Director Paul Feig's film I Am David is based on North to Freedom, an acclaimed novel by Anne Holm, set in the 1950s. The story follows David (Ben Tibber), a 12-year-old prisoner who has been separated from his parents and is growing up alone in a Bulgarian labor camp. He befriends another prisoner (portrayed by The Passion of The Christ's Jim Caviezel) who plays an important role in helping him escape the prison.

Time out! If there was a contest for Most Bizarre Casting Choice of 2004, it would very likely go to the casting of Hristo Shopov as the concentration camp commandant who carries out a harsh judgment on Caviezel's character. Shopov played Pontius Pilate in The Passion of The Christ, where he carried out an even harsher judgment on Caviezel's Jesus. The Passion's Saint Peter, Francesco de Vito, also shows up, playing an Italian sailor who has compassion for young David. Two other cast members, Matt Patresi and Paco Reconti, appear in both films. And Shaila Rubin, appearing here as the owner of a vineyard, served as the casting director for The Passion of The Christ. (Don't get your hopes up—Monica Belucci is nowhere to be seen.)

What's going on here? Is Feig capitalizing on The Passion's success? No. Feig assembled this cast before Mel Gibson made The Passion. Feig told Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "We made this film in 2002. We cast everyone out of Rome, same as Mel. And so when Mel came to Rome, he got one of the actresses from my film—Shaila Ruben—as his casting director. So he ended up getting a lot of the same actors we had worked with."

Okay—back to the story. After a tense prison break, David flees into Greece and eventually to Italy, carrying only a knife, a compass, and a mysterious sealed envelope, hoping to find a better future and some answers about the fate of his parents. Along the way he encounters troublesome police, a friendly baker, the daughter of a wealthy family, and a compassionate painter, and he learns a thing or two about trust.

Personally, I found I Am David handsomely filmed, and young Ben Tibber is an interesting talent. Caviezel makes an undeveloped character surprisingly memorable, and the wonderful Joan Plowright gives a warm and likeable performance in the movie's last chapters. Feig's central theme—that it's not a bad idea to trust other people—is an honorable one. But the film moves rapidly through short episodes that introduce us to a variety of forgettable characters, develop very little tension or intrigue, and culminate ultimately in an abrupt, sentimental finale. The film fails to fill in enough historical context for us to get our bearings. Overall, it's a good-looking piece of cinema that lacks one essential element—a compelling narrative.

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"I Am David is okay family fare," says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies), "and while some parents might wish the film had more emotional depth, they will probably appreciate the gentle humor and delicate restraint Feig brings to this story. Then they can introduce their children to the book."

Andrew Coffin (World) calls it "a solid, middle-of-the-road production that makes for worthwhile, if not indispensable, family viewing.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) echoes that opinion: "I Am David is admirable and worthwhile, if not quite totally satisfying. The film is at its best in the taut opening and in the third act, when the pieces finally come together. In between, the episodic story sags a bit. What keeps things fitfully interesting is the newness of the outside world in David's eyes, though some of his experiences, notably the rescue of a young girl trapped in a burning barn, are too obviously artificial."

Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) says, "I Am David is one of those rare cinematic jewels … that leads us to ponder life's important questions, builds up our faith in mankind and inspires us to invest in others."

"The most significant problem is the film's failure to explain the circumstances of this Bulgarian concentration camp," says Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk), "or why they still exist so many years after WWII. [But] despite its imperfections, the film nevertheless tells an important story about the triumph of the human spirit over unimaginable adversities. It shows us a picture of Soviet communism at its worst, warning us of its dangers. And it teaches us the importance of hope."

"At times, I Am David feels like Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, which also traces the path of a young man torn from his family amid civil strife," writes Cliff Vaughn (EthicsDaily). "David doesn't play out on the scope of Empire, but it is touching nevertheless … a splendid film that young and old can experience together."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Feig's visually handsome adaptation … is, plainly put, a wonderful movie. The small, simply told tale is intelligent yet unpretentious, tender without being trite, edifying as well as engaging. It is the perfect antidote for the formulaic and toxic excess of many mainstream movies."

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Mainstream critics are not exactly enthralled, but they're not particularly troubled by it either.

Critics wish they could get farther from Closer

How interesting that Mike Nichols' new film Closer arrives while Bill Condon's film Kinsey is still in theatres. Kinsey celebrates the "scientist" who told the 1960s to stop thinking about sex in a restrictive moral framework, and to enjoy it in any way we please. After all, we're animals, and sex is "animal behavior." Closer contradicts this, suggesting that when people behave like animals, adhering only to their base desires and self-centered impulses instead of to conscience, morality, and promises, they end up lacking the blessings that human beings have the capability to enjoy.

Closer—like We Don't Live Here Anymore, 2004's other "adultery film"—deals with themes as old as the story of David's malevolent conspiracy to take Bathsheba from her husband. Like Adam and Eve, the characters want whatever is out-of-bounds, and when they transgress, they tear the seams of their own lives and the lives of others.

This adaptation of Patrick Marber's play makes for a distressingly ugly movie, even though it stars four of the most beautiful people on the big screen—Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen. Closer isn't just sensationalized misbehavior; it's an earnest search for the root of unhappiness in the lives of four very different, yet similarly depraved people. It doesn't condone their sin; it exposes it, and reveals souls sickened from dishonesty, anger, hate, emotional violence, grief, loss, and loneliness.

Viewers should be cautioned that the film is overloaded with explicit discussion of sex, excessive obscenities, and nudity. It should be off-limits to younger viewers, and even discerning grownups should think long before viewing it. While it tells the truth about reckless living, it fills your eyes and your ears things that you may wish you'd never seen or heard.

My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

"The movie itself seems relatively pointless," remarks Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), "but then again perhaps that is the point. The act of loveless sex is a selfish and rather meaningless event and to watch four individuals self-destruct and ruin whatever potential for real love that they have is pitifully sad." He adds, however, that the performances are "superior."

Elisabeth Leitch (Hollywood Jesus) says, "As a movie, Closer is very well done … a very accurate portrayal of what many relationships look like today. The script and its frequent discussion of and emphasis on sex come across as unscripted and realistic. Each actor offers a performance filled emotion that we can see on each of their faces and … Nichols showcases the emotion of the entire movie with numerous close ups. Although Closer is categorized as a drama/romance, I, however, would have to say there is nothing romantic about it at all."

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"Weaker would have been more apropos as a title," says Cliff Vaughn (EthicsDaily). "Just when you think a character can't become any weaker in terms of resolve, he does. Just when you think she can't be weaker than her partner, she is. Of course, these weaklings use sex as a weapon, which further jeopardizes their chances for grasping what is true. It also accounts for the R rating, which is most well deserved. Closer essentially gives a talented group of individuals a chance to bring gravitas to superficiality. Mission accomplished."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Rather than the usual visual pornography of celluloid copulation, we are subjected to an onslaught of verbal and written pornography throughout the film.Art? Many will insist it is, but I beg to differ."

Josh Hurst (Reveal) says the film offers "all the fun of Jerry Springer. Closer is an immensely unpleasant film to sit through, and, when it's all over, we are left not with a profound exploration of love and fidelity, but, rather, a simple moral that you could get in most any children's book: Selfishness is bad. A noble truth, to be sure, but I don't see why we should have to sit through two hours of pure agony to receive it."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) came to the following conclusion: "By painting such a dismal picture of love as practiced outside of God's perfect plan, Closer comes very close to proving His point: that a monogamous, persevering commitment to marriage is the only way it works. But since every character deserves every ounce of pain he or she experiences due to absurdly stupid decisions, I just can't shake the feeling that this is all an exercise in foulness and futility."

Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight) says, "Closer, whether on purpose or by accident, makes its characters so repulsively vile that we honestly do not care what happens to them. To say that the characters had it coming to them is an extreme understatement. We sit back, rather detached from the proceedings, like voyeurs, watching bad people ruin their lives and the lives of those around them."

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"The film deals with their sexual attraction in almost purely verbal terms," observes Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service), "but the sexually charged dialogue is quite graphic … shocking in its bluntness. Though these characters' emotions are identifiably real, their actions are morally reprehensible. And the film doesn't supply much in the way of a redemptive ending, except for these characters lives being plainly empty."

Mainstream critics are divided, many finding that the direction, screenwriting, and performances make it a worthwhile, if unpleasant, experience.

House of Flying Daggers as spectacular to watch as Hero

For the second time this year, American audiences are being treated to a martial arts epic by the acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Hero).

Set during the Tang dynasty, 859 A.D, House of FlyingDaggers follows the rapidly accelerating romance between Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police deputy in service of the emperor, and Mei (Hero's Zhang Ziyi), a woman who belongs to an undercover resistance effort, a group of powerful warriors who steal from the rich and give to the poor. When Jin pretends to abandon his police duties, rescuing Mei from her pursuers, he begins the long journey into the wilderness, following her in hopes of discovering the headquarters of the rebellion. But the closer he gets to the secret, the more he struggles with his deception and finds himself falling in love with this beautiful, acrobatic, death-defying agent.

The story is full of unexpected twists and surprises, and the battle scenes are among the most exhilarating ever filmed—choreographed in such a way so that they have as much in common with dance as they do with combat. But the storytelling stumbles, especially in the last act, when the characters begin to behave in increasingly selfish ways, spoiling any sympathy we have for them.

As in Hero, the achievement of visual splendor will outweigh the narrative's missteps. Storytelling is just one aspect of what cinema has to offer. Beauty is a powerful gift as well, and Zhang Yimou's exhilarating imagination is reason enough for most moviegoers to get in line for House of Flying Daggers. My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Zhang Yimou's kung fu saga echoes the cinematic bravura of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as Yimou's own Oscar-nominated Hero and explores universal themes of passion, jealousy, vengeance, and the timeless conflict between love and duty. The story sometimes gets drowned out by the swirl of steel and silk. However, the characters and their dilemmas d'amour are interesting enough to keep viewers engaged in the story during breaks in the eye-popping action."

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Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says it's "reasonably diverting, sometimes hauntingly beautiful, until the catastrophically misconceived final act, at which point it goes spectacularly off the rails. Zhang has created some of the most overwhelmingly beautiful action sequences ever filmed. Yet while Crouching Tiger had characters and relationships one could care about to the end, and Hero offered a compelling exploration of Chinese sensibilities and moral affections, House leaves me finally without anyone or anything to care about."

Many mainstream critics are praising this film as one of the year's best.

Blade franchise continues with an unholy Trinity

Mainstream critics are driving stakes into the heart of the lamentable new action/horror sequel Blade: Trinity. This latest in the franchise starring Wesley Snipes is being described as "shallow" and "mind-numbing."

Only one religious press critic has reviewed the film so far. David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Sitting through Blade: Trinity … is about as fun for viewers as a garlic bubble bath would be for the movie's fanged femme fatale. Violent and vacuous, the bloodfest … dishes out the same headache-inducing action sequences, tedious gore and cheesy dialogue as did the first two installments."

More reviews of recent releases

Christmas with the Kranks:Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) grades the film a "D," and says, "The comedy ranges from embarrassing … to stupid … to mean-spirited. 'No! Ho! Ho!'" says the tagline. They had me at 'No!' From now on, instead of the Kranks skipping Christmas, can't [Tim] Allen skip future Christmas movies? Please?"

A Very Long Engagement: David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says Jean Pierre Jeunet's new film "combines an emotionally engaging story with mesmerizing visuals, resulting in a poignant parable about the absurdity of war and the power of love. This beautifully crafted film's hopeful message of love's capacity to overcome all obstacles— even death and despair—may make this 'engagement' worth keeping, especially in our own time of war."

Finding Neverland: Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) says the film "does a masterful job of illuminating the creative process. Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet more than earn their keep here, delivering deep and enchanting performances. But what makes this film so engaging and fascinating—and keeps it from turning into yet another by-the-numbers biopic—is its nuanced attention to the way small decisions can so radically change your life."

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Kinsey: John Zmirak (Godspy) says Bill Condon's film "leaves out the fact that after this single affair, both Dr. and Mrs. Kinsey became serial adulterers, using their image as a happily married couple as little more than a public relations ploy to help Kinsey's conclusions gain broader acceptance. The film also omits Kinsey's lifelong obsession with erotic self-torture. But the film does hint at Kinsey's bizarre stunt of circumcising himself at home in the bathtub. Watching Kinsey was not just unsexy—it was anti-sexy. Attempting to strip the erotic of all its mystery, modesty, emotional content—even its shame—is self-defeating, in the end. Looking at men and women as merely animals renders human flesh finally meat, and replaces the tender touch of one lover's hand upon another with the scalpel of a doctor doingthe autopsy on Cupid's cadaver."

National Treasure:Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "In its general approach if not all particulars, Treasure could represent a promising new approach in family entertainment. The annoying Freemason stuff aside, National Treasure works fairly well as slick, enjoyable hooey."

Next week: Ocean's Twelve