Decent Films Blog
Top: Brendan and Aisling from The Secret of Kells; Bottom: Hiccup and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon
In theaters right now are two charming and visually engaging animated films at opposite ends of the budget spectrum, different in many respects but with some interesting overlap as well. One is How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks’ big-budget CGI adaptation of a popular children’s book. The other is The Secret of Kells, an Oscar-nominated Irish animated indie made on a comparative shoestring budget, now in limited release.
Both films are European-set fantasy period pieces, with Vikings and mythological creatures both friendly and decidedly unfriendly. (In How to Train the Vikings are the hero and his people; in The Secret of Kells they’re the bad guys.)
In each film, the protagonist is a young boy living in a rugged, isolated island community in which the undisputed leader is the boy’s own father figure, a stern, towering authoritarian. In How to Train, young Hiccup is the son of the Viking chief, Stoick the Vast; in The Secret of Kells, Brendan lives in an Irish abbey where his uncle Cellach is abbot. (There is no mother figure in either film.)
In each film, the boy is a loner, slight and sensitive, clever, curious and creative. While on his own in the wilderness, he encounters and befriends a mythological creature of whom the father figure would certainly disapprove as a friend. In both films, the friendly creature later ventures into the human community to aid the boy when he is in trouble. It also turns out that the friendly creature lives in fear of another mythological creature: a serpentine, cave-dwelling monster whom the hero must confront and defeat.
For the record, I enjoyed and recommend both films. At the same time, one notable similarity underscores a motif in family entertainment that has long been a concern—a motif that isn’t necessarily a problem in any one instance, but with repetition becomes a troubling pattern over time.
In both films, the young hero’s father figure is an implacably stern authoritarian who seems nothing but disappointed in the hero, and who adamantly refuses to hear what the boy has to say. The boy’s pursuit of discovery causes him to defy the father figure’s wishes, first surreptitiously and finally openly, leading to a confrontation in which the father figure’s disappointment and anger reaches a crescendo. The father figure’s stubbornness endangers the whole community as he leads them into an ill-advised conflict with an enemy whose strength he underestimates. In the end the hero is vindicated, and is ultimately reconciled to the repentant father figure.
The imperious, authoritarian father figure who doesn’t understand is nothing new to family entertainment, from The Sound of Music and Peter Pan to The Little Mermaid and Happy Feet. What is striking about both How to Train and The Secret of Kells, though, is the one-note portrayal of the father figure throughout the entire film, right up to the end. By contrast, The Sound of Music redeems the father figure roughly halfway through the story, while Peter Pan and The Little Mermaid separate the young protagonists from the father for most of the story. (I think the same may be true of Happy Feet, although the specifics of that tale haven’t stayed with me.)
As another point of contrast, consider last year’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, another film about a clever, creative young loner with a lumbering, uncomprehending father and no mother in an island community, one who like Hiccup is a figure of much mockery and derision. In Cloudy, the hero Flint’s taciturn father doesn’t understand his son’s interests, but here the father’s concerns aren’t necessarily groundless, and the hero isn’t necessarily on the right path. Unlike How to Train and The Secret of Kells, there’s no “Junior Knows Best” dynamic in Cloudy.
Flint’s father isn’t imperious and authoritarian, merely undemonstrative and unable adequately to communicate either his love or his concerns to his son. Finally, one senses a sort of stoic humility about Flint’s father, a possible awareness of his own inadequacies. He isn’t abjectly disappointed in his son, merely concerned for him. I still wish he were more humanized than he is, but he’s a lot better than the implacable father figures in How to Train and The Secret of Kells.
It’s fair to say that each of these films offer their father figures some measure of redemption—Cloudy most touchingly and fondly, How to Train most effectively and heroically, and The Secret of Kells, alas, with little more than pathos. Both How to Train and The Secret of Kells compensate somewhat for their overbearing father figures with a more sympathetic, avuncular authority figure (the tough old trainer Gobber in How to Train, the puckish illuminator Brother Aidan in The Secret of Kells). This tension is more reassuring in How to Train and more problematic in The Secret of Kells, where Brother Aidan is complicit in Brendan’s repeated defiance of Abbot Cellach’s orders, and the themes of disobedience and conflict are given maximum punch.
None of this makes any of these films objectionable in itself, and each film has significant merit in its own right. It’s the pattern more than the individual film that matters most.
Balanced by sympathetic depictions of fatherhood and family life in films like The Incredibles, My Neighbor Totoro, Stuart Little 2, Spy Kids and Finding Nemo, the problemic father figures of How to Train and The Secret of Kells recede in significance. On the other hand, a steady diet of overbearing father figures à la The Little Mermaid and Happy Feet can become a virtual pedagogy in filial contempt and rebellion.
P.S. Read more about father figures in the movies in a short interview I did recently with the Knights of Columbus Fathers For Good website.
Kimberly Williams-Paisley stars in Amish Grace as an Amish mother bereaved of her daughter in the 2006 Amish school shooting.
Buy at Amazon.com
Amish Grace (book, movie)
Three years ago, coinciding with a rash of post-9/11 deaths from respiratory and circulatory ailments about five years after the attacks, my brother-in-law David succumbed suddenly to an incredibly aggressive form of leukemia. He had been in the ash cloud emanating from Ground Zero on 9/11, and my wife Suzanne suspects his death was 9/11-related. As she’s the one with medical training, I usually accept her judgment in such matters.
Do I forgive the 9/11 terrorists? It’s a question I can’t remember asking myself before this week after screening the upcoming Lifetime TV movie Amish Grace. Inspired by the nonfiction book of the same name, the film is based on the real-life Amish school shooting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the fall of 2006.
The gunman, Charles Carl Roberts, left behind a wife and three children, but was apparently haunted by the death of a newborn daughter nine years earlier. Perhaps it was to punish God for his daughter’s death that he walked into the one-room Amish school and dismissed the boys and adults before shooting ten girls between the ages of 6 and 13, half of whom died. When police intervened, he turned the gun on himself.
What happens in the schoolhouse isn’t shown onscreen, though late in the film there is an inspiring first-person account from one of the survivors. Like the book, subtitled How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, the film focuses not on the crime but on the response of the Amish community, which captured the nation’s attention and was much discussed by an often baffled, occasionally critical media. Within hours of the shooting, the Amish reached out to Roberts’ widow, assuring her of their forgiveness to her husband and their lack of ill will for her. When Roberts was buried, dozens of Amish were in attendance.
While the Christian ethos of forgiveness is still on some level widely honored as an ideal in the U.S. today, it is not well understood, and uncomfortably coexists with equal or greater acceptance of an ethos of vengeance, one celebrated in far more movies than forgiveness.
Amid widespread genuflecting to Amish forgiveness, some voices raised uncomfortable questions: Is it healthy or right to forgive so readily and completely, without first passing through necessary stages of grief and anger? Is forgiveness meaningful or desirable where there is no sign of remorse or wish for forgiveness? We are all familiar—perhaps too much so—with the gap between our ideals and our behavior. The Amish actually expect each other to live their beliefs with integrity.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Amish Grace offers a fictional account of what must have been a very real struggle with grief and anger. Bereaved mother Ida Graber (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) already wrestles with Amish mores over the “shunning” of her sister, who left the flock after being widowed in order to marry an “English” man. How, Ida demands, can they offer forgiveness to a murderer, yet ask family members to cut off one another for such offenses? For Ida, forgiving the killer is tantamount to betraying her daughter—yet a powerful revelation toward the end suggests that this is the opposite of the truth.
Ida’s husband Gideon (Matt Letscher) stoically insists that God demands forgiveness, and argues that the alternative only punishes themselves. “I will not make my heart a battleground of hate and love. It’s too painful,” he cries. Amish Grace gradually finds a thoughtful balance between Ida and Gideon, sympathetically cross-examining both points of view.
Then there’s the killer’s widow, Amy Roberts (Tammy Blanchard, Bella). Devastated by the revelation of this unfathomable side of her husband, Amy is perhaps more lost and desperate than any of the Amish victims. “I thought we had a good life, and I would have bet money Charlie thought so too,” she laments incredulously. “He actually chose going to hell over staying here with me.” Amy can’t imagine forgiving Charlie herself, and is utterly at a loss to understand the Amish grace extended to Charlie and her.
A subplot involving a TV news crew investigating the sincerity of Amish forgiveness is the film’s most notable weakness. These outsiders are meant as bridge characters mediating between the audience and the Amish, but their merely journalistic investigative curiosity about the facts of the case is an obvious screenwriting foil. A more effective approach might have been to give the journalists complacent, dismissive assumptions about the Amish, about whom they presumably know little or nothing, and then gradually challenge and overturn those assumptions over the course of the story.
It’s a forgivable flaw in an earnest film that gets better as it goes, with the most insightful revelations and the best scenes in the last act. Amish Grace is a commendable celebration of a Gospel mandate more often honored with lip service than with actual commitment. If I do not forgive the 9/11 hijackers, I have no right to call myself a follower of Jesus. It is as simple as that.
This is not Bedrock Studios co-founder Cary Granat.
If the name Bedrock Studios doesn’t sound familiar, you might think it’s because you haven’t watched “The Flintstones” lately … especially since the new production company was co-founded by Cary Granat—not the Hollyrock star, the former CEO of Walden Media—and Ed Stones, er, Jones of Industrial Light & Magic.
Like Walden, Bedrock Studios aims at family audiences. Their first project, an animated buddy film bravely named Turkeys, stars Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson; their sophomore project is an eye-popper: In the Beginning, a 3D live-action adaptation of the creation story of Genesis. Granat is a Christian, and I have to admit I’m curious where this will go.
Bedrock is also developing a few Waldenesque projects based on award-winning children’s books, including the Newbery Award winners A Wrinkle in Time and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (the latter of which was previously adapted, or misadapted, in the 1980s by animator Don Bluth).
If Bedrock didn’t have such direct ties to Walden, the company that has made a mess of Narnia and other great children’s books, I wouldn’t be so worried.
But I love [all] of these stories. If they must be made into movies (or in the case of Kiki, into another movie), I’d like them to be in the hands of patient, thoughtful artists, not hasty crowdpleasers who fail to understand why these stories shine.
All of this just makes me increasingly grateful for the folks at Pixar, and for folks like Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) and Henry Selick (Coraline). And Miyazaki, of course. Artists who make movies that will last.
The Narnia films should have been movies like those. And the stories that Bedrock is preparing to film deserve to be glorious movies as well.
I’ll try to be hopeful. But it isn’t going to be easy.
That about nails it, I think.
Positive sign: Turkeys is slated to be directed by animator Ash Brannon, who co-directed the classic Toy Story 2 and directed the oddly winsome Surf’s Up. Less positive sign: The screenplay is by John J. Strauss, whose previous writing credits include a pair of Santa Clause sequels and The Lizzie McGuire Movie, as well as, um, a story credit on There’s Something About Mary.
It would be nice if Turkeys were only the name of that first flick.
I won’t make a habit of this, I promise.
If you live in the United States and haven’t yet done so (or haven’t done so recently), take action on the health care debate.
- First, learn why the U.S. bishops insist that the current Senate legislation must be defeated.
- Next, go to www.usccb.org/action to email your senators and representatives.
- Support Bart Stupak and his remaining Democratic allies in resisting the Senate bill.
- Learn more at American Papist.
Do it now!
Buy at Ignatius.com
Today is the Solemnity of Saint Joseph. Last year, Ignatius Press released a Region 1 DVD of Joseph of Nazareth: The Man Closest to Christ (2000), an Italian production from Lux Vide and Mediaset billed as the first feature film on the story of St. Joseph. The film is the first in a series of four “Close to Jesus” films, though I understand it’s by far the most biblical, and certainly the Gospels give us more of a story-arc for Joseph than for the other three subjects, Mary Magdalene, Thomas and Judas Iscariot.
Matt Page of Bible Films Blog has a review of Joseph of Nazareth as well as an interesting post analyzing the notable similarities between Joseph and The Nativity Story, which also focuses significantly on St. Joseph (many of which I noticed also).
My take on Joseph of Nazareth is pretty close to Matt’s. I watched it with my family this Advent, and it was a nice change of pace from The Nativity Story, though regrettably it’s nothing like the definitive birth of Christ movie we’re still waiting for.
To start on a positive note, I don’t often discover a new angle on a biblical text from a Bible movie, but Joseph of Nazareth suggests an attractive approach I had never before considered to a deceptively knotty passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel, namely, the passage in Matthew 1 in which Mary has been found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph resolves to “divorce her quietly.”
The passage is full of hidden ambiguities. When St. Matthew tells us that Mary was “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit,” is that final prepositional phrase Matthew’s aside to the reader (she was found to be with child — but it was by the Holy Spirit)? Or does it suggest that the divine origin of Mary’s condition was part of the discovery, at least for some? Does “being a just man” have conjunctive or disjunctive force — that is, was Joseph “unwilling to expose Mary to shame” because he was a just man, or in spite of being a just man? Was it the resolution to divorce her, or the decision to do so quietly, that is related to his “just” status? Does “just” here bespeak primarily observance of Torah, or a broader sort of righteousness?
Most concretely, what exactly is meant by “divorcing her quietly” and not “putting her to shame”? Divorce was a public act; there would seem to be no way to abandon Mary in her pregnant state, however undramatically, without “putting her to shame.” I remember puzzling over this passage in scripture studies classes at St. Charles Borromeo.
I was struck, then, by Joseph of Nazareth’s portrayal of Joseph deciding to go through with the wedding and then divorce Mary quietly after the birth of the child. As far as I know, the usual assumption is that the “divorce” in question refers to breaking off the betrothal, a bond with marital force. Movies often depict Mary’s pregnancy coming in the middle of a year-long betrothal period in which Joseph and Mary are pledged to one another but have not yet come together, as Matthew tells us.
On the other hand, Matthew also indicates that Joseph took Mary into his house immediately after the dream of the angel. Thus, the prospect of going through with the wedding and then divorcing Mary quietly afterward would seem to be a viable option. The child would be assumed to be Joseph’s, and Mary would not be shamed. It’s so simple I don’t know why I never thought of it before. That doesn’t make it the correct solution, of course, but as far as I know it could be.
Peter Chattaway has just posted some thoughts he’s previously shared elsewhere regarding the shape of Pixar’s body of work to date, and I’ve long thought it’s a brilliant theory. In essence, he proposes three phases of Pixar history, which might be labeled thus:
- the “Disney distribution” phase, consisting of the first seven films up to Cars, which were all made under contract for distribution by Disney;
- a transitional “looking beyond Disney” phase, consisting of the next three films — Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up — which may well have gone into development at a point when Pixar believed they were likely to part ways with Disney; and
- the “Disney purchase” phase, consisting of Pixar’s roster of coming films — Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters Inc. 2 and The Bear and the Bow (or Brave?) — all of which began life very much under the Disney umbrella, either by Disney itself or by Pixar after it was purchased by Disney.
What makes this theory so interesting is the way it illuminates the differences between the films belonging to each of the three phases. I’m not sure it’s entirely persuasive to say, as Peter does, that the three phase 2 films, initiated when Pixar was likely thinking outside the Disney box, necessarily “aim higher” than the seven films of phase 1. In particular, I think The Incredibles aims as high as any film in Pixar’s oeuvre.
I would put it this way: The basic premise of each of Pixar’s first seven films fits comfortably within mainstream expectations for Hollywood animated family films. Anthropomorphic toys, bugs or cars; friendly monsters saddled with a human child; a father-and-son fish story; even a family of incognito super heroes — these are all concepts that could easily be pitched to Disney execs without making anyone blink or sweat. Pixar might take these concepts in brilliant directions, but there’s nothing about the basic concept of any of these films that especially pushes the envelope of family entertainment.
With the next three films, on the other hand, there is something audacious and outside-the-box about the premise itself, in terms of family-film expectations. A talky picture about a French rat who wants to be a chef? A substantially dialogue-free slapstick adventure about a lone robot in a post-apocalyptic world of trash? An elderly widower absconding with his house via balloon to South America? None of these hits you over the head as a ready-made idea for an animated family film. There is something counter-intuitive about each of them. Here is where Pixar pushes the envelope, not just in terms of how to make a animated family film, but even what it is possible for an animated Hollywood family film to be.
Yesterday I wrote about the possible effects of the box-office success of Alice in Wonderland on fairy-tale revisionism in family films to come. The flip side is the box-office disappointment of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, which hit DVD shelves yesterday.
It looks like concern over The Princess and the Frog’s poor performance is translating into branding concerns for upcoming animated fairy tales, including the Disney project formerly known as Rapunzel, and possibly Pixar’s The Bear and the Bow.
I found The Princess and the Frog to be an engaging blend of classic Disney themes and contemporary sensibilities, despite scary, morally mixed voodoo imagery too intense for younger kids. It didn’t click with audiences, though … and there’s some feeling that the title may have been part of the problem.
With its classic fairy-tale cadences and Disney princess branding, “The Princess and the Frog” may have lacked the unisex (i.e., non-girly) appeal that seems to be a key factor for successful family entertainment today, from every Pixar film to date to the Harry Potter phenomenon. (Even J. K. Rowling’s sex was downplayed behind authorial initials.)
Consider: One of the few successful cartoons in recent years with a female protagonist had the extremely boy-friendly title Monsters vs. Aliens, as well as a virtually all-male supporting cast (and a trailer that emphasized rude humor). A few films have bucked the trend, notably the ambiguously named Coraline and Burton’s Alice, both of which benefited from dark, Gothic sensibilities and 3D punch (as well as Alice’s use of live actors including Johnny Depp).
In a word, princess branding may move product at the Disney Store, but it may no longer be a viable niche on the big screen.
Apparently taking the lesson to heart, Disney recently cast a nervous eye at its Rapunzel feature in development—and has retitled it Tangled, a title with all the fractured fairy-tale cred of Enchanted and its ilk.
That’s not all. Many sources are reporting that Pixar’s The Bear and the Bow—billed as Pixar’s first fairy-tale and first film with a girl protagonist—may be re-branded Brave, a one-word, monosyllabic concept title much like Up or Cars (compare also the polysyllabic Ratatouille and the eponymous WALL-E).
Even though “The Bear and the Bow” makes no mention of princesses, perhaps the traditional rhythms of the title (compare to “The Bear and the Wolf” or “The Princess and the Pea”—or the frog!) may be thought passé.
This last change, if it takes, seems to me a bit melancholy. “The Bear and the Bow” is a lovely, evocative title; “Brave” isn’t bad, but are all Pixar titles going to sound the same now? What seemed, well, bravely unconventional with Up seems less so with Brave, and could quickly become dull. (Not to mention the difficulty of targeting these short, generic titles with search engines…)
What happens, too, when the issue percolates past branding issues to story development? I’m no fan of the Disney princess phenomenon, but on the other hand I don’t want girl protagonists to become even rarer. Or all fairy tales to be more determinedly non-traditional and fractured than they are now.
This week Knights of Columbus website Fathers for Good has a short interview with me in their Newsworthy Dads feature. As you might expect, the interview questions focus on father figures in this year’s crop of Oscar nominees as well as recent Hollywood offerings. Unfortunately, the picture is more downbeat than not. Read more.
It’s a straw in the wind: As the recently restored 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz comes out on Blu-ray today, Warner Bros is giving renewed attention to a pair of new Oz projects in early development, now likelier than ever to come to fruition. The reason: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
Avatar’s monster box-office performance may have been the game changer, but it was Alice’s inflated opening ($116 million on the first weekend and still #1 in its second frame) that confirmed the trend: After six decades of curiosity status and technological evolution, 3D is finally the future of big-screen spectacle.
Upcoming movies like the Clash of the Titans remake and two final Harry Potter movies originally shot in 2D have been or are being retrofitted for 3D. From what little I know about 3D conversion, this seems dauntingly complicated—but then Burton actually shot Alice in Wonderland in 2D planning all along to convert it to 3D after the fact.
That seems crazy to me—and apparently to Cameron, whom Slashfilm quoted as saying, “It makes no sense to shoot in 2D and convert to 3D.” But Alice in Wonderland’s producer Richard Zanuck was quoted in Straight.com saying that the final product is indistinguishable from native 3D, and that Burton preferred working with 2D cameras since 3D cameras are “very clumsy” and expensive to work with. (I dunno. I hadn’t known when I screened Alice that it had been shot in 2D, but I remember thinking at times that the 3D effect looked a little odd, as if characters and objects were diorama-like cutouts with a convincing range of depth but lacking in volume.)
At any rate, shooting in 3D will probably quickly become the norm for big-budget movies that Hollywood wants to sell viewers on seeing on the big screen. At least until 3D TV goes mainstream, viewers have finally been convinced that 3D is worth the trip to the theater.
So much for form, but what about content? LATimes.com’s movie blog reports that two different ideas for a new Oz film are being batted around at Warner Bros. One is from the production company behind Twilight, with a script by a writer from the upcoming Shrek Ever After. The other sounds like a direct descendant of Burton’s Alice: “it’s written by ‘A History of Violence’ screenwriter Josh Olson and focuses on a granddaughter of Dorothy who returns to Oz to fight evil.”
Um, yikes. As a lifelong fan of the original L. Frank Baum book, which I read as a child and have read aloud to my kids, I’ve long wished that Hollywood would take on a brand-new adaptation of the book, one that — unlike other post-1939 takes, such as The Wiz — was not indebted to the classic film (which isn’t especially faithful to the text).
Now, though, I’ve got a rock in my stomach at the thought of the popular but soulless Alice, with its Gothic design, literary revisionism, feminist resentment and pointless heroic story-arc becoming the template for a new generation of live-action high-budget family spectacles. The last thing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz needs is a Burtonesque twist in which Dorothy, having led the Winkie uprising against the Wicked Witch of the West and liberated Emerald City by exiling the Wizard via balloon, returns to Kansas, helps Uncle Henry reconcile with his estranged brother, takes Aunt Em to a Broadway play, and moves to LA to become a writer. Not that a Shrekish fractured fairy-tale approach would be much better.
