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REVIEW: Foul language, sex & violence again lead Oscar nominations

HOLLYWOOD (BP)–Once again, Academy members have placed films with the now-common cinema staples of offensive language, exploitive sex, crude humor or brutal violence in the Oscar spotlight.

God’s name is misused, for example, in nearly every film given an Oscar nomination this year, with the exception of “Gladiator,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and surprisingly, “Almost Famous.” Films that don’t profane the Creator or treat Christ’s name as a mere expletive have been the exception rather than the rule at the box office.

Certainly, each of this year’s Best Picture nominees are well crafted, visually stunning and, in many cases, quite perceptive. But in the past, moviemakers addressed similar themes without the use of biblically offensive content.

“Babette’s Feast,” like this year’s “Chocolat,” pointed out that it is easy to hide behind piety, but that Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Film of 1987 also gave us an example of spiritual growth rather than religious abhorrence.

In 1952’s “High Noon,” as with this year’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the lead warrior is forced to face one more battle. In 1943, “The Song of Bernadette,” like “Erin Brockovich,” had a strong female facing difficulties while doing the right thing. The same good-versus-evil parable found in 1960’s “Spartacus” is reflected in “Gladiator.” 1948’s “The Snake Pit” addressed a horrific problem in society — mental illness — as “Traffic” brilliantly examines the dilemmas of today’s drug war.

But: While each of the classic Oscar-winners contain adult subject matter, they suggest rather than exploit their themes, making the films more profound.

Recapping this year’s Academy nominees:

CHOCOLAT. Miramax. Romantic comedy/fable. Directed by Lasse Halstrom.

“Chocolat,” the story of how a mysterious stranger (Juliette Binoche) challenges the conventions of a tranquil traditional French village helps remind us of how easy it is to become so sanctimonious that we neglect to love one another. And it does so with exceptional performances and a storyline complete with enough twists and turns to keep you glued to the screen. However, while the filmmakers make a valid point about religious doctrines often replacing Christian charity, unfortunately, they do so in a rather bitter way. The film and its director seem bent on challenging not just the foibles of Christians, but Christianity itself. True, there is a brief final moment where the local priest begins to bring the gospel back to his sermons, but it is too little too late. While the town leaders are stuck in church dogma much like the Pharisees, it is the heroine, a nonconformist who never attends church, who becomes the community’s wise and righteous savior. And no, she is not a Christ figure. While Christ was concerned with renewing our relationship with the Creator, the film’s heroine travels from town to town bent on releasing pent-up desires through pop women’s empowerment. For her, there seems to be no need to bridle some temptations. She is not apologetic for her lifestyle, which has included several sexual affairs and produced a child out of wedlock. While I would hesitate to judge her, it does weaken a society’s standard of morality to accept those practices as alternate lifestyles. Like it or not, a society must have standards.

Director Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules” — a movie that also portrays Christians as unfeeling hypocrites) and producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, seem to prefer to mock hypocrites rather than acknowledge those in Christianity who practice their faith.

PG13 (2 profanities; 1 obscenity, 5 expletives; 2 implied sexual encounters outside marriage; some scenes take place in a bar, with an abusive alcoholic getting drunk; implied spousal abuse).

Video Alternative: BABETTE’S FEAST. A woman, once a famous chef, travels to a far land and becomes the housekeeper of two devout sisters. When she wins a lottery, the woman shares her good fortune by preparing a feast for the sisters and their pious religious group. During the meal, members of the gathering begin drawing closer to one another. It is a gentle, yet sumptuous story about self-discovery, one that nourishes the spirit.

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Sony Pictures Classics. Martial Arts/Romance. Directed by Ang Lee.

Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a weary martial arts warrior anxious to hang up his 400-year-old sword, must first dissuade a young woman from seeking a life of destructive adventure.

Bruce Lee made physicality the central element to the success of Chinese action films. Jackie Chan added humor and precision to the genre. Now, director Ang Lee brings astonishing visual effects to martial arts. He adds magic to the mystique of Asian kicksuey. His warriors don’t merely jump higher than physically possible, they literally fly. Indeed, much of the film has its heroes chasing their adversaries over rooftops and, in one instance, through forests, stopping to sword fight atop towering trees. It is, to say the least, a very visual film.

Although it has a woman praying to a shrine, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is not about promoting Eastern religious beliefs. Nor does the exuberant choreography suggest legitimate sorcery. Nothing in it, except for the themes of love and honor, is to be taken seriously. It is fantasy. The fly in the dim sum, however, is the film’s one sexual encounter between an unwed couple. It suggests that marriage is unnecessary. PG-13 (It contains one sexual situation between an unmarried couple, but it is not graphic, nor does it exhibit nudity. It receives its rating for the many fight scenes).

ERIN BROCKOVICH. Universal. Drama. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

A research assistant, not taken seriously because she is an attractive woman, helps an attorney with a lawsuit against a large utility company blamed for causing an outbreak of fatal illnesses in a small community. Julia Roberts stars as the twice-divorced mother of three who discovers a cover-up involving contaminated water.

This is the role Roberts has been searching for. She is tough, independent, a survivor. The performances are terrific and the good guys win, but the abundance of profanity and obscenity ruin an otherwise promising movie experience.

R (Profanity and obscenity throughout; fornication implied; it is suggested that the couple are sleeping together every night; a very realistic car crash, but no one is seriously injured).

Video Alternative: THE DOLLMAKER. An intelligent script and a dynamic performance from Jane Fonda as a strong-willed woman who must provide for her family when her husband can’t find work.

GLADIATOR. Univeral/DreamWorks. Action/drama. Directed by Ridley Scott.

Upon the murder of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), his trusted and successful general Maximus Meridas (Russell Crowe) becomes unlawfully imprisoned and condemned to the gladiator games by Marcus’ twisted son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). However, Maximus gains fame as a gladiator and uses his power to cause further damage to Commodus’ tenuous hold on the susceptible Roman people, hoping to inspire them to rediscover their lost values and overcome corruption.

This sword-and-sandal epic is gruesome, graphic and gory. Elements of “El Cid,” “Ben Hur,” “Spartacus” and “Braveheart” can easily be identified in “Gladiator,” along with the dramatic treachery and tragedy found in most of Shakespeare’s works. What the picture lacks is a well-defined evolution of the main character. Throughout, his only motivation is that of a man bent of seeking revenge for the murder of his wife, son and beloved emperor Marcus Aurelius (whom we watch being smothered by his son). While the dream of a government by and for the people was the dying wish of Aurelius, the film focuses more on the action and brutality of coliseum life.

While epic-sized, with a seasoned cast (including a last performance by Oliver Reed), I am unable to recommend Gladiator for family viewing due to the grisly violence. This was a tough call for me as the film displays men of courage fighting for freedom and justice. I would go so far as to call it a good-versus-evil parable. But the more accepting we become of viewing blood-splattered beheadings and sword-piercing deaths, the more readily we will accept additional repulsive sights. As it is, today’s offerings at the local theater are becoming little different from Roman gatherings at the coliseum.

R (Implied incestuous desires from the villain toward his sister; many graphic and blood-spurting battle scenes, including a severed head, a female warrior cut in two and tons of blood.)

Video alternative: EL CID. Charlton Heston as the legendary hero who drove the Moors from Spain. Great spectacle (without being too gruesome), with a literate script, lovely score and beautiful Sophia Loren.

TRAFFIC. Gramercy Pictures/USA Films. Action/drama. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

An engrossing film from start to finish, “Traffic” is exceptional filmmaking as it shows the frustration of battling the corrosiveness of drugs on society. It makes it clear that while there are those who wish to put illegal substances into their bodies no matter how many examples they’ve seen of its destructiveness, there will always be those willing to grow, sell and distribute the junk for them to do it. By giving us this potent message, it reminds us that rebellion to biblical teaching also leads to destructiveness. That may not have been the intended message of the filmmakers, but that’s what it’s saying.

I believe any subject matter can be filmed without assaulting the audience via obscenity after obscenity, and that’s my biggest problem with this production. While there are many associated with the drug world who use that kind of language, this film depicts every single character with such a propensity.

To be fair, the film makes powerful statements about family responsibility and the need to care about our fellow man. And while its theme and plotlines tend to unnerve, director Soderbergh entertains, teaches and even touches the soul.

R (4 profanities and nearly 100 obscenities; a couple of crude sexual comments; implied sex between drug-induced teens; one sex scene as teen sells herself for drugs; a man is tortured while nude; a man is seen from behind, sans clothing; a sexual conversation; teens and adults are seen smoking; teens and adults are seen drinking; we see teens using drugs, including free-basing; 2 explosions; a man is killed by a car bomb; several murders; a man is poisoned to death).

The Academy Awards will be presented March 25 at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium. The television spectacular, beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC, will reach an estimated 78 million-plus viewers.
Boatwright is the editor and film reviewer for The Movie Reporter, a monthly film guide from a Christian perspective, which also includes video alternatives. For further information call (805) 495-0914 or visit his Internet site, www.moviereporter.com.

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  • Phil Boatwright