The summer movie juggernaut has passed, but a handful of smaller, pro-family films managed to survive and prosper and are continuing their runs in theaters nationwide throughout the fall.
This after a summer when franchise event films (Star Wars, Spider-Man, Men in Black 2) grabbed most of the attention and the money.
The most prominent of this group — My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mostly Martha and Signs — are enjoyable entertainment experiences. They also present family ties as key to an ordered existence and central to the formulation of a moral code. However, each has flaws in the treatment of its material of which Catholics should be aware.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which is co-produced by Tom Hanks and his Greek-born wife, Rita Wilson, was released early in the summer and has built a large, enthusiastic following primarily through word of mouth.
It's easy to see why.
Actress Nia Vardalos expands her one-woman stage show into a loosely structured feature film of comic sketches, held together by a sure-footed tone and some solid performances. The subject is the difficulties faced by the daughter of Greek immigrants who wants to assimilate into present-day American culture. Writer Vardalos and director Joel Zwick choose situations and gags with such universal appeal that the members of any ethnic group that's not quite mainstream will identify with them.
Toula Portokalos (Vardalos) comes from a family that believes a Greek woman has three purposes in life: to marry a Greek man, to have Greek babies and to feed everybody until the day she dies. She has never felt completely at home in either her family's ethnic world or her contemporaries' all-American one. She's well past the age when most Greek girls marry and her parents are desperate to hook her up with their idea of Mr. Right.
Ian Miller (John Corbett) is a WASP vegetarian who teaches high school. He meets Toula at the family restaurant where she works and they fall in love. The rest of the movie chronicles their romance and the culture clash between their two contrasting backgrounds. There are no surprising plot twists nor any suspense as to whether the wedding will go off as planned. The filmmakers get in some well-placed jabs at both partners' families, but the jokes are never ugly or mean-spirited. Everyone is treated with respect.
Mostly Martha takes a fresh look at a slightly different, but familiar, subject. Martha Klein (Martine Gedeck) is an ambitious, accomplished professional woman approaching middle age with no life apart from her career. The setting is a gourmet restaurant in the German port of Hamburg, where she is “the city's second-best chef.” A neurotic perfectionist about her recipes and spotless kitchen, she obviously needs some kind of personal attachment to ground her emotionally.
When her sister is killed in an auto accident, Martha must care for her 8-year-old niece, Lina (Maxine Foereste), who's distraught and distant because of the tragedy. The four-star chef isn't good at coping with the messier parts of life like grief, nurturing or relationships. To make things worse, the restaurant's owner (Sibylle Canonnica) hires an earthy Italian sous chef, Mario (Sergio Castelitto), without consulting her. These complications put Martha to the test. She must change her priorities and the way she looks at life in order to survive. German writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck skillfully digs into Martha's soul as she tries to sort things out.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mostly Martha are strong endorsements of traditional family values with one similar, glaring exception. Each implies discreetly and off camera that its heroine has sex with her beloved before getting married. This mars their otherwise wholesome spirit. Surprisingly, both films are rated PG.
Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable) is a master dramatist of those places and moments where the supernatural and human realities intersect. Signs, his most recent work, examines these themes within the framework of existing horror and scifi movie conventions, cleverly borrowing from Steven Spielberg (E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds) to pose important spiritual questions.
The ostensible subject matter is the sudden appearance of “crop circles,” or intricately carved designs found in cornfields. Are they the creations of alien life forms from another planet? Or are they hoaxes?
Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former Episcopal priest who lives on a Pennsylvania farm with his young son Morgan (Rory Culkin), 5-year-old daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin) and brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). The sudden death of Graham's wife plunges him into an emotional numbness that results in his loss of faith and an inability to connect with surviving family members.
Shyamalan brilliantly constructs scenes of suspense and terror as the Hess family comes to grips with the life-threatening dangers the crop circles on its land portend. To surmount the crisis, it must learn to pull together once again as one.
Graham also comes to understand that these events are more than mere coincidences. He asserts the power and importance of miracles that point to the existence of God, offering hope to those who believe.
If Signs were an unpretentious, low-budget B movie, this might be good enough. But Shyamalan declares his spiritual intentions so grandly they must be held to a higher standard. Although Hess's rediscovery of his faith may be appealing to Christians, the cosmology that accompanies it is not. Its premises are murky and contradictory, with a New Age-like acceptance of UFOs and their relationship to the concept of evil.
All three of these unexpected hits aspire to be uplifting entertainment for viewers of all ages. That none of them quite gets there is perhaps more a reflection of our permissive times than anything else.
John Prizer writes from Washington, D.C.