Mailbag #11

The Day the Earth Stood Still, Prince Caspian, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, movie trailers, One Night with the King, Wall-E, Twilight, Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Mission.

Re. The Day the Earth Stood Still

Really enjoyed your review of the Day the Earth Stood Still remake. Well, perhaps enjoy is too strong a word. Although I love the original and was disappointed to hear that they were remaking it, I wanted them to do a good job with it. I went into the theater with low expectations. Coming out, I didn’t care much for the film, to tell the truth. However, I didn’t think it was a bad movie at all. To the contrary, I have seen much worse! I was only disappointed that it wasn’t a great movie. However, I usually deepen and expound on my views of films within the next few days or even hours after watching the film, and so my respect for the remake has actually grown just in the few hours after I watched it.

The film never really digs deep enough to give us a worthwhile message, saving nature or changing our behavior toward each other. I would have been happy with an all-out effect fest or an in-depth story. But I got a film that tried to be too many things at once.

As to your review, I must admit, your review is fair, but your rating seems a little harsh to me. You gave it a 2½ out of 4. Now, the film did lack in some artistic repects, but I would have thought what effects and action they had in the film were really, really well done (albeit underused) and would have merited the film at least a 3-3½ star rating. I was wondering, how did you judge the artistic/entertainment value of this film?

My star rating, or artistic–entertainment value rating, is intended to work pretty much the same way as, say, Roger Ebert’s. You could say it represents a quick index of (a) how well I think the filmmakers achieved what they set out to do, and (b) how well I think this succeeds in satisfying the reasonable expectations of the target audience.

Like Ebert, I use three stars as a baseline for a “good” or successful film. The Day the Earth Stood Still got 2½ stars, which I consider borderline (Ebert calls 2½ stars “borderline negative”; I use the rating a little more ambiguously).

What makes a film “good,” or successful at achieving what it set out to do, is relative to the genre, context, style and ambitions of the film. This does involve such technical elements as direction, production values, acting and so forth, but it also includes the total achievement of the film in engaging or not engaging the audience on the level of story, characters, theme and so forth.

In that respect, Day the Earth Stood Still strikes me as, at best, a borderline film. It sets out to be an intelligent, exciting action/sci-fi tale inspired by the 1951 original but offering an updated message of environmental stewardship rather than international cooperation. Some aspects of this story and how it is told, both from a human perspective as an a speculative tale of an alien visitation, work very well. But in other respects, some noted in your own email, the movie fails. It’s not the disaster some harsh reviews have unjustly made it out to be, but in the end it doesn’t really work. 2½ stars is my way of indicating this.

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Re. The Chronicles of Narnia

I didn’t go to the movie theather to watch either LW&W or Prince Caspian, but have seen them both later in TV or DVD. I have enjoyed both movies, but probably would have enjoyed them more if I hadn’t read the books, because it breaks my heart to see how they change the most important parts of the message. As you say in your Prince Caspian review I hope that The Voyage of the Dawn Threader will be more “faithful” to the original. Of all the Chronicles this is my favorite one, I think it has the most Christian teachings of the 3 books. I can’t wait to see how they will portrait Eustace and his slow transformation to a more likeable and virtuous person. I will miss Peter and Susan, although I think Edmund and Lucy are better represented in both films. Thanks as always for your comments which help me and my husband decide which movies will be seen by our children.

Right now it’s up in the air whether The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will get made at all. Disney has elected not to partner with Walden for the third Narnia film — unsurprisingly, given Prince Caspian’s comparatively poor box office and DVD sales performance relative to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Walden is now shopping around for a partner. I doubt the involvement of another studio will have any particular effect on the end product, if any; we’ll have to wait and see.

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Re. Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Just a point I think you overlooked about Elizabeth: The Golden Age, namely the British origins of it.

It helps (I think) to understand how Elizabeth I is seen by the large majority of the British public, she’s a mythologised figure tied up with the British identity, similar to George Washington is for American viewers. A greater black/white divide is down to her status rather than anti-Catholicism per se.