In my last post on Green Zone, I wrote that while I was reasonably pleased with my review, I was sure that “if I were a savvier political thinker it would be a better review.” Now, posting at Arts & Faith, Peter Chattaway has thoughts that would never have occurred to me, darn it.
Responding to another poster who called Green Zone the movie equivalent of a “Bush Lied, People Died” bumper sticker, Peter quipped that it was more like “Greg Kinnear lied, people died.“ Following that thought, Peter wrote:
I mention the “Greg Kinnear lied people died” thing because it seems to me that this movie lets a LOT of people off the hook.
The Iraqis who posed and postured as though they had WMD? The movie’s one fictitous Iraqi general says he told the Americans flat-out that they didn’t have any WMD.
The Bush administration which made the possibility of WMD such a key part (but not the ONLY part) of their casus belli for invading Iraq? Well, it turns out Greg Kinnear lied to them.
The CIA which, along with intelligence agencies from all over the world, believed that Iraq had WMD or at least WMD programs? Hey, whaddayaknow, the movie’s one major CIA character (Brendan Gleeson) is one of the skeptical good guys! (And despite a single passing reference to the UN early on, the film ignores the existence of all those other intelligence agencies -- which begs the question: Was Greg Kinnear lying to them, too? Or do they simply not exist?)
Even the journalist who disseminated Greg Kinnear’s lies in the first place gets a redemption of sorts in the end. Having made the case for war, she now gets to make the case AGAINST the case. She still gets a good story, as it were. (And, as noted in one of the earlier posts, despite the fact that this fictitious character is clearly based on a real-life New York Times reporter, the fictitious character has been assigned to a different paper -- so the New York Times is let off the hook completely, too.)
So you have a film which will piss off the pro-war types because, well, it’s anti-war, if nothing else; and you have a film which will piss off many (though of course not all) anti-war types because it lets nearly every culprit off the hook while pinning all the blame on a single fictitious character.
Regular readers know that I usually steer clear of politically themed movies. I’m the same in real life; political discussions usually shut me down, simply because I feel I have nothing to say, and on the rare occasions that I do I often wind up regretting it.
I don’t quite regret taking on Paul Greengrass’s new Matt Damon thriller Green Zone, although it turned out to be such a tough review in an even tougher week that I almost do. All things considered, I’m reasonably pleased with how the piece came out, though I’m sure if I were a savvier political thinker it would be a better review.
Now, though, as it goes live, I suddenly wish I had given some space to an angle I missed. I won’t go back and rework it (it’s long already, like so much of my work), but I wish to add a coda here.
Exactly 70 years ago today, on March 5, 1940, Josef Stalin and the entire Soviet Politburo signed an order to massacre tens of thousands of Polish prisoners of war: officers, mostly reservists; doctors, academics, civil servants, clergymen of all faiths—the cream of the Polish intelligentsia.
If you haven’t seen the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn—one of my top 10 films of last year—you should take this occasion to make a point of seeing it. (It’s available on DVD and streaming from Netflix.)
Some background: The massacre was uncovered in April 1943 by the Nazis, which found tens of thousands of bodies in mass graves in Russia’s Katyn Forest near Smolensk. A multi-national investigation correctly dated the executions to the spring of 1940—a finding Goebbels attempted to exploit by disgracing Moscow to Washington and London and splitting the Allies.
But the subsequent Soviet investigation, carried out after the area was recaptured from the Germans, claimed that the Nazis themselves had carried out the crime during their occupation in July 1941. Wajda’s film includes excerpts from both Nazi and Soviet newsreels shot at Katyn purporting to show evidence of the other’s culpability.
Moscow’s Western Allies supported this explanation. Not until the 1950s, when the Soviets were again the major worry—and American soldiers in Korea were potentially in line for the same treatment that Polish prisoners received at Katyn—was Washington willing to reopen the issue.
As late as 1988, the Soviets continued to blame the Germans. Finally, in 1989, Gorbachev partially acknowledged Soviet responsibility. Not until 1992 was the original document finally produced. Even today, the Russian Federation does not classify Katyn as a war crime.
At the Katyn Forest today, as far as I can tell, there is still no permanent memorial. Thanks to Wajda, the long-suffering Poles, long deprived of their memory and history by both Nazis and Soviets, have a fitting tribute to the slain and to the national spirit that sustained the Polish people during their long 20th-century dark night of the soul.
It is an intractably Catholic spirit, as Katyn shows, from a priest attending the dead and dying in a churchyard hospital, to a rosary passed from one POW to another, later recovered from Katyn and given to a survivor, to the words of the Our Father prayed by the victims in their final moments.
Katyn explores murky moral issues around loyalty to the dead and solidarity with the living. One soldier, accidentally spared in a case of mistaken identity, succumbs to despair over collaborating with the killers of his slain comrades. A young woman, a member of the Communist party, commissions a memorial for her slain brother boldly inscribed with the year 1940, but the priest, worried about the recently detained canon priest, won’t allow it on church property. This seems heartless at first, but it soom becomes apparent that even Party membership means little if other loyalties come first.
The director’s father was among the Katyn victims. Like one of the victims in the film, the elder Wajda was not correctly reported among the dead, and for years the family believed that he might have escaped the massacre.
The film shows a captured officer encouraging his fellow POWs to endure for their nation’s sake: “I see scientists, teachers, lawyers … I even see a painter. You must endure, because there won’t be a free Poland without you.” Seven decades later, Wajda continues to fight for the cause in which his father died.
“Read not the Times, read the eternities,” Thoreau advised. The 2010 Arts & Faith Top 100 Films, just released days ahead of the Academy Awards, won’t make the headlines of the Times — but if you prefer to scrutinize the eternities, you might want to skip the Oscars and check out the Arts & Faith Top 100.
Arts & Faith is an online community with roots going back to 1999. “A forum to discuss movies from a Christian perspective” was the original mission statement. In 2004, the A&F message board was founded to offer broader discussion of the arts in general. Later that year, the A&F community produced the first edition of its “Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films” list. (I’ve been a part of this history since sometime in the 2001–2003 range, and I vote in the Top 100 polls.)
Today, Arts & Faith is run by Image Journal, a Christian journal of the arts. The website for the new list includes brief write-ups of the top 10 films (with more to come). There’s also this press release by Jeff Overstreet.
Looking over the 2010 list, Catholic readers familiar with the 1995 Vatican film list will recognize a number of titles near the top. The #1 film, Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, is a Vatican film list honoree (in the category of “Religion”), as are the next three titles (Decalogue, Babette’s Feast and The Passion of Joan of Arc), and six of the top ten. All told, the 2010 A&F Top 100 includes 18 of the Vatican list’s 45 films.
Marking this week’s DVD release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo — as well as new special editions of three of Miyazaki’s most family-friendly films, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky), I’ve posted a new article on “The Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki,” written for this month’s issue of Catholic World Report. (The version here is expanded from the magazine version.)
I hope also to post more reviews of other Miyazaki films later this week. Watch for them!
Many people think that colour only arrived in cinema only arrived sometime after the Second World War. However, the use of colour in moving pictures goes right back to cinema’s earliest days. Early films like The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ  had no Technicolour processes, so resorted to hand colouring significant elements of each shot. …
Some of the earliest films to experiment with colour were in fact films based on the Bible … In [The] Ten Commandments  DeMille experimented with the new [color] process for the scenes of the exodus — capturing both the joy and the sense of entering a whole new world. With [The King of Kings (1927)] he saved the colour for the resurrection …
One Bible film to make particularly good use of these colours was Nicholas Ray’s 1961 King of Kings (pictured above). One notable example is Jesus’ outer garments which change from brown prior to ministry, to red when he is at the peak of his powers, and then again to white as he becomes the spotless sacrificial lamb.
Matt’s blog is a helpful resource on Bible films, particularly for informed commentary on Bible films in relation to the Bible texts and comparison and contrast of different cinematic interpretations of particular stories. He’s also got his ear to the ground on Bible films in development. Check out his blog.
A recent story in Variety connects the dots around various real-life and large- and small-screen stories and comes up with a disturbing picture: One way or another, 2009 was a high-profile year for adultery.
The headline reads “Infidelity scores Oscar noms,” but Variety writer Diane Garrett sees a larger pattern that includes the public scandals of Tiger Woods, Governor Mark Sanford, and John Edwards, revelations concerning small-screen personalities David Letterman and “John & Kate Plus 8” stars Jon and Kate Gosselin, and what Garrett suggests seemed like “nearly every other movie released in the past six months,” including the 8½ musical remake Nine and the Meryl Streep–Alec Baldwin comedy It’s Complicated.
The kernel of the story, though, is that extramarital liaisons of one kind or another are central to four of the ten Academy Award Best Picture nominees: An Education, A Serious Man, Up in the Air and Precious. Garrett writes:
The nommed pics vary greatly in mood and setting, but cheating is pivotal to all four. Tellingly, the heroes or heroines of the movies are each unwitting or unwilling parties to the infidelity. Each is betrayed, not betrayer.
There aren’t any easy fixes for the fictional characters—no hightailing it to a sex rehab clinic or laughing it off with latenight jokes. But there is plenty of drama—and dark comedy—in their predicaments.
Does this mean that the collective effect of these stories is not to glamorize adultery? Well, yes, in part, but like the movie title says, It’s Complicated.
Two of the films, Up in the Air and An Education, initially put a glossy face on illicit sex, but in both films the protagonist is unmarried and believes the partner to be unmarried, and revelations to the contrary come as an unwelcome surprise and a signpost that the protagonist is on the wrong road. Still, it’s possible to wonder whether these turning points completely counteract the romantic tone of the early chapters. (E.g., see John Podhoretz on An Education.)
A Serious Man never makes the protagonist’s cuckolded state less than excruciating and humiliating, though the Coens’ typically belittling portrayal of their schlemiel of a protagonist may cast doubt on whether his betrayal, or his marriage in the first place, is really all that significant in the grand scheme of things. As for Precious, the overriding issue there isn’t adultery, but incest and child abuse.
Were there no countervailing cinematic depictions of happily married couples?
A few. There was Julie & Julia, with its criss-crossing accounts of two loving couples based on the real-life marriages of Julia Child and blogger Julie Powell. But even that story was complicated by the real Julie Powell’s tell-all account of her own subsequent affair with an old boyfriend with whom she apparently reconnected after becoming famous.
A few bright spots could be found even among Best Picture nominees.
The Blind Side offers a happy (and explicitly Christian) depiction of real-life couple Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy. Pixar’s Up celebrates the lifelong love of its widower protagonist Carl and his beloved Elie.
Even James Cameron’s über-blockbuster Avatar, with its hippy-dippy utopia of Noble Savages living in harmony with nature and one another, rejects the flower-child ideal of “free love” in favor of monogamous pairing for life (presumably faithfully, given the idealized integrity of Cameron’s aliens). Infidelity may be everywhere, seemingly, but our culture hasn’t entirely forgotten that fidelity is the ideal.
Too long neglected, Decent Films Mail returns today with two new columns, Mailbag #16 and Mailbag #17. (For the benefit of RSS subscribers, at this writing it looks like the RSS feed hasn’t yet picked up on them. This looks like a glitch; I’ll look into it.)
As sporadic as Decent Films Mail has been in the past, I hope from now on, in keeping with my general program of adding more content more frequently, to to be more regular about the Mailbag too — and in my responsiveness to reader emails, which has also been regrettably sporadic in the past. So sporadic, in fact, that I acknowledged it on the Contact form, which noted, “I read every email I get, and I try to write back, but sometimes I’m just too busy (or I plain forget).”
This year I got off to a wobbly start due to some contact form–related technical issues, but that’s behind me now. (There are still one or two emails from January I have yet to get to, not because of more delay issues, but because I’m trying to frame thoughtful replies.) In keeping with my new resolve, I’ve changed the Contact form to read: “I read every email I get, and if you include a valid reply address I will endeavor to respond promptly.”
So: I’ve you’ve written in the past and waited weeks — or indefinitely — for a reply, I’d like to invite and encourage you to write again and give me a chance to make it up to you. I’ll do better, starting now. (Since I missed making this a New Year’s resolution due to my January mail issues, I’ll make it a Lenten discipline that I hope to carry over into Easter and beyond.)
Is there a review or article you want to comment on? Something you liked or that bothered you? Comments, criticisms, questions, suggestions, complaints, of delight, cries of outrage? Write me. I want to hear from you! And I’ll write back promptly (if you include a mailable address).
A few weeks ago the National Catholic Register ran my 2009 year-end piece with my lists of “top ten” and runner-up films. (An expanded version of the article appeared at Decent Films.) This week, I’d like to catch up with a few other lists from Christian sources worth noting.
Earlier this week, Christianity Today Movies & TV released the second of its two annual Top 10 lists, the CT Critics’ Choice Awards. Last week CT released its other list, the 10 Most Redeeming Films of 2009. (Full disclosure/disclaimer: As a regular CT contributor, I voted in these awards, though I didn’t necessarily vote for all the winners, or even see them all.)
In 1-10 order, the 2009 CT Critics Choice winners are: The Hurt Locker, Up, The Road, Up in the Air, A Serious Man, Summer Hours, (500) Days of Summer, Star Trek, Avatar and Inglourious Basterds. The 10 Most Redeeming Films are: Up, The Blind Side, Invictus, The Road, The Soloist, Where the Wild Things Are, District 9, The Hurt Locker, Julie & Julia and Up in the Air.
As you can see, there’s some overlap between the two sets of lists, and regular readers may note that some titles overlap with my own 2009 top 10 lists, including Up, Summer Hours, Star Trek, Avatar, Where the Wild Things Are and District 9.
One nice thing about the CT Movies lists is that they offer supplementary lists of “Ones that Got Away,” allowing each critic to add one film to both list categories. Happily, two of my favorite films of the year, Bright Star and Crazy Heart, were nominated for both “Got Away” lists. Other welcome additions include Ponyo, Coraline, Earth and The Young Victoria. My own nominees were Tulpan, a remarkable depiction of life among the yurt-dwelling shepherds of Kazakhstan’s Hunger Steppe (for Critics Choice) and The 13th Day, a lovely indie film on the Marian apparitions at Fatima (for Most Redeeming).
At the top, in 1-10 order: Summer Hours, Munyurangabo, Seraphine, Up, The Class, Lake Tahoe, A Serious Man, Gomorra, Coraline and Where the Wild Things Are. Six of these titles overlap with titles from my top 20, along with four more from Jeff’s second ten, Bright Star, Lorna’s Silence, Moon and Star Trek. Some of Jeff’s picks I haven’t seen and now want to, including Phoebe in Wonderland, Duplicity and An Education (which also cropped up in one of CT’s “Got Away” lists). Among his runners-up are others I admire, including District 9, The Informant! and Ponyo. See Jeff’s lists for write-ups on the films.
At St. Anthony Messenger, Sister Rose Pecatte bestowed her CineRose Film Awards. Punning on her first name, Sr. Rose awarded “A Bouquet of Roses” to nine films (unranked): The Blind Side, Precious, Up, The Princess and the Frog, Julie & Julia, The Hurt Locker, The Last Station, Food, Inc., The End of Poverty. “Four Roses” go to A Christmas Carol, Amreeka, Imagine That, The Soloist, Where the Wild Things Are and The Informant!
A final note: Looking over all these lists, among others, if I could highlight one title deserving of more attention, it would be Katyn, Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s trenchant commemoration of the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre. It’s a brilliantly made, devastating film, imbued with Poland’s constitutional Catholic spirit, and well worth the attention of mature viewers. I’ll try to write a review soon.
My Lenten viewing suggestions prompted a reader to ask:
Would you consider supplementing an English-only list? I love the idea of a Lenten movie night, but I have several children under reading age, and my husband just dislikes reading his movies. LOL. I will have to carve out time on my own during the week to watch the intriguing foreign films you have included.
In reply, I’ve supplemented my original blog post with a follow-up mail response, posted at the bottom of the original blog post.
If so, check out the Emeth Society, billed as “A Book and Film Society Promoting Catholic Culture in the Diocese of Phoenix.”
And if you don’t live near Phoenix, check out their website anyway, and ask yourself, “How can I get something like this going in my diocese?”
No matter where you live, the Emeth Society’s website is worth a gander just for the excellent blogroll-style sidebar of links: authors, Catholic theologians, education, film and more. I’m sure this is only such sidebar ever assembled to bring together links for Hayao Miyazaki, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Ballet Arizona, the Arts & Faith Top 100 Spiritual Films and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins all in one place.
If you do live near Phoenix, definitely don’t miss the Emeth Society’s next film screening, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which also happens to be one of my six recommended movies for the six weeks of Lent. (So they’re watching it in week 2 instead of week 5, let’s not get legalistic about these things.)
The traditional forty days of Lent, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II have reminded us, recall our Lord’s forty days of fasting in the desert. In Lent we are invited to join Christ in the desert, to recapitulate Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering.
Lent is a penitential season, but also an invitation to a closer intimacy with God. The Pentateuch presents the forty years of wilderness wandering as a punishment for unbelief, but the prophets offer a startling complementary vision of the desert as a privileged time of intimacy between God and Israel, a romantic season in which God wooed Israel as his bride (Jeremiah 2:2, Hosea 2:16).
The two aspects are inseparable; the time of privileged closeness to God must also be a penitential experience of wilderness wandering. Pope Benedict has recently reminded us of the three specific practices the Church proposes especially during Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
All three are important and even inseparable; fasting can’t be abstracted from prayer, nor prayer from active charity for one’s neighbor in need. That said, in his address above Pope Benedict focuses on almsgiving in particular. I’ve written in the past about fasting (see A Short Primer on Fasting; More on Fasting … More), a discipline sadly neglected in the Christian West.
In my second post above I ventured with trepidation to lament that the Latin Church’s current discipline on fasting and abstinence seems mere token ascesis. I was gratified by the confirming comment of canon law professor Ed Peters, who opined that the current law of fast “does not even get to the level of token: it is purely legalistic. And I think THAT breeds contempt for law.”
As a point of contrast, our Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brethren observe regimen that includes (but is not limited to) completely eschewing meat and all animal products (eggs, dairy, etc.) throughout all of Lent. I have to admit that strikes me as dauntingly severe, but my hat’s off to them. Of course, many Catholics go far beyond the official requirements, but many others don’t, and I’m saddened that the bar is set so low.
A few words about film and media.
Many Catholics observe Lent with a discipline of withdrawal, in whole or in part, from mass communications media: movies, television, Internet, radio, music, newspapers. This is an admirable discipline, and one I recommend.
Short of withdrawal, I recommend limiting and altering one’s media use in keeping with the spirit of the season. For example, if you typically have, say, U2 or Taylor Swift CDs in your car, or if you listen to talk radio, try exchanging your usual listening for some Gregorian chant. (If you usually listen to chant, try holy silence, or maybe CDs of the Bible or something.)
My work doesn’t permit me not to watch movies at all. I could try to cut back to the bare minimum of movies necessary to do my job, but I find it helpful to make a practice of spiritual viewing during Lent, just as many make a practice of spiritual reading.
For those inclined to consider this practice, here are six suggestions for the six weeks of Lent, with links to reviews at Decent Films.
One thought I’ve had for using the site’s new features, including the blog and the homepage Spotlight, is to highlight some of my past writing for particular occasions, or even for no particular occasion, just to bring an older piece to the attention of readers who might not have encountered it before.
This weekend, the release of The Wolfman made me think of highlighting my 2003 essay on horror and the macabre, originally written for the re-release of Ridley Scott’s Alien. At first I thought I would take the occasion to make a few cosmetic changes, but as I began pulling threads here and there, I kept thinking of ways to improve the piece, until I wound up doing quite a bit more work expanding the piece than I originally intended. (The story of my life…)
Anyway, enjoy the expanded piece.
Last week I blogged about my upcoming Catholic Answers Live appearance — but I wrote the wrong day. It’s Thursday, 2/11, not Friday, 2/12, from 7pm–8pm EST / 4pm–5pm PST. Sorry for the confusion!
I’ll be reviewing two movies opening this weekend, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief and The Wolfman, so those will naturally be on the agenda. We’ll also probably be talking about Legion, The Book of Eli, Avatar, the Oscar nominations and the 2009 Decent Films top 10.
Other than that, discussion will go wherever callers take it.
In a short piece at Variety, Roger Friedman (hat tip: Peter Chattaway) writes about the upcoming Ridley Scott movie Robin Hood:
Now comes Crowe and Scott. I am told they’ve been screening the new Robin Hood for insiders. Everyone likes it. Universal is counting on a big hit leading into Memorial Day. Certainly the main actors at least have accents to begin with.
But wait: Does the public want a dark, brooding Robin Hood…? Robin Hood movies and TV shows are always fun. The Ridley Scott movie doesn’t sound like fun from what I’ve been told. It’s dead serious. “I don’t know if it will make money,” says a source. “But it will be respected. It’s dark, violent and very Gladiator.”
“Robin Hood” started out as “Nottingham.” Many scripts came and went, and along with them, many millions of dollars. The shooting script was revised a lot while the movie was being shot. Crowe is prone to clashes with Scott. The rumors fly! Something tells me Universal won’t let anything but a blockbuster be the final release.
Nottingham, the project that ultimately became Robin Hood, was originally conceived, according to an earlier Variety piece, as “a revisionist take on the Robin Hood tale, with Nottingham as a noble and brave lawman who labors for a corrupt king and engages in a love triangle with Maid Marion and Robin Hood.” At that point, Russell Crowe was set to play the Sheriff. The change of title and recasting of Crowe suggests that Robin Hood is at least the protagonist again; whether we can call him the hero remains to be seen.
The last really solid Hollywood take on the traditional Robin Hood mythos (not counting the Kevin Costner folly, because, well, it doesn’t count) was over 70 years ago, and is essentially the only one in its class (unless you want to go back to the silent era). A revisionist take on Robin Hood would be one thing if the traditionally heroic Robin Hood could be taken for granted as a cultural reference point. What have we come to if we can only view a legendary icon like Robin Hood through skeptical, revisionist lenses?
Fantasy heroes like Aragorn or Spider-Man are another story. Those we can still do more or less straight, even if Peter Jackson’s Aragorn had to be all self-doubting and reluctant (even more so than Tolkien’s character) to seize his destiny, because Hollywood equates certitude with folly and doubt with thoughtfulness. (The Aragorn Complex, as I call this doubtful-leader device, can also be seen in The Prince of Egypt’s Moses and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s Peter Pevensie.) Nor do I object to the deeply ambiguous recent Hollywood depictions of, say, Batman and James Bond, dark characterizations with well-established roots in those characters’ histories. (Efforts to rehabilitate traditional villains, like Wicked’s take on the Wicked Witch of the West, are another matter.)
Robin Hood is an icon of our own legendary past as well as our cultural ideals of justice, courage and charity. Another example is King Arthur. Poor King Arthur has never gotten his due from Hollywood, even in the Golden Age, though Richard Thorpe’s watchable 1953 film The Knights of the Round Table was at least a stab in that direction, and a conspicuously Christian one. Boorman’s Excalibur was an interesting pastiche of Arthuriana, but didn’t pull it together into a coherent whole, and First Knight was just a stinker (though I like Arthur’s response to Mordred’s philosophy of might: “God makes us strong for a little while, so that we may help one another”).
Worst was Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, which depicted Arthur as a well-meaning but naive Catholic loyal to “a Rome that doesn’t exist,” a figure of an enlightened but doomed Christianity strangely identified with the founder of the Pelagian heresy. Guenevere, here reimagined as a pagan Celtic warrior princess, taunts Arthur, “I belong to this land. Do you belong anywhere, Arthur?”
That sense of existential homelessness about sums up the kind of Hollywood revisionism I have in mind here as well as anything. Traditionally, stories about heroes like Robin Hood and King Arthur didn’t just entertain, they told us who we are and what we believe in. Our traditional heroes no longer know who they are or what they believe in. Self-doubt, self-examination and self-accusation are one thing. Take an axe to your own roots, and you wind up rootless.
Regular readers know that one of the critical voices I cite most often is my friend Peter T. Chattaway. For a ripping example of why Peter is so quotable, check out his brilliant blog post on Legion, now in theaters.
What a mess this movie is. When I first heard the premise two years ago, it raised certain questions for me … and I was curious to see how the movie would answer them. Well, in a nutshell, it doesn’t. It doesn’t even raise them …
How can anyone make a movie about a rebel angel — in this case, Michael, who turns against God and his fellow angels to protect humanity after God decides to wipe us out — and not bother to make even a passing reference to Lucifer?
Where the heck is the “legion” referred to in the movie’s title? We only get a good look at two of the angels: Michael and Gabriel …
The director has reportedly said that this film acts as though the New Testament never happened. But if that’s the case, why do the characters use words like “Christ” as a curse-word? How did that word get into their language? (It’s kind of like how The Invention of Lying depicts a world in which no one has ever believed in God or religion, but they still say they live in the “21st century” or whatever even though they have presumably never believed in Christ, without whom we wouldn’t have a division between B.C. and A.D. in the first place.)
The post is worth reading in full for Peter’s typically insightful observations on the iconic significance of color in a scene with a quasi-Marian figure and some startling parallels with other films now in theaters, among other things.
Last year’s Academy Awards were not the least-watched Oscars in history—that was the previous year—but they were widely perceived as contributing to the ongoing apathy of viewers by snubbing popular and critical favorites like The Dark Knight and WALL-E while honoring a roster of films (Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Milk, Doubt) aptly characterized by A. O. Scott’s phrase “hermetically sealed melodrama[s] of received thinking.” (By contrast, Scott called The Dark Knight and WALL-E “contrasting allegories pitched at the anxieties of the moment,” “populist entertainments of summertime” that incited the “interesting movie debates of 2008.”)
It was probably with an eye to overcoming that gap and reconnecting with viewers that the Academy announced last year that the list of Best Picture nominees would be expanded from five to ten, reviving a practice last seen in 1943.
This week’s announcement of the nominees for 2010 seem to provide some vindication of that decision. As Roger Ebert points out, one can surmise which of the ten Best Picture nominees would most likely have made a cut of five by comparing them to the five Best Director nominees. (This isn’t an infallible method, but it’s a good rule of thumb; last year the categories matched four out of five.)
That means without the expansion we would probably have gotten Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious and Up in the Air. The five “bonus” films are thus The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man and Up. While I haven’t yet seen all the films in either list, I find the latter five a more intriguing lineup than the former five. Anyway, at least four of the latter five are credible Best Picture material. (The Blind Side, a popular favorite with notable Christian themes, isn’t really Best Picture material, although Ross Douthat remarks that if “the alternative to ‘The Blind Side’ was ‘Invictus,’ then I’m glad the Academy went with Sandra Bullock’s hit instead.”)
But would the rule of ten have helped in another year? Would it have helped last year? After The Dark Knight and WALL-E, what then? Iron Man? That might be too many “millionaire playboy superhero with gadgets and no real powers” movies in one awards race even for me. Gran Torino? Changeling? Does Clint Eastwood need any more validation of his watchable but unremarkable films? Valkyrie? Tropic Thunder?
One side effect of the expansion is that a film that doesn’t make the cut of ten is even more snubbed than when it was only five. If it were only five, Invictus fans could feel like they were #6. Now they have to face having lost out not only to Up in the Air, but The Blind Side too. (Maybe the Academy is also starting to feel that Eastwood doesn’t need any more validation.)
For what it’s worth, only three of the Best Picture nominees were in my top 20, and only one (Up) was in my top 10, but it’s still a much better lineup than last year for my money.
Despite the expanded roster, it seems clear that all the drama remains between two films, ironically directed by ex-spouses James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow. Cameron’s mega-ultra-blockbuster Avatar dominated the Golden Globes, which often anticipate the Oscar winners—but then Bigelow’s taut, under-the-radar The Hurt Locker won at the Directors Guild Awards, which often anticipate the Best Director Oscar. A split decision—Avatar for Best Picture, Bigelow for best Director—isn’t out of the question. (Or perhaps the Academy could give them joint custody.)
Please don’t ask me to go through the acting awards and all. I just can’t work up the energy. (New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has sparked a meme in online Oscar discussion by remarking, “Let’s acknowledge that the Oscars are b—s— and we hate them.”)
One other category I do pay attention to is Best Animated Film. Most years, the ballot for this category is a short one, with only three films—and not infrequently even those three films aren’t all particularly memorable. (For 2001, the year the award was inaugurated, the ballot consisted of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Monsters, Inc. and Shrek. Probably the least inspired year for the category was 2006, with Cars, Happy Feet and Monster House.)
This year, for only the second time in the nine years since the award was created, there are five nominees. The other year was 2002, when Hayao Miyzaki’s brilliant Spirited Away beat out Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Treasure Planet (only one of which, Lilo & Stitch, is especially noteworthy).
This year’s lineup is the strongest ever: Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells and Up. I loved Up and Coraline, and while I wasn’t crazy about Fantastic Mr. Fox I can see where other people would be. The Princess and the Frog is at least a solid entertainment, though I agree with Ebert that Miyazaki’s Ponyo was more deserving.
That leaves The Secret of Kells—the first film ever nominated for the award that I hadn’t already seen, or even heard of. An off-the-map tale of Irish monks and Vikings, The Secret of Kells may or may not be a particularly good film, but it’s at least the sort of film I want to be looking out for. I guess the Oscars are occasionally good for something.
Buy at Amazon.com
Silent star Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. is still the silver screen’s ultimate swashbuckling Zorro. Tyrone Powers ideally embodies the sly subterfuge of a man of iron turning on a dime from foppish languor to finely double-edged banter to masked derring-do. But Guy Williams, hero of Walt Disney’s popular 1950s television series, is the most beloved Zorro of all time.
Well-written, exciting, funny, with multi-episode story arcs, “Zorro” sets a standard for family entertainment unmatched by any other television series I can think of. Last November, when the Walt Disney Treasures series released Zorro: The Complete Seasons 1 and 2, I started watching them with my kids — boys, girls, older and younger kids. These are kids who’ve grown up with Pixar, The Lord of the Rings, Miyazaki. For weeks on end we watched an episode a night of a half-century-old black-and-white TV series, almost finishing the first season before anyone felt like requesting something else one night.
The Walt Disney Treasures edition marks the DVD debut of the fully restored black-and-white series. A previous DVD edition offered the colorized version of the show. There is no reason on earth why “Zorro” should be colorized. Bias against black and white is an acquired prejudice that I have met more in adults than in children. Children are open to black and white, silent film, anything (“so terribly catholic,” as C. S. Lewis put it).
The TV show offers its own spin on the Zorro mythos in some ways. Williams’ Don Diego adopts a more studious than foppish manner, and his mute servant Bernardo (talented pantomimist Gene Sheldon) only feigns deafness to serve as his master’s spy. Sergeant García (Henry Calvin), fat, slow-witted, and overly fond of drink, is a comic relief stereotype, but a lovable one who often proves a stout-hearted ally to both Zorro and Don Diego. Even more than in past incarnations, Catholicism is a positive presence in a number of episodes — especially early in season 1, as when Father Filípe aids Zorro by giving sanctuary to a wrongfully arrested prisoner.
The Walt Disney Treasures edition includes four rare hour-long “Zorro” specials from “Walt Disney Presents,” filmed after the second season ended while Disney was still trying to get a third season off the ground. Introductions by Leonard Maltin, a pair of featurettes on Zorro’s many faces, and a behind-the-scenes extra with Guy Williams Jr. round out the handsomely packaged set.
Mild, occasionally deadly action swashbuckling; much drinking, sometimes to excess; rare oblique innuendo. Fine family viewing.
Buy at Amazon.com
Recently I experienced Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City for the first time, again.
A Vatican list film, Rossellini’s celebrated 1945 landmark of Italian neorealism is a must-see film for film lovers—and of course I saw it, and reviewed it, years ago. Even at the time, though, I knew I wasn’t really experiencing the film Rossellini made.
Partly this is because previous DVD and VHS versions of Open City were based on a print of the film with such spotty subtitles that they played as if the subtitler often got so absorbed in the story that he simply forgot for minutes at a time to keep up with the dialogue.
As a result, if you didn’t speak Italian, you missed over half of what was said … and if you did speak Italian, you were stuck with the distracting subtitles anyway, which were hard-printed onto the image and couldn’t be removed.
Now at last the Criterion Collection has come to the rescue with the Roberto Rossellini War Trilogy, a three-disc boxed edition that also includes Rossellini’s Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948).
What I didn’t know until I rewatched the film in the Criterion edition was the extent to which I hadn’t seen the film before. I did know that Rossellini’s team had to scrounge for whatever film stock they could find to shoot the film, which contributed to the gritty, grainy imperfection of the images. However, the degradation of the images was greatly compounded by the worn, dirty condition of the prints used in the previous editions. For anyone who has seen the previous versions, the clarity and beauty of the new Criterion editions is stunning.
As important as Rome, Open City is cinematically, the 1995 Vatican film list includes the film not for its artistic significance, but for its moral value (it’s listed among the 15 films in the Values category). Rossellini’s film offers searing images of evil in the Nazis’ racist reign of terror, and celebrates the human solidarity binding together ordinary citizens, Communist activists, Catholic priests and even children in surreptitious resistance to Nazi oppression.
Open City is notable for its Catholic milieu, embodied in the heroic priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), whose clerical status allows him to ignore curfews and even enter a building evacuated by the Nazis. Rossellini was not a faithful Catholic by any means, but his Catholic heritage was a significant factor in his work, most obviously in films like The Flowers of St. Francis and The Messiah. (The Flowers of St. Francis is also available in a must-have Criterion edition; The Messiah isn’t available on North American DVD, though you can dig it up on VHS used.)
I hadn’t seen Paisan or Germany Year Zero before, so the Rossellini War Trilogy is a fantastic opportunity to become more familiar with one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century.
Buy at Amazon.com
An associate professor of medicine as well as a serious movie buff, Peter Dans has an understandable interest in the portrayal of the medical field in cinema. In 2000 he channeled that interest into Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Ahh!, an entertaining and insightful study of social attitudes regarding medicine as illustrated by Hollywood. Dans is also a Catholic, and he has now published a second book, Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners, a similarly impressive inquiry into the cinematic portrayal of Christianity and Christians.
Like his first book, Christians in the Movies is both a highly readable and informative work of film commentary and a discussion of changing social attitudes. Just as doctors enjoyed a “golden age of medicine” before being knocked off their pedestals, Dans notes how “[t]he movie clergymen of my youth were tough-yet-good-hearted priests, often portrayed by big stars like Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, and Bing Crosby. Now it appeared that all orthodox clergy and believers were either vicious predators or narrow-minded, mean-spirited Pharisees.”
Dans not only documents changing images of faith, he sketches the larger social context of films from The Passion of Joan of Arc and Angels With Dirty Faces to Dogma and The Magdalene Sisters. (Full disclosure: Dans cites my article on that last film.)
“Vatican Lashes Out at ‘Avatar’” was the headline at an ABC News story. (Of course it does. It wouldn’t be the Vatican if it didn’t “lash out,” would it?) “Avatar is being slammed by the Vatican,” adds USA Today.
In reality, coverage of the film at L’Osservatore Romano (the Vatican’s quasi-official paper of record) and at Vatican Radio was more or less comparable to the mainstream of wider critical reaction, though obviously the Vatican gave greater attention to spiritual issues than critics generally.
Gaetano Vallini’s review in L’Osservatore Romano could hardly be called a “slam.” (He ends by noting “The visual spectacle alone is well worth the ticket price,” and calls Cameron’s Pandora “exceptionally well imagined and created.” At the same time, like many critics he is critical of the emotional hollowness of the “forgettable” plot, and offers critical perspective on the film’s spiritual and political dimensions.)
Getting the straight dope should be as easy as going to the Vatican website and pulling up the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano. Unfortunately, although the Church’s teachings consistently accord the communications media great importance, her practice lags behind her principles. There is a weekly English edition of L’Osservatore Romano, but it’s spotty (the Italian edition is daily), and as far as I can tell the Vatican website offers only articles from the current issue. (You can get previous issues on CD-ROM — up to 2008.)
A priest friend, frustrated by dodgy media coverage, recently sent me his own translation of the entire L’Osservatore Romano review, as well as of a segment that ran of Vatican Radio.
Here’s the L’Osservatore Romano piece (translation courtesy Fr. Shane Johnson).