Mailbag #20

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Robin Hood, Babies, How to Train Your Dragon, Once, The Notebook, The Exorcist, The Awful Truth and more.

Re. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

In your review of Prince of Persia you wrote:

Dastan moves like the Jackie Chan of ancient Persia, leaping, climbing and swinging around like, well, a video-game avatar. Today this is called parkour, but once upon a time, it was just what Jackie Chan did.

Well … before that, it was what Buster Keaton did. :)

I am all over Keaton as a forerunner of Jackie Chan, but I don’t really think of Keaton’s physicality as proto-parkour. In that regard I would point to Douglas Fairbanks Sr. first.

P.S. I got your follow-up about the short “Neighbors,” unseen by me. I don’t deny that Keaton has moves in some films that are parkour-like. It’s also true that Keaton’s underdog persona in many films is closer to the typically unassuming Jackie Chan character, which goes to why Jackie looks to Keaton as a primary inspiration. Of course, Keaton did a lot of things, all very well. Fairbanks’ skills set, like Jackie’s, was more specialized. I think that a parkour fan looking to the silent era would find more to connect with in Fairbanks.

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Re. Robin Hood

I’m on sabbatical in Warsaw and was tempted to see the new Robin Hood flick just because I am something of a fan of Russell Crowe, and because I had forgotten (easy to do) that Ridley Scott had also done Kingdom of Heaven (interesting how even Caligula got almost sympathetic treatment, non? a tyrant yes, but when that had a certain greasy charm).

Anyway, you just saved me a great deal of pain as I tried to tear out my very short hair from watching another effort to uglify the Middle Ages. In all fairness we both know that in a sense this is really about Robin Hood as a Code Pink activist in King Richard’s war on terror/shredding of the Magna Carta, so in a sense it is nothing really personal, but yes, I can easily live without such bosh. So thank you for doing your office: I shall find some entertainment that is simply more fun.

If my review has saved even a few very short hairs on a head that needs them, it was worth it.

I’m not sure Robin Hood has a cogent political subtext. Some critics have been toying with the idea of Scott’s Robin Hood as the first “Tea Partier.” But couldn’t you also say that he was a community organizer who engaged in redistribution of wealth? A fellow critic at the film commented that in the end the movie “goes from democracy to communism in ten minutes,” i.e., from Magna Carta to the Sherwood Forest community where no one is richer or poorer than anyone else.

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Re. “No Movies Please, We’re Catholic”

Thank you for your incredible post “No Movies Please, We’re Catholic”! I don’t know how many people I’ve met over the years — Protestant and Catholic — who, as you put it, throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to movies and TV — even books: I remember one uber-Traditionalist catalog which listed the novels of Michael D. O’Brien under “Modernist Garbage”, when I don’t think there’s a more orthodox (and at times a bit conservatively so, viz. Landscape With Dragons). I attend a parish which offers the Tridentine Latin Mass, and I’ve had to avoid discussing certain topics with some people during the social hour in the parish hall, due to their tarring most if not all movies and TV with the same very black brush. And let’s not get started on the looks of blank horror if I bring up the subject of anime, even Hayao Miyazaki. Your article is in direct contrast to this attitude and I’d like to shake your hand for writing and posting it.

Thanks for your kind words. I’m gratified that my essay resonated with your experiences. I’m certainly familiar with the principle that no matter how traditionalist or modernist you are, there will always be folks further down the road ready to tar and feather you with the opposite label. Even so, the thought of a catalog blacklisting Michael O’Brien under “Modernist Garbage” is a pretty stunning one. Are there other fiction authors they like, or does it go downhill from there?

For that matter, the thought of any catalog with a heading for “Modernist Garbage,” or for any sort of garbage, is a bit mystifying (if not entirely surprising coming from such a source). I’m supposing they aren’t selling books in the “Modernist Garbage” category? Is it a list of books they aren’t selling? How do they choose which books they aren’t selling to list? Or was it not that kind of catalog in the first place?

