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I have yet to meet someone who believes that members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have a good sense of which movie is Best Picture of the Year.

Everyone knows that the Oscars are more a popularity contest than a celebration of artistic excellence. Each year, awards are delegated by Hollywood insiders, mostly actors, who tend to give films as much credit for financial success, political trendiness, and sentimentality as they do for artistic excellence. You can usually bet against titles that were challenging or innovative. And meaning? If a movie says what an audience wants to hear (American Beauty, Shakespeare in Love), it's far more likely to win awards than a movie that profoundly portrays discomforting truths (The Ice Storm, Saving Private Ryan.)

This year is no exception. For instance, almost everyone expects Martin Scorsese will win the Oscar for Best Director this year because he has never won before—not for his actual work on Gangs of New York, a subpar Scorsese picture. The only nominee considered a challenger is Rob Marshall (Chicago), who is being credited as "bringing back the musical." (No one seems to remember Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge from last year, or Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark the year before that.)

People are drawn to the Oscars year after year for the spectacle, expensive clothes and jewelry, glimpses of favorite stars in candid moments, emotional acceptance speeches, and the suspenseful game of who's going to win. I enjoy those all-too-rare occasions when someone who poured heart and soul into a project of excellence is actually recognized for the achievement.

You can join me as the awards are handed out on Oscar night, March 23 at 5:30 p.m. (PST) and 8:30 p.m. (EST), to boo, hiss, cheer, and chat about the films of 2002. Just log on to this link and follow along as the show proceeds. While other chats focus on opinions about Halle Berry's dress (or lack thereof), we'll be exchanging opinions, questions, and preferences about which films were most worthy of praise, exploration, and second viewings.

Regarding who will win or lose, J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) says this year's Oscar program has already fumbled: "Given the extraordinarily high number of great films [released in 2002], it was merely inevitable that there'd be some disappointments when Oscar nominations were announced. What I didn't expect, though, was that the Academy would actually look beyond the cream of the crop and honor movies and performances that were just average or worse."

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Parks believes the Best Picture award should go to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but that The Hours or The Pianist will take home the award. Regarding Chicago, Parks writes, "Let's be honest. It's not a great movie. The decision to cast actresses who aren't singers or dancers makes for wonderful acting and embarrassing attempts to mask their flaws. For a dance movie, the editing in Chicago is atrocious, never giving you a chance to actually see the footwork and choreography. That this piece of fluff was nominated over much more substantial fare … is a serious mistake."

I agree with Parks that the nomination of Chicago is disappointing. There were many titles far more deserving—Punch-Drunk Love, Monsoon Wedding, Spirited Away, The Rookie, and The Quiet American to name a few. But I feel Chicago will beat out the competition. Its victory will be an even greater disgrace than last year's claim that A Beautiful Mind was a greater achievement than Gosford Park or The Fellowship of the Ring.

At Steve Lansingh's Film Forum site, Roger W. Thomas agrees. He observes, "It looks like Chicago will be the big winner … taking home six to eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. The Pianist … may get totally shut out of any awards. Or then again, it may be a night of many surprises as Oscar celebrates its Diamond Anniversary."

Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) reminds us of  Psalm 12:8 (NIV): "The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men." He then argues, "Only movie critics should be allowed to vote for the industry's best contributions each year.  After all, they're the only ones who have seen all the films. Taking that a step further, only Christian reviewers should be assigned the job. (Yeah, like that'll ever happen.)  For unlike our secular counterparts, we examine not just the technical and artistic merits of a film, but its content, as well."  He argues that nominations should have instead gone to Evelyn, We Were Soldiers, Signs, and The Emperor's Club. (He would have met with debate, even from Christian critics. The Christian media reviewers of the Promontory Film Critics' Circle honored a very different list of titles.)

Who do you think will win Oscars this year? Who do you think should win? Share your thoughts in the chat room on Oscar night. (If you cannot join us on Oscar night, send in your preferences now, and I'll post some of them during the chat on Sunday.) Share your defense of a particular film, performer, or filmmaker. Instead of just taking in the glitz and glamour, get involved in the conversations about the difference between hype and excellence.

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Rat man seems a perfect fit for actor Crispin Glover

Willard (New Line) is Glen Morgan's remake of a 1971 horror movie. Bruce Davison, the first Willard, played an oppressed employee who used his unique connection with rats to lash out at his abusive employer. Davison appears in the 2003 version too, but only as a smiling portrait in a frame, suggesting that he is the father of the new Willard, played by Crispin Glover.

Willard is a grown man who still lives like an abused child at home, plagued by an ailing mother who constantly assails him with critical remarks and oppressive worrying. A social outcast, haunted, hunched, and harried, Willard takes comfort in the company of the only creature who will take notice of him … a white rat named Socrates. This emotional friendship leads Willard into favor with the rest of the rats, a nasty hoard of filthy monsters. Soon, they become his servants. Given such a remarkable resource, what does Willard do? He determines to get even with the world, starting with his abusive employer (R. Lee Ermey).

Glover is one the big screen's most memorably peculiar actors. Who can forget his stammering, insecure performance as George McFly in Back to the Future? Even his smaller appearances were unconventional enough to steal scenes from the lead actors in Wild at Heart, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Dead Man. But Willard gives Glover an excuse to unleash all of his comical and creepy behaviors. Like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Glover's Willard is one of those rare roles in which the actor seems to have been born for the part.

And he's not the only thing the film has going for it. As a horror film, Willard avoids indulgent gore and restrains scenes of violence, focusing instead on Willard's state of mind. Morgan's direction is stylish, and the cinematography effectively gloomy and gothic. The supporting actors turn in strong work. And while the story is told in bold strokes, there is plenty of subtle humor on the edges, like the ice cream truck in the distance that always plays "Three Blind Mice."

Willard gains our sympathy because we feel sorry for him in his persecuted state. We understand his frustrations with others. And it is easy to understand why he has grown up uncomfortable around women, even the one who seems interested in connecting with him (Laura Elena Harring).

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And yet, the damage Willard has suffered has made him dangerous and demented. Instead of looking for a way out of his distress or noticing the chances for grace and companionship offered to him, he focuses on vicious revenge. As his violence-by-rodent escalates into personal assaults, the movie refuses to glorify his rage, leading us to respond to the attacks with increasing dismay. (There is uncomfortable laughter too; Morgan's tone remains tongue-in-cheek.) The rats are clearly a symbol of Willard's low self-image and baser tendencies. We come to hope that he will refrain from abusing his gift for communicating with animals, but as his anger gets the better of him, the film is honest enough to show that such behavior leads only to further chaos. (I imagine this is a theme that audiences will revisit soon when another uniquely gifted individual comes under the influence of reckless anger in The Hulk.)

Thus, Willard ends up as a cautionary fairy tale. I wouldn't recommend you take the family, as the film is dark and troubling. But if you want a lesson in eccentric acting, or if you are interested in a nightmarish story well told, Willard is a noteworthy effort, a fully realized vision in a season of mediocrity.

 Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) was not so impressed, but he does give the film a qualified pass. He says the movie is "decidedly not for all tastes," but that it "effectively works on the audiences' nerves where so many horror films deliver only gross-outs." Greydanus concludes, "The original … was not a movie that cried out for a remake. Given the decision to make one, though, it's hard to imagine a more fitting casting choice than Crispin Glover."

Other religious critics are quite dissatisfied with the affair. Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "[Willard] is a creepy cross between George McFly and Norman Bates which … makes it hard to root for him for long. The film, like Glover's performance, starts out intriguingly quirky, then unravels into a pitiful, manic mess. Of all the reasons for teens to avoid Willard, that may be reason enough."

I didn't feel the film is urging us to root for Willard. I had the distinct feeling that while we're initially excited that Willard stands up for himself, the filmmakers lead us to be horrified by the consequences of such actions. If you see Willard, let me know what you think. Is this a dark fable about the wages of sin, or merely an indulgent tale of revenge?

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(For an array of mainstream press reviews of Willard, click here.)

Spider lost in torn web of memories

Unlike Willard, Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) was a young boy who adored his mother (Miranda Richardson). As he thinks back on his troubling childhood, overshadowed by the temper of his alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne), he sinks into psychological distress. The audience is challenged to piece together what really happened in his childhood, and why every woman he encounters seems to wear his mother's face. While Willard is a comic tale of alienation and revenge, Spider (Sony Pictures Classics) is a disturbing exploration of mental illness, and how one boy became lost in a web of disorienting memories.

