Mailbag #13

Terminator 4 vs Night at the Museum 2, Angels & Demons, Doubt, The Miracle Maker, Twilight, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Watchmen, Gulliver’s Travels, Monsters vs. Aliens, Witch Mountain reviews, Slumdog Millionaire and more.

Re. Terminator 4 vs. Night at the Museum 2

I know that you don’t have time to review every film that comes out, and in the past I’ve been surprised by your decision of which films you choose over others. But I’m really surprised of your choice to review Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian over Terminator: Salvation. Especially since you didn’t review the first Night at the Museum and did review Terminator 3. How did you come to this decision, if you don’t mind my asking?

  1. In a crowded May release schedule with many writing commitments, an editor for one of the outlets I freelance for, Christianity Today Movies, needed a review of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Every screening I attend (unless it’s a family screening) and every review I write takes me away from my family; if I can help support my family writing about one movie rather than another, all things being equal, I’ll take the paying gig. (I also like helping out an editor.)
  2. More relevantly for Decent Films readers, Battle of the Smithsonian is the first family film I’ve reviewed in weeks. I like to maintain variety where possible; if I’m going to privilege any target audience, I’ll choose family audiences. Lately, though, I haven’t had that chance. So far this month, before Battle of the Smithsonian there’s been nothing except Battle for Terra, which (somewhat unjustly) sank without a ripple at the box office (only three weeks after release it’s playing in only half a dozen theaters nationwide). In April, likewise, I reviewed only one family film, the nature documentary Earth. Before that, you have to go all the way back to March for Monsters vs. Aliens and Race to Witch Mountain.
  3. On the other hand, there’s been no shortage of violent action films lately. This month alone I reviewed Angels & Demons, Star Trek and Wolverine. For the sake of variety and because of my special concern for family audiences, Battle of the Smithsonian was more appealing than Terminator: Salvation.

  4. The above factor was accentuated by my upcoming appearance on “Catholic Answers Live.” More CA listeners will probably want to know about NatM2 than T4.
  5. While I haven’t yet written up the original Night at the Museum, I have seen it, and it represents a subgenre of family film, what I call the “broken family film,” that I have strong feelings about and think is worth writing about. The sequel was an excuse to do that, at least by way of referring to the original if the same issues didn’t crop up in the sequel.
  6. Finally, I’m not getting good vibes at all from T4. Just the name McG raises red flags (We Are Marshall notwithstanding). A friend and fellow critic who saw T4 hated it, and most critics seem to agree. (They don’t like NatM2 either, but they dislike T4 even more.)
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Re. Angels & Demons

The opening paragraphs of your review for Angels & Demons is one of the funniest and most entertaining things I’ve seen on this site. I’m slogging my way through the book at the moment (armed with a pen so I can jot snarky comments in the margins: it’s about the only way I can stand it), and your gleeful, movie reference-laden jabs were spot on! As a Matrix geek, I had to laugh out loud at this paragraph in particular:

The “episode” Langdon refers to is that business in The Da Vinci Code, and the “mysteries” in question are the revelations that Jesus Christ was not divine, though he married into divinity, or something, and that from this union descended a powerful character in the Matrix sequels, and ultimately, wouldn’t you know it Langdon’s love interest in The Da Vinci Code.

Great minds, they do think alike: I’d had a very similar line of thought when I was laboring through Da Vinci Code. I think I even cracked, to friends in the know, a joke along the lines of “The movie would have been better if they’d had a cameo by Lambert Wilson” (ie. the French actor who played the Merovingian in the Matrix movies). Keep up the good work and keep bringing on the laughter in the face of movies that look down their noses at religion. As St. Thomas More said, “The Devil cannot stand to be mocked.”

You are, obviously, exactly the reader I had in mind when I wrote that paragraph. I knew you were out there; I hoped that paragraph would find you. Now that I have your email, I feel that my Angels & Demons journey is truly complete.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the More quotation, popularized by C. S. Lewis in an epigraph to The Screwtape Letters, is usually given as: “The Devil … the prowde spirit … cannot endure to be mocked.”

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Re. Doubt (2008)

I was impressed by your appearance on EWTN not long ago and later checked several times for your review of Doubt. I now see it might be coming sometime. How strange. How can a movie directly dealing with Catholic doctrine that’s been out for months not be at the top of your list?

Ideally it would be (although I wouldn’t say Doubt is about Catholic doctrine exactly). But in practice other pressures — publication deadlines, theatrical and DVD release dates and very tight schedules — often force me to postpone reviews that I would rather write sooner.

I have an alarming tendency to bite off more than I can chew, and an editor waiting on a piece is always going to get first dibs on my available time. Too often I’ve promised readers reviews that waited around for months or even longer before I could deliver. I’m trying to manage expectations more responsibly than I have in the past. “Possibly coming sometime” is my self-deprecating way of acknowledging my own unreliability in this regard.

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Re. Jesus movies

Recently I heard Steven on the Son Rise Morning Show talking about a DVD that was I believe Passion-based and good for the family. Might you know which film he was speaking of?

The Miracle Maker. Can’t recommend it highly enough. Get it. Watch it every year, especially if — but not only if — you have kids. Not only family friendly, it’s also one of the all-time best Jesus movies, ever — and especially good Easter season viewing, as it’s one of the only Jesus films to do any kind of justice to the resurrection appearances.

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Re. Twilight (2008)

I heard you on the radio talking about the mystery of Twilight’s appeal. In the many biographies of Lisa Simpson on the Internet, it’s almost always noted that her favorite magazine is titled “Non-threatening Boys.”

Edward Cullen may be playing a vampire, but he’s perceived as one of the Jonas Brothers. That’s why aging tween girls think he’s so swell.

Absolutely. He’s a safe bad-boy-who-can-be-redeemed-if-only‐the-good-girl-loves-and-trusts-him-enough. He might talk about the danger of losing control, and warn Bella to stay away from him for her own good, but we know he won’t really lose control. He’s all cuddling and petting with no pressure for sex.

Which is just another connection to Titanic’s Jack Dawson, a romantic guy who is so safe that he can draw the heroine naked without making a pass, and who lets her initiate sex, choosing the time and place for losing her virginity.

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Re. Sophie Scholl – The Final Days

I just watched the Sophie Scholl film that you reviewed and recommended. After first learning about Scholl siblings in a German class long ago, I was anxious to watch this film. Anyway, I thought you would like to see this article about how Sophie was influenced by the writings of Cardinal Newman. I thought it was particularly interesting to note that Sophie and her brother asked to be received into the Catholic Church an hour before their deaths!

Cardinal Newman’s writings on conscience as an echo of the voice of God in the heart of man — an echo that rings with absolute authority but which can guide man better or worse as it is well or poorly formed — has been profoundly influential in Western Christian thought.

While I hadn’t heard before that Sophie Scholl had been exposed to Newman, her defense of conscience as seen in the film is entirely in keeping with his writings, and in that sense I’m not surprised to learn from the article you cite that she was influenced by him — though knowing that will certainly add a new layer of meaning to those exchanges the next time I watch the film!

Knowing that Sophie and Hans asked to be received into the Catholic Church — and that their pastor dissuaded them — also adds new layers to the scene with the pastor praying over Sophie.

Possibly the Scholls’s Catholic-friendliness was influenced by their Catholic fellow conspirator Christoph Probst, the family man whom the Scholls sought unsuccessfully to protect for the sake of his children.

Thanks for writing, and for sharing the article.

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Re. Watchmen

In your review of Watchmen you wrote:

The graphic novel has a horror-stricken young Rorschach, snapping after making a grisly discovery, chain a human monster inside his apartment, splash kerosene around, drop a match, and walk away, leaving him to burn to death offscreen. In the movie, after chaining him up, Rorschach splits his skull with a meat cleaver, then continues to whack at the skull again and again, all in closeup.

