It's not exactly a civil war, but religious press film critics posted starkly contrasting reviews this week of the new film by Ron Maxwell.
Gods and Generals, an epic novel of the Civil War by Jeff Shaara, chronicles the Civil War from early 1861 through the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville. Using this book as his foundation, Maxwell has directed an ambitious, detailed, in-depth film for Turner pictures, a prequel to his 1993 Gettysburg. (You can read Dick Staub's interview with Maxwell here.)
Actors Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, and Jeff Daniels are the headliners, portraying Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, and Union Lt. Col. Lawrence Chamberlain, respectively. Their collaboration boasts an impressive array of historical information, wartime heroes, legendary battles, and famous quotations. It also offers more words to and about the Almighty than any film in recent memory.
This massive $60 million dollar undertaking has been presented to pastors as a great movie to share with their congregations. Promotional materials include an exhortation from Fuller Seminary President Richard J. Mouw, who says, "When Hollywood does it right, it is imperative that we as Christians support their efforts. Gods and Generals is a film worthy of your attention." There is even a Bible study tie-in available by Fuller's Craig Detweiler.
But enough about what the filmmakers and the church leaders say about the film. How does it fare with folks who make it their daily mission to examine and discuss movies?
Religious media critics fall into two camps with their responses. There are those for whom historical accuracy and frequent dialogues about faith are enough to qualify this film as a monumental achievement. And then there are those who say that authentic costumes and God-talk are not necessarily signs of artistic excellence.
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) can barely contain his enthusiasm. He writes, "Rarely does a big budget Hollywood movie come along that reflects history and the Christian faith of the protagonists in an historical event accurately and faithfully. Gods and Generals … tells the powerful story of the most important event in the history of the USA in an accurate and faith honoring way." He then heaps on the superlatives: "Brilliant … magnificent … historically accurate … powerful … vast and grand in its scope … phenomenal … a monument of filmmaking which will be remembered as long as there are devices to watch such a superb historical epic. You will be rewarded immeasurably."
(Baehr does not mention in his review that he is more than just a critic this time around. He has been involved with the movie for a while. Ron Maxwell commissioned him to write a companion book to the film—Faith in Gods and Generals—published by Broadman and Holman.)
David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) calls it "the most spiritual movie I have seen in a long time. It tells the story of faith in a very difficult time. Maxwell is a man of deep faith who is not afraid to explore issues of religious faith."
While Baehr and Bruce celebrate its faith-heavy dialogue, others rejoice for what the film does not have. Holly McClure (Crosswalk) sums it up saying, "If you're looking for language, sex, chase scenes, or gratuitous violence, you won't find it in this historical tribute." Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) recommends this war movie because it is "clearly not as gratuitous as … Saving Private Ryan. Furthermore, there is no foul language or sexual content." They are both impressed.
Those Christian film critics who talk in more detail about pacing, writing, performances, and technical aspects are taking a different tone. Their most frequent complaint is that the film should have been a television miniseries, not a big screen event. After all, the movie requires a four-hour commitment and includes a 12-minute intermission. Further, they criticize it as being too ponderous while it lacks complex characters.
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) writes, "Gods and Generals is slightly shorter than the actual Civil War. There's nothing wrong in theory with a long movie, but any film premised on dramatic action should hold the viewer's attention. Gods and Generals … had me looking at my watch a few times—even during battle scenes. [The movie] feels more like a staged re-enactment and less like a major motion picture."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Though individual segments are interesting and the attention to detail impressive, we remain unsatisfied. It never fully engages the audience emotionally, reducing the experience to a very long but incomplete history lesson."
Robert Jackson (Decent Films) goes so far as to criticize the storytelling as "one-sided." He writes, "It isn't one-sided in the sense of favoring one side over the other. Instead, it's one-sided by portraying only the good and the noble on both sides. Everybody is so good and decent that it's hard to tell where the generals leave off and the gods start. That makes for bad cinema. Was nobody on the Southern side a racist and in favor of slavery? Weren't some [Northerners] motivated by baser economic and political interests? There is no substantive exploration of these complicating issues."
Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) is on the fence. He admires it as a heartfelt effort with "an enlightening message" and high production values. But he adds, "Profundity is generally more so when offered in small doses. In other words, less is more. And therein lies the film's trouble—it's just too much: too verbose, too long and too politically correct."
Mainstream critics are even less tolerant of the film's flaws. You will find very few admirers of the film in the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic online review archives. Some confessed that they could not endure it, and left even before intermission. Rob Blackwelder (SplicedWire): "If [this] epic … is any indication, the Union and the Confederate armies must have talked each other to death." Robert Koehler (Variety) says Maxwell "consistently [makes] the flawed human characters at the heart of the Civil War into flawless figures Olympian in their statuesque remoteness." Michael Atkinson (Village Voice) says it "might qualify for a comedy screenplay Golden Globe next January." Even Nell Minow, Yahoo.com's "Movie Mom," writes, "Sometimes, what is best for history is not best for drama. The filmmaker's relentless even-handedness removes whatever drama the story might have had." Jonathan Foreman (New York Post) writes, "There is … something rare and refreshing in the unashamed way it shows characters with Christian religious beliefs. But it is so lacking in flesh-and-blood characters, so unclear in its depiction of battles like Bull Run, and so nauseating in its gruesome sentimentality that it is all but unwatchable."
Upon reading about the film, a friend of mine made an observation that is worth sharing. He remarked, "I am somewhat amazed that Christians are most fascinated with the military aspects of the Civil War, but give scant attention to some of the most dynamic Christians in history, ignoring people like Theodore Weld, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, to name a few. As 'deeply felt' as the religious devotion was on both sides by soldiers, it's the actions (not just the sentiments) of the abolitionists and other amazing evangelicals of the 19th century that should receive our careful attention and reflection. For that matter, has anyone ever made a major English-language film of William Wilberforce's life? Wesley's? Jonathan Edwards?" (Actually, a Wilberforce film is reportedly in the works.)
Critics refuse to pardon David Gale
Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey is back this month as David Gale, a philosophy professor and a notorious political activist who has dedicated his life to aggressive campaigning against the death penalty. When he himself ends up on death row, accused of killing a fellow campaigner (Laura Linney), the news media is drawn to the scandal like bears to honey.
A popular journalist named Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) lands "the big interview," the only one that Gale will grant before his execution. She arrives skeptical, judgmental, and cautious. But within an hour of Gale's explanation of just how he ended up in prison, she is eager to save him. The odds are against her—this is Texas, after all.
Director Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning) moves the movie along at a frantic pace, determined to keep viewers off-balance. Is Gale guilty or innocent? Is Bitsey being guided towards the truth, or is she being manipulated and abused for sinister purposes?
Unfortunately, it is the audience being manipulated and abused. The Life of David Gale subjects its audience to an ugly prejudice. In the picture's heavy anti-execution propaganda, proponents of the death penalty, conservatives, and Christians are portrayed as either evil or idiotic. The deck is so unfairly stacked against them that even anti-death-penalty film critics are condemning the effort.
Further, the movie glorifies violent and illegal tactics in the name of activism. And the movie treats the title character—an unpleasant, sexually reckless, alcoholic extremist—as if he was a saint, even going so far as to show him in a crucifix pose. (After he gets drunk and has violent sex with an expelled student, we are expected to feel sorry for him when his wife takes his child away from him. Gale is a lot of things, but contrary to the film's insistence, he is not a victim.)
Worst of all, when Bitsey discovers a videotape of the horrifying, grotesque murder of a naked woman, we are forced to watch its nauseating footage of her suffocation over and over again. One character remarks that no one should have to watch such things. Amen.
I walked out feeling I had paid money to have someone disorient me, sneer self-righteously at me, and assault me with filthy imagery. There hasn't been a film this politically mean-spirited since Rod Lurie's The Contender. The filmmakers work so hard to bewilder and to preach that they give us no opportunity to think clearly about the serious life-and-death issues that the film claims to address. They only reveal that their own hatred has overrun their ability to make a coherent argument, and they're certainly not fit to tell a decent story.
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Gale delivers its irony with all the subtlety of an electric chair. The point is not only missed, it is dulled to absurdity. The heavily-slanted screenplay was provided by first-timer Charles Randolph, who has obviously placed credibility rather low on his priority list."
Megan Basham (Christian Spotlight) argues, "Though masquerading as a thriller, The Life of David Gale is to capital punishment what The Cider House Rules was to abortion. It depicts an intelligent, flawed, but supposedly sympathetic man taking courageous actions to show that he is more righteous than God or his people."
"The film's hackneyed narrative and sanctimonious tone make viewing it akin to cruel and unusual punishment," says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "[It] presents viewers with a bleak landscape devoid of hope or redemption. The bizarre climax not only runs counter to the ethics that served as the basis of Gale's philosophical convictions, but flies in the face of the basic Christian concept of human dignity while glossing over issues of euthanasia with an end-justifies-the-means mentality."
"This is not an easy movie to sit through because of the depressing subject, sad situations, repeated shots of a nude woman suffocating to death, and dramatic plot," writes Holly McClure (Crosswalk). "But it does make you think about the death penalty."
But Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says, "Talk about capital punishment all you want, just don't use The Life of David Gale to inspire the discussion."
Tom Snyder (Movieguide) calls it "one of the most brainless, poorly made, sickening, excruciatingly politically correct issue movies ever made. This is truly one loathsome movie."
Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) carefully presents his own anti-death-penalty sentiments, and then explains why: "My reason for including my viewpoint is to show that I could give an opinion without denouncing or ridiculing the convictions of others. Such is not the case of filmmaker Alan Parker. He takes every opportunity to belittle the opposing side by choosing opponents that are also easy targets for mockery. He and writer Charles Randolph are so heavy-handed they even have Spacey's character poking fun at William Bennett and his Book of Virtues."
Mainstream critics are equally upset by the film. Lou Lumenick (New York Post) says the film "is so nasty, hysterical and long-winded—and unintentionally makes capital punishment foes look so twisted—you wish someone had administered a lethal injection to this dreck in its planning stages." Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) rants, "Let it be said this movie is about as corrupt, intellectually bankrupt, and morally dishonest as it could possibly be." And Dennis Lim (Village Voice) says, "By the time Parker is done servicing his star's martyr complex and clocking the audience with the last of the eminently foreseeable reversals, the film has thoroughly discredited activism as the domain of crazed zealots." David Denby (New Yorker) sums it up: "The picture is practically an ad for the dysfunctions of the current system of making movies."
One has to wonder why such bad films can come from such talented people. Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet has a few thoughts on the problems with the system.
Dark Blue—a corrupt cop's redemption story
Dark Blue takes place during those volatile days in 1991 when the Rodney King trial and the L.A. riots had the LAPD fighting for their own reputation. Kurt Russell plays Eldon Perry, a racist detective who must tutor a rookie on police tactics while investigating a multiple homicide. As they close in on the killers, Perry becomes troubled by where the clues are leading him, and he is forced to confront his own prejudice and past indiscretions.
Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says that the movie "scores as a film noir that is about more than color—an introspective look at urban police work and those who wander from the straight and narrow with disastrous consequences." The film's star receives high praise: "Cocky and spouting repellent opinions about social justice, Russell transforms his cowboy cop incrementally into a man forced by events to confront his demons and accept responsibility for crimes he had heretofore easily justified. His dynamic portrayal is central to keeping the busy story focused."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Russell's performance may take you by surprise. He starts off competently enough, but as the film progresses, so does the complexity of his character. Whatever appeal this film has is due to his ability to present Eldon Perry as a fully fleshed out character—warts and all."
But Tom Snyder (Movieguide) argues, "Russell is not always convincing in his role … partly saddled by uneven writing and pedestrian direction. Ultimately, Dark Blue's moral elements are undercut by its political correctness and its excessive foul language."
Phil Boatwright calls it "depressing and inflammatory. It avoids presenting a representation of those who don those blue uniforms in an effort to fight injustice. The film suggests that the majority of white cops are bigots and crooks, while all minorities are merely put upon." Similarly, Bret Willis (Christian Spotlight) warns readers, "In short, it appears the writers have taken a serious issue and portrayed it as even worse than it really is, thus potentially widening the rifts between blacks and whites and between police and public for no worthwhile purpose. This makes the film very dangerous. I see no redeeming quality in it, and don't recommend it to anyone."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) would prefer this drama about cops, crime, and corruption refrain from portraying so much corruption. "Sex. Obscenities. Brutality. That's reason enough to give this police story a thumbs down."
Mainstream critics found it to be a mixed bag. Ebert says, "Dark Blue is a formula picture in its broad outlines, but a very particular film in its characters and details. It has something to say and an urgent way of saying it."
Andrew Sarris (New York Observer) says the film falls short of genre greats like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, but he praises Russell's "mature and charismatic portrayal of a modern hero who starts out as an antihero, and rises from the ashes of corruption and dissipation to find redemption by repudiating everything that his admired predecessors in the hierarchy of that secular religion, law enforcement, once represented."
Old School boasts a hilarious performance of inspired comic lunacy by Will Ferrell, a recent graduate from the Saturday Night Live cast. Unfortunately, Ferrell's bizarre antics are not worth the price of a ticket. His co-stars—Vince Vaughn, Luke Wilson, and Jeremy Piven—fail to register on the laugh meter. Director Todd Phillips foregoes character development and original comedy in favor mean-spirited humor that targets women, teachers, the elderly, the obese, and the virtues of marriage. Most punchlines have been scraped out of the locker room drain.
Phillips, director of the base and cruel comedy Road Trip, has a better premise this time. Mitch Martin (Luke Wilson) staggers out of a broken marriage, disillusioned by his wife's infidelity, looking for comfort and recovery. His former college pals advise him to get over it by plunging into self-indulgent, adolescent activities. When he moves into a house next to a hard-partying university, they coax him into making it a frat house where men of all ages can pursue adolescent lusts and revel in reckless behavior.
The story might have shown the folly of such behavior and the desirability of good friends, maturity, and marriage. It does indeed show that Mitch's endeavors fail to satisfy him, but the movie's style of storytelling is as immature and indulgent as the characters we are supposed to be laughing at. You can't make an edifying experience out of this heap of sick humor, just as you can't have an effective Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a bar during Happy Hour.
Phil Boatwright says, "It's a funny film, but it draws its humor mainly from bad behavior. We live in a society that thrusts sexuality upon our psyche whenever possible. If you attend Old School, you'll be subjecting yourselves to more of the same—nudity and lust. Guys, methinks your ladies would just as soon you avoid those variables."
Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) says, "Moviegoers learn quite a bit about substance abuse, treating women as sexual objects, and how (supposedly) agonizing it is to be confined to one mate for life. A laugh or two isn't worth the price of admission to this institute of baser education."
The review by Don Patton and Lisa Rice (Movieguide) puts it another way: "In a day when the Lord seems to be cleaning up His bride and bringing her out of the Western Christian party mentality and into a sense of much-needed sobriety, movies like Old School seem even more crass, valueless and sad than ever." (Is anybody out there a member of the Western Christian party mentality? I'd love to hear from you.)
Mainstream critics line up to salute Ferrell for his comic genius, but they don't have many kind words for the film itself. Ebert says, "This is not a funny movie. Phillips … careens from scene-to-scene without it occurring to him that humor benefits from characterization, context and continuity."
Critics continue praising The Pianist and other recent hits
Roman Polanski's The Pianist, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture (and my favorite film of 2002), is still drawing praises from religious press critics for its moving and magnificent story about a Holocaust survivor who hid from the Nazis in Warsaw.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "The Pianist contains images as uniquely and indelibly horrifying as anything we've seen in any film. But Polanski isn't interested in mere emotional impact. He's giving us a human perspective on the story, rather than an omniscient one."
But the news is buzzing with a story that is decades old. Roman Polanski will probably not try to return to the U.S. for the Oscars. He left the U.S. decades ago after pleading guilty to charges of child rape, and has been making movies and living in France ever since. You can read about the situation here and peruse a new statement from his victim here.
Should we be praising the work of an unpunished criminal? Should Polanski's films have been allowed to play in the U.S. while he hid from justice overseas? What are your thoughts on the situation? We'll look at it more closely next week.
At Books and Culture this week, Eric Metaxas offers a new critique of the films of Martin Scorsese, including Gangs of New York, and Ralph C. Wood takes on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Elsewhere, Steve Parish (The Film Forum) praises City of God, the Brazilian drama about youth drawn to drugs and violence in a homeless district. Parish calls it "an enriching film. Its violence … may stop debut director Fernando Meirelles winning the foreign film Oscar … but the rawness of these scenes, unlike the stylized and sometimes sanitized mayhem of much Hollywood fare, is part of the power of his film."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) recently posted a review on current box office champion Daredevil. He concludes, "For comics fans, it will be hailed as a wonderful realization. But for others, it may seem to be just another guy in a leather suit beating people up." He is also concerned about the film's PG-13 rating: "This is dark material that most under the age of 13 do not need to see."
And speaking of the blind superhero, ABC News reports that blind people do not necessarily see Daredevil as an inspiration. Brent Hopkins, communications specialist for the American Foundation for the Blind, says, "To live with a disability, you don't have to be a superhero."
Next week: David Cronenberg's Spider and more on Roman Polanski.
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