Decent Films Blog

Spotlight: Touching the Void

Posted Apr 19th 2010, 05:50 AM

This week’s Spotlight piece is another older review you may not have read, for a film you may not have seen: Touching the Void.

Touching the Void

Tags: Spotlight

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Babies Are Back!

Posted Apr 15th 2010, 01:07 PM
Babies

Thomas Balmes’s Babies opens on May 7, just in time for Mother’s Day.

After the population-collapse anxieties of Children of Men, all the unwanted-pregnancy movies of 2007 and a slew of apocalyptic disaster films, is Hollywood moving toward a posterity state of mind?

Babies are everywhere this year, it seems. Babies is the name of a Focus Features documentary, opening on Mother’s Day weekend, about the first year in the lives of four babies from different corners of the world. Also opening that weekend, Rodrigo García’s Mother and Child tells three overlapping stories of women and adoption, including a mother seeking to adopt a baby born during the course of the film.

Then there’s a problematic pair of romantic comedies, The Back-up Plan and The Switch, that turn on that most unromantic method of conception, artificial insemination—in both cases gone wrong, appropriately enough. (Ironically, both films have undergone name switches: The Switch originally bore the more graphic title The Baster, and The Back-up Plan was originally planned as Plan B, unfortunately echoing a brand of “emergency contraception,” i.e., morning-after abortifacient.)

More baby connections in upcoming films are noted by Paul Bond in Hollywood Reporter. Currently set for December are a pair of new-parent films: Due Date stars Iron Man hero Robert Downey Jr. as an expectant dad trying to hitchhike home in time for the big day, and the romantic comedy Life as We Know It casts Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel as otherwise unconnected godparents who unexpectedly become foster parents when tragedy befalls the actual parents of their goddaughter. (Yes, you can have a romantic comedy that starts with a tragic accident; see Return to Me.) Oh, and there’s a baby on the way in the coming sequel to Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers.

Even in 2007, there was a latent pro-life vibe running through the string of unwanted-pregnancy movies: Juno, Bella, Waitress and Knocked Up (starring Life as We Know It’s Heigl), as well as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. This year, it seems, wanted babies may be back—even if the babies in The Back-up Plan and The Switch are wanted by single mothers without even a baby-daddy, and the baby in Life as We Know It was wanted by the real parents rather than the foster/godparents. The Hollywood Reporter piece suggests that perhaps current economic and global crises have something to do with it: “During hard times, family becomes even more important,” Life as We Know It executive producer Denise Di Novi is quoted as saying. “It’s been proven. Parents spend more time with their children—it’s that nesting instinct.”

While I’ve seen none of these films yet, the one that most intrigues me is Thomas Balmes’s Babies. “Everybody Loves…” is the tagline for a film that takes us to Mongolia, Namibia, San Francisco and Tokyo for a year in the lives of four babies. In fact, Babies just might be ahead of Iron Man 2 as my most anticipated release of May (which is saying something for me). While we’re waiting, check out the trailer.

Tags: Babies

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Bug Fix: Win/IE Quick Search

Posted Apr 14th 2010, 01:26 PM

Note for Win/IE users:

Every so often in the past I’ve gotten a note that made me wince, asking whether I’ve reviewed a particular movie that I have indeed reviewed and adding, “I searched for it but couldn’t find it.”

Right away I know three things about those users: (a) They’re using Internet Explorer on a PC, (b) they hit Enter instead of clicking Search, and (c) they tried a quick search in the header and then gave up without trying the Power Search page.

I don’t know what exactly the problem was with the quick search specifically, or why IE was so allergic to whatever it was compared to other browsers. I do know that for some time the problem has been on the to-do list for my volunteer developer, Simeon — and now he’s finally gotten around to fixing it. Thank you Simeon!

So, the search function should now work correctly for all users in all circumstances. IE users should still feel free to upgrade to a better browser anyway … but in the meantime their searches will all be supported. Search away!

Tags: Decent Films Doings

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Illumined Illusions

Posted Apr 14th 2010, 08:09 AM

Ian C. Bloom of Illumined Illusions has the most amazing analysis of The Sound of Music I’ve ever read. His commentary on Singin’ in the Rain is the only critique I’ve seen to eke such interest out of the the modernist production number in the third act. And I like how he breaks up his thoughts on Beverly Hills Cop into bullet points (something I’ve done a few times myself).

In a word, Illumined Illusions is worth checking out. I must reluctantly note one drawback: The site design is a literal eyesore. I don’t like to say this, because I take critical comments about my own site design more personally than I do critical comments about my reviews. But white-on-black text is a particular peeve of mine, since the reverse contrast burns into the reader’s retinas and makes it hard to focus on normal pages afterward. The varied background gradations don’t help, either.

But deal with it. Bloom’s thoughts are worth it. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he (or any other critic) writes, of course, but then I don’t always agree with everything I wrote five years ago either. That’s not the point.

I like his style, too. Here is a sentence I wish I had written, regarding Fantasia: “Instead of the music ‘Mickey-Mousing’ the action, here the action ‘Micky-Mouses’ the music, sometimes with Mickey, himself, providing the action.” The last paragraph of his long essay on Spartacus is also worth quoting, but I won’t quote it here. Read it for yourself.

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Tolkien and Lewis, Action Heroes?

Posted Apr 13th 2010, 08:22 AM
Here There Be Dragons

Word that Eagle Eye co-writer Travis Adam Wright has been tapped to script a planned adaptation of James A. Owen’s fantasy series The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica has kicked off a flurry of coverage on Owen’s series, which casts the Inklings—J. R. R. Tokien, C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, as well as Owen Barfield and Hugo Dyson—as heroes of epic fantasy adventures weaving together Arthurian legend, Greek mythology and the writings of other British writers, not to mention the writers themselves … among other things. (Hat tip to the vigilant Peter Chattaway, who first reported on this project four years ago.)

In Owen’s series, H. G. Wells, J. M. Barrie, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle appear side by side with King Arthur and Mordred, Peter Pan, Daedalus, Captain Nemo and Don Quixote in a story involving the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus, Pandora’s Box, fairy dust, Plato’s cave and a book called the Imaginarium Geographica, an atlas of all mythological locations. Owen has completed four volumes so far of a projected seven. Wright has been contracted to script the first two installments, Here, There Be Dragons and The Search for the Red Dragon.

What would the Inklings themselves have thought of such a project? One thing is certain: Tolkien would have hated it. This kind of imaginative pastiche throwing together all sorts of disparate mythologies would have given him hives. Tolkien objected to precisely this sort of mythological sloppiness in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, with their juxtaposition of Greco-Roman and Nordic mythology, Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, Genesis and Revelation and the Gospels, Hans Christian Anderson, Arthurian legend, and even Father Time and Father Christmas all jostling hugger-mugger, without apology.

Tolkien felt strongly, on aesthetic grounds, that a lamp-post in fairy-land is an affront, and that nymphs and dryads do not belong in the same world, let alone the same story, as Father Christmas or sewing beavers. To this objection Lewis had an answer: He argued that all these diverse creatures do happily coexist—in our minds. Tolkien’s retort: “Not in mine, or at least not at the same time!”

Might Lewis have been more sympathetic to Owen’s project? It’s hard to guess, especially without having read The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica myself. Lewis could appreciate pulp adventure as well as classical mythology, and in principle a project like Owen’s might hold some appeal for Lewis the Rider Haggard fan, Lewis the classicist, or both. (For sheer aesthetic affinity, the author-character with the most sympathy for the hodgepodge character of Owen’s work might have been J. M. Barrie, whose Neverland of tiny fairies (just the sort Tolkien detested), Caribbean pirates, American Indians, mermaids, crocodiles, flying “lost” boys, flying pirate ships and detachable shadows was expressly described as “a map of a person’s mind.”)

