As The Passion slides down the box office charts and prepares to make its inevitable exit from the top ten, extreme violence continues to dominate the screens this week. This time, though, the violence is in service of revenge tales—one an outrageous, tongue-in-cheek, martial arts spectacle, the other a simple comic book adaptation.

Kill Bill 2: Tarantino's strengths, weaknesses divide critics

The Bride (Uma Thurman) is back in Kill Bill Vol. 2, this week's box office champ. In this episode, we learn her name and a whole lot more. We learn why her fiancé and her wedding party were slaughtered by a killer named Bill (David Carradine). We learn what happened to the Bride's daughter, who was revealed to be alive at the end of Vol. 1. We also meet her trainer, an indignant, impish martial arts master named Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), and we learn the extent to which she has mastered murderous maneuvers. These deadly talents then assist her in her desperate quest to find and destroy her malevolent nemesis.

While the film certainly serves up the graphic violence you'd expect from a Quentin Tarantino film, it also delivers far more character development, dialogue, and storytelling than Vol. 1. This is catching many critics by surprise, impressing some of them, discouraging others. It is worth noting that the Bride is fighting in order to break free from "the life" of a criminal, just as Samuel L. Jackson's character did in Pulp Fiction. But her methods for doing so are not as level-headed. She's on "a roaring rampage of revenge."

Mainstream critics, who condemned The Passion for its onscreen violence, suddenly seem to have decided that there's nothing wrong with R-rated brutality whatsoever. Most of them give KB2 high praise. Those who object primarily complain about Tarantino's preoccupation with referencing other movies.

The majority of religious press critics, on the other hand, continue to reject Tarantino's work due to the excessive violence.

In doing so, some of them fall short of giving Tarantino credit for his remarkable achievements—the stellar performances he draws from his actors, the surprising moral conflict that is revealed at the heart of the story in this episode, and the technical achievement of his filmmaking. These movies are indulgent and flawed, but they should be recognized as a mix of strengths and weaknesses. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "If you're offended by bad language, by less-than-scrupulous characters, and/or by scenes of strong violence—regardless of whether it's hyper-realistic like The Passion or comic book-styled like The Matrix—this film is definitely not for you." But he adds, "Kill Bill Vol. 2 is undeniably enjoyable filmmaking, unpredictable in its storytelling and wholly original in its characterizations."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "I have to admit, I liked Vol. 2 much more than its predecessor simply because of the focus on the characters instead of on the ways they killed each other." He does confirm that "vengeance remains the central theme of the film."

He finds a spiritual message in the film, however: "Believing is the most important key there is to achieving success. Rarely do we see success if we don't believe that it is possible. God continues to exhort us to believe in Him and in the Word that He has given us because He knows that as we do, we will see the signs, miracles, and wonders that He is ready and willing to send our way."

(At one point in the movie, the Bride looks skyward and says, "Thank you!" repeatedly. Viewers might wonder who she's addressing.)

Maurice Broaddus (Hollywood Jesus) praises the "great action, wonderfully acted characters, and brilliant direction." He describes it as "a revenge movie with a heart. The movie becomes about … a killer trying to leave her old life behind to start anew … for the sake of her child. But to do that, she has to put to death the 'old man' and by proxy, her old nature. The Bride finds her true calling, her self-salvation scheme, in the love she has for her child."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) writes, "Though the story never veers away from its motive for revenge, it was a little affecting to see this Terminatoresque female lead tap into sensitive facets of her feminine nature. I was taken aback to find myself moved by these qualities that she expresses."

Others focus on the film's failings. J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) is frustrated by inconsistencies. "The first movie sets us up for one kind of film: highly stylized action pastiche. For Vol. 2 to give us a completely different movie—one that focuses on the deficiencies of Vol. 1—is both misguided and frustrating. We're offered two movies that have nothing in common with each other besides the actors and characters' names."

"Sparer in tone and much more dialogue-heavy than its predecessor, it's no less eager to glory in gore," says Steven Isaac (Plugged In). He acknowledges that the Bride makes a decision to leave her job as an assassin in order to settle down, get married, and raise her child. But he adds that her "passionate love for her daughter is used as leverage to excuse her recent acts of revenge."

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the movie is "as morally vacuous as its more overtly gory predecessor. Tarantino is obviously a filmmaker in love with cinema, a passion that translates onto the screen. Kill Bill is laced with flashes of visual brilliance and juicy dialogue, but it is also weighed down by a propensity for self-indulgent, showoffy camera work. The film's underlying theme of revenge is incompatible with the Christian understanding of justice and forgiveness."

