It has been a winter of discontent for film critics. As 2002's finer films fade from the screens, the box office has been ruled by mediocrity (at best). This week's new releases are not improving matters. Religious press critics are sorting through the current titles like dirty laundry, and mainstream critics are far more interested in talking about industry scandals, the Oscar ceremony, and the more promising titles of spring. (Curious? Check out this detailed preview by Moira Macdonald of The Seattle Times.)

And speaking of the Oscars, you are invited to join me on Oscar night, March 23, to discuss the films of 2002 and respond as the statues are handed out. We will be looking at the spectacle of the Oscars and discussing what it celebrates. What is it that draws people to these movies? Are any of the nominated efforts truly excellent, artful, and meaningful? Will there be any admirable sentiments divulged by the parade of celebrities? I look forward to hearing from you.

In fact, I'd be glad to hear from you in advance. In an ideal world, would any of this year's nominees be singled out for special honors? Did a movie or a movie star do anything meaningful for you in the last year? Let me know. (I may share some of your responses during the Oscar-cast. Please advise me if you want your comments shared anonymously.)

Gibson in trouble for his Jesus movie before anyone has even seen it

Mel Gibson's current project, Passion, a film about the last 12 hours of Christ's life, is already provoking heated debate.

Yahoo News reports that Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, asked Gibson "to make certain that his new film … does not portray the Jews as collectively responsible for the crucifixion." Rabbi Hier is quoted as saying, "If the new film seeks to undo Vatican II … it would unleash more of the scurrilous charges of deicide directed against the Jewish people, which took the Catholic Church 20 centuries to finally repudiate."

In a detailed New York Times article about Gibson, his faith, his opinionated father, and this film project, Christopher Noxon draws quotes from various Gibson interviews. In a recent conversation Gibson had with Bill O'Reilly, the superstar was asked if he is worried that his film will upset Jews. He replied, "It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible. But when you look at the reasons why Christ came, why he was crucified—he died for all mankind and he suffered for all mankind. So that, really, anyone who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability."

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Critic chides a parent for taking a child from the Cradle 2 the R-rated movie

You can find Christian film critics shouting in dismay about film immorality any day of the week. Mainstream film critic Lawrence Toppman (Charlotte Observer) took a similar stand this week for discernment by chiding a parent who brought a young child to see the R-rated Cradle 2 the Grave.

He writes, "Your daughter seemed to be about 8 years old, with her white dress and her hair done up in braids. I wonder what she thought when the people in this R-rated movie kidnapped a little girl about her age, duct-taped her mouth shut, and shoved her into a van, planning to kill her later. Of course, you can take comfort in the fact that you weren't alone: I saw more than a dozen kids her age around the theater, all soaking up images that were meant for people about a decade older."

It is heartening to see a mainstream critic who recognizes the important role of parents in the moviegoing experience of young people. Religious press publications devote a lot of time and space attacking that vague body called Hollywood and accusing it of all manner of subversive conspiracies. But Hollywood is a business, providing what sells. Sure, the sellers have moral responsibilities, but so do viewers. If conscientious critics spent as much time teaching viewers how to look at art and how to develop discernment, perhaps Hollywood garbage would not be quite so bankable. And if more parents invested themselves in introducing their children to well-told stories and well-made movies, fewer children would develop appetites for garbage.

Does that mean a good moviegoer should set an example by never viewing movies that portray the world's darker realities? No. From Scripture to Shakespeare to Spielberg, important works from any time and culture have dealt with life's darker side. But surely we can learn to discern how ugly and immoral behavior can be portrayed responsibly, in a context that helps us recognize good from evil in our daily lives. If we can't learn to examine and understand evil at the movies, how can we deal with it in the muddy real world? The more we learn to think carefully about such things in art, the more we will develop a sense of which works are appropriate for young and untrained eyes, and which should be 'restricted' for viewers who are mature in more than just their age. The strongest viewers will even learn to recognize their own particular limits and weaknesses, and act accordingly.

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Elsewhere, Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) caught up with the movie in question. Like most religious press critics argued last week, Eaton writes, "Cradle 2 the Grave … unloads buckets of obscenity, shovelfuls of gore and an awful instance of sexualized violence."

Eaton has harsher words for actor DMX: "There's no doubt that the presence of the ultra-popular, foul-mouthed DMX helped propel this film to the top of the box office opening weekend. Some parents might not be familiar with the career of Earl Simmons, a.k.a. Dark Man X, but their teens certainly are. DMX boasted on his last album, The Great Depression, "How many million did my last [record] sell? [Expletive], I'm goin' for 10. It's never gonna stop." Now his self-proclaimed "domination" is spreading to celluloid. Make sure your family members aren't citizens of his expanding entertainment kingdom."

In view of Eaton's words about DMX, it is interesting to note the latest news on the rapper/actor. MTV News reports that DMX has decided to retire from music and continue his acting career. But first, he declares, "I'm going into the church … I wanna take some time off—you know, read my Bible and just get more into the Word."

Had enough of the Harry Potter debates?

If you haven't read enough of Christians either enjoying or attacking J.K. Rowling's popular franchise, the latest analysis appeared this week in The New York Times.

Bringing Down the House not up to code

Bringing Down the House (Touchstone), from director Adam Shankman, boasts an odd couple placed in a situation wired for comedy. But according to the reviews, there's a short in the wiring.

Here's the setup: An encounter in an online chat room leads attorney Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) into a challenging relationship with Charlene (Queen Latifah), a spirited prison escapee trying to clear her name. Sanderson needs help too. His workaholic tendencies caused his wife to divorce him and take the kids with her. So the stuffy white guy and the wild-and-crazy black woman are the right match at the wrong time. Supposedly.

Religious press critics are not laughing, and they're not at all impressed with the gross behavior and marital advice the movie passes off as admirable. As if that isn't enough, they have a few words about the film's racial stereotyping.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Shankman milks the exaggerated racial stereotypes for laughs and occasionally gets guffaws from Martin and Latifah's physical comedy talents. But sometimes an unpleasantly mean-spirited tone sneaks in."

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Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says the movie "thinks it is enlightened because it is down on white culture and down with black culture. It is not. Along with National Security earlier this year, it represents a step backward for race relations, and a step backward for black characters in Hollywood. It reduces to bashing white culture and pandering to black culture, in a way that ultimately demeans everyone."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the movie "commits the worst possible sin for a comedy. It's not that funny. Uptight middle-aged white men trying to act like they're from the 'hood? Old women smoking pot and getting stoned? The film contains nothing but recycled gags which are worn so thin that the audience can see right through them."

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) defends the movie: "What makes this film different … is its focus on changing culture and language. Charlene represents the far-reaching influence of urban culture." He argues that the film leaves us "with essential truths to ponder."

And Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "Had it not been handled properly, a great deal of the politically incorrect humor would have come across as racist. As it is, the humor mocks racism, giving us a very funny film that ultimately draws blacks and whites together. Although you can see nearly every joke coming, both Latifah and Martin fortify the jocularity with zest and style."

But Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says discerning viewers "will leave the theater more rankled than regaled. Content matters, and Bringing Down the House is no Father of the Bride." Also concerned about content, Alan Boyer (Preview) says, "Sexual situations, crude language and racist humor earn Bringing Down the House a negative acceptability rating."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says the movie "unleashes an avalanche of controversial messages, all of them bad. The most offensive aspect of this lame excuse for a comedy involves the most one-dimensional racial stereotyping this side of Birth of a Nation. All black characters happen to be emotional, uneducated, over-sexed, violent, warm-hearted, hip, cool and connected to the criminal underclass. All white characters are uptight, repressed, clumsy, materialistic, shallow, cruel and incurably racist."

Mainstream critics also find the film a downer. Josh Larsen (Suburban Chicago News) argues that the movie "intends to unite black and white audiences, and it probably will—by reinforcing the laziest images they both have of each other."

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Moira Macdonald (The Seattle Times) agrees that this "is the rare film that manages to be simultaneously bland and offensive. It's an endless parade of rich racist white people and streetwise black people, all of whom behave inexplicably. Presumably other kinds of people exist in the world, but not in this movie."

And Marc Caro (Chicago Tribune) says, "This is problem No. 1: In screwball comedies we're supposed to root for the quirky, loose-cannon female who ruffles the starched-collared man, like Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby or even Melanie Griffith in Something Wild. But here we just feel sorry for Peter, who's victimized by a romantic bait-and-switch and must put up with an abrasive home invader who screams about bearing his love child until he submits."

Timely Tears plunges U.S. soldiers into ethical turmoil

Tears of the Sun (Sony) follows a group of Navy SEALs into Africa to save a missionary doctor from violent rebels in a Nigerian civil war. But as the rescue endeavor proceeds, the tough-talking lieutenant (Bruce Willis) is challenged by the conscientious humanitarian (Monica Belucci). She refuses to leave unless the soldiers save the lives of these persecuted people that she loves. Will our heroes merely follow procedure, or break the rules to act out of conscience? The film, directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), begins with a quote from British philosopher Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Several religious press critics are pleased by what they see. Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "Tense action and an adroit portrait of the resoluteness of America's military highlight this violent action drama. Willis is excellent as a tough solider with a heart. However, the action and the tension seldom let up."

Blaine Butcher (Preview) says, "This picture, while not based on actual events, provides insight into the horrors of ethnic cleansing and religious persecution throughout many parts of the world."

"Tears … is not interested in exploring the political aspects of U.S. foreign policy," writes Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The questions it asks are more personal, dealing with the ethical and moral consequences of inaction. It asks us to consider that some things go beyond politics and governments. Some things are just wrong on the most basic of human levels and if we have the ability to stop them, we should … or we should at least try."

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But Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is not so impressed. He finds the film's treatment of complex issues "simplistic." He writes, "Fuqua's tribute to U.S. military men celebrates fortitude and compassion, but its generic, unconvincing moral dilemmas and dimensionless characters fail as drama."

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says, "The story isn't deep. And the characters aren't especially well-developed. But Fuqua's intended message survives. Could he have as effectively presented that message without resorting to gruesome depictions of death and mutilation? Possibly. But even without the special effects, this wouldn't have been a film for families. The subject matter is far too intense and could be damaging to children." He emphasizes that this is not entertainment to take lightly, and that viewers "should be heartbroken, mourning the loss of millions upon millions of innocents around the world."

Taking a different tone, Holly McClure (Crosswalk) exclaims, "Bravo for a movie that gives us a hero we can cheer for in a time when we need to cheer for our heroes! This is an intense movie but I really enjoyed it because it was intense, suspenseful, interesting, and unique with a hero who had a compassionate and merciful side."

Mainstream critics also accuse the film of oversimplifications. Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) calls it "a broad, shallow fantasy of American intervention and omnipotence. The righteousness of Tears of the Sun would be more effective if the film weren't caught between realism and escapism, faux topicality and action dream. This may not be the best moment to make war look easier than it is."

Similarly, Todd McCarthy (Variety) argues, "Uninvolving due to stick-figure characters and off-putting in its images of technology-enhanced Yanks striding like benevolent giants among helpless Third World victims, this is one of those pictures that unavoidably becomes part of the zeitgeist due to its coincidental arrival at a precise moment in history when its themes play into current events. … "

A great cast can't save The Safety of Objects

The Safety of Objects(IFC) is based on the acclaimed stories of A.M. Holmes. Director Rose Troche weaves several of Holmes's stories about troubled families and suburban dissatisfaction into a tapestry of angst. Each disparate thread is linked in some way to Paul (Joshua Jackson), the 19-year-old victim of a car accident. Glenn Close plays his mother, whose preoccupation with her comatose child leads to the neglect of her daughter and husband. A heartbroken, debt-burdened woman (Patricia Clarkson), a lawyer frustrated with his career (Dermot Mulroney), and a middle-aged mother with a low self-image (Mary Kay Place) are just a few of the unhappy neighbors with connections to Paul's tragedy.

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Many critics are singling out cast members for high praise even as they give the project as a whole a thumbs down.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says the film concludes "on a falsely upbeat note." The film's "justification of murder", says Pare, is the only thing preventing it from becoming "a sensitive exploration of mostly age-related problems of the interconnected parents and youngsters."

A reviewer at Movieguide says the movie "is a bold, ambitious and engaging work that suffers from too much story and not enough cohesiveness. The film says that life is difficult and confusing and in the end we need each other, but says nothing about true meaning found in a relationship with God."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says the film proceeds "in the haunted spirit of American Beauty—but with no character as sympathetic or intriguing as Kevin Spacey's hero in that insanely over-praised and Oscar-winning film. The excellent and intense performances … make you feel the pain and hopelessness of these materially privileged people, but it's impossible to like any of them."

Mainstream critics are also disappointed. Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) says, "Although the effort is high-minded and fastidious, each household's longings and itches feel arbitrarily grandiose—and sometimes intrusively kooky—when blown up and in the flesh. But the disciplined performances play against schmaltz, and the casting is inspired."

The Son rises above other arthouse films

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) ventured to the arthouse theatre this month in search of better films. His quest was not entirely successful. He writes, "As I sat watching All the Real Girlsand Gerry one Sunday afternoon, I was struck by the desire to watch two other movies. Not that either of the films I was watching was bad. In fact, both were entertaining and thought-provoking in places. But each one reminded me of something better, and the comparisons cast an unflattering light."

He goes on to compare Gus Van Sant's Gerry (My Cactus Inc.) to Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, claiming that it falls far short of that film's genius. "Part of the problem is that Gus Van Sant doesn't have anything to say; he's content merely to let his attractively scruffy stars and beautifully scruffy landscape carry the day. Werckmeister might be slow, but it's bursting with ideas and astounding moments."

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David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls (Sony), on the other hand, reminds Parks of the director's previous film George Washington. He argues that the central character is not as believable or interesting as the supporting characters. Further, he writes, "The transcendence of that first feature and the gripping humanism has been left behind. Instead, we have a boy-finds-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-doesn't-know-what-to-do story, and that's only a shadow of what George Washington accomplished."

But Parks does find one film worth recommending.

The Son (New Yorker Films) is the new film from brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who brought us the Cannes award-winning Rosetta a few years ago. While you are unlikely to find television commercials for the film—it comes from Belgium, after all—those who have seen it give much higher praise than anything in the multiplex.

Olivier Gourmet turns in a performance that won him the Cannes Film Festival's award for Best Actor. He plays a carpenter and teacher named Olivier who has some peculiar voyeuristic habits. Morgan Marinne plays a troubled 16-year-old whose relationship with Olivier is the center of the film.

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) encourages moviegoers to see the movie without reading reviews that give away the plot. "The element of revelation is critical to the film, and anything that gets in the way of that will ruin your enjoyment. Just as we have to wait to see what's around that wall Olivier is peaking around, just as we have to wait until the camera moves from behind his head to see Olivier's expression, so we in the audience should wait to see how these characters are connected, what strand of coincidence brings them together."

Parks concludes, "I've spent the last week thinking and re-thinking The Son. Any movie that sticks in my head like that is good enough for me, despite its flaws. Furthermore, the two lead performances are worth the price of admission, and the movie's quiet power is a wonderful contrast to the Hollywood bombast seen elsewhere. This is a movie worth going out of your way for."

The Son should open to larger audiences later this spring, and Film Forum will include more in-depth coverage when that occurs.

Next week: Frankie Muniz in Agent Cody Banks and Crispin Glover in Willard.