Bishop T.D. Jakes' Woman, Thou Art Loosedbegan as a novel and then became a stage play. Now, Jakes himself has a role in the big screen adaptation of a story that reflects his investment in ministering to wounded women. The film, directed by Michael Schultz, opened in only 408 theatres, but drew a large enough audience to surprise the industry and place sixth in the box office top ten over the weekend, earning $2.3 million.

Kimberley Elise, who had a supporting role in the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate, plays Michelle Jordan, a young woman who suffers from abuse, addiction, and poverty, and ends up in prison for taking retaliation into her own hands. Jakes plays himself, visiting her on death row.

LaTonya Taylor (Christianity Today Movies) says, "In many ways, the film raises the questions it hopes local churches will answer. Indeed, it's clearly designed to open discussion on these questions, and to provide materials to encourage churches to discuss sexual abuse (such resources will be posted on the movie website)."

To caution audiences, she adds, "Because of the graphic depiction of sexual abuse, this film is not for children or squeamish audiences. The presentation, too, requires an attentive audience due to the rapid flashbacks and flash-forwards. Yet … the film presents a challenging message: People are often at their lowest point of woundedness when unresolved pain spills over into poor choices and criminal behavior. And as a church, we need to take the time to listen to them, to learn their stories, and to point them toward grace and forgiveness."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "a potent and soul-inspiring drama about the healing power of forgiveness. [It] deals with difficult subjects—including sexual molestation and murder—though in a way which challenges viewers of faith to take seriously the Christian imperatives of love and reconciliation."

Regarding the actors, he says, "Elise delivers an emotionally penetrating performance. Jakes … has a presence to match his sizable frame, and exudes a sincerity which is both charismatic and consoling."

Reviews from mainstream critics range from high praise to harsh criticism, so that it's hard to believe they've seen the same film. But most agree that it might have done better with a little less "self-promotion" by Jakes. Dave Kehr (The New York Times) says the movie "renews an important tradition of African-American filmmaking: the movie as revivalist sermon, a genre epitomized by Spencer Williams's magnificent Blood of Jesus of 1941."

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Christian critics split on Shark Tale

Robert DeNiro. Martin Scorsese. Peter Falk. Angelina Jolie. Will Smith. Jack Black. Renee Zellweger. It's a list of names like that would make most moviegoer guess we were talking about a film for grownups, most likely one about gangsters.

And it's not a bad guess. Shark Taleis full of references to The Godfather, GoodFellas, The Sopranos, and other mafia-oriented flicks, which has provoked some complaints that the film reinforces unflattering Italian stereotypes for a young audience. DreamWorks has packaged their latest animated feature as a family film, but according to most film critics the movie deals out drama and humor more accessible for adults than children. As to whether or not it's worth the price of a ticket, they're swimming in different directions.

Mary Lasse (Christianity Today Movies) gives the film only one star, saying the movie "seems promising … for about ten minutes. But, that's it. The rest of the film … has zero depth and isn't really all that funny or charming. It's actually quite depressing to see the filmmakers try so hard to be the next Nemo, resulting in an emptiness that pervades the film and a severe lack of connection among the characters—and between the characters and the viewer."

But Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) likes it. "Shark Tale, while it's no Finding Nemo (and isn't trying to be), is the wackiest, most energetic, and possibly most entertaining effort to date from DreamWorks' CGI animators. I enjoyed it more than either of the Shrek flicks. If Pixar's Toy Story movies connect with the child in all of us, DreamWorks' Shrek pictures are aimed squarely at our inner adolescent.'"

He does agree, however, that it "is more absurdist and satirical, as well as cruder and more risqué , than the Pixar films. It's also got less heart."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it "really owes much of its inspiration to mob movies … which it delights in spoofing. Some viewers may feel that by identifying the gangsters with Italians, the film reinforces, however unintentionally, negative ethnic stereotypes. Also fishy are lines like 'May his stinking, maggot-covered corpse rot in the fiery depths of hell,' which, despite the movie's message of tolerance, may send parents scrambling to find Nemo."

Sherri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) says, "Shark Tale should be evaluated on its own. I don't feel it fair for this film to be lumped in with all of the other computer animated movies. This is not Finding Nemo. All of the major characters are adults with adult problems like debt, romance, and running (or swimming away from) the mob. Audiences may interpret some sequences as promoting tolerance of gay lifestyles."

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Still, others are judging it by the Nemo standard. Maurice Broaddus (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The movie pales in comparison to Finding Nemo mostly because it replaces heart, or anything approaching real emotion, with rapid fire jokes. This makes for a fine and entertaining, though ultimately forgettable, movie."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) deals more harshly with the movie. "Clearly, the discussion surrounding Shark Tale isn't about its originality and sense of story or its kid-friendliness. So what is that loud buzzing sound all about? It's about whether or not Lenny is supposed to symbolize a 'coming-out-of-the-closet' gay. Lenny's need for 'tolerance' is a plot point that stays too long in the center of this movie's current for me to conclude anything different."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) writes, "I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little seasick from all the films that claim to be for kids but instead promote adult issues. And can we please have a rest from all the tolerance and diversity preaching? There are no role models whatsoever. Oscar learns a lesson, but he's still a sleaze-ball, and everyone else is an immoral caricature."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Although the humor is plentiful, this fish story stays in relatively shallow water, depending upon stereotypes and cliché s to move its tale forward. It also boasts enough product placements and cultural references to feed a school of whales. What it lacks is the distinguishing element which has always lifted the Pixar films above any of DreamWorks' animated efforts—a huge and readily identifiable heart which grounds the film and connects the characters to the audience."

Most mainstream critics exhaust their encyclopedia of fish-related puns in judging the film as sub-standard.

All-star cast seeks the meaning of life in zany I ♥ Huckabees

What's the meaning of life? That's the question on the minds of Albert the environmentalist (Jason Schwartzman), Tommy the firefighter (Mark Wahlberg), Brad the successful superstore-chain executive (Jude Law), and his spokesmodel girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts) in director David O. Russell's bizarre, philosophical comedy I ♥ Huckabees.

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Seeking help, these lost souls hire "existential detectives" Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, who promise to get to the bottom of their personal crises. One by one, they are led to distressing and humbling realizations about their egos. And, increasingly unhappy with the results, they become vulnerable to the devices of another philosophical agent: Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a nihilistic French writer who wants to convince them that life is meaningless.

Mainstream critics are applauding this relentlessly inventive comedy for its performances and cleverness. While many of them call it a "failure," they still recommend it as a consistently surprising, interesting, and ambitious failure, something far better than the aim-low-and-succeed fare filling the multiplexes these days.

Most religious press critics are, however, uncomfortable with the film's philosophical "investigations," and some are offended by the portrayal of a narrow-minded Christian family (never mind the fact that there are some narrow-minded Christians out there). While the film does indeed fall short of the deep consolation it seems determined to inspire, it has the potential to be a wonderful conversation-starter, raising big questions about choices, consequences, and ideas in a way that recalls The Matrix, Waking Life, and Magnolia.

My full review is at Christianity Today Movies, and you can read my interview with David O. Russell and the film's co-writer Jeff Baena there as well—it turned out to be the most surprising and unpredictable interview I've ever done.

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says Huckabees "attacks those who pursue knowledge at the cost of relationships, portraying how that ultimately results in emptiness. Unfortunately, however, without a decent plot or credible characters—not to mention lead actors who do their jobs—it just doesn't stand a chance. Moreover, the real message of the film is loud and clear. While taking a dig at those who thirst for real knowledge, Russell is trying to illustrate that there is no truth—only raving lunatics who think they've found it."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) writes, "The whole story is very absurdist and abstract and can also make you laugh. So much of the movie is philosophical ranting and raving and overwrought humorous drama that it really is a fun piece for these actors, [who provide] most of the entertainment. With hints of Magnolia and dashes of Rushmore, this film does carry some … originality. However, [it] doesn't give you much to walk away with."

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Ladder 49 a glowing tribute to courageous firefighters

John Travolta may be the most prominent name in the promotions for Ladder 49, but he's not in much of the movie. He plays a Baltimore fire chief named Mike Kennedy, managing a group of courageous firefighters who are frequently asked to put their lives on the line to save others. The lead role of Jack Morrison belongs to Joaquin Phoenix (Signs, The Village), who seems to have escaped the typecasting that could have resulted from his role as a perverse villain in Gladiator.

Clearly, director Jay Russell's film could be seen as exploiting the nation's increasing admiration for firefighters after the tragic loss of so many brave souls in the attacks on the World Trade Center three years ago. But even though mainstream critics are pointing out its unimaginative plot and its unconvincing and simplistic characterizations, most religious press critics are thrilled to see hard-working, principled, religious men being honored in this way.

"Would you rushing into a towering inferno to save the life of a stranger, risking your life and leaving your wife and children to carry on without you? This is the question asked by Ladder 49, and it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian."

That's how the review by Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) begins. Her raves continue, and she concludes praising the "positive images of Christianity that remain unsullied by Hollywood's usual negative cliché s and stereotypes. A good film for families of older children, this film left few eyes dry during the screening, so take a hankie—and someone you love."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "It's refreshing to see a film with unvarnished heroism positively portrayed. These men are not plaster saints (they all have faults, some worse than others), but they remain heroes. While some of the secondary characters are not very well developed, I found myself caring intensely about Jack, his family and his comrades. Ladder 49 has a lot of heart. It isn't so much scorched by its 'weepy' portrayal of single-minded everymen as it is by foul language, heavy drinking, some coarse sexual joking (and loose sexual morals) and the trivialization of what Roman Catholics consider a sacred religious rite."

Mark Perry (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The major shortcoming of the film is its limited scope. We get to know Jack Morrison pretty well, but none of the other characters are even superficially explored or make even a minor impression. Nobody seems to have much of a life away from the firehouse, unless it's the neighborhood tavern where the entire company always seems to be blowing off steam." But he adds, "Russell and his special effects team make up for the lack of character development with some truly thrilling firefighting sequences. In the end, Ladder 49 is a well-crafted tribute to the many dedicated firefighters who risk life and limb to make our world a little safer."

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Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "Without being maudlin, 'Ladder 49' puts an admirable face on family values, friendship, loss, sacrifice and all those virtues. Though the film is an unabashed paean to firemen, you can't help but leave the movie with a renewed respect for the dangerous job they do."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Russell clearly wanted to pay homage to the bravery of the often faceless men and women who volunteer to put themselves in life-threatening situations to save people they don't even know. He does so with an honest and accurate depiction of one man's experiences as a firefighter."

Megan Basham (National Review) says the film's "good-hearted view of the world will likely leave Ladder 49 vulnerable to rabid attacks from the culture critics who don't much appreciate such straightforward sentiment. Miffed that the film contains no ironic, seedy underbelly, they will say that it is a sanitized version of reality. They will say that it is contrived and that it violates the rules of diversity and sophistication by including no female firefighters. They will say that it doesn't look like America. And they will be wrong."

Going Upriver seeks votes for Kerry

Sure, he can strike a commanding pose during a debate, but is John Kerry capable of serving as a compelling subject in a documentary? Based on the book Tour of Duty, George Butler's documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry chronicles the candidate's experience as a Navy Swift boat commander during the Vietnam War and his protests of that same war in the early '70s.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls the film "serious-minded," noting that it "wrestles with questions about the meaning of patriotism, blending compelling archival footage and photographs with talking-head interviews with fellow veterans to create an emotional, if highly idealized, portrait of Kerry. Though temperate in tone, the film ultimately comes across as advocacy journalism, opinions of which will vary according to viewers' political stripes."

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Mainstream critics are giving the film a warm reception.

More reviews of Wimbledon, The Forgotten, Mean Creek, Silver City

Wimbledon:Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Wimbledon is an entirely unremarkable, forgettable film, but, for those who are willing to overlook its numerous weaknesses, it's also sweet and mostly inoffensive."

The Forgotten: Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) says, "The Forgotten has a strong opening act, but it begins to sputter and falter as it moves to the second. By the time it gets to the final act, it has run out of gas. Its ending is as nebulous as the beginning, with no real satisfaction. There are more questions than answers."

Mean Creek: Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Jacob Aaron Estes' directorial debut is a dark parable about anger, revenge, and responsibility. Although the writer/director wrote the film's script several years ago, it burns with disarming war-time relevance. In fact, it's one of 2004's most richly rewarding movies."

Silver City: Andrew Coffin (World) says, "What a snooze! Silver City is the first narrative entry—describing it as fictional wouldn't really distinguish it from the 'documentaries' that preceded it—in the slate of anti-Bush propaganda hitting theaters in the run-up to November's election. And it proves that bad things happen when a capable filmmaker lets his ideological agenda get the better of him."

Next week:Taxi, Friday Night Lights, Raise Your Voice, and Therese: The Story of Saint Therese of Lisieux.