[Beliefnet, May 13, 2004] What's the difference between “Troy” and a sword-and-sandal epic of forty-plus years ago? Stumped me, too. Superficially, there's a lot in common: swords, sandals, sand, buxom ladies, pompous declamation (“Your glory walks hand in hand with your doom”), and faux-hearty earthiness (“May the gods keep the wolves in the hills and the women in our beds!,” an invocation you hope you don't accidentally get backwards.) In terms of the grand feeling “Troy” hopes to evoke, it could be “Ben Hur” or “Spartacus.”

Van Helsing

[Beliefnet, May 7, 2004] Hidden under the piles of obvious things to say about ‘Van Helsing’ ‘that it’ s loud, busy, and overstuffed with CGI’is one more very surprising thing: it presents the Roman Catholic Church as a heroic force for good. You wouldn’t think that possible these days, when suspicion of ‘institutional Christianity’ is at an all-time high, when best-sellers like ‘The DaVinci Code’ inflame bizarre suspicion, and headlines about sexual misbehavior erode what trust remains.

The Alamo

[Beliefnet, April 20, 2004] It’s a noble, inspiring thing when patriots fight for liberty. It’s noble if they win, that is. Bostonians tossing tea in 1774 is one thing; Charlestonians defying Lincoln in 1861 is another. Turns out that rebellion, by itself, is not enough to gain history’s nod. You also have to win. History is written by the victors. And curiously, one of the things winners love most is remembering the time they lost.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

[Our Sunday Visitor, March 21, 2004] The term “high concept” refers to a movie with a striking plotline that can be described in one sentence (eg, Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwartznegger are long-lost “Twins”). In high-concept movies things explode. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman specializes in another kind of high-concept movie, one in which a strange premise unfolds in surreal ways. Things don't explode; they melt, like Dali's watch. His first film, “Being John Malkovich” (1999) sought to answer the perennial question, “What would it be like if a secret door in my office led to a ride inside John Malkovich's brain?” as well as the obvious followup, “Could I make money selling these rides?” (And you thought you were the only one wondering about that.)

The Passion of the Christ

[Unpublished, posted to mailing list March 8, 2004] I haven't written a public review of “The Passion” because my feelings are so mixed. I am so glad for all the people who are having their faith strengthened and renewed, or even finding faith for the first time. I don't want to puncture that. A friend at my church saw it once, wanted to see it a second time, then read a negative review (“the characters were flat”, etc). She decided not to see it again. That's sad. When people get disappointed with the film I think it has to do with what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Bloody, to What End?

[Newsday, March 7, 2004] “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” asks the old Gospel hymn. Mel Gibson's powerful film, “The Passion of the Christ,” has brought many viewers “there,” and I rejoice with those who say it deepened their faith. I can understand why this film moves them so much. But I don't think they understand why a fellow-believer might prefer a different approach. It seems to them that any less-than-graphic portrayal is weak - “sanitized.” But is that the only way to see it? Here, for example, are two paintings made early in the 17th century. The one with the golden background represents the Eastern Christian tradition, and is by the iconographer Emmanuel Lambardos of Crete. The other, emblematic of Mel Gibson's Western tradition, is by the Dutch painter Hendrick ter Brugghen.

The Meaning of Christ’s Suffering

[Books & Culture, March-April 2004]* Selected for Best Christian Writing 2006* Most movies wait till after they're released to stir up controversy, but Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ” has been preceded by nearly a year of fisticuffs. It provided an unusually rich opportunity for people who don't know what they're talking about to do just that. I'll continue that tradition by admitting that, as I write this, I still have not seen the film. I expect it will be good movie-making, a powerful example of the artistic possibilities of film. I hope it will stir up old faith in Christians, and break forth new faith in unbelievers.

2004 Oscars Overview

[Our Sunday Visitor, February 22, 2004] No, your watch isn’t slow, they really did move the Oscars up this year. Fed up with the high-pressure lobbying for votes that filled the first three months of every year, the Academy opted this time around to shorten it to two: instead of a late-March ceremony, this year’s event will be February 29. This means that the high-pressure lobbying had to be compressed into a shorter time frame, so the folks who trudge the red carpet on Sadie Hawkins’ Day may look more frazzled than usual.

Big Fish

[Our Sunday Visitor, Feb 1, 2004] As usual, I made a big impression at the premiere of “Big Fish.” The director, Tim Burton, had been pestering me to come, and at last I agreed to pop in. What was tricky, of course, is that my husband is losing patience with the film's star, Ewan MacGregor, because he won't give up. “Give up, Ewan,” I keep telling him. “I've been married thirty years.” But still the roses arrive almost daily.

Peter Pan

[Our Sunday Visitor, January 11, 2004] P. J. Hogue’s new production of ‘Peter Pan’ has a lot more sex in it, and that’s why you should see it. Not sex, exactly, but sexuality, the first budding of a young girl’s confused romantic feelings, and how she must learn to navigate them wisely. The film itself is wise and treats the topic with appropriate delicacy. You can take even young children to this film, and all they’ll see is a beautifully produced classic of fantasy and adventure. You’ll see something more. Peter (portrayed by Jeremy Sumpter) is not the focus of this story, but Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood).