KANSAS CITY, Kan. It's that time of the year when we critique-ers of movies get out our venom-dipped goose quills and take revenge for all those hours stolen by filmmakers who challenged the theory, "Nobody sets out to make a bad movie." And, oh yeah, we also enjoy reminding you of some films that are fine examples of why we love to go to the movies.
Let's look at the motion pictures of 2012 that either uplifted the spirit of man or entertained us so well that we forgave the high ticket prices, and the popcorn poppers who offered us that yellowish motor oil-looking substance that passes for butter. My selections are in no particular order. Please read the entire reviews on my site in order to get the content (the reasons for the ratings).
• "The Life of Pi" (Rated PG for thematic content and scary action sequences). Profound and spiritual, The Life of Pi is also the most visually stunning film of the year. Like Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," The Life of Pi bedazzles with CGI visuals that add to and support the film's viscerally emotional impact. As with Mr. Malick, filmmaker Ang Lee is unafraid of bringing the subjects of God, faith and the seeking of spiritual fulfillment to the cineplex. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3835
• "The Impossible" (PG-13 for language and disturbing imagery). This is based on true events surrounding one family who barely survived the 2004 tsunami that struck an unsuspecting coastal area of Thailand. Hollywood's CGI effects at their finest, along with a riveting script and powerful performances from Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and young Tom Holland make this one of the most exciting films of the year. On top of that, it contains uplifting messages about people aiding others in time of need. It shows the compassion of the human spirit that unfortunately often needs a catastrophe to befall before it is awakened. http://moviereporter.com/reviews/display.php?id=2170
• "Won't Back Down" (PG for thematic elements and language). Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, two mothers (Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal) look to transform their children's failing inner city school. What's this? Hollywood made a film that challenges the teachers' union?! I thought I was in a different universe watching this movie. Congrats to those who participated in this, one of the most courageous films ever produced in Tinseltown. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3822
• "The Amazing Spider-Man" (PG-13 for language, action and violence). In IMAX and 3D, with a satisfying script that pays homage to Stan Lee's comic book creation, plus a depth of character and all the trappings of this genre done to perfection, it makes for a fun movie-going adventure. This Spider-Man movie has humor, tenderness, life lessons (don't be a bully, don't seek revenge, use your abilities for others) and, of course, lots and lots of cool combat. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3795
• "Brave" (PG for scary action and rude humor). Disney and Pixar still reign as kings of animation. It isn't just that they have all the loot necessary to bring their stories to vivid screen life; they also have most of the creativity found in Hollywood. Their writers and filmmakers possess a winning combination of whimsy and potent storytelling ability that seems to escape most filmmakers of today, no matter the genre. While so many in the film industry are unable to tell today's stories without crudity and excess, Disney and Pixar, knowing they are aiming at the family, use wit rather than shock value to get our laughs and our involvement. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3791
• "October Baby" (PG-13 for mature thematic material). A powerful parable about healing, October Baby tenderly reveals the psychological aftermath created by abortion. Perhaps the most effective aspect of the production is how gently Christian philosophy is intertwined within the narrative. No matter their agenda, the filmmakers never preach to the audience. Rather, they astutely import the need for forgiveness. As with the "Pay It Forward" philosophy, which suggests the need to pass on good deeds in order to turn our world from selfish narcissism to one dominated by kindness, the intent here is to propose the need for forgiving others in order to maintain peace within. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3765
• "Red Tails" (PG-13 for sequences of war violence and language). Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard and Brandon T. Jackson star in this tale of African-American pilots from the experimental Tuskegee training program. Over the years, I've seen quite a few war films that indicated the bravery, compassion and the uniqueness of the American soldier. Sadly, there are few films that spotlight this quality in men of color. There are some, just not that many. Red Tails does. A positive film that ultimately unites us all as Americans, it does contain some language (not much, really), but it also features reverence for God, and a couple of men of faith are depicted and we hear a prayer given. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3748
• "Unconditional" (PG-13 for some violent content and mature thematic elements). A touching, sensitive, well-constructed drama, Unconditional was a welcomed surprise. Writer/director Brent McCorkle did a fine job with the technical aspects, despite his low budget. He managed to organize a competent team of behind-the-camera folk and was wise to cast Lynn Collins in the lead role. She plays a widow whose whole life was wrapped around her soul mate, but comes to learn that we are not here just to be an attachment to another person, realizing she has purpose and that she isn't really alone. Those who seek to reverence God and acknowledge Christ are never, ever alone. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3823
• "Les Miserables" (PG-13 for language, suggestive and sexual material, and violence). Les Miserables is an adaptation of the successful stage musical based on Victor Hugo's classic novel set in 19th-century France, in which an escaped prisoner named Jean Valjean seeks redemption, while the obsessive Inspector Javert hunts him down. In Victor Hugo's 1,200 page novel, the villain, Javert, lives by the letter of the law in hopes of salvation, where Jean Valjean has been transformed by mercy and lives by mercy. Les Miserables is a parable that clearly conveys the difference between the Bible's Old Testament, where man is dependent upon the laws of God in order to find deliverance, and the New Testament's revelation of God's sacrifice that paid our sin debt. Though there is some PG-13 content in the film, it is not there to be exploitive. http://moviereporter.com/reviews/display.php?id=2178
And the bad...
In fairness to the motion picture industry, there are many folks who desire to nurture the spiritual aspect of man's nature. Many films aim up. Just not these.
• The Perfect Family (PG-13 for mature thematic material and language). We Christians can be a faulty bunch: a fact Hollywood builds quite a few productions upon: "Elmer Gantry," "The Scarlet Letter" and "Easy A." Admittedly, there are some who use religion for other reasons than drawing themselves closer to their Creator. The rest of us sometimes (or often) put His will aside in favor of our own. The Perfect Family perfectly portrays a person caught up in the laws of her church rather than the grace of God. For Believers, this film can be a cautionary tale, one that reminds us to hate the sin, but love the sinner (Jude 1:23). That said, I'm not convinced that aiding Christians in their spiritual walk was the filmmaker's objective. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3776
• "The Campaign" (R for crude sexual content and language). Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis star in this comedy about opposing contenders for the position of their state's congressman. Though there are some laugh-out-loud scenes featuring the stars at their funniest, the humor routinely strays from bizarre burlesque to raucous rudeness. This gained high marks from many a reviewer, most of whom do little to discourage the acceptance of lewdness and religious ridicule as cinematic entertainment. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3804
• "21 Jump Street" (R for crude and sexual content, and language). Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play two immature high school grads who join the police force. It is based on the TV series from the 1980s, with R-rated risqué material used to update the concept. I fear scatological and anatomical humor have become the main ingredients for movie comedies. And like hip hop music, obnoxious content is evidently here to stay. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3763
• "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" (R for violence and language). Is this film meant as a metaphor, showing how good men can become evil through conditions beyond their control? Or is 20th Century Fox just hedging its bets, worried that a dramatization of the Great Emancipator might have more box office heft if it co-stars children of the night? Either way, this mixing of genres seems disrespectful to the memory of a man who was taller than most. But here he is, in all his manic-depressive, ax-wielding splendor, dispatching doom to bloodsuckers as if he was a bearded version of the Mighty Thor. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3790
• "Pitch Perfect" (PG-13 for sexual content and language). And speaking of monsters, under the protective auspices of Universal Studios, Dr. Frankenstein is at it again, this time attempting to create an entertainment subgenre by assembling spare parts left over from other cinematic atrocities. He stitches together the song-singing rivalries of Disney's "High School Musical" and NBC's "Glee" with the mean girl comedy of the "Bring It On" franchise, evidently hoping to form a new Hollywood musical. Crudity and obscenity abound. If we peasants had any sense, we'd grab our torches and storm the Universal castle. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3821
• "Fun Size" (PG-13 for crude and suggestive material and language). On Halloween night, a high schooler's plans go awry when she's made to babysit her 8-year-old brother, who disappears into a sea of trick-or-treaters. It's too lame for anyone who has stopped watching Nickelodeon and far too suggestive for those who tune in daily to Sponge Bob. Did I say suggestive? That doesn't cover it, for this is the crudest teen comedy I've seen since, well, the last teen comedy. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3829
Arguably, there are worst films than those I've spotlighted. The point of this piece is that Hollywood will continue to make films that offend our spiritual nature. And once they get your $10 per ticket, they win. Take a stand. Read a film's content before you hand over that 10 bucks.
And the might-have-beens...
• "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (PG-13 for sexual content and language). This movie concerns a group of British retirees (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson) who decide to move to India for its exotic culture and cheap prices. It's a gentle, charming film, and for me, a true pleasure as I am always amazed when watching the gifted Judi Dench. The film's theme has to do with people finding worth, satisfaction and peace within themselves. For me, however, this is where the film falters. Though a couple of characters tour the local temples, none seem to be looking for spiritual fulfillment. I understand non-Christians will have little problem with that omission, but for those of us seeking to draw closer to Christ Jesus, this spiritual exclusion when portraying an aging group of life travelers causes the film to lack the depth the story deserved. In a communal this size, you'd think the filmmakers would allow for at least one Christian character. Instead, the producers sought to incorporate a closet homosexual as the production's token figure. Indeed, movies with token gays abounded this year. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3780
• "Searching for Sugar Man" (PG-13 for brief strong language and some drug references). This is a compelling documentary concerning a 1970s Bob Dylan/Harry Chapin/Jim Croce-type musician named Sixto Rodriguez whose albums failed to sell in the U.S. but who achieved enormous success halfway around the world, completely unbeknownst to him. He was a legend and never knew it, living simply and quietly for the next 40 years as a humble day laborer and family man. Searching for Sugar Man is an absorbing, moving documentary, one that spotlights the positive character of a man at peace with himself. The film doesn't tell us if he is a man of faith, but it reminds us that peace within is found through the awareness of something outside ourselves. This search, like our trek through life, is a daily one. The picture would have made my "best list" but for the profaning of God's name in a song sung by the central figure, as well as the obvious acceptance of drug use, which also permeated the '70s hippy/dippy music. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3812
• "Lincoln" (PG-13 for war violence, images of carnage and language). Lincoln stresses the Great Emancipator's savvy political agility, at times causing us to forget that this is a film by Steven Spielberg, not telestorian Ken Burns. (Burns' lengthy documentary on the Civil War is the quintessential examination of the War Between the States. It is a moving learning experience about the foibles and nobility of the human spirit.) But that's not to say that Lincoln is a boring history lesson. Though long at 150 minutes (John Ford told his Lincoln story in 100 minutes back in 1939), it reveals the political process of wheeling and dealing within the political community (little has changed). The only fly in the ointment for me is the 12 uses of God's name followed by a curse, two by the lead character. Should we support a resonate salute to a historical figure who helped change the world? Or do we refrain from attending a movie that profanes God's name? Your call. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3832
• "Arbitrage" (R for brief violent images and language). One of the best morality tales since the first "Wall Street," this intense drama grabs you by the gut and doesn't let go. Sadly, it's full of foul verbiage (a total of 80 obscenities and six profanities). Had the writer and director intended to make a statement about the film's main character's character by having him use such irreverent language, then it could be argued that its inclusion was a use of language. But, everyone in the film is free with the F-word or the uttering of Christ's name as if it were a mere expletive spoken solely for the purpose of relieving frustration. This causes the stark and draconian language to lose its biting edge. It no longer indicates the darkness of one man's soul, but merely bespeaks of the numbing down of our culture and our society. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3814
Why speak of R-rated movies?
"The Passion of the Christ," "Schindler's List," "Dead Man Walking," "Tsotsi." Each was rated R. But each was profound and ultimately enriched the film viewer. Seldom can this be said of R-rated movies. Too often R-rated motion pictures, and movies in general, ignore the spiritual element that completes mankind's nature. But since this rating category dominates the multiplex theaters, it can't just be ignored. The impact of these films on the culture and therefore the society needs to be addressed. We Christian critics aren't just being pious by exposing the content of films; we are addressing an issue that Hollywood (who loves to address every other issue) ignores.
I've raised this question before: have we evolved into beings capable of processing any amount of abuse Hollywood puts before our eyes and ears? There seems to be no excess moviegoers are willing to walk out on. But is that what our Creator desires for us?
The most endearing films, like Bible parables, nourish the spirit as well as entertain, and I maintain that if the cinematic art form is to better the culture and the society, it needs to feed the soul, not just satisfy our baser instincts. And younger generations need to be reminded of what the Bible says concerning what we put in our heads:
• "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things" (Philippians 4:8).
• "I will set before my eyes no vile thing" (Psalms 101:3).
• "Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Ephesians 5:11).
Phil Boatwright reviews films for www.previewonline.org. He is also a regular contributor to "The World and Everything In It," a weekly radio program.