Mailbag #3

The Bourne Ultimatum, Casino Royale, Sunshine, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Ratatouille, The Matrix, Live Free or Die Hard, children’s books, video games and more.

Re. Casino Royale, The Bourne Ultimatum

Reading your review of The Bourne Ultimatum made me wonder if you had yet seen the 2006 version of Casino Royale. The following paragraph, especially the last sentence, makes the entire franchise sound goofy, but the latest film makes sense of the character’s whole morality:

Unlike the cartoon antics characterizing most of the James Bond franchise, the Bourne films know that keeping the action more or less human-scaled makes it more thrilling than pumping it up with over-the-top stunt sequences that could only exist in a movie fantasyland (despite a few scenes that cross the line). They also know that real characters and emotions are more engaging than casually detached womanizing and interchangeable playmates.

I know you have never reviewed any of the Bond movies, but could you give your thoughts on that one, please?

The new Casino Royale is James Bond for grownups, for the post–Bourne era. It represents a radical break with the Bond films of the past. The Bond producers have been trying to revamp Bond for years, but they hadn’t been able to figure out how to do it. It’s possible that the Bourne films, with their grim violence and chilly realism, had a role in pointing the Bond franchise in a new direction.

As terrific a film as Casino Royale is, the new James Bond is as troubling a hero as the old, or more so. What was usually an implicit misogynistic, antisocial and amoral dimension in past films is now explicit, and no longer papered over with a wink bordering on farce.

To its credit, Casino Royale takes moral issues more seriously than previous films; troublingly, it no longer assumes traditional morality as an implicit foil for Bond’s outrageous behavior. The Bourne films are substantially an affirmation of human values over against the anti-humanistic world of expedience that created Jason Bourne; Casino Royale borders on celebrating Bond’s freedom from moral restraint.

Incidentally, did you ever notice how similar the two names are? JAmeS BONd, JASon BOurNe. Coincidence?

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Re. The Bourne Ultimatum

Great review of The Bourne Ultimatum. I saw it and loved it. I also thought that the Julia Stiles subplot was not fully developed, though it seemed like maybe they left it open for possible future films.

But my reason for writing is actually mostly about a particular filming technique that is more and more prevalent. I personally loathe the super shaky hand-held camera work during action and chase sequences and everyone I talk to seems to agree. Yet, it seems to be worse with every new movie. I was wondering what your thoughts were on that?

The shaky hand-held camera is a trademark effect of director Paul Greengrass, who also uses it, to great effect in my opinion, in his stellar United 93. The original Bourne Identity was directed by Paul Liman, not Greengrass, so it’s not surprising that you found the two sequels more annoying in this regard than the original film.

Whether The Bourne Ultimatum is a worse “offender” in this regard than its predecessor, I can’t say. I did find it occasionally distracting during Supremacy and not during Ultimatum, but perhaps I’ve just gotten used to it.

The effect is meant, first of all, to feel more authentic and less staged than traditionally choreographed and fluidly photographed action scenes. A long, fluid dolly shot can be great to look at, but as soon as it occurs to you how much work and preparation must have gone into setting up the shot, the carefully rehearsed and choreographed nature of the proceedings is impossible to avoid.

By contrast, handheld cameras evoke a documentary authenticity that makes the viewer feel that the action could be unfolding in real life just as we see it, with some guy with a camera standing there and trying to stay out of the way. Also, of course, it creates a choppy, disjointed visceral experience analogous to what you might really experience in, e.g., a brutal hand-to-hand battle.

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Re. Sunshine

Interesting review. Sunshine starts out as high minded as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, with the introduction of a “Miguel Alvarez” type character, becomes the same banal nonsense pioneered in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Brilliant comparison. Wish I’d thought of it!

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Re. The Gospel According to St. Matthew

The large hats of the Pharisees that you spend so much time speculating about in your review of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew have a simple explanation. They are directly inspired by the way the Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin are depicted in the frescos of the painter Piero Della Francesca. In fact, the costume designer of the film, the great Danilo Donati, based all of his costume designs for the film not on historically accurate research, but on the way this period was depicted in Italian Renaissance painting of the 1400s. If you look at the film and then study the paintings of Piero Della Francesca, Masacio, Uccello etc. you will find everything there.

