Mailbag #16

“Zorro: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2”, Up in the Air, Adam, Dan Brown, Terminator movies and more.

Re. Welcome to the New Decent Films!

I’m a fan of the site, a regular reader, and enjoy your monthly appearances on Catholic Answers and other Catholic radio programs. Congratulations to you on your beautiful new site! It’s a huge improvement in terms of ease of navigation and logical user interfacing, and even though the graphic design changes are relatively subtle, they are a welcome sight and look great. Keep up the great work and apostolate you are doing here — I recommend your reviews to family and friends quite often. God bless!

Your encouraging feedback on the new site and on my work is much appreciated. I’m gratified that you find my work helpful and worth recommending. Thanks for writing.

Link to this item

Re. Up in the Air (2009)

I keep waiting to hear your take on Up in the Air. My brother and I saw it. We argued afterward. He thought it was nearly pitch perfect and I thought it left a great deal to be desired. [Spoiler warning.]

I thought the surprise of Vera’s marriage was pure fabrication and emotional manipulation. The screenplay had it right at the beginning when Vera states that she is the opposite of Ryan Bingham except for the plumbing (I’ll spare the more vulgar statement of the movie). This is what the movie is about — or should be. It is a movie that is exploring the age-old adage first found in Genesis that “It is not good for man to be alone.” It would seem that Ryan and Alex both need to move beyond the shallowness of their lives to find each other. The sudden introduction of her being married seems to me an arty contrivance merely to shock the audience.

I am not against the character being married — they both are already immoral — but there should be some hint — say cell phone calls that she keeps getting but refuses to reveal, which eventually we find out are from her husband or children; however there is nothing in her character to suggest that she is married.

It is meant to be ironic that Ryan is the one trying to convince the man intended to marry Ryan’s younger sister that he should settle down. However it is too ironic because Ryan has no means by which to convince him. He really does not believe it. In a scene where he should be coming to some interior realization about his need for Alex — which kind of happens — he should be able to mount a much more heartfelt plea for marriage. He should be speaking to himself as much as he speaking to his possible brother-in-law. Of course we find him finally heading to Chicago for Alex, only to find out that she is married.

Not only is the relationship between Ryan and Alex ambivalent, there is not one healthy marriage in the entire movie. The movie does live up to its name — it is up in the air. In a movie that seems to be wanting to affirm the good of marriage, it remains remarkably ambivalent about the whole endeavor — which does leave the movie “Up in the Air”!

I would like to hear your take.

My take on Up in the Air is much the same as yours.

My wife Suzanne commented after watching the film that the compartmentalization of Vera’s life, where she is unconflicted free spirit away from home and unconflicted wife and mother at home, is a contrivance that the movie doesn’t sell. In reality, the two halves of Vera’s double life would be bleeding into one another, taking their toll on her; she wouldn’t be able to maintain both — or else, if the movie wants us to believe in Vera, it would have had to do something to make her psychology credible to us. It doesn’t.

I don’t necessarily mind that the movie doesn’t have one healthy marriage. I do mind that it seems to want to make some sort of profound statement, but doesn’t seem to know what it is.

In the category of sloppy screenwriting, add Ryan stumbling and stopping at the outset of his backpack speech and then walking off the podium as a hackneyed way of showing us that He’s Changed.

Link to this item

Re. Welcome to the New Decent Films!

I take it from the “Coming Soon” announcement “The New Decent Films” in the “Coming Soon” box that you are redesigning the website. I realize it is taking a liberty, and probably an unhelpful one, to make comments about this, but I beg you to be careful. I enjoy reading movie reviews, but the reason I spend more time on your site than any other isn’t just that your reviews are better written and more insightful. It’s also because yours is one of the only sites I know where the pleasure of reading the reviews doesn’t have to compete with the pain of looking at them.

Your current design is simple but effective, attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell, and easy to understand and use. I can always rely on it to load quickly and not give me computer problems. It has everything logically arranged and free from distractions. It has very interesting exchanges in the mail column, but it doesn’t weigh down every page with dozens of vacuous comments.

How different is the common run of online movie criticism - and not just in cases where the review is on the website of some periodical or publication and has to follow its format. Almost always, the pages are busy, cluttered, and ugly, with links, search boxes, sidebars, and so on thrown in any which way with equal disregard for taste and convenience. That background on Roger Ebert’s site that vibrates when you scroll up or down is abominable. The pictures that everyone else feels the need to put in are usually counterproductive, either useless in showing you what the movie looks like, boring, or providing a regrettable spoiler.

Please, please, please be careful. Remember that when I want to see publicity stills, frame blow-ups, advertisements, or bloated comments boxes, and when I want to sit and wait while my computer struggles to load horrifically over-designed web pages, I have the entire internet at my fingertips. When I visit your site, I want a clean, simple design that will allow me to enjoy the work of the greatest movie critic I know in peace.

Of course, this is really a complaint about the web in general, not just movie reviews, but it seems to me it’s movie review sites out of all others that ought to look good. For a beautiful movie to be reviewed on an ugly web page seems a sort of blasphemy. Forgive the perhaps too impassioned tone of this email; it’s because I care. Merry Christmas and pax tecum.

My sincere gratitude for your concern, for your kind comments about the current (soon to be the old) site — and for your interest in my work. (Actually, it’s all my work … I’ve done all the front-end design for Decent Films (all hand-coded html and css, Photoshop and Illustrator) from the very beginning — nearly 10 years ago now! — although I’m deeply indebted to my volunteer back-end developer for breathing the breath of content-management and database life into my design work.)

Fear not! I’m confident that the new site retains everything that is good about the current site, and that every change is an enhancement. It’s recognizably the same site, same general layout strategy, only better. Better-looking, easier on the eyes (“soothing to the smell” I leave to the movies at the lower end of my ratings spectrum … movies with poison in them, now they’ll sleep!). Cleaner, and no comments at this time — although the best new feature (in my opinion), content integration, will join mail items with associated reviews and articles. Snazzy new features. Trust me. It’s all good!

Link to this item

Re. Adam

Thank you so very much for reviewing Adam! My therapist had mentioned it during a session, but she couldn’t remember the title, and while I was going to search for more information about it, I was royally distracted by a summer full of personal crises. I was diagnosed with mild AS six years ago, and thus I tend to have an eye open for movies, etc. about people with this condition. It sounds like this is one of the better, if flawed portrayals, but there again, this is a condition that is very difficult for an actor to recreate: it’s very complex, and my mother has said that it makes my behavior and reactions to things around me near to impossible to predict.

The point you made about one of the flaws in the movie, re: showing the emotional maturity of people AS, was well-put. A lot of us are deceptively child-like in our personalities, while others are wise beyond our years. I’ve been told I’m incongruously both.

Hugh Dancy is very persuasive as an Aspie in Adam; at least, he seems persuasive to me, and I’ve read a couple of online reviews by Aspies who thought he nailed it. (I didn’t bring my Aspie daughter, who’s not yet fifteen and would be troubled by the nonmarital sex.)

I think “incongruously both” is a common impression. Aspies often struggle with skills and insights that their peers mastered long ago, but they often also relate better at a young age to adults than to their peers, and can be quite sophisticated in their thinking. I would have liked to see more of that in Adam, not just mastery of facts.

Link to this item

Re. Scooby-Doo

I enjoy hearing you on Catholic Answers and don’t know where else to ask this. My young children are big Scooby Doo fans, and I recently watched the Scooby Doo movie with them on DVD. It dawned on me that there is so much reference to ghosts, monsters, and witches and spells in all of the Scooby Doo movies and shows. Should I be keeping my kids away from Scooby. I grew up myself in the 80’s watching the cartoon and it never really dawned on me until recently that I might be doing harm to my kids. Any insight would be appreciated.

My Scooby Doo review in verse, to the tune of the “Scooby Doo” theme song, is one of my favorites. As the review points out, in the original cartoon the ghosts, monsters and witches always turned out to be fakes. It was always some schemer in a costume trying to scare people away while he searched for the treasure, or whatever (and he would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids).

I don’t have a problem with any of this. The old “Scooby Doo” TV shows are fine in my book, although they don’t set the highest possible standard for kids’ entertainment, and it wouldn’t be my choice for my kids to watch it every day for months on end or anything, just because there’s better stuff out there.