Lewis’s own mythological synthesis, in addition to reflecting his love of the mythologies in question, was also an act of imaginative piety, of “taking every thought captive to obey Christ.” The scope of Lewis’s imaginative vision was clearest in The Last Battle, which revealed all worlds real and imagined as mountain spurs or roots jutting out from the mountains of Aslan’s country. Lewis believed that whatever was true or good in mythology or science fiction found its fulfillment in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Narnia embodied Lewis’s rejection of Emerson’s maxim that “When half-gods go, the gods arrive”—a rejection Lewis elsewhere expressed with a Chestertonian reversal: “When God arrives (and only then) the half-gods can remain” (The Four Loves).

If Owen’s pan-Western synthesis of Greek and Arthurian legend lacks any significant or overriding Christian dimension, that’s one thing. If it entails a sort of an un-Christianing or paganizing of Tolkien and Lewis, that’s something else. Plot points from the synopses at Wikipedia raise possible red flags: For instance, the materialist H. G. Wells is presented as a kind of mentor figure to Tolkien and Lewis, and Mordred is initially presented as a villain but is later revealed to be a victim of fate rather than a villain.

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.

P.S. Peter’s earlier post also mentions a seven-year-old graphic novel called Heaven’s War that pits the Inklings against the British occultist Aleister Crowley. I’ve not read that one either, but from plot summaries it sounds as if the story may be more shaped by the Inklings’ Christian faith than it seems Owen’s stories are.

Tags: All Things Tolkien, Oddments & Humor

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Pixar Toys and “Happy Monsters”

Posted Apr 12th 2010, 01:01 PM

“Prince Drool?” Did this baby cuten up and become a fan of pull-string cowboys and space rangers with karate-chop action?

More insightful analysis on patterns at Pixar from Peter T. Chattaway:

If Toy Story 3 really does play up the children-as-happy-monsters angle, then it seems Pixar will have come full circle in its treatment of the toy world. And no, I do not mean that Pixar will have returned to the themes of the original Toy Story. Instead, I mean that Pixar will have gone, in spirit, all the way back to the short film Tin Toy (1988), which was heralded at the time as the first computer-animated film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short.

That’s a sharp observation … but what I really love about this post is Peter’s speculation about a deeper connection between Tin Toy and the Toy Story series:

So, whenever my kids and I watch the Toy Story movies, I like to start with Tin Toy -- partly because I have very fond memories of seeing it on the big screen at animation festivals back in the late ’80s, but also partly because I have a theory that the baby in Tin Toy is identical to the boy named Andy that we see in the Toy Story movies.

That’s so neat. And it ties in with an opening gag in Toy Story that already harkens back to Tin Toy, with Andy’s baby sister Molly in the “happy monster” role, and Mr. Potato Head as the blithely abused plaything. (“Ages three and up! It’s on my box! Ages three and up! I’m not supposed to be babysitting Princess Drool!”)

If there’s anything to Peter’s theory connecting Andy to the baby in Tin Toy, perhaps some of those toys in Andy’s bedroom have been putting up with that sort of treatment for the better part of a decade. (Maybe that’s why Potato Head is so much more blasé about it than the terrified playthings in Tin Toy. How will this play out in Toy Story 3?)

(Now I’m trying to remember whether the Luxo, Jr. ball appears in Tin Toy. If so, that would be another connection, although a weak one, since it appears in nearly every household in Pixar’s films, including Boo’s from Monsters, Inc. and Jack-Jack’s in Jack-Jack Attack.)

Read the whole post at FilmChat.

Tags: Monstrous, Pixar

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Spotlight: My Architect

Posted Apr 12th 2010, 10:53 AM
My Architect (2002)

For no particular reason, here is an older review you may not have read, for a film you may not have seen: My Architect (2002).

I’ve linked it on the homepage spotlight also, where I’ll leave it for the rest of the week. Next week I’ll spotlight something else from Decent Film’s older or recent past.

If there’s something to tie into to make a piece timely, like last week’s spotlight on Faustina for Divine Mercy Sunday, I’ll note that as appropriate. Otherwise, it’ll just be a random selection of something I thought worth highlighting.

Read the review.

Tags: Spotlight

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How to Train Your Dragon Picks Up Altitude

Posted Apr 12th 2010, 08:09 AM
How to Train Your Dragon

I’m not a big box-office watcher, but I pay enough attention to be frustrated by audiences rewarding films that I think are undeserving and ignoring films that I think merit attention. Not always, of course. It’s gratifying to watch movies like Green Zone and The Wolfman flop. But then along come films like Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans, both of which critics generally saw in a dim light, and audiences flock enthusiastically to them.

Especially frustrating is watching a particular target audience or demographic embrace a less worthy film over a more worthy one. For example, early box-office reports for the charming, critically acclaimed cartoon How to Train Your Dragon were not encouraging, yet the same family audiences neglecting How to Train were making a hit of Alice in Wonderland, a chilly exercise in Burtonesque art direction and aggrieved feminism.

Well, there’s no accounting for Alice’s success — but it’s heartening to see How to Train Your Dragon now rebounding to unexpected heights on fantastic word of mouth. In the analysis of Box Office Guru’s Gitesh Pandya:

The big story this weekend came in third place where the 3D animated film How To Train Your Dragon witnessed a remarkably low 13% decline in its third round for an estimated $25.4M gross boosting the 17-day total to a terrific $133.9M. Short-sighted film industry watchers and impatient Wall Street investors prematurely dismissed Dragon and DreamWorks Animation after its less-than-stellar opening weekend two weeks ago. The company’s stock dropped 8% on the first trading day after the debut with analysts lowering their estimates for the final domestic take to just $152M. Dragon will now crush that mark next weekend and looks on course to break the $200M barrier too becoming the second biggest 3D toon of all-time behind just the $293M of Up.

Beating Pixar’s Oscar winner may not be possible, but outgrossing other competitors like Monsters vs. Aliens, Ice Age 3, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs makes Dragon a powerful performer. The PG-rated film was indeed slow out of the gate, but amazing word-of-mouth coupled with school holidays for spring have made Dragon the must-see film for kids and parents. Competition for families and 3D screens remains extremely light for the next five weeks so the Viking pic’s strong run should continue. Reaching $250M cannot be ruled out at this point given the road ahead since Dragon will be able to earn at least five times its opening figure, if not more.

I wasn’t a fan of either Ice Age 3 or Monsters vs. Aliens (another family flick marred by aggrieved feminism), so it’s nice to see the initially underrated How to Train soar past them. Then again, I also thought that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was a better film than either of them (looking back at my review of Cloudy, I see that I drew explicit contrasts to both Ice Age 3 and Monsters vs. Aliens).

At least films like Cloudy and How to Train are finding the audiences they deserve, even if less worthy films often do better than they deserve.

Tags: DreamWorks Animation, How to Train Your Dragon

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Decent Films Radio: Catholic Answers Live, 4/9/2010

Posted Apr 9th 2010, 04:40 PM

For the benefit of RSS readers who may not see the homepage Spotlight notice, I’ll be on the first hour of Catholic Answers Live this Friday, 4/9, from 3pm–4pm PDT (i.e., San Diego time, where Catholic Answers is), or 6pm–7pm EDT (i.e., New Jersey time, where I am).

We’ll be talking about Clash of the Titans, How to Train Your Dragon, The Secret of Kells, Alice in Wonderland and more. See station information, or listen online. Call in with your questions!

Tags: Decent Films Doings

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Twilight: Breaking Dawn’s Fork in the Road

Posted Apr 9th 2010, 09:45 AM

It’s hard to imagine any filmmaker making the final, and probably the most perverse, of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books into a good movie—let alone two movies, which is the plan. But Summit Entertainment is giving it their best shot: After discussions with a list of respected directors including Sofia Coppola, Steven Daldry and Gus Van Sant, Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) has reportedly emerged as the front-runner, according to Deadline.com.

Summit’s Twilight series is the latest fantasy franchise to postpone the inevitable by doubling down on the final installment. Warner Bros’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows opens in November, but we won’t be saying goodbye to Harry until July 2011 when Part II opens. The coming Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit, is also being developed as two films.

All of this may make financial sense, but in moviemaking terms it seems to me to be asking for trouble. Wasn’t the first half of J. K. Rowling’s Deathly Hallows mostly a holding pattern, with Harry on some endless camping trip or something? Do we really need a whole movie about that? And of course The Hobbit is a far slighter work, in more ways than one, than the three parts of The Lord of the Rings. I know, they’re going to pad it out with material from Tolkien’s other writings, but still.

Perhaps Peter Jackson should have considered splitting The Return of the King in two. It might have mollified the people who complained that the ending kept going on and on, and perhaps he could have got in the Scouring of the Shire, too. Certainly one good film of The Last Battle seems too much to hope for; I don’t need to see two. (I’m just saying; this isn’t something the Narnia producers are talking about, as far as I know.)

Of all these split ends, though, forking Breaking Dawn into two films seems the dodgiest proposition.  Not that it isn’t understandable that Summit, an upstart studio whose Twilight success was their first claim to fame, should want to milk (or suck) the franchise for all it’s worth. (More recently, Summit won critical and awards acclaim, if not huge box-office rewards, with The Hurt Locker.)

But have they read the book? Um, ick.

Bella’s self-destructive lion-and-lamb romance with Vampire Dreamboat culminates in marriage (yay Mormon chastity), and all in all her wedding night, which leaves her covered with bruises, could have gone a lot worse.

Then, though, comes pregnancy. Unholy Alien reproductive anxiety nightmare pregnancy, Batman.

Convinced that Bella is incubating a monster, Vampire Dreamboat wants to abort. The werewolf contingent, less delicately, want to kill the child without the bother of saving the mother’s life.

Some say that pro-lifers should rejoice that Bella decides to keep the baby. I say pro-lifers should rejoice when pregnancy is treated as beautiful and holy. The placental miracle of a mother’s blood nourishing her baby’s blood without commingling is one thing; a li’l bloodsucker nursing on its mother’s blood supply from the womb is something else.

Childbirth (I know very, very well) can be grueling and life-threatening; it is not gruesome and monstrous. That Bella massively exsanguinates while giving birth is not, so to speak, beyond the pale; that her vampire-human half-breed offspring shatters her bones and shreds her viscera, trying to chew its way out while mama vomits fountains of blood … sorry, “pro-life” is not the term that comes to mind. That Vampire Dreamboat must turn Bella herself into Vampire Consort Chick to save her life—not my idea of “breaking dawn.”

Looking on the bright side, the book is split into three parts. Maybe we’re getting off easy with only two movies.

Tags: Twilightery, Vampiric, Werewolfish

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Another Decent Films Mail Double Dip!

Posted Apr 8th 2010, 01:47 PM

What, already?

It was only the beginning of Lent that the last two mailbags went up — and now, here in time for Easter Week, are the next two, Mailbag #18 and Mailbag #19. (Unfortunately the RSS feed still isn’t picking up the Mail columns, so for RSS readers, this blog post is your heads up. Hopefully it’ll be fixed soon.)

On tap this time around: Clash of the Titans, How to Train Your Dragon, Alice in Wonderland, Green Zone and more.

I’m happy to say that in keeping with my Lenten resolution, my responsiveness to reader mail (while not without occasional bumps) has improved dramatically. I’ve got a more effective process in place now (well, and I’m just working harder, too).

So, write me! I'll write you back promptly (if you include a working email address). Especially if you’ve written in the past and didn’t hear back from me … let me make it up to you!

In the meantime, check out Mailbag #18 and Mailbag #19.

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Review Haiku Riddles!

Posted Apr 7th 2010, 07:03 AM

A couple of days ago over at the Arts & Faith message board, for reasons I won’t recount, someone started a thread called “Review Haiku,” dedicated to three-line, 17-syllable movie reviews. Merriment ensued. Here’s an early contribution:

Jaws: The Revenge (1987, Joseph Sargent)

Shark has G P S
To locate Chief Brody’s wife
In the Bahamas

So far, so good. I contributed a number myself … then last night I proposed a twist: What if we wrote review haiku without giving the film title, so that readers had to identify the movie being reviewed?

Here, for your amusement, are the eight haiku I’ve written so far. The first two are the most self-evident since I didn’t originally write them as riddles and the references are pretty explicit. After that they get progressively harder, depending of course on which movies one has seen.

Answers are below. Don’t check them too quickly — and don’t hie on over to Arts & Faith and read the thread (which reveals most or all of the title reviewed below) until you’re done here!

Enjoy!

  1. Xanadu is dark
    He had it all, then lost it
    Rosebud is no more.
  2. (answer 1Citizen Kane (1941))

  3. It was a great show
    Tokyo calls, you don’t hear Buzz
    Not your finest hour.
  4. (answer 2Toy Story 2 (1999))

  5. They awakened us
    Called from the moon and beyond
    Childhood starts anew.
  6. (answer 32001: A Space Odyssey (1968))

  7. She watched from the tree
    Now the moon reaches for her
    Who will miss the boat?
  8. (answer 4Sabrina (1954))

  9. Heroes aren’t wanted
    An old fan shakes all you love
    You should have been kind.
  10. (answer 5The Incredibles (2004))

  11. Lie boldly, sweet girl
    And speak truth more bravely still
    See, the sun still shines.
  12. (answer 6Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005))

  13. No more us and them
    You can’t go home, but he can
    You see through new eyes.
  14. (answer 7District 9 (2009))

  15. Together again
    Past fire and tears. Nothing left
    But a battered tin.
  16. (answer 8Grave of the Fireflies (1988))

Tags: Oddments & Humor, Reviews in Verse (Written), Reviews In Verse

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Clash of the Titans Redux

Posted Apr 6th 2010, 07:13 AM

Opening on Good Friday and setting a new Easter weekend box-office record, the new Clash of the Titans features a divine father in the heavens (Liam Neeson, the voice of Narnia’s Aslan, as Zeus) who tells his divine/human son, “I wanted [mankind’s] worship, but I didn’t want it to cost me a son.”

The son (Sam Worthington as Perseus, once again caught between humanity and something else) has descended into the realm of the dead and returned, not to do his father’s will or out of love, but on what boils down to a mission of revenge.

Not only does the son not consider divinity something to be grasped, he doesn’t want it at all; he spurns the worship that his father craves, though his father tells him that men will worship him anyway. In the end, his father rewards him with a resurrection—not his own, but another character’s.

Is the release date accidental? In my review of the new Clash, I wrote:

The gods of classical mythology have always been selfish and capricious, but in a tempestuous, grand, passionate style, sort of like “Dallas” in heaven. In the new Clash of the Titans, the gods are about as grand and passionate as “The Simpsons,” and not a tenth as interesting. The original 1981 Clash of the Titans gave us Zeus portrayed by Laurence Olivier with a sort of dissolute patrician dignity. As played by Liam Neeson in the remake, he’s merely grumpy and vacillating. No wonder his half-human son Perseus (Sam Worthington) keeps telling anyone who will listen that he’s a man, not a god.

Clash of the Titans takes the secularizing bent of the 2004 film Troy a step further. Troy retold one of the best-known Greek myths as a purely human story, leaving out the gods. Clash of the Titans goes further: The gods aren’t just ignored, they’re all but dethroned.

Of course the false gods of classical mythology, with their all-too-human foibles, ultimately deserve to be dethroned—by the true God. As noted above, though, the gods of this Clash of the Titans sometimes appear not just as unworthy rivals of the God of revelation, but as parodies of Him.

Zeus has always “tempered his wrath with love,” Hades says, almost quoting the Bible. A wild-eyed prophet proclaims doom unless the people make reparation to Heaven, which in this case means offering the princess Andromeda as a human sacrifice to the Kraken. In the end, he’s just one more murderously zealous Hollywood true believer.

Perseus, of course, has a divine father in the heavens and a human mother on earth, and is raised in poverty and obscurity by a human foster father and his wife (not Perseus’s true mother, who dies). That much reflects the Perseus myth, but Perseus’s prickly relationship with his divine father is more reminiscent of the Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ than anything in classical mythology.

Writing for Christianity Today Movies & TV, Russ Breimeier contemplates viewing the film as “a thinly veiled metaphor for the dismissal of religion, similar to the desire to kill God in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.”

The religious subtext is worth comparing and contrasting to Worthington’s other big 3D epic, Avatar. In that film, as I noted in my Clash review:

Worthington rejected his humanity and embraced otherness (big blue alien otherness). It wasn’t that tough a decision, since mankind in that film was pretty ugly and unlikable. In Clash, Worthington rejects Olympian otherness and embraces humanity—but humanity isn’t much more attractive or appealing here. The peaceful Na’vi in Avatar got a benevolent nature goddess. Perhaps in the movies everyone gets the gods they deserve.

Tags: Ancient World Epics, Clash of the Titans, Greek Mythology

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Junior Knows Best

Posted Mar 30th 2010, 09:26 AM
Top: Brendan and Aisling from The Secret of Kells; Bottom: Hiccup and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon

Top: Brendan and Aisling from The Secret of Kells; Bottom: Hiccup and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon

In theaters right now are two charming and visually engaging animated films at opposite ends of the budget spectrum, different in many respects but with some interesting overlap as well. One is How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks’ big-budget CGI adaptation of a popular children’s book. The other is The Secret of Kells, an Oscar-nominated Irish animated indie made on a comparative shoestring budget, now in limited release.

Both films are European-set fantasy period pieces, with Vikings and mythological creatures both friendly and decidedly unfriendly. (In How to Train the Vikings are the hero and his people; in The Secret of Kells they’re the bad guys.)

In each film, the protagonist is a young boy living in a rugged, isolated island community in which the undisputed leader is the boy’s own father figure, a stern, towering authoritarian. In How to Train, young Hiccup is the son of the Viking chief, Stoick the Vast; in The Secret of Kells, Brendan lives in an Irish abbey where his uncle Cellach is abbot. (There is no mother figure in either film.)

In each film, the boy is a loner, slight and sensitive, clever, curious and creative. While on his own in the wilderness, he encounters and befriends a mythological creature of whom the father figure would certainly disapprove as a friend. In both films, the friendly creature later ventures into the human community to aid the boy when he is in trouble. It also turns out that the friendly creature lives in fear of another mythological creature: a serpentine, cave-dwelling monster whom the hero must confront and defeat.

For the record, I enjoyed and recommend both films. At the same time, one notable similarity underscores a motif in family entertainment that has long been a concern—a motif that isn’t necessarily a problem in any one instance, but with repetition becomes a troubling pattern over time.

In both films, the young hero’s father figure is an implacably stern authoritarian who seems nothing but disappointed in the hero, and who adamantly refuses to hear what the boy has to say. The boy’s pursuit of discovery causes him to defy the father figure’s wishes, first surreptitiously and finally openly, leading to a confrontation in which the father figure’s disappointment and anger reaches a crescendo. The father figure’s stubbornness endangers the whole community as he leads them into an ill-advised conflict with an enemy whose strength he underestimates. In the end the hero is vindicated, and is ultimately reconciled to the repentant father figure.

The imperious, authoritarian father figure who doesn’t understand is nothing new to family entertainment, from The Sound of Music and Peter Pan to The Little Mermaid and Happy Feet. What is striking about both How to Train and The Secret of Kells, though, is the one-note portrayal of the father figure throughout the entire film, right up to the end. By contrast, The Sound of Music redeems the father figure roughly halfway through the story, while Peter Pan and The Little Mermaid separate the young protagonists from the father for most of the story. (I think the same may be true of Happy Feet, although the specifics of that tale haven’t stayed with me.)

As another point of contrast, consider last year’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, another film about a clever, creative young loner with a lumbering, uncomprehending father and no mother in an island community, one who like Hiccup is a figure of much mockery and derision. In Cloudy, the hero Flint’s taciturn father doesn’t understand his son’s interests, but here the father’s concerns aren’t necessarily groundless, and the hero isn’t necessarily on the right path. Unlike How to Train and The Secret of Kells, there’s no “Junior Knows Best” dynamic in Cloudy.

Flint’s father isn’t imperious and authoritarian, merely undemonstrative and unable adequately to communicate either his love or his concerns to his son. Finally, one senses a sort of stoic humility about Flint’s father, a possible awareness of his own inadequacies. He isn’t abjectly disappointed in his son, merely concerned for him. I still wish he were more humanized than he is, but he’s a lot better than the implacable father figures in How to Train and The Secret of Kells.

It’s fair to say that each of these films offer their father figures some measure of redemption—Cloudy most touchingly and fondly, How to Train most effectively and heroically, and The Secret of Kells, alas, with little more than pathos. Both How to Train and The Secret of Kells compensate somewhat for their overbearing father figures with a more sympathetic, avuncular authority figure (the tough old trainer Gobber in How to Train, the puckish illuminator Brother Aidan in The Secret of Kells). This tension is more reassuring in How to Train and more problematic in The Secret of Kells, where Brother Aidan is complicit in Brendan’s repeated defiance of Abbot Cellach’s orders, and the themes of disobedience and conflict are given maximum punch.

None of this makes any of these films objectionable in itself, and each film has significant merit in its own right. It’s the pattern more than the individual film that matters most.

Balanced by sympathetic depictions of fatherhood and family life in films like The Incredibles, My Neighbor Totoro, Stuart Little 2, Spy Kids and Finding Nemo, the problemic father figures of How to Train and The Secret of Kells recede in significance. On the other hand, a steady diet of overbearing father figures à la The Little Mermaid and Happy Feet can become a virtual pedagogy in filial contempt and rebellion.

P.S. Read more about father figures in the movies in a short interview I did recently with the Knights of Columbus Fathers For Good website.

Tags: Fatherhood, How to Train Your Dragon, Junior Knows Best

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Amish Grace: Forgiving Our Enemies

Posted Mar 26th 2010, 09:50 AM
Amish Grace

Kimberly Williams-Paisley stars in Amish Grace as an Amish mother bereaved of her daughter in the 2006 Amish school shooting.

Buy at Amazon.com

Amish Grace (book, movie)

Three years ago, coinciding with a rash of post-9/11 deaths from respiratory and circulatory ailments about five years after the attacks, my brother-in-law David succumbed suddenly to an incredibly aggressive form of leukemia. He had been in the ash cloud emanating from Ground Zero on 9/11, and my wife Suzanne suspects his death was 9/11-related. As she’s the one with medical training, I usually accept her judgment in such matters.

Do I forgive the 9/11 terrorists? It’s a question I can’t remember asking myself before this week after screening the upcoming Lifetime TV movie Amish Grace. Inspired by the nonfiction book of the same name, the film is based on the real-life Amish school shooting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the fall of 2006.

The gunman, Charles Carl Roberts, left behind a wife and three children, but was apparently haunted by the death of a newborn daughter nine years earlier. Perhaps it was to punish God for his daughter’s death that he walked into the one-room Amish school and dismissed the boys and adults before shooting ten girls between the ages of 6 and 13, half of whom died. When police intervened, he turned the gun on himself.

