It's been quite a week for Catholic artists at the movies.

The box-office crown was won by a passionate Catholic for his film about Jesus saving the world from sin, while eleven Oscars were handed out to the makers of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (thanks to the not-so-Catholic director Peter Jackson.)

First, let's take a look at the Oscars.

Tolkien fans would like to thank the Academy …

"It's a clean sweep!" Steven Spielberg exclaimed when he opened the Oscar envelope and saw the name of this year's Best Picture winner—The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Throughout its history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been notorious for choosing realism over fantasy. No fantasy film has ever won Best Picture.

That all changed when the third Rings film to be nominated for the award finally earned the appreciation of Oscar voters. To make the victory even sweeter, the Best Picture award was the eleventh Oscar given to the film that night, tying the record set by Ben-Hur and Titanic, and bringing the trilogy's Oscar total to a whopping seventeen—the most Oscars ever collected by a franchise.

With a sizeable crowd of the actors, crew, and the two screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens smiling and teary-eyed behind him, Peter Jackson accepted the award with his characteristic humility, gratitude, and sincerity. He joked about the broadcast "delay" that was in effect (in case of "wardrobe malfunctions" or inappropriate language) saying, "Fantasy is one F-word that the five-second delay won't do anything to." He thanked the Academy for "seeing beyond the trolls, wizards and hobbits."

For Lord of the Rings fans, there may have been a twinge of sadness as the program closed. This will be the first year since 2001 without a new Middle-earth movie that can qualify for competition, even though a DVD edition of The Return of the King promises to add another hour (!!) to the film's duration. (Jackson has reportedly completed a four-hour and twelve-minute cut.)

Peter Jackson's masterpiece is, for many Tolkien fans, a dream come true. Count me among them—I've been a fan of hobbits since I was eight years old. As a teen, re-reading the series, I hoped for an Oscar-caliber adaptation of the saga, even dreaming that Ian Holm would someday be cast as Bilbo Baggins, and wishing that somebody would make it look like Alan Lee's Middle-earth artwork. Holm was cast as Bilbo, Alan Lee was hired as a designer, and oodles of Oscars have been won. It seemed a ridiculous dream, but it all came true. It seems there really is "another will at work."

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In my Oscar predictions article for CT Movies, I had guessed that Oscar's anti-fantasy bias would continue to hold and the over-the-top performances of Mystic River would give it the edge over Rings. It was the only major award I failed to guess correctly. I have never been so happy to be wrong.

To further explore the achievement of Peter Jackson and Company, check out this new article by Steven D. Greydanus of Decent Films.

For a summary of the Oscars, see this recap posted Monday at Christianity Today Movies.

The Passion rules at the box office

This week, Mel Gibson's movie about Jesus became the top-grossing feature … in more ways than one.

Mainstream critics continue to scourge The Passion of The Christ with cruel and unusual punishment. One even called it "a Christian snuff film." While they try to convince the world that the movie is "religious porn"—too gross to merit any attention—the movie went on to become a box office champion par excellence, outrunning all predictions and stunning the movie industry.

In its first five days, The Passion earned $125.5 million dollars, the third most successful five-day opening in history. That's even better business than The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Star Wars—Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

Most of those early viewers were probably Christians and church groups. Now, through word-of-mouth, the film's popularity may increase.

It is exciting to see Christians engaging in discussion about meaning at the movies. Groups are gathering in churches to discuss the film. On Monday night, I joined author/radio personality/culture-watcher Dick Staub and Rabbi Daniel Lapin on the platform of Living Hope Community Church just north of Seattle to discuss and debate the merits of the film before attentive and participatory listeners, many of whom were not members of that church.

This trend offers us a picture of how Christians can participate in productive discourse with the larger moviegoing community … over any significant work of art. The Passion of The Christ is not the only film offering us this opportunity. I discuss some of these other films in an open letter to Christians at my website, Looking Closer. I have a few suggestions for churchgoers to consider, now that The Passion has their attention.

Meanwhile, more religious press critics—including Peter T. Chattaway of Christianity Today Movies—posted their reviews of The Passion this week.

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Gerri Pare, David DiCerto and Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) call the film "unflinching in its brutality and penetrating in its iconography of God's supreme love for humanity. The Passion … is a composite of the Passion narratives in the four Gospels embroidered with nonscriptural traditions as well as the imaginative inspiration of the filmmaker. The result is a deeply personal work of devotional art—a moving Stations of the Cross, so to speak."

But they, like other critics, note that the film's limited focus makes it challenging. "Gibson has, perhaps, muted Christ's teachings, making it difficult for viewers unfamiliar with the New Testament and the era's historical milieu to contextualize the circumstances leading up to Jesus' arrest. And though, for Christians, the Passion is the central event in the history of salvation, the 'how' of Christ's death is lingered on at the expense of the 'why?'"

"Where the film stumbles in terms of historical detail it excels as a work of art," says Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project). Leary sees a remarkable parallel between the method of the filmmaker and the method of Christ the teacher: "To watch the film having never read the Gospels would be like reading C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces with no knowledge of classical mythology, or Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury having never spent any time in the Deep South. It would be the experience of something totally foreign, the shocking clarity of its images powerful not because they make sense but because one would be sure that somehow, in some grander story, they do make a great deal of sense. In a strange parallel, this is the same experience many had as they sat and listened to the teachings of Jesus. His parables cast new visions of society and history veiled in a mysterious sort of poetry, one profoundly intelligible to those with the right set of keys but still scandalously alluring to those without."

Dennis Haack (Ransom Fellowship) affirms that, from a devout believer's perspective, the film is a transforming experience. "The Passion is not difficult to watch because it is about Jesus' death, but because of the way Gibson has chosen to make the film. Never again will I be able to mention the death of my Lord without flinching inside. Nor will I be able take the bread and wine of the sacrament without a sense of dread for the cost of my redemption." He offers questions for post-viewing discussion as well.

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I get the feeling that Mike Parker (TrueTunes) was a bit stunned by the film. "[It is] a stunning motion picture, in every sense of the word. Stunning in its daring use of dead languages and simple subtitles. Stunning in its stark, haunting soundtrack. Stunning in its utter brutality. Stunning in its use of darkness and light. By the end of the film I sat quietly; motionless; stunned."

Meanwhile, in a Time article called "Holy Hypocrisies," Richard Corliss blew the whistle on the obviously two-faced attacks on The Passion in the mainstream press. He writes:

Liberals … are sympathetic to a controversial work of pop culture, we invoke the artist's right to create in a climate of total freedom, whatever feelings of outrage the work may stoke among the ignorati. (That is: other people.) When we disapprove, we talk about his responsibility to the sensitivities and sensibilities of good people. (That is: us.) So, in the aesthetico-religious sphere, we defend Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ … and Kevin Smith's Dogma.

But how do these same critics treat The Passion of The Christ, a film that interprets Christ's final hours faithfully to the way Christians understand it? Corliss shakes his head over the hypocrisy, and highlights the obvious anti-Christian prejudice and lunacy of the responses offered by Andy Rooney, Christopher Hitchens, and others:

Leading the attack … Hitchens appropriated rhetorical tactics employed by both political fringes. Like some segments of the Christian right when Last Temptation and Dogma came out, he called for a boycott of a film he apparently had not seen. And he exhumed that favorite old pejorative of the Bolsheviks, fascist: he said the movie is 'quite distinctly fascist in intention,' adding that it is 'an incitement to sadomasochism, in the less attractive sense of the word.' Hitchens let viewers wonder for a moment which kind he preferred, then clarified his definition: the film, he insisted, is 'an appeal to the gay Christian sadomasochistic niche market.' That must explain the movie's $23 million opening day. Pretty big niche.

Finally, in a National Catholic Register story titled "Will Mel Evangelize Evangelicals?", author Steven D. Greydanus notes the Catholic imagery that runs throughout the film: "Protestants have attracted much attention in recent weeks by trumpeting their hopes that Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ will prove a great evangelistic tool.

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What relatively few have noticed is the extent to which these groups are themselves being evangelized." Greydanus goes on to detail the film's Catholic imagery, which closely follows "the 14 Stations of the Cross and the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. Every mystery and every station is there, in order—including one event drawn entirely from tradition, St. Veronica wiping the Lord's face." He concludes by saying, "Perhaps Catholics should make a point of going with their Protestant friends—and then pointing out what their friends aren't hearing about the film in their own churches."

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights—a cheap, dirty alternative

Fans of the 1980s flick Dirty Dancing may have been excited about the release of the sequel. Critics are encouraging them to think differently.

Despite the film's inclusion of "sweaty, sensual dancing and a 'forbidden' romance" … and a cameo by Patrick Swayze," Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights has nothing to do with the 1987 hit that shares the first part of its name."

"[The filmmaker] saddles the clash-of-cultures love affair with a political subplot," said David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "But rather than add depth to the characters and story, the glossy, faux weightiness only magnifies the superficiality of the script. The eroticism of the movie's choppily edited, bump-and-grind choreography imparts a misleading message that seems to equate personal fulfillment with sensual liberation."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "Nothing in Havana Nights will shock anyone already familiar with 1987's Dirty Dancing. The music—which is actually the highlight of the film—is Afro-Cuban and Latin instead of 'American Oldies,' so there are certainly differences in the style of dancing. But there's very little difference in the sexual intensity expressed. In both films, the girls' parents are too-easily won over after being deliberately deceived. Also in both films, the shredding of one's sexual inhibitions is something to aspire to and is equated with the development of maturity."

He concludes, "There is a decent message regarding how the uppity American tourists wrongly treat the Cuban natives as inferiors although it is a bit obvious and heavy handed."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) says the movie "does not have the character and story depth of the first Dirty Dancing movie. The movie has significant moral problems. [It] expresses support for Castro's Communist Revolution without mentioning his Communism and ends just before Castro takes over Havana and starts his reign of terror and concentration camps."

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Most mainstream critics refuse to dance.

Twisted—a not-so thrilling thriller

In Twisted, actress Ashley Judd plays an investigator who discovers that she might be her own prime suspect.

Moviegoers may see a parallel between this premise and Judd's career. This immensely talented actress seems to be spoiling her reputation by choosing one lousy thriller after another. The film is also a mark against the once-formidable director Phillip Kaufman, who made The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and co-wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Twisted is a rotten-tomato target for critics this week. It is reportedly overrun with cliché s, unintentionally funny dialogue, and less-than-memorable performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Andy Garcia.

"The film never even tries to be more than a routine thriller informed by amateurish psychology," says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). He goes on to lament "some overcooked dialogue, a number of plot threads that go nowhere … some wildly implausible story devices … and a dearth of remotely likable characters."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "Twisted is one of those murder mysteries where any viewer vaguely familiar with the genre will finger the killer in the first 10 minutes. [The movie is] a sleazy tease with plot holes, plausibility problems and a tired payoff that leaves the audience feeling as if they'd been beaten about the head."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "As a murder mystery, Twisted could have used a few more twists. As it stands, we can see the ending coming from a few victims away." He adds that Garcia and Jackson seem to be "going through the motions in this film." He concludes that the film's worst flaw is "the awkwardness of the script. It is so [formulaic] that all tension and mystery are nonexistent."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) lists several of the script's absurdities. "Even though all this happened around 1970, we're supposed to believe that a single black man with no children was allowed to adopt a young white girl that he was not related to. We're also supposed to accept that the San Francisco Police Department is full of psychotics, murderers and sex-addicts."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Twisted desperately tries to be sexy but can't generate enough inertia to break free of the gravitational pull of its hackneyed script. It is pulp without pop or pizzazz."

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Tom Snyder (Movieguide) says it "contains a perverted storyline, with a troubled heroine whose sexual promiscuity is eventually validated when the true killer's motive is finally revealed."

Eurotrip a raunchy waste of time

The teen road-trip comedy Eurotrip is getting such bad reviews, it's not even worth summarizing.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a relentlessly raunchy so-called comedy. Given the fact that the vulgarians behind Eurotrip are also responsible for such lowest-common-denominator fare as Road Trip and Old School, the puerile parade of debauchery that unfolds shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone." He adds, "The filmmaker shows a callous disregard for Catholic viewers. Since when did desecrating sacraments … become funny? Dreamworks executives should be ashamed of themselves."

Movieguide's critic says, "Eurotrip is more than just a teenage sex comedy following in the footsteps of the R-rated American Pie movies. It is also an explicitly sacrilegious, blasphemous, and anti-Christian, including anti-Catholic, work that directly attacks the Christian heritage of the United States. The movie not only makes fun of the death of the Roman Pope, it also contains an explicit nude sex scene in a confessional booth at the Vatican with a Cross on the wall. One of the main characters disdainfully says that he wants to travel to Europe to get away from the United States, which he says was founded by a bunch of 'prudes' who didn't like the immoral sexual lifestyle of the Europeans."

Most mainstream critics call the movie just another trashy waste of time.

Thus, it's surprising that the Christian-perspective Phantom Tollbooth says, "If you like a good laugh and do not mind this type of humor, then prepare to laugh long and hard, as Eurotrip is a trip well worth taking." Hmmm.

Clifford a treat for the family

Clifford's Really Big Movie, based on a popular TV series which was based on the beloved series of children's books, is getting applause from reviewers and family film watchdogs.

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "This film offers a positive message about the importance of family. [It] also explores the concept of individuality and acceptance. Another positive message of the film is that we can be tricked by our desire for fame and fortune. Overall … the movie offers a positive, fun experience for young children."

At Decent Films, critic Steven D. Greydanus interviews his nine-year-old daughter Sarah regarding her impressions of the movie.

Next week: Reviews of Hidalgo (starring Viggo Mortensen), The Reckoning (starring Paul Bettany) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet).