Characters are beginning to arrive in Narnia for the upcoming feature film of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Last week, the extraordinary Tilda Swinton (Orlando, Adaptation) was announced as the actress playing the villainous White Witch. Now, James McAvoy (TV's Band of Brothers, Children of Dune) has been assigned the role of Mr. Tumnus, the faun who welcomes four young heroes to their first adventure in C. S. Lewis's famous fantasyland.

The director, Andrew Adamson, is off to a good start. Swinton is a formidable actress, capable of spooking viewers with just a glance, and yet she's also exotically beautiful. She could fulfill Lewis's description of that bone-chilling baddie brilliantly. McAvoy's still unknown to most moviegoers. He'll have his hands (hooves?) full playing the gentle faun who becomes a target of the witch's wrath. Now comes the real challenge—finding child actors talented enough to play Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy without making them corny or merely cute.

Adamson's got a good track record so far, but is he right for Narnia? That's something to think about as you watch the film he's turned loose in theatres this week—Shrek 2.

Shrek sequel may be better than the original

Shrek stands as one of the most successful family films of all time. When it was released, it boasted standard-setting animation. It wove fairy tales together with a wicked wit, turning the genre on its head and mercilessly spoofing the often-superficial, saccharine storytelling of Disney animation studios. But it also damaged its own credibility by relying far too heavily on cheap punch lines, flatulence jokes, and pop culture references, as if the filmmakers did not trust their own story to hold the attention of both children and grownups.

Shrek 2 serves up a lot more of the good stuff and finds a better balance. While it tells basically the same story in a new context, it's funnier, digs deeper, and provides a fast and frenzied finale. The relentless references to other films, television shows, and pop culture personalities are brilliantly employed so that they do not detract from the storytelling, which remains simple but strong. In fact, by turning Hollywood—and the cosmetic surgery culture it has spawned—into the target of its sharpened comedy arrows, Shrek 2 is a much more resonant tale of integrity and authenticity versus the forces of conformity and superficiality.

My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

"Shrek 2, in many ways, is an improvement over the original film," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The satire on popular culture seems sharper; the crude humor has been softened; the characters are both familiar and fresh; and the computer generated artwork seems more technologically advanced. Bottom line: the film is a winner for all concerned."

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Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) enthuses, "Really good films are oh-so-rare these days, so when one combines top-notch writing, excellent acting, a positive message and brilliant satire about pop culture, I can't help but rave. I've also never been a fan of animation, but I am now."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Shrek 2 echoes both the wit and charm, if not the freshness, of the original—a rare achievement in the world of sequels. The wall-to-wall humor will keep young viewers laughing, with the bawdier zingers ricocheting off their funny bones and above their heads. Adults will also have fun spotting the parodies of both current and classic Hollywood fare. And while the follow-up's message of self-acceptance is somewhat recycled from the earlier installment, it is one well worth repeating, especially in our superficial society which puts such a premium on surface appearance at the exclusion of inner worth."

The Greek gods aren't the only things missing from Troy

In Troy, thousands of soldiers put their lives on the line so an angry king can bring his brother's adulterous wife Helen (Diane Kruger) back home from the city of Troy where she's hiding with Paris (Orlando Bloom), her lover.

But wait … no, that's just a front. The Mycenean king Agamemnon (X2's Bryan Cox) is only using Helen (Diane Kruger) as an excuse. In truth, he's marching so he can claim Troy and expand his empire. The city of Troy, ruled by King Priam (Peter O'Toole), is defended by Prince Hector (Hulk's Eric Bana). He and a host of warriors are forced to defend their home because of local boy Paris's affection for his lover, the cheating Queen of Sparta. Troy is a citadel that has proven impervious to attack. But one soldier, Achilles (Brad Pitt), who cares only about his own glory, sees an opportunity for fame and fortune. And so he joins the attack, ready to run his spear through anyone who will meet his challenge.

While the film boasts an impressive cast and epic animated battles a la The Return of the King, the studio has promoted the film's other selling point. Apparently Pitt's exposed, muscular torso is the real attraction for many people, just as his long flowing hair seemed the focus of Legends of the Fall. The emphasis on brawny smackdown demands so much screentime that the Greek gods, the major players in Homer's famous literary epic The Iliad, are only mentioned in passing references. Those hoping for a detailed translation of the book will have to complain to director Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm, Das Boot) and writer David Benioff (The 25th Hour).

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Critics agree that the film delivers some dazzling duels, but many also agree that the film's as meaningless and superficial as Pitt's well-oiled exhibitionism.

Troy "is about the quest for personal glory in a heartless and indifferent world, and the unfortunate thing about Wolfgang Petersen's mega-budgeted, star-studded film is that it, too, lacks heart and comes across like a hollow quest for Hollywood glory," says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). "It is difficult to tell whether Troy feels like a hollow exercise in epic filmmaking because its characters lack any sense of their own purpose, or because Petersen's direction is so pedestrian and derivative of earlier films."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Petersen has crafted a bold portrait of war, which is both epic in scope and intimate in its emotional poignancy. While the pre-Christian world of Troy is fueled by a toxic stew of tribal nationalism, revenge and rabid chauvinism, it also celebrates virtues such as honor, courage and loyalty."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says the film "skews basically negative on religion," but concludes, "As a retelling of a classic war tale Troy does a more than respectable job. Many of the battle scenes are riveting, especially a dramatic early scene involving a spectacular stunt and the bravura showdown between Achilles and Hector, one of the best duels I've ever seen. The drama is engaging; unlike Gladiator, which expected us to root for the hero, Troy asks us only to appreciate the characters' conflicts and situations. And Peter O'Toole as the Trojan king Priam steals the entire film with one single scene."

Nevertheless, Brad Pitt's performance bothers Greydanus. "[He's] poetry in motion on the battlefield … but is unconvincing in quiet moments and does nothing to make the gratuitous bedroom scenes less laughable."

Marvin Olasky (World) says, "Parents should keep in mind bloody fighting scenes and two bed scenes in which private parts are barely kept private and illicit sex is made to look good: Troy is rated R. But the language is clean, and those who like summer epics and can tolerate Hollywood's typical spices will probably enjoy this one."

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Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) compares Troy to another famous war film—Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which he says "magically gave personality to its legions of soldiers. The depiction of death on the battlefield in that remarkable film honors those who gave their lives for their country. [In Troy] Petersen does not accomplish this reverence for the sanctity of life. His dying warriors are merely pawns to liven up the lopsided script. The battle sequences serve only to entertain us, much like the goings-on in the Coliseum did for the citizens of Rome. You may get an adrenalin rush from the epic grandness that a $150-million budget can bring to a special effects department, but I don't think you'll feel much emotion."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees. "We never become emotionally connected to the events being enacted for us. We are always aware of the actors behind the characters and the CGI effects behind the action."

Films like this usually draw men more than women. What will women think? Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Troy is a beautiful film full of special effects, dramatic war scenes … and enough testosterone to power Sparta's ships. Women will be drawn by the history, the costumes and the romance—if not Pitt's buff body, which is seen naked from above the groin and the side in several scenes." She says, "The film fails to convey the drama and excitement of Gladiator and feels more like the dated Ben Hur. Not all the details match the original work, so students of the book will be disappointed. The biggest flaw is the characterization, which remains underdeveloped."

Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) writes, "For a viewer desiring a pure hero to root for, there's a scarcity of choices here." He adds, "I was amazed that the script was carefully written to avoid any explicit teaching that the Greek gods were 'real.'"

To explore the authenticity of Petersen's Troy, check out's examination of the film's dé cor and battlefield "re-enactments." To read the ho-hum responses of mainstream critics to the year's first major blockbuster, click here.

Critics punish bland comedy for Breakin' All the Rules

When magazine editor Quincy Watson (Jamie Foxx) gets dumped by his girlfriend, he composes a letter that becomes a tirade on the subject of breaking up. This testimonial turns him into a celebrity of sorts, and his friends begin coming to him for advice on their own relationships. In Breakin' All the Rules, it turns out that the "art of breaking up" is not as simple or formulaic as it might have seemed.

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It also turns out that writer/director Daniel Taplitz has a few things to learn about the art of the screenplay.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the movie "breaks little new ground, incorporating standard mistaken-identity plot devices into a mediocre script which, though laced with attempts at emotional sincerity, is for the most part stale and predictable."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "This formulaic and rather tepid romantic comedy follows the predictable path from beginning to end with mediocre results. The film bears little resemblance to reality or how people might react in an actual relationship. The games that these characters play in the name of love are sophomoric and shallow and would be soundly rejected by anyone with a shred of self-respect."

Only a few mainstream critics have found the film worthwhile.

Coffee offers quirky conversations between celebs

Independent filmmaker extraordinaire Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Down by Law, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) has just released a film that compiles his collection of short sketches in which famous figures meet to sip coffee, smoke cigarettes, and shoot the breeze. Coffee and Cigarettes was filmed in black and white, but the cast is quite colorful; it includes Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Cate Blanchett, Roberto Begnini, the White Stripes, Bill Murray, and a surprising variety of others.

I found it to be a hit-and-miss collection, but Jarmusch's unconventional approach always makes for an interesting time at the movies, and many of these sketches are hilarious and memorably surreal. My full review of the film is at Christianity Today Movies.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The oddball assortment of sketches … ranges from the mildly amusing to the utterly inane. Though Jarmusch's patchwork approach is interesting, the net result is neither as developed nor as entertaining as his similar slice-of-life Night on Earth. And while he once again uses commonplace activities … to explore societal peccadilloes, the smokescreen of social commentary lifts rather quickly, revealing the film for what it is: a motley mosaic of over-caffeinated conversations involving people sitting around talking nicotine-stained nonsense."

Film Forum will return in two weeks.