Keanu Reeves has played Buddha (Little Buddha), the messiah figures of Neo (The Matrix) and Johnny Mnemonic, the son of the devil (The Devil's Advocate), and a traveler to hell (Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey).
Now, in Francis Lawrence's action-horror flick Constantine, he's an exorcist who's been to hell and back, and thus he knows how important it is to fight on the right side of the war for human souls. But he's also unwilling to deal with God, except in a begrudging fashion as a smart-mouth and a bargainer. He'll cast out as many demons as is necessary to "earn" his way back into God's good graces, but he's not in any kind of mood to ask for forgiveness. Meanwhile, the forces of evil are threatening to overwhelm the world now that one of their zombie-like minions has gained hold of a magical talisman—the spear that killed Christ.
Wait a minute … the what?
Constantine throws more Christian terminology and religious iconography at moviegoers than any film we've seen in the past few years, including The Passion of the Christ. But that has not turned every Christian film critic into a fan of the movie. For all of its talk of heaven versus hell, Constantine is preoccupied with entertaining us with the powers of darkness instead of visions of hope, redemption, or light. Its few nods towards Christ are vague and confused. The visual spectacle earns some points, the cast gets a few compliments, and its presentation of heaven as the preferable side of spiritual warfare is commendable. But the story? The "spirituality"? They leave a lot to be desired.
My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is troubled by Constantine's glorification of evil. "The contrast between the masculine demons and the androgynous Gabriel subtly reinforces the film's overall depiction of the forces of darkness as more forceful and virile than the forces of light." He describes the movie as "a relentless action movie with more ideas than both Matrix sequels put together."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The film is steeped in religious iconography but is so devoid of spiritual truth that for people of faith it may border on being offensively sacrilegious."
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) calls it "a slick, tightly written, but grotesque and deceptive horror flick. What kind of God makes a wager with the devil for human souls? Certainly, a weaker, less caring God than the one presented in the Bible."
"There's been a lot of talk about this film representing good and evil," says Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). "What I [saw] was a bizarre portrayal of demonic and the occult, with virtually no representation of God or anything good. Despite a massive marketing campaign to the Christian media … Constantine offers no spiritual or moral value. Unfortunately, it has little cinematic value, either. It's convoluted, dark and disingenuous. It's also extremely violent—gratuitously so. Moreover, by attempting to make evil so fascinating, it may tempt many to dabble in the occult."
Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses), the screenwriting guru of Act One, blogs, "It has the story of a video game. Bad, bad acting. Stupid script. Indecipherable theme. Some theological errors."
Some religious press reviewers view the film differently, defending it as good fodder for discussion.
"The film is not based on a series of Bible studies, but on a series of comic books," argues Dr. Mark T. Newman (Agape Press). "Some of the theological talk is close to the mark; but much of it is cobbled together from a variety of schools of thought."
But Newman insists that the film provides some good opportunities for Christians to engage in fruitful dialogue. "Spiritual films are just discussion starters, not substitutes for searching the Scriptures. Sprinkled among the audiences for films like Constantine are people who will think about the [spiritual themes], and Christians should be there to provide some answers. Christians need to put less effort into complaining when bad theology hits the screen, and follow the Apostle Paul's example in Acts 17. Constantine is filled with explicit Christian references, while Paul had to use pagan religious symbols to reach out to the Athenians. Surely with this kind of advantage mature Christians who are willing to talk about Constantine can find a way to bring up Jesus and thoughtfully engage the spiritual seekers in our culture." You can access Newman's discussion materials on the film through MovieMinistry.com.
Cliff Vaughn (EthicsDaily) writes, "Even though an off-the-wall theology underpins Constantine … [it] offers some food for thought in the way of demons on earth being 'influence peddlers.'"
Roberto Rivera (BreakPoint) says, "Yes, parts of the plot are silly and differ greatly from the Christian tradition. But you could say the same about The Omega Code and Left Behind, and do I have to tell you which is the infinitely better use of your entertainment dollar? What makes Constantine worthwhile, aside from its considerable entertainment value, is its particular window into our cultural 'moods.'" He goes on to explain what he means by that.
Kevin Miller (Film Forum) says, "While the theology of this film is far from orthodox, the themes and questions it raises are a different story. Few Christian films have done a better job of depicting the difference between works and grace. And few mainstream films offer such a strong affirmation of the spiritual dimension of life, showing it to be every bit as real and consequential as the physical. Constantine also addresses a number of spiritual questions that seem particularly pressing at this point in time, questions like 'Is God good?' 'Does he have a plan for me?' 'Is he out to get me?' 'Is he even there?' and 'What must I do to be saved?'"
Steve Beard (Thunderstruck) concludes, "The film is a mind-bending, theology-probing, fear-stirring journey through the graphic and relentless underworld battles between angels and demons. In the midst of this R-rated film, it is not difficult to be reminded of St. Paul's tutorial on spiritual warfare: 'For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms' (Ephesians 6:12)."
Kevin Miller (Relevant) says, "While I hope viewers won't blindly accept the deistic, dualistic portrayal of good and evil in this film, I do hope it inspires them to think more seriously about the above questions and the spiritual dimension of life as a whole. Not quite The Matrix but infinitely better than Van Helsing, Constantine is a rare supernatural thriller that isn't afraid to make you think. I'm already looking forward to the sequel."
For Andrew Coffin (World), all of this "thought-provoking" isn't enough to earn Constantine approval. "Constantine … is full of biblical imagery. But a smoothie is also full of fruit, which doesn't mean that the final product bears much resemblance to its ingredients. Constantine is a similarly muddled jumble of supernatural spirituality that doesn't have the benefit of tasting like a dessert or containing a modicum of nutritional value. That's not to say that [it] is completely lacking in intriguing ideas—just that none are fleshed out or coherent enough to make the film's explicit imagery especially palatable."
In general, mainstream critics don't see Constantine as a step up for Reeves. But some of them seem as confused about Christianity as the movie is. One describes the film as "the most staunchly Christian film since Left Behind," adding, "except it's entertaining."
Kate DiCamillo is becoming one of the most celebrated authors of children's literature working today. Her latest work, The Tale of Despereaux—an enchanting, delightful fairy tale about a mouse, a rat, and a princess—is being adapted by the animators who gave us The Triplets of Belleville. But currently, director Wayne Wang's adaptation of her Newberry award-winning novel Because of Winn-Dixie has Christian film critics cheering—not just for the story, but also for the performance of newcomer AnnaSophia Robb.
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) raves, "Because of Winn-Dixie is quite possibly the best movie yet from Walden Media, the company created by Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz for the express purpose of making film adaptations of acclaimed children's books like Holes and I Am David. And while the world waits with breathless anticipation to see how Walden's upcoming adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe turns out, Because of Winn-Dixie may be their most 'Christian' effort to date."
Chattaway goes on to detail several points that "seem to be, at the very least, influenced by the narrative thrust of the Gospels." And he concludes, "Wang may be new to the family genre, but he knows how to create empathy for his characters, and he has a stunning new star in Robb."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Wang captures the small Southern town feel of the book giving life to the quirky characters and setting a general air of nostalgia over the production. Best of all, Wang and screenwriter Joan Singleton avoid the obvious pitfall of most dog movies by not making the dog smarter or wiser than any animal has ever been. Winn Dixie is simply a dog doing the things that dogs do … which is why we love them."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says it's "a good family film frequently verging on being an excellent one, and is quite a bit better than the dog-movie cliché s the trailers suggest. [It] addresses some tough themes, including broken families and alcoholism, in a way that is accessible to children and never inappropriate even for the youngest. Although the film is seldom preachy, its themes of community and healing are framed in a Christian cultural milieu defined above all by the Preacher, a rare sympathetic clergyman. Winn-Dixie is both sweet and sad, a blend that does the heart good."
Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) calls the book "one of the most enjoyable reads I can remember in a long time. The film stays pretty true to its source, although some creative license was taken to flesh out the small book into a full-length cinematic feature. Winn-Dixie . . . is the enduring story of mankind's need for unconditional love, a need both created and fulfilled by God. While Winn-Dixie is fictional, in real life it would be just like our Creator to answer the prayers of a lonely little girl in need of a friend by providing her a dog that needed a home."
Gene Edward Veith (World) says, "Because of Winn-Dixie is a good movie: good as entertainment, good for the whole family, good artistically. It is also morally good, even spiritually good. Not many movies are as satisfying in all of these ways."
Frederica Matthewes-Green (National Review) says, "The film has surprising charm, and yields some unexpected insights. While the prime audience will always be kids and their tag-along grownups (an audience that will find this film more than satisfying), the occasional grumpy outsider who wanders in will also find plenty to enjoy."
Nate Dickerson (Relevant) says, "Some family films should never be made (or even thought of). Others can be extremely poignant and touching. For Because of Winn-Dixie, the latter applies."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "The film has several wise messages, including 'Love what you've got while you've got it' and 'Embrace both sadness and joy.' The film has a sentimentality that comes out of basically good people acting decently, and a few corny—or awkwardly contrived—lines notwithstanding, avoids being mushy. In fact, the occasional contrivance (perhaps derived from the book) in Joan Singleton's script stands out in a film where, basically, the emotions are so true. Any adult avoiding the film because it would seem to be a kids' movie about a girl and her dog will be missing a richly satisfying experience in its poignant story."
Steve Beard (Thunderstruck) concludes, "While Because of Winn-Dixie is not meant to be a religious movie, it deals respectfully and humorously with the struggles and frustrations of church life."
Son of the Mask makes The Mask look like fine art
The overwhelmingly negative response to this year's first big sequel—Son of the Mask—is so intense that readers probably don't need to know the film's premise before they make their decision to avoid it. If you want to read about the film in any detail, check out the examinations offered by mainstream critics, or these reviews from the religious press:
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "daffy but disappointingly derivative. Where the 1994 film made story and character secondary to gimmicky special effects, the new movie bypasses them altogether in favor of dazzling funhouse tricks. The movie imparts a welcome pro-family message about the importance of parenting that makes much of its puerility somewhat more palatable."
And—brace yourself for this—Steven Isaac (Plugged In) discovered that the film is being marketed as an educational tool. "The official Web site includes downloadable teachers' guides and classroom activities, stating that Son of the Mask is the perfect tutor for grade schoolers. Teachers are informed that it and its accompanying curriculum is appropriate as a 'supplement to language arts and social studies classes in kindergarten through grade 4.' I have only one response to that: If my daughter was in a kindergarten class that used Son of the Mask as a teaching tool, I'd start looking for a new school."
Assisted Living draws mixed reactions
Director Elliot Greenebaum's first feature—a mix of documentary footage and fiction called Assisted Living—offers a unique, comical glimpse of life among the residents of a Kentucky center for the aging. It might seem crass for a filmmaker to offer a comedy about the elderly, especially when the central character is the facility's pot-smoking janitor. But some reviewers, religious press and mainstream alike, are discovering good intentions and even some redemptive themes in the film.
Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The absurd elements of this movie aren't played for laughs, they're played for reflection. [But] for all its artful images . . . this movie is starkly unsentimental and it left me cold."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a modest but poignant docudrama. In our culture, which holds the elderly at arm's length and generally feels at best uncomfortable with old age, the film's underlying message of intergenerational connection may be of positive value to older adolescents. Assisted Living manages, despite its no-frills look, to offer a moving meditation on loneliness and the human need for contact and compassion."
More reviews of recent releases
Hitch: Steve Lansingh (Film Forum) says, "Hitch seemed a refreshing and unique take on the genre, one that elevates boy-meets-girl to a more basic question of: how do we relate to other people so unlike ourselves? Do we try to find our way together, or do we search only for the ideal people in this world?"
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Hitch arrives in theaters with all of the liabilities of a typical romantic comedy fully intact: a barely believable, too-clever premise; a predictable story arch (meet/spar/fall in love/fall out of love/fall back in love/live happily ever after); and a calculated lack of depth. But sometimes even formula has to work, and this time it does."
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