Decent Films Blog
Spotlighted for your Lenten benefit: my 2011 blog post “Into the Desert: Lent and Film,” including some general thoughts on fasting and ascesis and some recommendations for appropriate Lenten viewing. Appended is a response to a reader asking for Lenten viewing suggestions without subtitles for pre-reading children especially.
Note that among the last year’s crop of films are a number that would make excellent Lenten viewing (for older viewers, not children, alas). Above all, Of Gods and Men will join Into Great Silence on my short list of films I will never fail to watch at this time of year.
The Mill & the Cross, with its reenactment of the passion of Christ, would make excellent Lenten viewing for receptive adults.
It's also worth noting that The Way, named after and structured around the Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James, was appropriately released on home video just this week, and would make worthwhile Lenten viewing.
On Sunday afternoon I was at the theater with my entire family to see the lovely new family film The Secret World of Arrietty, along with another family from our church. Each of our families has six kids, and my cousin was also with us, making 17 in all.
While I was standing on line to buy tickets, there was an announcement that a screening had sold out: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, a nominal sequel to the action-adventure family flick Journey to the Center of the Earth, with a pec-popping Dwayne Johnson replacing Brendan Frasier. No one thinks Journey 2 is a masterpiece, probably not even The Rock, and yet it’s selling out theaters in its second weekend.
Two box-office windows away, I heard a father with young kids in tow impatiently asking a ticket seller, “Well, do you have anything else for kids playing here?”
Film critics live for such moments.
Turning, I called out the name of the movie we were there to see. He looked over at me quizzically, and I said confidently, “Trust me.” Shrugging, he bought tickets for his kids. I didn’t see him again, but odds are they enjoyed The Secret World of Arrietty, which audiences nationwide awarded a CinemaScore of A-minus (the same letter grade I gave it).
Gratifyingly, Arrietty enjoyed easily the strongest American opening of any Studio Ghibli film, more than doubling Ponyo’s opening box office and even doing better per-screen business than recent Ghibli releases, despite opening wider than any previous Ghibli film.
Yet for all that Arrietty opened in 8th place, far behind forgettable fare like Journey 2 and This Means War, both of which audiences also rated A-minus—not to mention films that even audiences agreed were nothing special, including The Vow and the universally panned Ghost Rider sequel (or requel, or whatever).
At the Arrietty screening, we sat through a string of trailers, mostly for lame-looking Hollywood films that will probably make a lot more money than Arrietty will. It’s like they wanted to hit us over the head with the disease before offering the antidote.
At least three were computer-animated family films. The dreadful-looking Madagascar threequel. What looks to be the latest Dr. Seuss atrocity, The Lorax. And Pixar’s Brave, which of course I’m hoping will be their post–Cars 2 comeback, though the trailer is screaming “DreamWorks” at me. (To be fair, the previews for The Incredibles and Toy Story 3 did nothing for me either.)
What else? A trailer for Mirror, Mirror, the first of this year’s two dueling live-action Snow White projects (possibly literally dueling, at least in the case of Snow White and the Huntsman, which transforms Snow into an armor-clad warrior princess à la Burton’s Alice in Wonderland).
Finally, a couple of trailers that didn’t necessarily fill me with dread—neither typical Hollywood family entertainment. One was British Aardman Animation’s stop-motion swashbuckling comedy The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which doesn’t look particularly inspired, but seems like it might be a jolly exercise in absurdism. The other was DisneyNature’s latest bio-documentary, Chimpanzee.
Did anyone get really enthused watching the trailer for Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, even DreamWorks employees? For that matter, is anyone genuinely fond of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa? I don’t expect many people disliked it as cordially as I did, but would any of its fans say to visiting friends, “Oh, here’s a movie you ought to see,” and press the DVD into their hands?
Checking Metacritic.com, I see at least one critic gave Madagascar 2 a rating above 75 percent, Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun. Okay, but how often has he watched it since then? 2008 was the year we got Wall-E, Horton Hears a Who, Bolt and Kung Fu Panda, all of which I’ve seen with my kids a number of times, and any of which I would gladly watch again tomorrow.
Yet with the exception of the strange and beautiful Wall-E, none of those American cartoons touches the artistry of The Secret World of Arrietty, a movie I know from experience my kids and I will watch again and again on Blu-ray. If you were visiting my house and had never seen a Ghibli film, it might be the movie we would press into your hands.
In Japan, The Secret World of Arrietty was the #1 film of 2010. The Japanese watch lousy Hollywood films too, but it seems not to have ruined their taste for finer things. Why is that?
What possesses parents to take their kids to a third Chipmunks movie? Did the first two really instill such confidence?
I guess if kids are begging to see it, I can imagine parents relenting and resignedly heading to the theater (with iPods in their pockets). But wouldn’t it be better to raise kids who wouldn’t want to see a Chipmunks threequel in the first place? It’s doable—and you don’t have to avoid movies entirely.
Don’t settle for a mysterious island when there’s a whole secret world to be discovered.
As background, the March 2012 issue of Catholic Digest magazine marks a complete reinvention of the magazine under the direction of its new editor-in-chief, Danielle Bean, formerly of Faith & Family magazine.
Catholic Digest is the oldest and probably the most widely read Catholic periodical in America, and the relaunch is an exciting thing.
As part of the relaunch, I’ll be contributing a monthly column called “Worth Watching.” This month’s column is on the 2012 Academy Award nominees; it’s online now at the Catholic Digest website, and will eventually be available here at Decent Films as well.
The Oscars are just a week away now. If you missed the first two airings of our one-hour “Reel Faith” Oscar Special, you have one more chance to catch it on Thursday, February 23 at 9:00pm. Note: This is a change from the date and time originally reported. Hope you enjoy it. (Watch NET live.)
This Friday, February 10 I'll be appearing on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6pm–7pm EDT).
Patrick Coffin and I will be discussing Oscar nominees and recent and upcoming films including The Secret World of Arrietty, Big Miracle, The Grey and The Woman in Black. Listen live!
In reality, the list isn’t as sweeping as the title might suggest. Rather than a Top 10 list of Catholic web resources generally (a list that might include EWTN.com, NCRegister.com, Catholic.com and OSV.com itself — not to mention the most august Catholic website of all, Vatican.va), Mark has put together a list highlighting ten websites representing the personal apostolates of individual Catholics.
Suffice to say, it’s good company to be in. Rather than name-dropping any of my fellow honorees, and risking slighting others, I’ll simply say, in one of Mark’s characteristic phrases: Check thou it out!
Prince Philip battles Maleficent in dragon form in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Transforming into a dragon is really evil.
An intriguing question posed to me in another forum:
Who is the worst Disney villain? Mother Gothel in Tangled is bad (kidnapping, brainwashing). The evil Queen from Snow White?
For me, I think it’s Scar in The Lion King. He kills his brother and sets it all up for Simba to be screwed up for life. His minions are also pretty bad.
Most people overlook Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, but he is pure evil. Frollo in Hunchback has no redeeming qualities either. Just thinking out loud (obviously).
Hm. Some thoughts:
To start with, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty not only declares herself to be the “mistress of all evil,” but transforms into a dragon embodying “the powers of hell”—and the Prince battles her bearing a shield with a cross on it. That puts her a league worse than the Queen in Snow White, I think. (Incidentally, for what it’s worth, the Evil Overlord List includes the resolution, “I will not turn into a snake. It never helps.” It may not help, but it doesn’t stop them from trying.)
Going a step further, for sheer iconic evil, probably the ultimate is the demon Chernabog from Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence. On a similar, much lesser note, Hercules transformed the Greek god Hades into a kind of Satan stand-in. I don’t remember that movie well enough to comment on his overall evilness, though.
If it weren’t such a dreadful movie and such an utter insult to books I love, I might footnote the Horned King from The Black Cauldron, on the grounds that anyone who commands an army of living dead is pretty definitively evil.
Oh, and Doctor Facilier, the “Shadow Man” from The Princess and the Frog, is in league with demons who ultimately drag him to hell. So, that’s bad.
In terms of actual evil schemes … well, yes, Scar in The Lion King is really twisted and ruthless, and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, though partly a buffoon and a comic figure, is a monster of a petty, parochial sort.
If we consider evil in terms of magnitude or consequences, Scar and Gaston are both small potatoes compared to two villains who attempt to seize power on a planetary or even cosmic scale: The Little Mermaid’s Ursula the Sea Witch and, above all, Aladdin’s Jafar—for a while there the biggest threat to creation in any Disney movie. Even bigger, in a sense, than Chernabog, who may be more powerful and purely satanic, but succumbs at the first toll of a church bell and the coming of dawn.
