Decent Films Blog
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”:
My 2010 year-end piece and top 10/20 films has been up for a few weeks, and with the Academy Awards upon us we’re almost ready to be finished with the movie year 2010. Before turning the page entirely, though, I’d like to draw attention to a few more year-end lists worth noting.
From the top, the 2010 CT Movies & TV Critics’ Choice winners are …:
This week, one of my favorite films of 2010 is available on DVD and Blu-ray: Aaron Schneider’s Get Low (buy), a loosely fact-inspired Depression-era comedy-melodrama starring Robert Duvall as an eccentric Tennessee backwoodsman who decides to throw himself a “funeral party” while he’s still alive. Duvall is Duvall, of course, but the whole cast is terrific: Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, Bill Cobbs.
Also new this week, DreamWorks’ Megamind (buy) is a rare Will Ferrell movie I can actually enjoy, and a surprisingly entertaining Superman spoof, with Brad Pitt as a man of steel with feet of clay and Tina Fey in the spunky gal-reporter role.
And don’t overlook Last Train Home (buy), an eye-opening documentary that takes the enormous human migration that occurs every year in China when urban workers go home for Chinese New Year as a point of departure for exploring Chinese culture today.
Finally, since I was too busy last week to note it, last week’s DVD releases include Waiting For “Superman” (buy), David Guggenheim’s thought-provoking documentary on the current state of public education, and Unstoppable (buy), a Tony Scott action-fest pitting Denzel Washington and Chris Pine against a runaway train.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1927)
As a longtime member of the Arts & Faith community, I’m pleased to report that this week Arts & Faith and Image Journal released the 2011 edition of the Arts & Faith Top 100 Films list—possibly the best edition of the list to date, and in many ways an improvement on last year’s list.
For some background on the Arts & Faith Top 100 as well as Arts & Faith and Image Journal—along with some perspective on why I think this year’s list may be the best—please see my essay “Reading the Eternities: The 2011 Arts & Faith Top 100,” the official introduction to this year’s list. (Some trends I’m pleased to see include more Golden Age Hollywood titles (and more English titles generally; last year’s list was pretty thin on English title), a number of animation titles and more documentaries.)
Here I’d like to flesh in some of the details I didn’t have space to discuss in that essay.
Several weeks ago (but only five updates back) ago I mentioned I would be scarce through all of January, and for most of last month I hoped that life would return to normal by Groundhog Day or so.
Alas, my January crunch overran most of February. For the last several months I’ve been working harder than probably at any time in my life since graduate school. (Too busy, actually … it’s taken a toll on my health, alas.)
Now, though, it’s finally over — which means I’m going back to being only ordinarily super-busy. (For starters, I’ve got two article deadlines next week, in addition to whatever screenings I attend and whatever I hope to write here at Decent Films and NCRegister.com.) But that’s okay! Ordinary super-busyness, I can handle.
What this means is that content will begin appearing more frequently here at Decent Films and NCRegister.com, starting tomorrow (Friday, 2/18). I’ll be writing for other venues too — stay tuned.
Also, if you’ve written to me in the past few months, I may have missed your email entirely. I apologize, and will try to catch up over the next month or so.
A number of readers have inquired about what I’ve been spending my time on lately.
Part of the answer can be found on my updated “About” page, which now notes that I have “contributed several entries to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, including ‘The Church and Film’ and a number of filmmaker biographies.”
The “Church and Film” entry is a few years old, but the others are new. I’ve been researching and writing about Cecil B. DeMille, Leo McCarey, François Truffaut and Franco Zeffirelli. This has been hard work but very rewarding. Besides the privilege of writing for the New Catholic Encyclopedia, I’ve learned a lot, and watched or rewatched a lot of great films. (Yes! I plan to write about some of them in the coming months!)
Beyond that, I’ve screened a couple of films, and attended a junket (my first in years) that I’ll be reporting on soon. And there’s another piece that I just finished this morning that I’ll announce in a bit.
Anyway, now that that’s done, I plan to start making up for lost time here at Decent Films. Maybe not quite as energetically as I’d like — in part because I also need to make up for lost time with my family, who’ve done without me more often than any of us would like, and partly also because I need some rest, frankly.
But I’m not taking time off. I will be back tomorrow. And for all who’ve asked, I will do my best to review The King’s Speech in time for the Oscars.
Thanks for your patience, and see you around.
2010 was a good year for Decent Films, though there’s room for improvement in 2011. I do want to let readers know I may be scarce (not absent!) for most of January, as I’m laboring under some major deadlines for a couple of exciting projects (more to come). My 2010 roundup and top 10 is coming, of course, and I hope to come roaring back in February. I also hope to announce some new developments for the site in the near future. God bless you all!
Major props to Dr. David C. Downing, whose essay on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Ignatius Insight) closes with this brilliant line:
I will not try to rate this movie in terms of stars, for stars in Narnia are magnificent living beings, not mere balls of hot gas or marks on a page!
Of course, even in our world, balls of hot gas and marks on a page are not what stars are, only what they are made of.
Tune in Friday, December 17 for an hour of Decent Films radio on Catholic Answers Live with Patrick Coffin. I’ll be doing the second hour, so that’s 7–8 EST (4–5 PST). In addition to talking Christmas movies, we’ll be covering some or all of the following: True Grit, Tron: Legacy, Rabbit Hole, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Fighter, The King’s Speech and much more. Special bonus: Yogi Bear is not on the table! Listen live!
Also, don’t miss episode 4 of our special Christmas mini-season of “Reel Faith” this Sunday at 7pm EST. David and I will be reviewing Tron: Legacy, Black Swan, The Fighter and our NET Pick of the Week, March of the Wooden Soldiers. Watch live!
I seem to be on a comparison kick: A while back I did a massive comparison/contrast between Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and The Empire Strikes Back. Then I followed up with a comparison/contrast of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000.
More recently, I found myself in a discussion weighing the relative merits of two of DreamWorks Animation’s recent features, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. How do they stack up? My exhaustive analysis is below! (If Mark Shea thought my Harry Potter/Star Wars post was super-nerdy, wait till he sees this one!)
Warning: Spoilers ahoy!
UPDATE (December 3, 2010): A belated announcement that “Reel Faith” is back for 5 weeks only, starting last Sunday. Now airing on Sundays at 7pm, the mini-season runs through December 26.
The first episode, covering Megamind, Morning Glory and Due Date, is currently available at the Reel Faith website. Episode 2, covering Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Tangled and 127 Hours, airs on NET this Sunday (watch online).
UPDATE (September 2, 2010): Last week’s episode of “Reel Faith,” now available at the Reel Faith website, was the last episode for the summer. Following NET’s season schedule, the show is now on hiatus. When will we return? Watch this space! I’ll keep you posted.
For what it’s worth, I had a blast doing the show. I’m grateful to NET for giving David and me the chance to try this. I think the show was a success; we learned a lot over the course of the 12 episodes, and I’m pleased to say that I think we came a long way in a short time. (Which is another way of saying we had a sort of rocky start. Hey, TV is hard!) Our last show, I think, showcases some of our best work, so check it out! And watch for “Reel Faith” to return.
UPDATE (June 16, 2010): Hey! Looks like NET is able to host episodes Reel Faith episodes right on the show’s website! If you missed last week’s show, you can still catch it online, at least until it’s replaced by this Friday’s show. (As far as I know the plan for now is to post only the most recent show.) Check it out! And please, let us (and the NET folks) know what you think at the Reel Comments page!
Original post follows.
Hey! I’m reviewing movies on TV!
I mean, you know, I’m on TV reviewing movies. The movies are in theaters, not on TV. Movies on TV, I’ve reviewed before, not on TV. Me, I mean.
Ahem. Over the summer I’m co-hosting a cable TV movie review show with David DiCerto, formerly of the USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting, for NET NY, a “faith-centered cable TV network” in Brooklyn, New York. (For more on NET, see Joseph Pronechen’s National Catholic Register article “Putting Out into the Deep to Cast the NET.”)
“Reel Faith” is a half-hour movie review show reviewing opening and new theatrical releases. The show airs on Fridays at 8:30pm EDT. For the first episode, which aired last Friday, we did a sort of catch-up, reviewing Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, Shrek Forever After and Babies. For tonight’s episode, we’re doing The Karate Kid, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Killers and Marmaduke. Next week is Toy Story 3, The A-Team, Splice and more.
Each episode also features discussion of one of the 45 films of the 1995 Vatican film list, hosted by Fr. Robert Lauder, who hosts a Friday night film series at Immaculate Conception Center in Queens.
I’m enjoying doing the show. I’m learning that TV is very different from radio, and co-hosting a show is very different from (read: harder than) being a guest! I’ve done TV before, but always as a guest. We’re learning as we go, we’re having fun, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the summer season!
So how can you watch? If you don’t live in the NYC area or don’t have access to NET via cable, you can catch the show online at NET’s Watch Now page. For now at least you need to catch the shows when they broadcast; it’s not clear whether it will be possible to archive the shows at YouTube, since we use clips from the movies and studios can be weird about that. (Apparently it’s fine for the cablecast and webcast, but some studios don’t like to see clips on YouTube.)
So, head over tonight at 8:30pm EDT and catch our second episode. I’ll post more as the summer season develops.
Arts & Faith veteran “mrmando” skewers Ron Howard’s version of the Dan Brown potboiler with a brilliant angle I hadn’t thought of.
A great irony occurs to me, which seems to have escaped Brown, Howard, and the screenwriters: at the end of the film, we learn that Illuminati involvement in the plot is a myth, fabricated by McKenna to divert suspicion from himself. Furthermore, no one seriously suspects the Illuminati until Langdon shows up and starts “discovering” clues that are tailor-made to fit in with his paranoid fantasies. McKenna admits when he first meets Langdon that it was his idea to bring Langdon there. And indeed it was — Langdon becomes an essential but unwitting pawn in the plot, fanning the flames through his own gullibility, which very nearly leads to McKenna’s success. If we assume that McKenna’s real goal is to become pope rather than blow up the Vatican, it becomes obvious that he couldn’t accomplish it without Langdon on hand to stir everyone up. The misdirection part of McKenna’s plot depends on a pack of lies about the Illuminati — and because they are lies, no one in the Vatican is familiar with them. That’s why he needs to bring Langdon in.
So Langdon is not the brilliant hero of this film … he’s the patsy. The plot is so preposterous that only he would believe it.
Zing! Wish I’d thought of that.
Blaise Pascal was a great critic of Jesuit casuistry, and coined the pejorative adjective “Jesuitical,” meaning “crafty; practicing equivocation or overly subtle rationalization.” That may not have been fair to the Jesuits of Pascal’s day, but the image of the sly, deceptive Jesuit stuck.
More recently, among many orthodox Catholics, the Jesuit order has become associated with dissent and “progressive” theological heterodoxy, which, again, may or may not be fair.
Soon, though—if Last Temptation of Christ filmmakers Paul Schrader and Willem Dafoe have their way—the Jesuit name could carry another connotation entirely: hyper-violent criminal reign of terror?
In The Jesuit, a man comes out of prison in south Texas: “Neto” wants only a new life, far removed from his violent past. Just when it seems he might regain his wife and ten-year old son, she is brutally murdered and the boy kidnapped. Neto must abandon his dream of happiness in an explosive return to methods that made him the most feared man in Texas, and earned him the nickname … the Jesuit.
First Dan Brown imbued the name “Opus Dei” with sinister, murderous connotations; if people think of anything at all in connection with the name “Opus Dei,” it’s “albino assassin monk.”
