Some people look at God's creation and see a resource for practical uses. Others stand back in awe at its beauty. For artist Andrew Goldsworthy, nature is beautiful but it is also full of possibility.

The idea of seeing yet another movie about an artist may turn away moviegoers tired of the theme. To look at recent films about artists—Frida, Pollock, Baquiat, Surviving Picasso—you might think artmaking is all about alcohol, drugs, spousal abuse, infidelity, madness, and political activism. But in Thomas Riedelsheimer's new documentary, Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time, Goldsworthy's work reminds us of an artist's true focus: a meditative commitment to discovery, creativity, and the enhancement of God's own invention.

Goldsworthy does not present himself as a Christian, or even particularly interested in God. In fact, his contemplative monologues about his own thought processes have annoyed some of the critics who have written about the film. (After all, the first rule of art is "Show, don't tell.")

But his work may well draw viewers towards profound questions about how such beauty and possibility can exist in nature without a Grand Designer. Further, each exhibit seems a testament to what is possible when, in spite of the unstoppable forces of the elements and the passing of time, his work holds for a few triumphant hours. Goldsworthy's constructions seem to defy natural laws, but they hold precisely because he is willing to test the limits of those laws. He builds complex, gravity-defying walls by joining the tips of twigs; he builds a precariously balanced column of stone that becomes the submerged secret of a rising river; and he braids leaves into long colorful ribbons that wind their way down rivers into oblivion. With his patient, precise craftsmanship, Goldsworthy shows us the rewards of attentiveness, patience, ambition, and respect for the natural world.

J. Robert Parks, film critic for The Phantom Tollbooth, sent Film Forum a rave review:

Hollywood has never been terribly concerned about God's creation. The great movies of the '30s and '40s were shot entirely on soundstages, which gave the outdoor scenes a strangely surrealistic effect. When movies began location shooting in the late '50s and '60s, the effect wasn't naturalistic as much as it was touristic, showing off the vistas of Rome, Paris, and the great desert southwest. Now, of course, many landscape shots are created on someone's computer, and nature often has a malevolent air when it appears at all (The Core's a good example).
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Which is why Rivers and Tides is so refreshing. Focusing on the outdoor art of Andy Goldsworthy, this documentary treats God's creation with the care and awe that it deserves. [The artwork] forces us to appreciate God's divine way with colors, as well as the awesome contrast between his permanence and nature's impermanence, which is a healthy reminder of our own mortality.
If you need an antidote to the tripe Hollywood's feeding us lately, I can't recommend Rivers and Tides highly enough. It is truly a breath of fresh air.

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) agrees: "In the midst of war it is good to remind one's self of the hand of God in our midst. One way to do this is to look at the beauty of creation. War is ugly. Creation is beautiful. It reminds us of a God who is love. With this in mind I recommend to you this wonderful film."

At the same site, Darrell Manson writes, "While watching the film, it is difficult to remain silent. The oohs and ahhs just come out. The works are in deed breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Like Goldsworthy's art … Riedelsheimer's film gives us a fresh way of seeing the nature around us and appreciating not only the creation of art, but God's creation."

Mainstream critics sensed a spiritual profundity to Goldsworthy's work, even if they do not have the words to explain such intuitions. Desson Howe (The Washington Post) writes, "Goldsworthy's art borders on the religious. And we should all belong to his church. These 'works' are both temporary and transcendental. To watch and appreciate them as he does is to undergo a transformation yourself." Michael Sragow (Baltimore Sun) says, "In its own quiet, voluptuous way, Rivers and Tides, an unpretentiously brilliant documentary, uses [Goldsworthy's work] to open up the hidden drama of the natural universe. It helps that Goldsworthy is such a direct, no-guff artist, expressing himself as far as he can in words and then letting his art do the rest. Rivers and Tides is the rare work about an artist that is enhancing, not parasitic."

Cloud Ten rains on Tim LaHaye's apocalyptic franchise …

Fans of Left Behind, the books or the film franchise, may be interested to learn that a federal judge has dismissed author Tim LaHaye's lawsuit against the studio that brought his story to the big screen—Cloud Ten Pictures. The full story can be found here.

According to Charisma News, the conflict is not over yet. "[Cloud Ten Pictures] lawyer Keri Borders said a counter suit against LaHaye filed in September 2001 is expected to go to trial this fall. The suit—which seeks damages of more than $10 million—accuses LaHaye of violating several agreements with CTP, including breach of contract."

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… while Walden Media prepares The Chronicles of Narnia for 2005

Narnia fans may be pleased to see a report at that WETA, the animation studio bringing such amazing sights the Lord of the Rings series, has a contract to helm the effects for C.S. Lewis's epic as well. Adam Adamson (Shrek) will direct the films. You can get a glimpse of early promotion for the series at

Egomaniac publicist learns hard moral lessons while trapped in Phone Booth

The new thriller from action-movie veteran Joel Schumacher gives the biggest, flashiest role yet to rising star Colin Farrell (Minority Report, Daredevil). Phone Booth opens this weekend. It bears a unique distinction: About 90 percent of the movie takes place with the camera focused on a glass box, with the hero trapped inside.

Farrell plays Stu Shepard, a self-centered, unfaithful New York publicist who spends his days pacing the streets with his cell phone to his ear, organizing deals to make hot celebrities hotter. His daily ritual includes one last call from downtown's last functional phone booth—a flirtatious call to Pam, a sexy restaurateur (Katie Holmes). Calling from the booth is not a nostalgic or romantic habit so much as it is Shepard's effort to hide a record of the calls.

But on this particular day, someone is looking down on Stu with deep moral disapproval. This self-appointed hand of God's judgment—the same nasty species of bad guy that made quite an impression in Seven—is intent on punishing Stu for his sins. So he calls the phone booth and Stu picks it up. At first, Stu laughs at the villains threats, but when a passerby is shot dead as an example, and surrounding pedestrians think Stu fired the shot, he begins to realize the gravity of situation. So begins the tormenting, taunting, and moral education of Mr. Shepard. Voiced by Kiefer Sutherland with all the menace and gleeful cackles of Vincent Price, this anonymous sniper remains hidden somewhere in the vast jungle of skyscrapers. He keeps the red dot of his sniper rifle on Stu's expensive shirt through a long series of sweat-inducing trials, threatening him while the news cameras roll and the world mistakes Stu for a crazed killer. Meanwhile, a quick-thinking policeman (Forrest Whitaker) tries to find a resolution even as he wonders whether Stu is a murderer, a madman, or just a guy who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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I've never been a Schumacher fan—he exploits style and violence for the sake of entertainment and rarely has much substantive to offer. (He followed Tim Burton's edgy Batman films with two shallow and uncompelling sequels.) But Phone Booth is better than his previous outings because of the strength of its simple, central morality play. The script by Larry Cohen is occasionally clever, its preposterous twists nothing more than potholes on an otherwise engaging ride.

I have one major complaint: Sutherland's voice was never treated to sound like it was coming over a phone line. It sounds instead like a Mystery Science Theater guy doing a tongue-in-cheek ad-lib with a microphone in the back of the cinema. His familiarity as a Stock Villain Voice keeps him from ever really frightening us.

But for a studio blockbuster, Phone Booth puts unusual emphasis on the moral ultimatum being delivered to its central character. I like the way the film uses the old-fashioned phone booth to show how cell phones have contributed to our illusion of independence, control, and immunity. This remnant of the last century serves to remind Stu that he is not so secure as he thinks; his sins will hurt him and his loved ones no matter how he tries to conceal them. It's enough to make you wonder about those things in your own life that you like to think are secret. It just might put the fear of God … or at least the fear of voyeuristic snipers … in enough viewers to do some good.

But then again, fear is the basest of motivations. There are better reasons to be honest and faithful than mere self-preservation! Alas, protecting himself is all that Stu has on his mind, even by the end of the film. (Considering the lead actor's immature boastfulness about sexual impropriety, he doesn't appear to have learned anything either.) In that sense, Phone Booth serves to glorify its villain, concluding that this arrogant caller who has set himself up as some kind of avenging angel is actually a pretty smart guy who, like Hannibal Lecter, uses evil as a means to achieve some greater end.

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) describes the film as a struggle between the actors' strong performances and the director's flashy, shallow techniques. "Farrell scores with a portrayal that holds our attention. Schumacher lands punches with a hokey theme of redemption and plot holes that are bigger than Times Square. But Farrell finds a tag-team partner in Whitaker, who brings dignity and weight to the battle."

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Piglet's Big Movie offers a sweet treat for kids

Like so many grownups, I look back on the Pooh stories as having played an important part in my developing love for reading, especially reading aloud. I try to think of these new Pooh stories as something quite separate from the work of A.A. Milne. They don't have the same poetry of Milne's enchanting and playful language, which was sometimes tinged with melancholy. But then again, it is good to see some moviemakers providing young children with harmless, enjoyable movies that will stimulate their imaginations. Based on the reviews, it sounds like Piglet's Big Movie is another winning addition to the franchise.

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) calls it "playful and charming, doing justice to the literary creations of author A.A. Milne. It is a simple, innocent story for the young ones to enjoy." But she adds, "A big disappointment is the film's soundtrack, which was largely composed and sung by Carly Simon. Most of the songs have a bouncy, albeit forgettable, beat. But they blend into one another, with few well-defined characteristics."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) disagrees: she likes Carly Simon's soundtrack. "Her soothing voice made me smile." She concludes, "Fans of animated films or the Winnie the Pooh characters will enjoy this gentle tale that will leave you smiling; parents will remember their favorite Carly Simon song and your kids will bounce out of the theater like Tigger."

Jesse Florea (Focus on the Family) calls it "anything but an oinker. Kids will love it simply because it's vibrant Pooh. Adult fans of the classic A.A. Milne tales will appreciate the tenderness and care with which these previously unproduced stories were brought to life. Kudos to John Fielder for lending his wonderful voice to Piglet for all these years. His presence here is pretty special since he's the last remaining cast member from the original Winnie the Pooh featurettes."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) is so excited, he seems to have taken on Piglet's stutter: "It is s-s-s-o nice to watch a film with uplifting, unobjectionable lessons. No, this film will not be nominated for any Oscars next year, but it will make a wonderful 75-minute escape for any family."

Head of State a comedy headache

The box office flourished this week with the arrival of comedian Chris Rock's directorial debut, Head of State. Rock plays Mays Gilliam, a community alderman in Washington D.C. who is abruptly invited to run for president. His older brother, a bail bondsman named Mitch (Bernie Mac), signs on as his running mate. A simple plot reminiscent of Frank Capra films gets peppered with Rock's sharp-edged humor and a lot of simple political sentiments. And once again, as in so many recent comedies, white people are characterized as shallow and thick-headed while black culture receives the stereotypical treatment.

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Religious press film critics would like to impeach Rock and Mac on charges of bad taste and offensive, race-oriented comedy.

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "Rock is a funny guy, and there are several nice moments, but the uneven comic success rate and a naïve view of politics is mixed with obscenity and some crudity." He urges readers, "Write to black celebrities and tell them you are tired of the offensive material coming from their mouths in nearly every film they appear in. For all my Caucasian subscribers, write the same letter to everyone else in Hollywood!"

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "It's a schizophrenic movie, sometimes wistfully sweet-natured, other times veering towards vulgarity. Rock milks the populist theme for laughs and has comedic presence before the camera, but the dialogue and situations are mediocre and the movie sags by its midpoint. Its reliance on political stereotypes and tired jabs at race relations consign it to also-ran status."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "This is one of those comedies that might have been funnier had it been released at a different time. But when our nation is looking to our president for wartime leadership and wisdom, it seems almost disrespectful and sort of a slap-in-the-face to the presidency to have a movie that mocks the whole system." She concludes, "Save your money and your time! And while you're at it, thank God for the man we have in office who's proven to be a great Head of State in these rough times."

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) writes, "The film pits Mays's good deeds, candor and compassion against the crass materialism, duplicity and self-centeredness of entrenched D.C. types. On that level, I have no misgivings. It's when it strays into race-specific humor (something it does a lot) that this Chris Rock vanity piece goes wrong."

Mainstream critics were generally easier on Rock's debut effort. Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) finds Rock's effort praiseworthy. "Rock, one of the most astute comic talents working today, revels in impassioned commentary about the state of American politics and race relations, all imparted with a grin [and] a twinkle … His movie is as blithe and fearless in talking about race as Bringing Down the House is nervous and coy." She says that Rock and Mac "exult in the kind of highly charged verbal and physical antics that are star-turn rewards for performers currently at the tops of their games."

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Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) is somewhat pleased as well. "Head of State is an imperfect movie, but not a boring one and not lacking in intelligence."

Christian critics dig The Core

In Jon Amiel's old-fashioned B-movie The Core, the belly of Planet Earth is greatly troubled, and there is no Rolaids tablet big enough to settle things down. So a crack team of heroes, featuring Hilary Swank (Insomnia) and Aaron Eckhart (Possession), get their hands on a deep-drilling machine and plunge beneath the surface. Their solution is so simple: they plan to "restart" the center of the earth by planting a series of atomic bombs in just the right places.

Most religious press critics are amused, but not impressed, with this formulaic entertainment.

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "You pretty much have to leave intellect and reason at the door, but depending on your mood, you'll either get into the exciting perils, or you may just find the constant difficulties and the made-up scientific jargon to be tedious."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the screenwriters should have considered making their story a comedy. "What they have put up on the screen is the most unintentionally funny film that I've seen in years. The problem is that we're laughing at it instead of with it. What makes this big budget action picture so laughable, aside from its ludicrous premise, is the unapologetic way it employs the clichés of the genre."

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) calls it "a fairly suspenseful film. But at 136 minutes it's overlong, some dialogue falls flat, and, most of all, it's pretty preposterous."

But Holly McClure (Crosswalk) responds with enthusiasm: "The Core is hot! This thrill-a-minute journey to the center of the earth will take you where no movie ever has. This is a perfect 'popcorn escape' movie to watch and discuss with friends afterwards."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "I liked this energetic B-movie. [It] focuses on noble people rising to meet an enormous challenge without concern for their own safety. The action peril is intense at times, but it exists to make a grander statement: Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for a friend. Or his family. Or his country. Or his planet. If the folks onscreen can unite and solve their crisis, maybe world peace isn't so impossible after all."

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And Movieguide's reviewer is thrilled. "Credit … must go to the excellent script by Cooper Layne and John Rogers, as well as the edge-of-your-seat direction by Jon Amiel. [The Core] has lots of excitement, lots of humor and lots of just plain fun." The reviewer is also excited by a scene in which an army officer wishes another soldier "Godspeed."

Mainstream critics classify it as a decent rental for those in search of mindless entertainment. Roger Ebert says, "The Core is not exactly good, but it knows what a movie is. It has energy and daring and isn't afraid to make fun of itself, and it thinks big, as when the Golden Gate Bridge collapses and a scientist tersely reports, 'The West Coast is out.' If you are at the video store late on Saturday night and they don't have Anaconda, this will do."

Timely or tacky? Basic squeezes suspense out of military endeavors

John Travolta plays a DEA agent investigating some disappeared soldiers in Basic, the new military action thriller from Die Hard director John McTiernan. As he conducts his investigation, he must contend with a famous commander (Samuel L. Jackson) who has lost his mental balance, and an investigating officer from the Army (Gladiator's Connie Nielsen) whose opinions clash with his own.

Religious press critics want to send these filmmakers back to basic training.

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) calls it "a confusing mess. While it attempts to peek our interest with the diverse accounts of military crime, the confusion begins to kill viewer interest. Suddenly, the deadliest statement known to a filmmaker creeps into our collective minds: 'I don't care.'"

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "McTiernan delivers the action goods proficiently, but the film is so densely plotted that characterizations suffer. Ultimately the plot twists prove unsatisfying and one feels mostly relief when it is all over. Nielsen is unremarkable as the female investigator and her occasional Southern accent only calls attention to itself."

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) concludes, " "Preposterous endings do not necessarily a happy audience nor a profitable film make."

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Dreamcatcher keeps critics cringing with close encounters of the bloody kind

Last week, religious press critics joined mainstream reviewers in their astonishment and dismay that such talented filmmakers as director Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Grand Canyon) and screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride) could deliver such a nauseating, disjointed, and cliché-ridden affair as Dreamcatcher.

This week, a Catholic film critic defends the much-maligned adaptation of Steven King's story about alien invasions of the intestinal kind. Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP(The Tidings) calls it "one of the most frightening … and effective movies of the year so far." She seems to think the film falls right in line with Kasdan's previous triumphs."

She also praises Steven King for weaving in "themes of life, death, redemption, the symmetry of justice and the comfort of knowing that human relationships can endure beyond the worst fears a person can have. This stark, winter tale … becomes a saga of the redemptive sacrifice of love: blood for blood."

 Other Christian critics disagree, joining last week's chorus of dismay. Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) says, "Dreamcatcher … tries too hard to be all things and winds up being nothing. Avoid [it] like the plague spoken of in its story. It will rank as one of the 10 worst films for 2003."

And J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) writes, "Fans of bad movies will find much to appreciate in Dreamcatcher—howlers instead of dialogue, mind-boggling motives instead of plot twists, and random acts of stupidity instead of a narrative arc. But even those in favor of cheese will find themselves disappointed. The movie is surprisingly inconsistent. What starts off as a raging gore-fest turns positively squeamish in the last half."

Film Forum readers disgusted by Oscars

Last week, I posted a few post-Oscar thoughts, emphasizing that the ceremony needs a more discerning focus on artistic excellence and less emphasis on money and glamour.

This prompted reader Jonathan Nichols to respond: "You are a mean-spirited writer. You should be more gracious. There is pleasure to be had in watching the Oscar proceedings and delight to experience in witnessing the joy and humility that is evident in an award winner's eyes. You hurt yourself to be so firmly planted in mistrust of the awarding process. There is joy to be seen too."

Certainly, there is something to be admired in people gathering to recognize excellent work. (I did say as much last week. As much as the politics frustrate me; I do enjoy the Oscars.) And a humble winner is a welcome sight indeed—especially since studios often help them achieve this award with expensive behind-the-scenes campaigning that they surely would not employ if it did not make some difference.

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But most readers who responded were overwhelmingly negative about the whole affair.

Robert says, "This year's Academy Awards was one big joke. It seems that the only unpardonable sin in Hollywood is to be sympathetic to anything that is not ultraliberal. Our president was condemned, while a child-molester was honored with an award and a standing ovation." Robert was also disappointed that the Academy did not honor The Two Towers in the Best Make-up category.

L.R. says, "This ceremony is simply an act of 'self worship.' Perhaps, we can re-direct attention to other award ceremonies." An interesting idea. Perhaps we should take note of the titles chosen by mainstream film critics or religious press film critics, yes? L.R. has a different suggestion: "I believe the People's Choice Awards are less narcissistic—more focused on the end consumer."

Heather also disregards the awards as "just another reason for us to watch the stars get dressed up and spend money on new clothes and makeup. It turns my stomach."

Thom dismisses the Oscars entirely: "False idols. The awarding of a statue to people who are so involved in themselves diminishes the lives of those who live in reality. Everything is done to make the audience 'believe' the story portrayed by actors and writers, when it is just the opposite—make believe."

Sean says, "The Oscars is not about moviemaking. It is about the prominent members of Hollywood patting themselves on the back and celebrating how wonderful they are. Several years ago was the last time I watched the Oscars. If the Oscars are legitimately about movie making, explain to me how Michael Moore can win Best 'Documentary' given the gross fabrications passed off as factual content in the film?" Here he refers people to John Fund's article in the Wall Street Journal.

Sean has a suggestion on how to improve the awards proceedings: "Get the Oscars out of Hollywood. Move it to Dallas. In addition to the current Academy, open the committee membership to a pool of 300 film critics, university professors of literature, film and/or philosophy, professional writers, and some normal folks. From this pool, randomly pick the final selection committee at the last possible moment (so they can't be 'campaigned'). Include more independent films. Give much more prominence to the directors, story creators and script writers, cinematographers … [And] make the 'stars' sit in the back of the room."

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Sharleen writes, "I watched the Oscars with tongue in cheek like I usually do. It was a bunch of bunk like usual." But, contrary to the majority, she actually thought Michael Moore had some good things to say in his controversial rant: "It's ironic that the Americans are so adamant about free speech but when someone says something controversial, the orchestra is told to drown them out." She concludes, "The only moment I feel anything when watching these award shows is when someone who doesn't expect to win and deserves to win actually wins … [like] Adrien Brody."

In defense of the Oscars, Jean writes: "I love the movies, always have, and the yearly Big Night is a big night for me. Though my family and friends think it is a waste to watch all that glitz I find it a delightful change from serious, disturbing and/or boring TV fare. There was a time in my life, short-lived, when I stopped attending movies because I was told they were sinful. Happily I came to realize that it is what is inside that causes sin and I need primarily to be discerning about what kind of movie I attend and what its primary message is. Going to the movies, like reading a novel but taking much less time, helps me to learn about other cultures, see life from different perspectives, grapple with moral issues. It broadens my horizons. The Academy Awards night is a big exercise in nostalgia along with plain old entertainment."

Next week: A few words with Ed Solomon, writer/director of Levity and Men in Black. Plus, more religious press reviews of Phone Booth.