Decent Films Blog
I just want to say: How often does the opportunity come to rhyme “island” and “Thailand”? You have to appreciate these things when they come.
The hunt for bin Laden may be over, but let’s not forget: Hop is still in theaters, and will soon be coming to DVD.
It’s like the terrorists have already won.
For a second opinion, see my “Reel Faith” co-host David DiCerto’s 30-second review.
Okay, technically that’s misleading since it isn’t really my Union suit: I rented this Yankee soldier uniform from the helpful folks at the Party Stop & Costume Corner in Westfield, NJ for this 30-second review of the Civil War-era film The Conspirator. I really dug the film, and I had a lot of fun doing this review. Enjoy!
He slaughtered at least five of them.
I’ve gotten a number of queries about the fevered discussion about Opus Dei’s murderous history and sinister influence in the Church related by filmmaker Roland Joffé in the press conference I reported on a couple of weeks ago.
Exactly how did the conversation go? For your shock and amusement, here’s the full exchange as Joffé related it. The discussion begins with Joffé mentioning that he’s making a film about Opus Dei.
Friend: Oh my God, that’s a Fascist organization! I mean, they slaughtered hundreds of people!
Joffé: They have? Really? How do you know that?
F: Well, even if they haven’t, they’re extremely influential in the Church. I mean, they basically control the Church.
J: How would they control the Church?
F: They control the cardinals and the pope.
J: They hypnotize them? How do they do it?
F: They do it through the cardinals.
J: How many cardinals are in Opus Dei?
J: Well, how many cardinals are there [in the world]?
F: I don’t know, but lots and lots of them are definitely in Opus Dei.
J: Well, I think there may be one or two, or maybe in three.
F: Well, that’s what I’m saying—that’s the way it works. It’s all kept secret.
J: Well, okay. Anything else?
F: Bishops. Lots and lots of bishops. How do you account for all these bishops in Opus Dei?
J: How many bishops are in Opus Dei?
F: Well, I don’t know—thousands of bishops …
Apparently it went downhill from there.
I don’t think any further commentary is needed, do you? As Pat Archbold put it recently, we hold certain untruths to be self-evident.
For those who Like Decent Films on Facebook, or would like to: Thanks to a suggestion from a reader, Decent Films is now easier to find on Facebook. Just go to www.facebook.com/decentfilms.
It’s not often that I encounter a Line I Wish I Had Written right in the headline of a review, but here’s a case in point.Tim Brayton, who blogs at Antagony & Ecstasy, kicks off his cathartic (though also occasionally obscene) review of Hop with the brilliant headline:
Abandon All Hop, Ye Who Enter Here
That headline isn’t the only quotable bit from Tim’s review. Here’s how he opens:
I will assume that you have been unable to avoid the omnipresent advertisements for Hop, and that you have formed an opinion of it. I will further assume that you have anything like taste, and that your opinion is not positive. In fact, I suspect that you think Hop looks bad - absolutely dreadful, even. If that’s the case, your expectations are too high.
This tracks exactly with my thoughts while watching the movie (and it’s not the only line in Tim’s review that does): Coming out of the theater, I texted Suz that as bad as the trailers made it look, the movie was worse.
Oh, I love this line too:
[T]here’s an eye-brow raising moment when Papa Bunny (Hugh Laurie) makes note of Easter’s 4000 years of tradition, a calculation that makes the baby Jesus cry. And indeed, every other iteration of Jesus as well.
Other recent releases include Tron: Legacy and new Blu-ray/DVD editions of Fiddler on the Roof (buy), Babe (buy), The Incredibles (buy), Cars (buy), Peter Pan (buy), Lars and the Real Girl (buy) and Much Ado About Nothing (buy).
For more on these releases, see this week’s “DVD Picks & Passes” column at NCRegister.com (subscribers only).
This Friday, March 15 I’ll be on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6pm–7pm EST) with Patrick Coffin. Movies we’ll be talking about include Rio; The Conspirator; Hop; Soul Surfer; Born to Be Wild; Jane Eyre and more. Listen live!
Finally, in addition to the spontaneous words and actions of the monks (part 4), the rich and frequent scenes of prayers, hymns and liturgy, an integral part of the fabric of the film, contributes enormously to the depiction of the monks’ Catholic milieu, their beliefs and spirituality.
We’ve already seen the immense significance accorded to Christmas in a crucial early sequence, with its Christmas hymn recounting how “God has prepared the earth like a cradle / For his coming from above” as “the Child of life divine,” “taking flesh of our flesh,” etc. Later in that sequence, we see the monks tenderly place a manger holding the Christ child in the creche they have set up.
I’ve also cited lines like “Recognizing my weaknesses, I accept those of others. I can bear them, make them mine, in imitation of Christ … The apostle’s weakness is like Christ’s, rooted in the mystery of Easter and the strength of the Spirit.”
Here’s another notable excerpt from the monks’ worship, redolent with powerful passion, resurrection, Eucharistic and Trinitarian language:
Let us turn to the Man of Sorrows
Who beckons us from the cross
Because He is with us as on Easter morn.
Let us not forget the blood He shed.
Let us break the bread
Let us drink from the chalice of passage
Let us greet the One who sacrificed Himself.
By loving us until the end
Through Him, with Him and in Him
You shall receive, Almighty Father
In the unity of the Holy Spirit
All glory and honor,
Forever and ever.
The eucharistic language is reinforced by an actual communion scene in which we hear the repeated words “The body of Christ.” (There is also an important climactic “Last Supper” scene, though the Eucharistic overtones are subtextual, not explicit.)
After three posts exploring the Catholic content of Of Gods and Men, I thought I was finished, but combox responses persuaded me to add two more posts.
One comment expressed concerns about edits being made to eliminate references to Jesus Christ. Another expressed doubts regarding the extent to which the monks’ conversations, including their debates about whether or not to remain in Algeria, made reference to Jesus, God or spiritual considerations. Other readers have written to me with related questions and misgivings, though to be fair I’ve also heard from many deeply appreciative viewers of the film.
To an extent some of these questions are startling to me, partly since I already documented (in part 2) Christian’s magnificent Incarnational discourse in which he talks about “welcoming the Child” at Christmas, adding in part, “The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity. The mystery of Incarnation remains what we are going to live.”
To this crowning example can be added numerous additional spiritually and theologically fraught lines—including specifically Christological references specifically on the subject mentioned above, whether or not to stay in Algeria.
My esteemed colleague Pat Archbold’s lively and engaging post on big-screen Jesuses has obliged me to add a few notes of my own (with apologies for the post title joke—I don’t really think Pat “forgot” anything, since his list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive in the first place, and certainly mine isn’t either).
Judging from Pat’s combox, the best big-screen Jesus for a lot of people is either Robert Powell of Jesus of Nazareth or Jim Caviezel of The Passion of the Christ. I think there’s a lot to be said for both, although obviously no actor could truly do Jesus justice, and both performances have weak spots in my opinion.
Powell aptly conveys authority, fire and tenderness, but there are moments, particularly during miracle sequences, when, to quote Mike Hertenstein of Flickerings.com, Powell’s “Jedi-like histrionics” are a bit much. As for Caviezel, he embodies the Suffering Servant of the Passion narratives as well as any actor could, I think—yet he’s less convincing, at least to me, in the crucial flashback sequences as the New Moses of the Sermon on the Mount and the High Priest of the Last Supper. (On the other hand, both films have utterly flawless Blessed Virgins, in my opinion: I can find no fault in either Olivia Hussey or Maia Morgenstern.)
Paying tribute to Winter’s Bone in a 30-second rhyming review presented some challenges. I decided to riff on one of the bluegrass songs in the film, although without instruments (and with only 30 seconds to get it out) I had to make some adjustments to the rhythm and melody.
The last two lines were a last-minute change that I’m somewhat ambivalent about. “We’ll understand it better by and by” refers to the title of the gospel hymn by Rev. Charles A. Tindley played over the end credits. I like the allusion to the hymn, but I’m not sure I should have changed the last two lines, which originally ran, “It’s not for the faint of heart / But there’s grace and beauty in this work of art.” This was maybe better because it gave critically helpful information (the content is pretty rough but treated in a redemptive way). The new lines are more of an homage and less of a review, which is okay, but I’m thinking it would be better to keep it critical where possible.
More to come!
This week’s home-video releases include Disney’s charming Tangled (buy) and an anniversary celebration of Cecil B. DeMille’s magnum opus The Ten Commandments (buy), along with “Charlton Heston Presents the Bible.”
A passel of Disney sports films come to Blu-ray: Miracle (buy), The Rookie (buy), Remember the Titans, The Greatest Game Ever Played (buy), Invincible. Paramount has rereleased a pair of Audrey Hepburn classics, Sabrina (buy) and Roman Holiday (buy). Other new releases or rereleases, some seen and some unseen by me, include Black Swan, King of Kings, The Spiderwick Chronicles (buy), The Secret of NIMH and The Human Experience.
With Tangled, Disney finally takes on the Rapunzel story, with winning results. An ingenuous and personable heroine, a dashing rogue, a twisted villainess, and an extremely conscientious horse make for a sparkling tale with heart, wit and swashbuckling action. It’s not a perfect film, and the climax is a bit of a letdown, but the fun along the way is definitely worth the trip.
I’m a fan of Blu-ray/DVD combo editions, whether or not you have a Blu-ray; there’s also a Blu-ray/DVD set that includes a 3D version of the film, but 3D for television hasn’t arrived yet in my opinion. Whichever Blu-ray edition you get, the highlight of the bonus features is a 12-minute making-of featurette called "UnTangled: The Making of a Fairy Tale" that goes into character design, the lantern sequence, the animation of Rapunzel’s 70 feet of hair and Disney history trivia.
Celebrating its 55th anniversary, The Ten Commandments is newly available in three editions, a DVD edition, a 2-disc Blu-ray edition and a 6-disc Blu-ray/DVD Gift Set. The best new bonus feature is a 75-minute making-of documentary "The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles" that’s on the DVD set and the 6-disc Blu-ray/DVD Gift Set, but not the 2-disc Blu-ray edition. The best previously available extra is DeMille’s original 1923 silent version of The 10 Commandments — for film buffs a must-see thanks to the awesome sets and the spectacular Jell-O parting of the Red Sea — which is only available on the 6-disc mega-edition, making that the edition to get.
I haven’t had a chance to see “Charlton Heston Presents the Bible.” (buy), a set of four documentaries now available as a 4-disc set from Warner Bros. The series comprises “Genesis,” “The Story of Moses,” “Jesus of Nazareth” and “The Passion.”
Back from a week in Spain! More to come this week on Of Gods and Men, once I catch my breath—and catch up on a few other things—but for now here’s my 30-second look at Inception. Enjoy!
Of Gods and Men concludes, very nearly, with excerpts from the real Dom Christian’s spiritual testament, a meditation in which the abbot of Tibhirine reflects on the possibility of his eventual murder. Here, in part, is how it is quoted in the film:
I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for people here indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who called me naive or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank-you, which encompasses my entire life, includes you, of course friends of yesterday and today and you too, friend of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank-you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insh’allah!
In this extraordinary document are an astonishing Christian spirit and an irenicism toward Islam that is startling and challenging. Is it too irenic—the “false irenicism” warned against by Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis and the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism?
Does Of Gods and Men portray the Tibhirine monks evangelizing their Muslim neighbors? Not directly, certainly. Trappist monks generally don’t engage in direct evangelization. It’s true, as noted by my correspondent (see Part 1), that a positive depiction of evangelization would be strikingly countercultural, but we mustn’t substitute ideas for a film we would like to see for criticism of an actual film. What a film might have done may provide an interesting point of comparison or contrast, but in the end a film stands or falls what it does, not what it might have done.
If a film is based on a true story (or even a fictional story) that we care about, then fidelity to the source material may be an important point of comparison or contrast to us. In that connection, while Of Gods and Men only loosely follows the events in the last years of the monks at Tibhirine, with respect to evangelization and the unique truth-claims of Christianity Of Gods and Men is probably a reasonably fair record of the monks’ behavior and attitudes.
It should be noted that the film features no major Muslim characters, and focuses on the monks, not Muslim–Christian dialogue, so it’s not like we see the monks passing on lots of opportunities to evangelize. For the most part the monks’ brief interactions with Muslims involve either serving their neighbors with medical, charitable and other forms of aid, or confrontations with government or military authorities as well as terrorists.
There is some discussion with the local villagers about Muslim atrocities against both Christians and Muslims. The villagers, horrified by a deadly attack on Christians in their community, express their incomprehension at those who kill in the name of Islam. “God says in the Quran: You kill your brother, you go to hell,” one says to Dom Christian, adding that the terrorists “say they’re religious. They’ve never read the Quran. In the Quran, it’s written down.”
This is too glib—and we’ve seen that the film shows us that it is untrue; terrorists may indeed know the Quran and may even be able to finish a quotation. Even so, had I been in Christian’s place, I probably wouldn’t have taken that opportunity to contest the point with the horrified villagers; and I don’t blame Christian, or the film, for not cross-examining the villagers in this moment of crisis.
This weekend, Of Gods and Men — based on the true story of the martyred Trappist monks of the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria — gets its widest distribution yet, opening on 36 new screens in California, Connecticut, Colorado, DC, Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas. Is it playing anywhere near you? Check playdates!
I’m about as excited about this film as I get about film, which is a lot (see my review and even my 30-second review). I understand why some viewers might have questions, though. In the combox for my review, a reader asks:
I heard that some traditionalist critics do not like the film because it seems to endorse the heresy of indifferentism (that it does not matter what religion one is) or subjectivism. In light of what you said about the Quran being on the Abbot’s desk, do you have an opinion about this? Did the original monks make any attempt to introduce their neighbors to Christ? Perhaps you will say that they did through their example, but I mean, did they seem to think Islam was just as good as Christianity? A positive depiction of evangelization would be delightfully politically incorrect these days.
Does Of Gods and Men endorse religious indifferentism? I don’t think that’s accurate, no. It would be fair to say that it doesn’t explicitly affirm Christianity as the one true faith, and that it embraces the better side of Islam, at one point enough to raise pious eyebrows. (More about this later.)
On the other hand, Of Gods and Men powerfully communicates the beauty and attractiveness of lived Christian faith, and of the Christian faith itself, in its theological and liturgical richness and uniqueness—and does so, I believe, more memorably and appealingly than any dramatic feature film I can think of in up to a quarter century.
My latest Reel Faith YouTube mini-review.
Live in Illinois or California? Of Gods and Men opens a bit wider today, possibly in your area. It’s also playing in New York. Next week it’ll be all over the place. Check out the release dates and locations.
This week’s home video releases include two ambitious animated films from Studio Ghibli, an ambitious Arthurian saga and a modest but essential religious family classic that should be in everyone’s home library, especially at Easter season.
New on DVD, Tales From Earthsea (buy) is the directorial debut of Goro Miyazaki, son of legendary Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. Tales from Earthsea isn’t remotely the classic that is the elder Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (buy), newly available in a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo edition, but there are resonances between the two works, and Goro’s film, flawed though it is, shows promise.
Also in a new two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo edition is The Miracle Maker (buy), a minor masterpiece of stop-motion animation that's one the best films ever made on the life of Jesus, and indispensable Easter viewing at our house. Indispensable, I say. If you haven’t seen it, you don’t know what you’re missing. Trust me. I practically guarantee you’ll be glad you did.
New on Blu-ray, much less essential: John Boorman’s Excalibur (buy), a film that makes a real attempt at being the Arthurian classic that Hollywood never produced — and pretty much makes a mess of it, although it’s a kind of interesting mess. It tries to honor as much of the Arthurian material as possible, but fails to make a coherent whole out of it. Still, if you’re an Arthur buff, you may want to catch it.
Lots of Red Riding Hood reviews, including mine, made obvious connections to the Twilight films, the first of which was directed by Red Riding Hood director Catherine Hardwicke. It takes a mind like Peter Chattaway’s to contemplate connections to Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story — and conclude that Red Riding Hood is in some ways “the anti-Nativity Story.”
In addition to the obvious fact that “The Nativity Story pandered to Christian audiences while Red Riding Hood casts a basically negative light on the Church,” Peter notes the following connections:
Hardwicke, a former production designer and art director, went out of her way to meticulously reconstruct first-century Palestinian life in The Nativity Story — to make it as “authentic” as possible — whereas Red Riding Hood feels very much like a movie that was shot indoors, in a studio, under artificial lights, even when people are supposed to be standing in broad daylight in the town square. I don’t say this as a criticism — I think Hardwicke must have been trying pretty deliberately to give this film a quasi-artificial storybook fairy-tale feel rather than anything approaching historical naturalism — but it’s still an interesting difference …
One less-obvious connection would be the fact that there is talk of an arranged marriage in Red Riding Hood, just as there was in The Nativity Story. I’m not sure if there are any others …
Oh, one other Nativity Story connection: Both films feature a scene in which people look at a model of the celestial spheres. (In The Nativity Story, it’s the Magi interpreting “the star”. In Red Riding Hood, it’s Gary Oldman explaining the difference between a “blood moon” and a regular full moon.)
Warning: Spoilers below.
Today on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6pm–7pm EST), I’ll be talking about Of Gods and Men; Red Riding Hood; Rango; The Adjustment Bureau and more. Listen live!
Don’t worry—no joking around this time. Silliness is a hallmark of my 30-second reviews so far (most notably yesterday’s The Social Network), but this film is different. Of Gods and Men—read my full-length review—is one of the most sublime films I’ve ever seen. This is a sincere tribute not only to Xavier Beauvois’ film, but to the monks of the Tibhirine monastery itself—and while I do use rhyming verse, it’s quite different from my usual approach.
There is no excuse for this, I know. So I won’t try. Creation myths may need a devil, but Mark Zuckerberg didn’t make me do it. Mea cula, mea cula, mea maxima culpa.
Complementing my full-length review of The Adjustment Bureau in today’s news section, here’s my 30-second take on the film in verse—the latest of my “Reel Faith” 30-second reviews from NET TV …
Noteworthy home-video releases this week include one of the most grueling adult films of last year and one of the gentlest family films of all time.
Don’t let James Franco’s impression of a mannequin hosting the Academy Awards this Sunday put you off: His performance in 127 Hours (buy) richly deserves his Best Actor nomination. As real-life adventurer Aron Ralston, Franco spends nearly the whole film playing opposite a rock pinning his arm to a canyon wall in the Utah desert, but his volatile performance — and Danny Boyle’s flamboyant direction — make for a riveting, cathartic experience.
…even though I liked True Grit better.
Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech
Last night at the Academy Awards, my favorite film of 2010, True Grit, went 0 for 10, winning none of the impressive lineup of nominations it had garnered including best picture, director, actor, supporting actress and adapted screenplay. (Read full Oscar coverage.)
Ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, nominated eight times before without winning, lost a ninth nomination, this time to Wally Pfister for Inception. And for my money 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld deserved the supporting actress award for her uncanny poise and self-assurance and her ability to hold the screen against Jeff Bridge and Matt Damon—all while effortlessly wrapping her mouth around the screenplay’s archaic language. (By the time Melissa Leo got through her rambling, cringe-inducing acceptance speech, with its bleeped f-bomb, I suspect some Academy members regretted not voting for Steinfeld.)
And yet, I’m glad that the evening’s big winner was The King’s Speech. Although not necessarily a better film than True Grit, it’s a very good film of a kind that we desperately need, and one in desperately short supply in mainstream cinema: a good, wholesome film about good, wholesome people. The wholesomeness of these characters and their milieu is something lacking in many of the year’s best films, including Inception, The Social Network, Winter’s Bone and even True Grit.
Tune in this weekend for a one-hour Oscar special of Reel Faith, in which David DiCerto and I discuss our predictions and favorites as well as snubs and such. Airtimes are Saturday, February 26th at 8pm & 11pm & Oscar Sunday, February 27th at 6am, 9am, 2pm and 6pm. You can catch the broadcast online at the NET homepage; not sure when the episode will be posted at the Reel Faith website. (If you haven’t caught our last episode, now’s the time.)
Also, this afternoon around 5:40pm EST I’ll be on Al Kresta discussing the transcendent film Of Gods and Men, which opens this weekend in NY and LA. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he brings up spiritual themes at the Oscars too.
Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech
The Academy Awards are upon us, and the two top contenders for major awards—The King’s Speech and True Grit—are both excellent films with significant moral and/or spiritual overtones. In fact, Lisa Respers France at CNN.com’s Religion Blog suggests that many of this year’s Oscar nominees have “deeply spiritual overtones.”
As an aside, last year’s most profoundly and transcendently religious film—conspicuously not nominated by the Academy, though it’s won lots of other awards, including the jury prize at Cannes—makes its American debut this weekend in New York and Los Angeles: Of Gods and Men. If you live anywhere in the New York or Los Angeles area, go see it. This weekend. I’m not kidding. I’ll write more about it soon (and I’ll be talking about it this afternoon on Kresta around 5:40 EST), but for now the best mainstream take on it I’ve seen is Kenneth Turan’s (LATimes.com).
Citing a number of writers and teachers whose work links faith and film, France argues that the current crop of Oscar nominees “explore themes that many contain elements of spirituality”: