The Ladykillers: Bad burglars, bad language

The Coen Brothers have made a habit of telling stories about idiotic criminals who learn the wages of sin. The Ladykillers is no exception. It stands out only because a) it is a remake of a 1955 comedy caper, and b) the Coens have stooped to more sophomoric and crass humor than ever before.

Thus, mainstream critics are giving The Ladykillers a cooler reception than they gave last year's Intolerable Cruelty. Many wonder what happened to the heart and the art that distinguished Fargo, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, and the goofy O Brother, Where Art Thou? Even though The Ladykillers features a funny performance by Tom Hanks and a soundtrack of boisterous gospel music, the lows apparently outweigh the highs.

The Ladykillers concerns a self-declared criminal mastermind known as Professor Dorr (played by Alec Guinness in the original, Hanks here) who pulls together a highly inept team of cons to rob a steamboat casino. They make their move by tunneling from an old woman's basement into the casino's cash stash. But then they hit a snag: The old woman is a cantankerous Baptist churchgoer who will not tolerate wrongdoing in her house.

The Coens can probably continue to turn out stylish capers like this for decades. But the sophisticated stride that made their first run of films so remarkable has here degenerated into a sophomoric stumble. There was a time when these quirky filmmakers took their characters half-seriously. We came away doing more than just quoting them. We cared about them.

While The Ladykillers' foul language is certainly excessive, the film has three distinct virtues that may make it worthwhile for those who can shield themselves from the annoying dialogue: Irma P. Hall's winning performance as the devout (if naïve) Christian widow, Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography, and the rousing gospel-music soundtrack.

My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) highlights the film's moral lessons: "Crime does not pay; actions do have consequences; there is no honor among thieves … But perhaps the most obvious lesson for us can be summed up by a quote that is borrowed from a previous Tom Hanks film … 'Stupid is as stupid does.'"

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says it "revels in immoral dealings but nevertheless rounds out with evil-doing being brought to justice." He calls the movie "well-crafted," but objects to the "excessive foul language."

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"I can't remember laughing this much at a film," says Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter). "In my opinion, it is the funniest dark comedy since Dr. Strangelove. There is, unfortunately, a fly in the mint julep. Along with the positives … this remake has sadly taken on a modern-day nastiness by incorporating excessive coarse and irreverent language. What a shame."

Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) warns moviegoers that the film has little in common with the popular O Brother Where Art Thou? "The Ladykillers is much more akin to the Coens' Fargo, both disturbingly gruesome tales of bad guys getting their due. The violence is in typical Coen Brothers style—halfway between funny and sickening, which some people don't seem to mind, but I find difficult to appreciate."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says the foul language is damaging. "I'm left feeling that what I heard while I watched this otherwise masterful movie utterly destroyed its credibility, tore up every layer of its delicate nuance and scribbled haphazardly all over its colorful characterizations."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "unevenly entertaining. While the film bears the unmistakable stamp of the Coens' off-kilter humor, it does not rank among their best work. Its deep-South setting is beautifully filmed but its obscenity-laced script may have some viewers singing the blues."

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) says, "It's the classic battle between good and evil set in a clever and comedic story line." He also admits, "The language in this film, though true to life as we know it, is enough to curdle milk."

Jersey Girl: Family values, sophomoric sex-talk

Kevin Smith's latest comedy Jersey Girl is earning some mainstream attention because it is not quite so crass as his previous films (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.) It stands out from the others for the way Smith's convictions about the importance of family and fatherhood shine through. But even though it tells a pro-family story, it is definitely not a family film.

When a proud New York publicist (Ben Affleck) loses his wife and his job in quick succession, he finds himself devastated and frustrated. His daughter Gertie (Raquel Castro) needs her father, but he's too busy trying to salvage his career. Eventually, the interference of his father (George Carlin) and a sexually aggressive video store clerk (Liv Tyler) bring him around to a better perspective on life, love, and fatherhood.

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Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says the film is "actually quite touching. In many ways, Jersey Girl is a typical Kevin Smith movie, from the celebrity cameos and Star Wars references to the abundant four-letter words and Catholic imagery. But in several other ways, the film marks an interesting departure for Smith. If this film is marked by anything, it is by Smith's love for his daughter, and for his family."

