Mailbag #23

Million Dollar Arm, Monsoon Wedding, Star Trek Into Darkness, Les Misérables, Happy Feet, Lincoln, The Lone Ranger and more.

Re. Million Dollar Arm [video]

It was difficult to tell from your video review whether Million Dollar Arm was just another white savior story. On the one hand you used the horrendous phrase “taste of curry” or “touch of curry” and on the other you lamented that the movie was not enough about its Indian characters.

Please never use any phrases involving curry to describe Indian people. I recommended that review to my Indian father before I saw it. It’s embarrassing.

Million Dollar Arm is the opposite of a white-savior movie. The white guy is the one in need of salvation. The Indians are spiritual, grounded, family-oriented, decent people — to a patronizing, exotically-other degree.

“Taste of curry” here refers not to Indian people, but to the presence of Indian settings and culture in what would otherwise be a white-bread movie about a peanuts-and-crackerjacks sport in a hot-dogs-and-apple-pie world.

See what I did there?

Food metaphors can offer a convenient cultural shorthand, a special advantage when time or space is at a premium (as it is in a 60 second review). An earlier draft of that review — drawing on elements of Indian culture and experience in the film — referred to a “land of endless traffic jams, the Taj Mahal and cricket,” but that turned out to be way too much verbiage.

For better or worse, curry connotes India-ness to Westerners. I was aware that it’s a tired metaphor that some Indians might object to. I wouldn’t quite say my usage was ironic, but I would say I used it advisedly, to suggest something about how India is used in a very American Disney film.

In other words, for the purposes of this film, the Indian context provides what is expressed in the phrase “a taste of curry” — and if you wince at the phrase, well, that may be indicative of the level of the filmmakers’ interest in India!

That’s a subtlety I don’t necessarily expect viewers to pick up on, but as I say, you’re limited in what you can do in under 60 seconds.

P.S. Now I’m reminded how in my review of Saving Mr. Banks I remarked that Tom Hanks’ Walt Disney and Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers went together “like apple pie and, oh, liver and onions.”

That was a particularly interesting food metaphor to me, because apple pie evokes not just Americanness, but comfort, familiarity and sweetness, like Mr. Disney’s entertainments at the time.

For Travers, I wanted something that wasn’t comforting or sweet, something somehow intimidating, but in a good-for-you way, that many but by no means all people would find off-putting, that wouldn’t necessarily go with apple pie — and, of course, that was identifiably British. Liver and onions fit the bill.

So far no British readers have objected to this analogy. If they do, I’ll reply that I didn’t mean liver and onions to stand for Britishness generally — just Thompson’s very British P.L. Travers!

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Re. Monsoon Wedding

Until last night, I have told everyone I recommend Decent Films in that you have never steered me wrong. I am still stunned that Monsoon Wedding could have been on your A-minus list!

My problems with the film are only in the first 20 minutes, as that is all my husband and I could stand, so perhaps a miracle occurred and it got better.

The language was horrible. The only think worse than hearing the F word, is having to read it on screen. The humor was incredibly juvenile — about breasts, underpants, etc.

The voices were screeching for the majority of the time, and maybe it is my ADHD, but between the Indian mixed with English and the subtitles, I couldn’t possibly sort out what was going on (aside from some juvenile potty humor).

Everyone is due a bad decision from time to time, and I have to say this is yours. I will rue the day that Monsoon Wedding showed up in my Netflix queue.

Otherwise, thanks for all the rest of the wonderful films you have steered us toward. I am praying for you in the deaconate program — how we need solid leaders! God bless.

I’m sorry for your unpleasant experience with the first 20 minutes of Monsoon Wedding. Suz and I have seen it at least three times, and enjoy it immensely. I think it’s a beautiful film, despite some of the abrasive content.

On that score, looking at my content advisory, I realize I could have done a better job warning you about the content issues. For what it’s worth, that review was written early in my career, and while I still agree with the substance of it, as my writing has developed I’ve gotten a bit more precise in my content advisory notices, which might have saved you an unpleasant experience here.

