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12 Strong

“Understated” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily use to describe a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but that’s surprisingly what 12 Strong ends up being.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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The Conspiracy Code Conspiracy

Sir Ian McKellen Explains It All For You in "The Da Vinci Code."

As a species, we humans are designed to connect the dots. But so many of our problems and mistakes arise from: 1) not knowing (due to misunderstanding or lack of information) where, exactly, the dots are; 2) not knowing what they signify; and 3) misattributing conscious intention to some hidden force behind the nature and placement of those dots.

I'm alternately amused and bothered by responses I've seen to "United 93" and "The Da Vinci Code" that claim to know, one way or another, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the events of 9/11, the history of the bible, the historical validity of Christianity and the existence of a monotheistic deity. (I have to pause here, just to laugh at that last sentence.)

The biggest conspiracy theory yet invented by mankind is "Intelligent Design," the idea that everything that currently exists was destined to "turn out" the way it is right now because a supernatural intelligence (conspiring, apparently, with itself) made it happen deliberately. No room for chance or coincidence or (shudder) evolution in that fixed, closed-world view. But the only reason a concept as preposterous as Intelligent Design can continue to exist is because there are still so many things we don't know about the development of life on this planet (or any other). That's why Intelligent Design is also known as "God in the Gaps." Anything that's unclear or can't yet be explained? Just plug "God" into the equation and voila! -- it's complete! Conspiracies about 9/11 or Christianity are, in principle, exactly the same: Just fill in the gaps in what is known with a top-secret cabal guiding everything behind the scenes, and suddenly it all makes sense. I guess that's why they say a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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The conspiracy against movie critics

Look at these numbers: "Mission: Impossible III" gets a 70-percent critical approval rating on the TomatoMeter (fresh!), and yet takes in a devastatingly disappointing $48 million in its opening weekend at the domestic box office.

Two weeks later, "The Da Vinci Code" is destroyed by critics at Cannes and across America, ranking a lowly 21 on the TomatoMeter (rotten!) -- and yet it took in $77 million opening weekend in the States and set international box-office records.

Asks The New York Times' Manohla Dargis: "Does this mean that critics are out of touch with the public? Maybe, but really, who cares? All that box office doesn't make ['The Da Vinci Code'] a good movie."

Surely the most likely explanation is that millions of people worldwide are conspiring to undermine the all-powerful hegemony of cinematic critical opinion! I mean, isn't that what critics are supposed to do -- predict box-office results? How can they wield their indomitable might (along with Hollywood and the Liberal Media) if people won't cooperate?!?!

Or maybe I'm wrong.

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Darkness for 'Donnie Darko' director?

Buffy Barko. Sarah Michelle Gellar in Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales."

When "Donnie Darko" sank without a trace after its theatrical release in October, 2001, writer-director Richard Kelly feared his (potential) career had gone down with it. Then, the movie became a cult phenomenon on DVD and Kelly, like his alliterative hero, was given a second chance.

The signs since then have not been enouraging: a screenplay for Tony Scott's "Domino," a film that graced many of last year's Ten Worst lists; and (far more disturbing) a "director's cut" of "Donnie Darko" that indicated Kelly didn't know what he'd done right the first time. All the best qualities of the film -- its teasing ambiguity, its creepy playfulness -- were nearly crushed in an attempt to laboriusly spell out an elaborate science-fiction/time travel mythology. What was once a tantalizing undercurrent was thus made literal and dull. More "explanation" of geeky but arbitrary "rules" simply reduced the movie's sense of possibility and imagination... and made it a lot less fun. If the "DD" director's cut had been the original version of the movie, it would never have piqued enough curiosity to have developed much of a cult following.

Now, the reviews from Cannes of Kelly's long-awaited and highly anticipated sophomore feature, "Southland Tales," suggest Kelly hasn't learned anything from his "Donnie Darko" director's cut experience. Most of them are devastating -- by which I mean they're at least as bad as the ones for "The Da Vinci Code," and worse than the ones for "X-Men: The Last Stand."

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'Da Vinci Code': O, the theology!

Is this scene from "The Da Vinci Code" historically accurate?

OK, this is what I was talking about: Dr. Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission and founder of, has a piece in USA Today (and a slightly different version on Movieguide itself) in which he says: It would be wonderful to believe Christians can argue the facts to Dan Brown's hate-filled, fictitious attack on Jesus Christ, Christianity, the Bible, Christians and history. The truth is, however, that many people have not read a Bible or understood their faith sufficiently to counter the story's intricacies.As they say in church: Bingo!

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Wal-Mart and the Priory of Lyin'

"Wal-Mart? I'd like to order another copy of 'The Da Vinci Code.'" Alfred Molina plays Cardinal Fang a bishop with a cell.

The protests against "The Da Vinci Code" are expected to reach their peak this opening weekend. And in reading some of the reactions to the movie and the book (see here), I noticed that much of the heat seems to center around whether people will mistake the book's and movie's fictions for historical realities. You'd think the general public would be smart enough to understand what a novel is, and that such books are different from scholarly works of nonfiction, even when they incorporate actual facts or events.

For example, one of my all-time favorite novels is Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and it is about a bomber squadron based on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa during World War II, but to my knowledge the titular rule has never been part of U.S. Air Force regulations, nor did Clevinger actually pilot a plane into a cloud and not come out the other side. In part, that is because Clevinger, like Robert Langdon (the hero of "The Da Vinci Code" and Dan Brown's previous novel, "Angels and Demons"), is a fictional character. World War II and the U.S. Air Force and Pianosa, however, are real. And so is the Mediterranean.

Anyway, I was surprised to find that Wal-Mart is (still) selling "The Da Vinci Code" on its web site with this false and misleading description:

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"Trapped in the Closet" screened in UK

Ani-Tom throws his hands up in the air.

The infamous, mysteriously suppressed "South Park" episode that poked fun at Scientology and Tom Cruise (sacrilege!) still hasn't been shown on TV in the UK -- but the prestigious National Film Theatre in London hosted a free, big-screen presentation of "Trapped in the Closet" Monday. The screening was in connection with a Stanley Kubrick Masterclass conducted by "South Park" auteurs Trey Parker and Matt Stone. According to a wire service item that ran in the New York Post and in many other outlets: Tom Cruise has lost his fight to stop an episode of South Park mocking his Scientology beliefs being shown in the UK....

Organizers were thrilled the actor failed in his attempts to stop the free screening, which accompanied a talk given by creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, insisting it was a display of free speech.

A spokesman said, "If we were charging there may have been legal problems, but it was a free event, so it should be fine." Free DVDs of the episode were given out after the screening. (BTW, this is Day 65 of "South Park" Held Hostage in America, for those of you who, like me, are keeping a Freedom Vigil. Keep that Mr. Hankey burning in the window... for Freedom.) I wonder: If Oliver Stone can get away with showing a 20-minute promo reel for his "World Trade Center" at the Cannes Film Festival this year, why didn't the festival offer the 20-something-minute "Trapped in the Closet" to those poor Europeans who haven't been able to see it? Bet that high-definition cut paper animation would look great at the Lumiere.... (tip: Andrew Sullivan)

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'The Da Vinci Code': Faith in fiction?

A scene from "The Da Vinci Code" -- or, possibly, one of the "Hellraiser" movies, it's kinda hard to tell.

My favorite headline of the week (so far) comes from Reuters: "Reading 'Da Vinci Code' does alter beliefs: survey." According to a poll of Britons, Dan Brown's phenomenally popular novel has effectively re-written the bible for many Christians and non-Christians alike -- so much so that some Catholics are saying the book and the movie should carry "a health warning": LONDON (Reuters) - "The Da Vinci Code" has undermined faith in the Roman Catholic Church and badly damaged its credibility, a survey of British readers of Dan Brown's bestseller showed on Tuesday.

People are now twice as likely to believe Jesus Christ fathered children after reading the Dan Brown blockbuster and four times as likely to think the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei is a murderous sect.

"An alarming number of people take its spurious claims very seriously indeed," said Austin Ivereigh, press secretary to Britain's top Catholic prelate Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. "Our poll shows that for many, many people the Da Vinci Code is not just entertainment," Ivereigh added....

ORB interviewed more than 1,000 adults last weekend, finding that 60 percent believed Jesus had children by Mary Magdalene -- a possibility raised by the book -- compared with just 30 percent of those who had not read the book... Hold on a minute: They're saying a whopping percentage of (at least technically literate) Brits now believe the pseudo-biblical "revelations" in "The Da Vinci Code" are true? I suppose it's no wonder millions of people in the modern world claim they believe in the bible, "Intelligent Design" and astrology -- even when they admit they know virtually nothing about them. In so many ways, we still live in the Dark Ages. Just let me say that if you are so credulous that a novel (fiction!) or Hollywood movie can upend your comprehension of one of the most dominant religious traditions in the world, then you are possessed of all the faith (and reason) you deserve.

A "prominent group of English Roman Catholic monks, theologians, nuns and members of Opus Dei" commissioned their poll from Opinion Research Business (ORB) and, according to the Reuters article, has "sought to promote Catholic beliefs at a time when the film's release has provoked a storm of controversy." (If they hire a publicist, I do not recommend Tom Cruise's sister for the job.)

Ron Howard's ultra-super-secret movie of "The Da Vinci Code" kicks off the Cannes Film Festival Wednesday. And the Catholic establishment is... madder than heck:

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The Cruise-ible

Tom Cruise with his "Miiii" squeeze.

What do we talk about when we talk about Tom Cruise? What are our images of him really based upon, besides his own publicity stunts and some headlines? And just how did the top movie star in the world become so unlikeable in the public eye, an object of scorn and derision in the media, and a punch line for stand-up comics? Normally, a movie star's fall from gross -- er, grace -- wouldn't interest me much (although I am still trying to figure out how Burt Reynolds' 1970s career flamed out). I've interviewed hundreds of actors and filmmakers over the years and I've always made it a personal policy never to ask them, or speculate in print, about what they euphemistically call their "private lives," mainly because I really don't think it's any of my (or your) business. I'm interested in their work, not in what they do in their off hours.

But the fascinating thing about Cruise is how he's made a public commodity of his so-called "private life" (or his own image-manipulation version of it, presented for your entertainment). You'd think he would have learned something from the tabloid headlines generated by the sudden and mysterious split with his superstar wife Nicole Kidman, and tried to keep his personal affairs as private as he can. But no. When somebody boasts about details of his alleged off-screen love life on the most popular talk show in the world, goes on TV to say a pregnant actress (Brooke Shields) was wrong to seek medical treatment for her postpartum depression, and acts as a public spokesperson for his supposed "religion" in interviews (if you grant Scientology that status) -- even to the point of having Scientology tents set up on the set of Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" in case cast or crew wanted to take a Free Personality Inventory -- well, that's when the "personal" becomes part of the star's public branding. And Tom Cruise is a brand name, every bit as much as Apple or Starbuck's or Subway or Volkswagon.

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The Ultimate Movie Quiz (and Free Personality Inventory!)

The Van Helsing Quiz at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

Some of you thought my "101 102 Movies You Must See Before You Die" list was a little too, well, rigorous. I still think it only covers the basics of what you need to have seen (and appreciated) in order to hold your own in intelligent conversations about movies these days. Maybe that makes me (shudder) an "elitist." Ahem. I think it just means I have standards.

But whether you find my list off-putting or not, you may enjoy "The Van Helsing Quiz" over at one of my favorite personal movie blogs, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, which you will also find in my permanent list of favored links in the column at right.

Owner/proprietor Dennis Cozzalio posted the quiz itself back in April. There, you can see it in its un-filled form. But a month later, Cozzalio himself submitted to the quiz, and his answers are even more entertaining and provocative than the naked quiz.

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A Concise History of the Made-For-TV Issue Movie

Pandemic flu expert and television historian Dr. Rob Corddry.

Rob Corddry on "The Daily Show," explains how Monday's "in-depth investigative report on ABC" called "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America" served to inform American citizens of the life-or-death options available to them, should an avian influenza pandemic strike our shores...

Rob Corddry: For Americans who missed the film, they wouldn't know that one option is to blow your head off in front of your tiny, tiny baby....

Jon Stewart: But, Rob, the Movies of the Week are not really the best way to keep people informed.

Rob Corddry: Jon, TV movies open people's eyes and shape public policy. Remember how "The Day After" changed America's mind from being pro- to anti- nuclear war? Or how "The Burning Bed" brought attention to just how flammable beds can be? Or how "Roots" ended slavery?

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