Whether it's a sacred sacrifice or schlock and horror, blood is big box office.

This week, Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ came to the end of its reign at the top of the weekly charts. Taking its place, Dawn of the Dead, an over-the-top horror remake directed by Zack Snyder, featured more bodies rising from the grave. But these bodies are not resurrected so much as they are reanimated — with a monstrous desire to slay and devour the living. Thus, the band of survivors in the spotlight, including a nurse (Sarah Polley of Go and Guinevere), a courageous cop (Ving Rhames of Pulp Fiction, Out of Sight), and a mall security guard (Michael Kelly) must do what they can to blast zombie heads from zombie shoulders in an attempt to save the world.

After pulling in $26.7 million in its first weekend, Dawn of the Dead is giving the entertainment media a field day with variations of the headline "Top-Grossing Zombies Scare Away Jesus." That's no surprise. The fact that The Passion held #1 for three full weeks will probably remain the film industry's most significant event this year.

But what are we to conclude from the fact that mainstream film critics are giving Dawn of the Dead much higher marks than The Passion? Sure, Gibson's work was flawed, but is it really inferior in terms of artmaking, meaning, and significance? What a sad, sad commentary on critical discernment in the mainstream. It seems their credibility crumbles when they prove incapable of appreciating the work of a principled artist motivated by faith.

But religious press film critics are not afraid of criticizing this horde of cannibalistic monsters.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) finds the movie "laced with campy, pitch-black humor with pretensions of social commentary. That the last stronghold of humanity is a shopping mall … is no coincidence, and, in a subversively sardonic way, seems to say much more about carnivorous consumerism than cannibalistic corps of corpses." But in his view, the film is still sorely lacking. He concludes that moviegoers, "like the zombies, are out for blood. [The film] perversely pursues a pornographic kind of video-game violence, not to educate, but to entertain and exploit."

Zachary Winn (Christian Spotlight), a fan of the original Living Dead trilogy, actually had high hopes for the film, but came away unsatisfied. "We are left with a standard and predictable action/horror movie, lacking anything that was remarkable or interesting about the original. Most notably missing are the enjoyable, fleshed-out characters and the witty social commentary."

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Eternal Sunshine unforgettable sci-fi comedy

Writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry brought their formidable imaginations together for this year's most challenging and original comedy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in excellent performances, and features an impressive supporting cast that includes Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, The Patriot), Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man), Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me), and Elijah Wood in his first post-Frodo performance.

Carrey plays Joel, the ex-boyfriend of a flirtatious flibbertigibbet. Broken-hearted, Joel seeks help from a doctor who promises to delete all painful memories of the failed relationship from his mind. But during the process, Joel has second thoughts, and ends up fleeing through his own memories in an attempt to salvage what he can of his precious past before the deletion is complete.

Eternal Sunshine has more heart than Kaufman's previous works, and while its characters are reckless, misguided, and lost, they seem to be finding their way toward a healthy understanding of unconditional love by the conclusion. My full review of the film is at Christianity Today Movies.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) finds this film far more satisfying than Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, both written by Kaufman. "In this film, Kaufman's characters finally lift their heads out of the fog and dare to hope—to move beyond narcissism and solipsism and actually try to make contact with one another. It's not a film that everyone will care to see, but I think it's ultimately humanistic and hopeful rather than nihilistic and misanthropic, and that's something."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "one of the most original, cleverly crafted, and emotionally resonant movies to come down the pike in a long time. The screenplay by Charlie Kaufman echoes the self-conscious quirkiness of Adaptation and Being John Malkovich … but is by far the most developed in terms of character and human drama. Despite some unnecessary crassness, the film makes some poignant reflections about the centrality of memories in defining our personalities."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "This may be [Carrey's] finest dramatic performance to date."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) describes it as "a confusing but exhilarating ride. The film's playful and disorienting attitude toward time is both a marvelous commentary on the transitory nature of memory and a spectacular narrative trick. Gondry's use of focus (or lack of) and disjointed sound perfectly captures the disorienting nature of moving between reality and memories. His special effects … provoke tremendous emotion."

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"I'd like to nominate this film for the Lost in Translation Award," says Josh Hurst (Rebel Base), "as it gives us a relationship story that is more complex and memorable than any we're likely to see all year. The film's ending … brings up all kinds of interesting questions that should make for highly rewarding post-viewing discussion. … Ironically, this film about erasing your memories is one movie that will prove difficult to forget."

A few religious press critics, uncomfortable with the characters' reckless behavior, give the film mixed reviews.

Sheri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) says, "The outcome is basically positive, although getting to that point is a grueling yet thought provoking experience for the audience. It is the type of movie one must stay focused on or else something will be missed." (Art that asks us to focus on it? What's the world coming to?) McMurray concludes, "I must admit, I was greatly moved at the ending."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "It could've been the set-up for a great lesson about romantic pitfalls and how to build a healthy, lasting marriage. But no, the existential worldview driving the film is more fatalistic and amoral than that. In the closing moments, Joel and Clem seem resigned to the fact that their union is doomed. They're considered noble for their willingness to pursue whatever fun they can (including sex) before the whole thing goes down the toilet."

Frederica Mathewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) praises Winslet's performance and the "extraordinary effects." But she concludes, "The movie ends … without much having happened. Joel has not changed, and neither has Clementine, and there is still no reason for them to be together."

I must respectfully disagree with both Smithouser and Matthewes-Green. First, to Matthewes-Green: The characters did not go unchanged. By the film's conclusion, they were beginning to learn hard lessons about weathering the trials of relationships, forgiving each other's flaws, and valuing their memories—good and bad.

Smithouser is mistaken to write off Joel and Clementine as mere hedonists indulging while they can. They lack maturity and the patience to build a relationship wisely, yes, but they are learning. They may have lost most of their past, but they seem to be developing a healthier perspective of longsuffering and forgiveness. Thus, while the film reflects that our rash decisions can carry crippling consequences, it also suggests that there is hope for these misguided lovers.

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Mainstream critics are generally celebrating the film as a brilliant achievement.

Christian critics dislike Taking Lives

Director D. J. Caruso (The Salton Sea) is earning high praise from critics for his work on Taking Lives, the new serial-killer thriller starring Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, Gena Rowlands, Olivier Martinez, and Jean-Hugues Anglade. But his efforts are wasted on a faulty script, which apparently falls apart at the end when Illeana (Jolie) finally learns the identity of the killer and the solution to the elaborate puzzle. Thus, most mainstream critics are suggesting that people steer clear of this stinker.

Religious press critics are as troubled by the excessive gore as they are by the preposterous conclusion.

"At least there was a point and a message behind the bloody violence we saw in The Passion of The Christ," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "In Taking Lives, it is merely a matter of gore for gore's sake. Despite the attempts of misdirection, the identity of the killer is not that well-masked. Anyone who is familiar with the genre and is halfway perceptive should be able to figure out who did what to whom long before it is revealed."

Misty Wagner (Christian Spotlight) calls it "a very average crime/profiler movie—much like a version of the hit television show C.S.I. made to fit into the format of a big screen movie. The trailers gave the impression that it was a horror/psychological thriller. However, I can assure you that this movie is not scary."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls the film "a mixed bag. While the level of filmmaking is a few cuts below The Silence of the Lambs in terms of character and story development, Taking Lives stops short of asking viewers to embrace its mass murderer as an anti-hero, as was the case with … Hannibal Lecter. And though, admittedly, the film is more concerned with eliciting screams than sociological discussion, it does offer the devastating effects of childhood alienation as a means of explaining—though not justifying—the horrible crimes committed."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, it's "a creepy movie that fully deserves its R-rating. It will keep you on the edge of your seat, with several unexpected twists that maintain the suspense. The film is also well-acted, with excellent performances from Jolie, Hawke, Martinez, Sutherland and Jean-Hugues Anglade."

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More on Secret Window, Cody 2

Reviewing last week's hit horror flick Secret Window, Josh Hurst (Relevant) says Johnny Depp "deserves major kudos for turning what would have been a forgettable, half-hearted thriller, into something surprisingly entertaining. Special effects and extreme stunts can't save a film with a bad script, but, if Secret Window is any indication, sometimes a great cast can."

After suffering through Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "While this sequel is the least morally problematic of Muniz's three big-screen outings, it's also far and away the lamest, lacking utterly its predecessors' fitful humor and excitement. I can't think of the last film that made me feel so embarrassed for the actors involved, or that felt like such a complete waste of my time."

No longer No. 1, but still making history

The Passion of The Christ may be less popular than zombies on the big screen this week, but that hasn't prevented it from conquering another film about "dead people." Mel Gibson's surprising blockbuster has replaced The Sixth Sense as #18 on the all-time domestic grosses chart as it neared the $300 million mark.

While Hollywood is watching the money, Christian film reviewers and writers are still musing about what Gibson has accomplished.

In Leadership (a Christianity Today sister publication), Brian McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in metro Washington, D.C., protests what he sees as the exaggeration of the movie's importance. He says, "No doubt, Mel G's film will be powerful and will help many—millions, I hope—for it is a sincere labor of love about the ultimate labor of love. But it's not the greatest outreach opportunity in 2,000 years, at least, not for the emerging culture. I'll tell you what is.

"Actually, I won't, because there isn't one thing. Rather, there are uncountable great outreach opportunities. For example, there are millions of people, precious to God, dying of AIDS. And their orphans too. Do you want the emerging culture to sit up and take notice? Don't show them another movie, however great it is. Show them Christians around the world (starting with those who have been given the most: us) who care and give and love and move to serve."

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Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, California, replies, defending the evangelistic influence of The Passion: "Nothing is more magnetic than the power of the cross. So I knew a huge wave—a spiritual tsunami—would hit when the film debuted on February 25, and we began praying and preparing to surf it. It is true that The Passion has been 'hyped' by some ministries in styles and methods that are dated. But it takes all kinds of approaches to reach all kinds of people, and not all Americans are alike."

Dick Staub (Culture Watch) lists lessons he believes the film's success has taught us: "The lessons we learn from the Passion of Christ efforts are mixed. (1) It proves the power of popular culture. (2) It proves popular culture is a theological location. (3) The great controversy reveals our culture's biblical and spiritual illiteracy. (4) It reminds us that ART is the route to cultural influence. (5) It reminds us that evangelicals are clueless about art. (6) Evangelicals are reductionists about evangelism."

He goes on to explain each lesson and offers three steps on what Christians should do now that The Passion's press has peaked.

Next week in Film Forum: Tom Hanks plays the Alec Guinness role in the Coen Brothers' remake of The Ladykillers, and Ben Affleck goes back to basics in Kevin Smith's tribute to fatherhood, Jersey Girl. Christianity Today Movies will review both films on Friday.