The Punisher: Angel of death? Or amoral hero?

Based on the Marvel comic book hero, Jonathan Hensleigh's new film The Punisher arrives as a hard-hitting revenge tale starring Tom Jane (star of last year's worst film, Dreamcatcher.) Here's an original story: Bad guys killed his wife, so he's out for revenge. The head villain is played by John Travolta.

Mainstream critics are less than impressed. Religious press critics are divided. Some reject it on account of its glorification of vigilante justice. Others see value in spiritual themes that they draw from the story.

Tom Neven (Plugged In) traces this new trend of vengeance films back to the early '70s Dirty Harry flicks. "Watching The Punisher, we're horrified to see innocent family members murdered, and it's only natural to want to see justice done. But it almost instantly rules out the legal means of justice so that Frank seems justified in doing what he's doing. It's hard to believe that the same creative minds that gave us the humble, self-sacrificing Spidey could create this cold, calculating, amoral 'hero.'"

Zachary Winn (Christian Spotlight) says, "The theme of revenge serves as both the basis for the story and the topic of much of the dialogue. Extreme violence and gore, including graphic torture, are prevalent throughout. People are stabbed, shot, run over, strangled, and burned. This is all presented graphically."

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) calls it "a boring and gleefully violent tale. In absurdly pretentious fashion, director Jonathan Hensleigh simply strings together a series of brutal executions as the title character from the Marvel comic books is depicted as a heroic dispenser of justice."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Castle … is not so much a super hero as he is a sadistic vigilante. [The movie] is simply another loud, explosion-happy, blood-soaked, gun-riddled, B-movie crime adventure film … albeit one with a higher budget."

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Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) goes looking for spiritual insight: "While Frank is looking at punishment for those who killed the ones he loved, and later on for all rapists, murderers, thieves and more, I was reminded of the fact that in comparison to God and Jesus Christ, we are all evil and deserving of death. The movie in many ways actually helps portray this concept." He adds, "It is extremely violent and there are brief scenes of nudity and homosexual behavior. But these things do not negate the numerous opportunities to discuss spiritual issues with individuals seeing this movie."

Similarly, Melinda Ledman (Hollywood Jesus) makes a scriptural connection: "Remorselessly, Castle executes judgment on those who have committed unnecessary evils, punishing them for their sins and for their unwillingness to change. This parallels the task of the Death Angel in the days of Moses and Pharaoh, when the Angel executed God's judgment on Egypt by killing the firstborn male in every Egyptian household (Exodus 11). Cold, hard, lacking feeling and mercy, the Angel of Death mowed down lives across the land with no more thought than we would have while mowing down the grass on a Sunday afternoon. It was just the job that had to be done."

Connie and Carla "validate" homosexual lifestyles

In Connie and Carla, Nia Vardalos, writer and star of the sensationally popular My Big Fat Greek Wedding, dresses herself up in outrageous costumes and makeup alongside her partner in crime, Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense, About a Boy), in a comedy cousin to Victor/Victoria. The film follows two women who go on the run after witnessing a murder. They decide to go into hiding by posing as drag queens, hoping they can convince observers that they're actually men in women's clothing.

Mainstream critics are giving the film a clear thumbs-down rating. Troubled by the film's message, so are Christian critics. The movie, they say, promotes a homosexual agenda, disguising itself as a harmless comedy.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it "promotes an if-it-makes-you-happy-it's-acceptable kind of morality, which posits a fuzzy felicity as the barometer for gauging the rightness or wrongness of an act or lifestyle." He concludes that "the true teaching objective of the film [is not] tolerance, or even compassion, but validation."

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Loren Eaton (Plugged In) says it "fails on a whole lot of levels. The two gals and their entourage of gay and straight chums are as three-dimensional as rice paper. The jokes barely elicited a single chuckle during the screening I attended. And, morally, the movie makes no bones about wearing its pro-homosexual themes on its sleeve."

Lisa Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Thinly-drawn characters and entirely predictable plot devices had me twiddling my thumbs an hour into the gender-bending farce. It's one thing to ask me to believe that Connie and Carla can pass for drag queens just by exaggerating their makeup and lowering their voices. It's another thing to ask me to care."

"There are moments when the film shines," says Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk), "but unfortunately, Connie and Carla's politically correct, feel-good message about cross-dressing tends to override everything else. The film perpetuates the mythical stereotype that gay men are healthy, happy, and wise. It will be a huge hit in the gay community. But, because I am aware of the devastation—physical, emotional and spiritual—that this lifestyle brings, I was more saddened than charmed."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Where [Greek Wedding] was delightfully fresh, Connie and Carla is tired and stale. In trying to make a cross between Victor/Victoria and Some Like It Hot, Vardalos and director Michael Lembeck resort to using homosexual stereotypes—presumably for the purpose of adding humor to a threadbare plot. They needn't have bothered. The characters that populate this film don't have much substance."

Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight) reports, "The film preaches acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, making it seem cute and harmless, and making cross-dressing almost fun and lively. [It's] an occasionally funny movie, that borrows far too much from other, better-made films, and its own original attempts at humor frequently fall flat."

Interpreting Hellboy as a tale of spiritual adoption

This week at Metaphilm, Annie Frisbie goes about interpreting Hellboy as a parable of the way God has made us heirs of his kingdom. "The moral of the story is that adoption trumps nature. Hellboy is not prisoner to the accident of his birth, he is freed by adoption to triumph over his innate evil, and to eradicate that evil from every fiber of his being. When God adopts us, we change entirely. No longer are we creatures of sin, bound to darkness, doomed to fail. We are freed from our birth. We are freed for something great: to be the true heirs of God's promise of salvation."

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The Gospel of John arrives on video

In the midst of Passion mania, Christian moviegoers should not miss the opportunity to see the other major film about Jesus recently released. Phillip Saville's The Gospel of John presents the whole story of Christ as it is narrated in one book of the Bible. The actors provide the dialogue, while the narration is read by Christopher Plummer. This three-hour production may not have the big budget or the notoriety of Mel Gibson's film, but it deserves attention and will reward viewers with its careful dramatization of Scriptural events. Henry Ian Cusick is a passionate, human, persuasive Christ, and he makes the dialogue work even though he has to say, "I tell you the truth … " dozens of times.

Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) writes, "The film suffers a bit from a common tendency in this genre to make nearly everyone sound like a well-educated Briton (though the traitor Judas is played by a Canadian). But Henry Ian Cusick delivers one of the more charismatic, confrontational and compassionate interpretations of Christ around; and Christopher Plummer's subtle, supple narration is a treat for the ears."

Christianity Today Movies reviewed the film in March.

More praise for Eternal Sunshine

Charlie Kaufman's latest script, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed with vigor and cleverness by Michel Gondry, drew mixed reviews from religious press critics when it first opened.

This week, Michael Leary (The Matthew's House Project) joins the ranks of those who find profound insight in this bewildering love story. He says, "Of all of his scripts to date, Eternal Sunshine is Kaufman's most direct. It is difficult to miss the series of moments in the script that point outside of themselves, beyond the screen, and right into the heart of the audience. Joel and Clementine channel the unspeakable mix of hope and regret that few directors have been able to lay their finger on. Don't watch this film if you have a few memories you can only revisit with a heartsick smile, it will only reacquaint you with their potency. But all of this radical sentimentality is put into play to service a vision of love and relationships that we rarely see in film. This is brave stuff for Hollywood."

Looking back at the Matrix trilogy

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) presents a summation of the Matrix trilogy this week—just after the video release of the third film, Matrix Revolutions. Greydanus argues, "The Matrix isn't really a Christian allegory, any more than it is a gnostic fable. However interesting the film's Christian references may be from a critical perspective, The Matrix offers little in the way of genuinely edifying or uplifting moral or spiritual significance, at least as regards the Christian parallels."

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And he concludes, "Viewed as a trilogy, the Matrix story-arc ironically lacks something common to both gnosticism and Christianity: transcendence, connection to ultimate reality or absolute truth above and beyond the finitude of the created order."

Kill Bill's Tarantino: Passion was 'brilliant'

It's a strange trend, but more and more filmmakers are spending their interviews talking about The Passion of The Christ. In L.A. Weekly, Kill Bill director Quentin Tarantino says he loved The Passion:

"I think it actually is one of the most brilliant visual storytelling movies I've seen since the talkies—as far as telling a story via pictures," he says. "So much so that when I was watching this movie, I turned to a friend and said, 'This is such a Herculean leap of Mel Gibson's talent. I think divine intervention might be part of it.' I cannot believe that Mel Gibson directed it. Not personally Mel Gibson—I mean, Braveheart was great. I mean, I can't believe any actor made that movie. This is like the most visual movie by an actor since Charles Laughton made The Night of the Hunter. No, this is 15 times more visual than that. It has the power of a silent movie."

Caution: The rest of the interview includes profanity.

Next week: Denzel Washington is a Man on Fire and Jennifer Garner is 13 Going On 30.