You don't need a sixth sense to detect that many of M. Night Shyamalan's fans are aggravated with him.

In truth, they've been disgruntled ever since the filmmaker's follow-up to The Sixth Sense failed to deliver the same kinds of thrills and surprises as the story about the boy who could "see dead people." Unbreakable was, instead, a moody movie about the origins of a superhero. And if you forgive its awkward conclusion; it's a textured, complex, and soulful story about courage, identity, and conscience.

His next film, Signs, took the conventions of old B-grade horror, mixed them with the elements of War of the Worlds-style sci-fi, and lured audiences into a challenging dialogue about the rewards of faith. Religious press reviewers were impressed and enthusiastic. Mel Gibson's role as an ex-minister arguing with God played as an interesting prologue to the actor's eventual plunge into controversy as a Passion-play director. But many fans complained that Signs' aliens were hokey and that the ending, more meditative than explosive, was a letdown.

Now The Village is here. Over the weekend, it raked in nearly $51 million, but once again the audience is split. A few mainstream critics praise Shyamalan's use of metaphor and theme, while most complain that it lacks good scares and a satisfying twist ending.

The Village is a simple story, peppered with fairy tales, about a small settlement of Americans living like Puritans (but without the religion) and maintaining a fragile "truce" with monsters that live in the woods nearby. When tragedy befalls the town, one brave blind woman (Ron Howard's daughter Bryce Dallas Howard) must venture out for help from the "towns," risking her life for the good of others. Can she make it through the forest without being devoured by the lurking phantoms?

Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) writes that the movie "does offer a few twists, but … what's truly unexpected is that, in the middle of the tingles up your spine, The Village is a strong, engaging character drama. More than that, it's a love story. [The movie] is at its most engrossing when exploring and revealing the intentions and motivations of its characters. The ability of fear to control us, and the way we use it to control others, plays out across the span of the movie as does the driving and protective nature of love."

"The Village's greatest strength is a moral core that never devolves into moralistic propaganda," writes Megan Basham (National Review, formerly of Christian Spotlight). "Some critics will undoubtedly dismiss [it] as being too light on thrills to qualify as a thriller. And they would be right if that were all [Shyamalan] set out to accomplish. Instead, it seems Shyamalan is striving to move from a scary-movie prodigy who flirts with significant themes to a substantial cinematic artist who only flirts with scares. What The Village lacks in pacing, it makes up for in stunning Wyeth-inspired art direction and an acting debut that is for once worthy of its buildup."

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Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) observed the audience at his screening, which entered the theatre with enthusiasm, and exited with "disappointment. Instead of a supercharged adventure, what they got was a soberly paced, feature-length 'thriller' that might have worked better as a half-hour Twilight Zone episode."

But he adds that the film's subtext "is worth talking about. The Village works very well as a metaphor infused with socially significant ideas and transcendent themes. Of course, most viewers will be too busy trying to track Shyamalan's cinematic slight of hand to follow it on that level."

Carole McDonnell (The Film Forum) writes, "Most people will be disappointed with the movie. But if they choose to see the philosophical underpinnings and to ask themselves a few honest questions about politics, family life, innocence and guilt, they'll consider the film a minor masterpiece, a film which uses misdirection to show its viewers the devastation and cost of misdirection."

While I'd argue that the film falls far short of being a masterpiece, I agree that the storytelling is rich with intriguing themes. Those who concern themselves more with its scares and thrills than with its metaphors will come away disappointed. My full review is at Looking Closer.

Like his previous films, The Village has flaws. The old-fashioned, awkward dialogue is discomforting. Given the simple outlines of the characters, it is distracting to have so many big name actors in the parts—we expect complexity and subtlety from cast members like William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Adrien Brody and Brendan Gleeson, and instead they look like they've donned costumes for a thrown-together pageant play. But Shyamalan's storytelling lends itself to discussions of ethics and spirituality without limiting its relevance to one specific context. The Village could represent a church, a political party, a lifestyle, a family, America, or humanity in general. Any one of these interpretations could reward the viewer with valuable insights about the difference between law and grace, fear and freedom.

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Most religious press film critics turn in the reviews that Basham and Smithouser predicted—expressions of disappointment with the film's conclusion and lack of successful scares.

Josh Hurst (Reveal) says that Shyamalan "seems to have totally forgotten some of the fundamental elements of scary movie making on … The Village. Here he throws several twists into the story, most of which are simply not that startling. When the obligatory surprise ending finally arrives, it seems rather anticlimactic. Maybe the audience has grown numb to Shyamalan's shenanigans; or maybe this surprise simply isn't as well-executed as past ones."

Kevin Miller (Hollywood Jesus) says, "Unfortunately, while Shyamalan appeared to be a fresh new voice when he first broke onto the scene, each successive film is making him look more and more like a one-trick pony, at least from a writing point of view."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Shyamalan still wants to hide the truth in plain sight, then open our eyes and our minds in a stunning last-reel revelation. Unfortunately, each time he tries it, the trick loses something. With The Village, [he] has gone to the well once too often. Whether or not you see the anti-climactic twists coming is almost beside the point. For the first time, Shyamalan has created a puzzle movie populated by characters we can't identify with, living in a world we can't relate to."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says the film "is beautifully crafted in all the ways we've come to expect of [Shyamalan]—painterly cinematography, assured performances, first-rate production design, heightened atmosphere of suspense or dread. But for all of that, it must be said that the ultimate payoff in The Village is a distinct letdown."

However, Forbes is pleased that the characters "value love and goodness. And given the purity with which these people live their lives, and the courtly way in which they speak, there are no language or sexual concerns whatsoever in the film."

Phil Boatwright (saWorship) begins by lauding Shyamalan's Signs and then compares it to The Village. He concludes that "many will be disappointed with the end results. Here Shyamalan's efforts seem forced and gimmicky. Disappointingly, for all the love talked about in The Village, it's as passionless as the town is colorless."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "a major disappointment. More time spent on the villagers and how they feel about their plight and less time focused upon the mystery of the creatures would have made this a compelling and interesting film."

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Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) calls it "a cinematically beautiful film full of twists that will keep you shaking in your seat … a real treat for Shyamalan and thriller fans alike, especially those who enjoy a deeper message." But she also warns of its "distinctly humanistic worldview that has carefully extracted any Christian elements."

Personally, I'd argue that the importance of overcoming fear is certainly not an "un-Christian" idea. If we must use "Christian" as an adjective, then surely it applies to messages that promote peace and argue against jealousy and deceit. Finally, the hero's willingness to "lay down [her] life for her friends" echoes the virtues of Christ himself. This fantasy may abstain from blatant references to Christianity, but as in most good fairy tales, folk tales, and fantasy adventures, the themes, subtext, and subtlety point to the truth.

More re-imagining than re-make

Director Jonathan Demme, who turned Hannibal Lecter loose in 1992's The Silence of the Lambs, concocts a nameless, faceless villain in his re-imagining of the 1962 classic thriller The Manchurian Candidate.

In the original, a Communist plot put a presidential candidate in danger, and a brainwashed soldier (Frank Sinatra) had to regain his repressed memories of Korean War traumas in order to uncover the truth and stop a programmed assassin (Laurence Harvey).

In this version, it's a conspiracy of corporations that threatens the candidate, and a haunted soldier (Denzel Washington) must get his Gulf War memories back in order to properly expose the killer. Behind the scenes, a malevolent senator (Meryl Streep, vamping it up in the famous Angela Lansbury role) is managing the political career of her son, a war hero named Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schrieber in an Oscar-worthy supporting turn). Shaw is a rising star, famous for Gulf War heroics. But the closer the country gets to the election, the more he proves he's the one to put the "vice" in "vice president."

Jonathan Demme's version is not really a re-make. His screenwriters have concocted a substantially different story that stoops to more crowdpleasing moments, sensationalizes the spookiness of the conspiracy, and yet is somehow more relevant to our generation today than the original was to its own. Demme's direction focuses the film into a serious, character-driven thriller that confounds our expectations and draws us to the edge of our seats, even as we recoil in horror at the resemblance between our own world and this fictional, Kafka-esque nightmare. My full review is at Looking Closer.

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Kevin Miller (Hollywood Jesus) asks, "Could there be a more appropriate time for a film like this? Released one month after Fahrenheit 9/11 with conspiracy theories about George W. Bush … running at an all-time high, The Manchurian Candidate is a masterpiece of cinematic timing. Thankfully, it is also a great movie. This remake retains all of the suspense of the original but updates the context so that it has that ring of truth that makes you believe something like this really could happen—almost."

Ron Reed (Christianity Today Movies) calls it "one of the great remakes of all time. This really is the right movie at the right time—again. In 2004, we're again preoccupied with enemies on the home front, confronted with the very real threat of neighbors who may turn out to be terrorists, an anxiety that's only compounded by an unsettling mistrust of governments and government agencies—not to mention multi-national corporations, who prove to be the real Bad Guys this time around. This is a Manchurian Candidate for a new—and newly fearful—generation. What it's playing on are our fears. And they're real enough, and worth addressing."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) praises "solid direction by Demme, a taut, intelligent script by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, and three strong performances by Washington, Streep, and Schreiber. The film works mainly because it taps into the paranoid fear and anxiety caused by the ever-growing disillusionment and distrust of governmental power and the people who covet and wield it."

