The Nazis—the world's most popular big screen villains—are back in this week's most popular new movie. The story begins during World War II, as Hitler's minions attempt to harness the power of the paranormal. Led by that resilient Russian villain Grigory Rasputin, they attempt to open a portal to another, darker dimension. But Allied forces arrive just in time to upset this otherworldly experiment, foiling Rasputin's plans—but not before a childlike demon jumps into this world. The Allies capture the little imp and train him up to be a redeemed devil who devotes his life to saving the world from supernatural bad guys. His name, appropriately, is Hellboy.
Guillermo Del Toro's adaptation of Mike Mignola's comic book series brings to life a conflict of good versus evil. The "good guys" belong to the United States Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. The bad guys, who have varying methods of cheating death, are trying to invite some particularly nasty alien forces called the Seven Gods of Chaos down to earth to wreak havoc.
As comic book films go, Hellboy may prove particularly interesting to religious moviegoers. It boasts more religious symbolism than any comic-movie yet produced. Our enormous, crimson-skinned hero has a fondness for pizza and kittens, but he also carries rosary beads the way other heroes carry secret weapons.
The idea of Satan being opposed by one of his own raises interesting questions. Unfortunately, Hellboy fails to explore them. The movie has more in common with Ghostbusters and Men in Black than it does with any story about true spiritual conflict. Religious symbolism lends it an air of importance, but it's not much more than a live-action cartoon about a sarcastic, grouchy hero who goes around smashing big ugly monsters. While the high points of the films are the quieter moments of character development, these are drowned out by a lot of noisy chaotic action that is not particularly interesting or inventive.
My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.
"Watching Hellboy makes you appreciate all that the X-Men movies, Spider-Man, and even Hulk got right," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). He is disappointed at the film's failure to acknowledge the spiritual questions at its center. He also observes that Del Toro fails to provide "vivid and memorable villains … an intriguing and clever story … well-rounded supporting characters and meaningful relationships."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "There are emotional interludes, clever character development and plenty of subtext. The clear message that it matters more how you end things than how you start them is a good one. As is the idea that none of us have to remain slaves to our evil inclinations. But non-stop violence and nods to necromancy should dissuade discerning families from bonding with this horned boy from (way) down under."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) cautions families not to rush off to this film, due to its focus on paranormal activity and heavy violence. But he adds, "Surprisingly, Christian messages are communicated quite clearly during the course of the film. We don't have horns or a tail, but our story is similar. We were born dead in sins, subject to the god of this world and his evil ways. Our Father loved us enough to give us a choice as well as the ability to turn away from the evil and embrace the good."
William Foote (Christian Spotlight) says, "Hellboy continues the same humanistic world view theme that we have seen so frequently in recent comic book movies, i.e., man is morally good and has the power to prevail over evil."
Mainstream critics are calling Hellboy a better-than-average comic book movie. The film looks likely to earn itself a sequel, if viewers go back for a second round.
The Prince & Me: Romance or lust?
Julia Stiles is this week's teen-movie princess in the romantic comedy The Prince & Me. Stiles play an American pre-med student who falls in love with a classmate, only to discover that he's a Danish prince rebelling against his tradition.
Lacey Mical Callahan (Christian Spotlight) says she "greatly anticipated" the film, but "left the theatre disappointed as I reflected on the messages this movie will send to the many children who view it. It grieves me to think of the young people who will view these characters as 'prince' and 'princess' to be emulated. The moral of this story is, 'Lust conquers all.'"
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says it's "good, clean and filled with a positive role model for women—as well as an excellent message about dating and marriage." She also offers her perspective on the popularity of the "princess" genre. "In the heart of every little girl is a dream that someday, a noble prince will awaken her love. Although the wealth is exciting … the true heart issue, I believe, is that women want to be taken care of. That doesn't mean we don't ever want to work or provide for our families. Caretaking is so much broader than finances. It's a godly desire, although we must remember that our ultimate provider is in heaven. And thank goodness we'll all get to move into His palace, one day!"
Bob Waliszewski (Plugged In) believes the film is all about rejecting that idea. "For generations, little girls have been fed the fairytale fantasy that marrying a handsome prince, wearing gorgeous gowns and living in a big castle is the romantic ideal. The Prince & Me toys with that notion, then debunks it. It's nice to see the Cinderella myth put in its place." He goes on to suggest more productive perspectives for young ladies. And he concludes by criticizing the film for the way it "romanticizes sex before marriage."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "breezy but bland. Swiping its basic premise from Roman Holiday (1953), this far inferior narrative unfolds with formulaic predictability."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The film works reasonably well for such a well trod formulaic story. Credit for that goes to some fairly decent chemistry taking place between the adorable Julia Stiles and the British actor Luke Mably. Their scenes together reflect a level of comfort and familiarity which adds credibility and draws the audience along for a ride that they've admittedly taken before."
Judging from the responses of mainstream critics, the film is just the latest disposable romance, good enough to avoid condemnation, unremarkable enough to inspire any enthusiasm.
Ho-hum reviews for Home on the Range
Home on the Range, reportedly the final Disney film produced through traditional hand-drawn animation, tells the story of three feisty cows who determine to save their patch of pasture by collecting the ransom for a yodeling cattle rancher. These belligerent bovines are voiced by the unlikely team of Rosanne Barr, Jennifer Tilly, and Academy Award-winner Dame Judi Dench.
The film has found a few fans in the mainstream press. Religious press critics find themselves on opposite sides of the fence. Many of them make their arguments with the use of bovine-oriented puns … for better or worse.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is not terribly impressed. "Is this how it finally ends for Walt Disney feature animation—not with a bang, not with a whimper … but with a moo? There's nothing to compare with the inspired zaniness of Emperor's New Groove. Nor is there anything like Emperor's moral message, or its warmly pro-family depiction. Home on the Range is a good argument for Disney taking a break from animated features for awhile."
Similarly, Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) sends a message to Disney's animation studio: "Sorry guys, but if this is the future of Disney animation, you're in a world of trouble. It's not that [this movie] is unwatchably bad. It's just so ordinary that it barely registers. Home on the Range possesses all the sticking power of Teflon."
Mary Lasse (Christianity Today Movies) disagrees. "It's udderly hilarious!" Unable to resist the farmyard puns, she says it's "a cheeky cattle caper—and it's terrific. Younger kids will beg to see Home on the Range, but adults will enjoy saddling up and going for the ride—possibly even enjoying this moo-vie more than your kids."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Home on the Range proves that there is still a place for hand-drawn films. Laced with enough comic wit to keep older cowpokes from sleeping in the saddle, the film … imparts a positive message about teamwork and camaraderie."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "This is broad, Saturday morning cartoon fun that should please the young ones of the family. There are a few adult double entendres, which is the reason for the PG rating. I suppose the point of the film is that heroes come in all shapes and sizes. They may not be the bravest or the strongest or the wisest. … But they are the ones willing to act when action is required."
Walking Tall's answer to injustice: violence!
In a remake of the famous 1973 vigilante movie Walking Tall, WWF veteran Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson fills the shoes of Joe Don Baker. He plays Chris Vaughn, a former member of the U.S. Army Special Forces who becomes the sheriff of a small town. When drug problems increase in his neighborhood, he closes in on a bunch of crooks at a local casino. What follows involves heavy objects coming into abrupt contact with breakable heads.
While mainstream critics are impressed with The Rock's charisma onscreen, they don't have a lot of praise for the film. Religious critics are especially troubled by the film's tendency to glorify and sensationalize the sheriff's violent tactics.
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the film is primarily "an excuse to give The Rock another starring role in a simple smash 'em up adventure. Smash things up he does … and to be honest, he looks good while doing it. But there's not much more to the picture."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) praises "Johnson's charismatic presence" but concludes with strong disapproval of the film's message. "While the story makes pretensions of a strong moral sense of right and wrong, any conclusions about justice are lost in the sickening din of ammo and crushed bones. Vaughn is an honorable man … but the brutal line-crossing means he employs seem to promote the message that, ultimately, violence is the best course of action for fighting injustice."
Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) says it's "long on violence and short on police procedure. Impressionable kids who injure one another trying to replicate TV wrestling stunts in their back yards might come away with the idea that raw violence is the way to root out crime."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) agrees: "This vile—and dangerous—movie glorifies vigilantism and lawlessness. It makes a Rambo movie look like Bambi. Teens who avidly follow professional wrestling will flock to watch The Rock. And in doing so they'll get their heads crammed full of 'cool' new ways to hurt others—and themselves."
Evan D. Baltz (Christian Spotlight) writes, "Nothing in this movie rings true or feels inspired. The movie doesn't really attempt to be anything significant, or answer any real questions about violence or vengeance."
Jimmy Akin (Decent Films) says, with more than a hint of sarcasm, that there are "some good moral messages in the film. From what we see onscreen, we get the distinct impression that casinos, drugs, drinking to excess, and having women gyrate suggestively all over the place are Bad Things." But he also observes that the movie "enjoys some of these (particularly the last) a little too much, and it takes juvenile glee at unrestrained violence for the sake of making the heroes appear over-the-top cool." He adds, "There are a lot of laughs in this film, and to give credit where credit is due, some of them are intentional."
Good works over grace in Mormon movie
The Best Two Years is only playing in limited release, but it may draw the attention and concern of Christian viewers, as it is a project funded and promoted by Mormons.
Ron Reed (Christianity Today Movies) says the movie is "not primarily evangelistic; it's confessional. To its credit, The Best Two Years shows a refreshing willingness to acknowledge the foibles and possible problems with some Mormon missionary practices, but the story ultimately comes round to affirming the value of the whole enterprise. Christians may have objections to Mormonism, but viewers who can get past those concerns will connect at a human level with the sense of standing outside the prevailing culture, the passionate desire to have a testimony and share it with others, and the often painful tension between the mandate to evangelize and the immense personal and cultural barriers to carrying that out." Reed concludes that his personal objection to the film is its suggestion that eternal life depends upon good works rather than grace.
Mainstream critics who have seen the film are giving it high praise … although it is worth noting that almost all of those that have reviewed it are based near Salt Lake City, Utah.
More on Dogville, Ladykillers
As Lars von Trier's new film Dogville continues playing in limited release, preparing for its upcoming openings across the country, more religious press reviews are seeing the film and responding.
Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says, "von Trier's dismal drama … makes no bones about the helmer's anti-American sentiments. Dark, moody and depressing, the film is artistically noteworthy, absorbing the viewer—even at three hours—with a well-crafted, superbly acted script. However, the film's nihilistic tone, cruel violence and message that humans are really no better at heart than beasts—more precisely, dogs—is contrary to the Catholic ideal of human goodness and the value of redemption."
But J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) argues that the film is "an exhilarating ride, one that will inspire numerous late-night discussions and repeat viewings. Add in the brilliant ensemble acting … Kidman's brave performance and John Hurt's marvelous line readings as the Narrator, and you have a masterpiece."
Elsewhere, Josh Hurst (The Rebel Base) looks over The Ladykillers, the latest comedy from the Coen Brothers. He finds that it features "one of the finest performances of any Coen flick yet. Irma P. Hall steals the whole doggone movie with her note-perfect portrayal of a kindly but shrewd Southern woman with a soft spot for Bob Jones University and an aversion to 'hippity hop' music. But The Ladykillers also differs from your average Coen Brothers film in a few key areas. Like the fact that it's a remake. Whenever a celebrated classic film is remade one always has to wonder exactly why Hollywood found it necessary to make the same movie all over again. And then there's the characters. Or maybe I should say the lack of characters." He is also displeased to find the Coens have settling for "cheap, easy, sometimes-bawdy laughs."
Next week: Critics tell us whether The Alamo is worth remembering, and whether The Girl Next Door is appropriate for teen moviegoers.
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