Spider's director is a professional at portraying psychological turmoil: David Cronenberg, the man at the helm of such twisted thrillers as Dead Ringers, Crash, and Existenz, has here taken Patrick McGrath's 1990 novel and filmed a fascinating journey through the present, the past, and alternate versions of the past warped by Dennis's confusion. The audience is challenged to separate true scenes from false ones. In the film, Dennis has just been released from an asylum—he is half mad, living in a home for struggling mental patients. In this dark, dank, mildew-colored shambles, he wrestles with painful memories in solitude.

It is not hard to see why Cronenberg cast Ralph Fiennes in the lead role: Fiennes has a prominent forehead that looks like it weighs a ton, swollen with angst and confusion. The rest of the cast is brilliant as well: Byrne refuses to exaggerate his turn as a thick-headed drunkard, while Richardson revels in the opportunity to play the broken mother figure and the vicious mistress. John Neville, who made such a perfect Baron Munchausen for director Terry Gilliam, brings much-needed humor to these otherwise morbid scenes.

Unfortunately, the film's slow, toilsome path does not lead to any particularly shocking or interesting revelations. As the pieces finally begin to form a clear picture, the picture is disappointingly unspectacular. As a meditation on the fragility of a child's mind, Spider resonates with truth. But as a mystery, it's a lot of unpleasant work for the viewer, and offers a conclusion that will make you say, "Whatever."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) disagrees. He says the movie "is not exactly a feel-good picture, but it is a fantastic drama that grips you in its interlocking narrative and doesn't let go. I highly recommend it." He elaborates: "The masterstroke of Cronenberg's film is putting the audience in Spider's head. We begin to understand how he came to be the way he is, but we're also forced to acknowledge that what we're seeing is highly subjective. Cronenberg deserves a tremendous amount of praise. His direction is pitch-perfect. Kudos are also in store for Peter Suschitzky's striking cinematography, Howard Shore's haunting score, and Andrew Sander's barren production design."

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Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says Spider "is not the sort of well-made film one views for escapist pleasure. Its slow tempo teeters on the tiresome, giving the high-minded narrative a meandering quality. Yet it is appreciably better than most movies made about mentally ill characters because it feels authentic as its grim, barren world reflects a frail, troubled mind."

Steve Parish (The Film Forum) calls it "a clever if unexciting tale of mental illness. [Fiennes gives] a great performance, but it's too difficult a film to get him near any awards—as Cronenberg says, it's like Samuel Becket confronting Sigmund Freud."

For mainstream press reviews of Spider, click here.

The Hunted "should have hunted for a better screenplay"

Tommy Lee Jones tracks another fugitive in The Hunted (Paramount), the new film by famed director William Friedkin (The Exorcist). Jones plays L.T., the retired mentor of a Special Forces assassin named Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro). When Hallam loses his mind in nightmarish combat, he sets out on a series of killings that make him a wanted man. The search is led by his troubled teacher. The result is a violent and spectacular chase that once again finds Jones leading a police chase through the woods; but this time, their target is truly dangerous.

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says, "Friedkin deftly builds white-knuckle tension … and the music by Brian Tyler is brilliant, capitalizing on the fear and dread already felt by the audience. But while the film's carnage is used to justify Aaron's actions, it is excessive to the point of nausea. A little more subtlety and a little less bloodshed would have been more effective."

Jimmy Akin (Decent Films) calls it "an entertaining hunt. We get the wild ride we came for. The tension is palpable, the action swift and silent, and the audience gets lost in the events unfolding before it on the screen." He catalogues several "missteps" in the film, and concludes that, although exciting, the film fails to deliver any deeper significance. "The film tries to link itself somehow to the Bible. There's a creepy opening narration by … Johnny Cash that tries to link the film to the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac, and as the closing credits roll we hear Cash's ominous song 'The Man Comes Around,' which has more biblical allusions in it than you can shake a stick at. Few of them have anything to do with the movie."

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Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) doesn't find much meaning in the movie: "For most of its running time The Hunted feels as if it's desperately clawing for a theme, yet failing to dig up one. The story of Abraham and Isaac, which forms a rough framework for Aaron and L.T.'s struggle, seems promising at first. Ultimately, The Hunted seems more interested in spurting arteries than existential ethics."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The Hunted should have spent a bit more time hunting for a decent screenplay."

Movieguide's reviewer objects to the film because of violence and "strong foul language," despite "some Christian and moral elements."

For mainstream press reviews of The Hunted, click here.

British/Pakistani soccer player bends the family traditions

A British high school graduate named Jessminda seeks a scholarship so she can play women's soccer in America in the new British comedy Bend It Like Beckham (Fox Searchlight.) The title refers to Jessminda's hero, professional soccer player David Beckham. But the Sikh traditions of Jessminda's Pakistani family conflict with her athletic aspirations. She sneaks behind their backs and joins a soccer team coached by a handsome Irishman whose career was ended by injury. Before long, Jessminda has a crush on her coach and a rival for his affections as well.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "a feel-good picture" that is ultimately "predictable … but the characters do endear themselves to us. Parminder K. Nagra is an attractive and extremely appealing young lead. She's quite believable as one who has crossed over cultural differences and has found comfort in both worlds. Soccer aficionados may be disappointed that there isn't more sports action but then sports isn't really the focal point. The film centers around Jess, her family, and the conflicts which occur in a multicultural, multigenerational environment."

Movieguide's critic admits that the film has "a well-written script and a fine cast" but concludes that the movie "has a feminist subtext that pushes the false notion that most female athletes can compete equally with men. This feminist notion may be true in theory, but only if you want a unisex world where there is little physical difference between men and women."

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For mainstream press reviews of Bend It, click here.

Agent Cody banks on sexy hijinx

Agent Cody Banks (MGM) is about a teenager working for the CIA. Like most movie superspies, he has superior gadgetry at his disposal, and an uncanny knack for narrow escapes. But unlike Bond, Banks (Frankie Muniz) has no skill when it comes to sweet talking the ladies. Thus, he runs into trouble when a secret mission to save the world involves befriending an attractive girl (Hilary Duff) at summer camp.

Mission: Implausible. Religious press reviewers add complaints of sexual impropriety to the chorus of critical complaints about the movie's mediocrity.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "As directed by Harald Zwart, the young actors, especially Muniz and Duff, are just fine, portraying appealing, sweet-natured characters. It's the adult performers who are uniformly dreadful thanks to a lame script [with] cardboard, clichéd characters."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) argues that the movie is "is more successful than we might expect, although I must sound a note of caution. A PG-13 rating would be more appropriate and representative of the film's content. It is a shame that the film is a bit too sexy for the audience demographic."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) agrees: "I question the appropriateness of the film's sexual innuendo and exploitation aimed at a preteen audience.  Do your preteen daughters need to compare themselves to Angie Harmon? And do your preteen sons need one more media message implying that their female counterpart's worth lies in her outward appearance?" Likewise, Movieguide's reviewer says, "Parents should use discernment as to whether they want to endorse the planting of suggestive seeds of sexuality and parental disrespect into their children's minds." Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) concurs: "Loads of big-bang violence, sly sensuality, and not-to-be-imitated attitudes can make a big impression on young kids … and teenagers."

Disgruntled, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) concludes: "Two years ago Spy Kids reminded us that the adventure of raising a family is a vital mission fraught with hazards. It's because of movies like Agent Cody Banks—and the MPAA's increasingly erratic ratings assignments—that a family outing to the movies can be one of those hazards."

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Inappropriate for families? Hazardous? Holly McClure (Crosswalk) thinks otherwise: "I see sequel written all over this movie and deservedly so! This is a movie that doesn't insult your intelligence just because it's made for kids. It's a fun movie to watch with an interesting plot, great character portrayals, lots of action, incredible special effects and gadgets and fun nods to the adults. Parents, this is a movie your older kids and teens will enjoy—and 'secretly' you will too."

For mainstream press reviews of Cody Banks, click here.

Next week: The Oscars—Are critics happy with the outcome? Plus: The director of The Big Chill and Grand Canyon wakes up Steven King's Dreamcatcher.