In this week's issue of Time, Richard Corliss writes about how Christians are increasingly employing popular movies as tools of evangelism. In "The Gospel According to Spider-Man," he writes:

The unearthly success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ helped movie execs recognize that fervent Christians, who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on religious books and music, are worth courting. Publicists hired by studios feed sermon ideas based on new movies to ministers. Meanwhile, Christians are increasingly borrowing from movies to drive home theological lessons. Clergy of all denominations have commandeered pulpits, publishing houses and especially websites to spread the gospel of cinevangelism.

(There's a sidebar to the article that offers excerpts from Christian press film reviews.)

While Corliss has highlighted an interesting trend, he chose to focus only on Christians' evangelistic and didactic summarizations of popular films. It is true that many ministers are exploiting movies in order to distill simple moral lessons, reducing each cinematic story to a didactic paraphrase.

But the truth is that many Christians are going much farther than that, achieving no less than an awakening to the power and purpose of art. Great art is not reducible to paraphrase. Nor is it useful only as a backdrop for a sermon. Jesus offered parables to his listeners and avoided interpreting them with direct applications; he said, "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear," and then usually let the listeners work out for themselves what it all meant.

This approach not only allowed listeners to have personal, complex, and intense explorations of good storytelling, but it emphasized that truth reveals itself when the observer makes an effort to apprehend it. Likewise, the best films lead us not to simple, practical answers, but to great questions that drive us to engage the world, other people, and ultimately the Creator, more fully. Christians are discovering and enjoying this pursuit—individually and in film discussion groups. (I chronicled an experience at the Flickerings Film Festival, the movie-discussion activity at the Cornerstone Festival, in the latest issue of Image.)

Reading Corliss's article, I'm reminded of the way that Eddie Izzard spoofed contemporary Christian tendencies to extrapolate spiritual lessons from popular culture. Doing an impression of a Church of England minister, Izzard quipped, "The sermon today is taken from a magazine … that I found in a hedge. Now, uh … lipstick colors this season are in the frosted pink area [with] nail colors to match. And, uh … this reminds me rather of our Lord Jesus! We will now sing hymn 405, 'Oh God, What on Earth is My Hairdo All About?'"

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Sure, we can draw rewarding observations from popular films that resonate with scripture. But too much of this can give Christians the impression that this is the only proper way to encounter and interpret art. We don't need to find "a Christ figure" in order to find value in a work of art. We instead need to consider what the film reveals.

I'm interested in your responses to the article. Send your thoughts to Your response may be excerpted in a follow-up article.

In Collateral, Tom Cruise plays a hit man who hijacks a taxi cab in L.A., forcing the driver to play chauffeur as he makes his murderous rounds. Jamie Foxx plays Max, the conflicted cabbie. The film, directed by macho-man-movie maestro Michael Mann (Manhunter, Heat, The Insider), rivals The Bourne Supremacy for the title of summer's best thriller.

Collateral allows Mann to indulge all of his signature flourishes: slow cruising through the city by night, with the lights gliding across the shiny surfaces of cars, subways, and helicopters; a gun for every well-dressed tough guy; a couple of chaotic shootouts. Like Heat, Collateral is a tone-poem tribute to the City of Angels—the back alleys, off-ramps, and warehouses we rarely see in films.

But the movie is also Mann's most formulaic work since he turned in weekly episodes of Miami Vice. Granted, that's not his fault. Screenwriter Stuart Beattie's involving script loses momentum in the final act. You can feel the tires suddenly sinking into the ruts of a routine action flick, and a few preposterous coincidences nearly spoil the fluidity, spontaneity, and grace of all that has come before. You can also feel Beattie's script straining for importance as Vincent shoots first and then asks questions like "Does anyone notice?" We're left without any inklings of God or any higher influence. We're left to assume that it's Darwin's world out there, and if there's going to be any love or any care or any meaning, we have to make it for ourselves. My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

Other religious press critics find themselves with strikingly different responses.

Josh Hurst (Reveal) was impressed: "Music, picture, dialogue, and story all gel together to form an impossibly smooth, spontaneous groove. The first three quarters of the film plays out like an irresistibly improvisational jazz number. I was really rather impressed by the film's ending; Mann's ability to take a tired idea and breathe new life into it is indeed masterful."

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "much more intimate and reflective than Mann's larger canvas works like Heat. In fact, most of the movie's two hours involves Max and Vincent driving around talking. Cruise is mesmerizing … [and] Foxx proves a capable counterpoint."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Collateral works, despite a few incongruities. The direction … is excellent, with twists and turns that take us throughout a darkened Los Angeles on a ride through Hell. And, while we can guess the ending, we're still kept in suspense, carried by Cruise and Foxx's flawless performances." But she adds that it "doesn't challenge, doesn't provoke, doesn't inspire. It simply shows us, in chilling cinematic simplicity, a character that is beyond hope or redemption, and how easy it is for that kind of evil to prevail against the forces of good."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The premise … is admittedly a bit forced, but … Mann and his cast manage to make the film more entertaining than it has a right to be."

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says, "Collateral finds a deeper level than many films about stone-cold killers. Beattie captures the ultimately logical conclusion of a worldview that dismisses God in favor of randomness and chance. Beattie's script acknowledges Vincent's evil, but offers only a weak counter to it." He adds, "Such deeply philosophical questions won't be enough to convince many families that they'll be helped by the choice to take in the graphic violence of this dark tale."

Evan D. Baltz (Christian Spotlight) calls it "a good, exciting mystery that will hold your attention. It does reflect our society's apparent steady decline towards apathy and indifference for our fellow man and life itself. Be thankful your life is in the hands of a caring and Sovereign Lord, and not left to the fates of cosmic coincidences."

"Audiences will flock to it (and rightfully so)," says Chris Utley (Hollywood Jesus). "Good performances, crackerjack action scenes and a compelling story make this a fun summer ride. Like Max in this film, our character in times of peril is ultimately judged not by our guilt and shame because we failed to avoid the chaos … but by how we handle ourselves in the midst of the chaos."

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Megan Basham (formerly a critic for Christian Spotlight, now in The National Review) says, "Mann undercuts his powerful analysis of a conscienceless sociopath (and a conscienceless society) with the need to score a political point." But she's still impressed with the film: "Considered alongside The Bourne Supremacy, it also suggests that the trend of taking humanity seriously may be growing in the action genre. Kudos to Hollywood if it is. Now if only they would be a little more honest about the source of inhumanity."

You can scan through the mainstream press reviews here.

Open Water: marriage therapy—with sharks

Who says married life is boring? Sarah and Daniel set a compelling example of how to deepen your relationship with your spouse: they set off to the Bahamas for a vacation that involves some diving. When their boat crew abandons them in the middle of the ocean, they have only each other to look to for support, fighting off panic, exhaustion, and eventually—cue that famous two-note theme—sharks!

Open Water is earning raves as one of the scariest films of the decade. Filmed to create the impression of realism (those are real sharks nudging the actors legs), director Chris Kentis takes the audience into a terrifying ordeal. But despite the outrageous circumstances, Kentis keeps the focus on these convincing characters and the testing of their relationship.

Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) says the film has "a sense of intimate realism that gets lost in over-produced Hollywood films. It allows the filmmakers to create something that is truly theirs."

Film Forum will excerpt other religious press reviews of the film when they are posted or published. Mainstream press reviews are available here.

Garden State grows an enthusiastic audience

Zach Braff, star of TV's Scrubs, emerges as an auteur-in-the-making with his first film, the romantic comedy Garden State. He plays a television actor named Andrew Largeman, a young man whose lithium-altered life changes when the death of his mother prompts him to give up his drugs and try taking life more seriously. Assailed by an arrogant and meddling father, he tries to form some new relationships, which leads him to a feisty and remarkable young woman (Natalie Portman) who tries to heal his heart's deep wounds.

Garden State has earned a warm reception in the film festival circuit. Now that it's playing in select cities, religious press critics are offering mixed reviews.

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is somewhat impressed. "Well written and acted, the visually quirky film … offers witty observations on family, loss and America's fascination with pharmaceutical solutions to life's problems. However, the movie's hope-affirming message is weighed down by its catatonic talkiness."

J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) says, "Garden State is filled with quirky touches that don't always add up to much. But the characters are realistic. We ache for these people, but not without hope. In a summer dominated by cardboard characters and cut-out plots, Garden State is a refreshing story filled with true-to-life characters."

Mainstream critics are applauding the film.

Little Black Book gets included in critics' book of losers

Brittany Murphy (Just Married, Uptown Girls) plays a daytime talk-show producer who is frustrated when she can't get her boyfriend Derek (Ron Livingston) to talk about his previous girlfriends. Her suspicions lead her to an invasion of his privacy: she snoops around on his Palm Pilot and makes a list of his acquaintances, making plans to interrogate them. This leads to unexpected developments when she becomes friends with one of the women from Derek's past.

"The scary thing about this movie is that it's targeted at teenage girls," writes Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). "Never does the film explore the possibility that premarital sex—in relationship after relationship after relationship—might be what's causing the real conflict for its characters." She admits that "The satire is snappy … in its mockery of talk shows and the crazy atmosphere that they create, both on- and off-camera. Murphy … pulls off the comedic elements quite well." But she concludes, "The acting and humor are not enough to save the film from either the lurching plot or the sleaze that it bemoans."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "Little Black Book poses as a morality tale, but … Hurran apparently couldn't resist redefining morality. At one point in the movie I was somewhat optimistic that viewers could glean a smidgen of a positive lesson when Stacy learns the meaning of comeuppance the hard way. Unfortunately, by then, viewers are fully immersed in the foul stuff … and any positivity is ruined." He also faults "its overarching theme of sex outside of marriage … the foul language, confused morality and winking approval of trashy daytime talk shows."

Mainstream critics are similarly put off.

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Critics uncomfortable with A Home at the End of the World

Colin Farrell (Daredevil, Phone Booth) stars in A Home at the End of the World, an adaptation of the novel by Michael Cunningham, who also wrote The Hours. Farrell plays a man who is in love with his gay best friend. But he's also in love with a heterosexual woman. The novel won a Pulitzer Prize, but the film is earning mixed reviews.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the film "is by turns tender and trite, vacillating between literary meatiness and Hollywood superficiality. But whatever is good about the film—including solid performances from an ensemble cast—is eclipsed by its homoerotic elements and morally murky attempts to redefine traditional ideas of family and human sexuality in more malleable, relativistic terms. In wrestling with questions of loss and loneliness, the film, while maintaining the humanity of its characters, promotes a disturbing postmodern attitude that thumbs its nose at conventional mores, especially in regard to family life and sexual morality."

J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) writes, "The marketing tagline for the movie is 'Family Can Be Whatever You Want It to Be,' and that pretty much tells you what you need to know. Though the movie is set in 1982, its message is contemporary and unfortunately vapid. Fortunately, the acting is great. Director Michael Meyer has a nice way with his characters, and their relationships feel authentic. It's odd that the story … seems autobiographical, with numerous details that ring true, and yet the main character is so obviously a fantasy of some kind."

Mainstream reviews are available here.

Don't bother breaking Code 46

The futuristic sci-fi epic Code 46 tells the story of William, a government investigator who falls in love with Maria, a woman involved in a criminal forgery operation. Directed by Michael Winterbottom (In This World, 24 Hour Party People), the film stars Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton.

Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) examines the film's serious questions, but isn't too impressed with the film. "Code 46 begins with a premise that asks serious questions about the destiny of human beings in a world where science can customize the image of God. What keeps [it] from living up to its fascinating premise is the lack of empathy we feel for William and Maria. They seem to be without real humanity. They are almost like benign video game characters. The trajectory of the film is flat. It never soars."

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Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says "The filmmakers seem to have had good intentions in making a thoughtful science fiction film, addressing the consequences of such present-day issues as environmental concerns, the consequences of cloning, world poverty, and the frustrating bureaucracy of traveling between countries. Still, for all of the serious intent, the result is only fitfully interesting, and not very believable, even for a fantasy."

More reviews of Maria Full of Grace, The Village, and The Manchurian Candidate

Maria Full of Grace, the story of a Columbian teenager who participates in dangerous drug-smuggling endeavors, is winning more rave reviews from religious press critics this week.

Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight) says, "The entire film is an exercise in depression for the audience. We hate to see the life she has, and hate to see the way she chooses to get out of it. The film displays people who are lost, and will turn to anything for hope. As Christians, we know that the only hope is Christ, which makes films like this painful. Although this is a fictional film, this stuff happens every day, and the reality of all these people risking their lives for nothing is quite sad. I give Maria Full of Grace an 'A' for its realistic and engaging handling of this troubling subject."

Doug Cummings ( says, "The film displays an unusual intelligence in its treatment of this story—its embrace of ambiguity and mixed motives and constant aversion to melodrama evokes the kind of character study propelled by astonishingly effective performances that reveal an entire cultural rivulet streaming unannounced through America. It's this year's Dirty Pretty Things, a suspenseful, rock-solid narrative that never loses sight of the complex people and social realities at its center."

Reviewing M. Night Shyamalan's much-discussed new film, The Village, Kevin Miller (Relevant) thinks it may contain a challenge for the church. "Rather than work to transform society from the inside, as we have been called, we have withdrawn from it into segregated communities dominated by fear and control. Like the elders, we have chosen a lesser existence rather than risk being polluted or rejected by the world. However, also like the elders, we must realize that sin is not 'out there.' It is right here, in us. Only when we are able to face that fact and bring our secrets into the light will we truly become the people God has called us to be."

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Belinda Myers (CBN) says, "The film has a depth that should not be ignored. Shyamalan has a gift for presenting stimulating themes within the context of an entertaining story. The Village is no different. While some Christians may shun the film citing its suggested violence and eeriness, it would be a mistake to do so. The movie is full of material that could be an intriguing discussion starter for keen Christians looking for ways to bridge the gap between the truths of the Bible and a secular culture."

Dick Staub (CultureWatch) says, "The Village explores what happens when we assume the other guys are the problem and things would be better if we good guys withdrew and started over. Shyamalan's ponderous unfolding of a suspenseful tale is his trademark, but as many critics are noting, his shtick is getting a little predictable, though I think the issues raised by this one are interesting and important."

Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The Village doesn't entirely work. Its individual parts are as strong as anything Mr. Shyamalan has done—collaborating on wonderfully evocative cinematography with Roger Deakins, creating several scenes of deep-seated suspense (and even, counter-intuitively, beauty), and, as usual, working with undercurrent of provocative ideas. But the result isn't quite as entertaining or as challenging as one might have hoped, partially because Mr. Shyamalan continues to insist on focusing his audience on a big 'reveal' instead of on the characters and issues at the heart of the film."

Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight) writes, "The script is pale, the actors seem like cardboard cutouts, and the surprise ending … well, let's just say it was stunning, but in an almost absurd sort of way. Morally, the film's content is fairly mild for content for this genre—a couple of jump scenes, a murder, and some blood here and there."

Looking at the recent re-imagining of The Manchurian Candidate, Andrew Coffin (World) says it "works pretty well as a thriller. Despite some truly memorable scenes and a fantastic finale, the cultural context and language of film has changed so much since the original Manchurian was released that it will appear hokey and unconvincing to many modern viewers. The remake retains much of the original's paranoia while utilizing some of the best tools of the modern thriller. Mr. Washington is, as always, an entirely convincing protagonist, and Ms. Streep gives Ms. Lansbury a run for her money as an incestuous, creepy mother figure."

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Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "All in all, The Manchurian Candidate is a taut, intense thriller, crafted by a master of the genre, that will leave you exhilarated and perhaps a little confused. (But in a good way). It might even lead you into deep thought about the corruption that can come with power and the consequences of finding the truth. That's an awful lot to expect from a summer movie, but this Candidate delivers."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say the movie's "disturbing in both its manipulation of our fears and the manipulation it suggests could be possible in our world. [It's] is a psychological thriller that is hard to enjoy."

But Dick Staub (CultureWatch) says the film fails due to an obvious political bias. "The execution of the political bias comes across as propaganda, not art." He concludes that it "suggests we can root out evil by exposing the bad guys in the military, politics and big business."

Michael Karounos (Christian Spotlight) writes, "The film avoids using the terms 'Republican' or 'Democrat.' Instead, it uses racial coding. Ever since [The Matrix] films have featured black characters conspicuously exercising authority over weak or venal white characters. All the evil guys are white males … and all the black characters are shown demonstrating either physical or moral authority over them. This has become a familiar leftist trope."

Last week, I unintentionally overlooked a review by Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) of the family-friendly sci-fi adventure Thunderbirds: He calls it "the dullest and lamest" of the Spy Kids imitators. "Once again, regular children have to save their super-agent parents from some sort of villain, but Thunderbirds has nothing to offer in place of the surrealism and Latino cool that made Spy Kids so much fun."

Next week:Alien vs. Predator versus The Princess Diaries 2.