I think much of the anti-Catholicism you point out can be attributed to attempts at historical accuracy. ’Every Catholic is a potential assassin’ was absolutely the way the situation would’ve been seen by the Queen’s advisers at the time.

What you see is not an accurate portrayal of history, but one of the major English/British national myths as it exists in the British public perception.

Consider it our version of The Patriot, glossing over our faults and demonising our enemies. If there was a major outcry over that film then I missed it; the caricature of the British that you skip over in a couple of sentences compared to a full review of it taking place here. As a non-Catholic Brit I found myself instinctively seeing far more bias in The Patriot than in Elizabeth (and this probably shines through above). It’s likely we all see unfairness clearer when it’s aimed towards us.

On one point, certainly, we can agree: It’s easiest to see unfairness when it’s aimed at us. I am aware of this, and I try to make some effort to discern when oxen are being gored even beyond the boundaries of my own fence.

I’m much struck by your George Washington example, if only because I can’t help thinking that in today’s Hollywood a major costume biopic about George Washington would almost certainly be ruthlessly iconoclastic rather than hagiographically mythological. (The Patriot is a well-chosen counter-example, but while it ruthlessly demonizes the British, it doesn’t celebrate any particular figure from American history.)

Ironically, this iconoclastic bent strikes me as a problematic symptom, related to a systemic politically motivated hostility to the institutions of Western civilization generally and the United States in particular. It might thus seem that I ought to appreciate a hagiographically mythological depiction of an icon of one of the most venerable institutions of Western civilization, the British monarchy — especially since, while I am American, I am something of an Anglophile and a fan of the idea of monarchy in general (as well as a King Arthur enthusiast particularly).

Yet Elizabeth: The Golden Age doesn’t just depict period anti-Catholicism in a historical context, as you suggest; it embraces it wholeheartedly. “Every Catholic is a potential assassin” isn’t meant as a coldly accurate depiction of religious prejudice among Elizabeth’s advisors; it’s meant as the accepted onscreen rationale for Elizabeth’s actions, which are hardly critically depicted.

Was my review of The Patriot insufficiently critical of the anti-British slant? I think I devoted more than the “couple of sentences” you suggest to that subject, though it was hardly the major theme that the anti-Catholicism of Elizabeth: The Golden Age is in my review of that film. In my defense, I might cite three points:

  1. My review of The Patriot was written eight years ago, very early in my critical career. Possibly today I would pay more attention to this point.
  2. As my review notes, The Patriot is a “popcorn action movie,” less deserving of serious attention than a sequel to the Oscar-winning art-house hit Elizabeth.
  3. Any sort of prejudice is bad, but anti-Catholicism, being directed specifically against the true faith, is a whole different league of evil, and is closer to the raison d’être of my work and my website.
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Re. Movie trailers

I took my three kids to see Bolt yesterday. As you probably know, Bolt is rated G. The theater ran a trailer for Coraline before Bolt. Have you seen this? Coraline is a PG-rated movie and looks pretty dang scary. My four-year-old (almost five) was so terrified that he could hardly watch Bolt. I complained to the theater itself. I have written an e-mail to the theater chain also. My sister-in-law suggested I write to Disney, since these things are probably pre-packaged. I couldn’t really find any address for concerns like this so I wrote an old fashioned letter to Disney Animation Studios.

Do you have any other suggestions? Is there someone else I can write to? I’m getting very annoyed with whoever makes the preview selections. It’s not bad enough I have to worry about what’s in the actual movie. I have no way of knowing what the previews will be. I can’t count the number of times inappropriate previews are played at a movie.

The MPAA approach to rating trailers is less granular than the movie rating system. Where movies get five different ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17), trailers have just three. Trailers deemed appropriate for “mature audiences” may be restricted to playing with PG-13 movies and up or just R or NC-17. All other trailers are rated for “all audiences.”

In practice, trailers for R-rated movies are usually only shown with R-rated movies, but trailers for PG and PG-13 movies are often classified for “all audiences” and shown with G and PG-rated movies. Matching trailers with appropriate movies (i.e., movies with a similar target audience) is a judgment call that is made on an ad hoc basis, often by the theater manager, sometimes by the studio.

Trailers that play right before the feature starts, especially if they’re from the same studio as the feature, are probably appended by the studio; trailers that come earlier in the trailer lineup, especially from other studios, are probably appended by the theater manager. Such judgment calls vary widely, from obviously appropriate to defensible to doubtful to obviously inappropriate.

It looks like the Coraline trailer may have been paired with Bolt nationwide, which would make the studio responsible. The pairing seems to me to come somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Though creepy and grotesque, Coraline is a PG-rated animated fantasy from the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, with a significant target audience overlap with Bolt.

That said, if it were my kid that had been frightened, I’d want to complain too. I think you’ve about covered all the bases I can think of. Sorry I can’t be any more help.

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Re. One Night with the King

I’ve been a great fan of your site ever since I read your Catholic World Report article on the film Into Great Silence, which I think is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. I have you to thank for bringing to my attention that and Wall-E which is good almost beyond hope for a children’s animated movie in these degenerate times — as rich as a good glass of eggnog and as beautiful as a tastefully trimmed Christmas tree.

I particularly appreciate that, even where your opinion matches the critical consensus, you often go into much more depth than most critics, discussing the themes and artistic strengths and weaknesses of a picture in detail. Although you are not, as you said in an article, the pope of movies, I might call you the G. K. Chesterton of movies, and I hope you realize that is a compliment indeed.

Having said that, I have a few comments to make about your review of One Night With the King. Although your negative-but-not-horrible opinion seems to be pretty typical, I think you and most of the other critics are missing a few important points.

Esther is clearly a Christ figure. She saves her people from destruction, brought on by their own disobedience of centuries past, by offering herself as a sacrifice to Xerxes (her lord, as Mordecai calls him). When She approaches the king unsummoned, the outcry from the princes is “Protocol has been broken!” Esther can be seen as a liberator from the protocol in the same sense that Paul sees Jesus as a liberator from the Jewish law. Her entrance into the king’s chamber is like the tearing of the temple veil.

Now that the veil is torn — the door is opened — the one mediator between God and man has approached the throne, the king has lowered his scepter, and he and his bride are restored to love, there is no barrier between us and God. In the second allegorical level, Esther’s relationship with Xerxes is an image of the soul’s relationship with God.

Although someone who hadn’t seen the movie and read what I’ve written so far might think the movie is as dull as my writing, all this “inner meaning” is only possible because of the very human story it’s in, and the allegory, far from cramping it, is what enriches and enlivens it. I mention this because it provides satisfactory answers to many of your objections to the film. Your review says: “He’s the king, right? What’s stopping him from being with the woman he wants (or not being with women he doesn’t want)?” The answer is that the king, no less than the queen or anyone else, is subject to the protocol, and it is expedient for the meaning of the story for that line to be followed here rather than perhaps more accurate “amorous freedom.”

I should add that this mutual “divine bridal” imagery seems to me to add another strength to the portrayal of the love between Esther and Xerxes: this mutual submission and honor, such as in Xerxes’ statement, “Did you not think I had the sense to see through your little parable?” and yet willing to be taken in anyway. I hope I make myself clear. Please note that I speak under correction here, since I am only 17, without personal experience of eros.

Since I have provided a detailed response to most of your criticisms of the film, I hope you will consider rethinking your opinion, perhaps seeing the film again to find out if you missed anything. While it may not be as great as it aspires to be, I think it lays out some very promising avenues for modern religious movies. Surely it should at least have been “worth noting” in your 2006 end-of-year listings.

Where to begin responding to such thoughtful, in-depth commentary (regrettably heavily edited here for length)?

Let me at least say that I am (a) delighted that my coverage of Into Great Silence and Wall-E brought those films to your attention; (b) charmed by your vivid praise of Wall-E’s virtues in particular; (c) unspeakably flattered by your “Chesterton of movies” compliment; (d) gratified by your careful reading and closely reasoned response to one of my reviews; and (e) rather crestfallen that the title you chose for your thoughtful rebuttal was, of all things, One Night With the King.

I hope you won’t be too disappointed if I don’t counter with a point-by-point defense of my original review. The hard truth is, I suspect that nearly any movie for which I might write a negative could just as easily support a more sympathetic, in-depth and even profound reading, much as you have offered here.

Peter Kreeft once said that the terror Pascal felt looking into the “eternal silence” of the night sky was fear of his own shadow. Under the right light, that same shadow may fall across many a seemingly unpromising movie, and plumb the same depths of the human heart.

It can thus be difficult to write the tepid or even chilly review I feel a movie deserves, knowing that somewhere out there is a viewer and a reader who regards that same movie with the same closely attentive care and joy of my own response to Into Great Silence or Wall-E (and who may well be left as cold by these films as I am by the film in question).

In the case of One Night with the King you cite a rich panoply of themes: human dignity and equality, divine solicitude, redemption, and the complementarity of male and female, among others. I don’t at all deny that the film is indeed about all of these things. What I can’t see is that it is about any of them in an interesting or insightful way — that it has a compelling or striking vision of human dignity and equality, divine solicitude, redemption or any of the rest. On that level, a parochial school play of salvation history could engage all of these themes and others besides; whether it did so in an artistically effective way would be another question.

In fact, the one point on which I will directly contradict you is your suggestion that “someone who hadn’t seen the movie and read what I’ve written so far might think the movie is as dull as my writing.” This exactly reverses the truth: If the movie were as interesting as what you’ve written about it, it would be a better movie.

On other points, I will, if not directly contradict, at least demur. To me, your explanation that Xerxes is bound by protocol, or at least expectations, from simply casting aside the other candidates and simply going to Esther if that’s what he wants to do, is at least dramatically and psychologically unsatisfying. Whatever narrative explanations may be offered, Xerxes is simply too passive, too weak to work as a romantic lead, let alone the icon of masculinity the role and the subtext seem to require.

I hope this response isn’t too discouraging. In principle, I would like to revisit One Night with the King and possibly reevaluate its merits. There are about a thousand other films I would like to afford the same attention; and, ahead of all of them, countless films I haven’t seen or reviewed. I’m afraid the sad truth is that I will very likely never again in this lifetime get to One Night with the King.

In lieu of that, though, let me tell you what will be much better than me writing a new review of One Night with the King. Keep writing yourself, and at the rate you’re going someday soon you’ll be in a position to tell the world how wrong I am about this film. We need as many good critics out there as we can get. If I had written like you when I was 17, I really would be writing like Chesterton now.

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In your article on 2008 family films you mentioned the possibility of Wall-E for Best Picture. I thought that the reason they created a “Best Animated Picture” category was to avoid having an animated film among the final nominees for Best Picture.

Not at all. The animated picture category was created to create more room for honoring deserving animated films that might otherwise be neglected, just as the foreign film category is meant to honor deserving foreign films — without prejudice to the possibility of a foreign film, or an animated film, winning best picture.

The top prize is still open in principle to films eligible in the specialized categories. That the specialized categories are felt to be necessary may reflect a sense that a deserving foreign film or animated film faces particularly steep odds in the best picture category competing against live-action Hollywood films. This is partly based on the law of averages and related factors, and may also have something to do with Academy voter prejudices.

At the same time, the existence of such sub-categories is a mixed blessing. Yes, a deserving foreign or animated film that might be squeezed out of best picture contention can still receive recognition in its own category. But this very fact can make it harder for the picture to land a nomination or a win at the highest level, even if it’s deserving.

Academy voters may reason that there is always the specialized Oscar for the deserving foreign or animated film, where in the absence of such a consolation prize they might be more willing to consider it for the top prize. Even when such a film is a serious contender for the top prize, its double candidacy may work against it, splitting support from voters who think the want to see it get the top prize and those who think the category award is the best way to honor the film. Academy voters may not even be aware that they can vote for the same film in both categories — or they may want to split their vote to help more than one film.

I think Wall-E definitely deserves a shot at Best Picture.

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Re. Twilight (2008)

I just want to give you a heads-up: the book Twilight was based on was, from a literary stand-point one of the worst books I ever read. I know you can’t judge a movie from the book it was based on, and there have been some cases where the movie was better than the book (Schindler’s List as a prime example), but considering how tissue-paper thin the characters were and how stilted the dialogue was, it doesn’t bode well for the movie. Please don’t think I’m trying to tell you not to review the film. Just give a caveat on the book: there’s better-written fantasy out there for our young readers.

I think you’re right about the books: My impression is that they’re as technically inept as Dan Brown, but not as competently constructed. I do think the movie is better than the books, but most of my misgivings about the books bleed (so to speak) over into the film, as the article indicates.

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Re. Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa

I just passed by the reviews for Madagascar 2, to see if anyone else picked up on the themes of sexuality and religion. You did. Which is commendable; but I also sensed a bias against homosexuality in the review, along with a somewhat critical review of highlighting tendencies in religion formation.

I, as an admitted homosexual, did find the cross-dressing scene a bit too far. However, I enjoyed seeing people laughing at the religion theme, not noticing that they were, in fact, laughing at the tenets of their own religion.

Now, that isn’t to say I’m looking at this through the lenses of a crazed gay who’s anti-religion. Rather, think of me as the vampire in Twilight. I find guys very attractive and beautiful; especially the few who love unconditionally, and don’t require sex to share that connection. That is what I look for in relationships. Which, probably, is why I’m still looking.

I also can admit to having a bias against religion. Many paint gay people as being bad; while themselves engaging in the practices of material worship, racial-formation, and committing and supporting atrocities which show lack of said faith. I am spiritual, just not religious for that reason. To parody Mark Twain: No one is better appointed to lead our personal spiritual journeys, than are ourselves.

Thanks for writing. I appreciate your thoughts on the film and on my review.

Just to clarify my point of view: I don’t approve of “painting gay people as being bad,” and am no more sympathetic to homophobia or gay-bashing than to any other form of dehumanizing people, including materialism (which puts material things above people) or racism.

The Catholic Church teaches that every person is created in God’s image, and, due to original sin, is subject to concupiscent or disordered passions. This means that all of us, in varying ways and degrees, are drawn to things in ways that are not good for us. For me, that might mean one thing; for you, it means something else.

I’m not going to say you’re wrong for finding guys attractive and beautiful. God made men as well as women, and he made them both good, and there is nothing wrong with appreciating goodness and beauty wherever we find it.

If the way in which you find them attractive involves erotic desire, according to Catholic teaching, that is not sinful, though it is objectively disordered, and to act on such erotic desire, the Church teaches, is objectively gravely wrong.

This is in no way a slur on your sexual identity, which is good, and was set from the moment of conception: You are a man. This doesn’t preclude you from appreciating the same goodness in other men; but men and women are made for one another in a way that cannot be duplicated by two men or two women. (Since you mention Twilight, you might find more food for thought in my recent article on that film — it touches on some of this same territory.)

I can appreciate your comments on religion and spirituality. I would want to add two caveats to your pseudo-Twain sentiment. First, the accumulated wisdom of past generations often has a lot to teach us. Second, to borrow a page from Lewis, man’s search for God is all well and good, unless it turns out that God is searching for man — in which case we might be like mice looking for the cat.

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Re. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

I’m fascinated by your interpretation of The Last Temptation of Christ. Whilst recognising the sometimes blasphemous nature of the film, I can’t help but think you are somewhat wrong about Judas.

The betrayal of Christ is a necessity and was known to Jesus in advance. Judas may have been ostensibly motivated by money. However, his actions are crucial and therefore must in some way have had the tacit approval of Christ.

The crucifixion was not possible without Judas and while it may have hurt Christ to be betrayed, it was — as I said — necessary. Does that not leave you — like me — with some doubt about Judas and his real motivations?

I’m bemused and gratified by the interest in my Last Temptation essay thanks to Roger Ebert’s attention. That essay came fairly early in my career, and was written primarily for myself as an exercise in the approach to film writing that I wanted to take. Looking back, there are a few things I would change, but I think the piece still basically sums up my take on the film.

The question of Judas’s motivation, whether considered historically, narratively or theologically, is admittedly a thorny one. Certainly thirty pieces of silver was not exactly a fortune, so it seems unlikely that Judas was nothing more than an opportunist motivated by greed. For that matter, I’m sure greed-motivated opportunists had better career options in first-century Israel than becoming itinerant disciples of homeless prophets.

The New Testament offers very little information about Judas Iscariot. The Gospels do tell us that he approached the chief priests and asked what they would give him to betray them, and the price of thirty pieces of silver (so Matthew tells us) is set beforehand. (This is contradicted by the depiction in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, in which Judas never asks for money and a fictional “Zerah” offers him the money only after the fact, as an afterthought.) We also read that Judas felt remorse when he saw Jesus condemned, leading to his suicide.

Outside the passion narrative, Judas figures in only one story, the Johannine account in which Judas criticizes Mary of Bethany for anointing Jesus’ feet with costly ointment, which (Judas objected) could have been sold and the money given to the poor — and the evangelist adds that Judas’ real motivation was not that he cared about the poor, but that he was a thief who held the disciples’ common money box and stole from it.

This is obviously not a flattering picture, but neither is it enough data to build up any sort of psychological profile of Judas, or to say what he thought he was doing when he betrayed Jesus. From a dramatic point of view, therefore, I’m open to a wide range of speculative possibilities. Interesting 20th-century takes on Judas include Taylor Caldwell’s I, Judas and Dorothy Sayers’s The Man Born to be King.

However, the Gospels do offer two significant theological interpretations of Judas’s actions. First, Luke’s Gospel tells us that “Satan entered into Judas,” and it was then that he went to the chief priests to negotiate Jesus betrayal (Luke 22:3-6). That still doesn’t tell us what Judas thought he was doing, but we are told that it was Satan’s prompting, not God’s, that set him on that course.

Also, in Mark’s Gospel, after predicting his betrayal by one of the twelve, Jesus adds, “For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” This is often thought to be one of the strongest indication in all of scripture of the perdition of any particular person. It is hard to explain why Jesus would say “It would be better if he had not been born” if Judas had not by his actions completely rejected God.

The traditional, orthodox Christian interpretation of the role of Judas in Jesus’ passion is this: Judas’ actions were sinful and wrong, but God used his rebellion to accomplish His own ends, as He works in all things for the good, from the sin of Adam and Eve to Pharaoh’s hardness of heart regarding the Hebrews to the invading armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians. Just because Judas’ actions led to our redemption does not mean God approved of what he did. Presumably, had he repented beforehand and refused to betray Jesus, God could have found another way to deliver Jesus to His enemies.

The significance of the portrayal of Judas in Last Temptation seems to me to rest in part on the development of the figure of Judas in post-New Testament tradition.

On the one hand, orthodox Christian tradition increasingly demonized Judas to ever more grotesque degrees. For example, Papias in the second century describes Judas’s repulsive obesity, and Dante’s Inferno depicts Judas as history’s single greatest sinner and the damned soul in the lowest, most central, most abysmal circle of hell, forever chewed in the front mouth of Satan himself.

On the other hand, Gnostic tradition apparently began the exoneration of Judas in the second century with the so-called “Gospel of Judas.” This text has been thought to depict Jesus and Judas as Gnostic illuminati who arrange Jesus’ “betrayal” beforehand, though this interpretation has apparently been challenged.

At any rate, the heroic, prophetic depiction of Judas as a guiding voice in Jesus’ mission seems to me to evoke the same sort of subversive approach to the canonical account. Our age is skeptical not only of authority, but of traditional notions of right and wrong. Archetypal figures of evil, from the Wicked Witch of the West to Lucifer himself, are similarly reinterpreted as misunderstood or misrepresented by the dominant paradigm, rather than truly evil (cf. Wicked, His Dark Materials). The exoneration of Judas seems to me of a piece with this subversion of the traditional iconography of good and evil.

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Re. The Mission

How come, in your article on Hollywood and Religion, you did not mention the #1 Catholic Movie (to my opinion that is): The Mission?

British film. Not Hollywood.

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