"Jersey Girl may seem cute and harmless, but parents should be very careful and hesitant about letting their children see this one," says Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight). He also notes, "Kevin Smith is quite simply a director one either loves or hates."

Actually, there are other responses to Kevin Smith films. Several critics give Smith's way of filmmaking a mixed review. Personally, I find myself conflicted over each film Smith produces. I admire the basic moral lessons his stories offer. In this film, he wears his heart on his sleeve so boldly that he's being accused of "selling out" and "sentimentalism." In spite of the excessive sex talk and the lapses into sap, I found myself won over by his characters and his convictions. But I do hope he eventually learns that he can hold our attention by telling stories about characters with a more mature and responsible view of sexuality. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says the movie is "funny, with several touching moments, but often crude and profane."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "Jersey Girl could have been a great movie. Many of its lessons are positive. Marriage is important. Being a good parent is important. Respecting your parents is important. Loyalty is important. Sex is only for marriage. Regrettably, Smith forgot one other important lesson: be consistent in what you communicate."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) offers many unsupported assumptions and her review devolves into a character assassination of Smith: "If this is the best that this Jersey boy can do, he can fuhgeddaboutit. It would appear that his lifestyle has warped his brain so much that he doesn't even know how to make a decent movie anymore. There is help, Kevin. But until you get it, don't try to pass this kind of perversion off as a good film."

She also asserts that Smith "doesn't like Christianity." That's an interesting claim, since Dogma was Smith's attempt to present—albeit in the form of a satire—his convictions about faith. Smith has spoken out against certain aspects of organized religion that he finds unfulfilling, but to say he "doesn't like Christianity" seems a bit of an overstatement.

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Dogville: Provocative spiritual parable

Dogville is the latest film from Lars Von Trier, director of the controversial, intense, and inventive dramas as Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. His latest is yet another scandalous piece of work. Setting his film on a minimally decorated stage, as if this was a collection of clips from rehearsals for a play, he develops such a strong sense of suspense and drama that we forget about the artifice we usually require from a film.

Von Trier tells the story of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a young woman who takes refuge in a small Colorado mining town while gangsters try to hunt her down. The town is reluctant to help her hide, since they do not know what crime she has committed. But as they realize her eagerness to help them and bless them in response for their shelter, they begin to exploit her in cruel and unusual ways. Paul Bettany (The Reckoning) and Lauren Bacall co-star.

Dogville gives evidence that Von Trier is wrestling with the difference between a God of fire and brimstone and a God of grace. He poses the question: Should human beings who have been given so much be forgiven for their gross abuses of each other? He comes to a conclusion that will deeply unsettle Christians. (My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.)

"While the style may be off-putting to some and the nearly 3 hour running time more than others can take, the message the film delivers is an interesting one," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The final chapter of this movie is shocking and will be cause for a number of provocative post-viewing discussions. For me, it vividly displayed the limitations of man. Man's initial reluctance, first in extending courtesy and hospitality; and later, his limitations in extending forgiveness."

Jim O'Neill (Christian Spotlight) says "Dogville is the story of a civilization which self-destructs when it loses its moral vision. With his unorthodox and unsettling technique, Von Trier has accomplished something original. And something remarkable. Dogville is pessimistic, violent and cruel. It's the evil twin of Thorton Wilder's Our Town. I recommend it [for adults only] as a cautionary tale, and a bold, exhilarating cinematic exercise. You won't see anything else quite like it."

Von Trier's work always gets mainstream critics arguing, and this film is no exception.

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Scooby-Doo 2: Who needs you?

The big box office receipts generated by the first Scooby-Doo movie have led to the production of a sequel, which has likewise debuted at #1. This time around, Scooby-Doo and his crew of ghostbusters pursue a masked bad guy who is attempting to take over the city by generating a crowd of monsters. The heroes follow the clues to a museum managed by a strange curator (Seth Green), while a romance develops between Fred (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) and a troublesome reporter (Alicia Silverstone).

Critics approached Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed with scowls, having had a miserable time at the first film in the franchise. This time, they emerged with surprising responses, admitting that this Doo was somewhat entertaining.

