Using a popular series of elaborate comic books as his foundation, director Stephen Norrington (Blade) has constructed another special effects-heavy superhero fantasy for the screen. (Have you had enough of those yet? Because there are several more on the way.)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemenis a sort of X-Men for bookworms. It is a fantasy that brings together such legendary figures as Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), Dr. Jekyll and his famous Hyde, the Invisible Man, Mina Harker from Bram Stoker's Dracula, and, exclusively for the movie version, an American character: Tom Sawyer.
The results are provoking fans of the comic books to voice their disappointment with the way the film alters the comic narrative. Critics, regardless of its faithfulness to the source, are not much impressed. Religious press critics view it as just another noisy, violent, indulgent summer entertainment.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Despite an intriguing premise and imaginative effects…Norrington's comic book-inspired film is the most recent example of Hollywood genuflecting at the altar of excess—justifying megabudgets with tedious, over-the-top action sequences at the expense of a well-crafted story and three-dimensional characters."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) reports, "Norrington…opts not to explore or exploit these rich and vibrantly described characters. They, for the most part, appear flat and uninspired in LXG—something of which they have never been accused in the context of their original stories. Additionally, the action scenes have been filmed and edited (or rather chopped) in such a way to make viewing them difficult. As a result, the film feels rushed and often disjointed. Much of the final third of the film is simply confusing."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "What we have here is a bunch of quasi-heroic Victorian literary characters who've been thrust into a very busy, very violent action movie and forced to adopt all the postmodern traits needed for that context. I can't help but wonder what Oscar Wilde, H. Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, Bram Stoker, Jules Verne, and Robert Louis Stevenson would think of someone turning their beloved creations into a pulpy excuse to blow stuff up."
Gareth Von Kallenbach (The Phantom Tollbooth) writes, "The film will be different things to different people. It is very easy to note the absurdity of plot, continuity errors, and actors that seem at times to be going through the motions. One can also say it is a silly yet fun romp that is not meant to be taken seriously. Fox is said to be in production of a sequel and that they see LXG as a franchise. That being said, if you want a no-brainer summer popcorn film then LXG may just be your cup of tea."
Mainstream critics are hoping this series does not become a franchise.
"This is an unusual movie," says Holly McClure (Crosswalk), "in that it reminded me of the old adventure movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Sinbad. I found the story interesting, the overall appeal of the movie entertaining and enough action to keep your teenagers entertained. Parents, I don't recommend this movie for children under 13 because of the complicated plot, violent fights scenes, and scary special effects."
She adds: "I wouldn't call this one of Connery's best performances, but I did enjoy seeing him in this kind of role—he just gets better with age!" (So, it's not his best, but he keeps getting better?)
Piratessailson as a summer favorite
Gore Verbinski's surprisingly satisfying Disney adventure Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl looks to be the surprise favorite of the season for many critics. Last week, Film Forum featured some early responses.
This week, the raves continue. J. Robert Parks ( The Phantom Tollbooth) writes, "If studios and directors weren't so contemptuous of their audiences, summer movies could be both smart and entertaining. Last year's Spiderman and Signs, along with the Spy Kids franchise, are perfect examples. And for this summer, I offer Pirates of the Caribbean, a glorious adventure tale that will delight teens and adults alike. When I first heard the Disney was hoping to turn some of their theme park rides into movies, I was aghast. Have we really been forced to scrape that part of the barrel, I wondered. But if all of the movies turn out like Pirates, I say let's have more of those."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Pirates…is more entertaining, funny, and even thrilling and romantic than it has any right to be. If it doesn't transcend the pirate-movie genre, it at least transcends the theme-park attraction genre, rising to the level of decent summer popcorn action fare."
Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) calls it "a wonderful thrill ride that will last for almost 2½ hours. You leave the theater wishing for more."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) writes, "I think even Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks would enjoy this exciting swashbuckling addition to [the] genre. The incredible special effects and superb cast make it a memorable movie. But parents let me stress again: the scary and disgusting skeletal appearances of the pirates are definitely not appropriate for children with impressionable minds who get nightmares easily."
Legally Blonde2: Red, White, and controversial
Last week, Christian press critics were unenthusiastic about the sequel to the popular Reese Witherspoon comedy Legally Blonde. This week, a few spoke up in defense of Elle, the spunky heroine, while another found her offensive.
Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) observe "many moral messages imbedded within the comedy of film. As in the first film, rather than surrendering her morals to advance herself in an immoral system, Elle uses creativity, intelligence and goodness to reach the people within the system."
Megan Basham (RazorMouth) disagrees. "Though her character sparkles like the huge pink engagement ring she wears…this time [Elle's] sunshiny optimism and diamond-hard determination hide a decidedly unattractive underbelly. Namely, in her own dimpled way, [Elle]…endeavors to let young girls everywhere know that there's nothing wrong with being homosexual."
But on the same site, Mary Cady Exum (RazorMouth) exhorts parents, "Let's give our girls a role model like Elle, however fanciful she may be, to remind them of how wonderful it is to simply be a happy girl, who sees the importance of close friends, a supportive family, and strong mind."
T3 may be one too many, but 4 is on the way
Just as they did last week, Christian press critics continued expressing guarded praise and some degree of disappointment with the new Terminator film.
Gareth Von Kallenbach (The Phantom Tollbooth) writes, "The action is relentless and it is nice to see that real stunts were used for many sequences instead of being created by CGI, thus giving a sense of reality and unforced spectacle to the action that recent films such as The Matrix Reloaded and Hulk seemed to lack." Stunts aside, Von Kallenbach concludes, "The film does not have the depth of story and the emotional attachment that the previous two films had." But he still rates it "easily the most satisfying and entertaining of the summer blockbusters."
I agree with Kallenbach's assessment of the action. It was refreshing to see old-fashioned stunts and "How did they do that?!" set pieces. But he forgives the shallow storytelling more than I can. After the explosive, thrilling truck chase in the opening act, I found my interest waning as the characters explored territory that was far too familiar.
Worse, they only scratched the surface of the questions that Terminator 2 aggressively explored. At only 95 minutes—the shortest film in the trilogy—it feels like the longest. Picking up Edward Furlong's role as John Connor, Nick Stahl (In the Bedroom) gives his all, but he has very little to do outside of stating the obvious for the audience. His relationship with Kate Brewster (Claire Danes, miscast) strikes no sparks. And the film ends on a cliffhanger, promising us a sequel in which we will spend a lot more time with them. Not a happy prospect.
Roger Thomas (Ethics Daily) agrees that it's "not as satisfying as its predecessors. [It] lacks one important characteristic that made the first two films so impressive. Though the early films did have the thrilling action sequences mentioned above, they were also strong because they had quiet moments when information and emotions were paramount. The script for Terminator 3 could have used some of those moments."
Learn from Medved's Mistake?
Michael Medved testifies this week that Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle made him "feel personally victimized by this puerile project, since I brought my 14-year-old daughter with me to see the movie. I regret that she sat through this sleazy stupidity—I regret that I sat through it, in fact—and I hope that other potential customers will learn from my mistake."
Flickerings Festival inspires Christian filmmakers
At the third annual edition of Flickerings, the fledgling film workshop at the Cornerstone Festival, I experienced something unexpected.
Instead of finding a competitive crowd of Christian filmmakers defending their particular projects, I found a community in close conversation, sharing tips and ideas, and willing to criticize and accept criticism. Even more surprising, the films on exhibit were not about conversions or altar calls, and there was nary a rapture film to be seen. They were sobering, funny, inventive, and surreal. A few were even deeply moving.
Flickerings, held during the first week of July, also boasted a challenging program of international films: dramas about communication breakdowns; documentaries about music, deconstruction, and gun control; and an unconventional romantic comedy. (Another film-related program at Cornerstone—The Imaginarium—featured Japanese animated fantasies, family films, and horror films this year.)
Festival director Mike Hertenstein and his squad of volunteers are the driving force behind the film festival. Rather than picking audience favorites, Hertenstein prefers introducing searchers to something they have not yet encountered. His selections this year made for an ambitious and challenging program. The discussions afterward were revealing and lively, and sometimes transformed the viewing experience. He followed it up with a series of forward-thinking workshops that drew a crowd of filmmakers eager to glorify God with excellence in various forms of filmmaking.
Hertenstein's focus at the festival this year was the introduction of an idea called "Flickerings Dogma." This concept was inspired by the Dogma 95 filmmaking movement, pioneered by Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Dogma 95 asked directors to make films with handheld video cameras, forgoing the standard tools of special lighting, external soundtracks, and special effects. Similarly, Hertenstein's dogma challenged Christian filmmakers to abstain from clichés of Christian cinema—i.e., conversion scenes, church scenes, preachy song lyrics, familiar Christian symbols, and more. (See the Flickerings Dogma statement here.)
Some of the films this year were clearly in violation of the mandate, but the notion of imposing restrictions on certain conventions spurred some energetic discussion about what a "Christian" film might be.
"Hopefully people won't take this the wrong way," said Hertenstein at a seminar discussing the challenge. "We're not interested in issuing certificates and sticking by the letter of any self-imposed law. We just want to encourage people to break out of the box."
Hertenstein told a story about a boy who was telling him his idea for a film. "He got to the part where some mystical person appears and hands his character a Bible—and I stopped him," Hertenstein says. "I told him that was the very thing we've been trying to get filmmakers to quit including in their films. And I could see the light bulb go off over his head as we talked further about the notion of 'worn out symbols.' That's what Flickerings is to me. Some of these young filmmakers are just a single conversation away from breaking out of the box of predictable, preachy kinds of filmmaking."
I sat down with Hertenstein and three of the filmmakers who contributed films to the festival—Bevan Klassen, Kevin Nikkel, and Carl Rust—to ask what they perceive to be the most important aspects about this growing and dynamic program.
"Culture is so oriented to the stars, the professionals, and the industry," Klassen said. "But that is not the standard I'm after. I don't need millions of dollars and special effects and stars. Because of what is going on here [at Flickerings], I can create something—my very own expression—on film, and find a group of people who share my desire to create. I can share my work with them. It's all about personal creativity…and personal vision. At Flickerings, this process is encouraged and nurtured. That is important because that kind of personal vision is a very fragile thing. It's a risk you take. Looking around at the standard, you think to yourself, 'How are we going to be accepted? This is me I'm putting out there.'"
Klassen's Wildlands is an accomplished and enchanting short film about a father who tries to lead his family to a new life in the wilderness, away from the burdens and complications of contemporary society. Call it The Mosquito Coast Lite. It's a touching comedy, in which the actors' subtle performances say so much more than the romantic narration.
Nikkel's film Shooting Guns in Church, by contrast, is sobering. It follows the dilemma of a frustrated husband who carries a gun to help him cope with the new pressures of fatherhood. When he encounters a disgruntled priest, his irresponsibility brings him to a hard decision.
Rust is a more experimental filmmaker. One of his films, Downfall and Destination of Crack Man, features a series of abstract images set to electronic music, while another, Krusher, is an exaggerated farce about a game show in which the viewers decide who lives and dies.
"The Cornerstone Festival has always been about acceptance and nurturing," Rust says. "I went to a workshop and realized—I can do this. I can make my movie without a big conversion scene."
Nikkel says that the acceptance and nurturing of Cornerstone has added another important factor to Flickerings. "We are developing a community that has a built-in mentorship component," He says. "It's okay to send your story in a direction that doesn't take the predictable route. But when you're out there doing your work, it's scary to think that you might be the only one doing this kind of thing."
Hertenstein sees Flickerings as just the beginning of a large and important work. "We're not interested in the conventional notion of 'Christian' filmmaking. Some of the most beautiful and truthful films being made today are being made by Muslims. There's incredible films coming out of Iran. So we're going at this with a certain humility. It's not about conquering this territory for anybody as much as humbly joining a conversation that's been going on for a long time."
So what can Christian filmmakers bring to the cinema that it is currently lacking?
"I want to create a more authentic window into Christian experience. And I don't mean I want to make propaganda or Left Behind," Nikkel says.
"Where are the authentic Christian characters?" Klassen asks. "I want to create those characters."
Rust agreed that portraying real characters would bring new depth to storylines. "It's scary seeing where your characters will go rather than making sure they go towards a typical coda or familiar ending," he says.
By generating these kinds of goals and conversations, Hertenstein is encouraged by the success of Flickerings. "Hundreds and hundreds of people come [to the films], dusty, weary, and looking [like] characters in Lord of the Flies," he says. "And yet they are eager to sit for hours and watch films, some of which are not well-known, some of which are subtitled. Then, they stay to talk about them for hours. [This year,] we had our first sold out show—although we don't charge for admission—since Cornerstone started the festival. That is a very exciting development."
You can find wrap-up articles on the Flickerings Festival and the Flickerings Dogma discussion at the festival's Web site. You can also learn how to submit a short film for next year's festival.
Next week: Johnny English, How to Deal, and more.
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