscuit, or the community of the American people coming together in celebration of this underdog horse."

Whale Rider continues to ride waves of good buzz. Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project) turns in a late-breaking, but thorough and enlightening, review of one of the summer's sleeper hits: Whale Rider. He writes, "It could very well be a script full of tired formulas and predictable characters. And it is. But there is something that, despite all of these potential drawbacks, makes Whale Rider such a powerful experience. From a story that has been told too many times in too many contexts, Caro creates something refreshingly original."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) are also impressed. "As a retelling of an ancient legend, the messages are universal. Parents and grandparents often place expectations on children that seem impossible to fulfill. At the same time, parents are afraid that their lives will be failures unless their children succeed. Parents … must be shown that it is not until their children and grandchildren become who they are created to be that harmony and unity is restored."

But they do admit some misgivings about the film: "The spiritual messages in the film are primitive. Worshiping the creature rather than the Creator is a primitive form of religion found throughout the world."

At the Matthews House Project, Stef Loy writes about the films of Lynne Ramsey, especially her latest, Morvern Callar: "Ramsay tells more tales with the majestic power of the picture than any typewritten script could ever fully describe." He sums up her continuing theme as "A generation searching for something spiritual but finding only a void."

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Dave Benoit (Relevant) talks about the failings of The Matrix Reloaded.

And at RazorMouth, Megan Basham is raving about Pirates of the Caribbean: "With humor that rivals Indiana Jones and ambience that rival's the film's namesake, no doubt it will be many years before this adventure sinks down to Davey Jones' Locker."

Due to a lack of religious press reviews on I Capture the Castle, Film Forum coverage of this movie has been postponed.

Next week: Is The Magdalene Sisters too harsh on the Church? Or is it a fair and accurate portrayal of how believers can go wrong? Plus: Le Divorce and S.W.A.T.