I think the movie scene is far less violent than the graphic-novel scene. In the original graphic novel, while you don’t see this, the implication is far more cruel and violent; the killer has to saw through his arm or get burned; he burned.

In this version he’s dead in the first blow; I thought the film treatment of the child killer is much less violent and kinder since he died instantly. You see gore, but it doesn’t mean as much as the guy is dead and Rorschach is clearly crazy. In the graphic novel the guy’s death is agonizing and makes Rorschach seem crueler.

By the way, I understand some people don’t like depressing works, but I found Light in the story; I found Light in Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Jupiter. I like and sympathize with those characters.

The graphic-novel scene = character development.

The movie scene = grossout / shock value.

In a visual medium like comics or film, what the story asks us to look at is at least as important critically as what happens.

I can understand liking and sympathizing with Dreiberg and Jupiter. I’m not totally sure Alan Moore sympathizes with them. Be that as it may, they may be sympathetic characters, but they don’t bring a genuinely heroic dynamic to the story. Watchmen — in either the graphic novel or the film version — is a super hero story without heroism.

Dreiberg is the most traditionally heroic (by disposition) character in the story, and the only one of the half-dozen major male characters who doesn’t have a nihilistic worldview. Tellingly, he’s also the most benighted and ineffectual.

Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach and Ozymandias are each in their own ways more “enlightened” than Nite Owl, and they all have some sort of nihilistic worldview. Veidt debunks heroism — and then his vision is debunked.

Not shades of grey, but stark black and white — in meaningless patterns, onto which we only project meaning. There is no meaning, no fate, no God; just us, and the horrors we visit on ourselves. Ultimately, we are all in the dark — and there’s plenty of pitch-black darkness (child rape and dismemberment, etc.), but little if anything that could be called light. Well, maybe if a woman has consensual sex with a man who once tried to rape her, someone might contrive to see some sort of light in that.

The story is about a countdown to doomsday. One character has a horrifically nihilistic plan to avert it, and in the end he succeeds in enacting his plan — yet the outcome is ultimately thwarted by an unforeseen consequence of the actions of another nihilistic character. The most unimaginable of sacrifices is enacted, to no avail. The fate of the world turns on a meaningless chain of events, and continues it career toward annihilation. If that’s not nihilistic, what is?

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Re. Gulliver’s Travels

When I was a child, I loved the animated Gulliver’s Travels — they used show it on one TV station or another every year, and I must have watched it five or six times. A number of years ago, I watched it as an adult and was less impressed, but I still saw the attraction of it. You may be speaking more for today’s audiences in your evaluation than for the audiences that originally watched it.

Nope. The Fleischers’ Gulliver’s Travels was unsuccessful with both critics and audiences in its own day. The obvious comparison to the earlier Snow White — not an unfair one, as that was the inspiration and the model — showed up the same shortcomings I noted from the start.

Unfortunately, the Fleischers didn’t learn from their mistakes. Their second feature film, Mr. Bug Goes to Town, offers a similar mixture of the Fleischers’ strengths and weaknesses, and met with the same critical and popular failure — ending the Fleischers’ careers, alas. Universal canceled their contract, though it retained some of their lead animators for shorts work. (It didn’t work. The shorts produced after the Fleischers left were pale imitations of the Fleischers’ work, just as Gulliver was of Disney’s work.)

For what it’s worth, I appreciate Gulliver’s appeal too. It’s not bad work. But it’s animation-short thinking in a feature-length film. (For the record, the early Disney canon has at least one film with that same shortcoming — Dumbo — though Dumbo partially compensates with sympathetic characters and situations and genuinely catchy music. It’s still not a very good movie, though.)

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Re. Gulliver’s Travels

My problem with the Fleischers’ version of Gulliver’s Travels is that it seems to have cut out most of Swift’s social satire—much of which is still on target today—and concentrated on the cuteness of the Lilliputians.

Of course, social satire wouldn’t have fit the bill for what the Fleischers, and Universal, wanted to achieve, i.e., a successful follow-up to Disney’s Snow White. One might reasonably argue that Disney’s greater success began right from the start, with a better choice of source material.

Not that the absence of Swift’s social satire would have mattered much had Gulliver replaced it with solid storytelling, characters, humor and so forth. Ultimately, a film stands or falls on its own merits, not on how it relates to the source material.

But when a film jettisons the substance of its source material and fails to come up with something compelling in its place, it’s natural to wonder why they chose that source in the first place, and why the filmmakers cut out what worked about the book without any clear idea how to make the film work without it.

Ultimately, I think it reflects a lack of vision on the Fleischers’ part. As gifted as they were in many ways, they just didn’t understand what Disney was doing, and what made Snow White work as a feature film. They thought they could replicate it at the same level of the work they were doing. They were mistaken.

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Re. Monsters vs. Aliens

I read your review of Monsters vs. Aliens and would like to know if this movie is appropriate for a 9 and 11 year old. My sons want to see this movie but my wife and I saw a preview where they used the word “boobies” in a way that seemed to objectify women. That and one other comment we can’t remember concerned us. Would you say there is some moral lessons in the movie that makes it worth seeing (that may counter the two comments that were semi-offensive)?

I’m not sure how to answer this question. If you read my review, you know what I think of the film’s treatment of men and women. My concerns about the film center on the relationship of the theme of female empowerment to that of male ego, weakness and selfishness, as well as the visual emphasis on Ginormica’s Barbie-doll figure.

If you feel that a couple of rude comments are more of an issue than that, I’m not sure I can say anything more that would be helpful to you. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that the film is buoyed by any very notable moral positives.

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Re. <i>Witch Mountain</i> reviews

Very interesting reviews. I must admit, I expected you to give Escape to Witch Mountain a higher review than Return from Witch Mountain, but of course, I haven’t read the books.

To tell you the truth, I saw them both when I was 14 or so, and I thought Escape was a great little film. It had all the elements of a great kids’ movie and all the elements to keep a teenager or even adult interested for a sustained amount of time. The story was interesting, the characters were likable, and the effects were well done (if underused like you mentioned).

However, I was bitterly disappointed with Return. Mainly I didn’t like it for the overall cheesiness and silliness that you mentioned in your review. Where Escape was engaging and entertaining, Return was merely silly. Whenever the plot turned to the street gang of rejects from “The Little Rascals,” I cringed. It was a little better when the plot turned to Christopher Lee and his mind control device, but it still felt cheesy and cliched. It had great effects, but that couldn’t save what is exclusively a kiddie film.

I haven’t seen Race to Witch Mountain as of yet, but I plan to in the near future, although I have mixed feelings about it. When I first heard about Race, I though, “Oh boy, another Witch Mountain sequel, maybe this one will redeem that awful Return movie.” But after seeing the trailer, I realized that it wasn’t a sequel, it wasn’t even a remake, it was a reboot. Okay, so I could go with reboot, as long as it’s done well. The Day the Earth Stood Still had an interesting reboot (really remake in that case) that couldn’t touch the original but still took the story in an intriguing direction.

But something didn’t feel right about the trailer for Race; you know at once that they’re aliens (which was the whole point of Escape, and was one of the things that film so great was the journey of discovery). With the kids’ new powers, why do they even need a taxi driver to help them? If they can walk into cars and bullets bounce right off them, why would government officials be a problem? The powers Tony and Tia possessed had limits and made them more relatable, but Sara and Seth seem almost indestructible and distant. As a cheap action flick, Race seems okay. But not having read the books, it seems that the original Escape hasn’t been beaten.

I suspect more people will agree with you than with me on the relative merits of Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain. I have to call ’em as I see ’em, though, even if the consensus is against me!

Yes, Race to Witch Mountain is a reboot, and they should have called it that. You’re quite right that Sara and Seth aren’t relatable characters like Tony and Tia, partly because of their extreme powers but also because of their alienness and lack of a learning curve. We really relate to Dwayne Johnson’s Jack, not the kids. And yeah, the filmmakers do ramp up the kids’ powers so much that it’s hard to see why they’re threatened not only by government agents but even by the alien Siphon. Why can’t Seth just phase them through the Siphon’s attacks?

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Re. Slumdog Millionaire

From your article titled 2008: The Year in Reviews I gather you aren’t very fond of Slumdog Millionaire very much. I would like to know what are your reservations concerning this film.

Not at all. Just because I think Slumdog was mislabeled as a “feel-good” movie doesn’t mean I’m not fond of it. In fact, of the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture, Slumdog is the one I would have wanted to see win. I think it’s a good movie. I don’t think it’s a great film.

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Re. Decent Parenting

I heard you mention about some unintended messages from a movie and wondered if you may have some advice as well I can use. My kids play these games called Rock Band and online game called Runescape as well as watch this tv show called Family Guy. I am concerned they may be getting possibly bad influence from this and wonder if you have some specifics I can use?

I’m not sure what kind of specifics you’re looking for. I’m only slightly familiar with “The Family Guy,” and I’ve heard of “Rock Band” and “Runescape,” but I can’t really say anything about any of them.

I’m no family counselor or parenting expert for anybody’s kids but my own, so take everything in this email with a grain of salt.

Since your children are already engaged in these entertainments, unless you have serious objections to them I’m guessing that simply putting the kibosh on any of them is probably not a worthwhile or effective battle to fight.

There are some things that would definitely be worth fighting this battle over — say, “Grand Theft Auto,” or some jiggle sitcom. It’s always easier to set the agenda before your kids have discovered something. Taking away something they’ve already discovered is harder, and a battle that may or may not be worth fighting.

The first thing you need to do is be informed and engaged. Watch “The Family Guy” with your kids. Tune in while they play “Runescape” and “Rock Band.”

Try to understand and appreciate, first of all, what your kids see in these pastimes. Don’t let them feel that you “just don’t understand.” Even if you have reservations and issues, your best bet at this point is to be able to credibly say from the outset that you do understand what is funny about “The Family Guy” or cool about “Runescape” or “Rock Band,” why your kids enjoy these things.

Try to figure out what it is that triggers your concerns about these entertainments. Are there problematic song lyrics in “Rock Band”? What bothers you about “The Family Guy”? Try to engage your kids on these subjects. Use an open-ended, questioning approach. Ask them: What do you think of this? What do you think those words mean? Do you think that’s a good attitude or a bad attitude? Does it bother you? Do you think it should bother you? Etc.

Depending on how old your kids are, consider setting limits. No more than so much “Rock Band” or “Runescape” in a day, or a week. Maybe set limits on total screen time per day or per week.

Set a positive agenda. Put on good movies and TV shows. Avoid anything too obviously and boringly “good for you.” The last thing you want to do is have them feel that you only approve of boring stuff and object to anything fun.

At the same time, you may need to try to help them understand that just because something is fun doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthy. Let them know whatever objections you may have, if they don’t get it.

Pray as a family. Go to Mass. Pray a rosary in the evening before bed. Maybe do a family Bible reading on Sundays. Pray for your kids. Set the best example you know how.

Hope that helps.

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Re. Decent Films for the Very Young

I would like to know a list of movies suitable for kids under five.

Here are some of my favorite movies for children under five. These are general recommendations; for kids under five you need to know your own kid. I recommend watching the movie ahead of time. Most of these have something or other that some sensitive children may have trouble with; I’ve noted a few obvious points below.

Also highly recommended in non-feature viewing:

Hope that helps.

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