Like Dan Akroyd, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, and Mike Myers before him, Will Ferrell is following in the footsteps of the most successful Saturday Night Live alumni, releasing box-office-topping comedies bound to become lasting favorites. Films like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and his latest—Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby—mix clever sketch-comedy and a generous helping of the absurd, provoking us to laugh at a wide variety of egoists, braggarts, bigots, and fools who are oblivious to their own lunacy. Just as Anchorman traced the fall and rise of a television newsman in the 1970s, Talladega Nights, made with the help of NASCAR, chronicles the fall and rise of a racing champion.
And yet, while Ferrell sends many away holding their sides in laughter, he's causing others—including some Christian film critics—to hold their heads in dismay instead. (One went so far as to call it one of the most "blasphemous, politically correct major movies ever released by a major Hollywood studio.")
But Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) finds it amusing, if somewhat unsatisfying. "Is it funny? Oh yes. While not as funny as Anchorman … Ferrell's over-the-top, no-holds-barred wackiness carries the movie. He again falls back on his trademark Doofus Everyman role, the cartoonish and innocently aloof exaggeration of a real person set in a world of absurdity. The script has some clever moments . … However, the laughs don't add up to much. They don't stick with you, because there's no meaning behind them. Instead, the movie is just 105 minutes of bawdy absurdity for absurdity's sake."
Stephen McGarvey (Crosswalk) writes, "Rather than being mean-spirited Talladega is ultimately kind to its simpleminded characters, and all demographics represented (except for perhaps the French). Unfortunately, the movie—like most of Will Ferrell's films—has decided that you can't be funny without also being over-the-top vulgar. It's too bad since Talladega Nights could have been one of this year's funniest."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "only fitfully amusing . … Ferrell is a gifted physical comedian, but his goofily entertaining performance feels like a pastiche of many of his past roles. There's not much under the hood when it comes to story, and the script by Ferrell and longtime collaborator Adam McKay (who also directs) hits plenty of speed bumps in the form of juvenile jokes by turns vulgar, irreverent, or just unfunny."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "Sure, [Ferrell's] absurdist streak can be pretty funny, but based on his previous collaboration with director Adam McKay on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, I should have known that anything coming from their sophomoric minds would be long on crude, juvenile sexual humor and gross-out gags. And, true enough, we get more of the same. Lots more of the same."
Most mainstream critics seem to be enjoying Ferrell's high-speed, high-spirited comedy.
There's a classic Gary Larson sketch in which cows are standing in a pasture on their hind legs, casually visiting each other when one of them own points down the road and shouts, "Car!!"
As if inspired by this, writer/director Steve Oedekerk's newest animated comedy, Barnyard, concerns farm animals who walk, talk, and interact like humans … so long as the humans aren't looking. (Read CT Movies' interview with Oedekerk here.) But according to Christian film critics, there is more to this animated feature than simple gags.
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says the movie is "a little more serious" than Oedekerk's previous movie, Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. "There is death, and there is birth, and there are fearsome villains, and if this movie brings any previous cartoon to mind, it actually bears a striking resemblance to The Lion King, of all things. … There is a nice mix of humor and pathos here. Barnyard may not be all that exceptional, but it is quite satisfying."
Greg Wright (Looking Closer) finds himself so bewildered by one particular detail, that he has some trouble getting past it. "Ben and Otis are cows. Cows. Not bulls. They're cows. With udders. Otis stands udder to udder with Ben and calls him 'father.' This makes my head spin. Is there something wrong with me? … The oddest part is that this all passes without the slightest remark whatsoever."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "The tediously boisterous musical numbers are more likely to induce weary sighs than laughter. … Saving the film from being udder-ly disappointing is its admirable, if heavy-handed, message about embracing responsibility and putting the common good ahead of one's own self-interest."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) has mixed feelings about it. "Oedekerk does a nice job of staging some comic bits about a cow who has a frat-boy mentality and a posse of wild party animals. … Funny stuff. However, the filmmaker's derivative stab at connecting such moments feels emotionally flat and uninspired." But he concludes that young viewers will learn "great lessons," and that there is "precious little here that's truly objectionable."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) is impressed. "Have you noticed how often God seems to speak through movies to highlight the issues that are closest to His heart? Last year the movie Dreamer powerfully spoke to those shattered by broken dreams and desperate for restoration, and several recent movies, such as Chicken Little and Curious George highlighted issues related to the need for good fathering. In the same vein, Paramount's Barnyard is a vivid portrayal of the need for children to model their lives after strong, sacrificial role models."
Many mainstream critics find it "amusing but aimless."
Armistead Maupin's novel The Night Listener, which was based on his own experience, has been adapted by Patrick Stettner into a film starring Robin Williams as a radio personality who develops a long-distance friendship with boy dying of AIDS. But critics report that its twists and turns may make audiences a bit dizzy.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "It's interesting and diverting, but never amounts to anything substantial, meaningful, or even likeable. It wants to challenge our perception of what's real and what isn't, but barely musters the effort to draw a conclusion or make a point about it. … 'I'm not sure what really happened,' says one of the characters. Neither am I, but more importantly, I'm not sure if people will really care either."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "a downer, albeit a fairly suspenseful one . … Though the performances are solid … and there are some chills, the result is, on the whole, unconvincing, whatever its real-life foundation."
Mainstream critics are less than satisfied by the result.
Six women on a cave expedition fall into a fight for survival against monsters in British filmmaker Neil Marshall's ultra-violent horror film The Descent. Most Christian press reviewers caution viewers against being dragged down into such a bloody mêlé e.
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "There's no subtlety in watching blind grotesqueries feasting upon females. Neither is there any subtlety or even much style in the way director Neil Marshall throws in all manner of jump scenes (the ones the make you jump in your seat), be they cheap, expensive or just plain out of nowhere for no discernable reason."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is also disappointed. "Lighted almost exclusively by flashlights and flares, what starts out as a highly effective horror film that conveys an unnerving, almost palpable, sense of claustrophobia and primal fear of being buried alive—including a terrifying scene in a crawl space more frightening than any of those with the pasty predators—becomes a routine monster flick, as Marshall increasingly indulges in easy jolts and grisly excess."
But Greg Wright (Looking Closer) says, "The Descent transcends the conventions of both the adventure-gone-awry and the horror flick. In fact the film this most reminds me of—in terms of inventiveness, symbolism, and thematic content—is Apocalypse Now."
He also offers an interesting and timely interpretation. "The film is a slightly biased parable about the costs of unequally yoked international coalitions getting in over their heads. Juno, the American leader of the group, leads her friends into the cave under false pretexts. When it becomes clear that she has no concrete exit plan, she loses the support of her European allies. Ultimately, Juno realizes that she is in over her head, and that she is up against an enemy that she has neither the weaponry nor the will to defeat."
Mainstream critics herald The Descent as a better-than-average, memorable horror film.
More reviews of recent releases
Scoop: Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says, "Scoop is a somewhat rare commodity in today's cinema world. It's a PG-13 comedy that veers away from gross toilet humor and blow-out-all-the-stops sexuality, relying instead on an old-school comedy staple: jokes. It's a middling-paced, middle-of-the-road romp that knows it's a lightweight bag of farcical rim-shots, and knows that you know it, too." But he's not pleased with the "occasional mystical/crystal ball-esque references and the breezy sexual attitude of the story's central character."
Miami Vice: Brett McCracken (Relevant) writes, "It shows the alluring parts of sin and darkness (like many, many films easily do), but also the two-facedness of it. Crime might pay, but not forever and not enough to recoup your soul. … At the end of the day, some dirty deeds have to be done to keep the even dirtier deeds from occurring—this seems to be the framework of [director Michael] Mann's moral world. But even this 'lesser of two evils' worldview is not perfect, for there are consequences for every vice one engages in, even if the vice is collateral in the quest for some greater virtue."
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