Decent Films Blog
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!
Props to reader Victor for highlighting this infographic from a few years back analyzing the differences between the creative processes at Pixar and DreamWorks.
This week, David DiCerto and I take a look at The Other Guys, Get Low and The Kids Are All Right. Plus DVD pick of the week and Vatican list film pick with Fr. Lauder. Tune in Friday!
Hat tip to reader Rachel for her combox suggestion that I follow up my “best family films” post with a post on “worst family films.”
Note, though, that this post is called “Bad Family Films,” not “Worst Family Films.” “Best of” lists are tough and subjective, but “worst of” lists are usually close to meaningless. Picking best films is like trying to map out the heights of a mountain; picking worst films is like trying to map out the mountain’s roots. There’s a lot more ground to survey down there, and where do you stop? Is any film fair game, however obscure or low-budget? Or is it better to stick to high-profile flops? Which is “worse”: a film that is utterly inept, inspiring complete indifference, or a film made with some skill and ambition that is so wrong-headed that you feel actual dislike for it? Who has seen even a representative sample of “worst film” contenders? Films that attract praise are sought out; films that don’t are avoided.
So, having said all that, I’m basically declaring open season! I’ll throw out some titles, but if my choices my last post were meant as representative rather than completist, my choices here are merely haphazardly illustrative.
To start with, though, an archetypal example of my idea of an awful family film: I give you a movie with no few defenders: Babe: Pig in the City.
How do I hate this film? Let me count the ways. (No, there is too much; let me sum up.) It’s a sequel to one of the best family films ever, but it befouls and demeans the spirit of its predecessor about as thoroughly as humanly possible. The original Babe is pastoral and picturesque — not without grimness and rough edges to be sure, but fundamentally gentle, decent and sweet. Pig in the City is overwhelmingly grotesque, menacing, freakish, and perverse. In Babe, plot and theme intertwine and bring the story to its necessary and perfect triumph. Pig in the City is just one damn thing after another until it stops.
Pig in the City has Magda Szubanski’s Mrs. Hoggett (a) strip-searched, (b) mugged, (c) menaced by outlaw bikers, (d) imprisoned, (e) tricked out in hoop-waisted clown pants, and (f) suspended from a chandelier in a ballroom while startled guests in fashionable eveningwear watch her clown pants inflate like a balloon—and remember, I’m just summarizing.
After reading that sentence, need any Babe fan in the world listen to anything that could possibly be said by way of misguided defense of this execrable film? Admittedly, some of my smartest movie-loving friends like this film. Roger Ebert likes this film. Sometimes even smart people are crashingly wrong. Including me, of course. But this time I am right, by gum.
I’m not sure if I can think of any other family films I hate quite that much, but here’s a sampling of some I’m panned. Sorry if any of your favorites are gored here! Feel free to set me straight in the combox, and also list some of your own least favorite family films. (Note that Mary Poppins is not listed here! I’m not a fan, but I don’t really dislike it, like I do the films below.)
- The live-action Seuss-astrophes How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, which I found such an affront to their source material that I felt compelled to slam them in Seuss’ own voice, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. (Dishonorable mention: Scooby Doo.)
- The Walden Media mess How to Eat Fried Worms, which turns an enjoyably disgusting bit of Rockwell Americana into a genuinely queasy Stockholm-syndrome concordat with bullying.
- DreamWorks’ oppressive Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmmaron, a tendentiously PC tale of evil white imperialists and the noble horse who heroically survives imprisonment and torture to defend his land. Cuz, you know, kids just eat up stories about horses that only want to run wild and free.
- The coyly gay-themed Happy Feet and Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa. (Dishonorable mention: Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, for following in DreamWorks’ footsteps, crudeness-wise. Added: Thanks to reader Edward Curtis for catching my erroneous attribution of Happy Feet to DreamWorks.)
- Other disappointing sequels to excellent originals: The Legend of Zorro, a lame sequel to the excellent The Mask of Zorro, and the two Spy Kids sequels.
- Kangaroo Jack: It’s like Snatch for kids!
- Fantasies peppered with feminist resentment: Monsters vs. Aliens and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (rebuttal discussion!).
- Also for the birds: G-Force and Fantastic Four.
P.S. Hat tip to the first reader who correctly identifies the candidate for best family film that’s the source of a movie quotation somewhere in this column! And let’s have your picks for bad family films!
The greatest family film of all time? Respondents polled for a Radio Times magazine survey ranked Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial as the best, with The Wizard of Oz in the runner-up spot. (Hat tip: Guardian.co.uk.)
Is the story of Elliott and his wise-yet-childlike alien friend really more magical than Dorothy’s adventures in Oz? It’s debatable. A film writer I know has said he’s a fan of lists but not of ranking, and I tend to agree.
There’s a reason why the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications, releasing the Vatican film list in 1995, was careful to note in its press release, “Not all [films] that deserve mention are included.” A list points us to films worth noting; it can’t tell us definitively that these films are necessarily more worthy of note than all films that aren’t included, let alone which films worthy of inclusion are most worthy.
That’s why, rather than quibble about the ranking of films, I’d rather take issue with the inclusion of movies I think don’t deserve to be on such a list at all—and talk about movies I would rather see there instead.
For example, from the Radio Times list, Shrek (#6) is an entertaining film, but does it belong on an all-time top 10? Ridonkulous! Likewise, The Jungle Book (#9) is a fine Disney feature for its period (especially for its soundtrack), but if you’re only going to include one Disney animated feature, is it even in the top 5? Really? Over Bambi, Fantasia or Beauty and the Beast? Heck, I’d take The Emperor’s New Groove or Lilo & Stitch over Jungle Book.
Then there’s Back to the Future (#8), a terrific action-comedy, but not necessarily the best fit for the category of family film, unless everyone in your family is in double digits. Actually, some might say the same about E.T., with its famous obscenity and other problematic content, but I think E.T. fairly counts as a family film.
The least deserving candidates on the Radio Times list, in my book, are the lame, unmagical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (#4) and the mediocre Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (#7). (I’m also not a fan of Mary Poppins (#3), but never mind, I know a hopeless case when I see it.)
That leaves Toy Story (#5) and The Sound of Music (#10) as the only films on the list, along with E.T. and The Wizard of Oz, that I think really belong on a list like this. (Even then, given one Pixar film, I’d probably pick Toy Story 2 or The Incredibles over Toy Story, but that’s quibbling.)
What about the other six slots? In addition to the Disney and Pixar picks mentioned above, plausible candidates I’d want to consider would include Babe, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Song of Bernadette, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, The Story of the Weeping Camel, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and The Iron Giant. (Don’t ask me to pick just ten!)
Quick note on my refurbished review of Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, to which I previously devoted only two brief, hasty paragraphs written over a decade ago, before Decent Films existed. I recently revisited The Apostle for a capsule review for the Image Arts & Faith Top 100 website. Now, spurred by Duvall’s new movie Get Low (review coming soon), I’ve expanded that capsule a bit more here; it’s still brief, but far more adequate than what was here before. The Apostle deserves more than two hasty paragraphs. I’m happy to rectify that now, at least somewhat.
Just a quick note to say: After taking off about sixteen days over the last several weeks, I’m now back at my desk for the duration. Watch for a bump up in the rate of new material appearing here at Decent Films! That is all for the moment.
I’ve been on vacation this week—hence the absence of other new material—but for those who’ve been following my Italian pilgrimage blogging at NCRegister.com, I’ve just posted the final two parts, Update 5 and Update 6.
Tune in Friday, July 22 at 8:30pm EDT for another episode of “Reel Faith.” Reviewed this week: Salt, Predators and Ramona and Beezus, plus Rossellini’s Open City and comments about Creation.
Just a quick note that Friday’s episode of “Reel Faith” is now available at the show’s website. This is our sixth episode, and I think we’ve started to hit our stride. If you missed the broadcast on Friday, check it out online!
This Friday I’ll be doing an hour of “Catholic Answers Live” with Patrick Coffin and co-hosting the latest episode of “Reel Faith” with David DiCerto! In both venues we’ll be discussing the latest movies: Inception, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Despicable Me.
Of course on “CA Live” we’ll have more time to talk about other movies. On the other hand, you can see clips of the movies at “Reel Faith.” “CA Live” airs at 6:00pm EDT, “Reel Faith” at 8:30pm EDT.
A few quick notes: After a week back in the States, I’m just about back in the swing of things. (Hope you’ve been enjoying my pilgrimage blogging!)
I did miss the Twilight Saga: Eclipse screening, and while I still intend to catch the film and write about it when I can, I’ve decided not to leave the title indefinitely in my “Coming Soon” box. I’ve gotten caught in that trap too many times! At the time I always hope it will motivate me to get to it sooner rather than later, but as time goes on it becomes a millstone around my neck. I’d rather disappoint readers now by taking it down than string them along for possibly weeks or even months. Sorry, but I’m doing the best I can!