For the most famous, and striking example is the huge hats of the Pharisees, please see the frescos by Piero, The Story of the True Cross, which are in Arrezzo, Tuscany, where the Pharisees wear these huge hats. But there are many more examples. Those odd, plate-like helmets that the Romans wear are also found in the Piero Della Francesca frescos. Piero didn’t know what Romans and Pharisees really looked like — so he used his imagination — and it is from Piero’s fantasy that Pasolini and Donati drew their inspiration.

Watch the film — Herod’s costume — the three wisemen — Salome’s costume — the rich man who won’t give up his wealth — all these costume designs come from Italian painting of the 1400s. All of this adds another interesting layer to the meaning of the film. Pasolini wasn’t interested in historical accuracy — but rather in the relevance of this great tale through history. I hope this helps clarify your speculation about why Pasolini chose to use those huge hats!

Thanks for writing. You make a fascinating point. I certainly knew Pasolini wasn’t going for historical accuracy (and said so specifically in connection with the Pharisees’ headgear), but I didn’t know he got those hats from anywhere in particular either. I read dozens of reviews and essays of The Gospel According to St. Matthew before writing my review, and not one mentioned this cultural background, but it makes perfect sense and is obviously right, based on the Piero works available online.

In any case, it seems to me that at least some of what I wrote about the Pharisees’ headgear is still valid. For example, the clear connection of some of the hats to bishops’ mitres would surely be just as obvious and intentional in 15th century Italian painting as it seems in Pasolini’s film.

In the meantime, since you mention Salome’s costume in this connection also, I don’t suppose the history of Italian art offers any insight into why Pasolini’s Salome is depicted as a child playing jacks, or why she performs such a low-key dance? It is hard to imagine that girl and that dance inspiring that promise from Herod.

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Re. Ratatouille

I went and saw Ratatouille yet again, as a treat to myself on my birthday. Afterwards, I came across a newly-opened resturant, named… Linguini’s! Well, that was just too good to pass up!

You’ll be happy to know they make their own sauce, and you can watch the pizza dough being tossed… My pizza was excellent, and the service was incredible. When I mentioned to the server that it was my birthday, they gave me a discount, and the owner came over to my table to give me his personal good wishes. A great follow-up to a great movie!

What a wonderful story. A number of critics and others have mentioned going out for dinner after seeing Ratatouille, but yours is the best account I’ve heard so far. Thanks for sharing it.

According to box office reports, Ratatouille, is gaining at the box office based on excellent word of mouth, and may wind up (deservedly) outperforming Cars. Of course Transformers will probably blow them both away — just as I’m sure your local McDonald’s probably gets lots more business than Linguini’s. But I bet not one person at a McDonald’s this week had an experience to compare to yours at Linguini’s; and the same goes for those moviegoers who went to see Transformers and those who went to see Ratatouille.

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Re. The Matrix

I would just like to comment on your Moral/Spiritual Rating of The Matrix of -3. While I do not necessarily disagree with your critique, I just wanted to submit my own Christian connection with the film. As an Engineer, I have always struggled with the mechanics of the Christian/Biblical view of the world. Reconciling biblical topics/events such as creation, global flood, miracles, etc., etc. with observed experience has been a stumbling block to my faith.

What The Matrix did for me was to break down the barrier between spirit and flesh and see, potentially, how they could co-exist. I am referring to the the idea in the movie where their experience in the Matrix was entirely an illusion (to the not-yet-reborn), but at the same time, was complete reality to them. The real reality was the world of the machines.

For me, this opened up the idea that the realm of possibility is indeed infinite, and not limited by the physics of the known universe. While physics appeared to exist within the Matrix, they did not in reality, which is why those “in the know” could manipulate the Matrix (miracles?). In the Christian world, I imagine God’s Kingdom as sort of the real reality, and our earthly, fleshy experience as a pseudo-reality (sort of like the Matrix).

As a result, I know longer waste my time on the hows and whys of God’s Kingdom working on Earth, only that it clearly does. We cant fathom God and his methods, just as Neo could not fathom the “real” world before his “re-birth.” This has become an important part of my faith, and I have used this in communicating my faith to non-Christians (though to what avail, I do not know).

Thanks for writing. Your take on The Matrix is about as valid as any other, I think; the genius of the film is that it offers an evocative pastiche of imagery and allusions that can work as a metaphor for just about anything. The resonances you point to are real enough, and more or less consistent with the filmmakers’ intentions.

That said, our earthly, fleshly experience, though not the ultimate reality, is not a pseudo-reality, nor is it a prison. God created this world and declared it “very good.” To view this world as evil and illusory is the temptation of gnosticism or eastern religion. Of course, the most convincingly gnostic character in The Matrix is the evil Agent Smith!

Incidentally, did you read the articles associated with the review, particularly “Is The Matrix Gnostic or Christian?” and “Sculpting in Bullet Time: The Matrix Revisited” ? They get into these issues much more deeply than the intentionally brief review.

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Re. Live Free or Die Hard

It should be said that my English isn’t that good, so please excuse me for any mistakes. I discovered your website through a link from a Brazilian Catholic blog, and I find every once in a while a link to individual reviews or a quote from them on Brazilian blogs. You may even have other Brazilian readers that have already made contact.

I also have the first Die Hard as a personal favorite, and having finally watched the fourth one this week and reading your review, I wanted to share some opinions and information regarding them both. Something that I would like to bring to your attention that I haven’t seen you or anyone mentioning is that the fact that Die Hard and The Fugitive are among the best recent action movies doesn’t seem to be a coincidence: they have something in common, screenwriter Jeb Stuart.

I don’t think I consider Live Free as really superior to the other sequels. In it, Bruce Willis doesn’t even seem to be interpreting John McClane, but his character from Hostage, instead. Unlike you, I think that the fact that his wife went away irresponsibly downplays the good emotional plot of the first movie. The blueish, bleached standard modern cinematography also diverts from the colorful, alive Jan de Bont’s work in the first movie. Not to mention the really insipid music score, contrasted to the wonderful one from Michael Kamen. The production values doesn’t seem to be that good, either. The result is, in average, good, but should be much better.

On the other hand, I definitely agree with you about the fact that the girl who played his daughter was really good and think she was underused, and did a wonderful job reproducing various McClane’s traits. There was also a insightful comment on Barbara Nicolosi’s favorable blog post about the movie, mentioning the “clever swipes at the dime-store anarchism so many people flirt with,” which I think were an inspired part of the script and really score points for the movie.

I’m not sure I think that Live Free or Die Hard is necessarily a better film than Die Hard 2. (I do think it’s better than Die Hard 3, though I haven’t seen the latter recently enough to have a critical opinion.) But I think that Live Free benefits from the distance from the original film, which is now a historical icon, not just a recent hit. Perhaps I might put it this way: The first two sequels asked in effect “What happened next?” ; Live Free asks “Where are they now?” The answer to the first question is inevitably anticlimactic; the second question carries different expectations, and the answer, for me at least, is more satisfying.

Regarding Bonnie Bedelia’s character, I can’t say I’m happy that she’s no longer with John; their relationship is in a way at the heart of the first film, maybe the first two films, and I’m glad to see them reunited at the end of the original. But I can’t say it’s terribly surprising either. Imperfect people make flawed decisions, and divorce, alas, is an intractable fact of life in the posthuman West. The McClanes’ rapprochement at the end of the first film is gratifying, but based on that film alone, being brutally honest, I couldn’t give them better than fifty–fifty odds of making it in the long run. That’s the kind of thing you don’t like to think about during the happy ending, but it’s the real world.

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Re. Decent Films

I would like to thank you for your ministry! It has been helpful for me in deciding what to show my children. I have an unrelated question for you that you may or may not know the answer to. My niece told us about a website ( that offers free videos, have you heard of this site. My concern would be if this is considered pirating, I looked at the site, it has everything imaginable. I thank you in advance for your response. May God continue to bless your ministry.

As far as I can tell, doesn’t actually host movie and TV show files, but rather provides links to other websites, such as, where such content has been posted.

At least much of this content, if not all, is pirated, i.e., it has been illegally recorded and/or posted for public consumption. Some of the movies will have been secretly recorded via hand-held camera in a movie theater; other offerings may have been copied from DVDs, TiVo’ed or obtained from a legal source but then illicitly posted on the Web.

Entertainment piracy is a form of theft, and thus a violation of the seventh commandment. Sites that offer pirated content should be avoided; we should stick to legal ways of obtaining and viewing content. This usually means we will have to pay for it in some form or other, which is only fair (“The laborer deserves his wages”).

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Re. Faith and Film Criticism

Thanks for the wonderful service you provide your readers. A friend chastised me once for spending so much time reading film reviews, questioning why I needed someone else to tell me whether or not a film was good or not. I think I understood his point. Given the disparities in taste found among film reviewers it is certainly possible that a film I regard as dreck might be considered a masterpiece by the consensus of critics (especially in cases where a film is artfully made but contains a deplorable moral message).

I answered him that the key is not to read all the critics, but to discover for one’s self a few select critics with whom you are in consistent agreement. I first suspected you fell into this category after reading your knowing review of A Man for all Seasons, a perennial place-holder in my top 20 film list. When you discover such a critic(s) then he or she becomes like a second self, working their way through all the cinematic chaff to bring you like gifts the best the medium has to offer.

Now for my question: Can you recommend any books dealing with Christianity and film? My spouse and I facilitate a book discussion group at our Lutheran church and are interested in a book dealing with the interface between faith and film. Ideally we would like a book that discusses in detail some specific films which we could then buy or rent while ploughing through the reading.

If your friend’s question were put to me, I would say that what I need film reviews for is not to tell me whether or not a movie is good, or even whether or not the critic liked it. As useful a service as that might be from a reliable source with opinions convergent with my own, it doesn’t require a whole review; a rating would suffice.

Yet I love reading reviews, even of movies I have no interest in seeing, or movies that I have already seen. It’s not just a question of recommendations or unrecommendations. In reading good review review, I feel that I have in a sense not only seen the film already (or again), but seen it through someone else’s eyes.

In that sense, a good review offers me exactly what C. S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism suggests that good art offers all of us: an enlargement of my being, an opportunity to enter experiences and ways of seeing other than my own. Just as Lewis says of Ovid and Dante, one need not agree with Roger Ebert, Stephanie Zacharek or Lawrence Toppman in order to appreciate and benefit from their well-expressed insights and interpretations.

Often enough a good review of a good film enlarges my appreciation of that film, while a good review of a poor film sharpens my skepticism or disdain of that film. Even if I don’t ultimately agree with the critic on the film, a good review may help me to appreciate another point of view, or at least prod and spur me to sharpen my own dissenting POV, so that in the end I have a clearer and more satisfying understanding of my own reasons for thinking as I do about the film.

Even better, a good review may sufficiently enlarge my perspective on films generally, or on art generally, so that the way I approach all films and/or all art has been somehow enlarged. That’s something that the actual film being reviewed might not ever have done for me.

To segue into answering your question, this is very much the sort of experience offered by my friend and fellow critic Jeff Overstreet in his recent book Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies. Jeff doesn’t just tell you whether or not he liked a movie. He offers you a seat next to him as the movie unfolds and he points out and reflects on the things that thrill, fascinate or trouble him. It’s an invitation not only to look more closely, but to ponder more deeply and appreciate more fully.

There are other books out there, such as Robert K. Johnston’s Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue and Brian Godawa’s Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom & Discernment, but Through a Screen Darkly is the one I’d, um, recommend.

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Re. Children’s books

Well this started off as an thank-you email and ended up as some sort of catharsis. Feel free to skim.

I wanted to start by thanking you most sincerely for the pleasure which your reviews have given me over the few years I’ve been reading them. It’s not just the fact that you manage to present a coherent appreciation of a film’s artistic and moral merits. It’s also the style with which you do it. My enjoyment comes in some cases because it’s always worth reading a competent analysis in any field; and in others because reading a review where someone’s really enjoyed the piece is just so much more fun for the reader.

I had, of course, meant for some while to write in appreciation of your work, but aside from pointing out a few typos I hadn’t actually got round to it. Now your correspondence page has given me the stimulus I need. I wear, in addition to other hats, that of the editor of, a guide for parents to books for youngsters. And, like you I think, I’m pretty much of a one-man band. My focus is books for young people between the ages of 10 and 16. I’m a Catholic and an avid reader from a young age. I’m also a professional computer programmer and I’ve been involved in youth work for more than 15 years. So I decided to bring things together and to publish my private book database as a website. Hence

Your point about the reviewer being like a barrister who is there to present a compelling case struck a real chord. I spend a fair bit too much time worrying whether I’ve covered every angle which a concerned parent might need. (As far as I know, there’s no ScreenIt for books). I dread the sort of reaction that you received from the obviously well-intentioned parents who’d been persuaded into watching a film on the basis that you hadn’t said “Don’t” even though ScreenIt mentioned an undesirable scene. I imagine that, like me, you know several parents whose reaction to books & films is fairly black-and-white: if it’s the slightest bit dodgy, we don’t want it here. My approach has tried to be: I’ll tell you what’s there; you decide. But for a book, the “what’s there” can be quite complex.

I also welcomed your point about political films, bolstered by C. S. Lewis’ well-known quote, because there are some books I just can’t seem to bring myself to review. My choice of reviews is dictated by several factors: my own time is a big one; what I can (cheaply or freely) get hold of is another; how popular the book is, or is likely to be; and how worthwhile it is, even if it’s not popular. My site has two starting points: books which are going to get into children’s hands because they’re popular with schoolteachers or booksellers, whether they’re worthwhile or not; and books which are worth recommending even if they’re not popular. I don’t usually bother with a book which is not worth recommending if no-one’s going to see it anyway!

One certain difference between books and films from the point of view of parental concerns is that reading is such an under-represented activity among children that many parents are happy if their children are reading anything at all, regardless of what it might contain. And then you have the issue of the borderline between artistry and, well, immorality. “But it’s a classic book!” “Yes, but it’s promoting a lifestyle or a worldview which clashes with your faith.” “But it’s on the school syllabus” “Yes, but…” etc. For practical purposes, it’s unlikely that you’ll actually prevent any child from reading Book X nowadays. What I hope to do is to inform the parent in such a way that they can at least know what Book X has to offer — the good, the bad and the ugly — and to be able to discuss same with their children. Parents are busy people; I’m busy too but part of my business, if you’ll pardon the pun, is to help parents out.

Thank you, if you’ve managed to read this far, for the effort you put into DecentFilms. Unless you’re reviewing a film made closely from a book (such as the Golden Compass / Northern Lights [*] might turn out to be, for example) it’s unlikely we’ll overlap directly. But I certainly learn a lot from reading your articles about an approach to reviewing which helps me to frame my own work rather better.

Tim Golden
(Mr GoodToRead)

P.S. Incidentally, why do these American editors insist on changing the names of books imported from the UK? Surely Northern Lights means as much to an American youngster as it does to a British one. And likewise Philosopher’s Stone / Sorceror’s Stone.

Dear Mr. GoodToRead, aka Tim,

Thanks for writing, and for your kind words, and for the link to, which is quite impressive for its scope, its thoughtfulness and its robustness. I love your interface with everything cross-linked, and your two-part ratings system (especially the ability of your “attitude” rating to span multiple categories, much like my own mixed moral-spiritual value ratings).

I’m glad my lawyer (or barrister) analogy resonated with you regarding your concerns for covering all possible bases (do you cover bases in the UK?) for all possible parents. In a similar vein, I sometimes feel that I fail to cover as many movies as I could by insisting on covering too many of them at too great length, a point touched upon in your “Why have Quick Reviews?” answer. I really need to make an effort to resume posting shorter reviews on more films, and increase my breadth of coverage.

Like you, I find that my selection of material is dictated by a range of factors including my time, reader interest (positive or negative, for good or ill), my own interest (especially regarding worthwhile projects likely to be overlooked), and most of all long-term interest, which has to do with the ongoing relevance of a movie and review one, two, five or more years out. (Right now lots of people are wishing I would review Transformers, but by this time next year no one would ever read that review again.)

Don’t get me started on the Philosopher’s Stone / Sorcerer’s Stone name change. A generation of American readers has been robbed of a meaningful cultural reference to a, ah, touchstone in the history of Western thought and culture. Sort of like going through the old Looney Tunes cartoons and dubbing over all the allusions to Casablanca and Liberace, because how many kids know what that’s all about? I certainly didn’t when I was a kid; the point is, when I grew up and watched Casablanca, I understood. (I don’t feel the same sort of objection regarding Northern Lights, in part because the new title isn’t dumbed down, only more focus-group-y.)

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Re. Video games

Regarding your comment about requests for video game reviews: So just to let you know, I’m an orthodox, college-educated Roman Catholic with some writing experience, who also happens to play and own way too many video games. If you or anyone you know is interested in opening up a games review site, let me know!

I’ve been looking for that kind of site for a while myself, and toyed with the idea of starting my own, but I’m just not web design savvy enough to do it myself. And, honestly, it’s a huge undertaking. But I’d love to jump on board if someone else is interested as well. Maybe just keep me in mind if anything comes up. I love your site and recommend it to people all the time.

Thanks for writing. If I hear from anyone else interested in collaborating on a video-game site, I'll see if I can put you in touch with them.

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