"Parents now have another fun and fairly safe film to watch with their kids," says Mary Lasse (Christianity Today Movies) in her review of Benji: Off the Leash! The film, she says, "presents us with themes such as friendship, overcoming obstacles, and good over evil. Within these themes, [director Joe] Camp also presents a deeply spiritual film in the form of difficult situations."

In Benji Off the Leash, the familiar, fluffy canine befriends the son of a mean, menacing villain who's guilty of domestic abuse and running a cruel "puppy mill." Benji's famous heroism arrives just in time to bring this wickedness to an end.

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "Benji works because of its well-paced storytelling. Nearing the credits, I found that I actually cared about Benji and his friends. [It] unashamedly praises the virtues of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice without wallowing in the bathroom humor and cut-rate crudities that have become commonplace even in so-called 'family films' today."

But the film meets some harsh challenges from Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), who gives the film a "D" grade and calls it "the limpest, dodgiest family film since Kangaroo Jack. I applaud Joe Camp's principles. I deplore his execution. He is right that families deserve better than 'vacuous and safe' pap. Vacuous and unsafe is not a step in the right direction."

Greydanus takes issue with the film's allegedly "happy ending," which "involves the father getting arrested and taken away from his wife and son." He also points out a scene in which dog catchers fall into the mud and then, moments later, appear perfectly clean. "Off the Leash! is as sloppily crafted as any big-studio product from the Hollywood family-film puppy mill."

Lacy Mical Callahan (Christian Spotlight) calls Off the Leash! a "poorly executed attempt. There are many slow spots throughout the film, several scenes that are repetitive, and only a few laughs. I heard two children from different families asking, 'Is it almost over?'"

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "These dogs … are so expressive it appears as though they communicate both emotion and thought. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their human costars who give us one-dimensional and completely unbelievable characterizations. This may be acceptable in a children's movie, but Camp has tried to insert some pretty mature thematic elements into his film—elements such as domestic violence or illegal puppy mills—which deserve better handling. The movie works best when the humans aren't on the screen and we can just follow the antics of the four-footed stars."

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Meanwhile, most mainstream critics are sending this movie to the doghouse.

A Hero's welcome

Zhang Yimou's Hero is more than two years old and has become one of the most celebrated films to come out of China. It was nominated for an Oscar last year for Best Foreign Film (Germany's Nowhere in Africa won).

So, why haven't we seen it on American big screens until now? Ask Miramax, which shelved the film for a couple of years and argued with the director about a final cut.

But now that it's here (opening in more cities this Friday), American film critics are raving about it. It's strange to consult a thesaurus for words that mean "beautiful" while I'm writing a review of a martial arts epic. But that's Hero's impact on its audience. It's a dazzling, romantic, exhilarating spectacle, and a story that resonates with political significance and spiritual turmoil. Sometimes we miss out on the best films merely because they're "foreign." But if you miss seeing Hero on the big screen, you're missing one of the peaks of cinematic spectacle—on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

My full review is at Christianity Today Movies—I'm giving it four stars. It's my favorite film of the year so far. (Parents, note: The film is inappropriate for younger viewers, due to martial arts violence and a scene of strong sexuality, but the film is remarkably restrained in its avoidance of blood, gore, and nudity.)

"It was worth the wait," raves Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), who also gives the film four stars. "Though the story is an intriguing take on a fascinating period in Chinese history, the artistry of the film is what takes center stage. Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero's martial arts sequences are magnificently choreographed and filled with grace and beauty. Using history as his template, Zhang has crafted a martial arts tale where all the martial artists are driven by noble and selfless desires. While there may be some flaws in the ultimate logic used by these characters, we can reach a level of respect for everyone in the film because their intentions and motivations are honorable."

More religious press reviews will be included in next week's Film Forum. Meanwhile, mainstream critics are making it one of the highest rated films of 2004 so far.

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Wishing Exorcist: The Beginning was the end

With its terrifying portrayal of demon possession, William Friedkin's The Exorcist may not be one of your favorite films. But its admirers are "legion," and it is widely praised as a masterpiece of craftsmanship.

Two sequels were awful, but when Exorcist: The Beginning first went into production, things looked promising, with a script from famed screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and an admirable cast. When the film was finished — yes, finished — Warner Brothers decided it didn't have enough razzle-dazzle, violence, and gore. So they scrapped it and started over, bringing in another director, Renny Harlin, to work with the same cast and create an altogether different film. The result? A flashy, gory, indulgent box office champion that is so bad, the studio didn't allow any critics to see it till opening day.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) begins with modest praise: "To be fair, Exorcist: The Beginning makes a few nice visual nods to the original film, and its references to World War II are actually very much in the spirit of the novel. The new film's exaltation of Christian ritual, belief, and submission to God over such occult practices as the reading of tarot cards is also quite commendable." Then he lowers the boom. "But the new film misses the point, when it reduces [Father] Merrin's confrontation with the demon to a set of comic-book heroics. … Some things are better left mysterious, and some movies better left unmade."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) praises the original film, and adds, "The sequels … certainly didn't begin to approach the effectiveness of the first. The latest attempt, Exorcist: the Beginning, is no exception. The film is not recommended for those offended or repulsed by disturbing images of gore and violence and profane language."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "laughably bad. Harlin must have been possessed if he actually thought audiences would take seriously this poorly crafted prequel." He does, however give the film some credit for the way it "maintains a respectful tone toward Catholicism. Father Merrin's spiritual struggles are not aimed at denigrating his priesthood, but are part of his character's emotional arc, a trajectory that ultimately leads him back to re-embrace his lost faith."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says it's "a patently creepy prequel. It alludes to the story of Satan's rebellion and fall recounted in Isaiah 14:12-20. And its satanic imagery and special effects give it an oppressive feel. The constant onslaught of gore and gross-out images makes it almost too much to sit through." But he too concedes, "Christianity is portrayed positively throughout. Equally interesting is the fact that the occult isn't glamorized, per se. Though it gets loads of screen time, it's shown to be the evil that it is."

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Kenneth R. Morefield (Christian Spotlight) says, "Harlin has succeeded in making a bloody, violent, and disgusting film, but he has done so by using generic horror film cliché s that startle rather than truly scare. Christian viewers may find one aspect of Exorcist: The Beginning to be preferable to the original. The actual exorcism appears to be successful."

At Rotten Tomatoes, about 90% of the mainstream reviews are negative. Now that's scary.

Without a Paddle is up the creek

Steven Brill, the director responsible for such forgettable Adam Sandler flicks as Mr. Deeds and Little Nicky (films even Sandler fans avoid), is back with Without a Paddle, a wacky adventure of dumb guys drawn along into a ridiculous adventure that they—and the audience—come to regret.

"At least they appropriately named their movie," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "It really is up the proverbial creek with no means to come back down."

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Without a Paddle is amateur and tedious. Some of the lines are flat-out terrible. This isn't funny, it's lazy, and when the good guys start pelting the bad guys with bags of poop—I kid you not—you know that we're dealing with fourth-grade writing here."

Steve Lansingh (Film Forum) says it suffers "from a severe overload of the ridiculous. It wasn't the least bit plausible. It wasn't man vs. nature, it was man vs. desperate screenwriter, throwing half-baked ideas against the screen and seeing what will stick. I stopped caring; whatever danger was coming next was bound to be over the top and yet completely harmless to our heroes. I was just numb."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) say it's "full of gross-out sight gags, generally of the scatological, stoner and slapstick variety. But, while this film is up the creek without much of a narrative paddle, it does come equipped with a surprisingly moral compass—though for much of the movie's 99 minutes its needle has a hard time finding a truly tasteful North."

Lacy Mical Callahan (Christian Spotlight) writes, "The premise of this movie is simple and good. It could have been both entertaining and fun to play out. Unfortunately, screenwriters Jay Leggett and Mitch Rouse chose to weave together a series of crude jokes; twisted, adolescent pranks; foul language and sexual perversion, with nauseating results."

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Eight out of ten mainstream critics also slammed the movie.

An unhappy We Don't Live Here Anymore

Director John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore is a hard-hitting, raw, "wages-of-sin" tale, powerfully acted by a first-rate cast, featuring Mark Ruffalo (Collateral), Laura Dern (Jurassic Park), Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive), and Peter Krause (TV's Six Feet Under). The story, a fusion of two short stories by Andre Dubus, shows us in gory detail a very simple lesson: If you're married and have kids, it's a really bad idea to sleep with your best friend's spouse.

For some viewers, the angst, ugly behavior, deceit, foul language, and explicit sexuality will be too offensive. But it's important to note that while movies often glorify adultery in the name of a "seize-the-day" morality, here is one of those rare films that tells it like it is. Curran's film exposes the stomach-turning truth about infidelity and what it does to marriages and families. The actors show a remarkable and intuitive understanding of their characters and the rugged emotional terrain. For their achievements, the filmmakers, the storyteller, and the cast—especially Ruffalo—deserve praise.

There are a few intriguing metaphors glimmering here and there, like the dialogue between two of the children about how some people believe we came from apes and others believe we came from Adam and Eve. Sure enough, the adults are struggling to decide whether to behave like animals or like the sons and daughters of God. But, unfortunately, while the film is both true in its storytelling and excellent in its craftsmanship, it's just not terribly interesting.

"The theme … is indeed adultery," writes Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service). "And though for a while the film treats these characters' philandering with alarming nonchalance … we can see right from the start the emotional consequences of their actions, including the effects on their children. The institution of marriage goes through the wringer, but ultimately, the film offers a moral resolution, and throughout you do sense that all the characters are struggling with the consequences of their actions."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Curran unfolds the story, what little there is, slowly. There's no need to rush since it is obvious how everything is going to shake out in the end. His approach places the focus squarely upon the actors and their work is the only redemptive aspect of the film. There's no new ground being broken here. There's no message being communicated that we haven't heard before. There's no up side to adultery. There are no benefits; no rationalizations that make it okay."

