The period of speculation, worry, warnings, assurances and hype over The Passion of the Christ is coming to an end. The film is finished, and some audiences have seen it. An original soundtrack has replaced the music that supported early screenings of director Mel Gibson's rough drafts. The final cuts have been made. Here it comes, along with reviews.
While it's not the first mainstream magazine to offer an "early look" at the film, the story in the new issue of Newsweek is the flashiest and most ambitious to date. Critic Jon Meacham has seen the film twice, and carefully explains the moments that are causing the cries of anti-Semitism, noting the differing perspectives of Christian audiences and Jewish audiences. He also highlights which portions of the film are unsupported by Scripture. In conclusion, Meacham offers these thoughts:
Amid the clash over Gibson's film and the debates about the nature of God, whether you believe Jesus to be the savior of mankind or to have been an interesting first-century figure who left behind an inspiring moral philosophy, perhaps we can at least agree on this image of Jesus of Nazareth: confronted by violence, he chose peace; by hate, love; by sin, forgiveness—a powerful example for us all, whoever our gods may be.
The New York Times reports that Gibson has been igniting the fires of religious fervor for the film. "Gibson … has tried to stoke [religious leaders'] enthusiasm by screening it the past two months for at least 10,000 pastors and leaders of Christian ministries and media. Many emerged proclaiming it a searing, life-changing experience. Now those leaders are buying blocks of tickets, encouraging church members to invite their 'unsaved' friends and co-workers and producing television commercials that start with scenes from the movie and finish with a pitch for their churches."
Advance tickets are selling fast. Taking a distinctly positive stand, one enthusiastic soul purchased 6,000 Passion tickets and gave them away.
Meanwhile, a sort of euphoria continued to spread through Christian communities as more and more pastors and other religious leaders were shown the film. What is supposedly the "final cut" was screened at Azusa Pacific University last week. (On the APU Web site, you will find a featured article on "The Science of the Crucifixion," which may help with those debates over the "accuracy" of Gibson's film.)
Some viewers and pundits are gravely concerned over the level of violence portrayed in the film.
As he spells out his concerns about the film, Martin Marty expresses puzzlement that conservative Catholics and evangelicals who complain about violence in other movies show no sign of complaint about this film and even seem pleased by the copious gore. "The previewers who like violence if it shows Jesus suffering, on the grounds that savagery moves people to appreciate his sacrifice, are measuring the wrong thing. In Holy Week I'll be listening to Bach's Passions, singing about 'Was there ever grief like Thine?' and meditating on the wounds of Christ, but not in the belief that the more blood and gore the holier, a la Gibson. Today, all over the world, people are suffering physically as much as the crucified Jesus. The point now is not to accept grace because we saw gore. The issue is not, were his the worst wounds and pains ever, but, as the Gospels show, the issue was, and is, who was suffering and to what end."
Some Christian leaders do seem pleased by the graphic nature of the violence. In that New York Times article, a pastor is quoted as saying, "This isn't just violence for violence's sake. This is what really happened, what it would have been like to have been there in person to see Jesus crucified."
Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses) goes so far as to suggest a connection between those who find The Passion's violence too graphic and those apostles of Christ who fled his crucifixion. She attributes this to "a failure of courage, and the consequence of a weak faith."
Similarly, Brian Godawa (RazorMouth), author of Hollywood Worldviews, writes, "The brutal realism of Christ's suffering points to the depth and costliness of atonement, which was achieved for God's people through His once-for-all sacrifice. To show anything less is to diminish the gospel. Watching this movie, with its in-your-face grisly realism, provides a much-needed corrective to our modern pseudo-gospels with their bloodless Jesuses."
But is this what "really happened?" Is this "grisly realism"?
Christian film critic Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) is says that the "realistic" details of the film are, in several cases, significantly inaccurate.
"Everything you know about The Passion of the Christ is wrong," he writes. "For over a year, the film's most vocal critics have said Mel Gibson's movie about the death of Jesus is anti-Semitic, while its most vocal supporters have said no, it's only an accurate representation of Scripture and history. In truth, the film is neither."
He reprimands the religious leaders rushing to call it accurate: "It is quite telling that the only way many Christians know how to defend a work of art is to assert that it is an 'accurate' adaptation of Scripture, as if to minimize its artistry or creativity. It is even more telling that many Christians make this assertion even when the work of art in question contains several elements that are quite definitely not accurate."
Chattaway goes on to explain that the film's portrayal of the crucifixion "rejects modern historical scholarship" and that it "erroneously identifies Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery." He goes on to remind us that in the Gospel of Luke, it is an angel who visits Christ in Gethsemane, not Satan, as portrayed in the film.
"There isn't necessarily anything wrong with these sorts of artistic decisions," he says, "but they are not exactly 'accurate.'"
Dick Staub (CultureWatch) also shares cautionary words: "Christians who seem to have an uncanny knack for getting everything wrong about popular culture have done it again! They are investing extraordinary energy in Mel Gibson's movie, with one person calling it 'one of the greatest opportunities for evangelism in 2,000 years!'"
He elaborates: "A representative from Gibson's company explained their promotion of the Passion to religious leaders as more in the interest of marketing than evangelism, a distinction evangelicals evidently no longer recognize."
Also skeptical, Terry Mattingly voices something slightly dissonant with the predominant, unbridled enthusiasm of the religious press. In his new religion blog GetReligion, Mattingly says, "I have been fascinated by the lack of critical voices among conservative Protestants. At some point, the overwhelming Catholic symbolism is going to tick off a really conservative Reformed Protestant and the fur will fly somewhere online." He even has a premonition: "I would keep an eye on the letters pages of World magazine and its blog."
A negative portrayal of Jews in Passion? What about recent portrayals of the Catholic Church?
Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times) is a bit surprised that there would be such a hubbub over what might be interpreted as an unflattering portrayal of Jewish leaders. He's not arguing that there is no negative portrayal. But he does wonder: Why the fuss now? Why hasn't there been a similar fuss over the relentlessly negative portrayals of the Catholic Church at the movies? Surely, just as the Jews as a people should not be blamed for Christ's death, Catholics should not all be portrayed as malevolent villains because a few of them have committed severe crimes.
He lists a few recent titles that have continued the trend. He cites The Order, The Magdalene Sisters, The Affair of the Necklace, Evelyn, The Crime of Padre Amaro, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, 40 Days and 40 Nights, and The Body, and says, "In these movies, priests are suicidal, corrupt and/or lascivious. Nuns are heartless and sadistic. Yes, I'm aware of scandals, past and present, involving the church. And yes, some of the films listed above are powerful, important works based on true stories. But a lot of this stuff is just exploitative garbage. And no other religious group gets bashed with such frequency."
I don't usually agree with Roeper's reviews of films, but on this point I will gladly stand to be counted with him. The prejudice against Christians—especially the Catholic Church—is one of the most lamentable long-running trends at the movies.
These days, if a film dares to raise any questions about Islam, there is great protest in the name of tolerance. But if you need a villain, Hollywood seems to say, look no further than the Catholic Church. It serves as a reservoir of big screen villains for all purposes. If someone were to discover our world only from our movies, they would come to conclude that the church was an organization of satanic individuals existing primarily for the abuse of power, the rape of innocents, and spooky cover-ups of the truth. A huge portion of the world's population—Christian or otherwise—would probably disagree with this assessment.
So why aren't more critics brave enough to bring this up?
A rather unremarkable Miracle
Director Gavin O'Connor has a crowd-pleaser on his hands with Miracle, a big screen re-creation of the victory of the United States Olympic hockey team over the Soviets in 1980. Kurt Russell plays the tough-as-nails coach Herb Brooks in an excellent performance of gruff determination. Most religious press critics are thrilled with the results.
Tom Snyder (Movieguide) expresses enthusiasm for the film, largely because it gives him opportunity to praise the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Ben Cornish (Christian Spotlight) is pleased to find a film that "families can feel safe viewing together. This film focuses on themes of teamwork, perseverance, and the family dynamics between players and coaches, while avoiding the foul language and lewd behavior that have become popular themes in sports related films."
