You've never seen this in a movie before—young children speaking in tongues and rolling on the floor, apparently under the power of the Holy Spirit. And what is more, they're dressed in camouflage, to represent their identity as soldiers in God's army. They're asking God to fill the U.S. Supreme Court with "righteous judges." They're protesting abortion. They're shouting prayers for President Bush while they lay hands on a cardboard cut-out of his likeness. And—don't tell Al Gore—but they're being taught that global warming isn't a problem at all.

Jesus Camp is not a drama or a comedy. It's a documentary, made by award-winning filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who follow the experiences of three young children—Levi, Tory, and Rachael—as they attend the "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota. The camp, directed by Becky Fischer, encourages children to embrace Christianity through programs of intense instruction and charismatic worship.

Some Christian media personalities are speaking out against the movie, but for differing reasons. A few accuse the filmmakers of trying to discredit Fischer and her camp, and they rush to the defense of the film's subjects, saying that their methods of worship and education are to be celebrated. Others are criticizing the film by saying that this documentary footage severely misrepresents Christianity, and that it has been framed to draw viewers into viewing Christians as lunatics.

CT Movies editor Mark Moring expressed that very concern his weekly newsletter, and now Rich Tatum, a Pentecostal who is upset about how his denomination is portrayed in the film, has written a commentary for CT Movies titled, "Brainwashed in the Blood." Also at CT Movies, some readers are beginning to sound off about what they've read and heard.

An uncredited writer at MovieGuide calls it "a sarcastic documentary that paints evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, and politically concerned Christians as very shrill, warlike, and dangerous." The same writer questions whether radio personality Mark Papantonio, who plays a prominent role in the film, and his callers are Christians at all. "Mark claims to be a Christian. Let us pray that he be filled with God's Holy Spirit and be delivered from the evil demons that have made him so hateful toward the Christian leaders of America." The article concludes by telling readers how to contact Magnolia Pictures with comments.

Even one of the film's cast members is responding. Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, who makes a brief appearance near the end of the film, wrote a letter to all 42 NAE denominational leaders that read, in part: "I am concerned that we are seeing the initial attempts to characterize Evangelical practices as extreme and, in some cases, similar to the practices and beliefs of Islamic Fundamentalists. No doubt, we all need to learn to communicate the Gospel more clearly in our globalized world, realizing that our words can be interpreted very differently than intended because of the evolving global situation ….

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"I didn't like [Jesus Camp] for two reasons. (1) It portrayed the training of kids at the camp as militaristic, extreme, and scary and (2) It forces non-Charismatic evangelicals to say, "That's not us, it's them!" My concern is that the movie will reverse the growing respect that has been growing between Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal Evangelicals for the past three decades, and that those on the far left will use it to reinforce their most negative stereotypes of Christian believers. … It's one more 'documentary' that seems to miss the point intentionally."

Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles is surprised at the uproar. In a statement, Bowles says, "We're frankly surprised and a little disheartened by the efforts of prominent members of the evangelical community to clamp down on Jesus Camp. Whether or not the children and camp depicted in the film represents the 'mainstream' of the Evangelical movement is beside the point: they exist, the film documents them, and the subjects feel they've been treated fairly. Why a community that's so quick to attack discrimination from secular Americans would then turn and do the same to other Evangelicals is unexpected, to say the least."

What do Christian film critics think of the film? So far, very few have published reviews.

Cliff Vaughn (EthicsDaily) doesn't take sides on whether the film is fair or not, but he does recommend the movie. "Jesus Camp could be part of a provocative trilogy of similar documentaries that include The Education of Shelby Knox and Hell House. All peel back a layer of American Christianity and reveal a rawness that is simply worth watching and certainly worth discussing afterward. No matter where you stand politically or theologically, Jesus Camp has something to offer. You're guaranteed not to leave indifferent."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) write, "When a documentary explores a subgroup of a large contingent and implies that this defines the whole, then it is appropriate to call 'foul.' This is the case in Jesus Camp. … The implication is made that Pastor Fischer is a prime example of Evangelical Christians' beliefs and practices. This is not only untrue but it also leads to a pervasive misunderstanding."

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Film Forum will link to other Christian press reviews as they are published. Meanwhile, read the CT Movies interview with the filmmakers, conducted by Peter T. Chattaway.

Not many mainstream critics have reviewed it yet, but those who have are giving it good ratings.

Black Dahlia is dark, dismaying

The Black Dahlia just won't stay buried. Since remakes are almost as frequent as original films these days, it was probably inevitable that this famous unsolved murder case from 1940s Hollywood would be revised for the big screen. And sure enough, audiences are venturing back into this dark, troubling piece of film noir, which is brought to life this time by an all-star cast, including Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, and Aaron Eckhart.

This time, Brian DePalma, a veteran director of sinister crime stories and sleazy mysteries, calls the shots. And, true to form, he delivers two hours of gloss, glamour, and grisly violence. It's enough to make some critics argue that the film is exploiting is subject matter, inviting us to revel in the portrayals of wicked behavior.

The film follows the young, gorgeous Elizabeth Short in her attempt to fulfill her dreams of big screen stardom. But when she is brutally murdered, the investigation of her death reveals a maddening puzzle.

"The Black Dahlia is indeed tragic, but not because of the murder depicted," says Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies). "It's unusual to see a movie start off so strongly (De Palma's best work in a decade), only to collapse so badly by the finale. It begins like L.A. Confidential, but ends like a bad direct-to-video release. The real mystery in this movie is not who killed Elizabeth Short, but why the storytelling and filmmaking couldn't be consistently strong."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) writes, "DePalma's film-noir homage looks terrific in terms of production design, but is uneven as drama (with an overly complex script). So, too, there are many stylish flourishes and generally good performances … " But he finds the film "morally offensive" due to "the pileup of sordid revelations" and "sundry other lurid plot elements."

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Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) notes that the director's "ability to capture and maintain a stylistic tone—as well as his technical achievements with the camera—are simply undeniable. … Again, however, the famed director puts all that skill into the service of a gruesome, ugly, ultimately unredeemed story that leaves you feeling the need for a shower."

Here comes the obligatory movie play-on-words: Mainstream critics, often enthusiastic about DePalma's thrillers, aren't so thrilled this time around.

Gridiron Gang a pleasant surprise

In Gridiron Gang, the new inspirational sports film directed by Phil Joanou (U2:Rattle and Hum), a group of teens from a juvenile detention center grow and learn on the football field under the direction of a counselor.

Sounds like a game plan full of Hollywood cliché s, doesn't it? But according to Christian film critics, this time Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is starring in a memorable and inspiring motion picture.

Greg Wright (Looking Closer) says he was "pleasantly surprised to have my low expectations demolished. … What Gridiron Gang really does right is avoid sports-movie and gang-movie cliché s. It does not overemphasize winning and flashy play. … What's best, the payoff of the movie is the same as the payoff in the real-life story: the transformation of lives, not the winning of games."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "uplifting" and says, "Despite formulaic plot elements, the film shows the heart of a winner, with emotional performances and a surprisingly strong redemptive message that'll leave you cheering. It's a story we've seen before, but it's a good one."

Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says, " … [T]he movie does a good job of showing a man with a passion to help troubled kids. It is a bit sappy from time to time and The Rock (though he sure looks the part) is a few yards shy of scoring with the film's emotional demands. But its inspirational story, accompanied by a soaring musical score, is relatively cheer-worthy." But Hoose objects to the "gritty realism" of its "unnecessary gang violence and foulmouthed kids."

Mainstream critics, however, aren't quite as giddy about it.

Last Kiss honors true love, but dismisses marriage

Zach Braff made the leap from television sitcom star ("Scrubs") to feature film writer/director/leading man with Garden State a few years ago.

Now he's back as a leading man in The Last Kiss, but this time it's Tony Goldwyn in the director's chair, with a screenplay written by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis, who wrote Million Dollar Baby and Crash.

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Based on L'Ultimo bacio, a film by Gabriel Muccino, The Last Kiss is about a young man whose life is thrown into confusion when his girlfriend Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) reveals that she's pregnant. What's a guy to do? Well, fall in love with a flirtatious college girl (Rachel Bilson), of course!

Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "[I]t's going to be tempting for some to herald The Last Kiss as a movie for our moment, a cinematic snapshot of the way we live and love now. This is true insofar as it captures the affects of our prolonged adolescence (30 is the new 21!) and our idolization of youth (read: no one wants to be an adult) on the institution of marriage. The movie also illuminates the unsteady foundations so many relationships seem to rest upon these days, regardless of their duration (as evidenced by the increasing number of marriages dissolving after 20-plus years)."

"And yet," she adds, "the movie often transitions clumsily between comedy and drama, and at times the characters act out of motivations that seem absurdly skewed. … In the end, I think the movie would have also done well to balance the romantic angst it presents with at least one couple that was cheerfully together and had a healthy relationship over a long run."

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says the filmmakers "can be lauded for showing masculine immaturity for what it is: selfish, fearful and weak. Whether at 20, 30 or 40, most guys have struggled with the idea of trading independence for commitment, domestic responsibility for lost youth. … What's frustrating, then, is the filmmakers' determination to display graphic extramarital sex scenes as part of the package. It's almost as if they're saying, 'See how great wanton sex can be; what a jerk you'd be to do this.' Worse, the commitment of marriage itself is nearly discounted."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "In holding up a mirror to postmodern love and its accompanying anxieties, Goldwyn does provide some modest observations about flawed humanity—especially the way we learn from our mistakes and how actions have consequences—but, on a whole, the characters read as more selfish than sympathetic."

Many mainstream critics are ready to kiss this one off.

Christian critics cheer Everyone's Hero

When a young boy travels a thousand miles to help Babe Ruth's New York Yankees win the World Series, he lives out an inspiring adventure that teaches him, and us, lessons about persevering against all odds. That's the story of Everyone's Hero, a film that reaches the big screens at last after receiving a lot of support from someone who knew a lot about perseverance—Christopher Reeve.

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Carolyn Arends (Christianity Today Movies) says that while she still finds herself "cringing a little, in my grown-up, jaded way, at the cute, corny, earnestness of the film," the kids at the screening she attended demonstrated that "such slapstick animation is very, very funny. Especially if you're eight years old." And she observes, "Cartoon contusions aside, Everyone's Hero is remarkably wholesome. Its original director and champion was Christopher Reeve, who loved the story for its emphasis on perseverance and family."

Jenn Wright (Looking Closer) writes, "Basically, it's a good animated feature. Definitely entertaining enough for the adults. … It's honest and clean, and … recalls an era when things like baseball and hard work were things that mattered to ten-year-old kids and their struggling parents—as well as loudmouth foul balls—whose dreams can become reality when they just keep swingin'."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "There's been a boom in exceptional animated family fare this year, but when it comes to heart and a winning message, none hit the ball out of the park like Everyone's Hero. … The unabashedly sentimental film is a wonderful affirmation of familial love—especially between father and son—and gently reminds us that heroism is about having the courage to 'keep swinging' despite the curve balls life throws at you."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "Not counting the misbehavior (running away from home!) mostly played off as slapstick, it's got great heart, cute animation and pristine messages. And though the laughs don't come as often or as hard as they do in the likes of Cars and Over the Hedge, the final 20 minutes of Everyone's Hero make up for what's missing with tenderness."

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says, "Everyone's Hero is a delightful animated drama that will strike a chord with such dreamers and entertain the whole family. With a star-studded cast, breathtaking animation … and an entertaining portrayal of several sweet, inspiring life lessons, this is a movie that should draw fans from two to ninety-two this season."

Some mainstream critics call it a strike-out, while others think it's a home run.

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More reviews of recent releases

Lassie: Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) calls it "a lovely, literate new adaptation" and "a rare family film that knows that kids live in a grown-up world, that they are not isolated from such realities as unemployment or war, and can relate to the problems of adult characters as well as those of children and animals. … Lassie is a superior example of what family entertainment could be if it weren't usually aimed at the lowest common denominator. A couple of weeks after a dumbed-down, updated adaptation like How to Eat Fried Worms, it's heartening to see a film for family audiences aim so high and achieve so much."

Hollywoodland: Cher Smith (Infuze) says, "Let's just get this out of the way right up front: it's no L.A. Confidential. That said, however, Hollywoodland is a semi-engrossing film, and the reason might surprise you: Ben Affleck."