I’m aware of two parishes in my area that offer the 1962 extraordinary form of the Roman rite, and have attended both of them. (Our parish is Latin-friendly and pretty traditional generally, as Catholic churches using the ordinary form of the Roman rite go.) I can’t think that I’ve ever gotten into a movie-related discussion in a Latin Mass crowd, although I did recently meet a priest of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter at a Latin Mass who said that some of their congregants liked my work.

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Re. Babies

We went to see Babies with another family from our church … everyone loved it. This is the best movie now playing (as far as I know … not that I’ve seen everything in theatres, but from what I’ve read I’m not aware of anything now playing likely to displace Babies in my personal estimation). There is no good reason why Babies shouldn’t be bigger than March of the Penguins.

One question about your review. You make a point of saying that “you see no real reason” why children shouldn’t see this film, in spite of the “cultural and maternal nudity throughout.” Some Catholic parents would certainly be uncomfortable exposing their children to the nudity of the Namibian culture. In particular, parents may be concerned about exposing adolescent boys to the bare-breasted Himba mothers. From what you’ve written elsewhere, I know you agree that adolescent boys can be particularly at-risk in this regard. Any further thoughts?

I’m so glad you all enjoyed Babies! I wish it were even half as big as March of the Penguins … it certainly deserves to be bigger. Unfortunately, perhaps without a narrator like Morgan Freeman or Pierce Brosnan holding their hand (bless the filmmakers for not going that route!), mainstream American audiences aren’t sure they’ll know what to make of the film, or something. Even so, as art-house documentaries go it’s done all right in theaters and should do better on DVD.

The question you raise is too big for a mail column. I’ve deferred it to my blog post “Don’t Have a Cow, Man!Link to this item

Re. How to Train Your Dragon

Many friends and family members have spoken very highly of How to Train Your Dragon, but I have also read A Landscape with Dragons by Michael O’Brien which strongly cautions against books and movies which depict dragons as protagonists. I am curious, have you read this book?

Basically, the issue is that dragons in classic literature were always meant to symbolize evil or even the devil. In recent decades, the pagan culture has crept in and robbed these symbols of their meanings. To quote from the book’s preface:

This kind of reversal of symbolism constitutes an invasion of the imagination, undermining our ability to recognize truth. Good is no longer perceived as good, nor evil as evil; traditional Christian values are considered to be the product of a narrow-minded prejudice. This has led to a blend of human and diabolical concepts in the written word and, more recently, in cinema. A new world view is being propagated, one that attempts to convince the young that demons are friends or cuddly pets and that people can use evil means to achieve “good” ends.

I’ve always trusted your reviews to give us an alternative Christian lens through which to understand what is good and bad in movies. I often rely on your website when trying to decide whether to see a given movie. I respect your ability to differentiate between the artistic merit of a film and its moral value. I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on this.

I have read Mr. O’Brien’s book, and find it quite helpful on many fronts, though I don’t agree with everything he says.

It’s true that in biblical literature and Christian culture dragons have long been symbols of satanic evil — and that reversals of this imagery can be deeply problematic. For example, in a recent blog post on a fantasy series featuring fictionalized versions of Tolkien and Lewis as heroes, I wrote:

Perhaps most troublingly, a dragon named Samaranth, described as the first dragon and possibly the oldest living creature, is said to advise and aid the heroes. I’ve defended the legitimacy of friendly dragons in certain contexts — but not all dragons are created equal, and I suspect that both Tolkien and Lewis would consider Owen’s Samaranth, as described, to tread too close for comfort to the traditional Christian iconography of Lucifer — particularly in a story predicated on the conceit of giving the imaginary back story supposedly inspiring Tolkien and Lewis’s faith-inflected fantasies.

Dragons are imaginary creatures that are found in the mythologies of cultures all over the world, not just in biblical and Christian literature. They vary widely from one context to another: whether they have wings or not, how many feet they have (or whether they have feet at all), whether they have fiery breath, whether they have intelligence and speech.

Whether they are evil is also not a constant. In Chinese tradition, for example, dragons are wise and benevolent. Even in biblical literature and Christian culture the general rule of dragons and serpents as evil is not absolute. Even in the Bible Christians have long read of a different sort of dragon that is simply one of God’s creatures and gives him praise and honor along with all creation: “Praise the LORD from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps” (Psa 148:7 KJV); “The beast of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the owls” (Isa 43:20 KJV). In Revelation St. John calls the dragon “that ancient serpent,” but in the Gospels Jesus uses the same word “serpent” with no such negative overtones, telling us “Be wise as serpents” (Matt 10:16), which does not mean “be like the devil.”

Other creatures likewise appear as icons of evil in some biblical passages, but not others. Compare the use of wolves in Matt 7:15, 10:16, John 10:12, etc. with Isaiah 11:6, 65:25. This is how symbolism works: It is polyvalent, it admits of different uses and different interpretations for different purposes.

In How To Train Your Dragon, the dragon that the hero befriends is not an icon of age-old demonic evil. It is merely an animal — one of several species of animals, in fact. They may be clever, like dogs or horses in many a cartoon or TV show, but they are not talking beasts, not persons, like the dragon in Revelation. At the end of the movie, they’re the Vikings’ pets.

There is simply no plausible basis for implicating these dragons in an attempt to “convince the young that demons are friends or cuddly pets and that people can use evil means to achieve ’good’ ends.” That’s a leap that is not warranted in the film.

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Re. Once

I saw the trailer for the movie Once and it appeared that the girl was married and had a husband who was coming back. Can you tell me what happened?

No. Well, okay, I could. But I won’t.

To quote the tagline of a website I recently recommended, “remember that we only have one chance to see a movie for the first time.” That is truer, or more importantly true, of some movies than of others, and it’s true in spades of Once, which is why my review is so oblique.

If you really want to wreck Once for yourself, you can read a plot synopsis at Wikipedia. But why would you want to? Take the risk of watching the film, not knowing what happens. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

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Re. The Notebook

My husband and I are avid fans of your excellent site. We’ve watched The Notebook again since reading your review. You raise many valid objections, starting with the superficiality of the relationship between the young Noah and Allie; this is indeed a very flawed film, and the negative moral/spiritual value score of minus-2 is sadly deserved. The most troublesome line is, “She agreed with all her heart but couldn’t understand why, at the moment she said yes, Noah’s face came to mind.” Well, because she didn’t agree with her whole heart! Purity of heart, Kierkegaard tells us, is to will one thing; most characters in this film don’t know that, and the one that does goes ”a little mad” with his obsession.

However, your post currently has essential factual and interpretative omissions which obscure some of film’s better qualities. I’m starting from the basic premise that this film is a “chick flick.” It’s marketed to young women, so we need to see it from the perspective of the intended audience.

Indeed, Allie is violent, and she and Noah interact with immaturity and recklessness. Still, there are factors contributing to the physicality in their relationship beyond lust or even distorted ”love.” At 17, Noah and Allie don’t have the relationship skills to deal honestly with their class differences without fighting — she doesn’t even tell Noah she’s been accepted to Sarah Lawrence College before her mother’s intervention. They dream of their future together and they attempt to have sex rather than to deal with their imminent separation and how to handle it.

The parents, though, bear much responsibility as well. The Hamiltons see their daughter dressing immodestly and behaving provocatively, but they practically encourage what they hope will just be a “summer romance.” While Noah and Allie don’t face it till they are breaking up, they both know the Hamiltons wouldn’t support their marrying. The young couple doesn’t have a realistic means of achieving its natural goal, and Noah and Allie settle for unchastity instead. In contrast, Lon and Allie later kiss, get engaged, and set a wedding date. Lon and Allie have opportunity and motive, but they don’t have sex, and a large factor is her family’s support. There’s no perceived need for settling. So yes, the drama does side with Noah and Allie, but it also offers an unspoken caution. In the vocabulary of Catholic parenting, it is wrong to neglect a child in his or her formation, just as it is wrong to force a child in his or her vocation.