What happens in the schoolhouse isn’t shown onscreen, though late in the film there is an inspiring first-person account from one of the survivors. Like the book, subtitled How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, the film focuses not on the crime but on the response of the Amish community, which captured the nation’s attention and was much discussed by an often baffled, occasionally critical media. Within hours of the shooting, the Amish reached out to Roberts’ widow, assuring her of their forgiveness to her husband and their lack of ill will for her. When Roberts was buried, dozens of Amish were in attendance.

While the Christian ethos of forgiveness is still on some level widely honored as an ideal in the U.S. today, it is not well understood, and uncomfortably coexists with equal or greater acceptance of an ethos of vengeance, one celebrated in far more movies than forgiveness.

Amid widespread genuflecting to Amish forgiveness, some voices raised uncomfortable questions: Is it healthy or right to forgive so readily and completely, without first passing through necessary stages of grief and anger? Is forgiveness meaningful or desirable where there is no sign of remorse or wish for forgiveness? We are all familiar—perhaps too much so—with the gap between our ideals and our behavior. The Amish actually expect each other to live their beliefs with integrity.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Amish Grace offers a fictional account of what must have been a very real struggle with grief and anger. Bereaved mother Ida Graber (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) already wrestles with Amish mores over the “shunning” of her sister, who left the flock after being widowed in order to marry an “English” man. How, Ida demands, can they offer forgiveness to a murderer, yet ask family members to cut off one another for such offenses? For Ida, forgiving the killer is tantamount to betraying her daughter—yet a powerful revelation toward the end suggests that this is the opposite of the truth.

Ida’s husband Gideon (Matt Letscher) stoically insists that God demands forgiveness, and argues that the alternative only punishes themselves. “I will not make my heart a battleground of hate and love. It’s too painful,” he cries. Amish Grace gradually finds a thoughtful balance between Ida and Gideon, sympathetically cross-examining both points of view.

Then there’s the killer’s widow, Amy Roberts (Tammy Blanchard, Bella). Devastated by the revelation of this unfathomable side of her husband, Amy is perhaps more lost and desperate than any of the Amish victims. “I thought we had a good life, and I would have bet money Charlie thought so too,” she laments incredulously. “He actually chose going to hell over staying here with me.” Amy can’t imagine forgiving Charlie herself, and is utterly at a loss to understand the Amish grace extended to Charlie and her.

A subplot involving a TV news crew investigating the sincerity of Amish forgiveness is the film’s most notable weakness. These outsiders are meant as bridge characters mediating between the audience and the Amish, but their merely journalistic investigative curiosity about the facts of the case is an obvious screenwriting foil. A more effective approach might have been to give the journalists complacent, dismissive assumptions about the Amish, about whom they presumably know little or nothing, and then gradually challenge and overturn those assumptions over the course of the story.

It’s a forgivable flaw in an earnest film that gets better as it goes, with the most insightful revelations and the best scenes in the last act. Amish Grace is a commendable celebration of a Gospel mandate more often honored with lip service than with actual commitment. If I do not forgive the 9/11 hijackers, I have no right to call myself a follower of Jesus. It is as simple as that.

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Bedrock Studios: Birds, the Bible and Children’s Books

Posted Mar 22nd 2010, 08:06 AM
Gary Granite

This is not Bedrock Studios co-founder Cary Granat.

If the name Bedrock Studios doesn’t sound familiar, you might think it’s because you haven’t watched “The Flintstones” lately … especially since the new production company was co-founded by Cary Granat—not the Hollyrock star, the former CEO of Walden Media—and Ed Stones, er, Jones of Industrial Light & Magic.

Like Walden, Bedrock Studios aims at family audiences. Their first project, an animated buddy film bravely named Turkeys, stars Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson; their sophomore project is an eye-popper: In the Beginning, a 3D live-action adaptation of the creation story of Genesis. Granat is a Christian, and I have to admit I’m curious where this will go. 

Bedrock is also developing a few Waldenesque projects based on award-winning children’s books, including the Newbery Award winners A Wrinkle in Time and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (the latter of which was previously adapted, or misadapted, in the 1980s by animator Don Bluth).

Jeffrey Overstreet of Looking Closer has his eye on a number of these projects … and he’s worried.

If Bedrock didn’t have such direct ties to Walden, the company that has made a mess of Narnia and other great children’s books, I wouldn’t be so worried.

But I love [all] of these stories. If they must be made into movies (or in the case of Kiki, into another movie), I’d like them to be in the hands of patient, thoughtful artists, not hasty crowdpleasers who fail to understand why these stories shine.

All of this just makes me increasingly grateful for the folks at Pixar, and for folks like Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) and Henry Selick (Coraline). And Miyazaki, of course. Artists who make movies that will last.

The Narnia films should have been movies like those. And the stories that Bedrock is preparing to film deserve to be glorious movies as well.

I’ll try to be hopeful. But it isn’t going to be easy.

That about nails it, I think.

Positive sign: Turkeys is slated to be directed by animator Ash Brannon, who co-directed the classic Toy Story 2 and directed the oddly winsome Surf’s Up. Less positive sign: The screenplay is by John J. Strauss, whose previous writing credits include a pair of Santa Clause sequels and The Lizzie McGuire Movie, as well as, um, a story credit on There’s Something About Mary.

It would be nice if Turkeys were only the name of that first flick.

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Not Film Related: Speak Up on Health Care and Life

Posted Mar 19th 2010, 12:32 PM

I won’t make a habit of this, I promise.

If you live in the United States and haven’t yet done so (or haven’t done so recently), take action on the health care debate.

Do it now!

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Joseph of Nazareth: The Man Closest to Christ

Posted Mar 19th 2010, 07:33 AM

Today is the Solemnity of Saint Joseph. Last year, Ignatius Press released a Region 1 DVD of Joseph of Nazareth: The Man Closest to Christ (2000), an Italian production from Lux Vide and Mediaset billed as the first feature film on the story of St. Joseph. The film is the first in a series of four “Close to Jesus” films, though I understand it’s by far the most biblical, and certainly the Gospels give us more of a story-arc for Joseph than for the other three subjects, Mary Magdalene, Thomas and Judas Iscariot.

Matt Page of Bible Films Blog has a review of Joseph of Nazareth as well as an interesting post analyzing the notable similarities between Joseph and The Nativity Story, which also focuses significantly on St. Joseph (many of which I noticed also).

My take on Joseph of Nazareth is pretty close to Matt’s. I watched it with my family this Advent, and it was a nice change of pace from The Nativity Story, though regrettably it’s nothing like the definitive birth of Christ movie we’re still waiting for.

To start on a positive note, I don’t often discover a new angle on a biblical text from a Bible movie, but Joseph of Nazareth suggests an attractive approach I had never before considered to a deceptively knotty passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel, namely, the passage in Matthew 1 in which Mary has been found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph resolves to “divorce her quietly.”

The passage is full of hidden ambiguities. When St. Matthew tells us that Mary was “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit,” is that final prepositional phrase Matthew’s aside to the reader (she was found to be with child — but it was by the Holy Spirit)? Or does it suggest that the divine origin of Mary’s condition was part of the discovery, at least for some? Does “being a just man” have conjunctive or disjunctive force — that is, was Joseph “unwilling to expose Mary to shame” because he was a just man, or in spite of being a just man? Was it the resolution to divorce her, or the decision to do so quietly, that is related to his “just” status? Does “just” here bespeak primarily observance of Torah, or a broader sort of righteousness?

Most concretely, what exactly is meant by “divorcing her quietly” and not “putting her to shame”? Divorce was a public act; there would seem to be no way to abandon Mary in her pregnant state, however undramatically, without “putting her to shame.” I remember puzzling over this passage in scripture studies classes at St. Charles Borromeo.

