What's the difference between a good practical joke and a bad one?

From TV's Candid Camera in the '60s to Ashton Kutcher's present-day Punk'd, audiences have made it clear that they love to watch other people suffer from pranks and practical jokes. But a new film now playing to packed theaters takes this kind of ruse to a new level.

The British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who created the popular HBO character Ali G, has pulled the wool over a lot of eyes in the last several months, playing a journalist from Kazakhstan named Borat Sagdiyev. He's been getting the best of gullible targets, and he's come up with a wealth of material bound to make audiences laugh, flinch, and respond in outrage.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan displays many spectacularly funny pranks. No one who agreed to go on camera with Borat is safe … least of all Cohen himself, who shows that he will subject himself to more humiliation than anyone. This will come as no surprise to those who saw his no-holds-barred comedy in Will Ferrell's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

But as Cohen's Borat tests his subjects with exhibitions of blatant racism, prejudice, sexism, and other offensive attitudes—not sincerely, but just as part of the act—the reactions become as interesting, and as troubling, as his charade. Borat exposes some alarming naiveté , cultural insensitivity (at best), and outright bigotry in those around him.

But is he too reckless? Too abrasive? Audiences will likely be taken aback by just how far Cohen is willing to go as one unsuspecting participant after another is, well, "punk'd" by his brave, bawdy shtick.

Critics are preoccupied with several complicated questions about the nature and ethics of satire: Is Cohen promoting misogyny, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and perversion? Or is he putting on this shocking show for our own good, in order to expose our tolerance for dehumanizing behavior?

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Some of the outrageous pranks—many involving real people not in on the joke—are, admittedly, funny. … But in satirizing American culture and politics, any wit is heavily outweighed by vulgarity, as Cohen and director Larry Charles go for shock laughs that range from the distasteful … to the visually gross."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "Sacha Baron Cohen is on a mission to simultaneously entertain and offend absolutely everyone on the planet. His primary method? Keep the cameras rolling in public settings while 'Borat' reduces unsuspecting targets to a state of apoplexy." He concludes, "Once or twice he's really funny. … The rest of Cohen's material gets buried by an avalanche of perverse, odious and repulsive satire."

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Mainstream critics are almost unanimously impressed by these cultural leanings.

Fortunately, the fun hasn't been Flushed Away

Do you love Wallace and Gromit? Did Chicken Run make you cheer?

Then you're probably excited about Flushed Away, the latest film from the English entertainment engine called Aardman Animation. Directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell, this is the first computer-animated movie from the talented team that unleashed The Curse of theWere-Rabbit on audiences last year.

But there's a big difference in this story about a pet mouse and a roguish rat. Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman) and Sid (Shane Richie) are not made out of clay, like Wallace and Gromit or all those fowl folk in Chicken Run. They're the first computer-animated characters that Aardman has put on the big screen.

But fear not—this is not just another talking-animal tale along the lines of Madagascar and The Wild. It's a smart, sly, exciting adventure that preserves the wit and wisdom we've come to expect from Aardman.

"Fortunately, the film throws just enough lunacy at us to keep things entertaining even when we're not really sure where it's going," says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). "Like other films produced by DreamWorks and Aardman Animation … Flushed Away is loaded with groan-worthy puns … and pop-culture references … and it playfully mocks horror-movie cliché s, as well. … But the film is at its best when it turns human artifacts toward new purposes … or when it unashamedly sends up national stereotypes."

He concludes, "[I]t turns out the film has an actual message to pass on, and it's a good one, to boot: Community is better than isolation; and being involved in the lives of others, however messy they or their environment might be, is better than living in a world of self-serving pleasures."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "There have been a number of fine computer-animated movies this year already, and Flushed Away is one of the best of the lot. … Co-directors David Bowers and Sam Fell combine this zippy animation with a simple but smartly entertaining script to delightful effect, while imparting a warm message that, without friends and family, life, no matter how luxurious, is ultimately empty."

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Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "If Flushed Away doesn't reach the heights of demented genius of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit or even the lesser charms of Chicken Run, it's still got a goofy inventiveness that puts it in the better half of this year's crop of CGI films, along with Cars, Over the Hedge, Ice Age 2: The Meltdown, and Monster House, and above The Ant Bully, The Wild, and Barnyard."

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) writes, "Viewers don't have to be politically correct to be uncomfortable, if not offended, at the preponderance of ethnic stereotypes on display here. Even if one finds such jokes humorous, they might also feel underwhelmed by a story that never coalesces. While boys might enjoy some of the chase scenes and sly humor—many of the gags are funny—there's not much here for young girls. Rita's self-sufficiency and care for her family are admirable, but Roddy isn't much of a suitor. The duo's mixed motives—like the movie itself—leave something to be desired."

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says it's "neither epic nor awful." He notes "an engaging emphasis on friendship" and a "pro-family" message. He concludes that it reminds him "of Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes cartoons of yesteryear. Replace 3-D computer-generated images with hand-drawn caricatures, tone down the modern insults, insert a bit more smoking and drinking, and this story could have been told 50 years ago."

While Kathy Bledsoe (Past the Popcorn) finds "no great morals or deep, hidden meanings," she raves that it's "just plain hilarious. … From the opening moments the viewer is literally assaulted with sight gags and visual puns that seem to include everything that could be thought of to lampoon." And she praises "masterful writing and editing." She also writes about how much she enjoyed the animated slugs.

Mainstream critics are happy to welcome the Aardman team back to the screen, even if they aren't as happy with Flushed Away as they were with Wallace and Gromit.

Translating the truth of Babel

Babel takes its title from the Genesis tale in which God punishes and scatters an arrogant people by confusing their languages. The film clearly demonstrates that the separation continues. Fault lines run between nations and traditions, but they also splinter to divide communities, families, and marriages. A simple dispute between brothers can tear a rift in history, and a gesture of grace between strangers can make a difference too.

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To demonstrate this division, director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and his screenwriter, Guillermo Arriago, weave plots through Babel's 142 minutes, continuing a trend of complicated big-screen tapestries. Many will compare it to Crash, Magnolia, Syriania, and Traffic. But it's also worthwhile to compare it to Iñárritu's first two films, which were similarly convoluted—the critically acclaimed Amores Perros and his first American effort, 21 Grams.

Babel is the most ambitious of the three, taking us into four strikingly different cultural contexts. In its intricate web of narratives, it is more accomplished and affecting than the Oscar-winning Crash. But it's not likely to be as popular. Audiences found it easy to applaud Crash, because who could possibly argue with its premise? Prejudice is bad, love is good. Babel's revelations are more painful to watch, more discomforting, and ultimately humbling. We're likely to see our own limitations mirrored back to us in uncomfortable ways—flaws that know no borders. (Americans especially could learn from its portrait of tourists becoming impatient with the limitations of other, less-privileged cultures.)

My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) raves, "Inarritu's somber and lengthy film … imparts an admirable message about our shared global humanity and the senselessness of violence. … Along the way, the film makes a powerful case for a more compassionate view of undocumented workers. … The film's international cast gives extraordinary performances across the board. … The film is leisurely paced and resolutely noncommercial, but if you stick with it and can look past some provocative elements, you may find yourself both devastated and uplifted."

Some mainstream critics suspect that Babel will stand tall at the next Oscar ceremony.

Try to escape this Clause

Tim Allen's blockbuster Christmas franchise continues with The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, which features Martin Short as that chilly scoundrel Jack Frost.

Is this third installment an example of excellent family entertainment, more Hollywood mediocrity, or just a chance to take advantage of tired holiday shoppers willing to spend money to distract their kids for 90 minutes?

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service ) calls it a "lame third go-round" and a "yuletide clunker." He says, "[D]on't expect your belly to shake with laughter like a bowl full of jelly. More likely you'll be looking for an escape clause—or route—of your own. … The movie's sweet message about the importance of family and the power of love, unfortunately, comes wrapped in a slapdash script clumsily directed by Michael Lembeck, who, in rightly criticizing the crass commercialization of Christmas, forwards a secular view of the holiday that ignores its religious underpinning."

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Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says, "Despite its dips and lags in interest here and there, the kids in the screening really enjoyed the movie and said they'd recommend it to others.For parents, again it's sad that almost all Christmas movies fill our kids' heads with Santa and elves and reindeer and sleighs—and even good things like hoping and wishing and helping and family.But they completely ignore the reason for the season—the celebration of our wonderful Lord." Still, she encourages people to "enjoy yet another year of Hollywood's mindless holiday entertainment!"

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says it "keeps its dialogue as clean as freshly fallen snow" and includes "a realistic glimpse of the fallout from divorce." He also notes "great messages" like "the need to be honest and gracious with relatives, and persevere through trials to fulfill a calling. Parents can even use Jack Frost's ambitions and deceptions as examples of how Satan tries to tempt and distract us."

Mainstream critics want to freeze out the whole Santa Clause franchise.

Will Christianswarm to Warming?

If you couldn't bring yourself to spend money on a documentary hosted by Al Gore, perhaps you'll find The Great Warming to be a welcome alternative.

Assembled from a three-part Canadian television series that was broadcast in 2004, Warming presents an optimistic perspective on the various efforts being made to grapple with environmental change around the world. The film is narrated by Keanu Reeves and Alanis Morrissette.

While the film is receiving some promotion in Christian communities, there are no prominent examinations of the film in religious press publications yet.

Variety calls it "a kinder, gentler global warming docu. If [An Inconvenient Truth] preached to the tree-hugging choir, Great, which comes heralded by prominent Evangelicals and was previewed in local churches, seems designed to redefine ecology as a crucial Christian cause." They conclude that it's "a more diffuse and prettier case for global calamity that accents the positive and stresses the possibility of reversing the planet's headlong rush to extinction."

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William Arnold (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) says it "does a solid job of dealing with the problem but with enough originality that it's not an exact duplication of the Gore film."

Other mainstream critics are divided. Some find it to be an important, educational film, while others aren't impressed with the approach.

More reviews of recent releases

Little Children: Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says, "Little Children is the first movie of the fall to lay claim to awards consideration. The acting, from the leads as well as the supporting players, is impeccable. Field's direction is visually spot-on, especially in depicting female isolation and macho male bonding. However, the film includes explicit sexuality, images of online pornography and episodes of sexual disorder that go further than needed."

Marie Antoinette: Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say that while the film "is somewhat historically accurate, it leaves many holes in the real story so it is hard to follow. If the viewer really wants to know what happened to bring down the French throne in a revolution, this film would not be a good historical source."

The Prestige: Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) write, "The film causes the viewer to ask several existential questions: What drives each of us to succeed? Is it a desire to be the best that we can be, or is it a desire for immortality? Is it personal wealth? What happens when our talent and gifts in life are used to put others down in order for us to succeed? When our motives are less than pure, our desired objective is always sabotaged by our own personal actions and in the end when are pitied rather than given acclaim."

Flags of Our Fathers: Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say, "Flags of our Fathers" is a difficult film to watch because of the horror of war itself, but it is a film worthy of our viewing because it explores the humanity of this event which turned the nation's discouragement to determination."