Now, according to Schrader, if you’re a brutally violent criminal, the handle the world gives you is … “the Jesuit”?
What’s next? A Franciscan hit squad? Outlaw bikers called the Knights of Columbus? An international crime lord known only as “the Thomist”?
How about a thriller about a serial killer who plays Russian roulette with his victims, called Pascal’s Wager?
Whatever. Hey, who’s looking forward to Shrader’s follow-ups, The Mullah and The Hasid?
Some readers may have noticed posting at Decent Films has been a little light. I’ve been more than usually busy lately with various things that have kept me from posting here as often as I’d like. Partly it’s a number of exciting film-related projects that will eventually be noted here at Decent Films. Partly it’s been personal matters. I hope to pick up the pace again soon. (If you’ve written to me recently, or even not that recently, I probably haven’t responded. I’m sorry and I’ll try to get back to you soon!)
On the plus side, for the benefit of readers in Arizona, I’ll be in Phoenix this Friday, November 5, speaking at Xavier College Preparatory at 7:00 pm on behalf of the Emeth Society. I’ll be speaking on “Faith & Film: Truth, Beauty, & Catholic Teaching in a Mass Media World.” If you’re interested, the Emeth Society has an online flyer at their website. Admission is free! Hope to see you there.
Buy at Amazon.com
For almost a couple of years now, I’ve been crowing about the joys of “Shaun the Sheep,” Aardman Animation’s “Wallace & Gromit” spin-off series on British television—until now available on Region 1 DVD only in one-disc collections of six to eight episodes. Now at last all 40 episodes of the first season of “Shaun the Sheep” are available in a two-disc edition from Lionsgate and HIT Entertainment. If you’ve been holding out, now is the time to discover the joys of Shaun.
The seven-minute episodes feature a sheep named Shaun (get it?), originally introduced in the third “Wallace & Gromit” short, “A Close Shave,” as part of a flock on a small English farm with a trio of mischievous pigs, a tolerant farm dog named Bitzer who tries to keep order, a stereotypically nasty housecat, and a dim-witted, near-sighted farmer who speaks only in mumbles.
Shaun’s adventures are simple enough to engage the youngest viewers, but clever enough to entertain older kids and grown-up fans. It’s an archetypal example of how good family entertainment can be. The pilot episode, “Off the Baa,” sums up everything that’s great about the show: When a head of cabbage comes rolling into the field, Shaun takes an experimental bite—then kicks it up like a soccer ball, then begins juggling and balancing it like a show-off footballer … much to the fascination of the impressed flock, who soon split up into teams. When Bitzer comes over blowing his whistle, it looks like he’s going to break it up. But no, he’s just playing referee.
It’s that odd blend of naivete and sophistication that’s the hallmark of the show. The sheep are wide-eyed and curious about everything, but also savvy and familiar with the ways of the world. To cite a couple of Toy Story reference points, they combine the wonder and innocence of the three-eyed rubber aliens (“OoOOo!”) with the knowingness of Hamm the piggy bank (“Oh, I seriously doubt he’s getting this kind of mileage”)—all of course without any dialogue. In “Saturday Night Shaun,” when the farmer gets a new CD player and throws out his old vinyl records and player, the sheep examine the discarded equipment inquisitively and try playing frisbee with the records—but as soon as Shaun plugs it in and they get the tunes going, they set up a dance club in the barn, with Bitzer acting as bouncer (Pidsley the cat: on the list; Naughty Pigs: no).
The running gag is that while Shaun’s ovine posse get into all kinds of un-sheep-like escapades, Bitzer and Shaun collude to make sure the farmer never notices anything strange. Occasionally the sheep must make covert incursions into the farmhouse; other times the farmer dallies in the farmyard, dabbling in oil painting, sheep shearing or some other unwonted activity. Silliness ensues.
Like most of Aardman’s output, the “Shaun” episodes spoof various cinematic genres and and conventions. They also amount to modern animated slapstick silent films: The characters have no dialogue, except for animal noises from the animals and inarticulate grunting from the farmer. Although Aardman makes the most of the soundtrack, with clever effects and a generally spare score, Shaun and friends are essentially successors to the comedic tradition of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin by way of “Road Runner” and “Tom & Jerry,” with a goofy creative twist that’s all Aardman.
I’m a huge fan of watching silent films with children (Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother or Buster Keaton’s The General are ideal starting places). Between Wall‑E, Mr. Bean and Shaun the Sheep, the joys of silents seem to be enjoying a sort of mini-resurgence in family entertainment.
Standout season 1 episodes include “Shaun the Farmer,” in which the farmer takes sick and Bitzer takes care of him (when he’s not playing video games), leaving the farm chores to Shaun; “Stick With Me,” in which the flock gets into some sticky situations with super-glue; and “Shaun Encounters,” in which a pair of aliens land on the farm at night and cause havoc.
Until the release of Season One, Shaun’s adventures were available only via one-disc collections of first eight and later six episodes. Once we have Season Two, those discs will be obsolete (give them away to friends!). It’s shameful double-dipping, but the material is so good they can get away with it. (Also, a small packaging annoyance: The case is twice as thick as a typical DVD case, though there’s no reason for it to be. Both discs are mounted on the back of the case with a typical overlapping media tray, so why not a standard width case?)
Less incidental is the fact that the Season One set, like all the earlier discs from Lionsgate, crops Shaun’s adventures to fullscreen—a pan-and-scan presentation of a show that was shot and originally aired in widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio), so part of the picture has been lost. Memo to Lionsgate: Family audiences have been happily buying widescreen animation DVDs and Blu-rays from Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks and Fox for years. Why are you skimping on Shaun the Sheep? He deserves better, as do we. (Readers who have an all-region DVD player can order Shaun’s complete adventures from UK Amazon and actually get the complete picture.)
On the plus side, the Lionsgate set offers the full complement of bonus features from the Region 2 edition, including a number of brief featurettes, a sing-along version of the opening song and a couple of simple games. You’ll probably watch those once; the episodes you’ll watch again and again.
Just a quick note drawing your attention to a couple of modest enhancements in the site that hopefully make it more usable.
First, in the left and right columns, the listings for “In Theaters” and “DVD — Recent Releases” are now arranged alphabetically rather than by order of release.
The big change is the DVD page. Replacing the previous DVD section (which was probably a little too complicated and never worked quite as hoped), the new DVD page offers a simple alphabetical listing of all titles recently released on DVD with ratings and blurb — essentially an expanded version of the right margin column, with additional context. As with the leftnav, the most recent titles are called out at the top, with all other titles arranged alphabetically.
Secondly, the In Theaters page has been reorganized on the same principles. The main listing is now alphabetical rather than by order of release, and most recent titles are at the top.
Please let me know what you think — about that, and anything else regarding the site.
Thanks to Simeon, volunteer developer extraordinaire, for making time in his busy schedule to make these updates!
Matt Damon and Cécile de France in Clint Eastwood's Hereafter
Are religious themes cropping up in more mainstream movies these days? Stephen Whitty, film critic for New Jersey’s largest newspaper, the Newark Star Ledger, thinks they may be. In a recent article Whitty connects the dots on a number of recent Hollywood offerings that touch on spiritual questions or themes of faith, from Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, starring Matt Damon, to the Ed Norton/Robert De Niro prison film Stone, from Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger to the Disney sports film Secretariat.
“These aren’t tiny indies,” Whitty notes, “like the evangelical films that sprang up after The Passion of the Christ” (i.e., movies like Facing the Giants and One Night With the King). “No, these are the mainstream pictures … Faith-based film fans used to be seen as a niche audience. Now, in Hollywood, they’re just seen as the audience.”
If that’s true, it’s a potentially promising development, though the resulting films may be mixed. Obviously there’s no going back to the pervasive Judeo-Christian milieu of Golden Age Hollywood (though a film here or there, like Secretariat, may hearken back to that era). The actual content of these films, including the spiritual content, may be problematic, from the credulous spiritualism of Hereafter to what seems to be a muddle of Christian and New Age ideas in the sexually explicit Stone.
“C. S. Lewis once opined that rhetorical nonsense doesn’t become sense just by inserting the word ‘God’ into a sentence,” notes Ken Morefield in his review of Stone (Christianity Today Movies & TV). “Likewise, just because Stone is asking questions that are essentially ‘religious’ doesn’t necessarily transform a muddled movie into something insightful. Sometimes it just results in muddled ideas about spiritual subjects.” That doesn’t just apply to Stone, either.
Still, even muddled ideas about spiritual subjects might be better than no thinking about spiritual subjects at all. Hereafter may be a disappointment that condescends to believers and skeptics alike, but at least there’s an awareness of issues that matter. I doubt many viewers will find the movie’s answers convincing, but they might be moved to think about the questions. And a film industry that produces a number of problematic spiritually themed movies every year is more likely to produce a good one now and then than an industry that simply ignores spiritual themes altogether.
If there’s a trend at all, though, it’s a long, gradual one, not a recent surge. I can’t see that the current crop of spiritually themed movies is notably different from Hollywood offerings from the last several years. Hereafter is reminiscent of other (also mediocre) God/afterlife-haunted films like Dragonfly and Henry Poole is Here. Secretariat, from the Christian director of We Were Soldiers and the Christian screenwriter of The Rookie and The Nativity Story, plays like a cross between The Rookie and The Blind Side. Woody Allen has a long history of noodling religious themes, as does M. Night Shyamalan, the creative force behind Devil (a close relative of Signs).
I talked with Whitty for his story, and he’s got a couple of quotations from me in the piece, on the weaknesses that still affect Christian indie moviemaking, and on audience receptiveness to spiritual themes in mainstream movies.
In the Christian movie scene, alas, the message comes first, and story and character are secondary considerations. That’s a recipe for mediocrity. Truth has to emerge from a commitment to the characters and their story; it may be messy, but it will be more convincing. Here is a story I love: Marc Rothemund, the director of Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, is an atheist, but he told me, “I believed in God the whole time I was making Sophie Scholl.” That is, telling Sophie’s story was what mattered to him, and he put himself and his beliefs aside to do her justice. How many Christian would-be moviemakers outside Hollywood even understand that principle?
On the flip side, in the film world (including my department, film criticism) there is still a lingering perception of Christianity as the domain of reactionary moralists, Tea Party Republicans—or worse. (See Andrew O’Hehir’s outrageous assault on the perceived Christian/Tea Party/“master race” subtext of Secretariat for an obvious recent example. For another, see the savagely stereotyped culty Evangelical clique in the Emma Stone comedy Easy A.)
Granted, it’s a perception with some basis in actual Christian culture. Take the Christian review site MovieGuide, where all movie reviews begin with a lengthy content-advisory catalogue of positive and negative content and themes (preceded by a string of impenetrable abbreviations, e.g., “PaPaPa, OOO, FR, C, BB, L, VV, S, N, AA, DD, MM”). Too often at MovieGuide, “safe” movies get high marks simply for avoiding objectionable content. (Four stars for Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and Prince of Persia? Three stars for Marmaduke and Alpha and Omega? Really?) Moral analysis at MovieGuide can verge on the Orwellian: Babies, one of the most delightful movies of the year, may have a “strong moral worldview,” yet it’s dinged for a “light humanist quality” (i.e., secular humanist) “because no mention is made of God.”
On the other hand, MovieGuide critics are capable of praising positive spiritual and/or moral dimensions even in movies with horrific content, such as Winter’s Bone and District 9. That’s a pretty striking indicator of the breadth of Christian interest in mainstream films of all kinds that take these matters seriously.
