In his review of The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, Roger Ebert asks director Garry Marshall, "Did you deliberately assemble this movie from off-the-shelf parts or did it just happen that way? The film is like an homage to the cliché s and obligatory stereotypes of its genre. For someone like Marshall, it must have been like playing the scales."

Similarly distressed, Christian film critic Phil Boatwright (CBN), a champion of family-friendly movies, rants: "Directed with all the subtlety of Dr. Frankenstein … Marshall steals bits and pieces from every entry in the Cinderella genre, including his own attempts. Sadly, the resulting cannibalization leaves us with a lifeless, nearly witless movie."

Boatwright criticizes the cast for having "no energy" and says the characters' comical antics "just aren't funny. The slapstick gags are clumsier than the lead character, the story in desperate need of a rewrite and the lead actress as blah as Milk of Magnesia."

What else is wrong with the movie? According to Boatwright, the sets, the cinematography, and the direction.

And yet, Christian cultural commentator Ted Baehr (Movieguide) gives the film higher ratings than any other film currently playing. Baehr raves, "This virtuous movie is more than delightful. [It's] irresistible."

Who's right?

The Princess Diaries, adapted by Gina Wendkos and Shonda Rhimes from a novel by Meg Cabot, charmed mothers and daughters and a few film critics as well. The sequel, concocted just for the screen without the involvement of the original author, is being received more like an ugly stepsister than a princess. I'd summarize the plot for you, but, to quote Ebert once again: "There's no need for me to spoil the plot … it spoils itself. If I were to describe the characters, you could instantly tell me what happens in the movie." It's as predictable as any princess-falls-for-bad-boy tale.

Most critics lean toward Boatwright's opinion, finding this Royal Engagement quite resistible.

Listen to Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk): "The sad thing about this movie is that, as a Christian, I'm expected to rave, simply because there isn't any foul language, sexuality, or negative message about God and faith, thus making it acceptable family fare. But in good conscience, I cannot."

She goes on to list her concerns with the film. Her greatest complaint is "its message that we must follow our feelings, even if they lead us to lust after someone who has been lying and deceiving us. No wonder the divorce rate is so high in this country!"

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Problem number two: "Its absolutely shameless Americanization of everything European."

Robertson does praise Julie Andrews's singing, but says even that song is ruined by "an annoying promotion of Disney's latest pop star, Raven, who joins in for a silly duet."

She also reprimands the screenwriter's characterization of the princess: "The still-bumbling Mia seems like she's still in high school."

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says the film is "several steps less charming and funny than the first film. You get the sense while watching some of his films that [Marshall is] kind of making things up as he goes along, inserting scenes and dialogue as if brainstormed on the set. The resulting clumsy plot, trudging pace and sluggish performances suggest a movie that should be on the Disney Channel instead of at the megaplex."

"This time around, the derivative humor is spread thin and much more forced," says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "The film also lacks the freshness of the first installment, a common malady among sequels. Pre-pubescent princess-wannabes will undoubtedly find the Cinderella-like ball gowns and tiaras enchanting, but older viewers may find themselves pulling a Sleeping Beauty for much of the film."

Lacey Mical Callahan (Christian Spotlight)—who thinks this movie is "better than the first" and concludes her review with the words "More, please!"—is nonetheless dismayed by "a feminist message in the conclusion of the film" and "the idea that physical attraction and chemistry are the foundation for a good relationship."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the movie "takes a safe route, finding laughs through exaggerated characters and slapstick actions which come from nowhere. There's little consistency in the characterization and little attempt made to give Genovia a character or heritage of its own."

Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) acknowledges some of these complaints and sums it up as a "good girl falls for bad boy" plot that, when it takes place in reality, "can cause a lot of heartache. It's important to evaluate the relationship expectations and values this particular love triangle communicates to its young audience." But Cockrel ends up recommending the film anyway: "The larger message—that you should marry for the right reasons only when you're ready—is one everyone can applaud."

About 70 percent of mainstream media critics reject The Princess Diaries 2 as an obvious attempt to cash in on the sure-to-sell cliché s of princes, princesses, and fairy-tale platitudes.

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AVP lures moviegoers, violently disappoints

"Whoever wins … we lose." No, that's not a sarcastic bumper sticker about the 2004 election. It's the tag line for this week's box office champion. Aliens and Predators stormed into theaters this weekend and made off with $38.3 million. In other words, we lost.

Director Paul Anderson, who earned poor reviews for his previous films Event Horizon, Soldier, and Resident Evil, is earning more for his science fiction extravaganza, Alien vs. Predator. He must have seen it coming—the studio concealed the film from critics until opening day to ensure that the bad news didn't get around before they scored a blockbuster opening day. The strategy seems to have worked, but now the word is out. Critics almost unanimously agree that this fifth Alien film, the third dose of Predator, further diminishes two floundering franchises. Some critics claim it makes last year's similar concept film, Freddy Versus Jason, look good.

What is surprising is that some Christian film critics say it isn't quite as bad as they'd expected.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says it's "certainly not the worst movie to come out this summer—I would argue that Thunderbirds and Van Helsing were duller and more exhausting to sit through—and there are times when the new film pays just enough respect to its source material that you can almost taste the good movie that it might have been. The laughability of the film is amplified by Anderson's video-game sensibility. The dialogue is also full of howlers … . But there are moments in this film that are pretty cool; there is a fanboy inventiveness to certain fight scenes that is impossible not to admire."

He concludes by giving the lead actress, Sanaa Lathan, a poor review: "In the end, we are left with a dull woman who is surrounded by puppets and voiceless actors covered in prosthetics—and it's never a good sign when the special effects give more memorable performances than the hero."

"Purely from a story perspective," writes Bob Smithouser (Plugged In), "Anderson has done an admirable job of connecting the dots. Some straight-out action sequences are impressive, too, and AVP's ending contained an element of surprise. But that's about all the praise this film deserves." He faults the amount of graphic violence and makes the same video-game comparison.

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Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) says, "I expect that many fans of the original will be very disappointed with this watered-down version that looks more like a SciFi Channel direct-to-DVD release."

At this writing, 86 percent of the mainstream critics at Rotten Tomatoes have disapproved of the film. But since their condemnation has not stopped the film from becoming a hit, this "A versus B" trend will probably continue. And why not? It could get interesting. I know a bunch of film buffs who'd pay good money to see the people of The Village versus the townfolk of Dogville, Gollum versus Jar Jar Binks, or Mary Jane versus Lois Lane.

You needn't go to Yu-Gi-Oh!

In what some critics are describing as a "feature-length marketing ploy," the popular Japanese comic book, cartoon, and playing card game Yi-Gi-Oh! hit screens last week. Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie is about a magical card game that transforms the players into supernatural heroes in a clash of good versus evil.

Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) says, "When a movie like Yu-Gi-Oh! becomes, like Harry Potter, a key cultural reference point, it's a good idea to see it with your kids and talk about it—if you choose to see it at all. If you do choose to see it, do a lot of listening, and ask your children focused questions. Most kids will see Yu-Gi-Oh! as fantasy and have no trouble separating it from reality, but some may get lost in a world that, frankly, is more than a mere nod to the occult."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) translates the title as "Waste of Time." "Yu-Gi-Oh! is a dizzying, disjointed mess. The story is nonexistent and the Japanese animation is sketchy at best. Yu-Gi-Oh! makes those annoying Poké mon films seem almost Oscar-worthy."

"Clearly, the point here is to sell product," says Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In). "And the makers of Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie seem to have only one goal: to serve the greater good of the Yu-Gi-Oh! empire. As for its dark spiritual side, TV series writer/producer Mike Pecoriello claims that 'despite all the magic and supernatural forces involved in the movie, the power of friendship proves to be stronger than anything else, and in the end, that bond will always prevail.' In reality, friendship takes a thematic back seat to big bangs and unctuous spells."

"My recommendation," writes Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight), "is to skip this one, and soon Yu-Gi-Oh! fever will pass."

A whopping 98 percent of the mainstream critics reviewing the film went to work trying to steer the masses away from it. Nevertheless, the film scored fourth place at the box office this week.

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More reviews of Napoleon Dynamite, Collateral, Little Black Book, A Home at the End of the World, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and Intimate Strangers

Catching up with Napoleon Dynamite, Andrew Coffin (World) offers moderate praise for the story of a unique high school outsider who learns to roll with the punches. Coffin writes, "There are plenty of opportunities for the film to turn dark and disturbing … yet it never does. Instead, the film remains fixated on Napoleon and the supremely odd cast of characters who surround him with unpretentious glee. In that sense, despite the lack of much in the way of a story arc, Napoleon is always surprising. It also remains grounded in a (heightened) reality to which we all can relate."

Coffin has much higher praise for Michael Mann's latest thriller, Collateral: "Though full of implausible plot developments, each scene in Collateral works so well on its own, and is so full of fascinating detail, that one hardly cares. Mr. Mann can make a simple shot of Tom Cruise climbing a staircase full of depth and visual interest. The glimmering city of Los Angeles becomes as much a star of the film as Mr. Cruise or Mr. Foxx. What makes Collateral all the more interesting is the interplay between its stars. Mr. Cruise uses his considerable, but often facile, charm to suck Mr. Foxx—and the audience—into his amoral universe, as he (and, by extension, the audience) becomes increasingly complicit in his passenger's murders."

Brett McCracken (Relevant) saw it too and comes out raving: "In a summer movie season of uncharacteristic strength, it shouldn't surprise many that … Collateral is above average as well. What will come as a pleasant surprise is just how far above it really is. Perhaps seeing is believing, but take my word for it; this film is brilliant."

But Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) disagree, offering the film only a "one-star" rating: "Although we rightfully see Vincent as a deformed human being unable to understand moral thought, the underlying theme of the film is disturbingly real. If we become a culture that is not based on any moral foundation, then adultery, lying, stealing and finally murdering will simply be an option seen as normal behavior. Without a spiritual and moral foundation, Vincent's logic will no longer seem twisted because we will have lost any basis by which to measure it."

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Reviewing Little Black Book, Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) finds "an awkward little story with characters whose personality faults far outweigh their more positive qualities. The central figure is Stacy, but she makes so many bad choices during the course of the film that it is difficult to root for her. Director Nick Hurran and first-time screenwriter Melissa Carter try to force us to connect with their lead character by using the most mundane script device there is: the voice-over narration. It doesn't help."

Elliott also takes in A Home at the End of the World and considers the love triangle at the center of the story: "The film carries us through the various stages of their deepening bond as well as the situations which threaten it … but we never connect with any of the characters or understand what they are feeling at any given moment. The script by The Hours scribe Michael Cunningham is contrived and largely aimless."

Lindsay Goodier (Relevant) goes to the crass comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and comes away with a bad taste in her mouth. "The plot is obviously completely ridiculous and unbelievable, but it manages to keep the audience hooked and laughing. For those who don't really care what extents of vulgar humor a film goes to in order to make you laugh, you'll be laughing the whole time. But for people who actually have a good grip on morality, the movie will probably make you cringe more than chuckle."

Reviewing Intimate Strangers, Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "This kind of mistaken identity is rife for comedy, and at times that is where the film goes. But intimacy is serious business, and as the story progresses, the comedy begins to fall into the background. The tension begins to mount in an almost Hitchcockian manner as the story goes on."

Agnieszka Tennant (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "Director Leconte loves to explore what happens when strangers who have little in common bump into each other by accident and develop a relationship. Leconte subtly infuses the movie with humor and psychological depth. Be it romantic or friendly or brotherly, love is sure to follow when people develop a habit of truth-telling and hearing each other out. Some people just can't handle it. But those who do are rewarded by something that echoes faintly the kind of communion God himself wants to have with us."

Readers respond to Time's "Gospel According to Spider-Man"

Many thanks to those who responded with their thoughts on Time's article about Christians and film. Here are a couple of interesting letters I received after I posted this response to the article:

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Annie S. writes: "The church in recent times has seen a change in thinking from the idea that art must be blatantly evangelistic to be of any use, to a realization that subtlety could be of great value. Pop culture is not a passing fad, and in order for the church to connect with the world around them, we as Christians must realize the impact of art on society, from music to books to film. Craig Detweiler was quoted in a recent Washington Times article as saying, 'We have to rediscover that art is not frivolous. It's essential to the human journey, to humanity's deepest longings, needs, and questions.' Our world, and our culture, is filled with spiritual truths and themes, though they are often veiled in modern forms of art. It should be the responsibility of the church to help people recognize and understand these truths for what they are and what they teach us about ourselves and about God. I rejoice in seeing the church embracing art as a way to form connections with those who may not respond to outright sermonizing."

Kelly Klepfer says, "My husband and I chose to turn off the television about four years ago when hair care and fast food ads began to become sexual in nature. It seemed that everything was sexual innuendo and it all pointed to sex obsession without consequences.

"We have since used our television to view lots of movies. We have tried many of the classics and a broad array of new movies. What we have discovered is that movies that are shunned by many of our friends are movies that we find value in or at least springboards for discussion.

"Our children, ages 13 through 21, have a voice in the movies we pick. Sometimes we pick something that must be watched by a parent first, other times we dive right in. We have been disappointed by movies from the '60s that are sexually irresponsible and discovered that movies we saw in high school make us squirm when our children watch them. We have been powerfully impacted by movies like The Truman Show and Signs, and thrilled to see that others out there considered them spiritually rich and powerful. I printed [the Arts and Faith Film Critics Circle's] Top 100 list and we had an interesting discussion at home based on some of the titles.

"I have been challenged by the recent articles on truth in films. Sometimes the simple truth gets buried in the discussions and bantering over the 'woulds, shoulds, and if onlys.' We humans resemble the blind men and the elephant. Each man had a different location of the elephant and described him as a tree, a broom, palm leaf, rope, and wall. If we could fathom the things that God uses to bring us awareness of our need and his provision we would be shocked. We are Jonah lamenting the dead plant—here today, gone tomorrow—and missing the beauty and grace of God's vast generous love."

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Next week:Exorcist: The Beginning, Benji: Off the Leash, Without a Paddle, and We Don't Live Here Anymore.