Bob Waliszewski (Plugged In) says, "Parents can capitalize on the film's attention to family issues, the pursuit of excellence and the ethics of competition. They can even turn some of the movie's socio-political references into an impromptu civics lesson." But Waliszewski is one of the few willing to question Coach Brooks' tactics. Brooks, he says, is "no saint. His temper gets the best of him. His workouts border on abuse. And his professional obsession creates conflict at home."
"Miracle will make you want to stand up and cheer," raves Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). "O'Connor and first-time screenwriter Eric Guggenheim have crafted an accessible, meticulous, rousing tribute to the legendary game that should both please mainstream audiences and hold up to aficionado scrutiny."
"Miracle was an entertaining movie," says Megan Lindeman (Hollywood Jesus). "I can't say it was the best I've ever seen, but coming from a woman, any sports film that rates 'entertaining' must have some merit!"
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a star-spangled crowd-pleaser … with good writing, good acting and good direction, resulting in a movie sure to take home box-office gold." He says it will "lump the throat of even the most cynical viewers."
I am not a particularly cynical viewer. Further, I have nothing against a good sports flick. The Rookie brought tears to my eyes with its detailed character development and heartfelt storytelling. Chariots of Fire is one of my all-time favorites. But Miracle bored and frustrated me, because it did what any formulaic, predictable sports movie does. It gives you a bunch of fairly generic, good-looking players, a coach who is gruff and difficult, and opponents who look sinister. It builds the tension with sweaty, tense practice sessions. And then it turns them loose against each other.
Even more disappointing is the "sport footage," which seems to have been filmed from the puck's point of view. Instead of letting us observe the strategies and the plays, we're given jostling, dizzying sequences in which men knock each other down and slash at each other with hockey sticks.
Viewers would be in for a far greater thrill if they tracked down a video of the game itself.
My full review is at Looking Closer.
Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) had a similar experience. "It never captures the euphoric feeling fans had during that memorable upset. Everything is there from crescendoing music (it crescendos a lot) to borrowing elements found in every successful jock flick from Remember the Titans to The Bad News Bears. The trouble is … O'Connor approaches the material with the same bombastic style with which Herb Brooks coached his athletes. He pushes just a little too hard."
Mainstream critics are generally pleased with the film, but a few hoped for something more.
Critics debate whether this Barbershop should be Back in Business
"I was one of those looking forward to part two," admits critic J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) in his review of Barbershop 2: Back in Business. "I'm happy to say [it] does not disappoint."
The sequel chronicles the continuing conversational capers of Calvin (Ice Cube), who inherited a barbershop in the first film and discovered its important role in the community as a place of civilized debate over all sorts of volatile issues. In fact, the debates of the first film were more than just funny—they were provocative and controversial, setting off a highly publicized debate about humor and propriety. (You can revisit critics' impressions of the first Barbershophere.)
While this episode steers clear of controversy, Parks argues that it has its virtues. "One of the things I like about the Barbershop franchise is how it focuses on the little aspects of life. Calvin isn't trying to save the world; he's just trying to carve out a place for him, his wife, and his new baby. Does he sell the shop while he still can get some money for it? Does he try to ride out the competition? These are real questions, and the film treats them as worthy of portrayal." He concludes that he'd like to see this become a television series where these characters could develop over time.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is also somewhat impressed. "While some might find the raw repartee off-putting, it is refreshing to see a depiction of an ethnically diverse group not only co-existing peacefully but thoroughly enjoying each other's company."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The filmmakers … focus on what made the first film so successful—the camaraderie that existed within the shop itself." He also cautions parents about "profanity and plenty of sexual references."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says the jokes "seem more carefully selected this time around. The targets are generally safer ones … and the implications more politically correct. But this film doesn't wield as much positivity, either. Nor is it as effective with its political and cultural satire."
Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) agrees that it contains "very little that could be considered biting satire. Forced and often silly, the subjects and characterizations have all the subtlety of a barber's joke."
Tom Snyder (Movieguide) calls it "a very funny, charming, heartwarming movie with a strong, positive reference to Jesus Christ and the New Testament. That's why it's doubly regrettable that the filmmakers included so much foul language and too many sexual innuendoes and references."
Mainstream critics, while generally impressed by the movie, still find this to be the lesser of the two 'shops.
Nobody needs to Catch That Kid
A few years ago, a Danish film called Klatretøsen played in U.S. film festivals. Now, the American remake, Catch That Kid, has arrived. And to read what critics have to say about it, you have to wonder why a remake was necessary.
"I hope that the film makes more sense when spoken in a foreign language," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "It is hard to recommend that anyone catch this American version. Though it is meant to be all in good fun, the film's message is unmistakable: The ends justify the means. If the stakes are high enough, any action—even illegal action—is excusable. Is this really the type of lesson we want to teach our preteens?"
Catch That Kid is an adventure in which 12-year-old Maddie rounds up a band of friends to try and steal enough money to help out her father, a go-cart track owner, who is suffering from a delayed paralysis as a consequence of a rock-climbing accident.
Tom Snyder (Movieguide) says, "Although [it] extols intact families and parents who get involved with their children, it has other moral problems."
"There might not be rampant profanity, explicit violence or naughty nudity," writes Loren Eaton (Plugged In), "but children who watch this kiddie criminal caper will get a 92-minute primer on situation ethics and will learn it's perfectly fine for women to crassly manipulate star-struck males. A miserably failure artistically and ethically."
Mainstream critics almost unanimously agree that the film is not worth your time or money, and that your kids deserve better.
The Dreamers beautifully filmed incest?
The revered director Bernardo Bertolucci, director of The Last Emperor, inspired controversy for 1973's sexually explicit drama The Last Tango in Paris, which starred Marlon Brando. Now, he's back with another film that is earning attention for its graceful cinematography and its controversial sexual subject matter.
But it is also earning some sharp criticisms from critics, especially in the religious press. Christians are especially troubled by the explicit sexual material that earned the film a NC-17, the first film to open across the country with that rating since 1995.
The story is based on the novel Holy Innocents, set in 1968 Paris, during the Marxist riots. An American movie buff named Matthew moves in with a brother and sister: two French film enthusiasts, Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel). As the political tension rises outside, the sexual tensions rise indoors. When Matthew discovers rather incestuous behavior, he's upset, but soon he's joining the sexually reckless siblings in heated political debate, heated discussions of cinema, and behavior that is heated beyond the bounds of propriety.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "At 63, Bertolucci has the desperation of an aging demagogue still hawking his moth-eaten gospel of free love—a libertinism as morally empty today as it was back in 1968. Many of the sequences play like love poems to the filmmakers who influenced him, most notably Goddard and Truffaut. However, The Dreamers collapses under the weight of its inflated sense of self-importance." He cautions viewers about the film's "exploitative eroticism."
Tom Snyder (Movieguide) writes, "Bertolucci's movie not only captures the political, sexual rebellion of the times, it also captures the love of cinema of film buffs living in Paris from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Some of these film buffs went on to become important filmmakers in their own right. Regrettably … [the film] is filled with explicit sexual content, incest, graphic nudity, harsh obscenities, and denials of God's existence."
Mainstream critics are divided over the film, but most see it as one of Bertolucci's lesser works.
More thoughts on You Got Served and Lost in Translation
This week, Bob Waliszewski (Plugged In) looks at the recent box office hit about breakdancing, You Got Served. "In all fairness," he writes, "the dancing is tight, choreographed superbly … if not always tastefully. You Got Served dances way out-of-bounds when it gives the impression that dealing drugs and gambling are sometimes necessary alternatives for raising capital. That and the fact that the entire climax celebrates a fool's gold prize is plenty of reason for moviegoers to waltz away from this one."
Elsewhere, Dick Staub (CultureWatch) caught up with the Sofia Coppola's Oscar-nominated Lost in Translation and calls it "a visual and verbal exploration of the agonizing disconnect and isolation that characterizes human experience. Everything in this move underscores the pain of human isolation from self, others and place. It is a brilliant expose and exploration of the human dilemma with sweet relief offered by the 'misery loves company' serendipitous friendship forged by Bob and Charlotte."
Next week: 50 First Dates and more.