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "It's rare to see a movie actually engaged with present-day issues, so we're willing to forgive many of its mistakes. Only diehard Democrats will equate Raymond Shaw's character with our current vice president, but the movie's points about how candidates manipulate fear for their own devices is incredibly relevant. In addition, the odd pairing of security and freedom is exposed for the empty propaganda that it is. In the end, the movie's politics might be more satisfying than its story."

Predicting Oscars for Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "The only redeeming feature about this ultra-liberal message" is that the villain "looks, dresses, walks, and talks exactly like [Hillary Clinton]." She also includes a list of "objectionable content," warning viewers of things that could offend them like "offscreen nudity." (Offscreen nudity?)

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Here are a few more "redeeming features": a cautionary message about the corrupting nature of power; a story that underlines the importance of honesty, humility, selflessness, and courage; first-rate performances; vivid and energetic cinematography; a powerful score by Rachel Portman; and a timely reminder that we should not just idly accept the commercials for presidential candidates, but become vigilant and ruthless in our endeavors to attain the truth and make a wise, responsible decision for the future of our country. The Manchurian Candidate may have some outrageous science fiction elements, but like the best science fiction, it employs metaphors that reward close attention.

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) is impressed. He calls it "creepy" and praises the "dead-on performances from all of the principals" which "combine to establish an incredibly relevant and moody political thriller. Washington and Streep are always good, but Liev Schreiber, who has been doing solid work for years, steals the show. Perhaps this film will elevate him to the A-list of Hollywood actors, where he firmly deserves a place."

Vaughn also identifies valuable themes in the film. "It also takes what should really upset us and doesn't—big business in bed with government, for example—and serves it back to us with the appropriate fright factor."

Frederica Mathewes-Green (National Review) says the remake is far inferior to the original. From her point of view, the film isn't suspenseful at all. "Without suspense, this version doesn't have much going for it. It's a spectacle of noise and blood, without the psychological subtext that made the first film far more disturbing. Every alteration in the new version is a change for the worse."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "There's little overall menace in this film. That doesn't diminish the movie's taut plot and the paranoid sense of uncertainty felt by the main character. It has enough blind alleys and tantalizing twists to keep viewers on the edges of their seats and uncertain until the very end. What does diminish it is the graphic—sometimes gratuitous—violence and spatterings of crude language that'll force most families to vote against this candidate at the box office."

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Most mainstream critics are impressed, and some praise it as one of those rare remakes that equals the original.


Based on a family-friendly, British television series in which the space-traveling heroes were actually marionettes, Thunderbirds is a new live-action adventure film aimed at younger audiences. According to mainstream criticsand a few religious press critics, the movie misfires badly.

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "There was a novel 'cool factor' to a TV show in the pre-Star Wars era that bucked cell animation in favor of puppets. And if the acting was a little wooden we knew why. But this live-action version's stiff performances and insufferable dialogue (which shifts back and forth between banality and technobabble) are embarrassing. Furthermore, the lackluster story will have viewers old enough to tell time checking their watches well before the 30-minute mark."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says director Jonathan Frakes "has jettisoned not only the puppets, but most of the show's campy charm, leaving only clumsily strung-together action sequences which showcase the eponymous vehicles—the net result being little more than an 87-minute commercial for the line of all-terrain toys the movie will undoubtedly spawn. Acting-wise, Frakes would have done better sticking with the puppets, as most of the Thunderbirds lay a collective egg."

But Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Thunderbirds is a fantasy adventure that will tickle the imagination of young boys. Young girls may not get quite as much out of the film. For the most part … Frakes keeps things straightforwardly simple and age appropriate. There is an occasional lapse or two where an adult innuendo is allowed to pass through but these are limited and relatively innocuous."

Phil Boatwright (CBN) says, "This tongue-in-cheek action/adventure should be a successful summer release, and most likely the first of a successful franchise. Lively, inventive, and campy, Thunderbirds is a blastoff for the whole family."

A quiet, artful romance in a river of noisy blockbusters

William (Fabrice Luchini) and Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) are strangers drawn to each other's mysteries and differences in Intimate Strangers, the latest drama from the acclaimed French director Patrice Leconte (Man on the Train, The Widow of St. Pierre).

William is a tax advisor who has lived almost his whole life in a dull, claustrophobia-inducing building. His office is lined with his remnants of father's business, timeworn volumes, and even the toys of his childhood. He has never known any world but this one. Thus, when Anna accidentally stumbles into his office thinking that he is a therapist, the novelty of the mistake leads him to conceal his true identity and play the part of a counselor while this exotically beautiful women spills her personal secrets for him.

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Anna is trapped in a different kind of situation. She's a married woman, but she's also restless and racked with anxiety, due to the neglect her husband has shown her. They have not been intimate in six months, and she is lonely and lost. At least, that's what she tells William. As the story progresses, we come to wonder just how much of her story is the truth. Is she, perhaps, driven by loneliness, or perhaps by something more sinister, to create a fiction in order to enjoy a personal conversation with another human being? Is she really baring her soul to find some solace? Or is she playing her cards in order to gain some kind of advantage over poor gullible William? Is she even married at all?

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says Intimate Strangers is "the sort of sophisticated love story that only European filmmakers seem to manage without resorting to gratuitous sex or cliché d plot development. Leconte is a skillful storyteller. And the performances … are masterful, with the middle-aged, sad-eyed Luchini—a far cry from a conventional leading man—particularly expressive. Inevitably, a certain static quality sets in, though the actors' faces speak volumes and keep you absorbed throughout almost all of the film's 104-minute running time."

I agree with Forbes. The performances, virtuosic displays of restraint and subtlety, are reason enough to see the film. And it is refreshing to see a director who acknowledges that a strong relationship should be based on more than mere sexual attraction. If Anna is telling the truth about her marriage, than she built her house on a rotten foundation. The things she learns about intimacy through her conversations with William show us that, by listening to each other and holding back our initial, hormone-driven impulses, a man and a woman lay a firmer foundation for a promising future together. (And yet, let me be clear, these characters are still a long way from having a firm grasp of selflessness, honesty, and true love.) My full review is at Looking Closer.

Mainstream critics seem pleased to have such a sophisticated and artful work to enjoy in the middle of a summer full of commercial blockbusters.

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Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and get terrible reviews

Religious press critics are unanimous in treating the new comedy from writer-director Danny Lenier (Dude, Where's My Car?) as noxious summertime junk food. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle follows Harold, a college graduate who is persecuted by his co-workers, as he is dragged along on a long night of sophomoric misadventures with Kumar, a party animal who just wants to get a sack of burgers from White Castle.

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) objects to "a nonstop barrage of profanity, drug use and sexual content. Worse, the film never questions the wisdom of these characters' unrestrained indulgences. Harold and Kumar's appetites for marijuana, sex and food seemingly know no bounds. And consequences for their actions are wholly absent, suggesting fulfillment can be found in unbridled obedience to our bodies' primal urges for pleasure."

"Though crude and offensive at least Harold and Kumar … is an equal opportunity offender," writes Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "Asians, Indians, females, blacks, Christians, skateboarders, Southerners, cops … all groups will find themselves as the butt of more than one crude and politically incorrect joke before the film comes to an end."

"Just when you thought Hollywood had scraped the bottom of the lowbrow-idea barrel, a movie comes along which reveals a trap door to the cask," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). He calls it "a vulgar, mindless road-comedy with a self-summarizing title [that] is about an hour and a half too long."

More reviews of I, Robot, The Bourne Supremacy, and Maria Full of Grace

Reviewing films that Film Forum covered in previous weeks, Andrew Coffin (World) calls I, Robot "a bland retread of sci-fi and summer action movie conventions, produced with enough skill to be sometimes entertaining, but lacking both the courage and intellect to be anything more."

He describes A Cinderella Story as "a cliché d, mostly lifeless trifle, most praiseworthy for what it's not—in that it's not particularly profane, crude, or offensive, as children's movies go."

And, writing about The Bourne Supremacy, he says that Damon gives "a beautifully controlled performance. Action movie superlatives—taut, thrilling, gripping, exhilarating, etc.—are overused and rarely deserved. The Bourne Supremacy, on the other hand, consistently shows that it has earned most of those superlatives."

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Kevin Miller (Hollywood Jesus) also celebrates The Bourne Supremacy. "What allows this film—and the franchise—to transcend its genre is that it dares to give its lead character a third dimension. Bourne may have been programmed to be a heartless killer, but even the best programming cannot suppress his conscience. Since getting amnesia, he has been 'Bourne again,' and it becomes clear that the search for his identity is not so much about self-illumination as it is about atoning for sins he can't even remember committing."

Reviewing Maria Full of Grace, Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) writes, "What is missing from the film is what the title and poster seem to imply—a spiritual aspect of Maria's life. For the most part, we really have no idea what is happening within her during this ordeal. Where is her faith in the midst of the trouble she finds herself in? How will all this impact her or change her for good or bad? Is her salvation merely surviving this experience? The final scene offers a bit of hope, but even that hope is extremely slim. To say Maria is 'full of grace' is a stretch. We see a touch of grace, and know she is in need of much more."

Gene Edward Veith (World) says of Catwoman, "Now that homosexuality is acceptable in the pop culture, the next trendy perversion—already showing up in music videos, sitcoms, and R-rated movies—is sadomasochism. Thus, we have Catwoman in full dominatrix gear—black leather, mask, stilleto boots—with a hard look and wielding a bullwhip. Only those who enjoy torture—like what cats do to small animals—will appreciate this movie."

Next week: Tom Cruise in Collateral, Zach Braff in Garden State, and sharks in Open Water.