I was struck, then, by Joseph of Nazareth’s portrayal of Joseph deciding to go through with the wedding and then divorce Mary quietly after the birth of the child. As far as I know, the usual assumption is that the “divorce” in question refers to breaking off the betrothal, a bond with marital force. Movies often depict Mary’s pregnancy coming in the middle of a year-long betrothal period in which Joseph and Mary are pledged to one another but have not yet come together, as Matthew tells us.

On the other hand, Matthew also indicates that Joseph took Mary into his house immediately after the dream of the angel. Thus, the prospect of going through with the wedding and then divorcing Mary quietly afterward would seem to be a viable option. The child would be assumed to be Joseph’s, and Mary would not be shamed. It’s so simple I don’t know why I never thought of it before. That doesn’t make it the correct solution, of course, but as far as I know it could be.

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Three Phases of Pixar History

Posted Mar 18th 2010, 07:49 AM

Peter Chattaway has just posted some thoughts he’s previously shared elsewhere regarding the shape of Pixar’s body of work to date, and I’ve long thought it’s a brilliant theory. In essence, he proposes three phases of Pixar history, which might be labeled thus:

  1. the “Disney distribution” phase, consisting of the first seven films up to Cars, which were all made under contract for distribution by Disney;
  2. a transitional “looking beyond Disney” phase, consisting of the next three films — Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up — which may well have gone into development at a point when Pixar believed they were likely to part ways with Disney; and
  3. the “Disney purchase” phase, consisting of Pixar’s roster of coming films — Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters Inc. 2 and The Bear and the Bow (or Brave?) — all of which began life very much under the Disney umbrella, either by Disney itself or by Pixar after it was purchased by Disney.

What makes this theory so interesting is the way it illuminates the differences between the films belonging to each of the three phases. I’m not sure it’s entirely persuasive to say, as Peter does, that the three phase 2 films, initiated when Pixar was likely thinking outside the Disney box, necessarily “aim higher” than the seven films of phase 1. In particular, I think The Incredibles aims as high as any film in Pixar’s oeuvre.

I would put it this way: The basic premise of each of Pixar’s first seven films fits comfortably within mainstream expectations for Hollywood animated family films. Anthropomorphic toys, bugs or cars; friendly monsters saddled with a human child; a father-and-son fish story; even a family of incognito super heroes — these are all concepts that could easily be pitched to Disney execs without making anyone blink or sweat. Pixar might take these concepts in brilliant directions, but there’s nothing about the basic concept of any of these films that especially pushes the envelope of family entertainment.

With the next three films, on the other hand, there is something audacious and outside-the-box about the premise itself, in terms of family-film expectations. A talky picture about a French rat who wants to be a chef? A substantially dialogue-free slapstick adventure about a lone robot in a post-apocalyptic world of trash? An elderly widower absconding with his house via balloon to South America? None of these hits you over the head as a ready-made idea for an animated family film. There is something counter-intuitive about each of them. Here is where Pixar pushes the envelope, not just in terms of how to make a animated family film, but even what it is possible for an animated Hollywood family film to be.

Tags: Pixar, Real Movies

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The End of Fairy-tale Princesses?

Posted Mar 17th 2010, 06:37 PM
The Princess and the Frog

Yesterday I wrote about the possible effects of the box-office success of Alice in Wonderland on fairy-tale revisionism in family films to come. The flip side is the box-office disappointment of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, which hit DVD shelves yesterday.

It looks like concern over The Princess and the Frog’s poor performance is translating into branding concerns for upcoming animated fairy tales, including the Disney project formerly known as Rapunzel, and possibly Pixar’s The Bear and the Bow.

I found The Princess and the Frog to be an engaging blend of classic Disney themes and contemporary sensibilities, despite scary, morally mixed voodoo imagery too intense for younger kids. It didn’t click with audiences, though … and there’s some feeling that the title may have been part of the problem.

With its classic fairy-tale cadences and Disney princess branding, “The Princess and the Frog” may have lacked the unisex (i.e., non-girly) appeal that seems to be a key factor for successful family entertainment today, from every Pixar film to date to the Harry Potter phenomenon. (Even J. K. Rowling’s sex was downplayed behind authorial initials.)

Consider: One of the few successful cartoons in recent years with a female protagonist had the extremely boy-friendly title Monsters vs. Aliens, as well as a virtually all-male supporting cast (and a trailer that emphasized rude humor). A few films have bucked the trend, notably the ambiguously named Coraline and Burton’s Alice, both of which benefited from dark, Gothic sensibilities and 3D punch (as well as Alice’s use of live actors including Johnny Depp).

In a word, princess branding may move product at the Disney Store, but it may no longer be a viable niche on the big screen.

Apparently taking the lesson to heart, Disney recently cast a nervous eye at its Rapunzel feature in development—and has retitled it Tangled, a title with all the fractured fairy-tale cred of Enchanted and its ilk.

That’s not all. Many sources are reporting that Pixar’s The Bear and the Bow—billed as Pixar’s first fairy-tale and first film with a girl protagonist—may be re-branded Brave, a one-word, monosyllabic concept title much like Up or Cars (compare also the polysyllabic Ratatouille and the eponymous WALL-E).

Even though “The Bear and the Bow” makes no mention of princesses, perhaps the traditional rhythms of the title (compare to “The Bear and the Wolf” or “The Princess and the Pea”—or the frog!) may be thought passé.

This last change, if it takes, seems to me a bit melancholy. “The Bear and the Bow” is a lovely, evocative title; “Brave” isn’t bad, but are all Pixar titles going to sound the same now? What seemed, well, bravely unconventional with Up seems less so with Brave, and could quickly become dull. (Not to mention the difficulty of targeting these short, generic titles with search engines…)

What happens, too, when the issue percolates past branding issues to story development? I’m no fan of the Disney princess phenomenon, but on the other hand I don’t want girl protagonists to become even rarer. Or all fairy tales to be more determinedly non-traditional and fractured than they are now.

Tags: Disney Animation, Disney: Eye on the Mouse, Fairy Tales

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Fathers For Good

Posted Mar 16th 2010, 12:24 PM

This week Knights of Columbus website Fathers for Good has a short interview with me in their Newsworthy Dads feature. As you might expect, the interview questions focus on father figures in this year’s crop of Oscar nominees as well as recent Hollywood offerings. Unfortunately, the picture is more downbeat than not. Read more.

Tags: Fatherhood

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Coming at You: More 3D, Fairy-tale Revisionism

Posted Mar 16th 2010, 12:17 PM

It’s a straw in the wind: As the recently restored 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz comes out on Blu-ray today, Warner Bros is giving renewed attention to a pair of new Oz projects in early development, now likelier than ever to come to fruition. The reason: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

Avatar’s monster box-office performance may have been the game changer, but it was Alice’s inflated opening ($116 million on the first weekend and still #1 in its second frame) that confirmed the trend: After six decades of curiosity status and technological evolution, 3D is finally the future of big-screen spectacle.

Upcoming movies like the Clash of the Titans remake and two final Harry Potter movies originally shot in 2D have been or are being retrofitted for 3D. From what little I know about 3D conversion, this seems dauntingly complicated—but then Burton actually shot Alice in Wonderland in 2D planning all along to convert it to 3D after the fact.

That seems crazy to me—and apparently to Cameron, whom Slashfilm quoted as saying, “It makes no sense to shoot in 2D and convert to 3D.” But Alice in Wonderland’s producer Richard Zanuck was quoted in Straight.com saying that the final product is indistinguishable from native 3D, and that Burton preferred working with 2D cameras since 3D cameras are “very clumsy” and expensive to work with. (I dunno. I hadn’t known when I screened Alice that it had been shot in 2D, but I remember thinking at times that the 3D effect looked a little odd, as if characters and objects were diorama-like cutouts with a convincing range of depth but lacking in volume.)

At any rate, shooting in 3D will probably quickly become the norm for big-budget movies that Hollywood wants to sell viewers on seeing on the big screen. At least until 3D TV goes mainstream, viewers have finally been convinced that 3D is worth the trip to the theater.

So much for form, but what about content? LATimes.com’s movie blog reports that two different ideas for a new Oz film are being batted around at Warner Bros. One is from the production company behind Twilight, with a script by a writer from the upcoming Shrek Ever After. The other sounds like a direct descendant of Burton’s Alice: “it’s written by ‘A History of Violence’ screenwriter Josh Olson and focuses on a granddaughter of Dorothy who returns to Oz to fight evil.”

Um, yikes. As a lifelong fan of the original L. Frank Baum book, which I read as a child and have read aloud to my kids, I’ve long wished that Hollywood would take on a brand-new adaptation of the book, one that — unlike other post-1939 takes, such as The Wiz —  was not indebted to the classic film (which isn’t especially faithful to the text).

Now, though, I’ve got a rock in my stomach at the thought of the popular but soulless Alice, with its Gothic design, literary revisionism, feminist resentment and pointless heroic story-arc becoming the template for a new generation of live-action high-budget family spectacles. The last thing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz needs is a Burtonesque twist in which Dorothy, having led the Winkie uprising against the Wicked Witch of the West and liberated Emerald City by exiling the Wizard via balloon, returns to Kansas, helps Uncle Henry reconcile with his estranged brother, takes Aunt Em to a Broadway play, and moves to LA to become a writer. Not that a Shrekish fractured fairy-tale approach would be much better.

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Green Zone: “Kinnear Lied, People Died”

Posted Mar 12th 2010, 07:53 PM

In my last post on Green Zone, I wrote that while I was reasonably pleased with my review, I was sure that “if I were a savvier political thinker it would be a better review.” Now, posting at Arts & Faith, Peter Chattaway has thoughts that would never have occurred to me, darn it.

Responding to another poster who called Green Zone the movie equivalent of a “Bush Lied, People Died” bumper sticker, Peter quipped that it was more like “Greg Kinnear lied, people died.“ Following that thought, Peter wrote:

I mention the “Greg Kinnear lied people died” thing because it seems to me that this movie lets a LOT of people off the hook.

The Iraqis who posed and postured as though they had WMD? The movie’s one fictitous Iraqi general says he told the Americans flat-out that they didn’t have any WMD.

The Bush administration which made the possibility of WMD such a key part (but not the ONLY part) of their casus belli for invading Iraq? Well, it turns out Greg Kinnear lied to them.

The CIA which, along with intelligence agencies from all over the world, believed that Iraq had WMD or at least WMD programs? Hey, whaddayaknow, the movie’s one major CIA character (Brendan Gleeson) is one of the skeptical good guys! (And despite a single passing reference to the UN early on, the film ignores the existence of all those other intelligence agencies -- which begs the question: Was Greg Kinnear lying to them, too? Or do they simply not exist?)

Even the journalist who disseminated Greg Kinnear’s lies in the first place gets a redemption of sorts in the end. Having made the case for war, she now gets to make the case AGAINST the case. She still gets a good story, as it were. (And, as noted in one of the earlier posts, despite the fact that this fictitious character is clearly based on a real-life New York Times reporter, the fictitious character has been assigned to a different paper -- so the New York Times is let off the hook completely, too.)

So you have a film which will piss off the pro-war types because, well, it’s anti-war, if nothing else; and you have a film which will piss off many (though of course not all) anti-war types because it lets nearly every culprit off the hook while pinning all the blame on a single fictitious character.

Read the rest at Arts & Faith.

Tags: Geisha Movie

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Green Zone and Torture

Posted Mar 12th 2010, 08:04 AM

Regular readers know that I usually steer clear of politically themed movies. I’m the same in real life; political discussions usually shut me down, simply because I feel I have nothing to say, and on the rare occasions that I do I often wind up regretting it.

I don’t quite regret taking on Paul Greengrass’s new Matt Damon thriller Green Zone, although it turned out to be such a tough review in an even tougher week that I almost do. All things considered, I’m reasonably pleased with how the piece came out, though I’m sure if I were a savvier political thinker it would be a better review.

Now, though, as it goes live, I suddenly wish I had given some space to an angle I missed. I won’t go back and rework it (it’s long already, like so much of my work), but I wish to add a coda here.

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Katyn: Poland’s Dark Night

Posted Mar 5th 2010, 02:13 PM

Exactly 70 years ago today, on March 5, 1940, Josef Stalin and the entire Soviet Politburo signed an order to massacre tens of thousands of Polish prisoners of war: officers, mostly reservists; doctors, academics, civil servants, clergymen of all faiths—the cream of the Polish intelligentsia.

If you haven’t seen the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn—one of my top 10 films of last year—you should take this occasion to make a point of seeing it. (It’s available on DVD and streaming from Netflix.)

Some background: The massacre was uncovered in April 1943 by the Nazis, which found tens of thousands of bodies in mass graves in Russia’s Katyn Forest near Smolensk. A multi-national investigation correctly dated the executions to the spring of 1940—a finding Goebbels attempted to exploit by disgracing Moscow to Washington and London and splitting the Allies.

But the subsequent Soviet investigation, carried out after the area was recaptured from the Germans, claimed that the Nazis themselves had carried out the crime during their occupation in July 1941. Wajda’s film includes excerpts from both Nazi and Soviet newsreels shot at Katyn purporting to show evidence of the other’s culpability.

Moscow’s Western Allies supported this explanation. Not until the 1950s, when the Soviets were again the major worry—and American soldiers in Korea were potentially in line for the same treatment that Polish prisoners received at Katyn—was Washington willing to reopen the issue.

As late as 1988, the Soviets continued to blame the Germans. Finally, in 1989, Gorbachev partially acknowledged Soviet responsibility. Not until 1992 was the original document finally produced. Even today, the Russian Federation does not classify Katyn as a war crime.

At the Katyn Forest today, as far as I can tell, there is still no permanent memorial. Thanks to Wajda, the long-suffering Poles, long deprived of their memory and history by both Nazis and Soviets, have a fitting tribute to the slain and to the national spirit that sustained the Polish people during their long 20th-century dark night of the soul.

It is an intractably Catholic spirit, as Katyn shows, from a priest attending the dead and dying in a churchyard hospital, to a rosary passed from one POW to another, later recovered from Katyn and given to a survivor, to the words of the Our Father prayed by the victims in their final moments.

Katyn explores murky moral issues around loyalty to the dead and solidarity with the living. One soldier, accidentally spared in a case of mistaken identity, succumbs to despair over collaborating with the killers of his slain comrades. A young woman, a member of the Communist party, commissions a memorial for her slain brother boldly inscribed with the year 1940, but the priest, worried about the recently detained canon priest, won’t allow it on church property. This seems heartless at first, but it soom becomes apparent that even Party membership means little if other loyalties come first.

The director’s father was among the Katyn victims. Like one of the victims in the film, the elder Wajda was not correctly reported among the dead, and for years the family believed that he might have escaped the massacre.

The film shows a captured officer encouraging his fellow POWs to endure for their nation’s sake: “I see scientists, teachers, lawyers … I even see a painter. You must endure, because there won’t be a free Poland without you.” Seven decades later, Wajda continues to fight for the cause in which his father died.

Tags: History, Foreign Language

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The 2010 Arts & Faith Top 100

Posted Mar 2nd 2010, 01:22 PM

“Read not the Times, read the eternities,” Thoreau advised. The 2010 Arts & Faith Top 100 Films, just released days ahead of the Academy Awards, won’t make the headlines of the Times — but if you prefer to scrutinize the eternities, you might want to skip the Oscars and check out the Arts & Faith Top 100.

Arts & Faith is an online community with roots going back to 1999. “A forum to discuss movies from a Christian perspective” was the original mission statement. In 2004, the A&F message board was founded to offer broader discussion of the arts in general. Later that year, the A&F community produced the first edition of its “Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films” list. (I’ve been a part of this history since sometime in the 2001–2003 range, and I vote in the Top 100 polls.)

Updated versions of the Top 100 appeared in 2005 and 2006, then the list took a hiatus.

Today, Arts & Faith is run by Image Journal, a Christian journal of the arts. The website for the new list includes brief write-ups of the top 10 films (with more to come). There’s also this press release by Jeff Overstreet.

Looking over the 2010 list, Catholic readers familiar with the 1995 Vatican film list will recognize a number of titles near the top. The #1 film, Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, is a Vatican film list honoree (in the category of “Religion”), as are the next three titles (Decalogue, Babette’s Feast and The Passion of Joan of Arc), and six of the top ten. All told, the 2010 A&F Top 100 includes 18 of the Vatican list’s 45 films.

Tags: You're the Top

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Miyazaki Week at Decent Films!

Posted Mar 1st 2010, 07:22 AM

Marking this week’s DVD release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo — as well as new special editions of three of Miyazaki’s most family-friendly films, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky), I’ve posted a new article on “The Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki,” written for this month’s issue of Catholic World Report. (The version here is expanded from the magazine version.)

I hope also to post more reviews of other Miyazaki films later this week. Watch for them!

Tags: Hayao Miyazaki & Studio Ghibli

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Bible Films Blog: Color and Symbolism in Bible Films

Posted Feb 23rd 2010, 12:53 PM

My friend Matt Page, who blogs Bible Films Blog, has just written an interesting post on color and color symbolism in Bible films.

Some highlights:

Many people think that colour only arrived in cinema only arrived sometime after the Second World War. However, the use of colour in moving pictures goes right back to cinema’s earliest days. Early films like The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ [1905] had no Technicolour processes, so resorted to hand colouring significant elements of each shot. …

Some of the earliest films to experiment with colour were in fact films based on the Bible … In [The] Ten Commandments [1923] DeMille experimented with the new [color] process for the scenes of the exodus — capturing both the joy and the sense of entering a whole new world. With [The King of Kings (1927)] he saved the colour for the resurrection …

One Bible film to make particularly good use of these colours was Nicholas Ray’s 1961 King of Kings (pictured above). One notable example is Jesus’ outer garments which change from brown prior to ministry, to red when he is at the peak of his powers, and then again to white as he becomes the spotless sacrificial lamb.

Matt’s blog is a helpful resource on Bible films, particularly for informed commentary on Bible films in relation to the Bible texts and comparison and contrast of different cinematic interpretations of particular stories. He’s also got his ear to the ground on Bible films in development. Check out his blog.

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2009: Year of Onscreen & Offscreen Infidelity?

Posted Feb 23rd 2010, 12:12 PM

A recent story in Variety connects the dots around various real-life and large- and small-screen stories and comes up with a disturbing picture: One way or another, 2009 was a high-profile year for adultery.

The headline reads “Infidelity scores Oscar noms,” but Variety writer Diane Garrett sees a larger pattern that includes the public scandals of Tiger Woods, Governor Mark Sanford, and John Edwards, revelations concerning small-screen personalities David Letterman and “John & Kate Plus 8” stars Jon and Kate Gosselin, and what Garrett suggests seemed like “nearly every other movie released in the past six months,” including the musical remake Nine and the Meryl Streep–Alec Baldwin comedy It’s Complicated.

The kernel of the story, though, is that extramarital liaisons of one kind or another are central to four of the ten Academy Award Best Picture nominees: An Education, A Serious Man, Up in the Air and Precious. Garrett writes:

The nommed pics vary greatly in mood and setting, but cheating is pivotal to all four. Tellingly, the heroes or heroines of the movies are each unwitting or unwilling parties to the infidelity. Each is betrayed, not betrayer.

There aren’t any easy fixes for the fictional characters—no hightailing it to a sex rehab clinic or laughing it off with latenight jokes. But there is plenty of drama—and dark comedy—in their predicaments.

Does this mean that the collective effect of these stories is not to glamorize adultery? Well, yes, in part, but like the movie title says, It’s Complicated.

Two of the films, Up in the Air and An Education, initially put a glossy face on illicit sex, but in both films the protagonist is unmarried and believes the partner to be unmarried, and revelations to the contrary come as an unwelcome surprise and a signpost that the protagonist is on the wrong road. Still, it’s possible to wonder whether these turning points completely counteract the romantic tone of the early chapters. (E.g., see John Podhoretz on An Education.)

A Serious Man never makes the protagonist’s cuckolded state less than excruciating and humiliating, though the Coens’ typically belittling portrayal of their schlemiel of a protagonist may cast doubt on whether his betrayal, or his marriage in the first place, is really all that significant in the grand scheme of things. As for Precious, the overriding issue there isn’t adultery, but incest and child abuse.

Were there no countervailing cinematic depictions of happily married couples?

A few. There was Julie & Julia, with its criss-crossing accounts of two loving couples based on the real-life marriages of Julia Child and blogger Julie Powell. But even that story was complicated by the real Julie Powell’s tell-all account of her own subsequent affair with an old boyfriend with whom she apparently reconnected after becoming famous.

A few bright spots could be found even among Best Picture nominees.

The Blind Side offers a happy (and explicitly Christian) depiction of real-life couple Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy. Pixar’s Up celebrates the lifelong love of its widower protagonist Carl and his beloved Elie.

Even James Cameron’s über-blockbuster Avatar, with its hippy-dippy utopia of Noble Savages living in harmony with nature and one another, rejects the flower-child ideal of “free love” in favor of monogamous pairing for life (presumably faithfully, given the idealized integrity of Cameron’s aliens). Infidelity may be everywhere, seemingly, but our culture hasn’t entirely forgotten that fidelity is the ideal.

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The Return of Decent Films Mail

Posted Feb 22nd 2010, 07:11 AM

Too long neglected, Decent Films Mail returns today with two new columns, Mailbag #16 and Mailbag #17. (For the benefit of RSS subscribers, at this writing it looks like the RSS feed hasn’t yet picked up on them. This looks like a glitch; I’ll look into it.)

As sporadic as Decent Films Mail has been in the past, I hope from now on, in keeping with my general program of adding more content more frequently, to to be more regular about the Mailbag too — and in my responsiveness to reader emails, which has also been regrettably sporadic in the past. So sporadic, in fact, that I acknowledged it on the Contact form, which noted, “I read every email I get, and I try to write back, but sometimes I’m just too busy (or I plain forget).”

This year I got off to a wobbly start due to some contact form–related technical issues, but that’s behind me now. (There are still one or two emails from January I have yet to get to, not because of more delay issues, but because I’m trying to frame thoughtful replies.) In keeping with my new resolve, I’ve changed the Contact form to read: “I read every email I get, and if you include a valid reply address I will endeavor to respond promptly.”

So: I’ve you’ve written in the past and waited weeks — or indefinitely — for a reply, I’d like to invite and encourage you to write again and give me a chance to make it up to you. I’ll do better, starting now. (Since I missed making this a New Year’s resolution due to my January mail issues, I’ll make it a Lenten discipline that I hope to carry over into Easter and beyond.)

Is there a review or article you want to comment on? Something you liked or that bothered you? Comments, criticisms, questions, suggestions, complaints, of delight, cries of outrage? Write me. I want to hear from you! And I’ll write back promptly (if you include a mailable address).

In the meantime, check out Mailbag #16 and Mailbag #17.

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