Lots of people think of Cruella de Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians as some sort of ultimate villain—but as flamboyant as she was, she was basically a spoiled, cranky lady who liked fur. She even legitimately owned most of the dogs she was going to make into coats. Stealing 15 puppies certainly isn’t a good thing, but in the annals of Disney villainy it’s hardly grand larceny. Soul sister Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove (an underrated gem) was a lot more evil. Really, the only reason people remember Cruella de Vil so vividly, other than that she shouted a lot, was that groovy song.
I’m not a big fan of Disney’s Peter Pan (I like other versions better), but I have a soft spot for Disney’s Captain Hook, who’s so nasty he shoots one of his own men for annoying him with an accordion.
Frollo in Hunchback may have no redeeming qualities, but isn’t he at least troubled by guilt about his sinful tendencies, or something? (It’s been a really long time since my lone viewing of Hunchback.) Dunno if that makes him better or worse than an unconflictedly evil villain.
If I try to come up with the single sickest, most twisted character, I think I might circle back to your original suggestion: Mother Gothel from Tangled, who’s so sociopathically narcissistic that she wraps a young girl’s heart around her little finger in order to keep herself perpetually young and beautiful. That may not be the greatest crime in the Disney canon, or the most dangerous, but I think it may be the most disgusting.
Readers, what do you think? What are your favorite villains? Least favorites? Which is the most evil? The most (dare I say) misunderstood? Comment at the Register combox.
The Ides of March: my “Reel Faith” review.
Friday, January 20, I’ll be on the first hour of Catholic Answers Live! (6pm–7pm EST). Patrick Coffin and I will be talking about the best and worst films of 2011 and much much more. Listen live!
At last, a horror film for disaffected Catholic traditionalists embittered against the Church for post-Vatican II changes; who see the Church itself, not just the larger culture, as compromised by modernism, and impeding orthodox clerics from carrying out true spiritual work.
Not, of course, that that particular demographic was clamoring for a horror movie to call their own. Other than Mel Gibson … and E. Michael Jones … I’m not sure how many disaffected traditionalist Catholic horror-movie fans there are out there, although as worldviews go radical traditionalism does seem eminently suited to the perverse paranoia and melancholy permeating the genre. At any rate, if I considered Pope Benedict XVI a tool of a Masonic plot against the Church, I imagine I might take some satisfaction in knowing that The Devil Inside was getting the message out, after a fashion.
Less encouraging, to be sure, would be the horrendous response to the film, which opened at the top of the box office on the strength of a canny marketing campaign—and the fact that it hadn’t been screened for critics. Lest anyone think that its impressive numbers betoken a previously untapped Lefebvrite horror audience, audiences hated it. Word of mouth has been atrocious, and the film tumbled after opening day. Audiences awarded it a CinemaScore rating of F, and critics, when they got around to seeing it, were no kinder: The Devil Inside is currently pulling a mere 6% at Rotten Tomatoes.
At the movie’s Wikipedia entry, an unreferenced claim notes, with a bit of hyperbole that might itself be further canny marketing: “It has been suggested that the ending in particular may be the worst in the history of cinema.” Admit it, you want to see it now, don’t you? Either way, thanks to the film’s low-budget “found footage” pseudo-documentary style, The Devil Inside was already profitable on opening day. There is actually discussion about a possible sequel.
This weekend Disney’s latter-day classic Beauty and the Beast returns to theaters in a 3D converted version. I was looking forward to taking the whole family to last weekend’s 3D screening, but life got in the way. As for the film itself, I have nothing to add to my recent review; here it is.
Tuesday, 1/10: This afternoon I’ll be on Catholic radio twice in the 5 o’clock hour (EST) discussing a pair of movies with very Catholic themes (a comment that should not be taken as an endorsement!).
Then around 5:35pm I’ll be on Ave Maria Radio’s Kresta in the Afternoon talking about the home video release of There Be Dragons, starring Charlie Cox as St. Josemaria Escriva. (Al’s got copies to give away, so if you want to see the film, listen live.)
Recognition and praise are always appreciated, but this month’s shout-out from Image Journal naming me their Artist of the Month for January 2012 is especially gratifying. They have some thoughtful comments about my film writing, both with respect to craft and content, and the guy they’re describing sounds to me like the guy I try to be. Suz says they nailed me. What do you think?
The honor comes three months after a piece I wrote for Image Journal, “A House Divided,” about households and houses in crisis in family fantasy films. It’s a piece I’m particularly pleased with, bringing together my thoughts about broken family films in general and imaginative connections I’ve been thinking about for years in films ranging from The Wizard of Oz to E.T. to Pixar’s Up, which in some ways is a kind of pinnacle or climax for the themes in question. Check out the essay here at Decent Films or at Image Journal.
Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”
Following up on my “Still Christmas” post on Advent and Christmas family traditions, Christmas movies are an important tradition in many households. For me, Christmas movies are an especially important way of marking the continuing Christmas season. In general, I would rather watch Christmas movies with my kids after Christmas day, rather than before, as a way of celebrating the Christmas season.
The one Christmas classic I’d really like to watch before Christmas is, alas, one that hasn’t been made yet. I mean a Christmas classic about the real meaning of Christmas, the birth of the Lord Jesus. There have been movies made about this, notably The Nativity Story, but nothing that rises to real classic status. (For more on The Nativity Story’s artistic and theological merits and limitations, see my various pieces at Decent Films.)
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth watching on the real meaning of Christmas. In particular, I like to watch the first hour or so of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth with my family around Christmastime. Praised by Pope Paul VI as “an example of a fine use that can be made of the new ways of communication that God is offering man,” Jesus of Nazareth honors both the Jewish context in which Jesus was born and the Catholic sensibility that has celebrated Him for 2000 years.
In particular, Olivia Hussey is an iconic Virgin Mary, and the numinous Annunciation scene is the best I’ve ever seen. Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great has a wonderful scene offering an outside perspective on Judaism and the phenomena of prophecy and Messianic hope. There are down sides, most annoyingly the Magi’s avoidance of Herod’s court, and Herod fretting about the same. And you have to be willing to deal with Mary suffering birth pangs (for more, see my essay on Catholic teaching and The Nativity Story, which raises the same issue). Overall, though, it’s the best we have so far.
All Advent long, observant Catholics and other Christians hold the line against premature Christmas, holding off on decking the halls and singing Christmas carols during what is meant to be a time of preparation.
Now, as the world is busily dismantling what’s left of its Christmas trappings, it’s time for Christians to double down on the continued celebration of the Christmas season, which continues through the Christmas Octave (to January 1, the eighth day after Christmas, and thus the day of Jesus’ circumcision, celebrated as the feast of Mary the Mother of God) until after Advent to the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. (This year that means that Christmas runs through January 9, and ordinary time returns on January 10.)
This is especially important for families with young children, I think, to instill in them a proper sense of liturgical time at an early age.
As far as the larger culture goes, the notion of the Christmas season would seem to be a lost battle. (Suz commented recently how depressing it was to get an “After Christmas Sale” catalog before Christmas actually arrived: “It’s like it’s never actually Christmas!”)
Within our families and churches, though, we can sustain a culture of resistance. How do we do this?
Here’s my 30-second take on War Horse.
Here’s my 30-second take on The Adventures of Tintin.
Here’s my 30-second take on The Artist.
Here’s my 30-second take on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
I usually stay far away from trailers. I like to experience movies as cold as possible. But this is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, and my fine principles have failed me. The film itself is still a year off … and I can’t wait that long to satisfy my curiosity. Have a look:
I think it looks fantastic, for the most part. Of course it’s a trailer, and so the material has been carefully selected, but I love much of what we see here.
One of the best things about the trailer is the Dwarves’ song about the lost gold, and the way the trailer plays it up, using it to score other scenes. As my friend Peter Chattaway pointed out at ArtsAndFaith.com, most of the singing shot for The Lord of the Rings was relegated to the Extended Editions or even to deleted scenes, so it’s encouraging to see this evocative song given such prominence. When I read Tolkien to my kids, I love making up melodies for the songs (sometimes more successfully than other times). This melody has exactly the air of somber longing that I go for in my rendition of the Dwarves’ song. I can’t wait to hear the words “We must away ere break of day / To seek the pale enchanted gold.”
Likewise, although we see some action here, the trailer seems intended to reassure fans that The Hobbit honors the intimacy and smaller scale of Tolkien’s book, that it hasn’t been amped up to bone-crushing Return of the King levels. The bucolic Shire scenes early in The Fellowship of the Ring remain among the most successful elements in the film trilogy, and the later chapters sometimes seem to me to stumble over the very ambition of the overwrought action.
Some people have suggested that Jackson and company were just working too hard toward the end of The Lord of the Rings, and made mistakes in judgment due to exhaustion. If so, I hope the rest and the smaller scale of this project pay off in a surer hand to the end. (Please, please, no skullvalanche-level tonal atrocities, no drinking-game bathos or video-game culture allusions, no staff-shattering sacrileges. See the Extended Edition notes in my Return of the King review if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
The shot of one dwarf wrapped in webs, of course, hints at one of the more striking connections between The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: a forest full of Shelob-like spiders, smaller perhaps but in much greater numbers. It’s hard to imagine them talking in Jackson’s version, or Bilbo taunting them in the same way with his “Attercop! Attercop” song—although a lot of people will be unhappy if they omit the “Attercop” business entirely.)
As young Bilbo, Martin Freeman has struck me from the outset as a canny choice to replace Ian Holm—and from what we see here that seems confirmed. Maybe if they’d shot The Hobbit right after The Lord of the Rings they could have done up Ian Holm like they did for the brief flashback where he finds the Ring, but a few years out that no longer seemed possible.
Thankfully, Gandalf’s age isn’t an issue, and it’s just wonderful to see Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey again. (McKellen had some great moments as Gandalf the White too, but neither McKellen nor Jackson were quite as comfortable with that more transcendent version of the character as with the more fallible earlier version.) McKellen seems to wear the part lightly here, with a twinkle, and less of the foreboding that he projected in much of The Lord of the Rings—all exactly right, I think. McKellen’s Gandalf is one of the most awesomely right and perfect performances of any literary character I’ve ever seen, and I’m so happy there’s more coming. I … I think I’ll cry now.
I don’t have much to say about the casting of the Dwarves yet, except that Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is younger and more, well, Aragornish than my picture of the character. I don’t know offhand what descriptions of Thorin we have from Tolkien, or whether Tolkien drew any pictures, but Thorin in my mind is an older figure, stout as an oak tree, beard as imposing as a shield. I really hope Jackson’s Thorin doesn’t become in The Hobbit what Aragorn became in the later Rings movies, the all-inspiring hero whose greatness diminishes those around him. (I call this centralizing of awesomeness the Aragorn Effect.) If nothing else, the climax of Tolkien’s story should prevent that—but you never know.
It was shrewd of the editors to save two of the most familiar elements (an image and a voice) for the trailer’s final shots.
Here’s my 30-second take on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Here’s my 30-second take on Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.
Here’s my 30-second take on Aardman Animation’s Arthur Christmas.
Last week’s “Reel Faith” season finale is now online at the show’s website. This is the end of regular “Reel Faith” programming until next year’s summer season, although we may come back for one-off episodes a couple of times in the interim, and we’ll continue to produce 30-second reviews.
Because the show will be up at the website for a while, we worked extra hard on it, reviewing five films including Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, Happy Feet Two, Arthur Christmas, The Descendants and The Muppets. We think it’s one of our best episodes, and I hope you enjoy it.
Now that “Reel Faith” is over for the time being, I’m breathing easier and catching up on a lot of things. One thing I’m trying to work on is getting all the 30-second reviews separately available in individual blog posts. This morning I posted four of them: Tangled, The Smurfs, Rabbit Hole and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1. I’ve added them to the blog and where appropriate linked them to the corresponding written reviews (along with a few others that I blogged but hadn’t linked to the written reviews).
Finally, remember to tune in tomorrow to the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6:00pm Eastern) as Patrick Coffin and I discuss all the latest movies.
Disney’s Tangled in 30 seconds — in rhyming verse.
Here’s my 30-second rhyming review of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
Don’t give them any more of your time.
This Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I’ll be on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live!” with Patrick Coffin. We’ll be discussing The Muppets, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, Happy Feet Two, Arthur Christmas, J. Edgar, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, Tower Heist, In Time and more. Listen live!
Tonight’s episode of “Reel Faith,” is the season finale, and partly for that reason this week I attended an almost unprecedented four screenings: the latest Twilight; Happy Feet Two; Arthur Christmas and The Muppets. Another reason for the heavy screenings was for the sake of my Friday morning radio shows (since of course I’ll be off next week.
This has left me little time for writing, but my written review of The Muppets is almost finished and will be in the next National Catholic Register and appearing at NCRegister.com. I’ve also done new 30-second video reviews of Twilight and The Muppets, which will be available early next week, along with written reviews of Happy Feet Two and Arthur Christmas.
For now, though, if you missed my radio appearances this morning, and if you’re interested in my reviews of Twilight, Happy Feet Two, Arthur Christmas and The Muppets, be sure to tune into the season finale of “Reel Faith” tonight at 8:30pm Eastern (watch live).
Here’s my 30-second take on Tower Heist.