Marriage, parenthood, bill-paying, and grieving In America

Writer/Director Jim Sheridan's In America is probably not going to win Oscars. It doesn't have explosions, swords, monsters, a sweeping sentimental soundtrack, or a platitude at the end that gift-wraps "the moral of the story." The preferred Hollywood credo of "believe in yourself" is nowhere to be seen. In fact, if In America assures of anything, it is that life is full of hardship: the hardship of raising a family, of making a living, of dealing with death and disease, of enduring life's unexpected crises.

But it is also a film about human kindness, about the value of childlike faith, and about the strength that marital fidelity and faithful parenting can provide in hard times. Ultimately, while one of the characters still has grave doubts about the existence of a benevolent God, the film leans in the direction of faith and the existence of grace. In America is one of the year's richest, most rewarding films. While it deals with subject matter that makes inappropriate material for children, discerning grownups will find much to think about and discuss.

Sheridan's film is not his autobiography. Still, as an Irishman who brought his family to America, he fills this film with intimate details and echoes of things that really happened. The story follows an Irish family as they move to Manhattan and try to build a new life while their money quickly disappears. They have good reason to leave their homes and their past. The loss of a child, Frankie, to a brain tumor, has left all of them wounded and soul-weary.

In this way, the film quietly reminds us of the loss and trauma that still aches in Manhattan's broken heart. While the film does not directly relate to the events of the World Trade Center attacks—it is set sometime in the 80s—the story resonates partly because of the city's present wounded state. It is as if Sheridan is offering what he can from his own life to comfort and encourage those who are still struggling with the loss of irreplaceable loved ones.

And yet, while the film brings all of these things to mind, the strongest impression that lingered after my first viewing of the film was laughter: healthy, hearty, joyous laughter. Where the other acclaimed year-end dramas of 2003—Mystic River and 21 Grams—let their emotional burdens bury any hope for humor and warmth, In America is alive with laughter and uplift, all of it earned.

Sheridan has created a totally convincing family. Paddy Considine plays Jim, a volatile and hard-working actor. Samantha Morton is his luminous, emotional and strong-willed wife Sarah. Sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger as their spirited daughters Christy and Ariel. As Jim strives to find bill-paying work, Sarah supplements their income and deals with the onset of an unexpected pregnancy. Christy gives the rather tempestuous family dynamic a quiet but somber center, while Ariel is the source of their cheer and delight, a feisty and inquisitive girl with a fearlessness that leads them to unexpected—and sometimes important encounters. In fact, thanks to Ariel, soon the family has to contend with "the Screaming Man," a troubled artist named Matteo (Djimon Hounsou of Gladiator) who hides behind a door marked KEEP AWAY.

The film ends on a note that lacks resolution. We can see the beginnings of healing, but it also offers the artist's honesty about doubt. At one point, Christy admits her own frustrations with God by admitting that her private prayer-like conversations with the lost family member ended when, as she puts it, "I realized I was talking to myself." In America does not end with an exhortation that "His eye is on the sparrow" or that "All things work together for good." But it does allow for the possibility that there might be a Higher Power working to bring grace and healing if we can bring ourselves to own up to our grief and our anger. In fact, it suggests that by blessing those who are foreign, or even frightening, to us—by embracing them without fear or prejudice—we create a larger space for love and grace to do a work that blesses us all.

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While other filmmakers this season have filled their dramas with angst, anger, and a bleak sense of determinism, Jim Sheridan has given us one that stares the scary questions in the face, admits that it cannot answer all of them, and yet offers glimmers of hope and a generous helping of uplifting humor.

Next week, Film Forum will offer links to the responses of other religious press critics. (At this writing, none have been posted.)

Meanwhile, mainstream critics are greeting the film with rave reviews. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "It's not the typical story of turn-of-the-century immigrants facing prejudice and struggle, but a modern story … involving new sets of problems, such as racism and the drug addiction in the building and the neighborhood. It is also about the way poverty humiliates those who have always prided themselves on being able to cope. [The film] is perceptive about the countless ways in which it is hard to be poor and a stranger in a new land."

Critics say Ron Howard's western is Missing something

Director Ron Howard moves from his Oscar-winning drama A Beautiful Mind to a Western in the tradition of John Ford. Like Ford's classic John Wayne film The Searchers, The Missing boasts breathtaking cinematography as its desperate heroes—a terror-stricken mother, her willful young daughter, and a troubled old man—pursue a band of Apache villains who have kidnapped a teenage girl.

Cate Blanchett, who had one leading role already this year (Veronica Guerin) and who reprises her role as Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King this month, plays Magdalena "Maggie" Gilkenson here. Maggie is known in 1880's New Mexico as a healer and a rancher, raising young Lily (Evan Rachel Wood of Thirteen) and Dot (Jenna Boyd), and harboring private wounds about her past. When a mysterious silver-haired man named Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones) shows up on Maggie's ranch, he forces Maggie to reconsider and wrestle with her past. Soon after she has denied him permission to stay there, she finds herself in need of his help. A man is murdered, and Lily is taken captive. Samuel knows how to track Apaches, and since the U.S. military proves of little use to them, Maggie finds herself with no choice but to bring him along. Thus, they head out on a seemingly doomed rescue mission.

Blanchett immerses herself in the role, as she always does, proving again why she is the most formidable actress to reach the screen since Meryl Streep. She plays Maggie perfectly, from her accent to her resilience and physical fragility. Jones delivers one of his most understated and nuanced performances as well, and the young actresses are convincing as their characters suffer violence and horror.

Unfortunately, despite gorgeous scenery and an uncharacteristically subtle soundtrack from James Horner, the film has a "been-there, done-that" quality that keeps it from becoming an original or compelling adventure. Howard and company present the violence with uncompromising intensity, but they play it safe when the story strays into controversial territory. While the Native Americans who help Maggie employ a good deal of voodoo and traditional "medicine," Maggie persists in her prayers and dependence on God. Howard and his screenwriter Ken Kaufman, adapting Thomas Eidson's novel The Last Ride, shy away from the conflict between the two faiths, as if too concerned that they might offend somebody. Thus, the overall implication is that faith of any kind, so long as it is offered with sincerity, will get results.

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More damaging to the film is its lack of interesting or original ideas. The heroes do what they must to force a confrontation with the villains, and it all boils down to a traditional shoot-out, in which might determines the outcome, not faith or ingenuity. The subplot concerning Lily's trials among the Apaches is similarly mundane. We are led to despise the villain because he is the only one in the film with an unpleasant face, and because he stands out from the otherwise airbrushed natives as a rare and barbaric exception.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Howard approaches this material from a number of different angles which gives the movie added depth. The character drama which plays out is emotionally rich and rewarding." He also notes the film's "mysticism … which Howard wisely leaves open to interpretation."

"Despite decent writing, solid acting, and fine production values, this is no Open Range. It is bleak and joyless," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). "The Missing is neither cathartic nor escapist, neither persuasive nor inspiring. It's just a gritty, exhausting tale of perseverance and survival that takes too long to get to the end without enough of a reason to get there."

Todd Campbell (Christian Spotlight) takes a different view: "I thought this movie was going to be heavy in the shamanism/medicine man material, but it proved to be a true shoot 'em up Western, very similar to The Searchers or The Shadow Riders with bits of Unforgiven thrown in for good measure. I would recommend, with reservations, this movie to older fans of Westerns, especially since Hollywood rarely produces any good Westerns with little language, little sex, and the traditional cowboy violence. Do not bring children to this movie."

Peter Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) writes, "The Missing is a well-crafted film, one of Howard's better efforts, and it wisely allows its characters to retain a degree of mystery. Its explicit treatment of religious themes also makes it a good conversation piece for viewers who want to explore the distinctions between medicine, miracle and magic, even if the film ultimately gives the upper hand to magic."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) is also impressed. "Prejudice. Forgiveness. Religious faith. Parent/child relationships. Personal redemption. These themes and others make The Missing more substantive than your average cowboys and Indians, save-the-homestead western. In fact, it goes out of its way to paint Native Americans and whites as equally human and complex. It's a shame the film is so violent."

Movieguide disagrees: "[It] tries to be all things to all people and becomes less the sum of its parts. Furthermore, multiple endings don't achieve a proper climax that would propel the movie past its deficiencies. Most of The Missing seems to indicate that the Indian magic is stronger than Maggie's Christianity, although the ending tips the scales slightly in the other direction. Even so, however, it is brute force that eventually defeats the forces of darkness."

Some mainstream critics rave about the film, but the majority see it as a sub-par Ron Howard release.

Timeline a 'Thanksgiving turkey'?

Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, Timeline pits selfish scientists against young and attractive archaeologists who have no reservations about time travel. Paul Walker (The Fast and the Furious) and Frances O'Connor (Mansfield Park) star as the would-be heroes who are sent back to the 14th century, smack dab into the 100-year feudal war of France and England, where they try to rescue their professor without fouling up history's established path. While they are there, some technical difficulties back in the "transporter room" call into question whether they will ever return to their homes in time.

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According to critics, the film has problems that short-circuit the whole affair.

"Timeline isn't a particularly good movie," says Bob Smithouser (Plugged In). "Lovers of time-travel tales may find Timeline reasonably entertaining, but the more they ponder the before/after paradoxes, the more plot holes and logical inconsistencies crop up. Those shortcomings, aggravated by intense violence and offensive language, make Timeline a Thanksgiving turkey."

"Timeline was a rather enjoyable novel," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "It has now become an almost intolerable action/adventure movie. Surprisingly, there seems to have been little attempt to elevate the film to the level of its source material. Logic, character development, and a smoothly flowing narrative are elements which must have been deemed superfluous by the filmmakers because they've left them out of the final product."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "The action won't bring audiences to the edge of their seats, but it's functional, and the sets and costumes aren't bad. The storytelling just doesn't pack an emotional punch."

Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) says, "Many plot points and technical items cannot be adequately explained and therefore seem simplistic; the characters cannot be fully developed; and some character actions (like the students' immediate willingness to be flung into the past) seem as hokey as those in a 1950s sci-fi film."

Contrary to Smithouser, Elliott, Vaughn, and Willis, Movieguide's critic says it is "tighter and improved over the Crichton novel in many ways … a thrilling experience for teenage to adult audiences. Feeling much shorter than its two hour length, Timeline proves the saying: Time flies when you're having fun!"

Meanwhile, mainstream critics are counting the film as one of the year's biggest failures.

The Haunted Mansionis 'strictly mindless'

Gore Verbinski's film Pirates of the Caribbean silenced those critics who were afraid that movies based on amusement park rides would be a waste of time. But now The Haunted Mansion, directed by Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little), has fulfilled their original fears.

"It's too bad [the movie] wasn't visited by some ghostwriters," says Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service), "because then maybe the unimaginative fright flick could have scared up some spooky fun, or at least some well-placed audience laughs. The only clear thing in [this] mishmash of a story is that the writers had no idea where to go with it. Thrown in for good Disney measure is a halfhearted attempt at imparting a lesson that family comes first and standing up to one's fears takes guts. But it is such an afterthought that it loses its effect as quickly as the smoky ghosts evaporate."

"Minkoff integrated many aspects of the ethereal ride into his movie," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), "but wisely used them only as a backdrop for a fresh and imaginative tale. The ride may be decades old, but the movie just might make it seem new again. The production qualities are top notch. [It] evokes a creepy, spooky yet not too scary mood." He adds, "Of course, the concept of ghosts and zombies is something so unbiblical that there's little point in addressing it at length here. And yet, within this fantasy film, there are certain principles that do agree with scriptural truths."

While Elliott and Navarro think the film isn't scary enough, Jerry Langford (Movieguide) says, "The Disney execs must have sold their own souls to get a PG rating for The Haunted Mansion. The greatest abomination is that this movie is marketed to families and children. The heavy-handed occult worldview, along with the intensely scary scenes … make this a lousy ride for all."

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Holly McClure (Crosswalk) argues, "This isn't a bad movie. It has a few entertaining moments, and Murphy was funny in several parts. But in a season that is known for spreading joy and holiday cheer, why would you want to scare your kids or give them images of ghouls and skeletons to dance in their heads? Go see Elf instead."

"Haunt some other holiday movie, this Mansion's no bargain," writes Steven Isaac (Plugged In). "It's entertaining, in a strictly mindless manner. It's visually stimulating, when it's not filling the screen with corpses. It's even endearing and sweet, albeit with a saccharine aftertaste. [But] Disney gives parents plenty of reasons not to haul the kiddos into the multiplex for this one (not the least of which are nightmare-inducing zombies, spooky ghouls, mild profanity and sexual references). It's the movie's flagrant misuse of the spiritual dimension, though, that put me off the most."

Similarly, mainstream critics are frowning as they file out of this haunted house.

Critics exhort parents:Bad Santa is bad for kids

Film critics of all colors are trying to tell parents what the R-Rating already makes clear: Bad Santa is not a family movie.

Beyond that, however, they differ greatly on whether the movie is worthwhile for grownups. Acclaimed director Terry Zwigoff, who gave us the bittersweet documentary Crumb and the memorably melancholy teen drama Ghost World, has assembled here a curt retort to the onslaught of holiday movies that tell us how mean-spirited grownups can be redeemed by sweet-talking children. It also attacks the commercialization of the holiday.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie T. Stokes, a wicked, foul-mouthed, perverse man who works as a department store Santa while planning robberies on the side with his clever "elf" partner, a midget named Marcus. The movie focuses on a year when a nosy store manager (John Ritter) and a shopping mall detective (Bernie Mac) get in the way of this naughty Saint Nick's latest heist. Making things worse, a troubled 8-year-old (Brett Kelly) decides that Stokes is indeed the Santa that he needs.

"Parents, please do your homework on this one," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "Even though the movie features a truckload of children, a Santa Claus, and a Christmas setting, your own kids have no business sitting through this perversely twisted R-rated film. The film is devoid of anything remotely resembling holiday cheer or spirit."

Many mainstreams critics, meanwhile, are celebrating the film as a worthwhile satire that scores points by relentlessly underlining the season's excessive holiday sentimentality.

The Triplets of Belleville praised as "the eye-candy movie of the year"

An odd invention of hand-drawn animation has arrived in the U.S. to enthusiastic critical acclaim. The French-made cartoon caper The Triplets of Belleville is already inspiring rumors of an Oscar nomination. It follows the wild adventures of an old woman who gets the help of three aging music-hall singers in an attempt to save her grandson from the French mafia

Doug Cummings (FilmJourney.org) calls it "the eye-candy movie of the year. Virtually every shot in the film is astonishing in its pictorial beauty." He writes, "While the film's humor has a more sardonic edge to it (it's not geared for younger children), the movie never descends into cynicism. Its characters are dedicated and loving, and challenge heroic stereotypes."

Movieguide's critic calls it "a very clever, funny animated movie. If a couple of scatological scenes were removed, the movie would be entertaining and acceptable."

The Cooler leaves religious press critics cold

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In The Cooler, William H. Macy (Fargo, Seabiscuit) plays Bernie Lootz, an unlucky Las Vegas gambler who has lost his marriage, his son, his cat, and much more besides. His past has earned him some difficult debts, so he spends his days working at the Shangri-La, trying to appease a demanding Las Vegas casino boss (Alec Baldwin). In fact, Bernie's luck is so bad that he now works as a "cooler." This requires him to sit down at a table where someone is having a lucky run; his mere presence will interrupt the winning. But when he falls for a cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello) and goes for a tumble in the sheets, his luck apparently changes, and his relationship with his wicked employer turns dangerous.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) notes, "The film, originally rated NC-17, has gone through a reedit in order to garner a more marketable R rating. Viewers should still be advised that graphic sex scenes do remain in the film as well as extensive profanity, and violence."

Movieguide's reviewer classifies it as "a quirky, but graphic, romantic comedy that delves into very dark, film noir territory. [It] could have been a much more accessible comic thriller were it not for its obscene amount of strong foul language, graphic sex, explicit nudity, and crude violence. This objectionable content keeps fighting the movie's lighter tone, to the detriment of both the cast and the crew."

The Cat in the Hat is just a cinematic sugar rush

Religious press critics continue to complain about the gaudy, misguided new "family film" version of Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. This week, Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) says, "Visually it is gorgeous. The colors and the set design are fantastic. They are eye candy for the screen. But, like eating a candy bar for lunch—which seems like a good idea at the start and tastes good going down—in the end you feel sick and wished you had not eaten it. After viewing The Cat in the Hat, I had that sick feeling and wished I had not watched it. Put bluntly, the movie does not work."

New Studio Makes Films for Church Ministry

At Canadian Christianity, Alan Doerksen tells us about a new motion picture studio based in Niagara Falls, Ontario that plans to market its productions to churches. Its mission: "To produce films pastors can use, stories about life situations." There is also information on the studio's first project: Home Beyond the Sun, scheduled for video and television release next spring.

P.S. (Passion Stuff)

World Net Daily reports on a screening of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ that was presented to a significant critic: Billy Graham. Graham declares the film "faithful to the Bible's teaching." He is quoted: "I have often wondered what it must have been like to be a bystander during those last hours before Jesus' death. After watching The Passion of the Christ, I feel as if I have actually been there. I was moved to tears. I doubt if there has ever been a more graphic and moving presentation of Jesus' death and resurrection—which Christians believe are the most important events in human history."

Film Forum Feedback - A letter about Elephant from a Columbine survivor

This week, Craig Scott, one of the high school students who survived the Columbine shootings, wrote to us in objection to the Film Forum coverage of Gus Van Sant's award-winning film Elephant. Scott writes:

I was very 'in the middle' of what happened that day of the Columbine shooting. I was in the school library where most of the killings took place. I had two friends killed next to me, and later that day found out my sister, Rachel Joy Scott, was the first one killed.
I am writing to you about your article … about this new movie Elephant. I believe this movie is going to do a lot of harm, and I would like to share my unique perspective on the Columbine shooting and the effect this kind of movie can have.
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Elephant … is a terrible movie for a number of reasons. First, it makes the two killers in the movie look 'cool' and rather glorifies them. Second, letting kids that are picked feel related to the two killers in the movie and the actual shooters helps them to justify in their mind that if they are 'picked on,' they can then go kill their fellow students and blow up their school. Third, this movie has the most violent bloody shooting scene of any movie I have ever seen. It is terrible. Fourth, like the filmmaker wanted, the movie has no point, no message. But that's not the true case with Columbine. It did happen for a reason. There were reasons Eric and Dylan, the two boys, try to kill as many people as they could.
One day we (America) just might have a school that is literally blown up and instead of 15 dieing, hundreds or even thousands could die. This movie is a potential factor for some unstable teen to do just that.
I didn't like the article that was posted on the website. I don't know who wrote it. But it was very ignorant of them to write that in such a way that made it seem as if the filmmaker has done a good thing and has "opened our eyes" to the violence occurring in our nation's schools. Everyone is aware of the violence problem. Believe me, this movie will do nothing positive for teens who watch it. I know. I still am one.

First, my thanks to Mr. Scott for writing in with his thoughts and feelings. We greatly appreciate input from readers about their own experiences at the cinema.

Secondly, I must say to Mr. Scott that I cannot comprehend what he has been through, and my condolences go out to him, his family, and his community.

I must also clarify that it is the goal of Film Forum to draw attention to the different things being said about films by religious press critics and by the mainstream media. This encourages a more informed and intelligent dialogue about art, entertainment, and ethics. When I composed Film Forum's coverage of Van Sant's Elephant two weeks ago, rather than posting my own opinion on the film—which I cannot do until I see it—I only linked to other interesting views of the film from established religious press critics. These opinions were not intended to represent the opinion of Christianity Today. In this case, we linked to the review by Stef Loy, Darrell Manson, and a critic at Movieguide.

It is also worth noting that these critics included grave reservations about the film, which stands in stark contrast to the views of some mainstream critics, who celebrate it as a grand work of art.

Further, it is worth noting that Gus Van Sant's film does not claim to be a recreation of the events at Columbine, but rather is an artistic exploration of the problem of violence in schools. There are many parallels, but it is not meant to be an exact representation. It is R-rated for good reason, and should be considered inappropriate viewing for younger viewers. (Teenagers old enough to attend without a parent should exercise extreme caution.)

In the responses of the critical community to Elephant (it won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year) there have definitely been complaints about the alleged-indifference of Van Sant's perspective. But few have come away arguing that the director "glorifies" the violence. They instead tend to argue that the film wants to force us to face a reality that many would rather ignore. As Flannery O'Connor said, "To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures." Each viewer must approach this, as any work of art, with personal discernment, listening to their conscience, judging whether or not this is a profitable way to spend their time and attention. I imagine that anyone who has suffered from this sort of violence would not be the ideal audience for such a film as Elephant. Someone who ignores the problem of this sort of violence, or someone just beginning to think about it, might find art about the subject to be provocative and revealing.

If other readers have seen the film and wish to offer their own impressions, please write to me at LookingCloserRvw@aol.com.

Next week: Early rumbles about The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Plus, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.

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