If you're looking for a movie that the family might enjoy over the (American) Thanksgiving holiday, you would do well to avoid this week's box office champ. Instead, consider Pieces of April. Peter Hedges' short and bittersweet comedy about a family's efforts to get together and get along at a table of traditional turkey and cranberry sauce may have a few elements that are inappropriate for younger children, but for discerning adults, it's a moving and marvelous film. Here's my review.

They do not like it … not one bit!

Oops, they've done it again. Moviemakers have taken another beloved Dr. Seuss children's book and turned it into a "cat-astrophe." Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat, as directed by first-timer Bo Welch, is littered with lowbrow humor and things that are not appropriate for younger viewers … or for discerning adults, for that matter.

Nevertheless, families hurried happily to this big screen hairball, demonstrating disinterest in critical thinking about the film, and rewarding the film studio with an estimated $40.1 million, almost guaranteeing that more misguided Seuss adaptations will be made.

When Jim Carrey played the Grinch in director Ron Howard's Dr. Seuss movie, film critics were stunned to see the simple redemption story peppered with sexual references and behavior that was hardly admirable. There's nothing necessarily wrong with misbehavior in a movie, so long as it is portrayed as misbehavior in the context of meaningful storytelling. What troubled critics about Grinch was that Whoville, supposedly an innocent family-oriented town, was "updated" and turned into a place where parents went to "key parties" and where a post-redemption Grinch still went out of his way to belittle and mock his nemesis. It is likely that Theodore Geisel would have been displeased with Carrey's Grinch had he lived to see the movie. And critics are almost certain he would take Mike Meyers' version of the hat-clad Cat straight to the pound.

Of all the reviews I've scanned, my favorite was penned by Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), perhaps the first of several responses offered by critics in verse. Here's a snippet:

"The Cat in the Hat starts earning a smile
With studio logos in Dr. Seuss style.
In fact, the whole film has the right kind of look;
Trees, houses, and clouds seem right from the book.

"That's better than that Ronnie Howard could do
With his gloomy old Who-ville and misshapen Whos.
But production design alone isn't enough,
And The Cat in the Hat's nothing like up to snuff."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "So much has been added to the story, presumably to stretch it out to fill its 80 minute running time, that Dr. Seuss's simple and imaginative tale kind of gets lost in the shuffle. Mike Myers … delivers to us an odd characterization that has little to do with the book. It is missing the primarily feature of the Cat's personality … A sense of fun."

"The Cat in the Hat is a good-looking film," says Bob Smithouser (Plugged In). "Unfortunately, that's as interesting as it gets. Barely veiled profanities and subtle humor involving sex, porn, urination and vomiting will unnerve parents wondering what rule Myers will break next in his tireless pursuit of 'fun.'"

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Welch seems to totally forget why people love Dr. Seuss in the first place—his magical wordplay." He argues it would be better if audiences would just read the book. "In fact, a verse found on Page Two reads like a Seussian review of this movie: So all we could do was to sit, sit, sit, sit. / And we did not like it, not one little bit."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) writes, "Although there are some clever and funny scenes in this movie and it is visually a wonder for kids to behold, there is still something 'dark' that takes all of the fun out of it."

Rosemarie Ute Hoffman (Christian Spotlight) exhorts parents, "Stay at home with the book and your kid. See to it that your parental teaching is not undermined."

Movieguide's critic makes similar complaints about the film. But he is also dismayed to see that "the house is a disastrous mess. I remember feeling nervous about the mess upon mess upon mess in the children's book, and the director skillfully but irritatingly brings that same feeling into the movie. Get it cleaned up, and get that Cat out of there!" This casts Movieguide's mission to "clean up Hollywood" in a whole new light.

Meanwhile, in the nation's newspapers and magazines, the most widely read critics seemed to be competing for the most whimsical put-down. A.O. Scott (New York Times) says, "Welch has put together a vulgar, uninspired lump of poisoned eye candy that Universal has the temerity to call Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat. There is scarcely a moment of genuine laughter in the [movie.] Neutering, to prevent this beast from spawning sequels, is perhaps the most humane solution. Or maybe it is best to follow the advice of that wise fish: 'Make that cat go away! Tell that cat in the hat you do not want to play.'" You can scan the rest of the hissing and clawing mainstream reviews here.

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21 Gramsburies viewers in 20 tons of wearying melodrama

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who delivered the critically acclaimed Amores Perros two years ago, is back with yet another testament to his formidable filmmaking talents. 21 Grams boasts several unforgettably intense sequences and commanding performances from Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and especially Benicio Del Toro.

But when you take this chronologically scrambled narrative and think it through, what you find is a preposterous plot in which damaged, anxiety-driven characters give each other far more reason for the furrows in their brows. It's a circus of dispiriting behavior that has no sentiment more profound than this: "Be kind to each other, because everything else, especially religion, will fail you in the end." While it is not the focus of the film, Christianity is portrayed as a productive crutch for people with bad habits, a faith that ultimately collapses when a believer is tested by trials.

Just as he did in Iñárritu's earlier film, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga delivers a trio of crisscrossing narratives that overlap due to a traumatizing event. It all feels calculated, like the storyteller is not really interested in exploring issues so much as he is preoccupied with skewering his characters and making them writhe and squirm. These heavily-hyped 125 minutes feel more like 240 minutes of headache.

So, of course, there is heavy Oscar buzz accompanying the film's release.

Sean Penn, more morose and reckless than he was in the similarly bleak Mystic River, plays a math instructor named Paul Rivers who is dying of heart disease. After a life-saving heart surgery, he leaves his wife in order to pursue the widow of the man whose heart he now possesses. We are led to feel okay about that because Rivers' wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is portrayed as a selfish annoyance; she seems more focused on her own desire for a baby than on her husband's suffering. As if to heighten our disgust with her, the author gives her a secret: she once aborted Rivers' child without telling him.

The widow, Christina Peck, is played with passion and anger by Naomi Watts. Peck was once a woman who wasted her life on drugs and parties, but she pulled things together in the context of a loving marriage. Robbed of her family and stalked by Rivers, she spirals downward into self-destruction. Before long, she's indulging in an affair that qualifies the film as temporarily pornographic—the centerpiece sex scene is gratuitous, exploitative, and misleading in its glorification of misbehavior.

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Adding insult to injury, we also have Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), a recovered alcoholic who has found Jesus and redemption but still slaps his children around and rules his family like a tyrant. When tough times get tougher, Jordan has a crisis of faith. Apparently his church failed to teach him that Jesus doesn't make your problems go away. Jordan doesn't find hope or consolation through Jesus' presence in his life. The film postures as if it is taking on tough questions of faith, but instead it exhibits ignorance about basic Christian truths.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Several mainstream critics are offering similar complaints. David Denby (The New Yorker) calls it "the kind of bad movie that makes a reviewer feel terrible. It has been put together with great sincerity, and yet, impassioned and affecting as some of it is, 21 Grams is also an arrogant failure." Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) writes, "Yet for all its lurches toward greatness, 21 Grams is, paradoxically, a movie that loses power the more you perceive what's actually going on in it." Scott Foundas (LA Weekly) compares it to the director's previous film: "Where Amores Perros was a feast of energy, wit and imagination, 21 Grams is like a starvation diet—a movie that wallows so profoundly in its own misery that watching it is like atoning for some sin you didn't commit. This could be the year's perfect picture for those disposed to confusing artifice with art. [It's] a movie so self-flagellatingly ascetic that suddenly Ordinary People starts to look like a movie you can go to for a raucous chuckle."

Gothikais grim going

2001 Oscar winner Halle Berry has her first leading role since Monster's Ball in this thriller directed by the acclaimed young French director Mathieu Kassovitz.

Berry plays Dr. Miranda Grey, a penitentiary psychologist to troubled women. While her husband (Charles Dutton) gives her love and consolation from the burdens of her tasks, and the admiration of a co-worker (Robert Downey, Jr.) is flattering, her job takes her into some dark places. She is deeply troubled, for example, by the rape fantasies (Penelope Cruz) of one of her patients. Things worsen when she tries to help a girl found lying in the road. Her efforts end in a blackout, and she wakes up to find herself locked in a prison cell, accused of murder. While Grey can't remember what happened, she is convinced that she is innocent of the things that supposedly transpired.

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But this is no standard thriller about a wrongfully accused heroine. There are darker forces at work, villains who might not have material wrists for the cuffs.

"Gothika is, for much of its running time, a taut, compelling thriller dominated by Halle Berry's energetic performance," reports J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth). "Unfortunately, the movie collapses as soon as the idea of a serial killer is introduced, and Berry turns from brilliant psychologist into unbelievably brilliant FBI profiler."

He then launches into a lament for the way Hollywood so generously serves up serial killers of all stripes, each storyteller trying to outdo the other with gory details and sick perversions. "Today's filmmakers are just desperately trying to shock their audiences, and it's a sick, unwholesome affair."

"Kassovitz can't … disguise the inherent weakness of the script," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "Once it puts its protagonist in her predicament, it has nowhere to go. Where it ends up is so far out in left field that it's almost like watching a different movie … and a bad one at that."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Berry plays desperation well. Nevertheless, the role remains two-dimensional, rarely demanding more than alternating looks of confused shock or caged fear. And though viewers seeking a few honest screams aren't expecting Lady Macbeth, it helps if the audience has a vested interest in the protagonist's dilemma."

Loren Eaton (Plugged In) says, "Anyone familiar with the plots of The Sixth Sense and The Ring will find Gothika to be pretty familiar territory. While it doesn't reach the disgusting extremes of, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it goes far enough for discerning viewers to leave it forever locked away in its own cinematic purgatory."

Mainstream critics would be happy to see the movie locked up and the key thrown away.

Other titles coming soon, and currently playing …

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), whose Web site is now available to readers through subscription, offers sneak preview reports on Bad Santa, the new subversive comedy from Terry Zwigoff, that stars Billy Bob Thornton and Bernie Mac. He also reviews The Haunted Mansion and The Missing.

Catching up with the much-praised Peter Weir film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) offers his own applause. "One of the movie's many achievements is that it assumes an intelligent audience as well as viewers who aren't sailors. It never talks down to us but doesn't overwhelm us with sailing terminology, either. Weir brings all of the film's elements into harmony. If you're looking for a gripping historical tale that doesn't involve powdered wigs, this movie's for you."

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Regarding the frothy romantic comedy Love Actually, Roger Thomas (Ethics Daily) disagrees with most of the religious press critics that heavily criticized the film last week. Thomas calls it "the best and most intelligent romantic comedy to be released in a long time. Though the cast is large and talented, the star of the film is the screenplay. This is not a perfect script, and not all of the jokes work. Some plots seemed underdeveloped and others could have been excluded to strengthen the film. Overall though, what is on screen is often touching, clever and insightful."

The 'art' of Christian filmmaking

At Dick Staub's Culture Watch this week, he says, "I get concerned when we think 'wholesome' refers to the moral content of art without reference to the quality of art. It seems obvious that Christians, having concluded Hollywood is more influential than the church, are flooding the place, eager to get their hands on the levers of power, hungry to produce wholesome and evangelistic films. What Hollywood needs is not moralists and propagandists but better artists."

P.S. (Passion Stuff)

Last week, Film Forum offered a link to The New York Post's article on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The story included the reactions of five different viewers to an early screening of the film. Since then, however, the story has landed the Post in trouble. It turns out, the print was a "bootlegged copy," and Gibson's camp is considering a lawsuit. Lawyer George Hedges told the Post, "Our biggest concern here is that a major media organization would become involved with pirates to concoct a news story to sell newspapers. … For someone to feel the license to do this is just outrageous." Robert Friedman of Paramount Studios echoed that sentiment: "This is vigilante journalism."

The Two Towers - Extended Editionearns raves, and a few complaints

Middle-earth fans gathered around for their first viewings of the DVD experience The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers—Extended Edition this week, and were quickly comparing their opinions and impressions online the next day.

Matt Oquist responded, "The extended Two Towers is wonderful. Several plot changes and logistics are better explained and more dramatically important, interesting, and consistent." He is especially pleased by a scene that further elaborates on the conclusion of the battle of Helm's Deep. "This was the scene which I most missed in the theatrical release, and while I could imagine something a little more amazing, I'm willing to be content with what the extended version offers. I guess the filmmakers have to do what they can with the time that is given to them."

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Alan Willcox responded with dismay at his discovery of a hidden feature—an "Easter egg"—in which the computer-animated Gollum steals an MTV Movie Award from actor Andy Serkis and unleashes a tirade of profanity.

Diane Rose says, "I loved it. I didn't have major problems with the theatrical release, so this one's like icing on the cake (with just a few exceptions—poor Gimli, some of his new lines are groan-inducing). The documentary on Tolkien, including bits about his friendship with Lewis, was quite nice."

At Movieguide, a reviewer makes an unusual complaint about "a New Agey resurrection shot of Gandalf." He is also troubled by "environmentalist notions."

Meanwhile, Jeff Giles (Newsweek) gives us a sneak peek at The Return of the King, the movie and the efforts leading up to it.

Next week:In America, The Missing, Bad Santa, Timeline, additional reviews of 21 Grams, and more.