Decent Films Blog
This Friday I’ll be doing an hour of “Catholic Answers Live” with Patrick Coffin and co-hosting the latest episode of “Reel Faith” with David DiCerto! In both venues we’ll be discussing the latest movies: Inception, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Despicable Me.
Of course on “CA Live” we’ll have more time to talk about other movies. On the other hand, you can see clips of the movies at “Reel Faith.” “CA Live” airs at 6:00pm EDT, “Reel Faith” at 8:30pm EDT.
A few quick notes: After a week back in the States, I’m just about back in the swing of things. (Hope you’ve been enjoying my pilgrimage blogging!)
I did miss the Twilight Saga: Eclipse screening, and while I still intend to catch the film and write about it when I can, I’ve decided not to leave the title indefinitely in my “Coming Soon” box. I’ve gotten caught in that trap too many times! At the time I always hope it will motivate me to get to it sooner rather than later, but as time goes on it becomes a millstone around my neck. I’d rather disappoint readers now by taking it down than string them along for possibly weeks or even months. Sorry, but I’m doing the best I can!
Reel Faith went on while I was gone, with former USCCB critic Annie Navarro stepping into the gap with my co-host David DiCerto. The next episode has been postponed until next week, so tune in then for our video reviews of Inception, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Despicable Me.
Tuesday afternoon after the papal Pallium Mass, the itinerary includes the catacombs of St. Callixtus and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. I missed the catacombs on my first trip to Rome, so I’m really looking forward to this.
The visit to the catacombs begins with a brief introduction to the history and iconography of the period and the site. While the pagan Romans traditionally practiced cremation, the early Christians, in continuity with Jewish belief and custom refocused and refined in light of the resurrection of Jesus, placed a high premium on burying the dead in preparation for their rising. Because land was limited, starting in the second century Roman Christians (and Jews; a small number of Roman catacombs are of Jewish origin) acquired plots of land outside the city limits and dug massive underground labyrinths in the soft volcanic rock of the Roman countryside, carving out niches for burying the dead. The uniqueness of Judeo-Christian hope was even evident in the language they used: The standard pagan term for a burial site was “necropolis,” city of the dead, but the Christians early began calling their catacombs by a new name, “cemetery,” a term literally meaning “dormitory” or “place of sleep.”
Like many people, I once vaguely imagined the early Christians hiding out from Roman persecutions in the catacombs. In fact the catacombs were publicly known sites, not secret (our tour guide points out, commonsensically, that excavating tons of earth and rock along, say, the Appian Way could hardly be a surreptitious undertaking). The kernel of truth to the Hollywood picture is that during persecutions when Christian rites of worship could not openly be celebrated, Christians retreated to their underground burial sites, sacrosanct under Roman law, to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy.
It isn’t until I actually see the procession of 38 new metropolitan archbishops walking up the center aisle at Saint Peter’s Basilica at the start of the Pallium Mass a little after 9:30 Tuesday morning, and hear the cheers from pilgrims of the 26 countries represented—Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe—followed by the Bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI, that it really hits me: This is the greatest visible display of the Church’s catholicity that I have ever seen, and perhaps may ever see.
It is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. My daughter Sarah and I are in Saint Peter’s Basilica, on the very spot where St. Peter stretched out his hands and gave his life, where his bones remain to this day. The unique role that Jesus gave to Peter among the Apostles is mirrored today in the role of the Bishop of Rome among these archbishops, who are gathered for a special celebration of their pastoral role and unity with the Pope.
There’s even an Eastern Orthodox delegation here. I didn’t confirm that until later, but I caught my breath during Pope Benedict’s homily, delivered in Italian, at a reference to Constantinople. (My Italian vocabulary is barely into double digits, but I picked up individual words and ideas here and there: references to Peter and Paul, Jesus’ words in Matthew 16, the pallium and the archbishops, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary. The booklet handed out to worshipers has the Italian and English texts of the pope’s Pallium Mass homily ... from 2009. The English text of the 2010 homily is now available online.) My appreciation for Orthodoxy is long-standing and profound, and I feel the pain of the schism deeply. The presence of the delegation from Constantinople at this celebration of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul fills me with great joy.
In my first update I mentioned someone comparing Assisi to Minas Tirith, Tolkien’s imaginary tiered city on a hill. What I didn’t know at the time is that unlike Minas Tirith, where the lowest level is the widest circle and the royal house is at the crown, Assisi’s crown is at the bottom: beneath the lower Basilica of St. Francis, in the crypt where Francis’s tomb is situated in the midst of four of his famous followers.
Not that the crypt is literally the lowest point in Assisi. As far as I know, though, it’s the lowest notable landmark. It’s immediately below the upstairs-downstairs Basilica of San Francesco, the lower basilica adorned by frescoes of Cimabue and Giotto, the upper basilica with its narrative of Francis’s life in frescoes. It’s down the hill from the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Clare), which houses the original Cross of San Damiano that spoke to Francis as well as the body of Francis’s famous spiritual companion. It’s far below the Cathedral of San Rufino, with its dome overlooking Santa Chiara.
There’s also Rocca Maggiore castle, probably the highest point in Assisi, looking like a picture postcard from the piazza of Santa Chiara (my best view of the castle, since we got no higher than the cathedral, and you can’t see the castle from the cathedral). But I don’t think anyone would think of the castle as crowning this city. The crown is at the bottom. If you’re going to climb Assisi from bottom to top, start at the crypt of St. Francis. Or else do the opposite: Take a taxi to the cathedral (or the castle, if you like) and work your way down to the crypt.
It’s 5am Monday morning in Italy. I’m sitting on a rooftop veranda outside my hotel room in Assisi overlooking the sleeping countryside. The moon is high. Later today we’ll be in Rome.
Our trip got off to a bad start. The story begins early Thursday afternoon at the Alitalia terminal at Newark Liberty Airport, where my daughter Sarah and I arrive to discover very long, seemingly unmoving lines and the news that our 5:30 flight was delayed at least seven hours. Over the next few days we heard that (a) the pilots were on strike, (b) they were watching the World Cup, or (c) issues from the previous day had affected numerous flights that day. I still don’t know what the issue was. By the time our flight finally lifts off at a minute shy of 1am, some of our fellow pilgrims have been stranded at the airport for over a dozen hours.
There are seventeen of us on the flight. Archbishop Myers is already in Italy with an early group. We’re the late group—now the very late group. We were originally meant to join the early group at Montecatini by catching a one-hour transfer flight from Rome to Florence. Unfortunately, given our mid-afternoon arrival time on Friday afternoon, we would have to wait nearly six hours for the next connecting. Instead, the tour people put us on a bus to Montecatini.
In a few hours, my daughter Sarah (age 15) and I will be on a plane headed to Rome. Our archdiocese is leading a pilgrimage, and we’re on it.
Some readers may remember that I was in Rome once before last year, on a press junket for Angels & Demons. They gave us the official Angels & Demons tour of Rome, walking in the footsteps of Robert Langdon from church to church as he unraveled the path of the Illuminati.
The idea of tourists going to the Eternal City to see St. Peter’s and other locales specifically through the lens of a badly written, anti-Catholic conspiracy novel is pretty depressing (although not as pathetic as Twilight fans heading to Forks, Washington for Twilighter tours).
Fortunately, I was able to stay a few days afterward, touring on my own, and making a sort of pilgrimage out of it. I wrote a bit about my experiences in an article on religion and science in Angels & Demons, and I posted photos from my trip at Jimmy Akin’s blog. Plus, I got to knock the film at the end of my European trip!
This time, it will be a real pilgrimage. Our bishop, John Myers of Newark, is leading the trip, the highlight of which may well be the June 29 Pallium Mass celebrated by His Holiness Pope Benedict; we’re also scheduled to be at his weekly address. We’re also going to Tuscany and Assisi, among other destinations.
I hope to do some blogging on the road from Rome, not about movies of course, but about the trip. Watch this space!
Yesterday I taped the fourth episode of Reel Faith with David DiCerto. We discussed Knight and Day, Grown Ups, and Jonah Hex, as well as the documentary Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders. It airs tomorrow, Friday, June 24 at 8:30pm. As usual, you can watch it online at the show’s website, either when it airs or anytime over the next week. (Right now last week’s episode, covering Toy Story 3, The A-Team and Splice is available.)
As always, comments at the Reel Comments page are welcome.
UPDATE: Hollywood admits its originality problem!
With Sequels and Reboots Failing, Hollywood (Finally) Puts Out a Desperate Call for Original Material
Conventional wisdom in Hollywood of late has said that you should stick to familiar brands when making movies. It could be a sequel or an adaptation of an old TV show, board game, toy, or crumpled candy wrapper, just as long as people already know it. So how’s that working out? In a summer season where only three out of the fourteen major releases so far have come from a new idea, attendance is down 13.3 percent from last season … That’s why studio execs at Warner Bros., Paramount/DreamWorks, and Universal are now madly pinging agents and managers with an uncharacteristic, desperate, and welcome request: Send us your fresh material!
… It’s no wonder panic is in the air, considering how moviegoers are rebelling. “People are feeling marketed to, as opposed to catered to,” says JC Spink, a partner in the management and production company Benderspink and one of the executive producers of last summer’s surprise original hit, The Hangover. “I think we’ve all gone a little bit overboard as an industry. There hasn’t been room for original material for a little while now. It’s a shame, because I don’t think it’s what anyone [who works in the business] came out here for.”
Admitting you have a problem, of course, is the first step to recovery.
The rest of the piece is worth reading, as is Douthat’s post, which points out that only two of the 25 highest-grossing movies of the last decade weren’t adaptations of an existing property (the outliers being Finding Nemo and of course Avatar).
Titled “Did ‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars’ Ruin Hollywood?”, Douthat’s piece takes on grumpy jeremiads by John Podhoretz and David Edelstein laying the blame for Hollywood’s creative malaise and addiction to empty spectacle at the doorstep of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Having made some of the same arguments Douthat does, I cheerfully support his line of thought.
Original post follows.
Is Hollywood literally out of ideas?
In this summer of sequels, adaptations and remakes, tomorrow’s Knight and Day, an action-comedy-romance starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, is a bit of an anomaly: While it owes an obvious debt to similar films from Mr. & Mrs. Smith and True Lies to Romancing the Stone and even Charade, it’s an “original” story in the formal sense of not being an extension of any existing franchise.
That doesn’t make it a good film, but it’s a point worth noting in the film’s press notes. Publicity people writing press notes have to hype a film any way they can; if you’re marketing a known brand name, you sell that, and if you aren’t, then you sell that too. Even so, I was a bit struck by the spin on non-franchise status in the press notes for Knight and Day:
Unlike most action films of this scope, Knight and Day did not begin as a comic book, TV series or franchise property—but as a spec script by Patrick O’Neill.
Then there’s this comment from producer Cathy Konrad, who is married to director James Mangold:
Konrad was drawn to Knight and Day by the story’s originality. “It’s hard to find fresh material that isn’t superhero based or something like that,” she observes.
Now, I’m no kind of movie business insider. I’ve been to Hollywood a few times, but only within the orchestrated media context of a press junket. I know something about the craft of moviemaking, but on the business side of things all I know, or I think I know, is what I’ve seen in movies about Hollywood.
So I’m struck, first of all, that the press notes bother to say that Knight and Day began with a “spec script.” “Spec” means that the screenwriter wasn’t hired to write the story—that he wrote it in the hope of selling it to someone who liked it.
I would have thought, perhaps naively, that most movies began that way: a writer with an idea. Of course it happens the other way too: Producers with established products hire writers (sometimes many, many writers) to slap together a script around that product. But that can’t be the norm, can it?
Even with respect to big-budget action movies, while I can understand producers having a preference for brand-name adaptations, remakes and sequels over something new, surely among writers there would be a general preference to create something new, right? And, therefore, producers looking for “fresh material” should have an easy time finding it? Right?
Even if market considerations — not to mention the guaranteed paycheck of a contract job — lead many writers to churn out scripts for brand-name material, you’d think the creative impulse must motivate countless screenwriters (and screenwriting hopefuls), not to churn out, but to lovingly craft and painstakingly polish stories of every conceivable shape and size. Wouldn’t you?
Even if it were a known industry fact that there’s no market in Hollywood for original action scripts, surely creative chutzpah—without which half the worthwhile art in the world wouldn’t exist—rides high enough in all markets that countless writers believe that their original action script will be different?
And while a great many of these will in fact be trash — though no worse than countless scripts that actually become movies — surely at least some of them will be good, and a few better than good? How can a producer say it’s “hard to find fresh material”?
I dunno, maybe it’s just publicity hype. (Half the time I suspect those press-note “quotations” are made up by publicists or agents or somebody. Depending on the film, press notes seldom offer actually useful information beyond plot synopsis and filmmaker info, although if there’s actually an interesting story behind the making of a film the notes can be invaluable.)
Still, I’m struck that the pervasiveness of comic-book movies comes up twice. I’m a lifelong comic-book fan, but I’d prefer fewer comic-book movies rather than more—especially now that studios are actually digging up obscure properties like this past weekend’s Jonah Hex, a total non-event panned by critics and ignored by audiences.
Jonah Hex? I can understand wanting to do a Batman or Spider-Man movie; I can even understand green-lighting big-screen versions of less universally known characters like Ghost Rider or Green Arrow. But Jonah Hex? At what point does scraping the bottom of the franchise barrel actually make less sense than doing something new?
Are there really no better options out there for people in Hollywood with money to spend? Where are the writers? What are they doing?
These are real questions; I don’t know the answers.
Yes! Having joined the 21st century six months ago by adding RSS, Decent Films has now taken its first step into the world of social media by creating a Facebook page. For readers who use Facebook, especially Facebook users who don’t use RSS, it’s another way to keep track of when I update Decent Films. And while I still don’t have reader comments here at Decent Films (though the integrated Decent Films Mail is a step in the right direction), you can comment on my work at the Facebook page (as well as in the National Catholic Register comboxes, where applicable).
I’ve begun using RSS now, and I find it invaluable. On the other hand, I’m still a total Facebook newbie … and I would gladly welcome any advice from veteran Facebookers on how to make the Facebook experience better for Decent Films readers (or for myself). Please drop me a line!
Incidentally, there appear to be a couple of unrelated Facebook groups called “Decent Films” … if you look for me on Facebook, be sure to search for “Decent Films Guide.”
Fraggle fans: Did you ever find yourselves singing along to the “Fraggle Rock” theme song and thinking, “You know, this is a great show, but it could be edgier”?
If so, help is on the way, courtesy of the Weinstein Company. Slashfilm noted this morning that writer-director Cory Edwards (Hoodwinked!), who has been developing a Fraggle Rock feature film for the Weinstein Company, posted an ominous note on his blog warning of “some dark days ahead.”
Apparently the Weinstein Company, unsatisfied with Edwards’ screenplay, has begun searching for a new screenwriter to rewrite it, perhaps from scratch. By itself, that doesn’t tell us much, but according to Edwards the studio’s complaint is that his script is “not edgy enough.”
Hoo boy. I have to admit that I find it possible that Edwards’ script leaves something to be desired. I didn’t think Hoodwinked! was any great shakes, though it was successful, and I thought it showed some promise. (I never saw the sequel, Hoodwinked 2: Hood vs. Evil.) (Side note: Edwards is a Christian.)
Buuut the idea of a gaggle of head-shaking suits at Weinstein reading Edwards’ screenplay and saying “Not edgy enough” fills me with trepidation—and I was never even a Fraggle Rock fan. (Not that I had anything against it. It came along during my high school years, when, as recently disclosed, I was busy watching Knight Rider and The A-Team.)
“Edgy” is a good word for a Batman movie or a Daniel Craig James Bond movie. Coraline was “edgy,” and so was Where the Wild Things Are, maybe. Maybe even “The Muppet Show” was a little bit edgy, although the longer this paragraph goes on the less clear I am about what that word actually means in the first place.
At any rate, when I think of Fraggles, I do not think “edgy.” Fraggles are round, soft and fuzzy, with fuzzy Hobbity names like Gobo, Mokey and Wembley. There’s a talking trash heap and little critters called Doozers who look like pint-sized versions of Bob the Builder. The Fraggle Rock theme song, which Wikipedia reports reached #33 on the British pop charts during the show’s height, goes like this:
Dance your cares away
Worry’s for another day
Let the music play
Down at Fraggle Rock.
That’s about as un-edgy as it gets, folks. I sympathize with Cory’s lament (and I had to include his links, which are hilarious):
“EDGY.” That’s the note. That’s what they are trying to do to the Fraggle Rock movie. EDGE it up! Let me say right now that “edgy” is one of my least favorite words. Since my earliest days in the client video business, “edgy” has been a sign of someone who doesn’t know what they want. Not only is “edgy” a nebulous, abstract word that means something different to everyone, but it chases the immediate whims of pop culture. WHAT is edgy?? Faster edits? Rock music for the score? Boober wearing some gangsta bling? I have no idea. What I DO know is that the word “edgy” should not be anywhere near this movie.
What if “Toy Story” was edgy? “Toy Story” can be relevant, sharply written, and fast paced, but it has a genuine heart and sincere characters. Like “Toy Story,” Fraggle Rock’s success is not only due to it’s anti-edginess, but in its absolute DEFIANCE of all that is edgy and trendy and pop in this world.
It’s easy to concur with the Slashfilm writer Peter Sciretta when he concludes, “It seems clear to me that The Weinstein Co doesn’t even understand the property they are developing into a feature film.” And, really, this is an ongoing problem in one Hollywood adaptation after another, from the Narnia films to the likes of Robin Hood and King Arthur.
But Sciretta also has problems with the whole concept for the Fraggle film, which takes the characters “outside of their home in Fraggle Rock, where they interact with humans, which they think are aliens.” Sciretta writes:
My problem with the Fraggle Rock movie is that it removes the characters from Fraggle Rock. The Traveling Matt segments were some of the least interesting moments from the series, and the doozer-filler cave homes of the singing puppets was the most interesting aspect of the series. For me, you loose [sic] the magic of the world that Henson created by taking them out of the ‘Rock and putting them in the real world.
At this point, as a non-Fraggle fan I’m out of my depth. Like any feature adaptation of a TV show, a Fraggle movie would have to do something larger and more ambitious than a TV show episode, or it won’t sustain the film. Taking the Fraggles out of the Rock might be one way to do this, but Sciretta may have a point, especially if the world of the Rock is an integral part of the show’s appeal.
In my recent series of Spotlight posts, I’ve highlighted reviews and essays from earlier years of my work that I feel stand out in one way or another. This week I highlight a piece that I’ve come to regard as at least a partial failure: my essay on The Magdalene Sisters.
Fundamentally, my view of the film, and my objections to it, haven’t changed, but judging from reader response it would seem my attempts to express my view in a way that makes sense to those who take a different view have failed. My critique of, say, The Last Temptation of Christ has gotten appreciative responses from those who admire the film. I’ve gotten appreciative responses to my Magdalene Sisters essay too, but never, so far as I can remember, from admirers of the film. That may not be proof of failure, but it’s a striking commentary nonetheless.
Perhaps the task was doomed to failure. Perhaps outrage on the subject is just too hot for any kind of critical response to the film. I doubt it. I don’t want to give myself an easy out. Instead, I’ve taken one more shot at it, in an addendum to the original essay.
I’ve been thinking about doing this for awhile, partly in light of the 2009 Ryan report on abuse in Irish institutions for children. I thought of it again after Pope Benedict’s pastoral letter on Irish child abuse — and a March 2010 editorial response to Pope Benedict’s letter from, of all people, Sinéad O’Connor. (My essay addendum mentions all these factors.)
More recently, I happened across a critical online response to my essay. At first I was going to include some comments about that essay in this Spotlight post, but my response got too cumbersome, so I wound up spinning them off into another blog post.
I don’t use Google alerts or otherwise troll for people talking about me online, so it was only happenstance that I happened upon a self-labeled “rant” about my Magdalene Sisters essay from a Bill Van Dyk, whose website is called Chromehorse.net.
Van Dyk himself might be as surprised as anyone that I happened across his site. “Let’s face it,” he admits frankly, “I don’t get a lot of readers.” This is not because Van Dyk can’t write. He can (see, e.g., his delightful essay on evil, evil Komodo dragons).
One problem is that his site is difficult to read. Chromehorse.net resembles a drawer stuffed full of scraps of paper with notes, essays or thoughts written on them, all shoved rather haphazardly in together. You can see that some attempt at piles and sheafs has been made, but it’s pretty much a mess. Even the individual pages seem oddly random. There’s a general three-column approach, but why are some things written in the main body and others in the margins? It probably makes sense to the author. He has been writing since 1998, and the site design may well be untouched from that day.
From his last name I know that Van Dyk and I share a common Dutch heritage (it may not look it, but Greydanus is as Dutch as De Vries or Van der Berg), and I’m not surprised to learn that he once taught in a Christian school (Dutch Reformed by any chance?). From his essays I learn that Van Dyk is politically liberal, and takes a withering view of things conservative. He inveighs against the death penalty and torture, which makes at least one issue we agree on. He has much contempt for Clarence Thomas, Pat Robertson, Anne Coulter, George W. Bush, and he’s starting to get a sinking feeling about President Obama. He doesn’t talk so much about things he likes, although I gather he likes Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Buster Keaton, which, again, makes at least one more thing we agree on. (The agreements may be easy to guess; inferences about disagreement are made at the inferrer’s peril.) Mostly he seems to be a curmudgeon, or at least his impetus to write seems largely rooted in outrage, contempt or critical opposition — for which, certainly, there’s a lot of fodder out in the world.
I’m not surprised that Van Dyk doesn’t like my Magdalene Sisters essay. As I noted in my Spotlight blurb on the essay, I’ve come to consider that essay a failure of sorts. That doesn’t mean that I think Van Dyk’s critique has merit, though he opens on a note with which I would generally agree.
Those three words from Peter Debruge’s Variety review of next weekend’s Toy Story 3, called out by Peter Chattaway in blogging the review, perfectly encapsulate what I’ve thought had to be the case about this film since I first heard of it. More broadly, as Peter suggests, it seems a harbinger of things to come from this “third phase” in Pixar history that this film is ushering in.
Nonessential. It seems virtually impossible for Toy Story 3 to be anything else, simply because 1999’s Toy Story 2 is so definitive, so authoritative and final in its delineation of these characters, of their purpose and destiny, that nothing more needs to be said. The first Toy Story established that toys exist for one purpose, to be played with and loved by children, and that in this is their fulfillment and the meaning of their existence. In Toy Story 2, faced with the specter of being put on a shelf, abandoned or even given away, even destroyed, Woody’s commitment to this principle was shaken. In the end, though, he reaffirmed his original commitment and beliefs. Through his experiences and encounters with Jessie and the Prospector, Woody has already emotionally faced and accepted the idea of Andy growing up—going to college, getting married—and in one way or another leaving beyond the life that he and Woody once shared. “I can’t stop Andy from growing up,” Woody said, “but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Toy Story 3 will continue this trajectory; I have a hard time imagining it advancing it in any significant way, or taking it to another level the way that Toy Story 2 took Toy Story to a new level. In the same way, where Pixar’s recent “phase 2” films—Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up—pushed the boundaries of the Hollywood animated family film into uncharted territory, making them “essential viewing” of a sort, Toy Story 3 seems destined to be nonessential.
Yet it’s also likely to be welcome. It might be second-string Pixar, but given Pixar’s overall track record of excellence even second-string Pixar is likely to equal, and probably to surpass, the very best the competition has to offer, from How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! and Bolt. That’s especially the case this summer, with family audiences faced with both a live-action version of the “Marmaduke” comic strip and a sequel to the okay Cats and Dogs. (What else is there? This weekend’s Karate Kid remake; a Nanny McPhee sequel; M. Night Shyamalan’s Last Airbender adaptation; a brand-new studio’s computer animated supervillain comedy Despicable Me; Disney’s live-action update of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice starring Nic Cage. It’s possible two or three of these could turn out to be worth seeing, but nothing screams “must see.”)
Will “welcome yet nonessential” cover Pixar’s other coming sequels, Cars 2 and Monsters Inc. 2? I’ll be surprised if Cars 2 is either much better or much worse than that. Monsters Inc. 2 could also easily fit the bill, although with Up director Pete Docter again taking the reins I wouldn’t discount the possibility that this sequel could go farther than the others.
The real question mark, of course, is Pixar’s next original film, Brave, formerly known as The Bow and the Bear. (Another project in development, Newt, has been shelved.) Will it fit comfortably alongside other “third phase” Pixar films, or will it press on to some fourth phase, possibly inviting comparisons to one of the first two phases? Time will tell.
This week Jackie Chan, now 56, eases out of starring roles and buddy pictures into a new role, that of the venerable mentor. I haven’t seen his first stab at such a role, the 2008 fantasy The Forbidden Kingdom, but with The Karate Kid it’s possible this role might serve the aging action star better than Hollywood’s previous attempts to shoehorn Jackie into established templates and formulas.
I drew this cartoon for an ESL book I illustrated back in my publishing days. I always wanted to see what Jackie could do with an ironing board. In The Medallion, an ironing board practically fell on him in a fight scene. It was director Gordon Chan’s opportunity for greatness. He blew it.
Jackie has always been a great talent, but he has never made great movies, and Hollywood never knew what to do with him. Saddled with directors like Brett Ratner and Tom Dey (perpetrator of this past weekend’s Marmaduke, coincidentally) weaned on the type of Hollywood misdirection employed to make Hollywood stars look like action heroes, Jackie’s unique moves were subjected to the same sort of fast cutting and close-ups that keep us from seeing that, say, Keanu Reeves can’t really move like Jackie Chan. As a result, we can’t even see that Jackie Chan can move like Jackie Chan. Brilliant, guys. Think of what a director like Buster Keaton could have done with Jackie in his prime (Jackie’s prime, not Keaton’s). It’s almost enough to make one weep.
I first laid eyes on Jackie 15 years ago on an episode of PBS’s “Sneak Previews” as Michael Medved and Jeffrey Lyons reviewed Rumble in the Bronx. I was hooked. No, I was floored. I had never seen anything like it, and I knew I had to see more. The flick was far from perfect — some nasty violence amid the fun — but there in the middle of it, using a refrigerator door and a shopping cart in ways nature never intended and no one but maybe Tex Avery or Chuck Jones would even have thought of, was a talent like no other. And the speed of it! Any thirty seconds of a Jackie Chan action sequence was like all the punchlines from ten “Road Runner” cartoons one after another, with no set-up or filler.
A couple of years later Jackie Chan’s First Strike opened, and it was even better. First Strike remains my favorite of all Jackie’s films, and the one I would first show to Jackie newcomers. Drunken Master II, AKA The Legend of Drunken Master, is more technically astounding — it may be the best kung-fu movie I’ve ever seen — but First Strike is the Jackie movie I will watch most often again. Maybe I’ll write a quick review this week.
In the meantime, why do I love Jackie Chan? Here is why.
Out of a few topics I was considering blogging about today, none captured my attention quite like this impassioned email from a young reader who strongly disagrees with my review of Alice in Wonderland, and the issues suggested by the email, at least in my mind.
Dear Mr. Greydanus,
I am 15 years old and my family receives the National Catholic Register every week, and we are a very avid film-watching family! We’d like to comment on one of your reviews.
That review being Alice in Wonderland. We highly doubt you saw it or that you were even paying attention to what was actually on screen. In fact, your scathing review made us want to see the movie more!
You mentioned that Alice was practically naked through the entire movie, yet when we watched it, she was no more naked then Anna in her ball gown in The King and I. Even though you put Alice down for showing her shoulders, this week’s paper informs me that you gave “Justice League” a thumbs up, yet never mentioned the immodest apparel of Wonder Woman who wears little more than a one piece strapless swimsuit. Where’s your consistency!!!!
Also, you ridiculed the fact that Alice broke away from society and wanted to make her own decisions! If you had daughters, would you force them to marry the man that Alice was expected to? If so, I pity your daughters!
Lastly, you highly made fun of the fact that Alice donned armor for the last battle; and even went as far as to make fun of Eowyn in The Lord Of The Rings when she slew the Witch King. Does Joan of Arc ring a bell!!!!! Have you not seem the similarity between the three that they were all defending their kingdom?! Are you so blind not to see that one of the our most courageous heroines donned armor to defend her country in the name of God????!!!!!! Maybe you should read up on the Old Testament beginning with Judith chapter 13, verses 6-10.
Thank you for your time, I hope you’ve read this far and haven’t deleted this email before you finished reading. Just to let you know, your review on Robin Hood only makes us want to see it more! You’ll most likely be hearing from me soon once I watch it!
I enjoyed your email. It’s always nice to hear from a fellow Catholic who feels as strongly about movies as you evidently do. And I’m always happy to hear from a fellow Register subscriber. (We were subscribers before I joined the paper.)
I’m glad your family enjoyed Alice in Wonderland, as many families have. (You might enjoy reading some of the Alice-related mail I’ve received at Decent Films; scroll down to the bottom of the review.)
Perhaps you will enjoy Robin Hood. I wouldn’t wish to prevent you, even if I could, from enjoying either. I also would not take back one syllable of my review. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment. First, though, some general thoughts.
You are fifteen (the same age, as it happens, as my oldest daughter). You probably realize that by the time you are, say, 30, or 45, the world will look different to you. Not everything, but some things. Many of the movies that you enjoy today (the same applies to books, music, television, etc.), you will still enjoy in fifteen or thirty years—though you may enjoy them, to one extent or another, in different ways, or for different reasons. Perhaps Alice will be among the movies you still enjoy at 30 or 45; certainly plenty of thirtysomethings and fortysomethings have enjoyed it. Likewise, many of the movies, books and so forth you dislike today you may still dislike at 45, though again possibly with a different perspective.
But more than likely some of the movies and such that you will most appreciate in your forties would bore you to tears today, and movies that you enjoy today you will find, in your forties, boring or worse. I’m absolutely not saying that a teenager is wrong and a fortysomething is right. But the experience of changing your mind over time may perhaps offer some perspective on different points of view.
You may come to appreciate that it is quite possible for someone who has attentively watched a movie to come to a thoughtful and worthwhile opinion of it that is different from your own present opinion. You may find this to be the case regardless whether or not your older self still thinks that your younger self had a point. If your younger self did have a point, then people may hold different points of view, and each may have a point. If your younger self didn’t have a point, then it is possible to think that one has a point and the other person doesn’t, and to be wrong.
This experience may make you less likely to conclude that a person who disagrees with you about a movie probably didn’t see the movie, or wasn’t paying attention—particularly when it’s that person’s job to watch the movie attentively. (You may not have realized that I would be breaking both the seventh and eighth commandments if I reviewed and rated a movie I hadn’t watched attentively. By the way, the eighth commandment also urges us to avoid “rash judgment,” i.e., to “be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way” (CCC 2478).)
A day may come when you appreciate reading reviews that you disagree with. Sometimes another point of view prods us to think through why we disagree, and so come to a better appreciation of our own point of view. (Perhaps that has even happened here.) Sometimes we can learn from another point of view, even if we still disagree. (I know I do.) Sometimes, without sacrificing our original views, we come to a larger understanding of the film, which may be more complicated than we originally thought. And sometimes we may come to see that, in fact, we were wrong. (It’s happened to me.)
Getting back to your comments about my review:
- I said Alice “repeatedly winds up nearly or even entirely naked, and spends much of the film in ill-fitting, rather revealing makeshift garb,” which is accurate. My “DVD Picks” snippet on “Justice League” is two sentences long, plus content advisory. In two sentences, I should mention Wonder Woman’s outfit? I did mention “innuendo, oblique allusions to a live-in relationship. Teens and up.” In a brief blurb on an animated TV series, I think that’s complete enough, don’t you?
- While I did ridicule many things in the movie, that “Alice broke away from society and wanted to make her own decisions” is not among them. My complaint is not so much with Alice as with the way the movie pits society against Alice. Alice is oppressed and squelched by a ridiculously hostile social environment that forces young women into hideously inappropriate marriages—a plight I called “Squelched Girl Syndrome.” Feminists write about this in books with names like Reviving Ophelia. This movie could have been called Reviving Alice. You saw something else. Perhaps we were both paying attention, but to different things.
- Why did you think I was ridiculing Éowyn? I mentioned her, I certainly didn’t ridicule her. She is a wonderful character, and I wish Tolkien had done more with her. Nor did I ridicule the idea of a woman warrior as such. I love Joan of Arc; I love Judith; I even love Wonder Woman. What I think is ridiculous is turning Lewis Carroll’s protagonist into a martial heroine like Éowyn. No one who loved Carroll’s creation would do that, and the writer who did seems to have been motivated by other concerns, as my review hints.
- As my review mentions, I have three daughters. (Why do you say “If you had daughters”? You read the review, I assume.) The angry feminist narrative of society out to squelch girls is not one I care to see my daughter exposed to over and over, and I think many other parents will feel the same way. I consider this important enough to alert readers about, no matter how many families may enjoy the movie and disagree with my take. It’s up to readers to decide how helpful or unhelpful my comments are.
- Same goes for Robin Hood, with its bleak, hostile picture of the Middle Ages, the Crusades and the medieval Church. Some readers may enjoy it, but I can’t turn a blind eye to these issues. I’d be no use to readers if I did.
P.S. Your email is well structured, with a thesis statement, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. My only advice is to make more judicious use of punctuation. If you do see Robin Hood, feel free to write again.
The long Memorial Day weekend traditionally marks the beginning of the American summer movie season, so for Hollywood studios this past weekend’s the dismal ticket sales are clear cause for concern. Dollarwise, it was the worst Memorial Day weekend at the box office in nine years; in terms of actual bodies in seats, it was the worst in fifteen years. (Analysis: Box Office Mojo, Box Office Guru.)
Hollywood’s two-punch strategy, targeting male audiences with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and female viewers with Sex and the City 2, failed on both fronts as neither demographic showed much interest. By default, the weekend went to the week-old Shrek Forever After, though the DreamWorks fourquel is losing steam fast compared to its predecessors, even the lame Shrek the Third.
Rounding out the top five are Iron Man 2, the summer’s one certified hit, and Robin Hood, a disappointment if not quite a dud. Even Iron Man probably won’t quite match the success of the original.
Meanwhile, what’s on the horizon? A few sure things, certainly. Toy Story 3 and the latest Twilight flick will rock the box office. 1980s nostalgia might power The A-Team and the Jackie Chan–Jaden Smith Karate Kid remake to success.
After that, who knows? Will family audiences turn out in droves for Marmaduke, Despicable Me or a Cats & Dogs sequel? (It’s been ten years since Cats & Dogs. Half the kids who saw it in theaters are watching R-rated movies now.) Will action fans find anything to connect with in Night and Day or Salt? Will Jonah Hex connect with anyone but dyed-in-the-wool comic-book fans? Does anyone really want another Predator flick? Really?
The movie I’m most excited to see is Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but who knows how it will do at the box office?
So far, audiences aren’t thrilled with what moviemakers are serving ... and when moviegoers vote with ticket sales, or lack thereof, those votes will be counted—and agonized over.
What lessons Hollywood may from recent box-office results is another matter. Some possible lessons (I’m not saying those are the lessons I want Hollywood to draw):
- 3D is key. The failure of the old-school 2D Prince of Persia further cements the lesson of Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon and Clash of the Titans: If you want a blockbuster, do it in 3D. Maybe if you have a hit film like Iron Man you can get away with a 2D sequel, but who knows how much bigger Iron Man 2 might have been in 3D?
- On the other hand, higher ticket prices don’t necessarily mean more money. The flip side of 3D is: You’d better have something new to offer. Viewers like what they know, but 3D prices for “been there, done that” material isn’t necessarily a winning combination. Is Shrek Forever After falling behind Shrek the Third in spite of higher ticket prices, or because of them?
- Mix it up, genre-wise. One genre is as passé as two dimensions. What do Twilight and Pirates of the Caribbean have that Sex and the City 2 and Prince of Persia don’t? A horror-thriller angle—they’re not just a chick flick and an action flick. Likewise, How to Train Your Dragon combines Vikings and dragons. Alice in Wonderland combines fairy tale and mythic heroism. Blending genres doesn’t necessarily make a movie better, but it may seem fresher.
- Star power counts. Johnny Depp turned on a dime from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to power the mediocre Alice in Wonderland to stratospheric box-office success. Meanwhile, Pirates mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer flopped with Prince of Persia, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Advantage: Depp.
Nostalgia works too. If Clash of the Titans’ success carries over to The Karate Kid and The A-Team, watch out. Can it really be that no one has made a Fall Guy feature film? What about a Princess Bride sequel?
In 2002, when The Pianist was released, director Roman Polanski’s 1977 conviction and subsequent flight from sentencing were something of a footnote. Since then, there has been a documentary film about the case, renewed enforcement efforts, new revelations and new charges, and an arrest.
I won’t recount the sordid story, which makes pretty much everyone involved look bad — everyone but Polanski’s victim, now in her mid-forties, who must endure ongoing media attention over something that happened to her when she was 13 years old. Above all, Polanski continues to look bad, and his attempts to explain his side of the story haven’t helped, in my opinion. Pretty much everything I read convinces me that Polanski is a perverse, repellent human being who should have gone to prison a long time ago, and should go to prison today.
The morality of filmmakers has been a point of concern to Christians ever since the Fatty Arbuckle scandal in the 1920s, and it’s certainly true that many filmmakers do lead immoral lives sometimes notoriously so. Hollywood figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Ingrid Bergman have all been the subject of scandal and moral outrage.
Nor is the problem confined to filmmakers. Great painters, musicians and writers have led immoral lives. The Baroque painter Caravaggio, known for such religious masterpieces as The Calling of St. Matthew and The Conversion of St. Paul, was frequently in trouble with the law for violent behavior and once killed a man over a game of tennis. English Catholic and novelist Graham Greene was a notorious philanderer, yet his novels The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair reflect profoundly on faith and the sinful human condition.
Creativity is a complex and mysterious thing, a gift from God that the artist may use or misuse in many different ways. Some personally immoral artists have used their art to wallow in or justify their own immorality; others have used it to condemn the very faults of which they were guilty or salute the virtues they lacked. Still others have created works of value and significance completely unrelated to the moral character of their lives.
We need not endorse or excuse an artist’s choices or opinions in order to appreciate his or her art. If an artist is a bad person, we ought to recognize that, with whatever social or legal ramifications may be applicable. But if the artist’s work has value, then we ought to recognize that, too. I would not want to be deprived of Modern Times, The Adventures of Robin Hood or Casablanca because of the moral faults of Chaplin, Flynn or Bergman.
Polanski, I said, is a perverse and repellent human being, but he is still a human being, and there is more to him than guilt and perversity. A child of Polish Jews living in Krakow in the 1930s, Polanski endured the terror of the Nazi occupation and separation from his parents, who were interred in the Krakow ghetto — his mother never to return. In 1969, his wife Sharon Tate, eight and a half months pregnant with their first child, was brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family.
This is not in any way to offset his crimes with his own victim status. We can condemn Polanski the sex abuser while recognizing that this is not the whole Polanski. In The Pianist Polanski has something to say and to show to us that is worth hearing and seeing.
Okay, that’s not literally true, because in order to write a line about Sex and the City 2 I would have had to screen the film, and it’s hard to imagine anything being worth that, especially in the same week as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Agora. I’m not sure my soul wouldn’t implode.
Still, a scathing review can have a therapeutic effect, even if you didn’t see the actual movie. You can hate the movie vicariously, while enjoying a heightened sense of well-being from not actually being exposed to the film. Andrew O’Hehir’s (occasionally obscene) Salon.com review of Sex and the City 2 has some potentially therapeutic lines. I like this description of the marital angst of one of the heroines and her no-longer-charming prince:
Oh, the suffering! They’re like the wounded couple in Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” except with millions and millions of dollars and no souls. When Carrie asks Big, “Am I just a bitch wife who nags you?” I could hear all the straight men in the theater — all four of us — being physically prevented from responding.
See? I was one of the straight men who wasn’t there, but I didn’t fully appreciate it … until now.
Babies’ Bayar with cows.
A reader raises interesting questions relating to chastity, modesty and raising children in a note about the movie Babies, now in theaters:
We went to see “Babies” with another family from our church ... everyone loved it. This is the best movie now playing (as far as I know ... not that I’ve seen everything in theatres, but from what I’ve read I’m not aware of anything now playing likely to displace “Babies” in my personal estimation).
One question about your review. You say that you “see no real reason” children shouldn’t see “Babies,” in spite of the “cultural and maternal nudity.” I don’t necessarily disagree, but I suspect that the bare-breasted Himba mothers [in Africa] may make some parents uncomfortable, particularly those with adolescent boys. From what you’ve written elsewhere, I’m pretty sure you agree that adolescent boys can be particularly at-risk in this regard. How would you respond to these concerns?
As a former adolescent boy, I’m well acquainted with the sensitivities of that particular demographic. Let’s begin by agreeing that near occasions of sin are not the same for everyone, and that sensitivity is always needed in this area, for some more than for others.
Lurking behind this question are issues connected with all sorts of larger moral, social and pedagogical issues. How do we foster and strengthen chastity? How do we deal with a world full of distorted images, false ideals and shameless fashions? How are social standards of propriety related to moral norms, and how are they separate? How do we deal with different personal or cultural attitudes or comfort levels regarding propriety?
How we answer these questions in turn impacts other questions. How, when and what do we tell our children about sex? What is appropriate for them to witness between Mom and Dad? More broadly, what about topics like the propriety of breastfeeding in public or in social situations? Should breastfeeding mothers be consigned to the ladies’ room or otherwise relegated behind closed doors, or is it enough to make a reasonable effort to be discreet?
Conscientious parents today know that far from providing appropriate social support, the larger culture actively hinders and opposes them, and that some level of counter-cultural resistance is necessary. Perhaps some level of counter-cultural resistance was always necessary, but in our media-saturated world, with naked supermodels and references to sex draped across billboards, banner ads and so forth, it’s become far more essential than ever.
Resistance is necessary, but there’s smart and healthy resistance, and then there’s wrongheaded resistance that becomes part of the problem. How so?
Let me tell you a story about Joseph Ignatius Breen—a name with which more movie-watching Catholics should be familiar. A Philadelphia Catholic of Irish stock, educated by Jesuits when that meant something, Breen was head of Hollywood’s Production Code Authority from 1934 to 1954.
The Production Code Authority was Hollywood’s self-censorship mechanism. It was created by the studios in response to boycott threats from the Legion of Decency and their constituency and also to stave off the threat of government censorship.
Breen’s job was largely to work with filmmakers during the development process to ensure that films were morally acceptable. Often maligned today as a censorious nabob of negativity, Breen was in fact a savvy film aficionado as well as a pious Catholic, and he could be as sensitive to the filmmakers’ creative interests as to moral concerns of viewers.
I say all of this by way of prefacing one of Breen’s foibles. Like many devout Catholics, Breen had a reverentially high regard for womanhood and motherhood. So sacred were these mysteries for Breen, and the resulting aura of taboo around the female body, that he actually wrote a memo directing that farm scenes were to suggest, rather than show, the udders of cows, and on no account should there be onscreen milking!
I have a lot of respect for Breen, and I’m the last person to sneer at the blush of modesty. That said, this is a memo from cloud-cuckoo land—an overwrought delicacy too many generations removed from the farm. Breen’s Philadelphia Catholic upbringing may have served him well in a hundred ways, but in this way it did him wrong. I could sympathize with someone so scandalized by the realities of urban life that he finds it necessary to flee to the farm. I’m much less sympathetic with someone so urbanized that he finds it necessary to flee the scandalous realities of farm life.
This is not proper concern for propriety, but a near-Manichaean abhorrence of biological reality. It is emphatically not the way to guard chastity. On the contrary, ratcheting up the taboo level so high can actually have the opposite effect, creating obsessive forbidden-fruit allure.
We all want to shield our children from harmful influences, but sometimes it’s really ourselves that we’re shielding—our own discomfort more than our children’s real good that guides our choices. Many well-meaning parents try to shield their children from realities of suffering and death that, once again, are part of everyday life for children on a farm. I remember a grown woman at an urban screening of Disneynature’s Earth (a woman who had probably seen any number of cinematic shoot-outs and car chases) almost hyperventilating with anxiety over footage of a wolf running down a caribou calf. Her excessive anxiety, I think, is not unlike Breen’s discomfort with cow udders, and, to a lesser extent, the discomfort some would feel over the cultural nudity of the Himba women in Babies.
Far from posing a likely occasion of sin, I think something like Babies is much more likely to be a healthy corrective for young men surrounded by distorted mass-media images of women presented solely as unreal objects of male desire. The mothers in this film are real women, not supermodel fantasies. False media images build up an illusory mystique of the abstract, hypersexualized female body. A certain earthy demystification of the body can be both compatible with propriety and an aid, rather than a hindrance, to chastity.
I’m not saying that once we get over our Victorian or Puritan hang-ups and learn to be frank and honest, everything will be lovely in the garden. Original sin is an intractable reality, and sexuality is a mystery calling for appropriate reverence and reticence. I am saying that reverence and reticence on the one hand, and frankness and honesty on the other, are complementary, not contradictory. A balanced Catholic pedagogy should include both.
Writing about film, I sometimes say, can be a little education in just about everything. But watching movies can be a miseducation in just about everything. Even fact-based films are often, even usually, unreliable guides to their subject matter.
This week’s Spotlight piece is a review of the Australian comedy The Dish. You will be charmed to learn from this film that over 40 years ago, when the whole world watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin broadcast to Houston from the moon, signals from the Eagle were received not from Houston itself, which was facing away from the moon at the moment, but from a giant radio telescope dish in a sheep paddock in Parkes, Australia.
What you won’t learn is that the Parkes dish wasn’t the only Australian facility receiving that signal — and that the signal used to relay Armstrong’s famous first words wasn’t from the dish. It was from the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station outside Canberra, where a high-gain antenna had been built specifically for the Apollo project. A third facility, the Goldstone Observatory in the Mojave Desert in California, was also used.
With three facilities, there was enough redundancy that no one facility was as critical as The Dish suggests. In fact, for the first few minutes of the Eagle broadcast NASA focused on the Honeysuckle and Goldstone signals, looking for the best quality images. When they tried the Parkes dish signal, it was clearly the best, so the Parkes pictures were used for the rest of the broadcast.
The Dish mentions the Goldstone facility, but largely ignores the Honeysuckle Creek facility — a point that is evidently felt with some bitterness by some members of the Honeysuckle team. (The Parkes team’s version of the story is somewhat different.)
It’s easy to see why The Dish basically acts as if the Honeysuckle antenna didn’t exist, and that when the Goldstone was lost and high winds at Parkes jeopardized the dish signal (both of which actually happened), the broadcast was in jeopardy (which evidently wasn’t the case): It makes a better story.
Plus, a dish is a lot more photogenic than an antenna. You can’t play cricket on an antenna.
In any case, The Dish is a charming film, and it does get quite a bit of the history and period detail right. If you haven’t seen it, you should.
P.S. The dish is 64 meters across. That’s big, but not as big as a football field … regardless which kind of football the movie had in mind.
Edith Stein, Saint Teresa Benedict of the Cross, wrote her doctoral dissertation and other treatises on empathy.
The implicit complaint is the same: In a marketplace glutted with mass-produced product that’s all fizz and no substance, it’s hard to find a hand-crafted product of distinction and local flavor, the kind of product that surprises and challenges you, that engenders real enthusiasm and loyalty. Real Ale is not carbonated or carefully crafted to taste just like every other mass-market brew. Ebert writes:
[Real Movies] also would not be carbonated by CGI or 3D. They would be carefully created by artists, from original recipes, i.e., screenplays. Each movie would be different. There would be no effort to force them into conformity with commercial formulas.
These notions took shape while I was viewing some well-made Real Movies I’ve seen this year at Cannes … These aren’t all masterpieces, although some are, but they’re all Real Movies. None follows a familiar story arc. All involve intense involvement with their characters. All do something that is perhaps the most important thing a movie can do: They take us outside our personal box of time and space, and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects. I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.
That paean to empathy might sound like an overstatement, but St. Edith Stein arguably goes further in her dissertation On the Problem of Empathy and subsequent treatises, arguing that empathy is foundational to personhood and community, to knowledge of others and even knowledge of the self. It is through empathy that the experiences of others become available to us while remaining theirs and not ours. Through empathy I transcend the limits of my own subjectivity and become aware of the subjectivity of another—and understand that my own subjectivity can likewise be the object of another’s empathy. Not only do I gain insight into others from how they perceive themselves, I can also learn from how others see me things about myself I would never otherwise know.
What does this have to do with movies, and with Ebert’s lament for Real Movies? Mainstream Hollywood entertainment, like mass-marketed brews, offer us essentially nothing we haven’t already assimilated long ago. Such movies show us only what we have seen before, tell us only what we already know. Instead of a window into another soul or another world, they offer only a mirror of our existing tastes or (worse) comfort levels. The sequel phenomenon is symptomatic of this. Not that a sequel can’t be surprising and revelatory, but that’s not why sequels get green-lit. They get green-lit because most people are readier to pay for what they already know.
That’s true in spades of mass-market entertainment like this weekend’s Shrek Forever After. But it’s also true of not a few pious movies favored by many in Catholic and Evangelical circles. Many of us are only interested in movies that tell us only what we already know and want to hear: moral messages we already agree with, diagnoses and solutions we already accept for problems we already know about.
Nothing necessarily wrong with that, as far as it goes. Obviously we don’t want to be lining up for movies with moral messages we disagree with! But it’s more complicated than that. I think of a story my mother tells about my father’s early days as a Protestant pastor (he’s a Catholic today) at a church where leading congregants wanted to hear sermons about sin—but only the sins of the younger generation (this was the 1960s). Not sins like gossip, for instance.
A homilist who tells me only what I already know and want to hear does me little good. It’s what I don’t know, and what I don’t know I don’t know, that I most need to hear. For that matter, a movie reviewer that only affirms my existing comfort levels for the kinds of things I like or don’t like in movies does me little good.
A movie is not a homily. What is it? Among other things, a real movie should be an opportunity to see through other eyes. Not first of all the eyes of fictional characters, if it’s a fictional film, but the eyes of the filmmakers. If (and this is a big if) the filmmakers have brought empathy to their movie, if they have looked through the eyes of others and creatively expressed that insight in their characterizations of fictional characters (or their handling of real events), then the film offers an opportunity to share in that empathic experience.
If the filmmakers haven’t brought empathy to their movie, very likely it isn’t worth watching. Nothing is more likely to secure my distrust of a serious adult drama than a clear lack of empathy for a major character, or for a class of characters.
Empathy doesn’t mean excusing bad behavior because the person meant well, or had a bad childhood, or whatever. It does mean understanding that the lowest scoundrel is not a demon or a monster, but a man like ourselves—and perhaps, by understanding the nature of his transgressions, gaining insight into our own capacity for selfishness.
Ebert gave examples from Cannes of the kind of Real Movies he was talking about. I recently saw a Real Movie opening this weekend in New York and LA: Solitary Man, directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien from Koppelman’s screenplay. Not a movie about another culture or time, it is nevertheless about a world far removed from most of us.
Solitary Man stars Michael Douglas as a man so venal, egocentric and dissolute that to empathize with him might seem almost a temptation to be resisted rather than an occasion of insight and compassion. A disgraced former car dealership mogul whose rapacious behavior has torpedoed his career and his marriage, Ben Kalmen is a compulsive salesman whose first and only product line is himself, and everything is always about making the pitch and closing the deal, especially in the presence of attractive women half or even a third of his age.
Surely a man like this should be censured, not understood? Surely a movie that invites us to see the human side of this contemptible creature is a contemptible film? Or, if not contemptible, at least gratuitously unpleasant, rubbing our noses in depravity to no redemptive end? Or is it, on the other hand, a morality play? An “aging-Lothario-gets-his-comeuppance number,” as David Edelstein put it?
The potential pitfalls are real, and Solitary Man is frank enough about Ben Kalmen’s sleazy inner world to be off-putting to some. But there’s more to it than that. There is empathy not only for Ben but also for those whom he variously uses, wrongs or lets down; we see Ben through the eyes of others as well as through his own, and from this multifaceted perspective emerge larger truths. I’m particularly struck by Ben’s grown daughter struggling to be a daughter to a man who is rotten at being a father (and grandfather) while also protecting her son and being loyal to her husband and to her mother. Then there’s Danny DeVito, embodying decency as an old friend of Ben’s, an unassuming diner owner whose shoe Ben isn’t worthy to untie.
Solitary Man takes some unexpected turns before coming to a crucial fork in the road, a moment of clarity that comes when someone barreling down a one-way road is abruptly faced with a clear choice: to continue or to change direction. In a typical Hollywood confection, the ending would be all what happens as a result of the choice Ben makes for him and everyone else. In Solitary Man, it’s the clarity that matters. We see the truth about who Ben is and why, and what it means for him and those around him. We see the stakes, and so does he.
Shrek Forever After also involves a protagonist who lets down those closest to him for reasons not unlike Ben’s. It’s not a bad movie, in a flattish Coke sort of way. It’s inoffensive and mildly amusing, and in the end you’re the same person you were 93 minutes earlier, with not much to talk about coming out of the theater.
Goro Miyazaki’s Tales From Earthsea opens August 13.
Beauty, loss, longing, mystery: Fans of Tolkien might reach for such language in describing the power of Middle-earth. They are not words that many Americans naturally associate with animation. American animation typically means humor, slapstick, sentiment, and perhaps a positive message about family or believing in yourself.
Only Pixar rises significantly above that level. The Incredibles and Up are among the most emotionally affecting movies I’ve ever seen. But there’s something that myth does that we don’t find even there. Perhaps WALL-E comes close to “ripping open the inconsolable secret,” as C. S. Lewis put it in “Till We Have Faces”—to awakening us to awe and spiritual hunger for something beyond the scope of the mundane. If so, it’s just about the only American animated film I can think of that does.
Now consider the preview below for an animated film coming to American theaters in August. I know that my readers include numerous fans of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, so the director’s name will be familiar to many—although it’s a Miyazaki we’ve never seen before. The film is the directorial debut of the great director’s son, Goro Miyazaki. (The elder Miyazaki’s last film, last summer’s Ponyo, featured a young protagonist based on the young Goro.) As with other recent Studio Ghibli films, Tales From Earthsea is being distributed stateside by Walt Disney Pictures. Disney hasn’t released an English trailer yet, but the Japanese trailer is well worth watching.
Visually at least, Tales From Earthsea looks like vintage Studio Ghibli: an ambitious exercise in world-building (or “sub-creation” as Tolkien called it), with striking images of half-ruined architectural splendor, derelict ships on desert sands, bucolic landscapes, water and light, clouds and sky, and the joy of flight.
Intriguingly from an American perspective, the trailer features no dialogue or voiceover narration (or almost none), and characters and plot points are given secondary importance. Instead, the trailer is dominated by a haunting, elegiac-sounding melody sung a lone female voice, intially a capella, complemented by poetic subtitles:
The balance of the world is collapsing … People bustle from place to place but without any sense of purpose … Their minds are fixed on far-off dreams or on death, and what they see with their eyes is not of this world … People are beginning to go mad … What cannot be seen is most important.
In the United States, this qualifies as art-house cinema. In Japan, Tales From Earthsea opened at the top of the box office and stayed there for five straight weeks. The elder Miyazaki’s animated films are also box-office heavyweights—bigger than Pixar in America. Spirited Away actually sank James Cameron’s Titanic at the Japanese box office, becoming the highest grossing film in Japanese history.
I don’t know whether Tales From Earthsea will live up to the promise of its trailer. (Critical response in Japan and elsewhere has been mixed.) From what little I’ve read (I’m trying to stay spoiler-free), the film is apparently about as faithful to Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea stories as the elder Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle was to Diana Wynn Jones, which is scarcely at all. (Before anyone asks: Yes, I’m familiar with what Michael O’Brien has written about LeGuin, and yes, I have reservations about her too, though I haven’t read the Earthsea stuff. Whatever issues may affect the Earthsea books, and whether the film is or is not affected by these issues, or by other ones entirely, are all questions beyond the scope of this post.)
My point here is simply this: Here is a mainstream Japanese animated film with a trailer that has an evocative, haunting power that eludes virtually the whole of American animation—and that’s just the trailer. And it’s not just American animation either, but pretty much the whole Hollywood machine. What was the last Hollywood box-office blockbuster that made you think of beauty, loss, longing and mystery? (Yes, other than The Lord of the Rings.)
Whether this particular film turns out to be good or not, it’s part of a cinematic culture that aims at, and sometimes achieves, something that isn’t even on the radar in Hollywood. This trailer reminds me of how I felt during the first five minutes of Howl’s Moving Castle, even though the film ultimately turned out to be a disappointment: Just the promise of the first five minutes, even a promise unfulfilled, was worth more than some American animation studios have delivered in whole films if not their entire outputs.
One might expect Americans to throng to these rare films like thirsty camels to a desert oasis (even if the water were less than pristine). Surely, beauty, loss, longing and mystery are universal. But no, we barely notice them. We apparently prefer animated sequels featuring computer-animated funny ogres or prehistoric animal comedy trios. (The Japanese flock to these too, but somehow they manage to have an appetite for both.)
I honestly don’t know why that is. It can’t be that the “mere trousered ape” is so much more prevalent in the US than abroad. Can it?
Here is a question: Will Disney’s forthcoming English-language trailer have the same elegiac, poetic power as the Japanese trailer? I wouldn’t count on it.
This week, coinciding with the theatrical release of Shrek Forever After, a pair of DreamWorks Animation productions get budget one-disc DVD rereleases (under $10). Despite the explicit marketing tie-in (“From the studio that brought you Shrek”), both films are traditional hand-drawn cel animation with nothing to connect them to Shrek in look or in spirit.
Neither did well at the box office, but one did better with the critics than the other — the wrong one, in my opinion. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas was dismissed by the critics, but I think it’s a remarkably effective animated swashbuckler that’s a lot of fun and more thoughtful than one might expect. My short review, from a DVD capsule, doesn’t do it justice; I’d like to expand it this week but I don’t know if I’ll have time.
Critics were kinder to the previous year’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. I caught Spirit at a theatrical sneak peek with my family. Boy, was I sorry afterward I had brought them, especially seven-year-old Sarah, who I think was pretty shell-shocked by the film.
Fortunately, Sarah (now 15) has gotten a great deal of enjoyment from the scathing review I wrote as a result, a “gimmick” essay featuring an imaginary dialogue between a DreamWorks exec and his child. (The exec is specified as “Daddy” because I needed the cue to keep the speakers clear. The child could be a boy or a girl, but I imagine it as a girl, perhaps because of Sarah.) At any rate, it’s still one of my favorites.
I would like to think that the time and energy I’ve devoted over the last ten years to Catholic film criticism—work I’ve always seen as an apostolate to families and individual moviegoers, especially Catholics but also non-Catholics and non-Christians—has contributed in a small way to the kingdom of God. I’m still a little taken aback at how some Catholics seem to feel in effect that the whole endeavor is basically pointless, since movies are such a complete wasteland that there is little or no value in trying to discern good from bad and it would be better simply to wash our hands of the whole business.
Here’s a comment from a combox awhile back on a post mentioning, among other films, Pixar’s Up, WALL-E and Ratatouille:
None of it is worth my or my children’s time. It has been a long, long time since I have found an acceptable movie for my children’s viewing, one that doesn’t make me wince and wish my kids hadn’t seen that … Actually, I’m glad for the demise of family TV and movie entertainment because it has led us to allow very little TV and movie watching in our home. We never go to the movie theater.
Suffice to say, reports of “the demise of family TV and movie entertainment” are greatly exaggerated. But if it were true, would it be a matter of celebration?
The Vatican II decree Inter Mirifica states that “young people” especially need “entertainment that offer them decent amusement and cultural uplift.” While “entertainment” doesn’t necessarily mean movies, the decree specifically says that “films that have value as decent entertainment, humane culture or art, especially when they are designed for young people, ought to be encouraged and assured by every effective means”—including “critical approval and awards.”
Does that sound like encouragement to celebrate the demise of family movies? Some, though, wonder whether it’s possible to find decent entertainment in movies today. From a more recent combox:
I have stopped going to theatres to see what used to [be] called family [e]ntertainment … Just don’t go the movies.
I just do not go to films. Our youngest is 17 and it is hard to find a movie that is good to watch, even at that age.
Are there any movies being produced that are really worth going to a theater to watch? If Hollywood cannot make decent movies, stop supporting the immorality and questionable actions. Why fill you mind and your children’s mind with garbage? Stop supporting by simply not going to the movies. Find friends for your children who are not exposed to improper and/or immoral themes. (Sadly, such families are easier found in evangelical churches or home school groups than in the Catholic Church in the USA.)
I sympathize with the complaint that it’s hard to find a good movie (that’s part of the reason I started doing what I do). And I respect the choice of those who prefer to “opt out” of any particular level of media consumption, whether it’s going to the movies or using the Internet, as long as it doesn’t lead to judging others who seek to discern what is worthwhile in those media forms as “filling their minds with garbage.”
It’s ironic that one commentator seemed to lament that families “unstained” by movies were more common in Evangelicalism than Catholicism. The fact is, Catholic culture and teaching has always found more room for art and entertainment than many forms of Protestant practice, where the temptation to throw out the baby with the bathwater is an institutional hazard.
From the dawn of cinema, the Catholic Church has consistently expressed concern about the potential moral pitfalls of motion pictures—while also consistently expressing appreciation for cinema’s positive potential and achievements. A few highlights:
Pius XI acknowledged motion pictures as part of “the great gift of art” and a praiseworthy form of diversion and recreation, and Pius XII expressed admiration for the cinema’s power to transport viewers to imaginary worlds and make distant realities present.
John Paul II mentioned cinema in dozens of speeches, with nearly a dozen addresses specifically relating to film. During his pontificate he screened a number of movies, from Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
The 1995 Vatican film list notable for outstanding religious, moral or artistic value. Honorees range from deeply religious and moral films to crime comedy, horror and philosophically and morally complex art-house fare.
The Church’s stance is one of balance, rejecting what is harmful but embracing what is good—“good” being broadly understood to include not only morally edifying works but also wholesome entertainment and diversion as well as artistically significant fare.
Part of this balance includes accepting that discerning between good and bad in cinema, as in other art forms, is a matter where sincere Catholics may disagree. In the wise words of a priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, “The Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, has always taught authoritatively, and will always teach authoritatively, that the visual arts … are a grey area.”
So are a lot of things in this world. Not everything—pornography, for instance, or the Bible. But after a short list of black and whites, there are an awful lot of greys out there.
Some people are suspicious of all “grey areas,” but that’s a mistake. “Grey areas” range from Shakespeare to Dan Brown, Thomas Aquinas to Hans Küng, Benedict XVI to Christopher Hitchens—not to mention this website and every article in it, including this one.
“Grey area” doesn’t mean that everything is equally worthy of suspicion, or that it makes no difference what we embrace or reject. It does mean that there’s no getting around the need to exercise prudential judgment, and that embracing or rejecting anything should be a qualified and critical act.
We speak of the “canon of Western literature,” but unlike the biblical canon, even classics of Western literature, from Aquinas to Shakespeare, aren’t above criticism. (That’s not to say that all criticisms are equally valid!) Conversely, even Küng or Hitchens may have a valid point now and then. (I don’t know if Dan Brown has ever had a valid point, but I wouldn’t dogmatically write off the possibility that he might.)
Pope Benedict isn’t beyond criticism, but I do have great confidence in most of what he writes. I belong to a parish church that is wonderful but not perfect, with a holy and orthodox pastor and a community that includes many good Catholics, some of whom I count as friends. They aren’t perfect, nor am I. If only perfection would do—if I insisted on a perfect church, perfect friends, perfect food and so on—I would die friendless, unchurched and quickly.
The same goes for culture and entertainment, including movies. What movie is so artistically or morally impeccable that it is beyond criticism? That’s not an argument against anyone watching movies, it’s a call to prudential judgment. What is not beyond criticism may be wholesome or not, valuable or not.
Consider the following, from the pastoral instruction Communio et Progressio. Note that, according to Progressio, “artistic and cultural achievements” are among the marks of “progress,” and that “entertainment” is also credited with “cultural validity.”
The Cinema is part of contemporary life. It exerts a strong influence on education, knowledge, culture and leisure. The artist finds in film a very effective means for expressing his interpretation of life and one that well suits his times. … Because of all this, it is possible to derive a deeper appreciation and a richer cultural dividend from the film and filming. …
Many films have compellingly treated subjects that concern human progress or spiritual values. Such works deserve everyone’s praise and support.
If more artists would take children seriously in their work, depicting a world in which all human beings—older than 40, younger than 4—are created equal, we might begin to see children treated with greater care and compassion. We might be more careful with the world they’ll inherit. And we might be humbler, remembering just how dependent we were, once upon a time. We might realize that we will be dependent again on these rising generations, who will determine the shape of the world in which we’ll grow old.
But let’s face it: It’s easy to disregard what remains unseen. It’s easy to stop believing that human beings, in the earliest stages, out of sight and out of mind, are of any consequence.
Quoting generously from my longish Robin Hood review, Carl Olsen of Ignatius Insight Scoop adds:
I’m a little bummed: I had hoped this movie would avoid the politically-correct nonsense of stealing from the rich medieval heritage to feed poor contemporary myths and biases. Silly me.
Which just goes to prove I can never write a review so long that someone else won’t write one sentence that leaves me wishing my review were one sentence longer.
Defying early box-office nay-sayers, Focus Features’ life-affirming documentary Babies opened over Mother’s Day weekend with significantly better ticket sales than originally estimated, thanks to what the website Box Office Mojo is calling (in the idiom of the movie beat) “a huge Mother’s Day bump.”
For the record, I love Babies; my review opens this way:
Everyone should see Babies. Even people who have cats instead of children should see Babies. … Directed by documentary filmmaker Thomas Balmès, who lives in Paris with his wife and three children, Babies is pro-life in the best possible sense: It is a celebration of new life, of love, of family, of the wonder of the world.
Other critics agree: The film scored positively at critical aggregation websites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.com—although not all critics shared the love. Here’s how Peter Sobczynski (eFilmCritic.com) described the film:
“Babies,” on the other hand, is a work that is so vapid and shallow that even the most devoutly Catholic viewers will find themselves agreeing that it never comes close to become a viable film.
Fascinating! There’s absolutely nothing “Catholic” about Babies in terms of content, yet a skeptical critic appeals specifically to Catholic audiences as the natural audience of the film to justify his opinion about the film’s “viability.” (Incidentally, Sobczynski says “on the other hand” in reference to a revolting horror film that also opened this weekend, an astonishing comparison made for reasons so disgusting that I can’t repeat them here.)
Speaking as a “devoutly Catholic viewer” and critic, I’m happy to decline Mr. Sobczynski’s invitation to agree with him: We seem to have very different ideas about the “viability” of films like Babies (and, who knows, perhaps of babies as well).
Most mainstream critics welcomed Babies with open arms. Here is A. O. Scott (The New York Times):
[I]f you love babies you will find it very hard not to love “Babies.” Is it that simple? I mean, who doesn’t love babies? … “Babies” just might restore your faith in our perplexing, peculiar and stubbornly lovable species.
For one of the best and most insightful reviews of the film, see my friend and fellow critic Jeffrey Overstreet’s review (Response). Jeff calls Babies “possibly this year’s most important movie,” writing:
This movie is a welcome relief: It shows us a world in which babies play an important role. That is to say—the real world. …
When was the last time you saw a film in which an infant was something more than comic relief, something better than a diaper-soiling inconvenience to adults? I can think of a few, but only a few.
If more artists would take children seriously in their work, depicting a world in which all human beings—older than 40, younger than 4—are created equal, we might begin to see children treated with greater care and compassion. We might be more careful with the world they’ll inherit. And we might be humbler, remembering just how dependent we were, once upon a time. We might realize that we will be dependent again on these rising generations, who will determine the shape of the world in which we’ll grow old.
But let’s face it: It’s easy to disregard what remains unseen. It’s easy to stop believing that human beings, in the earliest stages, out of sight and out of mind, are of any consequence.
(Don’t stop with that excerpt—read the whole thing!)
Despite my opening sentence, “everyone” didn’t come out to see Babies on opening weekend—but a lot more people came than originally estimated. Estimates placed Babies in a three-way race for 10th place with about $1.6 million. In fact, once actual results were tallied, it turned out that Babies had jumped 57 percent on Sunday, nailing the 9th slot for the weekend with closer to $2.2M. Here’s Box Office Mojo:
Thanks to a huge Mother’s Day bump, documentary Babies opened to $2.16 million, which represented the highest-grossing limited opening in over a year and a half. Distributor Focus Features’ marketing positioned Babies as a Mother’s Day event, and the picture did not disappoint on this front: while Babies fell outside of the Top Ten in its first two days, it experienced a 57 percent increase on Sunday to $1.09 million, which pushed it up to eighth place on the weekend chart. While Babies seems relatively high profile, it only opened at 534 locations, putting it just under the 600 theater threshold separating limited and nationwide releases. Babies’s opening is the best for a limited release since documentary Religulous debuted to $3.41 million at 502 theaters in Oct. 2008.
The question now is whether that “Mother’s Day bump” was a one-day spike, or whether it will deliver improved performance through word of mouth over the next several weeks, giving the film box-office “legs.”
Ebert says these are for “readers who confess they are in the mood to watch a really bad movie on some form of video,” but the reality, I suspect, is that there is just something satisfying about a good takedown. It's why “Mystery Science Theater 3000” is so popular.
Of course, the bigger the target, the more satisfying the takedown. At IMDb.com I learn that the #1 film at the IMDb Bottom 100, the worst film in history according to IMDb.com voters collectively, is … Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966). What? Exactly. It's a movie you have never heard of, unless you saw it, like the IMDb.com voters who voted it to the bottom of the heap, on ”MST3K.”
#91 on the list is Battlefield Earth, or Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 as I learn it is called in full — a movie that is legendary for its badness, deservedly so. A big-budget movie with A-list stars like John Travolta and Forest Whitaker (but for some reason with the not especially well-known Barry Pepper in the protagonist role). It came out in 2000, offering me an early shot at a really scathing review.
How bad is Battlefield Earth? This bad.