Reel Faith went on while I was gone, with former USCCB critic Annie Navarro stepping into the gap with my co-host David DiCerto. The next episode has been postponed until next week, so tune in then for our video reviews of Inception, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Despicable Me.
Tuesday afternoon after the papal Pallium Mass, the itinerary includes the catacombs of St. Callixtus and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. I missed the catacombs on my first trip to Rome, so I’m really looking forward to this.
The visit to the catacombs begins with a brief introduction to the history and iconography of the period and the site. While the pagan Romans traditionally practiced cremation, the early Christians, in continuity with Jewish belief and custom refocused and refined in light of the resurrection of Jesus, placed a high premium on burying the dead in preparation for their rising. Because land was limited, starting in the second century Roman Christians (and Jews; a small number of Roman catacombs are of Jewish origin) acquired plots of land outside the city limits and dug massive underground labyrinths in the soft volcanic rock of the Roman countryside, carving out niches for burying the dead. The uniqueness of Judeo-Christian hope was even evident in the language they used: The standard pagan term for a burial site was “necropolis,” city of the dead, but the Christians early began calling their catacombs by a new name, “cemetery,” a term literally meaning “dormitory” or “place of sleep.”
Like many people, I once vaguely imagined the early Christians hiding out from Roman persecutions in the catacombs. In fact the catacombs were publicly known sites, not secret (our tour guide points out, commonsensically, that excavating tons of earth and rock along, say, the Appian Way could hardly be a surreptitious undertaking). The kernel of truth to the Hollywood picture is that during persecutions when Christian rites of worship could not openly be celebrated, Christians retreated to their underground burial sites, sacrosanct under Roman law, to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy.
It isn’t until I actually see the procession of 38 new metropolitan archbishops walking up the center aisle at Saint Peter’s Basilica at the start of the Pallium Mass a little after 9:30 Tuesday morning, and hear the cheers from pilgrims of the 26 countries represented—Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe—followed by the Bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI, that it really hits me: This is the greatest visible display of the Church’s catholicity that I have ever seen, and perhaps may ever see.
It is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. My daughter Sarah and I are in Saint Peter’s Basilica, on the very spot where St. Peter stretched out his hands and gave his life, where his bones remain to this day. The unique role that Jesus gave to Peter among the Apostles is mirrored today in the role of the Bishop of Rome among these archbishops, who are gathered for a special celebration of their pastoral role and unity with the Pope.
There’s even an Eastern Orthodox delegation here. I didn’t confirm that until later, but I caught my breath during Pope Benedict’s homily, delivered in Italian, at a reference to Constantinople. (My Italian vocabulary is barely into double digits, but I picked up individual words and ideas here and there: references to Peter and Paul, Jesus’ words in Matthew 16, the pallium and the archbishops, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary. The booklet handed out to worshipers has the Italian and English texts of the pope’s Pallium Mass homily ... from 2009. The English text of the 2010 homily is now available online.) My appreciation for Orthodoxy is long-standing and profound, and I feel the pain of the schism deeply. The presence of the delegation from Constantinople at this celebration of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul fills me with great joy.
In my first update I mentioned someone comparing Assisi to Minas Tirith, Tolkien’s imaginary tiered city on a hill. What I didn’t know at the time is that unlike Minas Tirith, where the lowest level is the widest circle and the royal house is at the crown, Assisi’s crown is at the bottom: beneath the lower Basilica of St. Francis, in the crypt where Francis’s tomb is situated in the midst of four of his famous followers.
Not that the crypt is literally the lowest point in Assisi. As far as I know, though, it’s the lowest notable landmark. It’s immediately below the upstairs-downstairs Basilica of San Francesco, the lower basilica adorned by frescoes of Cimabue and Giotto, the upper basilica with its narrative of Francis’s life in frescoes. It’s down the hill from the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Clare), which houses the original Cross of San Damiano that spoke to Francis as well as the body of Francis’s famous spiritual companion. It’s far below the Cathedral of San Rufino, with its dome overlooking Santa Chiara.
There’s also Rocca Maggiore castle, probably the highest point in Assisi, looking like a picture postcard from the piazza of Santa Chiara (my best view of the castle, since we got no higher than the cathedral, and you can’t see the castle from the cathedral). But I don’t think anyone would think of the castle as crowning this city. The crown is at the bottom. If you’re going to climb Assisi from bottom to top, start at the crypt of St. Francis. Or else do the opposite: Take a taxi to the cathedral (or the castle, if you like) and work your way down to the crypt.
It’s 5am Monday morning in Italy. I’m sitting on a rooftop veranda outside my hotel room in Assisi overlooking the sleeping countryside. The moon is high. Later today we’ll be in Rome.
Our trip got off to a bad start. The story begins early Thursday afternoon at the Alitalia terminal at Newark Liberty Airport, where my daughter Sarah and I arrive to discover very long, seemingly unmoving lines and the news that our 5:30 flight was delayed at least seven hours. Over the next few days we heard that (a) the pilots were on strike, (b) they were watching the World Cup, or (c) issues from the previous day had affected numerous flights that day. I still don’t know what the issue was. By the time our flight finally lifts off at a minute shy of 1am, some of our fellow pilgrims have been stranded at the airport for over a dozen hours.
There are seventeen of us on the flight. Archbishop Myers is already in Italy with an early group. We’re the late group—now the very late group. We were originally meant to join the early group at Montecatini by catching a one-hour transfer flight from Rome to Florence. Unfortunately, given our mid-afternoon arrival time on Friday afternoon, we would have to wait nearly six hours for the next connecting. Instead, the tour people put us on a bus to Montecatini.
In a few hours, my daughter Sarah (age 15) and I will be on a plane headed to Rome. Our archdiocese is leading a pilgrimage, and we’re on it.
Some readers may remember that I was in Rome once before last year, on a press junket for Angels & Demons. They gave us the official Angels & Demons tour of Rome, walking in the footsteps of Robert Langdon from church to church as he unraveled the path of the Illuminati.
The idea of tourists going to the Eternal City to see St. Peter’s and other locales specifically through the lens of a badly written, anti-Catholic conspiracy novel is pretty depressing (although not as pathetic as Twilight fans heading to Forks, Washington for Twilighter tours).
Fortunately, I was able to stay a few days afterward, touring on my own, and making a sort of pilgrimage out of it. I wrote a bit about my experiences in an article on religion and science in Angels & Demons, and I posted photos from my trip at Jimmy Akin’s blog. Plus, I got to knock the film at the end of my European trip!
This time, it will be a real pilgrimage. Our bishop, John Myers of Newark, is leading the trip, the highlight of which may well be the June 29 Pallium Mass celebrated by His Holiness Pope Benedict; we’re also scheduled to be at his weekly address. We’re also going to Tuscany and Assisi, among other destinations.
I hope to do some blogging on the road from Rome, not about movies of course, but about the trip. Watch this space!
Yesterday I taped the fourth episode of Reel Faith with David DiCerto. We discussed Knight and Day, Grown Ups, and Jonah Hex, as well as the documentary Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders. It airs tomorrow, Friday, June 24 at 8:30pm. As usual, you can watch it online at the show’s website, either when it airs or anytime over the next week. (Right now last week’s episode, covering Toy Story 3, The A-Team and Splice is available.)
As always, comments at the Reel Comments page are welcome.
UPDATE: Hollywood admits its originality problem!
With Sequels and Reboots Failing, Hollywood (Finally) Puts Out a Desperate Call for Original Material
Conventional wisdom in Hollywood of late has said that you should stick to familiar brands when making movies. It could be a sequel or an adaptation of an old TV show, board game, toy, or crumpled candy wrapper, just as long as people already know it. So how’s that working out? In a summer season where only three out of the fourteen major releases so far have come from a new idea, attendance is down 13.3 percent from last season … That’s why studio execs at Warner Bros., Paramount/DreamWorks, and Universal are now madly pinging agents and managers with an uncharacteristic, desperate, and welcome request: Send us your fresh material!
… It’s no wonder panic is in the air, considering how moviegoers are rebelling. “People are feeling marketed to, as opposed to catered to,” says JC Spink, a partner in the management and production company Benderspink and one of the executive producers of last summer’s surprise original hit, The Hangover. “I think we’ve all gone a little bit overboard as an industry. There hasn’t been room for original material for a little while now. It’s a shame, because I don’t think it’s what anyone [who works in the business] came out here for.”
Admitting you have a problem, of course, is the first step to recovery.
The rest of the piece is worth reading, as is Douthat’s post, which points out that only two of the 25 highest-grossing movies of the last decade weren’t adaptations of an existing property (the outliers being Finding Nemo and of course Avatar).
Titled “Did ‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars’ Ruin Hollywood?”, Douthat’s piece takes on grumpy jeremiads by John Podhoretz and David Edelstein laying the blame for Hollywood’s creative malaise and addiction to empty spectacle at the doorstep of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Having made some of the same arguments Douthat does, I cheerfully support his line of thought.
Original post follows.
Is Hollywood literally out of ideas?
In this summer of sequels, adaptations and remakes, tomorrow’s Knight and Day, an action-comedy-romance starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, is a bit of an anomaly: While it owes an obvious debt to similar films from Mr. & Mrs. Smith and True Lies to Romancing the Stone and even Charade, it’s an “original” story in the formal sense of not being an extension of any existing franchise.
That doesn’t make it a good film, but it’s a point worth noting in the film’s press notes. Publicity people writing press notes have to hype a film any way they can; if you’re marketing a known brand name, you sell that, and if you aren’t, then you sell that too. Even so, I was a bit struck by the spin on non-franchise status in the press notes for Knight and Day:
Unlike most action films of this scope, Knight and Day did not begin as a comic book, TV series or franchise property—but as a spec script by Patrick O’Neill.
Then there’s this comment from producer Cathy Konrad, who is married to director James Mangold:
Konrad was drawn to Knight and Day by the story’s originality. “It’s hard to find fresh material that isn’t superhero based or something like that,” she observes.
Now, I’m no kind of movie business insider. I’ve been to Hollywood a few times, but only within the orchestrated media context of a press junket. I know something about the craft of moviemaking, but on the business side of things all I know, or I think I know, is what I’ve seen in movies about Hollywood.
So I’m struck, first of all, that the press notes bother to say that Knight and Day began with a “spec script.” “Spec” means that the screenwriter wasn’t hired to write the story—that he wrote it in the hope of selling it to someone who liked it.
I would have thought, perhaps naively, that most movies began that way: a writer with an idea. Of course it happens the other way too: Producers with established products hire writers (sometimes many, many writers) to slap together a script around that product. But that can’t be the norm, can it?
Even with respect to big-budget action movies, while I can understand producers having a preference for brand-name adaptations, remakes and sequels over something new, surely among writers there would be a general preference to create something new, right? And, therefore, producers looking for “fresh material” should have an easy time finding it? Right?
Even if market considerations — not to mention the guaranteed paycheck of a contract job — lead many writers to churn out scripts for brand-name material, you’d think the creative impulse must motivate countless screenwriters (and screenwriting hopefuls), not to churn out, but to lovingly craft and painstakingly polish stories of every conceivable shape and size. Wouldn’t you?
Even if it were a known industry fact that there’s no market in Hollywood for original action scripts, surely creative chutzpah—without which half the worthwhile art in the world wouldn’t exist—rides high enough in all markets that countless writers believe that their original action script will be different?
And while a great many of these will in fact be trash — though no worse than countless scripts that actually become movies — surely at least some of them will be good, and a few better than good? How can a producer say it’s “hard to find fresh material”?
I dunno, maybe it’s just publicity hype. (Half the time I suspect those press-note “quotations” are made up by publicists or agents or somebody. Depending on the film, press notes seldom offer actually useful information beyond plot synopsis and filmmaker info, although if there’s actually an interesting story behind the making of a film the notes can be invaluable.)
Still, I’m struck that the pervasiveness of comic-book movies comes up twice. I’m a lifelong comic-book fan, but I’d prefer fewer comic-book movies rather than more—especially now that studios are actually digging up obscure properties like this past weekend’s Jonah Hex, a total non-event panned by critics and ignored by audiences.
Jonah Hex? I can understand wanting to do a Batman or Spider-Man movie; I can even understand green-lighting big-screen versions of less universally known characters like Ghost Rider or Green Arrow. But Jonah Hex? At what point does scraping the bottom of the franchise barrel actually make less sense than doing something new?
Are there really no better options out there for people in Hollywood with money to spend? Where are the writers? What are they doing?
These are real questions; I don’t know the answers.
Yes! Having joined the 21st century six months ago by adding RSS, Decent Films has now taken its first step into the world of social media by creating a Facebook page. For readers who use Facebook, especially Facebook users who don’t use RSS, it’s another way to keep track of when I update Decent Films. And while I still don’t have reader comments here at Decent Films (though the integrated Decent Films Mail is a step in the right direction), you can comment on my work at the Facebook page (as well as in the National Catholic Register comboxes, where applicable).
I’ve begun using RSS now, and I find it invaluable. On the other hand, I’m still a total Facebook newbie … and I would gladly welcome any advice from veteran Facebookers on how to make the Facebook experience better for Decent Films readers (or for myself). Please drop me a line!
Incidentally, there appear to be a couple of unrelated Facebook groups called “Decent Films” … if you look for me on Facebook, be sure to search for “Decent Films Guide.”