But some, like Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter), are still distressed. He faults "the lame storyline and dull-witted jokes … [and] material not suited for family viewing, such as flatulence jokes and some rather adult sensuality. This is not only a bomb, it's a stink bomb."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) is not so bothered: "Some may argue that this spooky sequel is nothing more than another cinematic roller-coaster ride through a haunted house. True, but the company is better and the turns aren't as vicious and morally jarring. Scooby-Doo 2 … may be too frightening for elementary-age children, but tweens, teens and adults needn't be scared off."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "It is hard to get fired up over this film. I can say this. It is a marked improvement over the ill-conceived Scooby-Doo film of 2002. But seeing as that film was an unmitigated disaster, it is hardly a compliment."

Mary Lasse (Christianity Today Movies) says the filmmakers "shot for a moral message here … Be true to yourself. Alas, neither that message nor any amount of celebrity can save the Scooby films. You could pass on both of the films unless you really have nothing else to do … and I mean nothing."

Misty Wagner (Christian Spotlight) employs many exclamation marks in her review: "Slight drug references aside, this is an acceptable and entertaining movie for families. This movie can help younger audiences see that we all are special and all have special gifts! It is up to us to use them."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) offers a "review" that seems addressed to a specific section of the moviegoing public: "Let's be real, folks. I know it's our childhood here—and I realize that most of those childhoods, like mine, were obliterated by divorce, parents who prayed to the gods of sexual revolution and kids trying to sell drugs on the playground. And I sympathize, I really do. I understand that, like me, you attended the first Scooby Doo movie in a desperate attempt at nostalgia for one of your happier escape moments—TV watching—from those shattered childhoods. But guys, let's be realistic. Scooby Doo wasn't all that good to begin with. We may have liked it then, but we were just little kids. Remember: we also thought our parents were going to get back together."

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She concludes, "Go if you must, but don't forget to take your pooper scooper."

More raves for Eternal Sunshine

Catching up with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) call the film "enlightening. Love is something deeper than the memories of our times together with someone. The only true path toward 'eternal sunshine' is a path that cherishes the memory of the sorrows and the joys, the loves and the disappointments of life."

Brent McCracken (Relevant) says, "It would take numerous viewings (as with any Kaufman film) to truly appreciate it all. The film seems to decry the supermarket mentality of convenient, self-serving love in favor of a more hands-in-the-dirt/make-it-work philosophy. Though hard times will come and memories made will not always be fondly remembered, true love will find a way to endure."

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The book of Revelation mentions that every deed is recorded in 'the books,' and that on the Day of Judgment each person would give an account of all their deeds done in this life. In the film these books are confidential tape recordings that are discovered and played back after the memories were erased. Ultimately the characters have to deal with their own agendas and past relationships with others. This is what true mind-altering repentance is all about. A fresh start, renewal, always begins with dealing with the past. After that, healing and rebirth can take place."

Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "Faith, like love, depends on remembering. As with Joel and Clementine's love, to lose those memories is to lose something too dear to lose, even if it seems not to be working. Like other relationships, our relationship with God has times in which it may not seem to be working. If our memories of what God has meant to us and of what God has done fade away, we are truly left alone. Sometimes our memories are all that we have to keep us together."

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Critics bemoan Dawn of the Dead and Taking Lives

Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) observes that Dawn of the Dead is about "whether we will follow the ways of hell or the ways of God. Those ways … are to love and care for others, to make sacrifices that sometimes require the giving up of one's own life for another person."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) is troubled by the film's success. "As throngs of the still-living shuffle zombie-like out of another round of Dawn of the Dead screenings, most won't be bothered by the idea that they've just been enticed into thinking on those things exactly opposite of that which is 'noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.'"

Reviewing Taking Lives, Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "[The director] takes a film that started with intrigue and turns it into a fairly routine thriller that eventually spirals into silliness."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "The writer and director of Taking Lives have put together a real thriller that keeps the audience guessing from the beginning to the very end—literally. No matter how prepared you might be, you will jump in your seat a few times if you see this movie, and you'll change your mind frequently as to the identity of the killer. That said, Taking Lives deserves better treatment than it got—by the director, not the critics. Far too much time is spent focusing on gory crime scenes, dead bodies, and explicit sex and violence."

Next week: What to make of a demon who rebels against evil? Reviews of Hellboy arrive, along with The Rock's Walking Tall.