The 2002 live-action movie, with its “real voodoo, monsters and gross-out jokes,” is a different story. It’s not the first first time the monsters turned out to be real — later iterations of Scooby’s cartoon world did the same — but the movie ignores these and acts as if this is the first time the Scooby gang has encountered actual paranormal phenomena. The animated movie Scooby Doo on Zombie Island did the same.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with real magic, witches or monsters in a story. In the case of magic of a certain kind, such as voodoo or the kind of witchcraft that involves divination or seances and such, I don’t have a problem if the magic is clearly presented as bad and dangerous. The fantasy magic of Gandalf, Glinda the Good Witch and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother is not a problem to my mind (see my essay “Harry Potter vs. Gandalf” for more).

The cartoon movie Scooby Doo on Zombie Island, according to my friend and guest critic Jimmy Akin, did depict voodoo magic as clearly bad and dangerous. So did the live-action Scooby-Doo movie — up to a point. The main magical force in the movie is an evil cult that is stealing people’s souls. However, according to my review (I no longer remember this in detail), there was also a voodoo practitioner who seemed to be trying to use voodoo techniques to protect himself from the cult. That’s problematic (for a similar partially problematic depiction of voodoo, see Disney’s recent The Princess and the Frog).

Honestly, though, I have a bigger problem with Scooby Doo’s crudity as explicated in lines 13-18 of my review (and the corresponding commentary). I’m also not fond of snarky remakes that deconstruct without affection, as the 2002 film does by making Fred a jerk (the 1995 Brady Bunch Movie did the same sort of thing).

Finally, if you’re looking for suggestions for family viewing, try these links.

Link to this item

Re. Decent Films

What’s your expert opinion (and quick ratings) on the following movies?

  • My Fair Lady
  • Mary Poppins
  • The Great Mouse Detective
  • Gunga Din
  • The Lady Vanishes (old Hitchcock one, not the ’79 remake!)

Much as I love both Audrey Hepburn and Julie Andrews, I’m afraid I’m not a big fan of My Fair Lady or Mary Poppins. Both are gorgeous to look at — the films, I mean — and I can understand why people love them, but they don’t work for me. It’s possible and even likely that I will write reviews of both of them in the months to come.

I have only hazy memories of The Great Mouse Detective and The Lady Vanishes, but they’re positive hazy memories. Gunga Din, alas, I have never seen.

Link to this item

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

Many, many thanks for the new website, particularly the new RSS feed. I keep tabs on most things through Google Feedreader, and have trouble remembering to check specific websites. I love your stuff, and so I was always kicking myself for forgetting to check it regularly. Now, I can stop kicking.

Secondly, I am happy to agree that “Zorro”’s standard for family entertainment is unmatched. My childhood days watching Guy Williams and Co. are some of my fondest memories, and my wife and I purchased the Complete Seasons this past Christmas for my kids — five boys under the age of eight. As you can imagine, they love it. In fact, they will ask for it before anything else, though Pixar runs a close second. (I must admit to being greatly gratified that they enjoy it so much. So very wholesome, compared to other things they could be watching.)

Thanks for writing, and for your encouraging feedback on the new site. Enough readers have written to thank me for the RSS feed that I began to wonder how I got through the last decade without RSS subscriptions to my own most visited sites. So as a side effect of redesigning my site, I have now joined the 21st century and begun subscribing to the sites I follow with Google Reader myself.

I’m glad your young family is enjoying “Zorro” — and that you snapped it up when you did. Another reader has alerted me that Season 1 is already discontinued (those Walt Disney Treasures editions are cruelly limited).

Link to this item

Re. Lies, Damned Lies and Dan Brown: Fact-checking <i>Angels &amp; Demons</i>

Although I don’t necessarily agree 100% with all of Dan Brown’s “theories,” there is something to be said about “reference material.” Sir, where did you get your facts from? If you have no source material to back it up, it leaves you in the same place as Mr. Brown.

The problem with the world is we all think we know everything, so instead of listening to what others are saying, and exploring the possibility of it being true, we stare quietly into the others eyes, the whole time not hearing a word due to the fact we are already thinking of the next “witty” thing to say. Being book-smart can make you very narrow minded. I can see by a lot of your comments that you are probably Catholic, and offended by his “facts.”

Which of my facts are you interested in?

On antimatter, I visited CERN in Geneva (courtesy of Sony Pictures) and spoke to actual quantum physicists (as well as Ron Howard and Tom Hanks), though most of the facts I referenced can be verified from CERN’s own website.

