It may be too late for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to hope for Oscar nominations. (Both Potter and The Two Towersare being ignored by Academy members for one of their most spectacular achievements—makeup—in favor of The Time Machine!)
But it can't hurt that this week the Vatican came forward with an official opinion on whether the boy wizard is an evil influence on youngsters. The representative for the Catholic Church did not specify whether the Pope had advance-ordered Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the next installment in J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful series of novels. Meanwhile, Movieguide's Ted Baehr continues to argue that the Goblet of Fire will lead kids straight to the eternal goblet of fire with its "selfish, occult, New Age worldview." He calls it "visual terrorism."
Elsewhere, Greeks are being championed as God's gift to the big screen this year. Gary DeMar (RazorMouth) saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and exclaims, "Of all the reviews I've read, no one really gets the movie's importance." He goes on to elaborate on the secret of Nia Vardalos's success.
Meanwhile, the Christian film reviewers of the Promontory Film Critics Circle have cast their votes for the Best of 2002.
While these reviewers are looking back at past favorites, a crop of foreign films that have earned raves overseas are finally showing up in American theaters.
Guns, drugs, and photography in City of God
City of God, the critically acclaimed film from Fernando Meirelles, takes viewers to a troubled barrio in Brazil. This "city" is actually a sprawling government housing development for homeless people of the Rio de Janeiro region. In this relatively un-policed community, drug lords run the show. Using a cast of young people who really live in these conditions, Meirelles focuses his story on a teenage boy named Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues).
Rocket struggles to stay clean, but it is impossible to avoid encounters with the temperamental gang members—they are his neighbors and his friends. Fortunately, Rocket has higher ambitions. He wants to be a photographer, which puts him in good stead: the egotistical gang leaders are eager to get their defiant faces in the paper while the papers want exciting material. Rocket thus walks a thin line between criminal corruption and artist integrity. He wants to tell the truth, but he risks his life in doing so.
Rocket's story parallels that of a trigger-happy drug dealer called Li'l Ze (Firmino da Hora), whose growth from an angry child to a bloodthirsty warlord is the film's most troubling thread. There is a clear moral: you can't play with the devil without being burned.
City of God begins in the '60s, jumps to the '70s, and ends in the '80s. During the end credits, we are treated to real news clips that reveal just how true-to-life the film has been. What sets this film apart as more than just another gangster epic is the searing intensity and authenticity of Meirelles's vision, supported by his tremendous skill with a camera. The result is every bit as solid a film as Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas and much more successful than Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Meirelles gets better performances out of these untrained kids than most American directors get out of Hollywood stars.
Bob Nusser (Preview) gives City of God a "negative acceptability rating" because of "graphic violence, rough language, sexual content, and drug abuse." And Movieguide's critic argues, "The filmmakers are happy with just chronicling the disease that took control of this slum, not in offering any positive solutions."
But it is not the responsibility of the artist to provide answers. Rather, an artist should offer us a vision that is honest enough to let us draw our own conclusions. Many Christians seem to think that the truth needs to be inserted into a good story—Jesus as product placement. But if an artist has crafted his work with excellence, the truth will be evident for those with eyes to see —good storytelling necessarily reflects the truth. These stories, as ugly as they are, are honest, and they need to be told and heard.
Meirelles is not glorifying these gun-toting kids. He is instead trying to wake the world up to these forgotten and needy children. Further, he used the film as an opportunity to offer these kids some training in filmmaking, encouraging talents which could help them escape their insufferable conditions. (The film, however, is certainly not for younger viewers or those with weak stomachs.)
Mike Hertenstein (Cornerstone) writes, "I found it much less excessive, at least in terms of onscreen gore, than I expected. Indeed, one senses a certain discretion on the part of the director, given the subject matter. An incredible accomplishment … a picture of this crazy world which is the whole world for those struggling to survive within it."
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) calls it "a bravura piece of filmmaking that takes the gangster movie and brings it powerfully into the 21st century. I can't think of a gangster movie since The Godfather II that's as powerful and entertaining as this one."
Mainstream critics who saw the film at festivals started raving about the film before its widespread theatrical run began. Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) says, "City of God pulses with atmosphere and vibrates with authenticity." Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) agrees: "City of God does not exploit or condescend, does not pump up its stories for contrived effect, does not contain silly and reassuring romantic sidebars, but simply looks, with a passionately knowing eye, at what it knows."
A character in search of a life
Samantha Morton made quite an impression in 2002 as Agatha, the wide-eyed precog in Minority Report. Her face, with a look of rapture and intensity that recalled Maria Falconetti's Joan in The Passion of Joan of Arc, stared up out of a pool of water into psychic visions of horror and violence. Our hearts went out to her.
In Morvern Callar (Cowboy Pictures), Morton again lies with her head half-submerged, staring up into her anxieties. This time, though, she's cowering in her bathtub, traumatized by her boyfriend's suicide. She feels directionless, void. Having only shallow friendships to speak of, and now abandoned by the man who didn't think her worth living for, she is ruined and speechless, as though someone had pulled the plug out from her spirit and ambition. What she then proceeds to do is hardly admirable. And yet, her reckless adventures in denial follow a twisted sort of logic, and contain more than a hint of vengeful anger.
Morton's performance recalls Emily Watson's work in Breaking the Waves—it's a case of an actress so submerged in a captivating character that you can't take your eyes off of her. The technical achievement is arresting, but the story she inhabits grows less and less compelling the farther it meanders from its shocking start. The film fails to explore sufficiently just how her little rebellions affect her. Are they helping her grieve and move past her humiliation and loss? Or are they slowly ruining what sanity she has left?
With a stronger plot and a modicum of moral conviction, director Layne Ramsey might have made a knockout short film. At 97 minutes, it feels almost 20 minutes too long.
"Is she heartless, crazy, or what?" asks Roger Ebert. "I think the answer is right there in the film." He proceeds to offer a compelling argument for the motives behind Morvern's behavior. But Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) is not so intrigued: "Ramsey … creates a mood of swank amorality, glorifying Morvern without ever quite penetrating her blank facade, the void filled only by a great soundtrack and the oblique suggestion that getting away with it is a punkette's prerogative in a man's cruel world."
Other celebrated foreign films impress, distress religious critic
Surpassing even Y Tu Mamá También and City of God as 2002's most acclaimed foreign film, director Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her is finally drawing the attention of some critics in the religious press.
The film tells the story of two men tending to the needs of the women they love, both of whom are in comas. While Benigno watches over an injured dancer, Marco cares for a bullfighter gored in the line of duty. The two men enter the film as strangers, but their relationship becomes one of mutual support and friendship during hard times.
Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "From the trailers I saw for Talk to Her, I feared it would be fairly esoteric and surrealistic. However, it was a pleasure to watch and easy to get into the story."
El Bola, the new film from writer-director Achero Manas, chronicles the friendship of a troubled boy in Madrid whose life is saved by a classmate.
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) calls it "a beautiful, touching movie. The film's success hinges on its two young actors, and their performances … are genuinely fantastic."
Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Manas's feature debut wisely avoids sentimentality yet packs an emotional punch. The film cries out for teachers, friends, neighbors, and relatives not to ignore youngsters they suspect may be in an abusive situation but are too afraid to speak out."
While Amen is also gaining rave reviews from mainstream critics, religious press critics take issue with the film's historical accuracy.
Amen explores the seeming silence of Christians during the Nazi persecution of the Jews, skewing its perspective to incriminate the Roman Catholic Church and the leadership of Pope Pius XII. Even the poster, which superimposes a crucifix over the Nazi swastika, seems designed to rile up Christian viewers and to reinforce anti-Christian prejudice. (At Decent Films, Jimmy Akin's 1997 article from The Rock is re-printed in defense of the Pope Pius XII's admirable wartime efforts.)
Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "While the film addresses a subject we must never forget … it tends to support prejudices that position the Catholic Church as a scapegoat rather than to encourage reflection in the spirit of truth about man's inhumanity to man."
Just as you'd expect, "Nothing is as it seems."
In The Recruit (Touchstone), the new film by Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, Thirteen Days), Colin Farrell stars as James Clayton, a CIA trainee who falls into love and trouble. His supervisor (Al Pacino) puts him through rigorous trials but dodges Clayton's questions: "I don't have answers … only secrets." When he is given a mission where "nothing is as it seems"—Is it ever as it seems in CIA-themed films?—Clayton falls for a mysterious co-spy (Bridget Moynahan), which complicates his efforts to dig up a dangerous mole.
This is the film that will make Farrell, who made a strong impression as a gum-chewing federal officer in Minority Report, a household name. A parade of upcoming action films (a hero in Phone Booth, a villain in Daredevil) will further cement him as a new action hero regular. He may be a compelling leading man, but that is not enough to make religious press critics applaud this film. They give it high marks for entertainment, but criticize its routine storytelling and unsurprising surprises.
Lynn Nusser (Preview) says it's worth seeing. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "an evenly paced, smartly filmed, and entertaining if unremarkable film." Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) agrees: "It's never hard to guess what's really going on … [but the movie] is slick enough to be entertaining to the end." Holly McClure (Crosswalk) writes, "I liked the chemistry between Pacino and Farrell, but apart from those scenes, Pacino has played this same character many times before."
Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) also gives the movie a pass: "Donaldson maintains suspense and a brisk pace in equal parts, which makes for an engrossing thriller. The serpentine twists are always involving, as layer after layer of deceit is peeled away. The Recruit is likely to sign up its target young-male audience—and do double duty in recruiting candidates for the CIA."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) agrees: "It's a nail-biter that hangs together pretty well, logically speaking, and doesn't go so far as to betray our rooting interest in the main character." He then launches into harsh criticism of the actor, Colin Farrell, for his behavior outside of moviemaking.
Movieguide's critic calls it "a good spy yarn. Clayton is … a noble person who tries to do the right thing for his country in every case. He truly believes and is committed to his course." But he adds that the film is "by no means a Christian movie." (Perhaps if one of the characters had used the term "Godspeed," Movieguide would have held a different opinion. After all, that is one of the main reasons why it called Spiderman a "positive, moral, redemptive" movie.)
Meanwhile, Will Johnson (Relevant Magazine) turns in a post-viewing tirade, calling it "atrocious. The script is contrived, poorly written, and bland. Down to the plot twists and techno soundtrack, this movie is the least original film I've seen in a long time."
Mainstream critics are responding with similarly ho-hum compliments. Ty Burr (Boston Globe) calls it "decent escapism: a serviceable spy thriller that stumbles over one too many plot twists, one too many shots of its hero typing desperately at his computer, and a romantic subplot that's nice to look at but awfully silly." Roger Ebert praises the actors: "The early scenes in the film are entertaining … because Pacino works his character for all its grizzled charm, and Colin Farrell is not only enormously likeable but fascinates us with his permanent four-day beard. It's the kind of movie you can sit back and enjoy, as long as you don't make the mistake of thinking too much."
All revved up with nowhere to go
Are moviegoers clamoring for a look at Southern California's "underground motorcycle scene"? Apparently.
Biker Boyz (DreamWorks) did big box office this weekend. The movie easily compares with last year's noisy car-chase marathon The Fast and the Furious, only this time the action involves motorcycles. Director Reggie Rock Bythewood has a talented cast, including Lawrence Fishburne (The Matrix), Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher), Lisa Bonet (High Fidelity), and Djion Hounsou (Gladiator, Amistad). Unfortunately, according to most critics, he does not have a story worth telling, or action that is engaging enough to be memorable.
Movieguide's critic claims that the film's theme "is pagan" and condemns the film for portrayals of "lying, broken families, and misplaced values, interests, and attitudes." (Weren't all of these things also portrayed in About Schmidt, which Movieguide called "a Christian movie" and "the best film ever about made about being born-again"?)
Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) writes, "Biker Boyz isn't about men and their bikes. It's about speed-addicted boys who refuse to grow up." Shaun Daugherty (Preview) says, "The unfortunate reality of Biker Boyz is poor acting, thin characters and a yawn-worthy plot."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) takes issue with its style: "The slick, stylized editing and glossy veneer reveal the movie industry's all-too-familiar pandering to an MTV-mentality rather than any effort to create intelligent entertainment, let alone compelling drama. Parents should be warned that many race sequences involve potentially dangerous stunts that kids on bikes or adolescents might want to imitate."
Mainstream reviewers classify the film as a wipe-out. Ebert says, "We need a stronger conflict … and better and more special effects." But Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) prefers Biker Boyz to Fast and Furious: "Bythewood … knows how to shoot the works, but for all of the routine gear shifts … he gets the drama working, too, so that there's something at stake in each of the races."
Final Destination wasn't final enough
Final Destination 2 (New Line Cinema) is earning derision and dismay from critics. Director David R. Ellis serves up more of the same in this sequel: gory deaths and a story that depends on outrageous superstitions.
A critic at Movieguide makes the rather alarming claim that "Final Destination 2 … contains an allegorical Christian worldview." But the reviewer goes on to admit that the film's harsher elements exist "simply to titillate the beastly bloodlust of its intended teenage and young adult audience."
Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) writes that the film's ideas are far from Christian insight: "Whereas Signs posits an exhaustive providence that actively works all things … to good, Final Destination 2 features a malicious sovereignty that manipulates events so that its subjects will die in the most painful, terrifying and messy ways possible. Those extreme portrayals, plus rampant vulgarity, nudity, and spiritual counterfeits murder this movie."
Bob Nusser (Preview) says the flick "picks up where Final Destination left off, and the gruesome, graphic violence continues with impalings, decapitations and the like." Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) is equally disgusted: "The characters in the story only exist to be mutilated into nonexistence. There is not so much suspense as there is a bored sense of dread: OK, who's next?"
Mainstream critics were similarly unimpressed, even those who occasionally enjoy a "good bad movie." Bruce Fetts (Entertainment Weekly) says, "The only pleasure to be derived from the resulting carnage comes from the Rube Goldbergesque chain reactions that precede each fatality. Sadly, everything else about the film is also deadly."
Next week:Gods and Generals, coming to a Bible study near you?
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