I do think if you’d stuck with it you might have seen more clearly what I value in the film, though that might not have redeemed the experience for you. For instance, the skeevy talk-show host who has the older woman reading the bedroom dialogue is having an affair with the engaged heroine, which ends on a disastrously humiliating note that illuminates the degrading, tawdry character of adultery. The goofy wedding planner is sweetly humanized by his tongue-tied infatuation with Alice the maid. And there’s a painful but deeply moral subplot in which a character is forced to go against tradition and family ethos to stand up for an adult victim of child molestation.

Be that as it may, I’m always happy to hear from readers who disagree with me about any of my reviews. I’m not the pope of movies, and I do make mistakes! Please feel free to tell me if you find any others.

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Re. Star Trek Into Darkness

Just a quick note to say that I usually love your reviews and lean heavily on them to decide which films to share with my children. I was deeply disappointed with the review of Star Trek Into Darkness, which gave a minus-1 for moral content. The deviant (to Catholic belief) scene of two women at once in bed with Kirk was more like a minus-3 to me. Maybe I don’t understand your rating system.

The fact that it wasn’t explicit is overruled in my view by the fact that it is so deviant, and Kirk is so cool and so likable that it makes what he does seem acceptable. The gratuitous underwear scene was another problematic one. My husband took the kids to the movie on the rating alone (didn’t read the review) which provoked a little discord at home. If he had read it, he would have seen your comments.

Much appreciation for your work, however.

I’m glad you find my work generally helpful, and I’m sorry that your family had a bad experience with Star Trek Into Darkness. I understand not everyone reads the whole reviews, which is partly why I summed up both shots you mention in the content advisory.

My perspective as a parent of teenagers on the brief morning-after scene is a little different. First, my feeling is that well-formed teenagers need to be able to recognize that not everything a character does, even a cool, likable character like Kirk, is necessary approved of by the movie.

In this case, it should be clear (and if it isn’t, parents should make it clear) that the new Star Trek movies emphasize Kirk’s flaws as a character — his immaturity, arrogance, lack of self-control and humility, etc. (Example: The opening scene, in which Kirk violates the Prime Directive to save Spock, blowing off Spock’s concerns with a breezy “So they saw us, what’s the big deal?” is undermined as we see the natives apparently worshipping the Enterprise.) In case we’ve missed the point, Pike gives Kirk a stern dressing-down in this regard (reminding him of the “epic beating” he took in the first film.)

The first film implied that Kirk’s womanizing was part of this pattern of immaturity in the brief, abortive bedroom scene with Kirk’s inane reply to the green alien girl suddenly interrupting the mood. (Still, that scene was much racier than this one, and I would object to showing that one to my teenagers before this one.) That element of critique isn’t repeated here, although in another scene it’s pretty clear that Kirk is an excessive flirt and really rather ridiculous.

My moral ratings are meant to characterize a film as a whole. One or two scenes (two shots, actually) like this is not enough to earn a minus-3 or even a minus-2; for that, there needs to be more pervasive themes throughout a film. (Examples of minus-3 films include The Matrix, The Exorcist, The Golden Compass and Eat Pray Love — all with far more problematic elements, in my opinion, than anything in Star Trek Into Darkness.)

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Re. Les Misérables [video]

My wife had an interesting observation about the ending of Les Misérables. She thought that Fantine should have appeared to Valjean with her hair restored, kind of as a sign of her glorified body.

Interesting thought. Perhaps it’s appropriate that Fantine appears with her hair shorn, in much the same way that the resurrected Christ still bears the scars of His crucifixion.

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Re. Happy Feet

On the radio you mentioned the original Happy Feet movie having a “gay” subtext. While this isn’t a favorite movie of mine, I wanted to tell you that I did not see the scene regarding the son asking his father to not make him change as such. If you recall, while Mumble was in his egg, the egg got dropped and was cracked while it was supposed to be protected by his father. My interpretation is that Mumble is a handicapped child who could have easily been “aborted” due to his damage but was instead raised by his family. The mother did it with love, and the father struggled with his son’s differences but eventually came around to loving his handicapped child. Just thought I’d share a different interpretation with you. Thank you.

Thanks for sharing. I appreciate your thought, and I’d like agree, but I don’t think it’s persuasive to say that the movie sees Mumble as “handicapped.” Rather, Mumble is differently oriented, to dance rather than to song. Mumble’s dancing is specifically considered “sin” that has “offended the great ’Guin” (i.e., the penguin deity). This fits my interpretation better than yours.

I admit Mumble’s father saying “He’s not different! He’s just a regular little penguin!” could fit either interpretation. But when Mumble says, “Don’t ask me to change, Pa, I can’t,” that sounds to me like a line that would be more at home in a coming-out drama than a drama about a handicapped child.

I do think it’s interesting that the movie offers a possible explanation for Mumble’s “difference” in his father dropping the egg, or “dropping the ball” as we say. I don’t think the movie meant to imply that fathers dropping the ball with their sons may be a factor in boys turning out “different,” but movies often raise all sorts of possibilities and questions the filmmakers didn’t necessarily intend.

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Re. The Perfect Game

Review of The Perfect Game gives C+ for overall recommendability, but reading the review I don’t sense the reason for the C+. Sounds like a good movie. Is the rating an error?

The rating isn’t an error. I wrote the gentlest review that I could, but the key to the tepid rating is in this sentence:

The heart of the story is robust enough to survive the heavily clichéd treatment, but it’s a close call.

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Re. Lincoln

I have been following you for a few years now, especially on Relevant Radio and Catholic Answers. You have changed the way I view movies. I would also like to encourage you on your journey to becoming a deacon. I know you will be a great blessing to the Church. You are in my prayers.

I recently saw Lincoln, and I so much wanted to like it that I let myself be blinded. The camera work was great and the acting superb. Plus it was about Lincoln and the Civil War era. What not to like? I let all of this block out all the red flags going up during the movie.

My problem with the film is summed up in the phrase “The end does not justify the means.” In the movie, Lincoln did whatever it took to pass the Thirteenth Admendment. The point of the movie is essentially “do what ever it takes to pass your agenda and the world will remember you as great.” Morals and character don’t matter, your mission matters.

Lincoln engaged in bribery and lying to get the amendment passed. The Tommy Lee Jones character lied as well, and compromised his convictions to get the amendment passed. It was all about the greater good, not about the little things to get the good accomplished. And in the end, only the final goal was remembered. No harm was done by all the dirty deeds.

Would you think I was joking if I asked “What’s wrong with offering bribes?”

It is not a mere point of casuistry to note that the Bible repeatedly condemns those who take bribes, but never those who offer them — for excellent reason.

We usually think of a bribe as an inducement to neglect one’s duty, to buy unjust favor or consideration, to subvert justice. However, there are situations, particularly in corrupt regimes, in which, merely to obtain justice, to induce corrupt officials to do what they ought to do anyway out of duty and rectitude, one may have to offer a bribe.

For instance, in some corrupt countries border agents extort bribes from those seeking to leave the country, even if their papers are in order and they have every right to leave. To offer bribes in such situations may or may not be a crime, but it is certainly not a sin.

According to the film, Lincoln and/or his confederates offered various senators inducements, not to move them to neglect their duties, but to do the morally right thing. This may or may not have been a crime; it is not clear to me that it was therefore morally wrong.

It’s certainly not the way we want to think of politics being carried out, and it’s a practice clearly open to abuse; but in a case of clear-cut moral right and wrong, in a situation in which it was necessary to obtain a just outcome, I would be inclined to give Lincoln and his confederates the benefit of the doubt on this issue.

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Re. The Lone Ranger

I am a teacher amongst Native Americans, horse trainer, equine therapist and I thought The Lone Ranger was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

I grew up with the Lone Ranger and as a Native American child found it demeaning to the only real Americans; everyone else is actually an illegal alien.

Let’s see, role models. Would we like the Koch brothers ($100 billion each profit per year) or the Walmart heirs ($28-plus billion a year profit each, who do not pay taxes on them, and are too cheap to pay their employees a living wage or give them enough hours to qualify for healthcare)?

Maybe Weiner, or other lovely Congresspersons more on the internet porn sights, or making their own than the professionals?

Catholics haven’t done too well in that area as role models either, with all those convictions and cover-ups of child molesting by priests.

I thought it was a good movie, and as another hat I wear is Racial Tension and Gang Abatement Consultant…a lot less violent than real life for most American kids.

Are you familiar with Hanay Geiogamah? He is a Native American of Kiowa/Delaware descent, a successful playwright and one of the few Native American producers in Hollywood. He founded the American Indian Theatre Ensemble and formed the American Indian Dance Theatre. He has also advised Hollywood filmmakers on portraying Native American culture (for example, he worked as a consultant on Disney’s Pocahontas movies).

In an interview with NPR, Mr. Geiogamah called The Lone Ranger “a major setback for the Native American image in the world,” saying, “that’s how millions of people will think American Indians are now.”

“We’ve got Johnny Depp with a taxidermied crow on top of his head and painted to the nth degree with paint, and he looks like a gothic freak,” according to Geiogamah. And, of course, talking in “that sort of monosyllabic stuttering, uttering, Hollywood Indian-speak.”

“After all these years and all this effort to try to get Hollywood to understand their portrayal of Native Americans, and some real good work having been accomplished, to see it all sort of pushed aside because a big star wants to play Tonto,” Geiogamah said. “It’s kind of [a] resigned, ‘Oh well, what can we do about it? Johnny Depp’s a big star. At least we got a major star playing an Indian.’ That kind of resigned helpless response … further hardening … the notion that Hollywood just ain’t ever going to get it right. The movies are never going to do right by the Indians.”

Mr. Geiogamah is not alone. An even more blistering Native American reaction to The Lone Ranger decries the film’s reinforcement of old Hollywood stereotypes; its portrayal of Tonto as damaged goods, tweaked by having sold out his community for a pocketwatch, leading to their massacre; its horrific segue from the final massacre to the Silver-in-the-tree joke, as if all those Indian deaths meant nothing; etc.

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and I’m sure that some Native Americans have enjoyed the film. But I see no evidence that Native Americans have enjoyed the film in greater proportions than anyone else — which means that, most likely, most Native Americans who’ve seen the film didn’t love it, since it’s gotten very little love in general.

The Lone Ranger currently ranks a dismal 30% at review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes; at Metacritic it’s 37%. So critics overwhelmingly hated the film. The general public apparently felt about the same way; the movie was one of the summer’s epic flops.

This doesn’t mean you’re wrong, per se. It does mean that if you’re setting out to correct everyone with the wrong view of the film, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

You say you’re a teacher. Why does your email offer no particulars, no examples, no argument of any kind? You don’t mention a single thing you appreciated about the film, or even a single thing you disagreed with in my review.

To top it off, about half your email is for some reason comprised of irrelevant railings about things that have absolutely nothing to do with The Lone Ranger: the Koch brothers and the Walmart heirs, Anthony Weiner, and of course the obligatory, sneering swipe at “all these” Catholic priests.

All of this suggests to me that you aren’t really interested in talking about the film — that you’re just angry and you want to poke me for some reason. Anyway, that’s how your email reads to me.

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Re. Titanic

You’re just an idiot. Titanic was great then, and it’s great now — and your review is wayyy too long. You’re overthinking it. It’s a great movie with a great story.

Thanks for reading, friend.

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