In Rome I visited the relevant churches (again courtesy of Sony), including Santa Maria del Popolo, Santa Maria della Vittoria, the Pantheon and St. Peter’s, where I saw the “West Ponente” tile (along with the 15 other tiles Brown conveniently ignores) and the tomb of Alexander VII (not, as reported by Brown, at Santa Maria del Popolo, which I can also verify is not where Brown said, or oriented in its piazza as he described). I saw the passetto wall where Brown claimed to be inspired to write Angels & Demons while touring “beneath Vatican City,” though in fact the passetto is above ground, not below.

I can vouch from my own eyes for the unreliability of Brown’s descriptions of churches, tombs and other architectural landmarks, despite his assurances that in this regard his book offers only “entirely factual” descriptions and “exact locations.” Again, most of this information can be verified by mass first-hand attestation from online sources.

Anyone can Google “Sylvia Cavazzini,” the “scholar” whom Brown claims gave him his passetto tour, and try to find online evidence of any academic work she may have done. Anyone can Google Bernini’s Four Rivers and see which rivers are represented (and consult an atlas to determine whether they are all in the Old World as Brown says). Anyone can look up the meaning of the word “cathedral” in a dictionary, or Google Musei Vaticani vs. Musèo Vaticano, something neither Brown nor his editors or proofreaders bothered to do.

I suspect you may be more interested in historical questions around the Illuminati, Galileo, La Purga and such. A question: If Brown is manifestly and consistently unreliable on matters of verifiable fact for which he promises an “entirely factual” descriptions and “exact locations” — when he cannot even reliably report autobiographical details from his own life — why should he be given any credence on matters of history where he appears to be at odds with historians of all stripes?

Link to this item

Re. Decent Films

I am doing my masters in Engineering at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland.

As part of the Catholic Society activities here at our University, we were thinking about screening a movie in our Chaplaincy. Our aim is to get more students involved in the Society.

My friend informed me about this great website of yours. Could you please suggest any movies for our movie screening. Something that will be liked by the youth and at the same time which conveys a spiritual message to them. Sorry if I am asking for too much out of your busy schedule.

Here’s a range of films you might consider. Does this help?

Two other films that might be worth mentioning, but with significant caution regarding content: Tsotsi and District 9. Hope that helps.

Link to this item

Re. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

I was reading your review of Terminator 3 recently, and I basically agreed with it wholeheartedly. I was once a big fan of the series, at a time when I took my faith less seriously, and I haven’t watched any of them for some time. I was wondering if we could get a quick take from you on the other Terminator films (both moral and artistic merits) and whether they are worth re-watching, since I doubt you’ll ever have the time or inclination to do full reviews for them.

While I’m hoping this year to write more about more films that I wouldn’t have revisited in the past, you’re right in thinking that reviews of The Terminator and T2 are not on the horizon, nor do I expect that to change for the indefinite future.

The Terminator is a taut, effective (but very violent) sci-fi/action film that works well on a number of levels. As I thought about it in response to your query, it occurred to me that The Terminator is a sort of secular nativity story, with an annunciation, a promised child that will bring salvation, an act of faith (“Come with me if you want to live”), a massacre of innocents and a flight into the wilderness. Not a virgin birth, of course, and the sex scene is unfortunately graphic. Still, a film that values human life, that sides with humanity against the forces that it has unwittingly unleashed against itself.

As soon as those thoughts occurred to me, I immediately realized that my friend and fellow Christian film writer Peter Chattaway, a known Terminator geek, would certainly have had the same thoughts. I did a Google search, and sure enough, here’s his thoughtful essay, which also touches on a number of other moral and aesthetic themes in the series.

T2 I think is not nearly as interesting a film as The Terminator; the main draw is the technology spectacle, the well-choreographed action and Arnold’s screen presence and chemistry with young John Connor. That’s despite the kinder, gentler Terminator and Peter’s points about the T-800 learning the value of human life. Also, Cameron’s sometimes appreciated feminist leanings verge here into misandry, especially in Sarah Connor’s risible speech about men creating weapons in contrast to women creating life.

Link to this item

Re. Microcosmos

You once talked on the radio about a bug/insect life movie that showed ants/spiders, etc. up really close … I have a nephew that loves insects. What was this movie’s title? Thanks.

Microcosmos. He’ll love it.

Link to this item