This week the Golden Globes celebrated two cynical comedies, the musical Chicago, the head-trip Adaptation, and the bleak and troubling drama The Hours, while the inspiring Holocaust drama The Pianist was passed by, as was The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This glamorous, long-running, headline-grabbing program often indicates which way Oscar voters will turn.

Meanwhile, the Promontory Film Critics Circle (a group of eighteen religious press critics of which I am a part) quietly posted the nominations for the films that most impressed them with meaningful stories and technical excellence. Nominees for Best Narrative Film included 25th Hour, Signs, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Minority Report, The Pianist, and Punch-drunk Love. In the group's most specialized category, Most Significant Exploration of Spiritual Issues, the group named Changing Lanes, Signs, 13 Conversations about One Thing, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Songs from the Second Floor, and the documentary Hell House. If you're looking for alternative to the flashy but often empty entertainment celebrated by the mainstream press, you might do well to start with that list, or others nominated here.

Lawrence delivers comedy with extreme prejudice

Director Dennis Dugan's National Security gives comedian Martin Lawrence another chance for loud-mouthed comedy at the expense of white folks and cops. Police academy reject Earl Montgomery (Lawrence) and Officer Hank Rafferty (Steve Zahn) first meet in a misunderstanding that leads to a minor struggle. On videotape, however, the incident looks like a cop beating a black man. Montgomery takes advantage of this in court and commits perjury, landing Hank in prison. Later, the two run into each other again and have to work together against some bad guys.

In spite of Montgomery's dishonesty and drastic unethical measures, he is consistently celebrated as a crafty hero, and this has both mainstream and religious press critics fuming about reverse prejudice.

Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) derides the film's "huge plot holes" and its celebration of reckless dishonesty and brashness. He also points out how the film is demeaning to women and whites. He concludes, "The denouement is unnecessarily extended by an overlong shootout action sequence culminating in an unabashed revenge-driven climax. Earl's endless racist rants and insolence toward authority, being played for laughs, are generally more tasteless than offensive. Yet the movie plainly expects the audience to enjoy the prospect of a beleaguered white man suffering at the hands of a smug, self-righteous black man who never owns up to what he's done, never gets his comeuppance, and is rewarded in the end with a badge."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Much of the film's 'humor' deals with Montgomery's black and white observation of life: All black men must be good; all cops must be crooked; all white people are prejudiced, all security guards are either thieves or losers, etc. Making such broad, sweeping generalizations is both immature and foolish." He adds, "I find the 'shuck and jive' shtick of Martin Lawrence beginning to wear a bit thin."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) agrees: "Lawrence's performance … ruined the movie for me. If a Caucasian character said half the stuff Lawrence gets away with saying and accusing, there would be all sorts of protests from minority interest groups."

What these Christian critics found offensive is highlighted as a strength in the review at Movieguide. Joseph L. Kalcso calls the movie's perspective on race relations "surprisingly sharp and honest … especially in the area of law enforcement, and the thorny issue of 'profiling.'" But he adds that the "paper thin plot, utility shoot outs, and assorted car chases would not have amounted to much of anything if it hadn't been for the effective chemistry, and a candid new look at race relations."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "The problem is that Mr. Lawrence … needs to surround himself with people unafraid to tell him when a joke isn't funny. His insincere mugging, libidinous come-ons, thug prancing, and profane rambling [are] an embarrassment."

The film added to the comedy-induced headaches for mainstream critics suffering through 2003's early releases: Mick Lasalle (San Francisco Chronicle) writes, "We're in the midst of a bad patch for screen comedy, and with National Security the trend shows no sign of letting up. This [movie] … combines a sour story with a repellent lead character, deadly comic shtick and tin-eared direction to produce 90 minutes of sheer, plodding mirthlessness."

This jumper should have gone straight to cable

Director David McNally scored the #1 hit at the box office this week with Kangaroo Jack, a comedy caper about a couple of guys from Brooklyn who have lost a bag of money in the Australian outback. A kangaroo has taken the money and run. With angry gangsters on their tail, the two buffoons begin a desperate pursuit. In case you're wondering, this is not based on a true story.

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Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) describes Kangaroo Jack as an inventive mix of genres: "The world's first family romantic action-comedy cross-racial buddy gross-out flick. It's not exactly family fare. On the other hand, no grown-up in his right mind would pick this movie for himself. It seems to have no audience at all, except perhaps very indiscriminate young teens." He also questions the film's "heartwarming" moral, which he paraphrases as: "Even if your friends are criminals and are always getting you into trouble, that's what makes life interesting."

But Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says it's funny "a fair bit of the time. [The stars] have an easygoing rapport that lends itself to the buddy-comedy genre and neither goes overboard on vulgar humor or nasty sexual innuendo." Pare praises the computer-generated star for "its soulful expressions and flying feet, a marvel of computer-generated effects that look credible and tickle the funny bone."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) falls somewhere in the middle: "McNally tries to make this into a passable evening's entertainment, and for some may reach a certain level of success … if one doesn't set one's expectations too high. I would have cut the camel flatulence and the fecal matter jokes, but to each his own."

Cheryl Kull with Lisa Rice (Movieguide) calls it a mixed bag: "Kangaroo Jack is a moral movie that espouses standing up for truth and life. There is a clear delineation of right and wrong, but there is homosexual humor, body humor, and light foul language."

Jesse Florea (Focus on the Family) writes that families should "hop far, far away."

Mainstream critics offered similar sentiments. Loren King (Chicago Tribune) says, "It's puzzling to think about which audience Kangaroo Jack is aiming for. The film's crude humor and violence—cartoonish, but still violent—should offend parents of younger kids. Yet its ultra-broad, pratfall-filled comedy will satisfy only the most indiscriminate teens." And Lou Lemenick (New York Post) comments, "This is barely enough story … to sustain a Three Stooges short, let alone an 88-minute movie."

A Guy Thing not critics' thing

A Guy Thing casts actor Jason Lee (Chasing Amy, Almost Famous) in his first romantic comedy lead. He plays a groom who gets cold feet when he falls for his fiancée's cousin (Julia Stiles). Director Chris Koch is probably not pleased with the reviews for his film.

"If you can read this review, you're more than likely too smart to enjoy this film," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). He also criticizes the moral of the story. "Paul decides that it is better to go through life feeling scared. That settling for a relationship that is safe and comfortable is somehow not as desirable as the adrenaline rush of fear." He contrasts this with 1 John 4:18: "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love."

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"Perhaps a more apt title would have been A Dull Thing," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "Many of the scenes seem rehashed, having been played out countless times in similar films." He also comments that the central misunderstanding over the issue of fornication is treated comically, without "moral misgivings."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) is pleased to find some "clean moments" and "a somewhat positive portrayal of the Christian minister", but concludes that it has "too many off-color jokes and situations."

Bob Waliszewski (Focus on the Family) says, "When you start with a troubling premise (all guys fool around), it's hard to go anywhere but down. And that's exactly where A Guy Thing goes."

Mainstream critics were dismayed to see wonderful actors like Julia Stiles and Jason Lee squandering their talent on this waste of time. Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) says, "A Guy Thing is abysmal, one of those dumbed-into-the-gutter farces in which the hero keeps having to do things like crawl out a second-story window and onto a tree branch. Jason Lee … seems to have been bitten by a vampire who sucked out all his prickly charisma. You see the promise of stardom dribbling through his fingers."

More reviews of current hits

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin are offering reviews of several acclaimed new releases at Cinema in Focus. Their latest postings include reviews of Chicago, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Adaptation, The Hours.

Spike Lee's acclaimed new film 25th Hour is reviewed at Dick Staub's Culture Watch, where he offers questions for post-viewing discussion.

Mel Gibson under attack?

At WorldNet Daily, you can read about Mel Gibson's new film Passion, and how his crusade to film the last days of Christ is bringing him and those close to him a lot of grief. Apparently a "reputable" publication is trying to discredit him by dishing dirty news about him and his family. The report says, "His private life, his banking records, charities he supports, friends, business associates and family members have all undergone scrutiny in this investigation." Gibson is trying to respond with patience and forgiveness. "This is a movie about love, faith, hope and forgiveness. He died for all mankind. [Jesus] suffered for all of us. It's time to get back to that basic message. The world has gone nuts. We could all use a little more love, faith, hope and forgiveness." For a full update on the progress of the production, check out the feature article at Time magazine's site.

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Next week: Critics are making noise about two new films from Phillip Noyce: The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence.