Decent Films Blog
For the past few years, after publishing my own annual wrap-up and top films list for the previous year, I pull together a run-down of some of my friends’ and peers’ best-film lists.
Until this year, I’ve led with the ChristianityToday.com Critics Choice and Most Redeeming top 10 lists, in which I’ve voted each year. For 2013, though, ChristianityToday.com took a different approach, asking regular critics to come up with personal movie picks (and, as it happens, I didn’t review any movies for CT.com this past year, so I didn’t do a list). Unfortunately, the new site layout offers no good way to link to these pieces. Google to the rescue: all 2013 Movie Picks at ChristianityToday.com.
It also looks like not all my friends and peers who have done best film lists in the past have done so for 2013, at least not yet. But with the Oscars coming on Sunday, this is pretty much the deadline for revisiting the films of last year, at least for now. So here we go.
Since Bl. Pope John Paul II called for a “new evangelization” in 1983, the phrase has become common in Catholic circles, yet too often it’s been a slogan with little substance — or success. Father Robert Barron’s work with Word on Fire Ministries is among the most gratifying exceptions to this unfortunate rule.
Fr. Barron’s magnum opus is his magnificent 10-part 2011 series, Catholicism, a veritable cathedral in video form that George Weigel reasonably hailed as “the most important media project in the history of the Catholic Church in America.” Blending documentary with apologetics and catechesis, Catholicism brings the riches and beauty of the Catholic Church’s history, culture, and beliefs to life with compelling power.
Fr. Barron’s latest project, Catholicism: The New Evangelization, is not so much a new chapel to go along with the cathedral of Catholicism — it’s more like a school for cathedral builders. Filmed in part during a 2012 lecture tour of Australia, during which the priest spoke in the parishes, pubs, and college campuses of one of the world’s most nonreligious nations, Catholicism: The New Evangelization brings Fr. Barron’s customary spirit of upbeat, affirmative orthodoxy to the challenges facing the Church’s mission in our increasingly secular world.
So basically everyone loves Frozen except me. I’m fine with that. I’m not a fan, but I don’t dislike it; parts of it I like very much, though other elements I found disappointing and off-putting. I’ve watched it twice now, and both times I enjoyed enough things about it to be frustrated by the elements that ultimately keep me from embracing it.
I’m not surprised that it’s such a huge hit. I am a little surprised at the sustained effort of Christian fans to spin Frozen as some sort of Christian allegory (more on this in an upcoming post).
For now, though, I want to address something I noted in passing in my review: the question of gay-culture themes in Frozen.
In my review I mentioned this issue (also noted in positive reviews by other critics) largely to dismiss it as a point of concern — not that I wasn’t aware of the themes in question, so much as that I didn’t think they warranted getting upset over. However, a point I overlooked earlier has just been brought to my attention that I think does warrant mention.
First, let’s get the broad themes out on the table.
- With her ice powers, Elsa is notably different from other people. “Born this way or cursed?” asks the troll king, and her parents confirm that she was born that way.
- Nevertheless, her difference is an occasion of fear and secrecy. Misguidedly, her parents teach her to “conceal it, don’t feel it.” This repression of her true nature leads to isolation, anxiety and finally a meltdown at Elsa’s coronation, at which she inadvertently outs herself, revealing her ice powers for all to see.
- Regarded with fear and revulsion by others, Elsa defies the society that has rejected her as well as the unjust strictures placed on her by her parents, celebrating her acceptance of her true identity in the power ballad “Let it Go.” No more “Be the good girl you always have to be” for her; now her mantra is: “Let the storm rage on / The cold never bothered me anyway.”
- It’s worth noting that Elsa at no time shares her sister Anna’s romantic longings, nor does she show any interest in a male suitor or in being courted. (At one point a male character remarks that, as heir, Elsa would be preferable to Anna, but “no one was getting anywhere with her.”)
- Oh, and viewers who stayed through the end credits were treated to a parting gag in which Elsa’s giant, male-voiced snow monster, wandering through her abandoned ice palace, picks up her abandoned tiara and places it daintily on its own head, smiling as it discovers its true inner princess.
On another side note, there’s a double entendre about another type of relationship that is said to be “outside of nature’s laws”: The trolls, singing about Kristoff in the the “Fixer-Upper” song, suggest that he has an unnatural relationship with his reindeer Sven:
So he’s a bit of a fixer-upper
So he’s got a few flaws.
Like his peculiar brain, dear
His thing with the reindeer
That’s a little outside of nature’s laws!
Yes: a bestiality joke in a Disney cartoon.
All of this seems to me a) clearly if subtly expressive of a pro-gay culture at Disney, and b) not that big a deal, inasmuch as the themes are subtle and ambiguous enough not pose either a significant annoyance to even savvy parents or a corrupting influence on children. (I would not say that of the pro-gay themes in the likes of Madagascar 2 or the Happy Feet movies; those are in a different category, and I do object to them. With Frozen, I’m more concerned about issues like Squelched Girl Syndrome and the subverting, in very different ways, of the two leading men.)
However, there’s another pro-gay element in Frozen worth noting that I originally missed: a fleeting but definite suggestion that a minor character has a family consisting of a same-sex partner and a bunch of children.
This was brought to my attention by an interesting article at PolicyMic.com called “7 Moments that Make Frozen the Most Progressive Disney Movie Ever.” The article offers a blend of insightful observations, obvious ones, and, for me, one eye-opener:
5. Oaken’s gay family
Hey, did you notice the gay character? I didn’t either, until I went to see the film a second time. It turns out that giant man in “Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post and Sauna” is probably gay. When he throws in the sauna package for Kristoff, he turns to say “Hello, family!” and BAM! there they are.
The adult in the sauna is clearly implied to be his husband. Best yet, Oaken and his partner have a family — and it’s not even a thing. In the few minutes that he’s on screen, Disney manages to make a compelling character of Oaken…
Take a close look at the image.
Is there plausible deniability? Sure.
The adult male in the sauna, with his slim jaw and lack of facial hair, looks markedly younger than the mountain-sized, hirsute Oaken, and could be his oldest son. Next to him is a young woman who, given the conventions of animation, could be could be Oaken’s daughter or his wife — or, heck, the wife of the other guy, who could also be Oaken’s younger brother). It’s even possible that the family isn’t Oaken’s family at all; “Hoo hoo! Hi family!” could mean “Hi, random visiting family of customers.”
On the other hand…
- What’s the moment doing in the film at all? Why make a point of having Oaken call “Hoo hoo! Hi family!” and fleetingly show the family in the sauna? At the very least, the moment and the line seems intended to suggest that they are, or at least could be, Oaken’s own family.
- Why is the young man centrally positioned, with all the other figures around him? The framing of the shot, and his huge size, seems to suggest that he’s a father figure, not just an older brother.
- How often do we see such a large family in a Disney movie? Why so many, if not visual misdirection to slip the moment past most viewers?
It seems plausible the filmmakers have thrown this moment in to allow sharp-eyed homophile viewers to draw their own conclusions about just what sort of “family” this is.
And we’re going to be seeing more and more of this sort of thing in the future. Here’s why.
From the perspective of Hollywood filmmakers, while it’s not yet possible for a mainstream family film to have overtly gay characters or themes, the heteronormativity of traditional children’s entertainment has been problematized.
In Obama’s post-evolutionary America, the assumption that every protagonist in every cartoon is by default heterosexual — that every heroine gets her prince, every hero gets the girl — is no more acceptable than it would be for every protagonist to be white, or male. How are children with two mommies or two daddies meant to feel when every family in every cartoon looks like their friends’ families and not like theirs?
Yet obviously the Disney version of The Prince and the Prince is a long way off yet. The revolution is still in the early stages. Gay families and their allies must take their consolations where they can find them, and content themselves for the most part with winks and nods, hints and subtexts.
Admittedly, this may sometimes mean running the risk of overly creative interpretations and appropriations of characters and themes (a bit like Christians in the post-Christian era over-eagerly latching onto “Christ figures” anywhere they can find them) on the basis of slender evidence or even pretexts. Tinky-Winky! The Cowardly Lion! Bert and Ernie!
But it also means Hollywood filmmakers really want to throw in those winks and nods when they can. They feel good about themselves when they do, and it’s something they can talk about at parties.
It’s the civil rights issue of our time! And if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If you’re making a family film and you aren’t doing something to undermine the heteronormative establishment, then by default you’re reinforcing it.
That’s why Oaken has the family he does, and makes a point of calling out to them.
And yet, in this case the filmmakers have walked that line really well: so well that the pro-gay themes have gone right over the heads of countless adult Christian viewers, many of whom have embraced Frozen as resonating powerfully with Christian themes.
I disagree. Read more…
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Of the 2013 Christmas season’s trio of religiously inflected Christmas movies, this one just might be the most deserving of your time. Black Nativity: my “Reel Faith” review.
I appreciated the first Hunger Games movie, but wasn’t eager to watch it again at the time. The sequel has me wanting to watch the first film again — in a good way. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
Compared to Disney’s last (and only other) computer-animated fairy tale, Tangled, Frozen has twice the princesses, twice the hunky love interests, twice the domesticated anthropomorphic ungulates … but not a fraction of the humanity. Frozen: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
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Is Loki a villain or an antihero? Either way, the fan favorite is basically the Marvel Universe’s answer to Catwoman, but he can’t carry the movie if he isn’t the main antagonist. Thor: The Dark World: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
Buy at Amazon.com
Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi tale emerges from a decade of development hell with its themes and story maybe 50 percent intact — which doesn’t make it a bad film. Ender’s Game: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
This evening, Friday, October 18, I'll be appearing on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6pm–7pm EDT).
Host Patrick Coffin and I will be discussing current films including Captain Phillips, 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and much more. (Since I haven’t reviewed Captain Phillips, this is your chance to get my take, if you want it!) Listen live!
Sandra Bullock shines in Alfonso Cuarón’s mesmerizing action thriller in space, a rare Hollywood spectacle with a touch of spiritual awareness. Gravity: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
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Part of me kind of wishes they had kept the original title Cloudy 2: Revenge of the Leftovers. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2: my 60-second “Reel Faith” review.
Digitally remastered from the original negatives, brilliantly restored, The Wizard of Oz celebrates its 75th anniversary in style. Here’s my “Reel Faith” 60-second tribute to this beloved classic.
The director of District 9 is back … with a bigger budget and name stars. Elysium: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
It may be Pixar Ultra-Lite, but Disney’s Planes is a pleasant change of pace from the likes of The Croods and Turbo. Here̵7s my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg are two great tastes that taste great together. So why did this film leave a sour taste in my mouth? 2 Guns: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
He’s the best there is at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice. The Wolverine: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
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Oscar Grant just might be the most memorable character I’ve encountered on the big screen this year. Fruitvale Station: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
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Thirty years after The Exorcist, when it comes to fighting the powers of hell, the Catholic Church still has the heavy artillery, as Roger Ebert once wrote. The Conjuring: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
He was bad to the bone. Now he’s Dad to the bone. Does his mojo survive the transition? Despicable Me 2: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
It’s the end of the world was we know it … again. World War Z: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
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Is it “okay to be okay” if you’re Pixar? Monsters University: : my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
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Shakespeare knows how to throw a party … and so does Joss Whedon. Much Ado About Nothing: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review. (Where it’s playing)
A Superman movie for our times — but is that a good thing? Man of Steel: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
This evening, I’ll be on Catholic radio from sometime during the last hour of “Kresta in the Afternoon” (5pm EDT) through the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6pm EDT), discussing the latest movies and much more. Listen live
Tune in also to the latest episode of “Reel Faith” tonight at 8pm EDT as David DiCerto and I offer our very different takes on Man of Steel, as well as our less contentious discussion of The Purge and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. Watch NET live
The closer you look, the less you see? Now You See Me: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
Is After Earth really as bad as people are saying? Here’s my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
This week, one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most beloved and accomplished features, along with one of his less successful efforts, debut on Blu-ray.
My Neighbor Totoro is among the most extraordinary family films ever made. Roger Ebert included it in his Great Films project, justly so. For years now I’ve been mulling over a personal all-time top 10 list (I’ve settled on about six or seven titles), and I’ve gone back and forth whether to give a slot on the list to Miyazaki’s Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. In the end I think Spirited Away wins out, but it’s close.
The gentle, nearly plotless events in the lives of two young girls moving into a new house are mesmerizing to even the youngest viewers, and draw receptive adults into a precritical world of exploration, eeriness, worry and wonder. The mundane is infused with magic, and the magical is presented with matter-of-fact ordinariness.
In one iconic scene, the two sisters wait in the rain at a bus stop for their father, for whom they have brought an umbrella. Mei, the younger sister, becomes sleepy, and Satsuke holds her piggy-back, balancing her umbrella on one shoulder. Then they're joined by an unexpected party. This clip offers a taste of the scene (for more, read my full review):
Miyazaki’s compelling gift for world-building hasn’t failed him in Howl’s Moving Castle, loosely based on the fantasy novel by Diana Wynn Jones. I’ve watched the film three times now, and I can’t deny that it has a certain power, even fascination.
But this only makes the film’s weaknesses more frustrating. On our most recent viewing, my daughter Sarah put her finger on the heart of the problem: Howl himself, an enigmatic wizard whose ambiguities aren’t so much a matter of inscrutability — as with Fujimoto in Ponyo, or Yubaba and Haku in Spirited Away — as they are a matter of the character’s own lack of direction.
Chihiro in Spirited Away might not know whether or not Haku could be trusted, but at least Haku’s confidence and powers provided a reference point in an otherwise inscrutable world. His nature might be in doubt, but if he could be trusted, one could trust him utterly. With Howl, the question is not merely what his nature is, but whether he has a center at all. Certainly he doesn’t seem to deserve Sophie’s love, as Haku does Chihiro’s.
Still, Howl’s Moving Castle has its charms. Above all, I’ll always love the first-act moment in the video below. When I first saw it in the theater, my heart leapt at this scene as high as Howl and Sophie, and I thought perhaps I had a new favorite on my hands. The rest of the film didn’t hold up, but this scene remains potent.
Bonus features for My Neighbor Totoro include a series of brief interviews with Hayao Miyazaki talking about the inspirations for the film, the characters and Totoro himself and an extra on dubbing the film into English. Extras for Howl's Moving Castle include an interview with Pete Docter, who oversaw the English adaptation and talks about the impact this experience had on his own (superior) Up. Both Blu-rays include original storyboard art and Japanese trailers.
Fast & Furious 6 in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
The Great Gatsby in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Coming to Fox News and The Catholic Channel: Reel Faith!
Well, not permanently or anything. (Not yet, anyway.) But in the next 24 hours or so David DiCerto and I will be appearing on both venues to talk about Reel Faith and movies in theaters.
Tonight (Thursday, 5/23) we’ll be on Busted Halo with Father Dave Dwyer (Catholic Channel) in the 9pm hour EDT. Then tomorrow afternoon (Friday, 5/24) we’ll be on Spirited Debate with Lauren Green (Fox News | watch live) in the 1pm hour EDT.
Reel Faith kicks off its fourth year Friday night with our summer season premiere — and we’re now on Salt and Light TV (Toronto), Telecare TV (Long Island) and CatholicTV (Boston) as well as our own NET (New York Metro area). We’ll also be debuting on Verizon FiOS On Demand shortly after our NET debut.
When and where can you watch? Read more.