Growing up, I had an aversion to amusement park rides. They were noisy and expensive, and I had a feeling they'd make me sick to my stomach. After college, a friend talked me into riding a roller coaster for the first time. Lo and behold, I loved it.

Similarly, I have been dreading this idea of films "based on" amusement park rides. Disney has been hunting for ways to keep their vision fresh and engaging, and this idea smacks of desperation. But when I saw the cast lined up for Pirates of the Caribbean—Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Jonathan Pryce, and Orlando "Legolas" Bloom—I consented to sit through a screening.

There was good reason for trepidation: there hasn't been a decent pirate movie in decades. But five minutes into the film, my apprehension walked the plank. Shiver me timbers, Pirates of the Caribbean is fun and funny. Echoing the ambition, mischief, boyish glee, and whimsical wit of '80s adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, The Goonies, and The Princess Bride, Gore Verbinski has concocted a film that is as promising for Disney's future as it is nostalgic for the great films of the genre. Pirates boasts an Oscar-worthy performance by Johnny Depp (his funniest, in fact), some impressive special effects (truly astonishing in the film's frenzied finale), and one of the funniest and most unpredictable adventure scripts to come along in a good while.

In a small harbor town, the governor (Pryce) is trying to match his beautiful and spirited daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightly) with a decorated military officer (Jack Davenport). But Elizabeth's heart belongs to Will Turner, a young blacksmith (Bloom) whose past is lost in a fog of shipwrecks and pirates. Elizabeth and Will find their future threatened when the legendary pirates of a ship called the Black Pearl invade the town. The pirates, a host of decomposing zombies, are hunting for a magical treasure that can break their terrible and deforming curse. When Elizabeth is kidnapped, Will reluctantly joins forces with a loony renegade pirate named Jack Sparrow (Depp) in a desperate attempt to try and rescue the spirited damsel in distress. But the snarling ill-tempered Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has plans for his beautiful prisoner.

Some film critics in the religious press are offering early raves. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "the kind of rousing, swashbuckling adventure that hasn't been seen since Errol Flynn last swung a cutlass."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) agrees that it "could've been a lazy attempt to capitalize on a brand name, but it actually delivers the thrills, laughs and romance audiences demand from a summer popcorn flick." He adds a caution about the film's heavy doses of "creepy violence."

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The critic at Movieguide writes, "Despite some pagan, occult elements, Pirates…is a swashbuckling jolly good time at the movies, with some positive moral and redemptive themes." However, he seems to contradict himself by concluding, "The pagan, occult aspect…spoils its moral, redemptive elements." He adds that the film's fairy-tale-variety "curse" will be controversial for "Bible-believing Christians and Jews." (Non-Bible-believing Christians will apparently not be bothered.)

My full review is at Looking Closer.

28 Days Later, a city falls victim to disease and zombies

Many will assume that 28 Days Later is just a nasty horror film. But many critics in the mainstream and religious press are discovering that Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) had a lot on his mind while he assembled this low-budget, high-tension thriller about zombies and the apocalypse.

It begins as scientists are performing cruel experiments on monkeys, forcing them to watch newsreel highlights of the atrocities that human beings visit upon each other. The tests lead to an outbreak of a virus appropriately named "Rage." Rage takes over its host organisms and reduces them to barbaric animalistic behavior. In short, it makes them murderous zombies.

When our hero, Jim (Cillian Murphy), wakes up in a London hospital, he discovers that the zombies have turned the city into a ghost town. He goes to a church for help, only to find the congregation slaughtered and bloodthirsty monsters lying in wait for him. He learns that attacks are not the only danger: contact with a mere drop of blood from the infected can render a man defenseless against the disease. Running for his life, Jim stumbles onto some survivors who teach him how to fight the heartless monsters. Together, they strike out to learn the truth behind the rumors of a military outpost that offers refuge for the uninfected. What they learn is hard to accept—that sin is inescapable and even if the zombies are kept at bay, evil will rise in the human heart and take on new forms.

Be warned: 28 Days Later is extremely violent and, at times, bloody enough to send the squeamish running for the exits.

Despite of its disturbing visions and fantastic premise, however, Boyle's film has critics examining it as a relevant tale for the era of SARS, AIDS, the West Nile Virus, and epidemics of civil unrest. Charles Mudede of the Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger writes, "No book or painting could have captured the late '90s better than The Matrix; no sonata or sculpture could have better captured the post-Iraq War 2 mood than X2. If X2 got to the terrifying heart of the days leading to our most recent war, then 28 Days Later got to the heart of SARS. True, SARS came about after 28 Days Later was made (2002), but the environment that made the disease all the rage for the better part of the first half of 2003 is the very same environment that makes 28 Days Later the best horror film of our time."

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The heroes in 28 Days need more than humanitarian aid and a Bono-led fundraiser—they need Buffy the Zombie Slayer. And yet, this outrageous plot poses a familiar problem. The news regularly reports of the sufferings of large populations, sufferings that go unheeded and unhelped by their governments, while the international community turns its back on the problem.

The rapid spread of the disease seems troublingly plausible, and yet its symptoms suggest something more than a virus. The threat could be interpreted as an epidemic of urban paranoia and uncontrollable anger as well. The team of survivors becomes desperate, eager to wall themselves in against the threats of a violent populace. This could remind us of Africa, where millions are dying and in need of international aid, or it might sound like the L.A. riots.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the film is this: A response to evil that is merely rational and forceful, lacking love and compassion, will lead to whole new atrocities. The persistence of sacred music in the film's soundtrack suggests that we may have to look beyond military might and appeal to the powers of heaven.

Following hard on the heels of Changing Lanes, Punch-drunk Love, Anger Management, and The Hulk, Boyle's film is the latest in what seems an increasing cinematic focus on anger. Can you think of any other films that effectively explore the problems of urban anger, fear, and paranoia? Let me know.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "a horrifically violent, apocalyptic treatment on rage and human survival in the face of destructive chaos." He concludes that it's "not for the squeamish or skittish," but it is meaningful. "What sets 28 Days Later apart from the typical zombie/horror B-movie fare is its examination of human nature."

Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) writes, "Many who will be critical of this movie for its style without ever understanding the intent of the director and writers. [This is] a well-thought-out supernatural thriller that calls into question the willingness of any of us to resort to evil actions or change the surroundings to bring about a better world around us."

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Heather Mann (Relevant) says that the movie "asks things of an audience that few movies have done for 20 or 30 years. It is quiet and spare in the way that many 1970s sci-fi movies were. Instead of showcasing gratuitous gore and mind-numbing action, this movie has thinking characters who ask the audience to think."

Gareth Von Kallenbach (Phantom Tollbooth) calls the film "a very ambitious and unsettling work. 28 Days…is at times a very violent film that shows the inner rage that many believe lurks inside all of us. It seems that Boyle is drawn to stories that show the darker side of the soul and…how ordinary benevolent people can be driven to extreme actions when pushed."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) writes, "The movie's strong moral worldview is spoiled by humanist elements, very strong foul language, gory violence, and graphic, but non-sexual, male nudity."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Underneath the prolific bloodshed, the film…attempts to honestly, albeit heavy-handedly, raise philosophical questions about humanity's impulse toward aggression. Boyle, however, chooses to approach them from a secular, evolutionary stance, relying on the vernacular of biology and psychology, while refraining from religious concepts like original sin."

Elsewhere, mainstream critics are exploring the film's evocative themes and praising it as a surprisingly effective thriller.

Terminatoris back, but Cameron isn't

"I'll be back."

Arnold Schwarzenegger continues to make good on that promise, returning for the third time to the explosive sci-fi franchise that made him a superstar. But James Cameron, the director who found fame and fortune with the first two installments, has not followed suit. This time the directorial duties fall to Jonathan Mostow, who gave us the lean, mean Breakdown and the suspenseful submarine film U-571.

Mostow's film catches up with the saga's human hero John Connor (Nick Stahl) while he is being hunted by a time-traveling T-X, a female terminator or "Terminatrix." Connor's only hope lies in the efforts of a T-800 (Schwarzenegger) to arrive in similar fashion and save him. Meanwhile, an army of dangerous machines sets apocalyptic events in motion.

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Cameron's explosive epics claimed to be about the grim threat of nuclear war and the way human ambition can lead to destructive consequences. But the real appeal of the films was in the violence itself, a pyrotechnic demolition derby. (Who would bother with a nonviolent Terminator film?) Like Jurassic Park 3, T3 dispenses with the character development and philosophical musings of its predecessors and goes right to the action, which rarely ever lets up.

Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) is thrilled with the results. "Against all odds, T3 is a smart, rousing extension of Cameron's paranoid fantasy that not only meshes seamlessly with the past and future continuities of the earlier films, but actually advances and develops the series' apocalyptic mythology." He highlights the "laugh-out-loud moments" and concludes that the action is "as big as or bigger than anything that's gone before."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says that with Mostow, "The franchise is in very good hands. The action sequences are outstanding, and the pacing of the film is excellent."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) disagrees, calling it "little more than a reboot of the two earlier installments. With all that ammo being fired, some of it was bound to hit the script, leaving gaping holes in story logic. The pyrotechnic parade is weighed down by a polemic on the immutability of fate, echoing Greek tragedy or a Calvinist sermon about predestination more than anything resembling the Catholic understanding of free will."

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) launches an attack on the central character: "Action movie fans love to watch an amoral antihero do things they would never, and could never do. And therein lies the problem with turning the Terminator into an icon. All that matters to him is the end. He doesn't even think about justifying the means. It doesn't matter who he hurts, who he lies to and who he tramples in the process. It's an all-too-common movie theme, and as absolute truth slowly dissolves in our culture, it's becoming increasingly persuasive."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "This is clearly an R-rated movie for the adult sci-fi fans and in no way should be seen by underage kids or adolescents." She adds, "I…had to chuckle at the line, 'Your fate is what you make it', because as [Christians], aren't we glad that our eternal 'fate' is not defined by what we make it?"

Movieguide's anonymous critic says the film "contains a depressing ending, plot holes, strong foul language, some excessive violence, and a humanist worldview lacking strong positive values."

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Mainstream critics are calling it one of the most impressive action films of the year.

Critics are sore afraid of fallen Angels

Flaunting their sex appeal, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu strut back to the big screen for Charlies Angels 2: Full Throttle.

In this episode, the three glamorous secret agents go undercover to recover some missing jewelry. But they're not just shopping for fashion accessories. The lost golden rings contain information that could lead villains to the hiding places of every person in the FBI's Witness Protection Program. Donning disguises—skimpy ones—the Angels ensure that for all of their clever espionage, the focus remains on letting the audience "spy" more than is really appropriate. Full Throttle has already proven a disappointment at the box office, perhaps because director McG is far more interested in playing to the baser appetites of their viewers than they are interested in developing characters.

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) says the movie "may be one of the most poorly made action movies ever, and it's filled with crude, offensive, campy sexual jokes. [It] is an insult to the intelligence of the mentally handicapped."

Bob Waliszewski (Focus on the Family) writes, "The original Charlie's Angels movie might not have meant to spark young women's interest in karate lessons. But it did (as much as 50 percent nationwide). And perhaps, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle doesn't mean to glamorize S&M clubs, lap dancing, cohabitation, crude talk and 'good old-fashioned punch-outs,' but it does. Full Throttle is socially irresponsible, insulting, soft-core porn. Sitting through it borders on self-abuse. Charlie's angels offer nothing for the audience to root for—and demonstrate over and over again that they're anything but angelic."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "There's little attempt at characterization, continuity, or any of the many other basic elements taught in Filmmaking 101. When not flying through the air, dodging bullets, or performing other feats of Matrix-like proportions, the stars fill the action gaps by giggling like schoolgirls and behaving as if they're at a soft-core porn pajama party."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) says, "The film hopes to inspire girls to new heights of lewdness with a few karate kicks thrown in. I know that the hipsters among us will claim that the movie's wink-wink approach absolves it of any true responsibility and that us squares should stop taking things so seriously. But I'm tired of that argument. The audience for this movie will include a large number of pre-teens, and even older teens won't be reflecting on the ironic implications when Lucy Liu uses a whip to tear off Diaz's bikini top. They'll just be gawking."

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But Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says the movie is "like uncorking a bottle of champagne and letting the bubbles tickle one's nose. [It's] an effervescent, giddy ride that duplicates the first, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The film's tone is light-hearted and frivolous, never taking itself, or its actors, too seriously. And the leading ladies join in on the fun, almost winking at the camera as they shake their booties, seeming not to mind the gratuitous shots of the derrieres."

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) argues that "the main message of the film is Being-There-For-Others."

And Holly McClure (Crosswalk) raves, "Once I let go and gave myself permission to enjoy this movie, I laughed and had a good time. Parents will have to decide if it's appropriate for their mature teens to see this movie."

Mainstream critics are debating whether the film is a welcome escape into brainless fun or else an unwelcome waste of time.

Sinbad, animation good

Brad Pitt, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Catherine Zeta-Jones provide the voices for the major players in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, the new animated adventure from the screenwriter of Gladiator and the Dreamworks animators of The Prince of Egypt.

Seafaring adventurer Sinbad (Pitt) has been framed for the robbery of a treasure called the Book of Peace, and he must find it if he wants to save the life of his best friend Proteus (Joseph Fiennes). Marina (Zeta-Jones), Proteus' beautiful fiancée, goes along to make sure that Sinbad succeeds. But the goddess of chaos, Eris (Pfeiffer) plans to stop them, turning loose monsters and storms, even causing a mutiny among Sinbad's companions.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The story is strong, the adventures are exciting, the characters are well-defined, and the message (one of trust, honor, and friendship) is worth hearing."

While Jimmy Akin (Decent Films) finds some flaws in the film, he calls it a "high-flown animated adventure at its most impressive, with swashbuckling feats that could not be achieved and believed in a conventional, live action format."

He also answers the concerns Christians may have about the film's mythological source material. "Some parents might worry about the non-Christian elements in the film, but trust me: Nobody would be tempted to worship pagan gods based on this movie."

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Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) thinks the movie is "a good popcorn flick. Sinbad soars when it tackles virtues such as nobility, unselfish love, redemption and supreme sacrifice—great discussion starters for families. It would be an easy film to recommend if not for a few crude lines, an amoral view of piracy, and dubious theology."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) writes, "It's an extremely exciting, well-written animated movie with some exciting sequences that rival big screen epics. I have seldom seen such an enthusiastic response from children at a screening."

Legally Blonde 2 Is a Blonde Joke Without a Punchline

Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), the not-so-bright blonde bombshell of the hit 2001 comedy Legally Blonde is back in a sequel subtitled Red White and Blonde. This time, she endeavors to persuade Congress to pass a bill opposing the practice of animal testing. But Washington, D.C. proves to be a challenge for our heroine, and she comes to depend upon a hotel doorman (Bob Newhart) for guidance through the political system.

For all of Elle's spunky charm, religious press critics are not overly fond of the film.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says it's "pretty much the same movie as the original…in a different setting. Reese Witherspoon is spot-on perfect in the role. The rest of the supporting cast are functional, but are given little of note to do. Mainly they serve as conveyers of plot points and twists, most of which we see coming long before they arrive."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) objects to LB2 because the filmmaker is a homosexual. He also disagrees with the film's sentiment that people should speak up about their opinions and be willing to hear the opinions of others. "Some points of view are clearly stupid or evil, so not all points of view deserve to be heard, least of all followed."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "I don't think I laughed as hard at this movie as I did the first one, but admittedly it's hard to capture that initial 'novelty' in a sequel."

The verdicts of mainstream critics are a mixed lot. You can scan through them here.

Dogma and Decay

At a new online endeavor called The Matthew's House Project, film critic Michael Leary offers a review of Pat O'Neill's new film The Decay of Fiction. He raves, "O'Neill channels our capacity not just to journey to the edges of the understandable, but challenges our ability to dive more deeply into the honest experience of the image and ambiguity of narrative."

Leary also posts part one of a series about Dogma 95 filmmaking, calling this experimental cinematic endeavor "not just to a new way of doing film, but a new understanding of what film really is."

Next week: A chat with filmmakers from the Cornerstone film festival, and another ride on Pirates of the Caribbean.