Did Allie and Noah marry? Hands down, yes, and this fact is clear to a young woman viewer. We may even have photographic evidence of that in Duke’s album. There’s a picture of Duke/Noah and Allie both holding up three fingers and him pointing at her pregnant stomach — another child is to be welcomed into the family. To the far left is a picture of Noah in a tie and Allie in a white dress, sitting at a table. They may be signing their wedding registry, though I’m not positive about that.

There are about a dozen scenes throughout the film where we see Duke/Noah wearing his wedding ring — and one of the earliest is a gratuitous close-up of him adjusting his glasses with his left hand, so that almost no young woman, at least, will be left with any doubts about his marital status!

Likewise, early in the family scene, we see Allie’s wedding ring for the first time, but the astute young woman viewer notices that Allie is wearing just a plain band, not the engagement ring from Lon. Perhaps she simply isn’t wearing such an ornate ring in the nursing home? No. In between the two photos I described above is a picture of Duke/Noah and Allie where she has a different fancy ring on her ring finger — perhaps an engagement, evening, or anniversary ring, but something we don’t see elsewhere. It’s not the engagement ring from Lon. In total, there are about half a dozen scenes late in the film where we see Allie’s wedding band. The shift comes once Allie has been hugged by the boy later identified as “little Noah” (Noah Jr. in the credits), and she decides to go rest; once Allie is out of earshot, the kids acknowledge her as their mother.

You are quite right that “the story of the aged Noah reading to addled Allie — is far more evocative and interesting than the actual story in The Notebook.” Just as it behooves us to raise concern about the unchastity in the film and the tenuousness of the relationship that somehow lasts a lifetime, we also need to credit the significance of the older couple’s story in this day of infidelity, divorce, and euthanasia. Duke/Noah and Allie did get married, and to each other, and they stayed together despite an all-too-common tragedy. “I’m not leaving her. This is my home now. Your mother is my home.”

Steven, it wasn’t until we were nearly engaged that my husband started to learn from me how I could tell a man’s marital status from 30 feet away. My single friends and I had no time to waste on other women’s husbands, and we learned to peer unobtrusively. Women, especially young women, are generally more detail oriented than men, so I understand why you overlooked this key point. Like I said, this is a “chick flick.” And given that chicks see the “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health” message of The Notebook clearly packaged within the context of marriage, I hope you’ll raise the positive moral/spiritual value score of this film to a plus-2.

I accept your assessment as regards Noah and Allie’s wedding. I wasn’t looking for the wedding ring in part because it didn’t occur to me until after the screening was over to wonder whether they were married, and partly, no doubt, because I never had reason to assess a man’s marital status from 30 feet away, or even from five feet.

Your analysis of the good and the bad of Noah and Allie’s relationship seems to me both thoughtful and incisive — more so, I think, than the story itself. If all viewers brought this kind of moral perspective to movies, the need for critics like me to try to illuminate the moral dimensions of films would be greatly reduced. In particular, if all young women watching The Notebook brought the astuteness (not to mention the Kierkegaardian wisdom) of your remarks, my review would be superfluous.

At this point I couldn’t reconsider my ratings for The Notebook without revisiting the film itself — and that’s not very likely. However, ratings are much less important than commentary, and I’m happy to let your own comments (edited a bit for length) stand as a counterpoint to my review. Cheers.

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Re. Decent Films

Just wanted to say that I truly appreciate the yeoman’s work you’re doing with this site. I have longed for someone who could do intelligent movie reviews with an eye towards their metaphysical and theological implications. Too many times reviewers who purport to discuss theology do little more than count dirty words and “naughty” parts. In particular, I have to admire how you really cut to the heart of AI: Artificial Intelligence (among others). That’s a film that continues to intrigue me for a variety of reasons. And your take on the Twilight Saga is just memorable!

Thanks for the encouraging comments. Yours may be the first correspondence I’ve received to call out my work on both A.I. and Twilight. Is there any connection? Hm. Both are about troubling relationships with a seemingly ideal but non-human character whose love is perfect and eternal. But A.I. raises serious questions about this relationship and its consequences, while in Twilight all the difficulties are only to further celebrate the love that overcomes all obstacles.

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Re. The Exorcist (1973)

[Spoiler alert – SDG] In your review of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, you say: “Although Emily Rose is more grounded in the real world than The Exorcist, both films are ultimately about failed exorcisms.” I recall that in the latter movie, the exorcism succeeded. The demon(s) left the girl, went into the priest, he jumped out the window, then received absolution before he died. At any rate, the girl was exorcised. Am I wrong?

You’re not wrong about what happened. We just need to nail down what “exorcism” means. I’m using it to refer first of all to the Church’s exorcism rite, and more generally to casting out demons by whatever means. In this case, the exorcism rite certainly fails — nor does the priest cast out the demons, which implies an exercise of spiritual power or authority compelling the demons to depart. Rather, the priest bargains with them. So just because the demons come out doesn’t mean there is a successful exorcism.

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Re. Touching the Void

Thanks for your wonderful work. Your reviews are interesting, thought-provoking, and powerfully written. I recently read your review of Touching the Void and thought your description of the Peruvian mountain was magnificent.

Thanks. I’m not sure I thought much before that review of trying to paint verbal pictures of images from the film, but the imagery in that film was so overwhelming that I felt I had to try to do it justice. It’s probably changed the way I write reviews.

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Re. The fox so cunning and free: Walt Disney’s “Zorro”

We just wanted to thank you for your review of the “Zorro” TV show. Because of your review, we watched the entire first season and our whole family loves it, even our kindergartener!

Thanks for your kind note. I’m glad your family is enjoying “Zorro”! Our three-year-old boy loves it, and even the two-year-old is riveted by the theme song and will sometimes watch for awhile, especially if Zorro is onscreen.

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Re. Decent Films

I’m just writing to congratulate you on your great job at Decent Films! I have to admit that, although officially I’m a member of the Orthodox Church, I’m not really passionate about my faith (Whether this is a good choice or not, only the future can tell). As a result, I never expected to enjoy reading film reviews that even took the moral factor into account. But — what a surprise! — I bumped into your blog! I find your articles extremely accurate, providing the reader with a big amount of details about each movie, a joy to read, and although there are times when I disagree with your opinion (for example, I loved Million Dollar Baby), your arguments are always solid and clearly presented. You are one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve come through for a while! Keep up the splendid job, and don’t give up!

Thanks for writing, and for your encouraging comments. I have to admit that, although I’m a member of the Catholic Church, I am really passionate about your faith, i.e., Orthodoxy, which I deeply admire and respect. I’m gratified that you find my work helpful and enjoyable to read. I love what I do, but I certainly couldn’t keep it up without generous responses like yours to let me know that I’m on the right track.

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Re. The Awful Truth

Perhaps you got up on the wrong side of the bed the day you reviewed this classic film?

The serious theme of this very funny movie is that marriage is forever. And the female star was a devout Catholic who said in old age “I’ve had one husband, one daughter, one house, and no lovers.”

Sorry, nope. I’ve seen it multiple times and stand by my contrarian review. If it’s a fault, it’s an enduring fault, one that I and my readers will have to live with.

Marriage is forever, I’ve got no problem with. But marriage is also supposed to be about trust … and romantic comedies are supposed to be about likable leads. Both are lacking here. The personal virtues of the actress are gratifying but don’t affect my take on the film. Sorry!

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