Christian moviegoers don’t necessarily want to be catered to (although it beats getting beat up on), nor do they necessarily want only safe, family-friendly, uplifting fare (although we could certainly use more well-done family entertainment). Many serious Christians are also serious moviegoers who would rather be challenged than merely affirmed—as would serious moviegoers of all stripes. Religious ideas, questions and symbols remain a potent part of the world we live in. There’s no reason for them to be confined to a religious movie ghetto.
Here is a strange thing. Secretariat, a quietly faith-laced Disney movie from Christian director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) and Christian screenwriter Mike Rich (The Rookie), has bizarrely been catching politically tinged flak even more violent than last year’s inspirational sports film, The Blind Side. It also has an ironic if not improbable defender: Roger Ebert.
Take Jeffrey Wells’s comment at Hollywood Elsewhere: “I didn’t hate it—the racing footage is wonderful—but I loathe the white-a** Republican atmosphere. As I wrote last Sunday, ‘You never forget you’re watching a Randall Wallace family-values movie for the schmoes.’”
Notice that he doesn’t say there is a political white Republican agenda. It’s just the atmosphere, the cultural milieu, that he loathes. This isn’t politics per se, it’s mere cultural tribalism: Wells is aware that this is a movie made by people who are different from him in ways he disdains, and he’s going to disdain them for being different even if no substantial reasons for disdain present themselves.
However, Wells approvingly quotes Salon.com critic Andrew O’Hehir, who perceives the hidden agenda in Secretariat—and holy smokes, is it ugly. I’ve appreciated O’Hehir’s work for years, but this review really pulled me up short. He writes:
I enjoyed [Secretariat] immensely, flat-footed dialogue and implausible situations and all. Which doesn’t stop me from believing that in its totality “Secretariat” is a work of creepy, half-hilarious master-race propaganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl, and all the more effective because it presents as a family-friendly yarn about a nice lady and her horse.
Did he say master race propaganda? He did—and there’s more …
Although the troubling racial subtext is more deeply buried here than in “The Blind Side” (where it’s more like text, period), “Secretariat” actually goes much further, presenting a honey-dipped fantasy vision of the American past as the Tea Party would like to imagine it, loaded with uplift and glory and scrubbed clean of multiculturalism and social discord. In the world of this movie, strong-willed and independent-minded women like Chenery are ladies first (she’s like a classed-up version of Sarah Palin feminism), left-wing activism is an endearing cute phase your kids go through (until they learn the hard truth about inheritance taxes), and all right-thinking Americans are united in their adoration of a Nietzschean Überhorse, a hero so superhuman he isn’t human at all.
Well, of course Secretariat “isn’t human at all”—he’s a horse. (Of course, of course.) And yes, he was a superhorse, and yes, all Americans—right-thinking and otherwise—were united in their adoration back in 1973. There is something twisted about leaping from that to “master race propaganda.” Behind this I suspect what could be called Godwin’s fallacy: the dangerous habit of critically comparing the other side to Nazis.
I think the most telling bit is O’Hehir’s reference to Diane Lane’s character, Penny Chenery, as “a classed-up version of Sarah Palin feminism.” For one thing, is there something wrong with “Sarah Palin feminism”? Is it Palin’s feminism O’Hehir objects to—the can-do, independent, have-it-all, public style that Camille Paglia has praised—or her political views?
And for another, O’Hehir’s tone brims with the obssessive fury of a political junkie who is just so beside himself with rage at Glenn Beck and Fox News, and is so livid at the thought of the November elections, that not only can he not put the subject aside long enough to enjoy an inspirational movie about a nice lady with a fast horse, he is outraged at the thought that anyone else might, either.
Andrew O’Hehir of Salon is a critic I admire, but he has nevertheless written a review of “Secretariat” so bizarre I cannot allow it to pass unnoticed … we do not find proof that Obama is a Muslim Communist born in Kenya. No, the news is worse than that. It involves Secretariat, a horse who up until now we innocently thought of as merely very fast. We learn the horse is a carrier not merely of Ron Turcotte’s 130 pounds, but of Nazism, racism, Tea Party ideology and the dark side of Christianity.
Oh, and I forgot the Ku Klux Klan: “The movie itself is ablaze with its own crazy sense of purpose,” O’Hehir writes, “…as if someone just off-screen were burning a cross on the lawn.” …
I question if a single American, right-thinking or left-thinking, thought even once of Secretariat as a Nietzschean Überhorse. Nor did many consider the Triple Crown victories as a demonstration of white superiority, because race horses (which seem to enjoy winning for reasons of their own) are happily unaware of race. …
Wait. There is yet another sinister subtext to be exposed in the film. O’Hehir mentions that Randall Wallace, who directed the film, “is one of mainstream Hollywood’s few prominent Christians, and has spoken openly about his faith and his desire to make movies that appeal to ‘people with middle-American values’.” To which I respond: I am a person with middle-American values, and the film appealed to me. …
When O’Hehir says Wallace is “one of mainstream Hollywood’s few prominent Christians,” what exactly does he mean by that? That one is too many? Surely the Hollywood mainstream has room for several prominent Christians? Surely it is permitted for Wallace to speak openly about his faith? …
Many of the comments in Ebert’s blog are almost equally entertaining. Eventually O’Hehir himself commented—and Ebert responded to his comment. Does their exchange illuminate or obscure the issues? What do you think? Comment at NCRegister.com.
I’m not sure, but I think that Babies is the only movie this year that I’ve already seen three times. (Movies I’ve seen twice include Inception and Iron Man 2, the latter of which arrives on DVD today.) The first time was my initial screening. After it opened, I brought my whole family to see it in the theater—and we were joined by friends from church—another family with six kids, so there were sixteen of us in all. (We were easily the majority of people in the theater.) And last week I received an advance DVD screener, and my whole family sat down and watched it again. (My second viewing of Iron Man 2 was also via advance screener, watching with Suzanne, who hadn’t seen it in theaters. Suz sees a lot of movies that way.)
Over three viewings, certain images stand out more and more. Some of my favorite moments highlight eye-opening cross-cultural differences, such as the newly postpartum Mongolian mother with newborn Bayar in her arms straddling her husband’s motorcycle behind him for the journey from the clinic back to their yurt. Others are universally recognizable experiences that are the same for grown-ups and babies all over the world, such as sleepy Ponijao in Africa being repeatedly jerked away by her own nodding head. Of course Balmes often contrasts one image with another, the highlight being the intercutting between Bayar’s delight at getting his mitts on a roll of toilet paper and Mari in Japan’s despairing tantrum over her frustration with blocks. At one point she picks up a book, trying to distract herself, but the problem with the blocks has made the sun dark in her eyes, to borrow a Calormene idiom, and for the moment nothing can be right.
Today on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6pm–7pm EDT): Waiting For Superman; Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole; The Town; Easy A; Devil and more. Listen live!
This morning I blogged on the overwhelming Christian repudiation of Quran burning involving everyone from the Vatican and the USCCB to the Patriarch of Jerusalem to Evangelical luminaries like Franklin Graham, Rick Warren and Chuck Colson. “Outrageous and grave,” “contrary to the respect due to all religions,” “contrary to the teaching of Jesus Christ,” “insensitive,” and “foolish and cowardly” were among the many words that world Christian leaders addressed to would-be Quran burners.
Jacob Isom, a 23-year-old skateboarding enthusiast from Amarillo, Texas, had something more succinct to say: “Dude, you have no Quran!”
The facts seem to be these. Isom, a skateboarding enthusiast, came upon a confrontation between would-be Quran burners and counter-demonstrators in Amarillo’s Sam Houston Park. The would-be Quran burners represented a group with the unsurprisingly fringe-sounding name of Repent Amarillo, led by a David Grisham. Grisham’s group was considerably outnumbered by counter-demonstrators made up of “Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists,” who reportedly numbered around 200. (Apparently some counter-demonstrators were Unitarian Universalists; hopefully there were actual Christians there as well.)
I have nothing to add to my review of Paul Greengrass’s United 93, except to say that four years later there is still a gaping wound at Ground Zero where a memorial should be. For me, this film is the closest thing we have to an adequate tribute to those we lost on September 11, 2001.
Blasphemy is in the air, it seems. The last day of September will mark the second annual “International Blasphemy Day,” so designated by the Center For Inquiry, a think tank that promotes science and secularism. Meanwhile, you don’t have to wait till then to find numerous YouTube videos featuring desecration of the Blessed Sacrament. In Spain, as Pat Archbold blogged yesterday, a priest struck a young man for desecrating the Eucharist. The fisticuff made headlines; otherwise, it would be just another desecration.
September 30 was chosen for International Blasphemy Day to commemorate the 2005 publication of controversial cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005, and the protests and occasional violence that followed. The same controversy recently inspired an artist to propose May 20 as “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”
Then there’s this Saturday, September 11, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and other sites. A fundamentalist pastor with a tiny flock of 50 followers near Gainsville, Florida wishes to dub 9/11 “International Burn a Koran Day,” and plans to burn copies of the Qur’an with members of his church.
Last weekend saw a lopsided box-office collision of two very different types of action hero: In one corner, The Expendables, an old-fashioned 1980s-style action-fest drenched in testosterone, adrenaline and blood; in the other corner, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, starring Michael Cera as a geeky slacker with mad video-game-style combat skills.
It’s a stark illustration of how much the action landscape has changed. A quarter of a century ago, action heroes were musclebound, lantern-jawed he-men like Schwarzenegger and Stallone who weren’t afraid to get down and dirty. Even more vulnerable heroes like Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis, who actually got hurt or scared and made mistakes, were still two-fisted tough guys.
The musclemen of the 1980s may have been an exaggeration of an earlier masculine ideal, but prior decades were hardly lacking in virility. Broad-shouldered, chiseled icons like John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster and so forth might not have been built like Schwarzenegger or Stallone, but they were no pantywaists. Not all male heroes of yesterday necessarily fit that brawny mold—there was also room for more sensitive types played by the likes of Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda—but there was plenty of brawn to go around.
The situation today is markedly different. Many action movies today star youthful-looking actors like Matt Damon, Orlando Bloom, Brendan Frasier and Leonardo DiCaprio. Even comparatively older stars like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt still come off as aging boys rather than manly men. There’s Tobey Maguire’s gawky web-slinger and Robert Downey Jr.’s immature playboy techno-warrior. (Notably, Damon, Maguire and Downey all play heroes who in one way or another find themselves with awesome powers that they must learn to use and/or don’t understand at first.) William Shatner’s signature role now belongs to boyish Chris Pine. Earlier this summer there was a sequel to the Schwarzenegger vehicle Predator starring Adrien Brody, of all people.
With few exceptions—Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman—it’s hard to think of a leading man today who could credibly go toe to toe with Rocky or Indiana Jones. A participant at Arts & Faith puts the blame on The Matrix, which transformed Keanu Reeves from a pasty computer geek into an instant superman by digitally uploading kung-fu skills into his brain. With its video-game milieu, The Matrix in a way set the stage for Scott Pilgrim.
But last weekend even Scott Pilgrim’s target demographic of young males overwhelmingly chose The Expendables, an old-school action flick starring a bunch of guys who in many cases were making movies like this before Michael Cera was born, along with many in the audience. Director/star/co-writer Stallone anchors the he-man ensemble, which includes Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li and Eric Roberts as well as the likes of Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Steve Austin.
Even Ah-nold and Bruce Willis show up in cameos. Notable by their absence are Steven Segal, Van Damme and Kurt Russell—all of whom were offered parts, but turned them down. According to Wikipedia, Van Damme felt there was “no substance” to his character. Uh oh. (Have you seen a Van Damme film?)
Van Damme also reportedly told Stallone that he should “be trying to save people in South Central.” Why South Central? No idea, but whatever he was thinking, the notion of what they “should” be doing doesn’t seem to have figured prominently in Stallone’s thinking about the film, which wastes as little time as possible on plot and character in order to allow the maximum possible number of throat slittings, bodies blown in half, heads impaled, severed and broken limbs, bullet-riddled torsos, etc.
If many of today’s action heroes seem lacking in convincing virility, The Expendables is hardly the healthy jolt of masculinity one might wish for. It’s a movie that panders to all of the worst excesses of the 1980s and none of its better instincts. It’s egregious violence pornography, not only soaked in explicit, gratuitous, bone-crunching, blood-spurting violence, but a movie that sees the whole world through the lens of violence, a movie that presents violence as a worldview.
Manhood is seen solely through the lens of the ability to inflict and endure extreme amounts of punishment involving large numbers of opponents. To be a woman is to have essentially one meaningful choice: to be aligned with the wrong man, who will abuse or at least fail to protect you, or with the right man, who will rain vengeance on the wrong man and those around him. (An alliance with the wrong man may also result in sexual menace, torture, etc.)
Moral concerns are so far from the the film that in the long bloodbath that is the final act the woman whom the heroes are supposedly out to rescue becomes a secondary concern as the body count and property damage piles up. Even the villains’ crimes are less important to the heroes than the real question, which is who can kick whose butt? The way two heroes casually banter at the end after jointly killing the villain, not about his fate, but about which of them deserves credit for the kill, is indicative of this almost total indifference to any moral outlook. By contrast, as trashy and cartoony as a movie like Rambo: First Blood Part II was, you always remembered it was about POWs.
Neither The Expendables nor Scott Pilgrim offers us action heroes in the mold of, say, Harrison Ford or Gregory Peck—actors well known for portraying men of honor as well as strength. Peck in The Guns of Navarrone or The Big Country, Ford in The Fugitive or Clear and Present Danger—either of them was ten times the man Stallone is in The Expendables.
Who in our day is capable of stepping into their shoes? Try to think of a leading man of today—someone in his prime, not an older star, but who looks like a man, not a boy—who projects decency and uprightness as well as the physical prowess to fight for what he believes in.
Jackman might, if he can ever step out from behind Wolverine’s shadow. Russell Crowe can do anything, but he isn’t getting any younger. Antonio Banderas has played a couple of heroes (Spy Kids and The Mask of Zorro), but I’m not sure he can do gravitas. Same with the cherubic Brendan Frasier: He’s a comic action hero. Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson are too old. Laurence Fishburne has gotten too fat. Ben Affleck lacks charisma. Is baby-faced Matt Damon our best hope?
This week, David DiCerto and I review Nanny McPhee Returns, Tales From Earthsea and The Expendables. Plus special guest Fr. Lauder in the theater to discuss a favorite film. Tune in tonight!
“Not with a bang but with a whimper” was T. S. Eliot’s revisionist idea of the world’s end in The Hollow Men. He was almost right. Not with a whimper, but with a million whimpers, each more feeble and bathetic than the last, is the way we seem to be slouching toward oblivion.
Whimper du jour: a pitch for a new reality show … starring Levi Johnson … making a run for mayor of Wasilla. From Variety:
Johnston will run for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska — yes, the same job that propelled Sarah Palin to governor of that state (and later, the vice presidential nomination) — in a new reality project being pitched by Stone and Co.
“Loving Levi: The Road to the Mayor’s Office” will center on Johnston’s newfound fame as the baby daddy to Palin’s grandson, Tripp.
Johnston will trade on that notoriety to make his run for Wasilla City Hall—when he’s not pursuing a career in Hollywood, of course.
Stone and Co. are already shooting the show’s pilot and have started pitching the show to networks.
For a perfect storm of nihilistic absurdity and banality, a convergence of politics, tabloid journalism and reality television seems hard to beat. Johnston, meanwhile, seems an ideal poster boy for a culture of meaninglessness. A young man whose sole achievement to date is knocking up a girl whose mother has become a poster girl for something else, Johnston saw a meal ticket in caddishness and has been tucking in with both fists. That his photograph was ever published on a magazine cover is damning enough, never mind that it sold any.
Johnston appears eager to brand himself in any way he can, whether it’s appearing in a music video and attending the Teen Choice Awards with some female singer or starring in a reality TV series. Apparently several networks have pitched concepts for a reality show co-starring Johnston and Bristol Palin, but Palin, to her possible credit, has declined such offers. (Let’s not be too quick to credit anyone with anything here. Just in case, like me, you were lucky enough to have missed it, Johnston and Palin were apparently engaged again like last week, but it’s off again.)
Perhaps the key point here is that the idea of Johnston running for office wasn’t something he pitched to the entertainment industry, or even his own idea at all. It was something the entertainment industry pitched to him:
Johnston admitted that he wasn’t thrilled at first about the mayoral campaign concept, which was pitched to him by Stone’s Scott Stone and David Weintraub.
“But the more I think about it and look into it, I think there’s a possibility we can make it happen,” Johnston said of his political prospects. “It’s something that I want to do.”
Like many “reality” show premises, then, Johnson’s bid for public office has nothing to do with the non-televised world in which those of us who aspire to be human try to live. It is only “reality” in the trivial sense that if the premise is as successful as the producers would hope, Johnston will actually be the mayor of Wasilla. (By way of context, the Variety piece helpfully points out that Wasilla’s current mayor won in 2008 with 466 votes—less than 100 from his nearest competitor, who received 373. If only the ratings are in a similar range.)
Johnston believes this show may reveal him as a complex, inscrutable soul whose depths and aspirations a breathless American public has barely begun to plumb:
“It’s hard to figure me out … You’ve got to follow me around. I’m very different. I lead a crazy life. But it will basically be both worlds, my life in Hollywood and back home, the real country boy that I am.”
Johnston said he knows his reputation “is love and hate right now… but we’re trying to flip that around.” This show, he added, will “send a message to America about who I really am and what I want to do with my life.”
Coincidentally, that’s just the sort of revelation the producers want to deliver too:
Stone and Co. promise a “no-holds-barred” look at Johnston’s attempts at raising son Tripp with Bristol Palin, as well as “looking for love and taking care of business for his fellow Wasillians.
“He will give us a real inside look into who he is as a father, a skilled hunter, an avid dirt biker and his journey down the road of small-town politics ... right after he gets his high school diploma,” the company said in its description of the show.
The entertainment industry and politics can both be pretty corrosive forces, and their intersection is seldom a pretty place to be. Still, one occasionally encounters new peaks and new lows. I’ll think of a peak some other time.
Sometimes, though not always, hitting a new low can be a wake-up call that shocks people to their senses. If it does, we call it hitting rock bottom; if it doesn’t, it’s just one more whimper on the slide into oblivion.
Awhile back I blogged that audience indifference to the recent glut of sequels, remakes and franchise adaptations may have been the wake-up call Hollywood needed regarding their dearth of originality. Could “Loving Levi” provoke enough disgust and apathy to amount to a wake-up call for the networks? It would be pretty to think so.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, none of this is happening in a hurry. The next Wasilla mayoral election isn’t slated until 2012.
When, of course, the world is scheduled to end.
Will the new Julia Roberts movie Eat Pray Love encourage viewers to buy into spiritual ideas? Or will it just encourage them to buy?
Fans of Liz Gilbert’s “Gnosh-tic lit” memoir can now wear their spirituality on their sleeve … on their whole wardrobe, in fact, not to mention their fragrance and jewelry, plus a raft of other merchandising tie-in products, from wine and tea to a $400 replica day bed like the one Roberts used in Bali.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling 2006 memoir launched a self-discovery movement that could best be described by its full title: “Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.”
Although Sony Pictures has simplified the title, the ongoing search for “everything” remains an integral part of the movie release Friday—especially if “everything” includes the slew of merchandising items, from the “I Deserve Something Beautiful” lotus petal necklace (Dogeared Jewels and Gifts, $72) to the “Only True Love Remains” organic tee (Signorelli, $45) to the official prayer beads (World Market, $4.99).
Last week I wrote in my review:
In our consumerist therapeutic culture, if your life has fallen apart and you want to find yourself, heal yourself, indulge yourself, and possibly find God—or whatever is the next best thing—you can take a year off and travel to exotic places, like Italy, India and Indonesia, if you can afford it.
If you can’t afford it … then you can at least buy the book, watch the Oprah show, and go see the movie.
If only I had known. Of course the spiritual impulses of Liz Gilbert’s legions of fans—sometimes called “Lizbians”—can’t be satisfied with a mere book purchase or movie ticket. After all, Liz spent four months eating pasta and pizza in Italy, four months getting in touch with her spirituality in India and four months finding balance and love in Bali. Why shouldn’t fans splurge on their spiritual well-being too, even if world travel is a bit beyond some price ranges?
Actually, even world travel is part of the tie-in marketing:
Along with an entire weekend extravaganza devoted to “Love” on the HSN shopping network—one of the campaign’s biggest components—there’s a 21-day trip to “Love” locations being given away by STA Travel, trumpeted by Borders bookstores …
Along with Roberts’ star power and female-friendly themes of soul-searching and empowerment, the movie is rife with spinoff possibilities thanks to its sectioning by idyllic location: Italy (Eat), India (Pray) and Bali (Love).
The exotic locales proved a natural fit for Cost Plus World Market stores, which placed prominent special sections in its 263 locations featuring items split into the specific countries.
And, of course, in the karma of tie-in merchandising, the movie helps sell the merchandise, but the merchandise also helps sell the movie:
But rather than just selling the adult equivalent of Transformers toys, the bigger task is creating an event movie that builds excitement and leads to that much-needed big opening weekend for “Love.” … One rival studio marketing honcho said Sony “has done a clever job of putting a thematic umbrella over the movie’s promotion.” The exec added, “It’s not how many ‘Eat Pray Love’ prayer beads they are going to sell, it’s about getting messages out about the movie that money cannot buy.”
Movie merchandising is nothing new, of course. I own some myself: Star Wars action figures; a Harold Lloyd T-shirt. What I think is new here is (a) a major “event” marketing push to a distinctly adult audience, cloaked by (b) an Oprahesque aura of pious sororal rectitude and empowerment. It’s like the old MasterCard commercials that pay lip service to the idea that the most important things in life are “priceless” while somehow in the same breath insinuating that these too are among the many fringe benefits of using MasterCard.
Buy Love-branded clothing from Susan Wong or a signature T-shirt from Signorelli, and you’re showing that you are deeper than our shallow consumerist culture. (By contrast, my Star Wars action figures are cheerfully and blatantly commercial, and marketed to the 12-year-old in me, not the grown-up.) You aren’t being sold, you’re buying spiritual fulfillment. It isn’t a year abroad, but it’s the next best thing.
Okay, so this is like, what, the third shout-out in as many weeks to reader Victor, but his combox quip in my NCRegister.com review of Eat Pray Love deserves the widest possible audience. Victor writes:
I guess what’s a little distressing, as you note, is the sheer number of books and movies of this type (reveling in the pleasures of body and yet so wholly dismissive of what the body really means) … perhaps we should start calling this genre “Gnosh-tic Literature” or something.
Oh. Yeah. Gnosh-tic lit it is. Rock on, Victor!
This week, David DiCerto and I take on Eat Pray Love, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Winter’s Bone. Plus DVD pick of the week and Vatican list film pick with Fr. Lauder. Tune in tonight!