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Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Like the other films made from Dubus' work, In the Bedroom and House of Sand and Fog, this one left me jonesin' for a Prozac smoothie. Thank goodness they didn't all come out at once; if I had watched all three back-to-back, I think I'd be in the psych ward by now. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Dubus' movies are depressing. I'm saying that they're shoot-me-right-now-and-put-me-out-of-my-misery depressing." She offers one exception: "If you're cheating on your spouse or thinking about cheating, see this movie. It's a great advertisement for how adultery kills you, your family, your kids and your friendships."

About 70% of the mainstream reviews of the film are positive.

Riding Giants a tidal wave of thrills

Joining this year's parade of impressive documentaries, Riding Giants, director Stacy Peralta's documentary about surfing, has critics and audiences cheering.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Peralta does much more than show us the exploits of the handful of men who rise to the top of the wave—he succeeds in getting us to understand a little of what drives them to the top in the first place… Riding Giants is a fascinating portrait of the trendsetters—the men who continued to push the envelope by seeking bigger waves and more inventive ways to ride them."

The film's getting positive buzz from mainstream critics.

More on Open Water, Garden State, Dynamite, Princess Diaries 2, AVP

The discomfortingly realistic drama Open Water continued to scare and trouble movie critics this week, but they came away with many criticisms about its craftsmanship.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says it "resembles The Blair Witch Project in its style and structure. The central characters foolishly place themselves in harm's way and throughout the rest of the film we simply wait for harm to come to them… There are long stretches where the film, much like its characters, simply drifts aimlessly."

Willie R. Magnum, Jr. (Christian Spotlight) says, "This is not a great film, but it achieves great effect. There are flashes of brilliance, the primary example being the premise. The cinematography is commendable … and the use of abstract footage is sometimes effective. The fatal flaw in this film is the writing. [Director Chris] Kentis has very little to say."

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William D. Webber (Relevant) says, "While the cinematography is riveting most of the time, occasionally it becomes weirder than its own good. Despite all this, as a piece of extremely lo-fi cinema, Open Water reaches levels of emotional distress rarely met in movies 50 times the cost. Be warned, however: this is not your mother's shark tale. It won't just scare you; it'll crush your spirit."

Garden State, Zach Braff's debut as a director, writer, and big screen star earned enthusiastic raves from two Christian press critics this week. Others seem to have seen a completely different film.

"I genuinely related to [the main character's] struggles, his hopes, his fears, and his feelings," says Josh Hurst (Reveal), who calls it his favorite film of 2004 so far, and describes Braff as "a formidable new force in filmmaking. This is obviously what Braff was born to do; he's got a great eye for directing and a great heart for storytelling. And he ain't bad at picking a cast, either. He also has a knack for small details; there are enough subtleties and nuances in Garden State to make it worth seeing more than once."

Ronnie Fauss (Relevant) says the movie "will likely pull you in to the point that you find yourself hopelessly in love with the characters. Issues such as redemption, acceptance and romance are attacked with a level of ferocity that is seldom seen in Hollywood. But it is the idea of 'going home' that is explored more than any other in this film. This issue seems to be why the movie resonates so loudly with twenty and thirtysomethings, as the loneliness that so many of us feel in this stage of life is addressed with an unflinching authenticity."

Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight) agrees that it's "a well-written, very well acted film," but he complains that it "never gets us involved, never really makes us truly care about the plight of its characters. It's sad, but the Garden State is really an overwhelming state of emptiness."

Andrew Coffin (World) is not much impressed either. "Garden State is one of those films that speaks with the power of general revelation—i.e., it reflects things that are true about the world as God created it—but doesn't quite go far enough to make a statement that's truly profound. That, combined with the strong bad language, makes this intriguing and inventive film tough to recommend."

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Napoleon Dynamite earned a good review from Adam R. Holz (Plugged In), who says the title character is  "an everyman whom we can all relate to. We laugh at his idiosyncrasies even as we realize that we may be blind to some of our own. What could be a mean-spirited film picking on hopelessly unaware nerds is actually very aware of who these characters are—and we root for them. Napoleon Dynamite is hip precisely because its makers are aware of how unhip it is."

Josh Hurst (Reveal) objects to the reviews that compare the film to Rushmore. "I'm inclined to think that it would be far more apropos for critics to compare this film to the likes of Anchorman or Airplane! rather than Rushmore. Like those flicks, Napoleon Dynamite offers plenty of belly laughs for those who can overlook a lack of any kind of strong storyline. It's not exactly explosive, but it's certainly not a bomb."

Joining the chorus of Christian film critics bored by The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, Andrew Coffin (World) says it "gives off very mixed messages (some of them positive), but it still contains the usual insipidly modern themes: being a princess means believing that one is a princess (try that one at home!) and that duty, responsibility, tradition, etc. all play second fiddle to following one's heart."

Speaking of formulaic, sub-standard films, Alien vs. Predator earns another complaint, this time from David DiCerto (Catholic News Service): "For the most part, the movie is devoid of substance or style, its repellent cavalcade of slimy special effects drowning out any real suspense."

Next week: More raves for Hero, plus Suspect Zero and Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid.